Please Don't Call It 'Human Rights'

April 2010

Too bad Pierre Trudeau wasn't a little broader in his famous maxim. We could have used a second line: "The state has no business in the comedy clubs of the nation."

There's a trial going on in B.C. right now, under the insanely diluted and degraded understanding of the once-noble concept of "human rights," giving full anguished adjudication -- complete with lawyers and a tribunal chairman -- over a heckling spat, already three years old, at a Vancouver supper/comedy club called, surely by the gods of irony, Zesty's.

The good old days, when all a comedian had to worry about was flop-sweat, bad timing and where his or her next joke was coming from, are long gone. Nowadays, thanks to the infinitely expanding reach of bureaucratic commissions, a couple of bad-tempered moments at Zesty's have summoned up the Mr. McGoos of the B.C. Human Rights Commission. It is currently determining whether a lesbian patron's human rights were violated by a journeyman comic's obnoxious heckling of her -- brought on, he says, by her equally obnoxious heckling of him. The comic in question is Guy Earle.

It's a case remarkably similar--in its gutting of common sense, its ability to bring on a puzzled frown from anyone who first hears of it -- to that of the owner of a St. Catharines, Ont., fitness club. He recently was taken before the Ontario Human Rights Commission by a prospective member who, while awaiting "gender reassignment surgery," claimed the right to undress in the club's women's locker room. The women objected. The owner denied. The member filed a complaint. That case, after much financial injury and anguish, was summarily dropped. No apology, no redress, no nothing for the owner.

Is Canada a serious country? Do we staff close to a dozen offices, provincial and federal, spend nearly $200-million across the great expanse of the country, to explore the human rights implications of rude heckling in comedy clubs? Or, the human right to undress in the locker room of your choice? For this, did the great armies of the West storm the beaches of Normandy? For this, did Solzhenitsyn and Sharansky endure their endless nights of hell in the gulag?

By some crude osmosis, or just from the luxuriant carelessness of our pampered lives, we have overturned one of the great concepts of all human law. The concept of human rights, as experience and history inform us, is protection from the state's power, not oversight, interference and punishment by the state's power.

The core concept of human rights is the protection of the irreducible safety and dignity of the individual from the massive and arbitrary power of the state. Not, the state wandering in, with its apparatus and procedures, its boards and tribunals into the doings, or speech, of the individual. This is what the Guy Earle case, in its triviality -- it's about heckling, remember -- upends. It perverts the name of "human rights," earned in blood and suffering in circumstances of utter consequence and unspeakable misery.

In a just Canada, or a Canada with some regard for its dignity as a nation, there would be another and real human rights commission -- a sort of meta-human-rights-commission--looking into what we currently know as human rights commissions.

Are they, the latter, fair? No. They leverage the complainant and certain favoured minority group to a status, legal and financial, superior to the person complained about. They take forever to get on, force the hiring of lawyers, impose fines, have their own vague rules, allow complainants to step out of the process when the mood strikes--as in the case of the St. Catharines fitness club -- ripping individual lives or business to smithereens, all under the concept -- mediated by Orwell and Kafka, assisted by Lewis Caroll--of human rights.

Meantime, real cases of human rights violation, individuals genuinely stranded and deprived of their rights as citizens, such as the couple in Caledonia, Ont., who've lived through a multi-year siege by local First Nations gangs, unaided by the Ontario government or the police--noiselessly pass by.

Where was the mighty Ontario Human Rights Commission during all of this? Adjudicating the locker room rights of a St. Catharines fitness club.

If we go out into the other world, the world that doesn't have quite as many comedy clubs, we see what real human rights are.

A man standing alone in front of a tank in Tiannamen Square -- there's a human rights moment. The multitudinous horror of ethnic cleansing, raging warfare in the Congo, the nightmare of North Korea, the acid-tossing at schoolgirls by the Taliban -- there are people all over this world trembling at the might of the state, seeing their lives foreshortened or ruined, subject to unspeakable horrors at the hands of warlords and tyrants and revengeful dictatorships -- these are the fields of real human-rights violations.

As Canadians, we should be embarrassed that the "right to undress" with "other" women while waiting for a sex-change operation owns the same vocabulary as these. We should be embarrassed, too, that what was most likely a bad-tempered, ill-handled exchange late at night in a place called Zesty's, mutual heckling, is under review by the state as a violation of human rights.

None of this is new, unfortunately. It is an issue that has had more than a few years' ventilation. Yet from our leadership, Mr. Harper and Mr. Ignatieff in particular, we hear so little about so fundamental a concept. Public opinion, in my judgment, has long ago had it with the wilder operations of Canada's human rights commissions. But Harper and Ignatieff have so little courage on this. (So also, let it be noted, do our 10 premiers.)

We did have this week news of some Senators announcing an inquiry. Political cover, to walk past the issue for the next election? Perhaps. I genuinely hope not. But there is no need for an inquiry into matters that have had such extended demonstration -- from Ezra Levant's purgatory to the Guy Earle fiasco.

Mr. Harper and Mr. Ignatieff should declare themselves on this issue. So should the premiers. But, in this demoralized and mediocre period of Canadian political leadership, do not hold your breath waiting for them to do so. One of the overlooked reasons why Canadian politics is a matter of disinterest and apathy for so many is that our leaders, almost all of them, on a real issue like human rights, give us so much, by tactical omission and the calculations of electoral cowardice, to be apathetic about.