Free-speech lessons from abolitionists


National Post - Wednesday April 6th, 2011

Barbara Kay, National Post · Apr. 6, 2011 | Last Updated: Apr. 6, 2011 4:25 AM ET

For pundits committed to the widest possible speech latitude, these are times that try our souls.

Rage-filled, soi-disant Christian pastor Terry Jones burned a Koran and sparked rioting and murder in Afghanistan. But as Lorne Gunter wrote in Tuesday's National Post, Jones is merely a "self-delusional jackass," not himself a murderer. His action inspired barbaric attacks on innocent people, but Jones cannot be held responsible for the barbarism.

The Jones debacle recalls the notorious Danish cartoon saga of 2005, when merely satiric drawings of the prophet Muhammad set off a chain reaction of vandalism and murders in the Muslim world. In that case, there was no malice aforethought, as there certainly was with Jones.

The rioters' goal is to shut us up. Chilling, banning, silencing: It is the great temptation for the righteous. Trouble is, "righteous" is in the eye of the beholder. Righteous feminists would censor pro-lifers; righteous liberals would censor conservatives; righteous peaceniks would censor Zionists.

There is no cause so vile that its proponents won't link censorship to righteousness. Long before the Civil War in America ended it, for example, slavery had acquired a tincture of odium except in those places where it was actively practised. But many nominally progressive, anti-slavery northerners had personal, political and business interests in the South they were loath to jettison. So when some southern states suppressed all abolitionist free speech, a tandem campaign was initiated in the North by pusillanimous colluders.

In The War on Words: Slavery, Race and Free Speech in American Literature, published last year by Brandeis University scholar Michael T. Gilmore, we learn that northern activists "used legislation and bullying to stifle agitation against the South's [slavery] regime, portraying debate on the subject as a threat . specifically target[ing] abolitionist protest. [It was] meant to have a chilling effect on all discourse."

The campaign began in 1835. Landlords who rented space to abolitionists were boycotted, and pro-slavery mobs incited violence (a mob murdered an abolitionist Illinois editor). Statesrightist, anti-abolitionist senator John C. Calhoun argued that if you criticized slavery, you "libelled the South and inflicted emotional injury."

In 1836, New York abolitionist Alvan Stewart wrote that an abolitionist may denounce slavery "in the silent chambers of his own heart, but must not discuss it in public, as it may then provoke a syllogism of feathers, or a deduction of tar." (Substitute "Islamism" for "abolition," note the appropriate escalations for "feathers" and "tar" and this scenario looks awfully familiar.)

It gets worse. In 1836, the House of Representatives passed a "gag rule" that annulled the constitutional right to petition the government if the subject of the petition happened to be slavery. Calhoun identified a petition calling slaveholders pirates who trafficked in human flesh as South-phobia: "Strange language! Piracy and butchery? We must not permit those we represent to be thus insulted."

If, in the great democratic United States of America, bastion of liberty, with its noblest of all constitutions, people denouncing the obscene practice of slavery can be silenced, then we can truly say that there is no such thing as "good" censorship.

If we can't censor idiots like Terry Jones and Israel-apartheidniks and Islamist jihadists, what can we do? We can name them, shame them, denounce them, mock them, shun them and their supporters and expose them as the irrational, anti-socialhatemongers they are. It won't make the intolerant tolerant, but neither will censorship. And letting every voice be heard, including the hateful ones, has the virtue of being Everyman's righteousness.

bkay@videotron. ca