Sunday, September 27, 2009
Learning: Lessons for Social Conservatives from the Free Speech Movement in Canada
It was a motley party from the beginning. A confusing mess of Jews and Neo-Nazis, die-hard social conservatives and liberals (not to mention libertarians), gay rights activists and priests and pastors who have dedicated their lives to opposing gay rights activists. The weapons of choice were blogs and publicity stunts, but mostly blogs. You know, those online diaries where people pontificate around like their opinions are the most important things in the world and usually have a readership of -well- not a lot. This collection of rag-tag fire-breathing radicals was attacking a decades old law and a nicely established government department. A government department moreover that monopolized most of the feel-good words. Human rights, anti-hate, reconciliation, arbitration, anti-discrimination, and had a whole host of feel-bad words to toss at their opponents, hate-mongerers, bigots, racists, Nazis, regressive, anti-human rights, right-wing extremists, unfeeling, marginal, obnoxious.
No bookie would have given this collection, held together with as much duct tape and Tim Horton’s coffee as anything else, better than very long odds on getting the Human Rights Commissions to acknowledge their existence, much less anything more. It looked like another tedious social conservative-type stand-off where a few “radicals” stormed around talking a lot and achieving nothing while the status quo slipped blithely along without registering more than an occasional little ripple to give some interest to an otherwise boring monotony.
But this time it was different. This time they got publicity. This time they got the attention of their opponents and had them squealing in short order. This time they gained momentum. This time, although it is far to early to be sure, eventual victory is starting to look very likely, if not almost certain. This time they aren’t withering in obscurity, they are not on the defensive, they are on the offensive and the enemy is retreating and deserting rapidly.
How could this happen and what can we learn from it?
The Power of the Active Individual: Okay so this is very clichéd but do I get extra points for it being true? Every cause needs a hero to rally around or, failing that, a martyr. Most if not all social justice movements have rallied behind a person or a few people. The free speech movement got a major boost when the Alberta Human Rights Tribunal made the worst mistake in their history. They accepted a complaint by Imam Syed Sohawardy against lawyer and editor Ezra Levant for reprinting the Danish Mohammed cartoons. The old saying that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church is a very broadly applicable principle. Levant, as well as others, took theorizing to the level of practical action. They were willing to risk prosecution and spend their time and money to advance a cause that they believed in. Without them, people could have chattered about theories forever, but cases like Levant and Steyn and Boissoin and more forced people to sit up and take notice. Levant won his case, or rather got it dismissed (Which, as he explains, is not really a win), but the experience opened his eyes to the direction that the HRC were taking and once he started talking the government quickly realized that he was impossible to shut up.
The Power of a Dedicated Minority and the Media and/or Alternative Media: You can have individuals making heroic stands but if no one ever hears about them they are done for. In this case the bloggers and friendly journalists took the stories from the individuals to ordinary people. People who could donate money, talk to their neighbours, write to their politicians, start blogs of their own, and just generally begin to form the core of a growing minority. A minority that was active and concerned. What percentage of Canadians are gay? What percentage of Canadians opposed gay marriage? Who won? Not the majority, the minority that was willing to spend time, words, and money like water to advance their agenda. Another point to remember is that the established media is still more widely respected than blogs. One article in a major city newspaper is almost certainly worth more than a hundred blog posts. Social conservatives are facing an uphill, and probably futile, battle as long as the media is their enemy.
The Power of Polemicism: This idea I stole unapologetically from Mark Steyn. Some people feel annoyed and uncomfortable with extreme political speech, however it serves an invaluable service in the sphere of political and ideological discourse. The vast majority of people do not want to be seen as extreme radicals. They want to be seen as left of centre or right of centre. Therefore the extremists on both sides are not really effective in persuading the majority to agree with them, but they are effective in moving the centre. Most people may not be comfortable with the idea of a Fire. Them. All. approach but because of it they may be emboldened to advocate for reform. After all, they aren't like THOSE extremists.
The Power of Scratching Below the Surface: In today’s society we have an ingrained set of politically correct responses to any issue. Hate speech laws, well of course we don’t want people spouting hateful speech all over the place. Human Rights Commissions, well isn’t it good that we have an organization to look after human rights? But if you scratch below the surface and start to explain to people what these things are really about, they can have an entirely different response. Hate speech laws, you are censoring who for saying what?! Human Rights Commissions, you mean I could get in trouble for doing that?!
The Power of a Greedy Enemy: The Free Speech movement took off the ground because the Human Rights Commission moved too fast too soon. They thought that they had carte blanche to deal with “hate-mongers” and didn’t realize that there was a Canada beyond the doors of their office building which might have different ideas. It was the atrocious cases where they tried to prosecute pastors and popular, mainline media that provoked the storm of outrage. No one really wants to publicly defend a neo-Nazi, but MacLeans? Or your local priest? That is something that people can defend and feel good defending.
It is not enough for conservatives to have good ideas. Ideas are a dime a dozen and everyone has their dog in the fight. The ideas that really change the world are those which can win the hearts and minds of the cab driver and mechanic. The ideas and issues that get discussed over coffee at work. The ideas that inspire professors and lawyers to speak and write. The ideas that get airtime on every TV and radio network. The ideas that creep into our education system. The ideas that a dedicated minority push in every possible way until they become in the minds of your average Joe to be self-evident truth. Women have a right to their own bodies, well I guess that kinda makes sense. People shouldn’t fill newspapers with Nazi propaganda, yeah I agree with that. We shouldn’t interfere with what people do in their bedrooms, well I guess not.
Certainly these points are hardly original. However, I believe that we need to focus on victories as well as defeats. We need to study winning strategies. We need to know why we win and why we lose. To use a popular saying, if we do not study history we are doomed to repeat it. Let’s not repeat the mistakes which have given us 40 years of legal abortion. Let’s not repeat the mistakes that have lost us almost every war we have tried to fight. If the liberals and social engineers can alter the heartbeat of a nation so that abortion, gay marriage, and censorship becomes the normal status quo, we can alter it back.
Remember: Politicians want to get elected. If they start to loose elections because of their stance on Human Rights Commissions do you think they won’t notice? I promise you, they will.