A curious thing is happening in our culture. People are becoming hypersensitive to words. In ancient times we used to fight with fists, knives and other weapons as well as words. Even as a child it was not uncommon to participate in fist fights at school. The police were never called. Over time we saw the damaging effect of physical aggression and banned it, but we continued to allow people to fight with their words. We called this “free speech.” No matter how distasteful, we permitted people to speak freely. Much of what was said was productive and necessary; but, to benefit from free speech, we also had to permit odd people to say odd things and hateful people to say hateful things. Apparently things have changed; however, and freedom of speech is now banned if it offends, hurts someone else’s feelings, is considered bullying behaviour, is insensitive, old-fashioned, morally blunt, or politically incorrect. As a speaker of the English language, it seems as though I might have to learn a whole new way of speaking just to get through a day!
In Canada, the federal government decided that organizations must declare some level of affinity with abortion to get government funds allocated for summer student programs (fortunately this requirement was somewhat adjusted due to public pushback). The reason is that Prime Minister Trudeau feels he needs to protect freedom of choice. But two things need to be remembered: (1) Canada has no abortion laws, and (2) abortion will always be a hotly debated moral issue for the very reason that it is a moral issue. Canadians opposing abortion then, are not violating the law or a danger to a society that is not unified on the matter. For the Prime Minister to demand Canadians affirm one position is not only a violation of this office-he was not elected to be our moral arbitrator-it is also a move to silence free speech.
In my city last year, a local city councillor was challenged by the city-appointed ethics commissioner for making a comment about rape in an alley, and another councillor was investigated for telling him to “man up” (apparently a sexist remark). It is not a bad thing to evaluate such statements, but to censor language sets a dangerous precedent. If a person cannot say what they wish, they (1) will never be afforded the opportunity to defend or alter their ideas, (2) will be forced to speak what they may not believe, thus contributing to dishonesty, and (3) will be unable to change others people’s minds on key issues.
These might seem to be merely political issues. So why should we care? Very simply, we should care because infringing on free speech has implications for the dissemination of the Gospel too. The Gospel makes claims and offers declarations that are offensive (Gal 5:11). If governments choose to censor free speech, they will be censoring the Gospel! This may not happen immediately, but once a precedent has been set, and since so much of Canadian law is based on precedent, the implications are momentous.
What anti-free speech advocates also fail to recognize are the mistakes of history. Too many controls on a nation may initially appear to lead to greater harmony, sophisticated conduct, and protection for citizens; but it can quickly reduce diversity, be used by tyrants as a control tactic, and reduce our ability to make private decisions.
This dramatic shift from free speech to hyper-censored speech is largely a battle for truth. Our leaders would better serve the public good by teaching people to lay down their guns and knives and encouraging Canadians to fight with their words.