Friday, November 06, 2020

Secularism in Canada with the Humanist Association of Toronto

Last month, the Humanist Association of Toronto invited me to give a presentation to their members, as a representative of (and secularism chair for) the Centre for Inquiry Canada. Overall, the presentation was well received. The Q&A session lasted over an hour but was not recorded. If you have any interest in the state of secularism in Canada, I encourage you to invest 45 minutes and watch. Let me know what you think. 

Thursday, October 29, 2020

Canadian Secular Alliance submission to the Canadian Commission on Democratic Expression

The Canadian Commission for Democratic Expression is a project of the Public Policy Forum, which seeks to "study and publish advice on how to prevent and mitigate the negative effects of illegal and other forms of harmful online content on democracy in Canada while encouraging robust democratic debate and dialogue."

The CCDE is focused on five areas of inquiry:

  1. The Scale and Scope of the Challenge in Canada
  2. The Impact on Democracy in Canada
  3. The Role and Responsibilities of Digital Platforms
  4. The Effectiveness of Existing Legal and Regulatory Provisions
  5. The Balance Between Countering Hate and Disinformation and Safeguarding Free Speech

The Canadian Secular Alliance was invited to provide a written submission, based on our contribution to the House of Commons Committee on Justice and Human Rights study on online hate. We were limited to 1,000 words, so our submission focused on the CSA's area of expertise, addressing the fourth and fifth items on the CCDE list, and leaving the other important issues to other organizations. 

Below is the submission of the Canadian Secular Alliance to the Canadian Commission on Democratic Expression:

In June 2019, the House of Commons Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights published its "Taking Action to End Online Hate" report. Several witnesses claimed "we must stop people trying to legitimize hate speech using freedom of expression as a disguise to do so." This view is echoed internationally, with organizations such as the Organization of Islamic Cooperation equating offending the character of the Prophet Muhammad with hate speech and referring to a cartoon contest as a "provocation on the pretext of so-called principle of freedom of expressions" in its 12th Islamophobia annual report (2019). While bigotry against Muslims (and other faiths) is real, this prejudice is not a valid justification to censor speech, even expression deemed offensive by some.

Religious beliefs are ideas, and should not be treated any differently than any other philosophical doctrine – political, economic, metaphysical, or otherwise. Disputing the ideas in a book should not be considered equivalent to an attack on the people who revere those words. 

The Canadian Secular Alliance's fundamental position is: People deserve protection from harm; ideas do not warrant protection from criticism. This distinction is crucial and it is imperative that these are not conflated. Assaults on religious people must be deterred, prevented, and prosecuted. But criticism of religious tenets, no matter how vitriolic, must be fully permissible.

While legitimate constraints to unfettered speech exist - including libel, impersonation, threats and incitement to violence - any exceptions must be limited, well-defined, and serve the public interest. 

The goal of hate speech laws must be to protect individuals from physical harm. However, they rarely achieve this aim. After studying the issue in many countries, Human Rights Watch stated "there is little connection in practice between draconian hate speech laws and the lessening of ethnic and racial violence or tension." The same conclusion was reached by the European Parliament and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Any proposal that seeks to further limit free expression must pass a high burden of proof in order to counter legitimate concerns about effectiveness, overreach, ambiguity, and selective enforcement.

The key problem with hate speech laws is that hate speech is impossible to define in such a way as to meet the twin goals of targeting a significant portion of unacceptable expression while respecting the principle of free speech. If its scope is very narrow and specific, any new law will have minimal impact on Canadian public discourse. But a broadly worded Act would necessarily encompass much speech protected by section 2(b) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Additionally, in many countries (including established democracies) hate speech laws have often been disproportionately enforced against members of the very minority groups they were designed to protect.

Overly broad hate speech laws also have a non-trivial chilling effect on all public criticism. The Supreme Court has described "hatred" as speech "that is likely to expose" people to "hatred or contempt": "unusually strong and deep-felt emotions of detestation, calumny and vilification"; and "enmity and extreme ill-will [...] which goes beyond mere disdain or dislike." How can a person know whether their strong negative opinion of an idea, person, or group will be considered "disdain" - permissible - or "detestation" - punishable? In a dissenting opinion on the Keegstra case, Supreme Court Justice McLachlin wrote, the "sanction of the criminal law may pose little deterrent to a convinced hate-monger who may welcome the publicity it brings; it may, however, deter the ordinary individual."

Hate speech laws leave three options for those inclined to engage in hateful, discriminatory speech: taking the forbidden expression underground; couching their ideas in more subtle rhetoric to evade punishment; or leaving the message unchanged (or perhaps make it even more provocative) as the speakers seek the publicity that results from prosecution. Perhaps that is why Canada has so rarely invoked its existing hate speech law.

Canada has made progress in recent years. Canada's legislature repealed its blasphemous libel law in December 2018, recognizing that treating religious ideas as a form of thought warranting special protection is detrimental to society. This action was a significant step forward. The majority opinion of the Supreme Court of Canada wrote in 2018 that “Accommodating diverse beliefs and values is a precondition to the secularism and the pluralism that are needed to protect and promote the Charter rights of all Canadians. State neutrality requires that the state neither favour nor hinder any particular belief, and the same holds true for non‑belief. Either way, state neutrality must prevail.” Our country should not retreat from its commitment to humanitarian values that apply equally to all Canadians.

There is still room for improvement regarding hate speech. Canada's Criminal Code currently contains a patently unjust provision that provides preferential treatment to religious individuals. Section 319(3)(b) of the Criminal Code exempts a person, who would otherwise be subject to an indictable offense, if their hate speech is "based on a belief in a religious text". This is a clear violation of the principle of state neutrality in matters of religion. The harm suffered by vulnerable persons and groups is identical whatever inspired the hate monger. The victims of hate speech based on religious belief are generally the same groups hate speech laws are intended to protect. The Canadian Secular Alliance recommends that Canada repeal Section 319, subsection 3(b) of the Criminal Code.

Sunday, October 11, 2020

Stab Everyone You Love at Toronto Oasis

After my August presentation about how talk to anti-vaxxers for the Centre for Inquiry Canada, I was asked to give a reprise for the folks at Toronto Oasis. Below is the recorded video from that session on September 27, 2020.

The content of my main address is much the same as it was in August, and is about 30 minutes long. This is followed by a vibrant Q&A session that lasts a bit under an hour. 


Friday, August 28, 2020

Stab Everyone You Love

 On August 20, 2020, the Centre for Inquiry Canada hosted an online event where I gave an updated version of my February Nerd Nite presentation on how to talk to anti-vaxxers. I hope you enjoy Stab Everyone You Love. Please let me know what you think in the comments. 

Monday, May 04, 2020

Supreme Court of Canada declines to hear appeal to suspend Quebec's "secularism" law

This essay first appeared as an article in the May 2020 edition of CFI Canada's Critical Links newsletter.

Quebec's Bill 21, regrettably generally referred to as its secularism law, bans the wearing of religious symbols by certain civil servants (government lawyers, judges, police, and teachers, among others). It was passed by the provincial legislature in June 2019, and applies to new hires. Existing employees (hired before March 27, 2019) may continue to wear religious garb in their current position, though the exemption is void if they either accept a promotion or make a lateral move to a new role.

Polls in Quebec show that Bill 21 is popular - supported by approximately two-thirds of Quebecois. Polls also indicate that much of this support is rooted in anti-Muslim animus, and that it would drop substantially if courts found Bill 21 to be unconstitutional. 

The law invokes the "notwithstanding clause" (Section 33) from the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which shields the law from many forms of constitutional challenges. While rare in the rest of Canada, Quebec often invokes the notwithstanding clause to deter litigation about its legislation. 

The law was immediately challenged, on two fronts: its fundamental constitutionality, and a request for an emergency stay to prevent its provisions from taking effect until the full case can be heard.

In July 2019, the Quebec Superior Court denied the request for a stay, stating that while the challenge raised a serious issue, there was no irreparable harm. 

When the case went before the Quebec Court of Appeal, the argument against Bill 21 was expanded to include Section 28 of the Charter, which states "rights and freedoms [...] are guaranteed equally to male and female persons". This was an interesting development because if Bill 21 was found by the Court to discriminate against women, it would be found to be unconstitutional, despite the invocation of the notwithstanding clause. However, the Quebec Court of Appeal ruled 2-1 against granting a stay in December 2019. The majority wrote in part, "the notwithstanding clause dictates that, at this stage of the case, the courts must abandon to their fate women graduates who are willing to work and who, for the sole reason that they wear the veil [hijab], have been denied access to a job for which they hold all the skills." [Translated from the French.]

Unsurprisingly, this decision did not sit well with those who oppose Bill 21. In January 2020, a formal request was filed for the Supreme Court of Canada to hear the application for a stay. On April 9, 2020, the Supreme Court declined to do so. As is its standard practice, no reasons were given. The substantive challenge to the law's constitutionality is scheduled to be in in October 2020 (though this might be delayed due to covid-19). Assuming no delays, a decision should be released around this time in 2021.

Note: "Secularism" has several definitions, and confusion can result if people do not have a common understanding of how it is being used. CFI Canada supports political secularism, defined as government neutrality in matters of religion; that is, the state should neither support nor suppress religious expression. 

I gratefully acknowledge the research of Catherine Francis, which informed parts of this article. 

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Nerd Nite presentation

For the past couple of years, I have been a regular attendee of Nerd Nite, which is exactly what it sounds like. Once a month, two nerds stand up in front of fellow geeks and talk about something they are passionate about - anything from time travel to forensic pathology, from the science of beer to a summary of the careers of people like Stephen King or "Weird" Al Yankovic.

Last month was my first time being a Nerd Nite speaker. I decided to turn the Facebook post that led to a months-long online discussion about vaccines into a 20-minute presentation. I hoped to make it educational and entertaining. Since it was a Valentine's Day theme, I called my talk: Stab Everyone You Love.

It was filmed on my cell phone by my son, who hit record about 15 seconds after the start of my talk.

After my talk, there was about ten minutes of questions and answers.

I hope you enjoy watching this. Let me know what you think in the comments.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Come hear me speak next week about talking with anti-vaxxers!

On Thursday, February 20, I will be giving a talk at the Tranzac Club entitled, "Stab Everyone You Love". It's part of Toronto Nerd Nite, which I have been attending for the past couple of years. Doors open at 7 PM.

I'll be discussing my online experiences conversing with anti-vaxxers, describe arguments they use (and why they are fallacious), and provide some advice on how to engage (should you choose to do so). I'll  also delve into human psychology and cognitive biases, how to distinguish between objective information and propaganda trying to masquerade as such, and what you can do to educate those in your social circle (in real life or online) on this topic (and many others).

I have designed the talk to be entertaining and informative, and if you're in Toronto next week I hope you can join me.