Editor’s Note: Robert Roth is a retired journalist, university lecturer and municipal councillor. The views expressed in this article are his own.
The current relentless persecution of Wilmot Mayor Les Armstrong for sharing a video on his Facebook page questioning some of the precepts of the Black Lives Matter movement must be resisted in the most vigorous manner. This shameless, never-ending assault on his character is nothing less than an attack on free speech and the marketplace of ideas that form the foundation of every democracy.
Armstrong’s critics have taken the position that the video he shared was racist, offensive, harmful, traumatizing, divisive, ill-advised, etc., etc. – to mention only a few of the manifold terms used as feeble rationales to ban freedom of expression.
The most recent hullaballoo centres around whether the mayor’s apologies for sharing the video are sincere or adequate. Township Integrity Commissioner Robert Williams was able to crack right through Armstrong’s cranium to conclude that his original apology “fell short” of a “sincere” admission. It looked sincere to many of us. Other critics say his apologies are insincere or inadequate because they were “coerced.” You don’t need a magnifying glass to spot the mammoth hypocrisy of demanding that the mayor apologize and then denouncing that apology as invalid because it was demanded.
However, what really needs to be challenged is the fundamental, faulty premise that any apology was needed in the first place.
In my view, the report by township Integrity Commissioner Robert Williams condemning Armstrong for violating township and regional codes of ethics by sharing the video is disturbingly bereft on four counts:
- The report keeps secret the names of Armstrong’s accusers. As well-known newspaper columnist Luisa D’Amato succinctly put it recently, Williams “didn’t let Armstrong know the names of the people who had made complaints. Why not? Even a person charged with a criminal offence gets to see the face of his or her accuser.” Agreed. It is amazing how concepts of accountability and transparency can be so easily jettisoned when it suits certain people or processes. One should be very apprehensive about an “integrity” process that allows people to pick off their unsuspecting prey from behind the duck blind of anonymity.
- The report astoundingly admits that “this report will not delve into the content of the video itself.” Indeed, why discuss the video just because it is at the core of the issue? Why get a full picture when select facts and anonymous accusations will do the trick? In the same vein, how can a report declare that it will “not delve into the content” of the video, but then magically conclude that said content conveyed a “blatantly racist message?” This is just one of the many perplexing questions that remain undetonated in the report’s minefield of conundrums.
- The report implicitly treats opinion as fact. Quote: “Many community leaders, including the Regional Chair, have condemned the video as ‘an absolutely reprehensible message’.” The report then goes on to say that “this perspective will be taken as ‘given’ in what follows: it was inappropriate for a municipal official to give any credence to the video and its contents.” Indeed, let’s just take these opinions as “given.” No need to actually examine the hard evidence, like the video, itself. That would amount to letting a fair trial get in the way of the hanging.
- This is the most appalling omission. The report fails to deal with the fact that the entire commentary in the video is delivered by two black men. That reality has to be hidden away or else the watertight case against Armstrong for sharing a “blatantly racist message” turns into a dribbling sieve. The failure to address that critical aspect of the video is nothing short of scandalous and is all too reminiscent of the old Soviet-style show trials where guilt is preordained and evidence is stacked up or buried accordingly.
Unlike many of the critics, I have “delved” into the video. It features two black twin brothers challenging some of the premises and positions of the Black Lives Matter movement. To make their point, they show some news clips of American police using excessive force, including shootings, against white folks to demonstrate that they, too, can suffer from police brutality. The point is not whether the opinion of these black brothers is right or wrong. The point is they have a right to that opinion. And the only comment Armstrong made about the video was: “Another view. Interesting.”
What we are witnessing in the attack on Armstrong and, by implication, the black hosts in the video is the classic manifestation of cancel culture – a burgeoning ideology that seeks not to level or expand the playing field of democratic discourse, but rather to drive the other team right out of the ball park. Alternative opinions that “offend” are simply verboten. It is not enough to challenge those who express alternative views, they must be annihilated. They need to be beaten and humiliated into a thought-controlled pulp via threats to their integrity, their social status and even their livelihoods.
It’s time to stand up to these bullies and reinforce the concept of free speech while we still can.
In a democratic society you are going to see things and hear things that sometimes “offend” you. When it comes to ideas, in a free society there are no “safe spaces.”
Ever since the “traumatized” Catholic Church persecuted Galileo for daring to suggest that the earth revolved around the sun, and not vice-versa, we have learned that today’s heresy is often tomorrow’s conventional wisdom. That is why true democracies don’t suppress points of view. The Inquisition forced Galileo to recant and he spent the rest of his life under house arrest. (Get ready for the ankle bracelet, your worship.)
Banning ideas, thoughts and alternative opinions is the hallmark of tyranny. If somebody else’s ideas offend you, then you are living in the wrong country. Try North Korea where you can be soothed in the “safe space” of only one point of view.
It is in the crucible of debate that “truth” truly emerges. It cannot be imposed legitimately by those who believe that only they know truth and all others must be brow-beaten into conformity. Even if “absolute truth” could be determined, the true, freedom-loving democrat would still argue for the tolerance of “wrong” ideas because they, too, serve a vital function in a democratic society. These “false” ideas rouse us to vigilance, shake us from complacency and provide us with the opportunity to periodically reassess, renew or even change our “truths.” For example, the more that Holocaust deniers spew their “false” views, the more people come forward to defend the truth. To avoid this creative, cleansing clash of ideas, no matter how distasteful some of these ideas may be, is to undermine the very mechanism that stands as a bulwark against bigotry and authoritarianism – unfettered discourse and debate. This is why their suppression is the first order of business for any authoritarian regime.
I am sincerely dumbfounded that an academic like Dr. Williams would not fully embrace and defend this concept of free speech and freedom of thought in his role as an integrity commissioner. I, too, have taught at the university level – journalism, communications and political science – and I did not hesitate to expose my students to ideas that might be considered “offensive” or “false,” because it challenged them to think and taught them how to respond appropriately. And the response I encouraged was to challenge these “offensive” ideas intellectually, not to bash them in with the blunt instrument of censorship. We do society a great disservice when we create timid Timmys and Tammys who melt like snowflakes at the first encounter with a heated debate.
Black lives matter. Of course they do. But alternative black views should also matter, even if those black people don’t march in goose step with the conscripts of cancel culture.
Ironically, the assault on Mayor Armstrong is, in effect, an assault on the right of black people to hold dissenting opinions. Because the mayor dared to broaden the debate and share a different black perspective, he is forced to recant (like Galileo), attend re-education camp (as if he were a dissident in Chairman Mao’s China) and then even suffer the ultimate indignity of having his apology labelled insincere by the mind-reading commissars of “correct” thinking.
Those who have read George Orwell’s prophetic novel, 1984, will recognize this manifestation of the “thought police” and how we are drifting dangerously into an Orwellian state of authoritarianism where everyone must adopt “group think” or be perpetually tortured in social media until they break. Now we even have semi-secret, Central Committee-style “commissions” that allow nameless, faceless people to attack political leaders and other non-compliant souls who don’t toe the party line. Although we now cloak our re-education camps under the more benign terminology of “sensitivity training classes,” they are fast becoming one in the same – a tool for imposing a singular, non-challengeable “truth” on the entire citizenry.
Censorship and its brown-shirted henchman, intimidation, do much more than shut down a person’s right to speak. They shut down everyone’s right to hear. They take away our right to judge for ourselves what is truth and what is not. In this new world order, an elite group of “smarter, morally superior” people will tell us how to think.
It goes without saying that any structural remnants of colonialism and racism should be eliminated. You don’t have to talk to me about racism. As someone who has had more than a few racial epithets tossed his way, I support the anti-racist movement’s overarching goal wholeheartedly. But there is a right way and a wrong way to go about this. As Martin Luther once told his supporters who were running amok in their attacks on Catholics: “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.”
What distinguishes Homo sapiens from the other animals on our planet is the ability to evaluate, analyse, conceptualize and exercise reason. But in the caliphate of cancel culture, people are intimidated out of exercising those rights. They are, literally, dehumanized. They are turned into frightened, thoughtless automatons who will all march dutifully to the beat of a single, monotone drum. Beware. When they are done with Mayor Les Armstrong, they will be coming for the rest of us. Resist now.
Written by Robert Roth