What Ferengis Can Teach the
There’s been plenty of discussion lately
about the harmful consequences of censorship—the extra publicity that
hate speech gets when prosecuted, the chilling of legitimate debate,
and the dangers of slippery slopes.
However, I think a case can be made that allowing the publication of
repugnant remarks about minority groups might actually have positive
benefits for society.
When the Supreme Court of Canada pronounced Canada’s censorship laws
constitutional in 1990, they argued that hate speech “…contributes
little to the aspirations of Canadians or Canada in the quest for
truth, the promotion of individual self-development or the protection
and fostering of a vibrant democracy where the participation of all
individuals is accepted and encouraged.”
I think the court showed a lack of imagination. Hate speech can indeed
contribute to fulfilling these desirable goals.
I’d love to use a real-life example, but the activities of human rights
commissions have already slid too far down the slippery slope for my
tastes, so I dare not. Instead, consider the fictitious aliens
portrayed on the Star Trek television series, the Ferengi. If ever
there were a group deserving of contempt, the Ferengi would be it. They
are unrepentantly deceitful, scheming, cheating, money-grubbing,
obsequious, obnoxious scoundrels. Their written code of conduct
explicitly promotes dishonesty.
Are these hateful comments? If I wrote such things about any real group
no doubt there’d be several human rights commissions breathing down my
But suppose Ferengis really existed and immigrated to Canada.
Nobody who had ever watched Star Trek would want them as employees,
tenants or customers. But nobody would dare say why, fearing a hate
speech charge. Instead, people would surreptitiously avoid dealing with
them in whatever subtle ways were possible without triggering a
There are three possibilities about the televised portrayal of
Ferengis: it might be true for all Ferengis, it might be false for all
Ferengis, or it might be true for some Ferengis and false for others.
In each case, allowing people to make disparaging comments like the
ones I made above would offer benefits the Supreme Court apparently
First case: the televised portrayal is true of all Ferengis. If no-one
ever told them, the Ferengi would go on being contemptible crooks—and
having difficulty getting jobs, housing and services—because nobody
would have ever made them aware of what humans find intolerable about
them. Both Ferengis and humans would be worse off—the Ferengis because
they would be despised, and the humans because we would have to live
with such despicable creatures in our midst. If humans could tell
Ferengis what we disapprove of and what we consider acceptable,
Ferengis could change their conduct. Memo to the Supreme Court—this
would promote self-development and participation in society.
Second case: the televised portrayal is false of all Ferengis. Ferengis
are actually truthful, honourable beings who have been viciously
maligned by the TV show. If no earthling ever articulates the lies we
have all swallowed, Ferengis will never have the opportunity to rebut
them. Memo to the Supreme Court—the quest for truth would be better
served by shining a spotlight on the cruel fabrications and letting
Ferengi spokesmen demolish them.
Third case: the TV portrayal is true of some Ferengis but not of
others. Good Ferengis would not want to be tarred with the same brush
as bad ones. The honourable ones would start putting pressure on their
crooked compatriots to straighten up—but only if they were aware that
they were in fact being lumped together in the minds of humans, and
only if they knew what the humans’ complaints were. Silencing the “hate
speech” would simply deny them that information. The people they really
need to confront are not the bearers of bad tidings, but the bad apples
in their own barrel. They need to say, “Liars and thieves are not
welcome in our community. You are giving the rest of us a bad name.
Shape up or we will shun you even more determinedly than humans do.”
Memo to the Supreme Court—well, surely you can figure it out by now.
No doubt after the falsehoods have been thoroughly rebutted and the bad
Ferengis have reformed, there will still be the occasional recalcitrant
bigot who would irrationally continue to hate Ferengis. But that’s when
freedom of speech will be the most valuable of all. Ferengis will want
to avoid dealing with such irrational individuals even more than the
bigots want to avoid Ferengis. And so will other righteous humans. Let
the bigots identify themselves, and let them suffer the consequences.