© 2010  Karen Selick

An edited version of this article first appeared in the June 27, 2008 issue of the National Post.
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What Ferengis Can Teach the Supreme Court 

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 in Canada, no doubt there’d be several human rights commissions breathing down my neck. 

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 discrimination complaint. 

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 couldn’t imagine. 

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. 


- END -


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       November 16, 2008