Cancel culture and online harms legislation

A recent interview on The Hub caught my eye: “Cancel culture comes to the classroom: Professor Deborah Appleman on how teachers are navigating the new culture wars.”

In the article, Sean Speer and Professor Appleman discuss “how culture war politics are intruding into the classroom.”

I had been reading a number of articles on similar themes, such as the blowback against cancel culture at Yale Law School by some US Federal judges who will no longer offer clerkships to graduates of the program (see “Yale Law clerk boycott now up to a dozen federal jurists”), and a ban on speakers who are from Israel or who support Zionism by 9 student groups associated with Berkeley’s law school (see: “Leading US Jewish groups blast Berkeley Law school amid anti-Zionism uproar”).

As Professor Appleman describes, “this pressure of canceling, this culture war, is coming from both liberals and conservatives.”

Classroom teachers are used to conservative critics who think that the books that teachers choose are inappropriate because of profane language or explicit sexual content. We’ve been dealing with that with support from the American Library Association, and we’re about to celebrate Banned Book Weeks coming up.

We’re sort of used to that. What we’re not used to is the canceling that’s coming from the Left, canceling because of problematic portrayals, because of use of offensive language, and canceling because someone has made a judgment about the appropriateness of the life of an author, for example, Sherman Alexie, and the degree to which that author’s behaviour should keep us from teaching their books. It’s a particular moment in time where we’re being pressed from both sides. And that, of course, in the United States is exacerbated by a lot of movements, a lot of anti-gay movements, by movements of critical race theory, even though the people who talk about it don’t really exactly know what it is, a real backlash.

On one hand, we don’t want to have kids read things in our classroom that perpetuate harm.

On the other hand, the purpose of reading literature is to unsettle you, is to hurt you in some ways, and is, maybe, in my opinion, most importantly, giving you the opportunity to feel the hurt of other people.

I encourage you to read the entire interview, including the discussion of the “need to confront ideas or arguments that [students] may find distasteful or even offensive as part of the process of learning.”

And that brings me back to my concern about legislation being considered to address the issue of online harms.

Recall that the mandate letters for the Minister of Canadian Heritage and for the Minister of Justice and Attorney General each contain a section calling for the Ministers “to develop and introduce legislation as soon as possible to combat serious forms of harmful online content to protect Canadians and hold social media platforms and other online services accountable for the content they host”.

As I wrote two months ago, from the outset, I have had concerns about plans to create new legislation addressing online hate, trying to establish a regime that defines what constitutes online harms, and places limits on our freedom of expression.

Then there is the case of Twitter suspending Laith Marouf, and the subsequent withdrawal of a government consulting contract for him to conduct workshops to develop an anti-racism media strategy. Frequent readers are familiar with this case and others can refer to the reading list at the bottom of my September 6 post. As I wrote in August:

That said, let’s examine a very current situation: a Montreal-based consultant who refers to Jews as “loud mouthed bags of human feces”, and threatens “Jews with a bullet to the head” (as highlighted in a Twitter stream last Friday by journalist Jonathan Kay).

Was this hateful or merely offensive? To me, it’s pretty clear that this kind of commentary crossed the line.

But we don’t actually need to consider whether or not Laith Marouf’s comments would survive Canadian Heritage’s prospective Online Harms legislation. Legal or not, it seems pretty inexcusable that this same department of the Canadian government has been providing funding to him.

It is worth noting that it didn’t require new legislation to deal with this case. Marouf was found to have violated Twitter’s terms of service and was suspended (again) without government intervention. Following public exposure, the government cancelled the funding agreement.

Canadian Heritage, the department charged with developing legislation to combat serious forms of harmful online content, found itself having funded a purveyor of the kind of content it was supposed to combat. The Minister’s mandate is to hold social media platforms accountable for the content they host, but two months after the story became widely known, no one has yet been held to account for the department’s failure to conduct proper due diligence before awarding the contract to CMAC.

I am doubtful of the ability of this government to introduce legislation that balances concerns about online harms with our Charter freedom of expression. Still, it is important to note that there are certain limits to our right to freely express our views. And the Charter clearly doesn’t include a right to receive government funding for those with a habit of spewing vile messages.

3 thoughts on “Cancel culture and online harms legislation”

  1. It is written in a vague fashion, clearly indicating that you fear being cancelled yourself. That said, I fully agree with the content and the key message. It is not a healthy idea for a government to introduce a new superfluous legislation; it is rather urgently imperative to stop funding antisemitism, as a first critical step.

  2. I certainly did not intend to write in a vague fashion. But let me be clear: I do not fear being cancelled myself. But thank you for your concern.

  3. I totally agree with you, it’s a shame that we cannot discuss sometimes sensitive topics without being “cancelled”, I feel that any problem, exposed to the sun (light) will eventually be corrected but many times, with many subjects today, we cannot raise concerns, ask questions, offer critical thinking in the anticipation that it creates dialogue….but more often than not it just creates division. I liken it to stand up comedy, I feel most comedians offer social commentary and are inviting their audience to think about topics but their comedy is no longer taken that way, the culture is one of intolerance to bold statements that attempt to shake the tree of truth. And yes, obvious hate speech should be a separate matter, suggesting that any segment of the population, anywhere is evil and promoting violence against them is abhorrent. I worry that this government is not capable of crafting the appropriate legislation, nor any government really because they themselves are susceptible to being canceled.

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