It can be very confusing when a government or political party speaks in code. What, at face-value, may seem a reasonable position, can mean something completely different.
There are, of course, the ways politicians use words that soften content to something the public will find palatable. “Collateral damage” sounds gentler than “civilians killed by us”. “Enhanced interrogation” certainly seems more acceptable than “torture”.
But there are other, less obvious code words, that political parties use to shield their actual message. When a Conservative says, “Family Values”, they are referring to a very specific subset of all the things one might value about families such as love, co-operation, concern for others, common goals, stability, and so on. Family values, in a Conservative context, means marriage as a union between one man and one woman, the primary purpose of which is child-bearing and child-rearing. It can also mean an anti-abortion stance, anti-birth-control, opposition to the teaching of reproductive biology in schools, promotion of abstinence as the only sex education children need, and parental control over every aspect of their children’s lives, often governed by their religious beliefs. Also included in this values bundle is the belief that marijuana should remain illegal and users should be punished.
Similarly, when Kellie Leitch launched her run to be leader of the CPC, she extolled “Canadian Values”. Dr. Leitch reeled off a list of attributes that would be hard to find fault with at face value. “Hard work, generosity, tolerance, and freedom” she repeated again and again in media and fund-raising communications. Who could argue against those values? But, even within the Conservative Party, there were those who called it out for being dog-whistle politics. One of several key problems with Dr. Leitch’s approach is that it would be astronomically expensive to have every single immigrant and refugee have a one on one interview. It would create years of backlog in applications, and effective cause immigration to grind to a halt. Which may, in fact, be part of the intent. Evaluation of responses would be highly subjective, and if the interviewers were directed to turn away Muslims, or any other group, rejections would publicly be presented as failure to meet the “Canadian Values Test”, but in reality could be engineered to suit the prejudices of the party in power. Beyond that, it would serve little purpose in terms of keeping Canada safe. There has never been a terrorist attack on Canadian soil by an immigrant or refugee. But, it would serve the purpose of persuading a segment of Canadian society that there is a real and present danger posed by these “foreigners”. Which, like the Trump rhetoric in the US, could serve to increase the danger to Muslim and other minority groups within Canada.
“Freedom” is another term that is being bandied about a lot lately. One manifestation of this is the court case led by Dr. Brian Day of Cambie Surgical Centre in BC. His premise is that it is a violation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms that Canadians are not free to pay for their health care. He has recommended repealing the Canada Health Act and increasing private medical facilities and private health insurance which would give those with the funds and coverage the freedom to jump the queue and receive treatment faster. Many oppose these recommendations, saying that there is very little concern for patients involved. Rather, they say, the court case is based on the freedom for health insurance companies, who have long been chafing at the restrictions to their profits in Canada, to reign supreme here as they do in the United States.
Freedom of speech is another example of how “freedom” has been misrepresented recently in Canada. Now, freedom of the press is critically important so that journalists can investigate and publish the news including, or especially, those things that those in power would rather not be made public. Academic institutions require freedom of speech to be able to explore new and controversial concepts. Citizens of a democracy must have freedom of speech, and the ability to criticize and satirize their government, disagree with legislation, and ask tough questions of their elected representatives.
Two piece of business have recently passed through Parliament that raised the ire of the right. M-103 is a motion designed to heighten awareness of Islamophobia in Canada and to engage in study to find ways of reducing this form of prejudice. Although a motion is non-binding and is certainly not a law, right wing organizations began a campaign of fear and hate, insisting that this was the end of freedom of speech and the beginning of Sharia Law in Canada.
The second piece of controversial business was the passage of Bill C-16, which guarantees the human rights of Canadians regardless of gender identity and gender expression. This is a law, and what it means is that trans people are protected from being discriminated against because they are trans. This includes all the aspects that protect all of us against discrimination; in health care, employment, housing, etc. The bill also protects trans people against violence based on hatred for their gender identity and gender expression. However, once again,there was push-back from the right, from those who were afraid this was going to infringe on their freedom of speech.
Of course, M-103 and C-16 have nothing to do with freedom of speech as most of us understand the term. Just as you cannot shout “fire!” in a crowded movie theatre without consequences, neither can you be verbally abusive based on a person’s race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, age, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, family status, disability, gender identity or gender expression without potential consequences. Freedom of speech, contrary to what you may have assumed by observing American politics, is not freedom to be cruel and obnoxious. Nor is free speech, as the right-wing Rebel Media would have you believe, the freedom to offend.