Like The Hub?
Join our community.
Join

Dan Delmar: Stop giving racists the attention they crave

Commentary

As a Jew, I never imagined feeling obliged to frontload the fact of my ethnicity in political commentary, until recently.

As the grandson of Holocaust survivors and as a Canadian proud of this culture’s civility, I never imagined that I’d have to take the time to explain to self-righteous political actors why it’s a bad idea to give marginal racists all the attention they crave, and then some.

And as a media producer, I know that I must qualify these fairly mundane, liberal-democratic opinions with personal disclosures about my cultural background in order to help shield myself from online partisan vitriol that seems to increasingly cast political opponents from certain ethnic groups like my own as more likely than others to be racists, oppressors, and other bad things.

Even Michael Geist, a prominent and widely respected Jewish law professor, was subjected to virulent smears from self-described antiracists when he objected to antisemitism. It was actually a Liberal MP who suggested Geist was a racist this week for asking basic questions about Heritage Canada’s antiracism training scandal and how long the government kept it a secret (it was about a month, at least).

“Blinded by hate for Pablo (Rodriguez, Heritage Minister)? Is it because the Minister responsible looks like this,” angrily tweeted St. Catherines MP Chris Bittle, punctuated by an emoji pointing downward at an image of another minister, Diversity Minister Ahmed Hussen (he had approved the disturbing anti-Israel “antiracism” lectures deployed in Rodriguez’s ministry, the subject of the controversy). Bittle’s tweetstorm, for which he apologized and attributed to “a moment of anger”, was itself an example of misinformation targeted at Geist. It was only Bittle who made an issue of (presumably) Minister Hussen’s skin colour in his performative denunciation of a Jewish professor commenting about issues of concern to Jewish Canadians.

What could possibly possess politicians of all stripes, the centrist-leaning governing Liberals in particular, to signal perceived virtue with such zeal that the signal itself seems bigoted? Had Bittle been paying closer attention to his Liberal colleague Anthony Housefather on Thursday, he may have had a clue.

In an op-ed for iPolitics published the same day, Housefather highlighted the work done by a Canada-U.S. inter-parliamentary task force on online antisemitism, “tracking antisemitic narratives along a broad spectrum of conspiracy theories, disinformation and extremism and they are deeply troubling,” he explained.

“Let’s run through some examples,” Housefather went on, taking the time to denounce Qs, Zs, and various online phenomena linked with antisemitism. Due to the exponential proliferation of online hate, he concluded, “the task force has shown clearly that the era of self-regulation of platforms has abjectly failed. The notion of social media as a public square where speech is balanced by counterspeech fails to reflect the algorithmically amplified threats faced by societies today.”

The solution? Predictably, censorship: to “compel social media companies to take meaningful action against online harms.”

Housefather’s calls for algorithmic transparency make some sense, and mirror longstanding demands of prominent American critics of Big Tech to be forthright about who benefits from disproportionate online virality and who is “shadow-banned” into oblivion. But as his colleagues’ confusion over what constitutes free speech demonstrates, a government of the day cannot responsibly be the arbiter of what is or isn’t acceptable speech due to an all-encompassing, obvious conflict of interest.

The “self-regulation” failure that Housefather describes was never attempted. No Canadian member of Parliament has proposed a workable social media self-regulatory model to address issues like online hate and disinformation. On the contrary, acting on partisan and ideological impulses, both Liberals and Conservatives have willfully ignored the immensely successful and underappreciated Canadian Broadcast Standards Council model, ushered in during the last new media-induced social panic in the early ‘90s (it’s a mostly uncontroversial regulatory framework for live television and radio managed by a coalition of broadcasters and based on the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and is a good starting point in discussions on social media regulation).

Partisans want control of the internet. They don’t want academics or other independent experts weighing in on speech issues because the resulting legislation will inevitably limit their ability to smear or censor their online opponents, depending on their proclivities. The danger of government-regulated media was just the sort of warning that Geist presented himself before the CRTC in recent months, as he has been likely the nation’s most vocal and prolific critic of the government’s attempts to create an internet censorship apparatus. Fascinating then to see Geist targeted by baseless, borderline bigoted smears.

When a supposed liberal government cannot tolerate polite criticism from an uncontroversial academic, we needn’t look far for examples of how government-regulated social media would be corrosive to democracy.

When Housefather calls for algorithmic transparency, we should ask, for whom?

Nearly anyone can take advantage of a high-volume account to proliferate any message on Twitter, or Facebook. There is no evidence to suggest that the networks afford special privileges to supremacist groups, as Housefather suggests. When organizations like the government of Canada, the Liberal Party of Canada, or the Conservative Party of Canada pour public money into social network ads, they are also participating in a form of algorithm “manipulation,” elevating their messages above competing content. Verified (blue check) accounts, including all MPs, are also boosted algorithmically because they are deemed to have some public interest. Politicians and political parties are already some of the most privileged entities on the internet.

Social network algorithms don’t care about any user’s views, only that they hold as many as possible and in the most polarizing tone possible; ideally in coordination with other high-volume accounts to fuel what the user hopes will trend. Whether the view is virtuous or bigoted, as long as it is polarizing, the algorithms are having their desired effect.

It’s important to acknowledge that if most Canadians are generally tolerant people, then it is safe to assume most interactions with racists on Canadian social media are in the service of antiracism. But in practice, antiracist denunciations don’t work as planned since hateful views are technically promoted with every share, irrespective of the commenter’s framing.

There are a number of classically liberal arguments one could make against the censorship of bad words, bad people, or hate-filled symbols like the swastika; I am certainly not indifferent to a symbol that was used to subjugate my grandparents, turning them from successful entrepreneurs to traumatized refugees, forced to flee to Siberia to stay alive.

What I want for the swastika is for it to disappear, not pop up in my feed every two hours, and the very best way to get closer to that utopic goal is not to “ban” it, even if such a ban were feasible, nor to ritualistically denounce it at every opportunity, but, short of a potentially violent crime being committed, to ignore it and the purveyors of online bigotry as much as possible.

The only argument needed against online government censorship is that it doesn’t work, certainly not when crafted by politicians with illiberal censorship reflexes themselves.

As counterintuitive as it may feel, and as suboptimal as it may be for politicians and partisan influencers craving validation, the most effective way to defeat racists on the internet is to pretend they don’t exist.

As the federal government continues to toy with its improvised fix for what ails the internet, its ministers must be reminded that there is a fine line algorithmically between denouncing and tacitly promoting online hate, and it’s almost certain that virtue-signalling Canadian politicians have done more of the latter than the former.

Opinion: Classical liberal votes are up for grabs in Canada—will anyone take them?

Commentary

We are in the somewhat awkward position, as classical liberals who are neither big-C nor small-c conservatives, of having been asked to discuss classical liberalism as a faction of the conservative movement. We see why an alliance has been possible between classical liberals and conservatives, but we don’t think that compatibility can be counted on. It’s wrong to assume, as our country navigates its political realignment, that old alliances will—or should—hold. 

F.A. Hayek famously declared that he was not a conservativeWhy I Am Not a Conservative https://www.cato.org/sites/cato.org/files/articles/hayek-why-i-am-not-conservative.pdf and proceeded to offer a definition of conservatismHayek was not a conservative. Here’s why. https://www.econlib.org/hayek-was-not-a-conservative-heres-why/ distinct from liberalism. Hayek says—and we agree—that conservatives prefer what’s tried and true to solutions grounded in theory, that conservatives focus on getting to specific outcomes rather than rules that let people choose their own paths, and that from a liberal perspective conservatives are over-sceptical of open-ended change and not sceptical enough of authority. 

Conservatives, as Ben Woodfinden recently argued,A Tory impulse and anti-Laurentian ideas drive Canadian conservatism https://thehub.ca/2022-08-17/ben-woodfinden-a-tory-impulse-and-anti-laurentian-ideas-drive-canadian-conservatism/ want to conserve what they see as valuable. Their policy goals come from where we’ve already been and what we’ve already done. Conservative policy goals don’t come from first principles about a never-realized ideal. 

Following McGill’s Jacob T. Levy, we argue that liberals, in contrast, are committed—regardless of the institutions from which they start—to robust due process and the rule of law, to religious liberty, to freedom of speech and association, to support for markets, and to democratic control of the legislative and executive branches of government. 

The term classical liberal is only used in North America. In much of the world, the term “liberal” is used to describe people who oppose institutionalized and especially government-backed power and want limited government intervention in people’s economic and personal lives. However, the emergence and growth in the 20th century of welfare liberalism—which advocates for more government regulation and redistribution—led to the adoption of terms like “classical liberal” and “libertarian” to differentiate. 

For a long time, Canadian conservatism could be described as a fusion of support for freer markets (like those espoused by classical liberals) with social conservatism. But in the 21st century, most obviously since 2016, the issues on which parties seek the support of voters have changed. 

The historian Stephen Davies has predicted that the new dividing line between parties will be nationalism against international cosmopolitanism. This new order is reflected in the emerging scepticism of both immigration and trade in parties of the right—an example is the reshoring strategy advocated by our friend Sean Speer. Hostility to internationalism is why the World Economic Forum has become a touchstone to some in Canadian politics. 

As voters and parties realign themselves to discover what brings people together under different political tents, it’s less obvious what Canadian conservatism will become. Classical liberals and conservatives did not support the policies on which we’ve agreed in the past for the same reasons, and we should not expect conservatives to respond the same way to changing political realities as we would. 

Sean Speer provided a conservative account of fusionism.Canadian conservatism is powered by fusion https://thehub.ca/2022-08-12/sean-speer-canadian-conservatism-is-powered-by-fusion/ It includes, he says, a commitment by social conservatives not to interfere with most individual choices, even where conservatives hold strong beliefs. But their opposition to government control was not a concession to the classical liberals under the big conservative tent, but an acknowledgement that socially conservative views had fallen out of the mainstream. As more of their views became political non-starters, social conservatives’ policy goals moved to the back burner. 

The defining policy debate of the late twentieth century was a bigger picture one, of broadly free markets versus government-controlled economies. When Canadian conservatives in the Cold War took the side of markets, they allied themselves with liberals. Tools like privatization and trade were seen as important to opposing the power and influence of the Soviet Union by even market-skeptical conservatives. Again the alliance was politically convenient. 

Liberals shouldn’t count on hands-off social conservatism, nor on a conservatism that sees free markets in line with conservative goals. Political convenience is unreliable during political realignment. 

Liberals’ belief that individuals know what’s best for themselves leads us to believe that social change should come through persuasion rather than using the law. Commitment to persuasion takes sweeping social change by government edict off the table for liberals in a way that it’s not for progressives, who aim to enforce “progress” through legislation. The resulting gradualism is often confused by conservatives for a commitment to conservation. But liberals do not support standing athwart history yelling “Stop!”, either. Where progressives agree with liberals, classical liberals have no desire to stop progress, we just won’t force it through.

“Political convenience is unreliable during political realignment.”

Classical liberalism emphasizes respect for individuals to make their own choices. Both progressives and conservatives have ideas of the good life towards which society ought to be moved. Sean Speer points to “the all-important question: freedom for what?” Liberals, and especially classical liberals, answer: that’s too important a question for us to decide for you, or for all of us to try to decide together.

With a political consensus around (mostly) free markets and (mostly) free social decisions, it was tempting for liberals to believe that the moral arc of history is one of liberation and progress. 

The political realignment has been a harsh wake-up call. Political and economic progress is more uneven and less certain than we previously believed. Debates we thought were settled have once again become live issues. 

We suspect that fusionism is dead. We’re not of one mind about how friendly conservatives have recently been to liberalism, but we agree that the disintegration of the old political centre is probably bad for liberalism, at least in the short term. Conservatives are increasingly focused on culture wars in a way that puts them at odds with classical liberals. 

We don’t know precisely where the new areas of agreement between conservatives and classical liberals will be, but we hope they will not disappear completely. Potentially fertile ground for cooperation could include changes to expand housing supply or educational choice. 

Conservatives (and progressives!) hoping to ally with liberals will need to keep in mind that old alliances, like old policy victories, can’t be taken for granted. Classical liberals, for our part, should embrace being accessible voters rather than part of the conservative, or anyone’s, political base.