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David Polansky: When it comes to determining hate speech, we can’t just ‘trust the experts’

Commentary

They may not have realized it, but the drafters of Bill C-63, the legislation Justice Minister Arif Virani introduced last week that would enact the government of Canada’s Online Harms Act, have intervened in a philosophical debate at least as old as Plato. 

This debate concerns the relationship between knowledge and political authority and can be summed up as follows: if one’s claim to wield political authority rests upon knowledge, how do we ourselves know that a given ruler or government possesses the right knowledge?

With its expansion of laws governing “hate speech” and strengthening of the regulatory regime that oversees them, Bill C-63 doesn’t so much as answer these questions as steamroll over them.

There are two fundamental problems here. The first is that not all matters of dispute are resolvable in this manner because certain issues are political by their very nature. Is it for example genocide denial to inquire into the validity of claims of mass graves on residential school sites? Is it criminal bigotry to ask whether a prepubescent child is a good candidate for surgical intervention? The point is not that there is necessarily a correct answer to this and other questions, but rather that one cannot rule certain positions out of bounds in the absence of the kind of authority that can only derive from the political process.

Every parent will at some point resort to the logic of “Because I said so” (and, speaking as a parent, I am supremely grateful for this option), but the authority of a democratic government is different from the authority of a parent, not just in degree but in kind. Our rulers are not our qualitative superiors, but (in theory, at least) people like ourselves. Indeed, it is we who authorize them to speak on our behalf; we do not rely on them to authorize our ability to speak.

Hence the second fundamental problem: attempts to resolve these kinds of disputes by fiat represent the replacement of politics with administration and robust democratic deliberation with bureaucratic oversight. In this case, we’ll get a “Digital Safety Commission,” along with a separate “Digital Safety Ombudsperson,” to sort out these messy political disputes. 

One defender of the bill even argues, “Don’t worry—Prime Minister Justin Trudeau won’t be the judge. It will be the tribunal who has expertise in identifying hate.” One can only picture here the government agent in Raiders of the Lost Ark telling Indiana Jones: “We have top men working on it right now!”

But this delegation is a kind of shell game, designed to obscure the most fundamental political questions: who rules, and on what authority? Indeed, for all his demonstrable flaws, Prime Minister Trudeau has a far more plausible claim to democratically represent the interests and preferences of Canadians than any “expert tribunal.”

Others have rightly pointed out the bill’s potential for abuses, as well as its illiberal approach to fundamental questions of freedom of expression. But it’s worth noting how it indicates a larger and deeply troubling trend in how our elites conceive of politics in a democracy. For this bill is not just a bad idea in its own right; it reflects the habits of mind of an entire political class that believes that technocratic expertise can stand in for democratic debate. Indeed, their position seems to be that certain subjects are too dangerous to be left to the people to hash out with one another in public forums.

We already saw during the COVID-19 pandemic how this high-handed form of governance could go awry, and it appears this government has learned nothing from that experience.

In this photo taken Friday, Oct. 21, 2011, marble statues of ancient Greek philosophers Socrates, right, and Plato, left, are seen on plinths in front of the Athens Academy. Petros Giannakouris/AP Photo.

This does not mean that there is no such thing as hatred or political extremism. Indeed, any functioning society has a need to declare certain behaviours out of bounds. But it does mean that how we define such terms is inseparable from the political commitments we already hold. For, one cannot answer such questions without committing to a particular political understanding. Consequently, the advocates for the Online Harms Act are assuming a consensus on its substance at the outset, thus relieving themselves of the burden of actually convincing the public while gaining an advantage for their own political commitments in the process.

Similarly, the Act maintains a complaints process that operates as a parody of civic virtue, encouraging ordinary people not to engage more directly in political life to persuade fellow citizens of their point of view, but rather to leverage the powerful machinery of the federal government for their personal grievances.

As it happens, we already have a pretty good solution for the dilemma posed by Bill C-63: to leave such matters to the political arena where they can be hashed out by an engaged democratic citizenry. And this solution might be applied to quite a number of areas—from crime prevention to energy to immigration policy and beyond—that have lately become the exclusive domain of dubious experts of various stripes. 

As for the general unpleasantness that frequently accrues to online spaces, a solution is at hand for that as well—one that has the added benefit of strengthening overall mental health and well-being: log off and go outside. 

Paul W. Bennett: You shouldn’t get a participation award for failing high school

Commentary

High school graduation is now being reinvented to align better with runaway grade inflation and everyone-gets-a-pass education times. “No pass? No problem” read the headline in the Ottawa Citizen on proposed changes to the academic graduation tradition that went national this past week. Little wonder it immediately became the latest flashpoint in the ongoing debate over declining standards in Canada’s schools. 

One Ontario public school district, Ottawa Carleton District School Board, is proposing to change graduation ceremonies into commencement exercises and striking out academic awards from its policy. The proposed changes, if accepted next month, will soon get recognized at a June “commencement” ceremony which would include students who have not passed or secured a graduate diploma. 

The proposed shift replaces “graduation” with “commencement,” but the changes go far beyond a simple doctoring of the language. A graduation marks a stage in a student’s academic career recognizing the successful completion of a program, signified by the achievement of a diploma, and the conferring of a range of academic and non-academic student awards. Changing it to a “commencement” implies that it’s a community celebration, including everyone, which marks “the beginning of a journey” in education rather than a milestone. 

The clock is ticking on the changes. Proposed amendments to OCDSB policy P.038.SCO, dating from May 1998, initiated by associate director Brett Reynolds and senior staff, were tabled for public feedback until March 29 and will be reviewed by a board committee on April 4. They will then be presented to the board of trustees on April 25 for final approval. That’s clearly not enough time to ensure proper public engagement and accountability, but par for the course at the local school board level. 

The OCDSB claims that the intent of the change is to make the end-of-year ceremony more inclusive. “At commencement, students of all levels of achievement will be able to cross the stage with their peers,” reads the official statement that accompanied an invitation to members of the public to comment on the proposed change. 

The OCDSB rationale downplays the salient difference: “For a variety of reasons, students may not have completed all the requirements for a move on from secondary school. With this change, these students will be able to join their peers and celebrate their achievements.” What students who have not passed the grade are celebrating is as clear as mud. It, in fact, implies that simply “showing up” is now worthy of praise. 

They go on to add, “Commencement is equity-based and not marks-based,” and that “Students have diverse educational journeys, and all students’ diverse experiences should have the opportunity to be celebrated, including those who have historically faced challenges within the education system, both in the past and in the present.”

Students leaving secondary school after reaching 18 without meeting the marks will receive a Certificate of Accomplishment. It takes participation medals to a whole new level. 

Graduation rates have skyrocketed as well as final averages over the past two decades or more.  While Ontario high school graduation rates in 2004  sat at 68 percent, they now soar into the high 80s and low 90s. Being an Ontario Scholar used to mean securing a difficult 80 percent average. Today the vast majority of students exceed what was formally a benchmark of academic excellence. 

The awarding of high marks is deeply entrenched. This, in many ways, has undermined the value of a high school diploma. In June 2022, for example, some 86.1 percent of Ottawa-Carleton DSB students graduated in four years (Grades 9 to 12) and 90.5 percent took five years. That’s a little above the provincial average, comparable to Toronto DSB (85.8 percent over five years) but lower than York Region DSB (94.2 percent over five years) and York Region Catholic DSB (97.3 percent over five years). 

Coleton McLemore is silhouetted against the sky during the Commencement Exercises for the Class of 2020 at Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe High School’s Tommy Cash Stadium on July 31, 2020 in Fort Oglethorpe, Ga. C.B. Schmelter/Chattanooga Times Free Press via AP.

It’s still alarming to examine the impact of the proposed OCDSB changes on the current cohort of graduates. Students who work conscientiously to complete the high school program will have their achievement diminished further by the presence of a smaller group, roughly 14 percent, who get a free pass to participate in the final ceremony. 

The OCDSB policy change did not come out of nowhere. It owes its origins to the OCDSB Strategic Plan for 2023-27 and its undergirding philosophy—a commitment to inclusion, equity, and accessibility for all students. While few quibble with embracing inclusive education, the devil is in the details and the extent to which it now overrides the core mission of schools: teaching and learning in the classroom. 

Recognizing high student achievement is now being conflated with the traditional graduation ceremony and that is seen as antithetical to the overriding goal of celebrating all levels of achievement while serving those who have been “underserved” by the school system. 

Most inspiring school reforms and policy changes seek to lift children up and instill what American education psychology professor Carol Dweck calls a “growth mindset.” For students, it amounts to a “commitment to thrive on challenge” where you don’t see failure as a way to describe yourself but as “a springboard for growth and developing your abilities.”

Degrading graduation is completely at odds with fostering a student growth ethic and a commitment to exceeding expectations. If the OCDSB policy changes go through and other boards follow suit, it may, in fact, breed complacency and give aid and comfort to what former U. S. President George W. Bush once called “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” It will have arrived when, in the not-too-distant future, everyone gets a high school participation certificate.