Minorities and Free Expression

Posted February 13, 2017
By Abbas Kassam

Free expression may be the most important freedom in a democracy. It is the lifeblood of truth. Free expression rights are ostensibly a measure to protect minorities, especially oppressed minorities. Enabling a minority to speak truth to power is a beautiful thing. Nevertheless, free expression can pose difficult challenges for minorities.

Free expression is premised on a free market of ideas. Expression can enter the public sphere where it can be debated, accepted, rejected or developed.  Free expression theoretically allows all speech to enter the market, freely. However, access to expression is not always fair. Minorities do not always have the same platforms or profiles employed by those who seek to oppress or even understand them.

Take for example, our friends south of the border. In their 2016 presidential election cycle, Donald Trump consistently used his public profile as a presidential candidate, amplified by the media, to spew a range of expression denigrating minority communities. His speech was countered by fact-checking and critiquing, but in our world of 140 characters or less, the damage was done.

One classic response to such difficult scenarios is to limit or police expression. This is a flawed tactic that enables demagogues to parade as free expression martyrs, when in reality they are nothing of the sort. Consider the following scenarios.

1) Defamatory Bigots

A common modus operandi of bigots who target minority communities is to express slanderous statements about minority community members and their institutions. Such bigots will publish erroneous material under the guise of being a champion of saving the public from an evil minority, or even saving the minority from themselves. The bigot will likely forward such material to people of prominence such as politicians, journalists, and even minority community members, baiting a response.

Unfortunately, minority communities have fallen into the trap of responding using legal tactics such as actions for defamation. This enables the bigot to setup himself or herself as a free expression martyr and the minority community as anti-free expression (and by extension anti-democratic). In such situations, it may be best to ignore such a bigot as without responding the bigot is unlikely to gain any attention.

2) Crusaders with platforms

In the second scenario, a prominent person or institution with a platform who seeks to oppress or willfully misrepresent minorities again sets up the false dichotomy of freedom to discriminate against a minority or risk losing free expression. Take for example, Mr. Trump, as mentioned previously, or an outspoken purposefully politically incorrect journalist. Such individuals and their expression will easily enter and be amplified in the public sphere.  Again, the impulse to silence such individuals is strong.

There is a common belief that the response to bad expression is good expression. While this is true, the difficulty is that minorities do not have the same access to speech as their oppressors. While there are of course minority commentators, the proportion of minority individuals in positions of prominence does not represent diversity as a whole in Western democracies such as Canada. Not to mention having a single or few individuals represent an entire community will inevitably fail to showcase the diversity of thought within minority communities.

3) Disproportionate Targeting

There are scenarios where issues that plague minority communities are well-documented but mischaracterized. Of course, minority communities and their members have their issues, but the problem with this scenario is that minorities become defined by those issues. Situations like this arise when a few flawed individuals within a minority community are used tarnish the reputation of a community at large (even when the community itself has tried to disassociate from them). They also arise when issues that infect minority communities are painted as a problem exclusive to that community or caused by community, when in actuality other factors such as class or even systemic oppression can be traced as the root cause of the issue.

In this scenario, it can be next to impossible to shake such reputations. Minority communities are always on edge, looking to put out fires as they arise, drowning in the difficulties of disproportionate targeting. This scenario is more abstract and can be difficult to characterize for mass consumption. It’s hard to explain high-level ideas or advocate nuanced solutions when there is mistrust and rampant false perceptions.

The scenarios described above are no doubt not exhaustive, but merely illustrative of some of the difficulties faced by minority communities. I chose not to use specific examples in each scenario so as to not directly characterize (and likely mischaracterize) issues and responses from certain communities. I also wanted to avoid giving bigots another podium for their notoriety, with the exception of course of Mr. Trump as our speech market is already oversaturated with his views.

I would also note that I am not advocating for avoiding criticism of minority communities, nor do I condone proactive efforts at limiting expression by some minority communities. Quite the contrary.  I would advocate fair access to expression within an arena of free expression. That is an ideal to which we should aspire.