I am not writing this blog post with the idea that the right to free speech, or expression is without limit. Tom Flanagan proves that in exercising that right, the social consequences can be swifter and less judicious than any of the hate speech crimes we have on the books in Canada.
Nor am I writing to defend Mr. Flanagan’s comments. Rather, I want to point out what I think the reaction to his comments reveal about the deep hypocrisy at work in our social body politic (if I may be permitted to use such an awkward formation).
On surface Mr. Flanagan is in the deep muddy so to speak because he said:
I certainly have no sympathy for child molesters, but I do have some grave doubts about putting people in jail because of their taste in pictures.
No doubt a particularly flippant, glib and ignorant commentary from Mr. Flanagan. But (yes but), one needs to put this in the context of his overarching libertarian world view.
Mr. Flanagan’s remarks are both flippant and glib precisely because he is wilfully ignorant of the externalities generated from the twisted desire to look at children in a pornographic context. That is to say, the act of looking at pictures of children in a pornographic setting is divorced, in his statement, from the act of creating those images.
Only those with the most benign (actually malignant) ignorance could attempt to divorce the act of consuming from the realities of the conditions under which such images must have been produced and thus are being consumed.
Think about it. Mr. Flanagan’s comments are really just an extension of his broader libertarian ideology: anything that does not directly harm someone else should be free from state sanction. Libertarians have always suffered from a blind spot that arises from the narrow view they tend take of what constitutes harm to another. Thus consuming child pornography is divorced from its conditions of production.
But it is not just libertarians who suffer from this glib divorce between production, consumption and post consumption. There are whole host of products we consume that directly harm humans, including children, in their production. Downstream Aboriginal communities in Alberta, including their children, are experiencing increased respiratory diseases, cardiovascular problems, and rare cancers as result of oil sands mining. Yet, according to our collective political choices, these are acceptable levels of harm to visit on children. Just Google “toxic waste and developing countries” to get sense of just how much harm is being delivered to children in post consumption.
Where is the moral outrage?
But the reaction to Mr. Flanagan’s remarks also reveals the essentially opportunistic nature of hypocrisy and in this case, particularly so on the part of Canadian progressives.
Since when did progressives believe that putting people in jail was the best way to deal with criminal behaviour? Since when did progressives embrace the idea that punishment was preferable to rehabilitation?
Leave to the side Mr. Flanagan’s wilful blindness to the consequences of the production of child pornography, he asked a rather reasonable question: is throwing people who consume child pornography in jail a good public policy? You may believe it is. You may believe throwing drug addicts in jail is a good idea too. Outside of extreme cases I do not. I adhere to a broadly rehabilitationist position when it comes to dealing with what society has decided is criminal behaviour.
All the moral outrage and self-righteous denouncements of Mr. Flanagan’s remarks quietly side stepped the very important reality that a senior conservative thinker was advancing a very non-conservative view of crime and punishment.
I don’t share much of Mr. Flanagan’s world view, I believe many of the policies he has successfully helped bring into the mainstream of public policy are repugnant precisely because they are wilfully blind to the negative externalities they generate. Mr. Flanagan’s glib separation between the production of child pornography and its consumption is repugnant but it is far more important to explain why it is repugnant and illuminate the ways in which many of our consumption choices are not victimless.
As Mark Mercer noted in the Ottawa Citizen this morning those reacting to Mr. Flanagan “seem more interested in attacking Flanagan rather than in answering him. “I’m disgusted,” no matter how strongly stated, is not an argument.”
The swift and non-judicious reaction to Mr. Flanagan’s remarks left me saddened at the state of public discourse in this country and our public institutions like the CBC. And oddly, the mob mentality of those reactions left me a little more sympathetic to Mr. Flanagan’s, paranoid, libertarian fear of the tyranny of the moral majority.