Where do you draw the line?
That is, when are ugly attacks on people — people who may be a bit different — simply exercises in “free speech?” And when do they descend into expressions of prejudice, or worse?
During election campaigns, of course, nastiness abounds. From Yukon to Newfoundland, this fall Canadians have been buffeted by all sorts of malice and spite, as politicians jockey for position. Anyone who clings to the view that our politics is nicer than what happens south of the border should chatwith Stephane Dion or Michael Ignatieff. They’ll tell you: Our politics is no longer governed by the Marquess of Queensbury rules (if they ever were).
During the hotly contested Ontario election campaign — which concludes on Thursday — the where-do-you-draw-the-line question hasn’t been an abstract one. There have been all sorts of garden-variety unpleasantness and/or stupidity, the sort of stuff that is all-too-common in electoral contests these days.
Take my word for it — I’m a volunteer for the Liberal campaign. It has been unpleasant. But, on the weekend, things got even more unpleasant. Hateful, even.
On the weekend, PC campaigns started to distribute leaflets that need to be seen to be believed. One was lifted entirely from an advertisement that ran in the Toronto Sun and the National Post. The ad featured a wide-eyed child under the banner: “Please! don’t confuse me.” It falsely suggested that the Ontario sex-ed curriculum taught children how to be “transsexual, transgendered, intersexed or two-spirited.” To its credit, the Post apologized “unreservedly” for the ad after it ran, saying: “the ad exceeded the bounds of civil discourse” because of its manipulative use of imagery and “in the suggestion that such teaching ‘corrupts’ children.” The Post declared that it would donate the money it received for the ad to a lesbian, gay or transgendered cause.
(I strongly objected to the Sun running a variation of the same ad. Defending the ad as an expression of free speech, to me, is wholly unconvincing. The Sun has frequently refused to run advertising in the past, for all sorts of reasons. Therefore, I too plan to donate what I receive from the Sun this week to an LGBT cause). Despite the controversy — or perhaps because of it — the contemptible ad was reproduced in its entirety by one PC candidate in Willowdale, complete with a statement indicating that the pamphlet had been officially authorized by the Ontario PC campaign.
Two other PC campaigns — both in Brampton — used the ad for the basis for a slicker-looking anti-gay leaflet. As with the Willowdale pamphlet, both of the Brampton leaflets had been “authorized by Chief Financial Officer of the Ontario PC Party.” These anti-gay leaflets ignited a storm on the Internet, resulting in condemnations by partisan conservatives, too.
On Monday, PC leader Tim Hudak was questioned about his party’s homophobic propaganda by the news media. Hudak said they were simply a response to Premier Dalton McGuinty’s “out-of-the-mainstream” policy ideas. He then talked about how it was his daughter’s fourth birthday. (Honest.) Elections are emotional affairs. Passions flare, objectionable things get said.
But to simply shrug at hateful expressions directed at gays and lesbians is wrong. It may be “speech,” but it is not the sort of speech we need.
And it is way, way over the line.