Coulter an example of style over substance

But her visit did re-ignite the free speech debate

April 1, 2010

By Dan Shapiro
Research Associate
Sheldon Chumir Foundation for Ethics in Leadership

Dan Shapiro
Dan Shapiro

CALGARY, AB, Apr. 1, 2010/ — Media theorist Neil Postman predicted that as our culture becomes more dominated by the medium of television-especially advertising-our discussion of serious political issues will become reduced to a series of sound-bites aiming to secure our allegiance rather than an ongoing conversation about how to govern ourselves democratically. His argument in his 1985 book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, was astonishingly prescient and has been borne out by the countless talking heads who dominate our news cycle.

Ann Coulter is just one among many polemicists spanning the political spectrum who try to set the agenda for American political debate. But divisive shock-talkers like her shouldn’t dominate in the US, let alone here in Canada.

Style over substance in contemporary debates

Coulter is apparently a woman of many talents. Judging by the range of subjects she tackled-with more confidence than competence-at her recent Calgary speech, she’s a scientist, theologian, economist and political commentator, but most of all she’s a comedian in the style of Lenny Bruce or South Park.

In Calgary she opined on everything from evolution (“a crazy theory with no evidence to support it”) to women’s suffrage (women shouldn’t have the right to vote because they tend to favour Democrats, and she wants to see only Republicans elected!).

Her shock-talk is entertainment, not serious political analysis, and is aimed at self-promotion and selling books. We should protect her right to free expression, but let’s not confuse her shrill polemics with debate on serious issues like terrorism and foreign policy.

So what do we do about Ann Coulter and her ilk? Don’t show up to listen. That is a far more appropriate response to her brand of provocation than protesters’ purported threats of violence at the University of Ottawa, where her talk was cancelled due to security concerns, or university provost Francois Houle’s letter warning her to “weigh your words with respect and civility in mind.”

On the bright side, Coulter’s recent Canadian visit reignited debate about free speech and civility. It can also prompt reflection on how we can encourage thoughtful discussion of controversial issues.

Defending free speech is the easy part. The test of a democracy’s commitment to freedom of speech is how well it protects the right to voice unpopular, even grossly offensive opinions. This is where the University of Ottawa failed.

The potential chilling effect of Houle’s advance warning to avoid “inappropriate remarks” is obvious. In presuming to decide for others what is appropriate, his pre-emptive strike seeks to deprive all of us the freedom to say and hear as we choose. The same logic applies to legal restrictions on speech.

As for protesters, in Canada, they have the right to contest opinions they disagree with, but they don’t have the right to threaten violence against others in order to shut them up – no matter how much they dislike the message.

The Ottawa protesters made a strategic blunder in shouting Coulter down. They would have done far better to ignore her, rather than give her a larger platform and feed her ego with so much attention.

Time for substance over style

While it is more difficult to offer a positive program that encourages thoughtful discussion instead of abusive polemics, here are a few thoughts:

1)      We should be wary of importing the worst excesses of the American “culture wars” into Canadian political discourse. There are crucial differences between our political cultures, not least that their two-party system seems to lead more naturally to angrily divided debate than our multi-party system. Just because we should defend Coulter’s right to free speech, it doesn’t follow that a professional agitator from a political culture so different from ours has anything useful to offer us in policy debates.

2)     With communications media having invaded virtually every moment of our lives, we all need to learn the ethics of constructive engagement. We should resist the worst influences of the media towards black-and-white answers and simplistic arguments. Labels and slogans, such as “liberal” or “conservative,” may confirm our biases, but they don’t help us to think more clearly about the issues.

3)     When opportunities such as the Coulter appearances arise, we need to address what’s so desperately wrong with the polarizing, winner-take-all, ends-justify-the-means style of interaction. It doesn’t help your cause to attack others with nasty slurs rather than debate in good faith the policy or idea in question. The nastiness only polarizes us further and precludes real debate.

Postman’s warning looms large: attack-dog punditry may be amusing, but we must find better ways to communicate if our democracy is to survive and hopefully flourish.

Dan Shapiro is a research associate with the Sheldon Chumir Foundation for Ethics in Leadership. The Foundation will host a conference on “Offense, respect, ethics and the law” on April 17 in Toronto. www.chumirethicsfoundation.ca

Channels: The Cape Breton Post, April 8, the Winkler Times, May 13, 2010

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