Friday, June 6, 2008

Human Rights and Macleans Magazine

Recently Macleans Magazine, I believe the largest circulating Canadian news magazine, has been taken before the Human Rights Tribunal in British Columbia for a series of articles that they published regarding Islam. These articles, some of which I have read, are, even for a non-Muslim with no particular sympathies for any part of the religion, deeply offensive. But what is even more offensive is Macleans response to the process of the tribunal itself. One of the loudest voices in Macleans' response to the tribunual can be heard in the blogs by Mr. Andrew Coyne on the Macleans web site. Now, putting aside the generally offensive smug and glib manner expressed in Mr. Coyne’s blog, I find his general defence of Maclean’s startlingly simplistic and deeply naïve. As voiced on Sounds Like Canada (on CBC 1 this morning) Mr. Coyne’s defence (and by association I assume Macleans defence) to this Human Rights issue is this: (And I am paraphrasing) “This is a freedom of speech issue that has no place in front of the Human Rights Tribunal. The Proper thing to do for those offended by these articles is to reply in the public arena, in print and on television etc.”

At first glance this defence sounds great and I am sure that right wing radio talk shows across the country will eat this up. But it fails to take into consideration the central core of the issue at stake; the power to control public discourse and, by association, public impressions and opinions. Imagine, if you will, that the New York Times chose a man at random who lived in an apartment on Flatbush Avenue in the Village, and they began to publish a series of articles berating this man as a bad father, an unfaithful husband, and grossly inefficient in his job. Now imagine when this man complained to the paper its response was, “Well take it to the court of public opinion. Let’s have a public debate in the media.” Obviously given the inequality of power to absorb public attention and control public discourse, this would be an unreasonable response from the Times.

A similar situation obtains here. If Macleans magazine has the largest circulation of any news magazine in Canada and is the organ of a large media conglomerate, it has an excessive degree of power in the field of public discourse. (And of course anyone who is paying attention knows that this uneven distribution of discursive authority is one of the fundamental problems with modern democracy and capitalism.) If Macleans utilizes this power to unfairly characterize a minority group, a community that is already marginalized and has relatively little access to the power of public discourse, and if some of these characterizations are provocative, even inflammatory, then this is clearly an issue that must be addressed. And in the absence of any private or public media that might match Macleans for popularity or profile, it is perfectly reasonable for the state to play a role in the issue. The response of Mr. Coyne and Macleans is typical of a person or organization that is accustom to exercising its power indiscriminately. They are incredulous that they can be forced into a public arena where there exists a necessary, systemic, and protected equality of discourse. They are, after all, used to saying what they want against people and groups that have little ability to respond with commensurate power in the public arena.

People who think such issues are just about freedom of speech simply don’t comprehend, or are not willing to address, the systemic imbalances of power that exist in media controlled public discourse.

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