Fighting the mob

2013-04-24 04.49.50 am


Published in The Australian, June 17, 2014


IT took Tom Flanagan 40 years to build his reputation as a political scientist and barely two hours for his enemies to destroy it.

His downfall began with a posting on YouTube captioned “Tom Flanagan okay with child pornography”. Flanagan, needless to say, is not OK with child pornography but when the lynch mob starts chasing you on the ​internet, truth is no defence.

The ease with which the self-appointed enforcers of political correctness were able to take down this prominent Canadian conservative intellectual is a ​morality tale for our time. The lessons from Flanagan’s recently published account of “the Incident” resonate in Aus​tralia where the practice of “gotcha” politics fed by social media and amplified by mainstream media is deeply ​entrenched.

The internet, on balance, has greatly assisted the development of open society and the cause of free expression. It is far more threatening to tyrants than to democratically elected governments. Yet the internet ennobles bigots as well as sages. It is a breeding ground for angry mobs as well as the wisdom of crowds. The title of Flanagan’s book — Persona Non Grata: The Death of Free Speech in the Internet Age — may overstate the case, but its message about the danger of letting the mob take over cannot be ignored.

Flanagan, an academic, commentator and former adviser to Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, was speaking to a university gathering in February 2013 when an aboriginal activist by the name of Arnell Tailfeathers loaded a question and recorded Flanagan’s answer on a mobile phone. Flanagan was asked what he thought of Canada’s tough child pornography laws that force judges to send offenders to prison, whatever their circumstances, for at least six months.

He replied: “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… It is a real issue of personal liberty to what extent we put people in jail for doing something in which they do not harm another person.”

In the middle of the fragment posted online the next day, Tailfeathers can be heard saying “gotcha Tom”. By the end of the morning Flanagan had been castigated by the PM’s office (on Twitter, naturally), and denounced and sacked as an adviser to Danielle Smith, the leader of the opposition Wildrose Party in Alberta.

CBC told him not to turn up for his regular television appearance that afternoon since the public broadcaster no longer required his services. The university he had served for more than four decades upbraided him in a crassly worded press release: “Comments made by Tom Flanagan in Lethbridge yesterday absolutely do not represent the University of Calgary.” Apparently universities, once havens of dialectical discussion and reasoned debate, now have an “official position” on matters controversial.

“If I were superhuman, maybe I could have gone out, given my side of the story,” Flanagan writes, “and helped to put a more balanced narrative in the media. But it was too late in the game for that. I was shell-shocked.”

The internet has been a godsend for the enforcers of fit and proper thinking, granting them access to an extensive back catalogue of statements by public figures, including those not addressed to a public audience. Having exposed their target in the context-free zone of social media, the moral vigilantes create the sensation of spontaneous public outrage, thus jerking the mainstream media’s chain.

“Almost everything happened online,” Flanagan says. “No one grabbed me and snarled, ‘Up against the wall, motherf. ker.’ No one put a dunce cap on my head, Cultural Revolution-style, and no one forced me to sit on a stool in front of jeering students … Everything happened through email, websites and social media (death by Twitter), leading to subsequent coverage in newspapers and on television.”

Next, in these latter-day Salem witch trials, the hapless victim will feel obliged to issue a statement regretting the offence caused by their misreported comments and condemning views they do not hold. The subsequent headline — “I’m not a wife-beater says wife-beater”, or words to that effect — encourages louder and more outrageous denunciations.

There is, however, a twist in Flanagan’s tale. While the opening salvos were fired by aboriginal activists, he was ruined by people on the Right he once imagined were his allies. “Politically correct language is almost always adopted with an eye towards entrenching unexamined premises as part of the conventional wisdom,” writes Flanagan. The conservative forces in Canada were protecting the ​doctrinal arrogance embedded in the Harper government’s anti-pornography laws. For Flanagan, the ideologues of the Right “proved just as intolerant of other opinions as ideologues of the Left”.

Irony is easily lost on YouTube, so Flanagan’s deliberate employment of the phrase “taste in pictures” in his answer to Tailfeathers is easily mistaken for flippancy. The suggestion that viewing child pornography does “no harm” is equally open to misinterpretation.

Yet the inflexibility of the ​Canadian legislation justifies Flanagan’s concerns. Child pornography is defined in the broadest possible terms. It includes both images and the written word, drawings as well as photographs. It applies whether the person portrayed is actually under 18 or is merely depicted as being under 18. It applies whether the depiction is real or imaginary. Child pornography under Canadian law arguably includes the writings of Vladimir Nabo​kov, Japanese manga cartoons, photographs of adult actors playing teenagers and impressions created by the hand of an artist.

Perhaps this reflects our heightened revulsion at crimes against children and an enlightened awareness that the pornographic representation of a minor is never a victimless crime.  On the other hand, it could be a kneejerk reactionary response to a moral crusade about which the government wants to be seen to be “doing something”. Either way, there should be room for discussion, unless we are content to surrender public policy decisions to the irascible, tweeting rabble.

Tom Flanagan, Persona non Grata: The Death of Free Speech in the Internet Age, Signal (McLelland and Stewart), Toronto, 2014.