The Globe: The C-16 Debate

Value debates that define the soul of a culture and a polity always tend to be the most vicious. Here in the United States, Americans are just as if not more aware of that fact than any other nation; with issues regarding the nature of life and the extent and meaning of rights tearing at the damaged political fabric that struggles to bind the republic.

Though it may seem that America is notable for division, these value debates are global – and a heated debate is waging to the north of the American border in Canada. Canada is no stranger to these debates; it often sees itself as the rhetorical battlefield regarding the rights of speech critical of Islam. Now, it is the home of another debate – one that will soon leak into the discussions in the United Staes.   

The issue at hand is known a bill known as C-16, which would amend the Canadian Human Rights Act. The Human Rights Act prohibits and criminalizes what is refers to as “hate propaganda” against “race, national or ethnic origin, color, religion, age, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, marital status, family status, disability” or those convicted of a crime.

What C-16 does is amend the Canadian Human Rights Act and Criminal Code to include gender identity amongst the groups protected from what the government defines as hates speech.

An example of a violation of this bill would be if an employer referred to an employee by the gender pronoun that the employee does not identify with. Also, there are the more obvious examples of intense hate speech that goes as far as to advocate violence, which is already covered under the Canadian Human Right Act and Criminal Code. Such a violation would result in fines.

The sentencing and executioners of these fines is the Canadian Court of Human Rights, which has punished those it perceives as propagating hate speech in the past – though there have been decisions overturned, as the Human Rights Court has been known to be expansive with their definition of “hate speech.”

Facts like that are why there is a faction that strongly opposes the passing of C-16. One of the strongest voices in opposition to C-16 is professor of psychology Jordan Peterson of the University of Toronto, whom believes the bill is a threat to liberty and freedom of speech. He cites the fear that accumulates by scholars and students when speaking on the issue of gender identity, and how a fear of being intellectually persecuted, both by the state and culturally, is limiting freedom of speech and is thus limiting the productivity of scholarship.

Opponents of the bill also cite previously mentioned abuses by the Canadian Human Rights Court, primarily by suggesting hate speech is often defined as whatever those on the Human Rights Court believe it to be – as it has done in the past. Peterson cites that though proponents of C-16 state that only a financial fine will be given to violators of the Bill, he points out that those conscience objectors who refuse to pay the fine (which he sates he will do) are subject to jail time. Another issue raised is the problem of the politicization of science that acceptance of C-16 might lead to.

Proponents of the C-16 do not take such a skeptical view of the Canadian government. They believe that such fears of persecution are overblown, and that the government has limited punishing capabilities under the amended Canadian Human Rifts Act and Criminal Code that C-16 provides. The proponents believe that only financial fines will be handed out for those who don’t adhere to the bill. They point out that if anything the bill is overdue, as may of Canada’s provinces have already adopted similar legislation. As one can imagine, the main argument driving the proponents of C-16 are straightforward and like other arguments for adopting legislation that seeks to protect minority groups; that is, the government has a right to protect groups sunbelt to decimation. In this circumstance, it’s those whom live at the edge of gender identity norms.

In the end, the issue regarding C-16 boils down to the defining question of the western mind; does one believe in negative or positive rights, or does one believe in negative or positive equality? This central issue has divided Western political thought since the turmoil of the French Revolution. It is not a coincidence that, at least in the United States, one who is pro-life is also highly likely to be a constitutional originalist, or one who is for extensive gun control applauded the Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage across America.

It is not a coincidence whether one might believe in free will might be more inclined to subscribe to the views of Edmund Burke, while a determinist might find comfort in the writing of Thomas Paine. If one were to ask the mentioned proponents and opponents of C-16, expect to find the opponent citing the Englishman John Locke as a favorite philosopher, while the proponents of the Human Right might cite the Genevan Rousseau. One might go as far to say that one who believes in negative rights prefer Dostoevsky, while those on the positive side would be caught reading Tolstoy - however debatable that man be.

Those whom believe in negative rights and negative equality believe in limited governmental power, the individual as the ultimate architect of his or her life, and the absolute protections of rights such as freedom of speech. Those who believe in positive rights and positive equality believe in a strong government that rights the wrongs of the world, and if that means restricting a few freedoms, then so be it.

As mentioned earlier, the debate surrounding C-16 is ultimately value debate; and like all value debates, empirical studies and perfectly good logical arguments can be presented by both sides, but it is ideas and culture that will ultimately prevail with whether one would be for or against such a bill