The New Anti-Liberals

by A. A. Borovoy,
ISBN: 1551301377

Post Your Opinion
Brief Reviews - Political Theory
by Martin Loney

The race and gender wars have taken a heavy toll on the quality of intellectual debate in Canada and prompted the endorsement of some singularly illiberal ideas-not least the fashion for demanding that those whose ideas offend a burgeoning constituency of grievance groups should be silenced. Alan Borovoy, long-time general counsel of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, is an old-fashioned liberal for whom the principle of free speech cannot be parsed; but he clearly has some difficulty addressing the contemporary challenge. In The New Anti-Liberals (Canadian Scholar's Press, 191 pages, $18.95 paper, ISBN: 1-55130-137-7), Borovoy introduces his assault on the new anti-liberals by admitting his concern with the intolerant excesses of "fellow equality seekers" for more than a decade. Borovoy, however, was troubled that, by voicing his criticisms publicly, he might strengthen the position of those who oppose equality. Others on the left of the political spectrum who have been more forceful in confronting the excesses of radical feminists and their camp followers, the architects of the current malaise, might wonder what took a self-professed civil libertarian so long.

The main thrust of Borovoy's argument is directed at those, like University of Calgary Law professor Kathleen Mahoney, who argue that, when pursuing equality, certain speech must be curtailed. Borovoy quotes her observations that "an egalitarian society may be impossible to achieve when the dissemination of racist ideas is permitted... [I]f true equality is to be achieved between male and female persons, society must guard against misogynist materials". There are many problems with such proposals. Borovoy gives play to the danger that laws intended to curb one form of speech may be used against others. Limitations on pornography, for example, that would inhibit what some call demeaning or exploitative material, may be used to infringe on the freedom of gays and lesbians to access other kinds of literature. Also, there is no consensus on what might be deemed racist or sexist. The range of moral crusaders, including those defined as racist opponents of official multiculturalism or legislated employment equity, is rapidly expanding. Mahoney herself did not hesitate to refer Alberta Report to the less than gentle attentions of the province's human rights commission, following an article on residential schools that had the temerity to challenge received wisdom on their legacy. The effect of such action, whatever the official conclusion, can only be to chill free speech.

In the universities, sanctions against those who cause offence are now well entrenched. Where once those who deemed themselves progressive demanded the freedom to challenge any and all claims, no matter how disturbing to conventional wisdom and vested interests, the contemporary Zeitgeist demands the prior recognition of the immutable rights of those able to lay claim to historic or current victim status. The arbiters of offence are, of course, the self-proclaimed spokespeople for any group that has experienced putative damage. These are individuals well-practised in the art of what Salman Rushdie has aptly described as "behalfism", warning against those who set themselves up as the voice of a nation, including "nations of race, gender, sexual orientation, [and] elective affinities".

In the real world, characteristics of race, sexual preference, and gender are no predictor of uniformity of view, but such details matters little to those who make a spectacle of their compassion. Borovoy quotes the views of Queen's University feminist Sheila McIntyre: "If one genuinely supports equality, one does not react with outraged denial, resentment or a bruised ego when advised one's conduct has been experienced as oppressive by members of a class one recognizes as oppressed, one changes."

Presumably, this means that, confronted with a barrage of charges of racism and sexism, UBC's Political Science faculty should have recanted and sought reeducation, precisely the demands of the disgruntled students. There are many problems with McIntyre's position, not least the lack of agreement on who are the members of an oppressed class. Certainly an argument could be made that few are likely to be found in the Queen's Law faculty, where McIntyre teaches. University professors genuinely seeking equality might actively campaign to have their hours of work substantially increased and their pay sharply reduced, thus bringing them into a more equal relationship with other Canadians; but the kind of equality envisaged by tenured radicals is obviously of a different blend.

Borovoy offers a robust defence of free speech and the merits of defeating bad ideas in open debate. He remains wedded to the wider agenda of contemporary equality seekers who have largely lost sight of the persistent and growing inequalities of social class in their embrace of the fractious politics of group grievance. The Canadian Civil Liberties Association has intervened in a number of university disputes triggered by claims of offence, some of which are catalogued in Borovoy's book. The association has shown less willingness to confront the excesses of preferential hirers, whose dubious efforts to address supposed historic disadvantage have resulted in pervasive discrimination against able-bodied white males. 


Home First Novel Award Past Winners Subscription Back Issues Timescroll Advertizing Rates
Amazon.ca/Books in Canada Bestsellers List Books in Issue Books in Department About Us