Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise. Former National Post & Toronto Star columnist, past vice president of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. New posts: Mondays & Wednesdays.
Climate activists have redefined the venerable concept of free speech. According to them, it means the polar opposite of what John Stuart Mill famously wrote about.
Global warming activists believe they’re on the side of the angels. They aren’t merely making the world a better place, they’re saving it from fiery destruction. Anyone who sees themselves in this virtuous light would rather not admit that the movement to which they belong is stomping all over free speech.
Welcome to the You’re in league with the devil and therefore have no right to be heard argument. It goes like this: My view of climate issues is pure and true. When I talk about these matters I’m engaging in free speech. Other climate views are evil and untrue. People who express them are spreading lies and propaganda – which isn’t free speech at all.
Exhibit #1 comes from a Greenpeace website that, for years, has dismissed any notion that climate skeptics might have a point: “Freedom of speech does not apply to misinformation and propaganda” it proclaims.
Exhibit #2 comes from DeSmogBlog.com – a website run by PR professionals who attempt to enforce climate orthodoxy. Alternative points-of-view are considered pollution, deception, and misinformation. Anyone expressing such views is in bed with the devil (fossil fuel companies) or is a brainwashed dupe doing the devil’s bidding. In DeSmogBlog’s words:
Free speech does not include the right to deceive. Deception is not a point of view. And the right to disagree does not include a right to intentionally subvert the public awareness.
DeSmogBlog’s opinions are free speech. Other views are subversion.
Exhibit #3 is a long account published at the US National Association of Scholars website, that describes the self-righteous silencing of dissent by activists who believe colleges shouldn’t buy stocks in fossil fuel companies.
Many things can be said about the You’re in league with the devil argument. First, it’s indistinguishable from religious fanaticism. Religious hardliners have a long history of citing various holy books in order to silence and oppress others. Is that who climate activists want to emulate?
Second, this approach diverges sharply from free speech tradition and scholarship. John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) was adamant that since no one is infallible, no one has the right to decide on everyone else’s behalf what is true and what is misinformation. We each have a right to hear all arguments and to make up our own minds. Similarly, in a 1992 documentary video, Noam Chomsky rejected the notion that only some ideas qualify as free speech:
If you believe in freedom of speech, you believe in freedom of speech for views you don’t like. Stalin and Hitler, for example, were dictators in favor of freedom of speech for views they liked only. If you’re in favor of freedom of speech, that means you’re in favor of freedom of speech precisely for views you despise.
By this reckoning, Greenpeace and DeSmogBlog are outright enemies of free speech. They want to deny people with whom they disagree a fundamental freedom.
Yet another problem with the You’re in league with the devil argument is that it’s counterproductive. Accusing other people of being Satan’s spawn has never been a recipe for success – not in the playground, not in the workplace, and not in intimate relationships. There’s a reason unhinged television villains behave this way.
If you truly believe the planet is in danger, why employ such tactics? What is being accomplished when climate activists emulate despots and oppressors – when they adopt an interpersonal style guaranteed to alienate people?