NDP compromises freedom to publish
Vancouver Courier
May, 5, 1996

I’m not sure, but I think it’s Ronald Reagan’s fault. At a press conference during the second half of his benighted imperium, Reagan, (or was it drug czar William Bennett?) first uttered the oxymoronic euphemism “zero tolerance.”

The context was U.S. interdiction of drugs from Colombia. In the U.S.’s invigorated war on drugs, naval forces were ordered to detain any vessel on which was found even the most minute amount of drugs. There would be “zero tolerance” for drugs entering the United States.

What concerns me here isn’t the merits or demerits of U.S. drug policy, but the expression “zero tolerance.” Think about it: to be tolerant means to put up with something or someone with which one doesn’t agree; to recognize that an absolute resolution of a problem in one’s favour is not possible. “Zero,” on the other hand does connote absoluteness: there are no shades of zero; something is or it isn’t. Thus, “zero tolerance” is an intolerant tolerance—an oxymoron.

Unlike other oxymorons, which are merely humorous—guest host, jumbo shrimp—”zero tolerance” is designed to deceive. What one really means by it is “no tolerance” or more accurately “intolerance,” but one never wants to be seen as a champion of intolerance; far better to feign defence of a positive notion, even to nullity.

However, no amount of rhetorical self-delusion can alter the fact that “zero tolerance” is the same as intolerance. So long as people in a free society allow buzzwords to pollute the language, threats to liberties can be tarted up to look respectable, even laudable, and may not be recognized for what they are.

One such threat comes from amendments in 1993 to the Human Rights Act and the new Human Rights Code (Bill 33). On the surface, they seem reasonable and democratic, but in fact they undermine our basic freedom of self-expression.

“Zero tolerance” types during the former NDP government of Mike Harcourt decided, in part, that to fight discrimination, an unelected, unaccountable board of enquiry should decide what is or is not fit to be printed or broadcast.

Bill 33 reads in part:

2. (1) No person shall publish, issue or display or cause to be published, issued or displayed any statement, publication, notice, sign, symbol, emblem or other representation that
a) indicates discrimination or an intention to discriminate against a person or group or class of persons, or
b) is likely to expose a person or a group or class of persons to hatred or contempt because of race, colour, ancestry, place of origin, religion, marital status, family status, physical or mental disability, sex, sexual orientation or age of that person or class of persons.

By opposing this act, one risks being cast as an advocate for discrimination, but the charge is simply a symptom of “zero tolerance” syndrome. First of all, all media are subject to the law as it pertains to libel and slander. However, the act does an end run around due process to make a newspaper liable for someone else’s words. Under the act, a newspaper can be held liable if a complainant convinces the board of enquiry that a letter to the editor “indicates discrimination” or “is likely” to be discriminatory.

Here at the Courier, as with all newspapers, letters are vetted for taste and legality, yet any complaint must be followed up however specious. If the board agrees with the complainant, the newspaper, not the letter writer, is liable for severe penalties. What was once decided in a court of law is now, effectively, dependent upon the caprices and biases of an unaccountable body, which alone decides what “indicates discrimination” or “is likely” to be discriminatory.

There will be, of course, those who abuse their right of free speech to propound invidious ideas and specious historical arguments, and it is doubtless to counter such abuses that these bills were drafted, but the cure is far worse than the disease. Beyond such easily identifiable people, what of those who write satire, sarcasm and artful insult? Are their deliciously poisoned pens to fall silent for fear of reprisal? The proper response for the aggrieved party or parties is to fight back in a like manner to expose the falsity of the argument in question.

It is far healthier for intolerance to be out in the open where it can be exposed to criticism and rational argument than for it to be repressed under a contrived, vague and pernicious law designed to foster the illusion of tolerance.

It is with profound unease that I see other interest groups embracing “zero tolerance” in aid of their particular crusades. In the name of tolerance we are gradually and willingly turning ourselves into linguistic cowards and inhaling the soma gas of inoffensive, shallow sentiment.

If editorial freedom can be circumscribed so arbitrarily, it won’t be long before a newspaper has to ask its readers to vet its editorials and pass judgment upon the merits of its stories.