Free Speech in the Age of Distraction

Freedom to Read Week: February 22-28, 2015.

Freedom to Read, Entry #5: author Chris Benjamin on Canada, free speech, and how bad it’s getting.

Those Charlie Hebdo guys were racist jerks. Their supposed satire was facile. They weren’t targeting the powerful with their cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad. They were poking the oppressed.

This follow-up sentence should go without saying but it never does: the fact of them being jerks doesn’t excuse their murders or make it any small crime. But their murders don’t excuse re-writing their history, spinning their goon-squad picture-making into high culture or commentary, either.

The political and public response to the Charlie Hebdo massacre has orbited around the idea of free speech, coaxed along by a general sense of cultural supremacy. The mood can best be summed up by a phrase I first heard on a Greyhound bus in California in October 2001: “They hate our freedom.”

That this sentiment is bullshit seems obvious enough, yet the supple bullshit has taken hold, or rather spin doctors have somehow taken hold of it and fed it to the expensively educated all the way up the political and cultural hierarchy, and those influencers at the top now espouse versions of it regularly.

Canada’s Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, took full advantage of the massacre to remind us of the chronic, perpetual need to fight off — with bombs and soldiers — attacks on our freedom. “Canada and its allies will not be intimidated and will continue to stand firmly together against terrorists who would threaten the peace, freedom and democracy our countries so dearly value,” he said in an official statement [emphasis added].

One might assume that one of the freedoms to which he was referring is the freedom of speech, given the victims’ line of work. But this statement comes from the leader of a government that has done everything in its power to keep the Canadian public from talking about anything that might threaten its neo-liberal capitalist ideology.

Tom Brady throwing a spiral, posted because it’s more dynamic a picture than Stephen Harper obfuscating basic human rights.

Harper’s government controls its “messages,” that is, spins its information, more tightly than a Tom Brady spiral, more tightly than any other government in our nation’s history.

Several years ago I wrote about how this government has gone to great lengths to muzzle its own scientists. Not only has it drastically cut funding of any science policy or initiative not geared directly toward expanding industry, it has forbidden its scientists from speaking in public or to the media without a spin doctor present. For a journalist, getting a scoop involving government scientists requires more legwork than Woodward, Bernstein, and Deep Throat put into breaking Watergate.

At the risk of repeating myself: our elected federal Ministers of Parliament, who we pay to serve and lead us, are actively withholding the scientific data generated by federal government employees (who we also pay).


Well, much of that data warns us that our current path – that neo-liberal capitalist one – is leading us directly into the worst shit-storm our species will ever know. Total climate chaos, massive human (and other species) die-offs. We won’t speak any more of standard of living, but rather degree of dying. You know, the kind of existence-threatening crisis we expect our leaders to lead us through. Or at least try.

Instead, our government covers its ears, and the mouths of scientists and citizens. Then it turns around and says it will not let terrorists threaten our freedom.


George Orwell wrote prophetically of political newspeak, created by a totalitarian state to limit free thinking and speaking. And we’ve seen this play out over the decades since he wrote 1984. But, three decades beyond the real 1984, we’ve seen corporations do the bulk of the heavy newspeak lifting.

Public relations professionals in private and public sectors soldier through the information war, filtering as much of the information as possible to offer the best reflections of gargantuan organizations controlling our collective wealth and fates. We are, aside from the occasional irate post online, mostly passive absorbers of this misinformation, trying to make sense of it all.

On the flipside, Aldous Huxley wrote of citizens pacified by pills and other diversions. That’s about right. We’re so distracted we don’t even notice we’re distracted. We are bombarded with regular reports of one health crisis or another, the latest “silent killer.” But what of our near-universal screen addiction, with so many screens to choose from?

Patrice Lumumba, Congolese independence leader, first democratically elected Prime Minister of the Republic of the Congo.

The irony is: we’ve got information hooked to our veins and we’re more interested in who killed Rita Morgan than who killed Patrice Lumumba. The biggest threat to free speech is perhaps our unwillingness to use it.


David North wrote an in-depth explanation/exploration on why the “Je suis Charlie” meme was a purely western phenomenon. The answer, in short, is that the rest of the world, despite abhorring the massacre, refused to say, “I am a racist cartoonist” or “I delight in slandering the oppressed.”

There are more noble uses for what powers of free speech we do have than works like those of Charlie Hebdo. But these deeper uses often require remarkable courage, speaking out in the face of public backlash, violence or loss of status and smearing of reputation. One must also do the hard work of digging for hidden or little-discussed facts, truths that may actually make us freer, information that richer, more powerful people would rather not reveal or discuss.

We are, at least, free to attempt that work. But that freedom is too suppressed by an endlessly entertaining array of lights depicting lives more fabulous than our own. In turn we express ourselves in truncated online branding exercises – sometimes dozens a day – projecting flattering images of ourselves from powerful hand-held computers, bolstering our own identities but doing little else to make us truly free.

Chris Benjamin is a freelance journalist and author. His latest book is Indian School Road: Legacies of the Shubenacadie Residential School, winner of the Dave Greber Freelance Book Prize. His Eco-Innovators: Sustainability in Atlantic Canada won the 2012 Best Atlantic-Published Book Award and was a finalist for the Richardson Non-Fiction Prize. His novel Drive-by Saviours won the H.R. Percy Prize and made the Canada Reads Top Essential Books List. Chris has written for a long list of magazines and newspapers, including The Globe and Mail, Science Friday, Z Magazine, Canadian Dimension, This Magazine, Briarpatch, and The Coast. Chris has also published short stories in literary journals, magazines and anthologies such as Descant, Nashwaak Review, and Fierce Ink. Chris has lived and worked in Toronto, British Columbia, St. Lucia, Finland, Indonesia, and Ghana. His current home is Halifax.