Sarah Braasch, bless her cotton socks, is the self-styled social justice warrior who recently got herself driven out of a doctoral program at Yale by her pitchfork-wielding fellow students, and brutally pummeled in social media, for having called the cops on a black student for being where she had every right to be.

The world is not always kind to those who can’t quite live up to their own ideals.

But that’s an old saw, and I turned in my own pitchfork years ago.

Instead what I want to blog about here are two opinion pieces that Braasch contributed some time earlier, one to the Humanist and another to Daylight Atheism, on the Patheos site, in which she advocated a worldwide ban on the burqa. The Humanist has recently deleted her post for its racist content – of which there was none, but that hardly matters once the mob is intent on a lynching – whereas Patheos, to its credit, stuck to its mandate to post arguable arguments. Here, at the risk of incurring a charge equivalent to distributing child pornography, are the URLs for both: and

Braasch’s case for the burqa ban was not the first time she revealed herself as perhaps not the sharpest pencil in the box. But though the argument is flawed, it’s by no means stupid. Nor is it in any way racist. The pitchforkers who think it is just don’t know how to parse an argument.

Which, to be fair, requires training they simply don’t have. This is why only at one’s peril does a philosopher – in her case an aspiring one – advance an argument in the public forum. For the hoi polloi the unit of meaning is the sound-bite, not the sentence, so a ‘not’ can go entirely unnoticed. One dare not use irony, or speak in voce. So in failing to anticipate the literacy level of her readership, Braasch has no one to blame but herself.

That was irony, by the way. There is no way to outsmart the stupidity of stupid people.

Fortunately, unlike Braasch, I can get away with in voce, irony, and embedded negations. This is because I’m tenured, and I’m in the autumn of my career. I figure if you’re too stupid to follow any of the arguments I’ve made on these blog entries, well, in the words of Rhett Butler, “Quite frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn!”

This is not to say tenured professors can’t get into trouble. A certain Tony Hall was recently railroaded out of the University of Lethbridge for suggesting that the job of the historian is to revisit what happened, which, at the urging of a certain Goldie Morgentaler in the English Department, and B’nai Brith Canada, was interpreted – go figure! – as Holocaust denial.

So how does an historian or philosopher go about doing his job? I guess by speaking only to other historians or philosophers. But that leaves the widow to wonder why she’s paying the mite she can ill-afford to this navel-gazing echo-chamber. So we really are damned if we do and damned if we don’t. Braasch did and got damned for it. If she’d kept her pen in its quiver she’d have been fine. So note to all would-be bloggers. Be careful what you write because somebody might actually read it!

Okay, enough throat clearing. Let’s look at her argument.

To her credit Braasch does not hang her case on the burqa being a symbol of Islamic misogyny, though she clearly thinks it is. She may think she’s qualified to pronounce on what’s being symbolized by the practices of others, but she knows perfectly well that for the law to so presume, well, this way there be dragons!

Nor does she argue that the wearing of the burqa is intended to thwart the capacity of the rest of us to know who we’re interacting with. After all, such asymmetry of knowledge would empower women, not disempower them, and Braasch is all for the empowerment of women.

Rather what she argues is that, even if only as an autonomous effect, the burqa does thwart the capacity of the rest of us to know who we’re interacting with. And, she seems to think, the rest of us have a right to know who we’re interacting with.

We wouldn’t have the right to ban the burqa if doing so would violate a competing right that would trump our right to know who we’re interacting with. Suppose, for example, that the very sight of a woman’s face would drive any and every man to rape. Then a woman’s right not to be raped would clearly trump our right to know who we’re interacting with. But, she argues – quite rightly, I think – not that there couldn’t be such a trump card, but that as a matter of fact there isn’t. For example, the right to practice one’s religion does not entitle one to deprive her child of a life-saving blood transfusion, nor to mutilate the genitalia of one’s pre-pubescent daughters. So, to paraphrase Braasch, Jehovah Witnesses and Somali Moslems, if they want to live in anything even marginally resembling a civil society, are just going to have to suck it up!

So given that she’s premising her argument on “the public’s right to know”, so to speak, Braasch acknowledges that the ban would have to apply to face covering in general, rather than the burqa in particular. Fair enough, say I. But do we always have a right to know who we’re interacting with? In some contexts, like making an over-the-counter withdrawal from a bank, certainly. But when blind-refereeing a paper for publication in a journal? Just as certainly not.

On the one hand, I like this end-run around the First Amendment. Instead of banning the KKK for their views we ban them for their hoods. Smooth! But hold on. In the final scene of the film V for Vendetta, thousands upon thousands of people march on the Houses of Parliament wearing Guy Fawkes masks. Why? Because under the regime being demonstrated against, being identified invites arrest, followed no doubt by something worse. Braasch seems to be insisting that oppressed people either suffer the courage of their convictions or continue to cower in their hovels. So what could she be hoping? That the very government that imposed the ban in the first place would lift it for, but only for, the purposes of its own overthrow? Defenders of the Second Amendment argue that the first thing a would-be tyrant will go after is our guns. They’re wrong. It’ll be our anonymity. And as Thomas Hobbes observed, surveillance is invariably the very first act of war.

So much for the premise that we have a right to know who we’re interacting with. But suppose, however reluctantly, that premise is granted. Now let’s consider the exceptions Braasch would have to countenance, and see what if anything would be left.

Start off with people who need to cover their faces not to hide their identity but to protect themselves or others. Me when it’s minus forty with a wind chill of minus sixty. Sunglasses. Pollution masks. Welders. Health care workers. Swat teams. All exempt.

People who can invoke the artistic defense, however widely construed. Actors in Greek tragedies. Clowns. Mascots. Santa. Mardi Gras. Kids out trick-or-treating on Halloween. All exempt.

Now let’s move on to costume parties and sex clubs. And what about people with severe facial disfigurements? And I’m pretty sure there’s a thousand more I haven’t thought of.

So who’s left? Moslem women who elect to wear the burqa, and Haerdi women who elect to wear the frumka. Well now, fancy that!

But it gets worse. Covering the face is not the only way one can disguise it. And disguising the face is not the only way one can thwart identification. Cognitive psychologists who work on understanding our facial recognition protocols – protocols naturally selected for given the centrality to our survival of being able to distinguish friend from foe at a distance – have told us that hairline is one of the first things we look at. So no covering the hair. Face painting. Highly questionable. Makeup, but not too much. Body shape. So the muumuu is out. Apparently even your gait can either give you away or disguise you. So, at the risk of flogging a dead horse, if the justification for the ban is the facilitation of identification, the argument proves too much.

Braasch makes the standard undergraduate mistake of hand-waving about how these exceptions are to be accommodated. How exactly would the law be written so I could wear a balaclava when it’s minus forty with a wind chill of minus sixty? Or is her claim that there’s no need to be identified when it’s that cold because no one thinks of misbehaving?

No, Sarah, hand-waving won’t do. If prosecution were left to the discretion of the police and conviction to that of the courts, we’d be back to banning the burqa qua burqa, which is precisely what she claims she doesn’t want to do.

In The Concept of Law H.L.A. Hart argues that hard cases make for bad law. He was wrong. It’s bad law if it can’t handle the hard cases. So if a law can’t be written to do what we want it to do – in this case facilitate identification – without doing what we don’t want it to do – namely fill our emergency rooms every February with victims of frostbite – then we’re simply going to have to live with what I’m sure will be a spate of bank robbers making it from the getaway van to the front door by masquerading as Somali immigrants.

But look. I am not among those accusing Braasch of being a racist or an Islamophobe. Neither then, would I expect her to accuse me, in offering the following counterproposal, of being a sexist pig. Instead of banning the burqa tout court, I propose the compulsory wearing of the burqa for, but only for, women who are, let’s face it, just butt ugly. That way if she’s wearing a burqa I won’t waste my time hitting on her. But when, and only when, it comes to women I would hit on, then I’m with Braasch. Thus understood, and only thus understood, her argument is a good one. It just needs to be, as just noted, a tad more fine-tuned.






Why is it that some truths have to be learned over and over and over again? I suppose it’s because they’re just too hard to believe. I learned about fifteen years ago that many of the people I work with don’t share what I thought were the values we all share, because, well, surely we must! It turns out not that they don’t share my values. It’s that I don’t share theirs.

The difference between these seemingly equivalent propositions is who’s the odd man out. Turns out I am. So the question is not why they don’t share my values. It’s why I don’t share theirs. And the answer is I was just wrong about the values of the institution I was joining.

So about fifteen years ago – borrowing from Pierre Elliott Trudeau – I took what I call my “walk in the snow”. Like Trudeau, I could have resigned and found something else to do with the rest of my life. But why? Why not just do the job I thought I’d signed up for, and instead of trying to browbeat others into joining me, just leave them to their own devices? Which, to be fair, they’ve by and large left me to mine. It’s a resolution that’s not always easy to stick to. My own idiosyncratic values keep getting in the way. But it’s like any other resolution. Falling short is no excuse to stop trying.

Still, these occasional lapses are God-given opportunities, if only I’d take them, to rethink who needs to do the rethinking. I thought my colleagues didn’t understand there are solutions to collective action problems. As it turns out I didn’t understand that they don’t think these are actions that need to be taken in the first place.

Examples are legion, but the most recent has been the attack on academic freedom exemplified by the Tony Hall case. Tony is – I guess I should now say was – a colleague down the hall and around two corners. Tony’s an affable enough fellow, but not, perhaps, the sharpest pencil in the box. Tony is convinced 9/11 was an Israeli false flag operation.

Well, say I, that would be grounds to believe we Jews really are the most clever people on the planet. As if the official story wasn’t caper enough!

But apparently I’m the odd man out here. Most people, including Tony, view this charge as a criticism of the State of Israel. And apparently any criticism of the State of Israel is anti-Semitism, and so, by associative implicature, 9/11 Trutherism is Holocaust-denial.

Once again, odd man out. I just don’t get these connections.

In any event, the Zionist lobby seized upon this ‘indiscretion’ – and who could blame them? – to make Tony the standard bearer for everything up with which no publicly funded university should put, and demanded his immediate dismissal. The Administration – acting, as I say, on values I alone don’t share – acceded to this demand. The invertebrate faculty association came to Tony’s token defense, a war of attrition dragged on for almost two years, and finally, having taken its intended toll, Tony retired.

And all this time, like a fool, I was trying to come to Tony’s defense. Why? Because I thought at least he shared with me the value of academic freedom. Turns out that wasn’t it at all. Turns out for him it was his crusade against the neocons he’s convinced are ruling the world, not his right to crusade against them.

So now I just feel foolish. I understand that people get tired, especially people Tony’s and my age. That’s one of the reasons I’d long since resolved never to enter a fight I don’t have the stamina to win. And I’ve never wavered from that resolution. But the lesson I keep having to learn, over and over and over again, is never enter a fight for or along side an ally who hasn’t adopted a similar resolution.

Don Quixote never did figure out he was tilting at windmills. I suppose that was his blessing.


Much as I’d sometimes like to be, I’m not a knee-jerk civil libertarian. I understand that the maintenance – and before that the promotion – of a civil society sometimes requires limits to freedom of movement, of association, of expression, even of thought. But I want to see if I can draw some lines here, beyond which state interference with some of these freedoms undermines rather than protects the kind of society we want.

I could include in this analysis interference authored by agents other than the state, for example an LGBT group shouting down a homophobic speaker. But I’m going to leave that kind of thing outside my analysis, not because being shouted down can’t sometimes be even more silencing than governmental censorship, but because the most one can do is entreat these viglante would-be censors to let the man have his say. That is, one can hardly protect freedom of speech by violating the freedom to protest what’s being spoken.

What we can try to do, of course, is make attendance at certain events conditional upon respect for certain protocols, as we do, for example, in a university classroom. “If you’re not going to allow the speaker to speak,” we might say, “you won’t be allowed in the door. And if you flout these conditions you’ll be forcibly removed from the hall.” But this hasn’t proven all that effective, has it? Protesters see to it that the commotion of their removal does as much to silence the speaker as would just letting them shout him down.

We certainly don’t want speakers preaching only to the converted. We want to be proselytized to. We just have no practical way – neither in the town square nor in church – to silence those who would silence the preacher. So as I say, the best we can do is entreat. We’ll listen respectfully to what you have to say if but only if, mutatis mutandis, you do likewise.

So that said – and that’s really all that can be said about this kind of vigilante censorship – let me start with the actual case that’s set me on this exercise.

* * *

Down the hall and around two corners, I have a colleague named Tony Hall, who’s publicly and insistently conjectured that 9/11 – and pretty much every terrorist attack since – has been the false flag operation of the Israeli government, and/or of Israel’s not-so-rogue neocon allies within the American government. I say ‘conjectured’ because even he admits he doesn’t have the smoking gun. He’s just – how shall I put this? – a tad more latitudinarian in his inferencing than most pundits would allow themselves. So needless to say Tony bears the brunt of a lot of eye-rolling, a goodly share of it, I confess, from me.

Actually I should have said I had a colleague down the hall, because on October 4th of last year, the President of the University of Lethbridge, one Mike Mahon – in a lame attempt to I know not what, but I’m guessing it was to protect the University from the embarrassment of Tony’s online idiocies – took it upon himself to suspend Tony from any and all of his duties and privileges.

Of course in so doing Mahon has incurred far more embarrassment for the University, his action having attracted the censure of pretty much every academic in the country. At the end of the day heads will roll, and one of them won’t be Tony’s.

Now then, I’m not asking whether Mahon thought he was within his rights – perhaps even duty bound – to do what he did. Nor whether he was within his legal rights, as defined by the collective agreement between the University and the Faculty Association. That issue will eventually be resolved in court. And, in the highly unlikely event the court sides with Mahon – which it won’t – it’ll be resolved by the political action of members of faculty, myself included, who’ll take whatever measures necessary to put an end to Mahon’s presidency. Rather I’m asking the philosophical question of whether the likes of Tony Hall should be silenced for the likes of what he’s publicly and insistently conjectured.

The obvious answer is no. And in this case the obvious answer is the right one. Tony is an historian. Not a very good one, perhaps, but an historian nonetheless. It’s his job to challenge the received view of history. Not only in so doing is he protected by his role as an academic, but he’s protected as well by the Supreme Court of Canada’s ruling in Zundel (1992), which was that what was then s. 181 of the Criminal Code pertaining to the spreading of false information, was unconstitutional. It was ruled unconstitutional for a number of reasons, not the least of which being that the Court did not consider itself – and so a fortiori not any inferior court – competent to pronounce on matters of historicity.

The court could have – and in fact some courts have – taken (what’s called) ‘judicial notice’ of some fact or other, historical or otherwise. But the taking of judicial notice – at least under British common law – does not preclude a defendant from challenging that notice. In other jurisdictions – the ones you and I rightly condemn – such a challenge is itself a criminal offense. But I’m assuming – I know, assuming makes an ‘ass’ of ‘u’ and ‘me’ – that we don’t want to join those jurisdictions.

By contrast, in Keegstra (1990), the same court ruled that s. 319 of the Criminal Code pertaining to the incitement of hatred, is constitutional. The distinction, then, is between

1) challenging some received fact –

which you and I agree is to be if not encouraged then at least tolerated – and

2) incitement to physical harm, or even, in some cases, mere deprecation –

which we think is actionable, provided such action isn’t overridden by its invasiveness.

But this is where things get tricky. Prohibition against physical harm is clearly among the conditions sine qua non any civil society. And so since, as Thomas Hobbes observed, “a man’s actions proceedeth from his opinions.” – well duh, why else would one bother to have opinions?! – incitement to physical harm is actionable as well.

Well sure, provided such incitement has a demonstrable track record for inducing such harm. For example, I’ve joked with my students that we should kill all Scots, my argument being, “Rolled oats in sheep gut? Gee, doesn’t that sound yummy?!” But this is not incitement. Neither is telling them that all Mexicans are rapists, because it’s clear I’m just making mock of Donald Trump. But telling some people in this town, even if only tongue in cheek, that we should’ve exterminated the Blackfoot rather than signed treaties with them, could have consequences both reasonably foreseeable and serious. Fortunately prosecutors understand the role of context, and if they don’t judges do. So in Canada at least, political correctness has yet to put the kibosh on humour, as it’s done in some more ‘enlightened’ jurisdictions.

* * *

But deprecation is a trickier matter. It’s true that we live in a symbolic universe. Names can hurt me, in some cases far worse than sticks and stones. As the Court ruled in Butler (1992), upholding s. 163 of the Criminal Code pertaining to the purveying of pornography, there need be no preponderance of evidence that pornography increases the likelihood of sexual assault. It’s sufficient that it undermines the perception of women’s equality. By parity of reasoning, then, under s. 319 a court needn’t find that anti-Semitism threatens a Jew’s physical safety. (After all, that would require there’d been a history of convictions for racially motivated assault where that racism was incited by the activities of people like the accused currently in the dock.) Rather the court need only find that the racial incitement in question undermines the perception of Jews as citizens in as good standing as anyone else.

Fair enough. But the law against incitement to deprecation has a prima facie strange logic to it. Nothing in the criminal code stops me from deprecating you for being you. “That So-and-So, she’s such a bitch!” Not actionable. Nor does it stop me from inciting others to deprecate you for being you. “Don’t hang out with that bitch!” Not actionable. Nor does it stop me from deprecating you because of your race. “Those damn niggers, always suckling from the public tit!” Not actionable. It only stops me from inciting others to deprecate you because of your race. And this might seem odd. If it’s illegal to incite deprecating you because of your race – because, presumably, it undermines the perception of your equal standing – why isn’t it illegal just to deprecate you because of your race?

The answer is as simple as it is instructive. It’s simply too invasive to criminalize my privately deprecating you because you’re a ‘bitch’, or because you’re a ‘nigger’. But because incitement is, by definition, a public act, a) it’s more likely to be a multiplier of harm, and b) it can more readily and less invasively be monitored.

Are these defensible considerata? Of course they are. But the trickiness remains. For surely we don’t want to say – and in fact we don’t say – that every group is to be protected from being publicly deprecated. After all, some groups, like the Westboro Baptist Church, deserve to be. And the public deprecation of others, like the KKK or the Neo-Nazis, might actually be needed for the maintenance of the kind of civil society we want.

It goes without saying that we can with impunity publicly deprecate those who cannot publicly deprecate with impunity. Otherwise no judge could wag a finger at the Neo-Nazi or KKK member she’d just convicted of a hate crime. And it would seem too, then, that we can publicly deprecate with impunity those who themselves publicly deprecate with impunity, like the ‘fag-hating’ Westboro Baptist Church. And because we fag-lovers can with impunity publicly deprecate them, they can likewise with impunity publicly deprecate not just ‘fags’ but also us.

And this strikes us as only fair, notwithstanding that in publicly deprecating them, we clearly intend to undermine their standing as equals in the community. So, it would seem that, as in Orwell’s Animal Farm, all animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others. You can’t with impunity publicly deprecate me for being Jewish, but with impunity I can – and regularly do – publicly deprecate you for your Christian fundamentalism.

Is there some principle that can ground this asymmetry? Or is it simply the product of history and clout?

Needless to say, I’d like to say the former. And I’m certainly going to give it a try. But at the end of the day this might turn out to be one of those don’t-ask-don’t-tell kind of questions. Let’s see.

* * *

If the asymmetry lies anywhere, surely it lies in the distinction between challenge and ridicule, or rather ridicule as instrumental to challenge and ridicule as an end in itself. If you want to challenge my Judaism, you might to that end, and rightly so, ridicule it. Even God knows it’s a ridiculous religion! But mocking to no purpose other than ridicule the (even more clearly ridiculous) way some Orthodox Jews dress and comport themselves, is another matter entirely. Likewise, then, to point to the unsustainability of Christian biblical literalism is precisely what I do and should do in my Phil of Religion classes. But telling Christ-on-the-Cross jokes – some of which, c’mon, admit it, really are hilarious – I only do in private.

Likewise only in private do I tell Holocaust jokes. But Amy Shumer told one on stage. Does the fact that she’s Jewish mean that she’s allowed? If so, then so would I be.

But jokes told by Jews about Jews, or blacks about blacks, don’t challenge anything. They certainly don’t challenge stereotypes. In fact they depend on them. So why are they allowed, indeed welcomed? Because they’re designed to endear ourselves to ourselves and others. And that’s precisely why they work. But the same joke told by a gentile or a white has a very different meaning.

The question, then, is whether we can take our understanding of racial self-mockery and import it into our jurisprudence. And the answer seems to be that we can. A white man asking “Why can’t these inner city blacks speak English?!” falls short of inciting hatred of blacks, but asking “Why don’t they get a job?” or “Why don’t black men take care of their own children?” is getting close. For the issue, remember, is not incitement to physical violence, like “We just need to kill all them niggers!” It’s whether such publicly posed rhetorical questions deprecate black men. And arguably they do.

Similarly, then, asking “Why don’t those Hasidic Jews snip those ridiculous ringlets?” – they’re called ‘payot’, by the way – is not a challenge to the Orthodox interpretation of Leviticus 19:27. Most people who ask this question have never read Leviticus. Nor, for that matter, any of the Hebrew Bible. In fact it’s not a question at all. It’s a remark. And that remark is not that Hasidic Jews are ridiculous. (They are, by the way, but that’s not what’s being said.) The way my dog sometimes sleeps on her back is ridiculous. Payot are not. My dog’s posture symbolizes nothing. Payot symbolize a rejection of the gentile aesthetic, and so by implication everything else gentile. They are a “Fuck you!” to everyone who’s not of the tribe. They may not be intended that way. But every Hasidic knows perfectly well that’s how it’s taken. So if Hasidim can with impunity publicly hate gentiles – and they do! – why can’t gentiles with impunity publicly hate Hasidim? Well, they do too. And we allow it.

So, it would seem, gratuitous ridicule is not the marker we’re looking for in determining actionability. We need something else.

* * *

One question we might ask is whether there might be something doctrinal to a religion – or other ideology – that entitles us to our hatred of it. So, for example, Hasidic Jews are not going to go war to defend their host country from its enemies. So we can with impunity hate, and advocate hate, against any group that rejects our civic values. And this, presumably, would include immigrants who would have themselves and us governed by Sharia law.

Note that we’re not challenging their fidelity to Sharia law, so it’s not our being critical of it. And yet hatred of Moslems for wanting to be thus governed is likewise non-actionable. So, as it turns out, contrary to my original conjecture, we needn’t appeal to the notion of challenge to immunize ourselves from a charge of hate speech.

In fact my suspicion is that asking what we need to appeal to for such immunity is asking the wrong question. Rather we should be asking what the government needs to appeal to to withdraw that immunity from us. And the answer, I suspect, is the one proffered by Hobbes in support of his Sixth Power of the Sovereign. To explain:

From the most conservative to the most liberal, all philosophers of law are of a mind that all is permitted save what is prohibited. There’s a very simple reason for this. There isn’t enough ink the universe, let alone on the planet, to write down all the things we can do. Moreover, from the most conservative to the most liberal, all philosophers of law are of a mind that the state must have a reason to prohibit the behaviour it prohibits. Where they differ is over what can count as such a reason. John Stuart Mill thinks the state should only interfere to prevent harm to others. John Locke thinks it should confine itself to enforcing the natural law. And Thomas Hobbes thinks it’s whatever it takes to maintain the peace. That Mill and Locke are wrong and Hobbes is right I take to be a duh. So I’m entitled to move on to …

But if, as Hobbes thinks, the question is what’s likely to keep the peace and what’s likely to disrupt it, then we needn’t appeal to any ‘principles’ whatsoever. It’s a purely empirical question, and as such it could vary from place to place and from time to time. For example, I don’t challenge haggis, I ridicule it. But we could imagine circumstances – could we not? – under which such ridicule would constitute actionable deprecation. Imagine that Scotland secedes from England, as well it might, over Brexit. A bloody war ensues. A highly fragile peace agreement is reached. Then my comments about haggis might not be so funny any more.

If this is right – and I think it is – then the question we have to ask is not whether Tony Hall’s saddling the Israelis with all these attacks is likely to cause hared of Jews. I’m a very hateful person. I hate all kinds of people. But I’m not going to go to war against any of them. Nor am I even going to publicly deprecate them. I’m just going to silently seethe. No harm in that. And, say all three of Mill and Locke and Hobbes, no harm no foul.

So rather the question has to be whether saddling the Israelis with all these attacks is likely to cause either physical harm to Jews-qua-Jews, or at least deprecation of Jews-qua-Jews, as distinct from physical harm and/or deprecation of those putatively involved in these attacks. But surely those who are involved, assuming they are, should be punished, or at the very least deprecated. So the charge against Hall has got to be either that a) these people are being falsely accused by him, and therefore unjustly exposed to violence or deprecation, or else b) whether falsely accused or not, his accusations are exposing them to vigilante justice or deprecation.

But neither of these charges against Hall makes any sense. No one could be charged with 9/11 without first being suspected of it. And the police hold no monopoly on suspicion. Nor on publicizing their suspicions. And besides, who exactly is being exposed to violence or deprecation by Hall publicizing his suspicions? Presumably the government of Israel. But surely every government on the planet exposes itself to violence or deprecation. That just goes with the territory of being a government.

Of course every government on the planet makes it a criminal offence to commit violence and/or incite violence against it. It would be an odd government indeed that didn’t. But so far as I know, Hall hasn’t advocated violence against the Israeli government. And even if he had, advocating violence against the Israeli government is not an offense here in Canada. In some countries, by the way – North Korea, China, Turkey, to name just a few – it’s also a criminal offense to deprecate the government. But I don’t think we’d want to express our solidarity with these regimes by going after Hall on their behalf for deprecating them.

So when all is said and done, it strikes me that the case against Hall is dead in the water. It’s dead in the water not because s. 319 of the Criminal Code, Canada’s hate speech law, is incoherent. It’s dead in the water because Hall hasn’t contravened it and, given his particular beef, which is political rather than racial, he couldn’t contravene it if he tried.


I made a stab at this in my blog in an earlier post entitled “Holocaust Denial and Anti-Semitism”. Since that post, an internal investigation of an internal complaint against Tony Hall has exonerated him, and the Administration’s complaint against him to the Alberta Human Rights Commission has been rejected, both pretty much on the same grounds I laid out in that post. But now I want to go a tad deeper into the issue. Not the issue of denying the Holocaust or of being an anti-Semite. On those scores I’ll stand by what I said in that earlier post. Rather what I want to know is this: Assuming I wanted to deny the Holocaust or reveal myself as an anti-Semite, how would I go about it?

Being that I’m Jewish it’s unlikely I’d want to – though there are Jews who would and have. Rather I’m asking because – see that earlier post – my colleague is being accused of both, and I want to know if there’s any way – any way at all – that accusation could stick.

To this end I want to grant to his accusers everything that can be granted, beginning with the concept of conversational implicature.

Suppose you ask whether I think it’s going to rain tomorrow and I answer, “Is the pope Catholic?” Have I asserted that it’s going to rain? Yes I have. That’s because “Is the pope Catholic?” is an expression we use to say yes to whatever question was just asked.

Suppose you ask whether so-and-so is attractive, and I answer that she has a wonderful personality. Have I changed the subject? No I have not. I’ve answered your question in the negative. To claim afterwards that I never said she was ugly would be disingenuous. I did say it, even though I didn’t ‘say’ it. One can say without ‘saying’. In fact one can say without ‘saying’ anything at all.

But to know that “Is the pope Catholic?” means yes to whatever question was just asked requires that one be party to that convention. By this I don’t mean one must think it’s a good convention. Some overly devout Catholic might think it’s disrespectful to the pope. All I mean is that one is aware that the convention is in place. So if I answer a question with “Is the pope Catholic?”, I know perfectly well that I’ve just answered in the affirmative to the question that was just asked.

But it’s not always easy – is it? – to know what conventions are in place, or at least what conventions are taken to be in place by one’s interlocutors. For example, a couple of U.S. elections back, I was surprised to learn that Democrats take “New York values”, when spoken by a Republican, to be code for Jewish values. And I suspect it came as a surprise to a lot of Republicans as well. And so the question naturally arises: Are we accountable for what was said, or for what was heard?

Certainly in the case of “Is the pope Catholic?” and “She has a wonderful personality!”, what was said and what was heard are one in the same. But what about “The Holocaust, like every event in history, should be open to new research, and our understanding of it open to revision.”? In the same way that Democrats take “New York values” to be code for Jewish values, some Jews – and apparently, with a little urging, some of their gentile supporters too – take that statement as code for “The Holocaust is a Zionist myth!” And one of the to-be-made-explicit premises underpinning Tony’s accusers’ argument is going to be that Tony knew this. Or if not, then – like the reasonable man on the Clapham omnibus – he should have known it, and therefore what he said – said without scare quotes – was that “The Holocaust is a Zionist myth!”

Let’s suppose, however implausibly, that they’re right. Not about Tony saying that the Holocaust is a Zionist myth, but that the convention is in place and that Tony should have known it. How, then, could Tony say that “The Holocaust, like every event in history, should be open to new research, and our understanding of it open to revision.” and mean that the Holocaust, like every event in history, should be open to new research, and our understanding of it open to revision!? If his accusers don’t want our understanding of the Holocaust to be open to revision, then they’ll decide that any way of saying it will be code for “The Holocaust is a Zionist myth!” And that’s precisely what they’ve decided. It’s a great trick, if anyone’s stupid enough to let them get away with it. And apparently some people are that stupid. Let’s just hope no judge is among them.

But now let’s suppose, albeit counterfactually, that Tony had said – and by said I mean said – that the Holocaust is a Zionist myth. How exactly does this count as hate speech? What would have to be shown – and this is an empirical matter – is not that Holocaust denial is associated with hatred towards Jews – that, I think, can be granted – but that it causes hatred towards Jews. And this would require an experiment involving some kind of control group. Take a non-biased sampling of a hundred people, disabuse half of them of the historicity of the Holocaust – including, if you like, that it was a Zionist invention to guilt the world into backing what would become the State of Israel – and see whether they, but not the control group, begin to exhibit signs of hating Jews. My guess is that most of the disabused group will be gobsmacked by the brilliance of the subterfuge, just as I would be if I were convinced that 9/11 was the work of Mossad.

In a world of realpolitik, the exposure of subterfuge has never of itself been grounds for hatred. At most it adds insult to what’s already regarded as an injury. So no, Holocaust denial may be a consequence of anti-Semitism, but it can’t be the cause of it. So even if Tony were denying the Holocaust – whatever that might mean – that would not constitute hate speech.

All right, so Tony’s off the hook vis a vis his alleged Holocaust denial. But what about dumping 9/11 – and the lion’s share of the little 9/11’s that followed in its wake – on Mossad?

As often as not Tony’s trutherisms are expressed as conjectures rather than assertions. But as we did earlier, let’s grant, for the sake of argument, that conjecture can be taken as code for assertion. So by conversational implicature, Tony has accused agents of the State of Israel of murdering thousands upon thousands of noncombatants in the furtherance of the interests of that state.

But hang on a minute. I make the same assertion every day. Well, okay, maybe not every day. But certainly whenever the subject comes up. I’ve made the same assertion, mutatis mutandis – and I’m hardly alone in these accusations – about the United States, about England, about France, about El Salvador, about Myanmar, about Syria … In fact pretty much about every state in the world. So clearly there must be more to hate speech than the banal observation that rulers of countries sometimes feel a need to kill people, people both outside the country they rule and within it.

Some of these accusations will turn out to be false. But the spreading of false information, other than in the service of fraud, is for very good reason not an actionable offence, at least not in Canada. And even if it were, the onus would be on the state – or in Canada the Crown – to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that Mossad wasn’t involved in 9/11. And how could it do that? It couldn’t. Even if some Israeli agent was acquitted in a court of law, that would show not that he was innocent, but only that there was insufficient evidence to convict.

So if Tony is guilty of hate speech, the truth or falseness of his various trutherisms is irrelevant. What’s needed is the connection between claiming malfeasance on the part of the Israeli government and promoting hatred of Jews, in a way that claiming malfeasance on the part of, say, the American government, does not constitute the promotion of the hatred of Americans, the latter being, of course, ridiculous. That is, heaven forefend we should think that criticism of a government is criticism of its citizens. On the contrary, don’t we regularly criticize a government for beings at odds with the druthers of its citizens?

About a fifth of the Israeli citizenry are (mostly Moslem) Arabs. Of the four fifths remaining most are Jews. But about a third of these are staunchly opposed to Netanyahu’s ultra-Zionist policies. So even if we hold those who support Netanyahu responsible for those policies, that’s about the same percentage of the Israeli population as was the percentage of the American population that supported Obama. Did we hold the American people – Democrats and Republicans alike – responsible for the policies of the Obama administration? And even if we did, did we, as a consequence, hate all Americans?

So even supposing Tony were able to convince us of his trutherisms, how would this constitute hate speech against Jews? Against the Jewish perpetrators of these attacks, perhaps. But then surely, if your loved one was in one of those towers that morning, or in that nightclub in Paris that evening, that hatred would be warranted. But against Jews-qua-Jews? And if Jews-qua-Jews, then surely the official 9/11 story likewise promotes hatred of Arabs-qua-Arabs, or perhaps even Moslems-qua-Moslems. And yet that’s precisely what defenders of the official story take pains to deny that their story should promote.

So having given them everything they could ask for, what’s left to Tony’s accusers? Well, apparently, Tony’s conjectured – remember: that’s code for he’s accused – B’nai Brith of having false-flagged that virulently anti-Semitic attachment to one of his Facebook posts, the attachment that Tony claims got this smear campaign against him off the ground. But once again, how does this accusation constitute hate speech? And that question stands as a rhetorical one whether B’nai Brith was involved or not.

That is, let’s suppose that I did it. After all, I’m Jewish, and many if not most Jews are staunch Zionists. So it’s perfectly plausible that I did it to smear that anti-Zionist bastard Tony Hall. Now that I’ve confessed I should hardly be surprised that Tony now hates me. But why would Tony hate my brother, who happens to be a staunch anti-Zionist Jew?

All right, now let’s suppose I didn’t do it. It was done by some pimply-faced never-out-of-his-parent’s-basement adolescent shit-disturber for the sole satisfaction of disturbing shit. Probably the same pimply-faced never-out-of-his-parent’s-basement adolescent shit-disturber who’s photo-shopped Pope Francis giving head to Bashir al Assad. So Tony’s mistaken about me. Does his falsely accusing a Jew of malfeasance promote hatred of Jews?

Well, it would, I suppose, if Tony were saying – or for that matter even just saying – that wherever there’s malfeasance, chances are there’s a Jew behind it. And to be fair to his accusers, Tony does sometimes come across as thinking this. But according to his narrative it’s not Jews – or least not Jews-qua-Jews – who are trying to take over the world. It’s the point-zero-zero-one-percent. These neocons and Zionists just happen to have found common cause, at least for now.

But this idea that there’s a worldwide conspiracy of point-zero-zero-one-percenters – see my entry on the subject – is by no means unique to Tony. Most of my colleagues in the Philosophy department – being almost as idiotic as Tony – share this idiotic view. So if Tony’s going down, oh please please please, take my colleagues with him!

Your Honour, I move to dismiss. It’s not that my client is innocence of the charges against him. It’s that those charges – I think the legal term is – fail to disclose an offense.


Down the hall and around two corners, I have a colleague named Tony Hall. I say ‘colleague’, but only in the sense that we’re both tenured professors at the same university. I teach in the Philosophy Department; he’s a one-man show in a program he calls Globilization Studies.

Tony’s an affable enough fellow, but he’s also an idiot. To his credit, he doesn’t mind me calling him that. He understands that most of his colleagues regard him as an idiot. Why? Because he’s a 9/11 Truther? Well, yes. But it doesn’t stop there. Tony’s convinced there’s an international Zionist conspiracy out there that’s behind most of the terrorist attacks that have taken place in the West over the past two decades, attacks for which the Israelis and their American neo-con buddies have cleverly framed their Arab enemies.

Now my own view, for what little it’s worth, is that nineteen brave young men – brave beyond description! – managed to pull off what must surely be the single most cost-effective military operation in human history. No fiction could possibly match it! And so if instead it was Mossad that managed to frame these guileless young Arabs for what was in fact a ‘false flag’ operation, well, that just raises my admiration exponentially. But, alas, cool as that would have been, reality just isn’t that cool. That would have involved just too many co-conspirators to be plausible. It’s not that people talk in their sleep. It’s that people brag. To suppose that of the hundreds of people who would have had to have been involved not one of them, in the throes of passion, whispered to his lover … So no, I think the official story is gobsmackingly cool enough. So that’s my story and, much to Tony’s chagrin, I’m stickin’ to it.

But – notwithstanding that I guess I have – that’s not what I want to blog about here. Rather I want to blog about what happened on October 4th of last year. That’s the day that Mike Mahon, the President of the University of Lethbridge, in blatant violation of the collective agreement between the Faculty Association and the University, suspended Tony without pay and declared him persona non grata on campus.

Needless to say there are several court cases pending, an international censure of the U of L is in the works, and many of Tony’s colleagues, myself included, have, and continue to, come to Tony’s defense. But none of that is what I want to blog about here either. If the case for academic freedom has to be made to the kind of people I assume have been reading this blog, I might just as well hang up my shingle right now. Rather what I want to blog about is what Tony is being accused of.

In conjecturing that the State of Israel is behind the lion’s share of all these terrorist attacks, he’s being accused of promoting anti-Semitism. His accuser, by the way, is one Goldie Morgentaler, a prof in the English Department, daughter of the late Henry Morgentaler, the abortion doctor responsible – and thankfully so – for the 1988 Supreme Court ruling striking down Canada’s abortion legislation, and who was, along with Goldie’s mother, a Holocaust survivor. Bigotry doesn’t arise ex nihilo. So it’s not entirely surprising that Goldie would hold the view that – and I quote – “Any criticism of the State of Israel is anti-Semitism!”

According to Goldie, then, my fellow self-loathing Jew, Noam Chomsky, and I are both anti-Semites. Well, once played, nothing can trump the Auschwitz card, so I guess I must be. But Tony isn’t. He’s an anti-Zionist, to be sure. But then so is Chomsky. So am I. But anti-Zionism is little more than a hundred years old. Anti-Semitism has been around since the supersessionism of First Century Christianity. Two very different animals. Two very different pedigrees.

Now my own view – again for what little it’s worth – is that if I thought the Israelis were clever enough to have pulled off all those attacks and blame every one of them on their Arab enemies, that wouldn’t make me anti-Semitic. Hell, that would make me proud to be Jewish. I must be a member of the smartest race the world has ever known! So how are any of Tony’s false flag conjectures anti-Semitic? Anti-Semitism is the view that Jews are morally inferior to gentiles. So it must be that his accusers think that Tony thinks that intelligence is a sign of demon possession or something.

Look. Two peoples, Jews and Arabs, each want the same piece of land. And neither, it seems, is all that sanguine about sharing it with the other. What choice is there but war? And what, according to Thomas Hobbes, are the two cardinal virtues of war? Force and fraud, right? Fraud. So if the Israelis were responsible for 9/11 and successfully framed their enemies for it, that would be something to admire. If Tony thinks the Israelis did pull off these attacks and yet he doesn’t admire them for their chutzpah, then he must be a complete idiot.

Of course it’s entirely possible that Tony’s accusers think he’s just, well, stupid. That he has conflated cleverness with evil. Or perhaps they think he hates us Jews not because of our cleverness but for the same reason most of you anti-Semites hate us Jews, namely that we killed your Lord, we celebrate Easter by drinking the blood of a Christian baby … You know, that sort of thing. But though yes, we did kill your Lord, and though yes, we do celebrate Easter by stealing a recently baptized infant and then drinking its blood, Tony doesn’t know anything about any of this.

So the best explanation is that he hates Jews for the same reason I hate Germans, namely that my co-religionists are treating the Palestinians under Occupation pretty much the way the Nazis treated us in the Warsaw Ghetto. If Sabra and Shatila aren’t grounds for Tony’s hatred then neither is Auschwitz grounds for mine.

But wait a minute. Hatred of Jews for Sabra and Shatila isn’t anti-Semitism. It’s anti-Zionism. Chomsky and I don’t exactly hate ourselves for Sabra and Shatila, but these atrocities certainly make us ashamed to be Jewish. Since Tony isn’t Jewish he can’t be ashamed. But he can be, is, and rightly so, outraged. That Goldie is neither ashamed nor outraged makes her the bigot, not him.

But now for the elephant in the room. Tony is on record as advocating that the Holocaust can be, and ought to be, as open to re-examination as any historical episode. Well, how could anyone disagree with that? And yet, apparently, some can and do. Apparently people like Goldie take opening the Holocaust to revisitation to be code for Holocaust denial. Tony should know this, so Tony is a Holocaust denier. Quod erat demonstrandum.

The absurdity of this argument aside, the problem with this closing of the canon is that it leaves no way that the Holocaust can be revisited. And that’s just the equivalent of Scriptural literalism. Scriptural literalism is an unsustainable theology. For example, since Jesus was alone in the Garden of Gesthemene, how does anyone know what was said there? The famous “Take this cup of poison away from me!” was invented. It was, at best, conjectured.

The Holocaust – more enlightened Jews prefer the theodically neutral term ‘Shoah’ – is not an event. It’s the name for a collection of events as numerous as the grains of sand on a beach. If I move one grain from here to there, have I denied the Holocaust? How many grains do I have to move, from where and to where, to count as a Holocaust denier? However that question is answered – and I’m prepared to accept any answer to it, provided it’s understood to have been a stipulated one – how does my Holocaust denial constitute anti-Semitism? How, for that matter, does it even constitute anti-Zionism?

Look. Let’s suppose that the whole beach is a lie. This is equivalent to saying that the entire New Testament was made up. Many if not most scholars are now of the view that the Exodus was a myth. How is such Exodus revisionism a threat to contemporary Jews? It isn’t. If I said to a Christian that her entire faith is built on an historical falsehood, how would that make me anti-Christian? It wouldn’t.

How, for that matter, would my Holocaust denial constitute even anti-Zionism? Zionism got off the ground in the 1880’s. The Balfour Declaration was issued in 1917, a quarter of a century before the Holocaust. So the Jews were going to have a homeland in any case. Once the camps were liberated, did the largely Jewish-controlled media exploit Christian guilt to garner support for a Jewish state? Of course they did. Do they continue to do so today? Of course they do. But calling them out on this is hardly an argument for the illegitimacy of the Jewish state. One could as readily argue that the non-historicity of the Cross means the Vatican should be leveled and turned back into a meadow.

To be fair, Tony is as guilty of this guess-the-enthymeme kind of thinking as his accusers. But that just says they’re both idiots. Tony is an idiot for thinking that a possible narrative is a true narrative, and his accusers are idiots for thinking that asking a question is providing an answer to it. But even if Tony were denying the Holocaust – whatever that might mean – this in itself is neither anti-Semitism nor even anti-Zionism. It’s true that some Diary-denialists – yes, there is such a thing – doubt the authenticity of the Anne Frank diary because they’re anti-Semites. But the because-relation doesn’t hold the other way around.

Tony Hall is an idiot, but he’s probably not a Holocaust denier, and he’s definitely not a bigot. Goldie Morgentaler, on the other hand, is undeniably the latter. I’m a bigot too. When I hear German spoken my back goes up. But I don’t allow my bigotry to close the canon on history. Nor do I allow it to ratify apartheid and genocide.

There, Goldie, I’ve said it! Now go ahead and petition President Mahon to have me join Tony in being forcibly relieved of my post.

Confirmation Bias


– Rant # 171 –


Okay, this is now the 314th time I’ll have said it. I take no interest, one way or the other, in any of the The-Sky-is-Falling-No-it’s-Not claims and counterclaims currently consuming many of my colleagues’ time. (And, unfortunately, their students’ class-time.) But I do take an interest, in fact a keen one, in their interest in these issues. I’m especially interested in the role confirmation bias plays in their so-called ‘research’ into these matters, and in just how oblivious they are to that role.

For example, I’d have thought that all I had to do was say, Look at your bookshelf. What does that tell you?

“That anthropogenic global warming is real.”

Ah, no, what I meant was, have you read any of what you call the denialist literature?

“No need to. “


“It’s all been refuted.”

By …?

“By every one of those books on that shelf.”

Well, all I can say is, nice work if you can get it! Nice work too going from

1) Global warming may have worsened the drought which may, in turn, have exacerbated the political conflicts leading to the civil war in Syria, to

2) global warming is the cause of the civil war in Syria!

Well, at least it’s nice to know that, pace Tony Hall, not everything is the machinations of those mephistophilian Zionists.

Another’s confirmation bias is a hard nut to crack. But it can be done, provided you’re persistent. What you have to do is ask, “What makes you think that’s been refuted?” And then, to whatever he answers, “What makes you believe that?” And so on. Eventually your interlocutor will have to admit that he’s taken that refutation on faith, which means he’s likewise taken on faith the position being unsuccessfully refuted. In fact he hasn’t done any honest epistemic toil at all!

Getting him to see that won’t convert him, or even make him agnostic on the question at issue. But with any luck it’ll shut him up. And maybe that’s enough to make your Herculean efforts worthwhile.

But none of this will happen. Why not? Because no one has the requisite persistence. Beyond the second or third question you’ll be rightly judged – in fact you’ll judge yourself – as just being churlish. Being churlish is just one notch below being an asshole. Nobody wants to be an asshole. And so that’s how your interlocutor gets to go on deluding himself. If no one calls him on his confirmation bias he has no reason to believe there is any.

So as it turns out confirmation bias is not an individual epistemic vice. It’s a collective one. We’re supposed to be a corrective to each other’s faulty reasoning. In reality we become accomplices in it.

What’s to be done about this? Apparently not a damn thing!