In my last post I noted how the October 15th, 2019, statement from the Toronto City Librarian, Vickery Bowles, used the expression “free speech” rather than the more usual expression in librarianship, “intellectual freedom”. “Free speech” is absent from Bowles’ previous statement from October 12th, which made me think more carefully about this rhetorical shift. In my current PhD research, I’m looking at the language used in discourse surrounding artificial intelligence and jobs, so I’ve been thinking quite a lot about the method of Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA) developed by Norman Fairclough. I thought it might be worthwhile at this point do try to apply some of the methods of CDA to the question of this rhetorical shift.
The heart of Fairclough’s CDA is that discourse is a social practice, and - following Roy Bhaskar’s critical realism - this means that discourse has causal effectiveness in a society. There are three levels of analysis within CDA, the word level (what words are chosen and why?), the textual level (what are the conditions of production and reception of texts?) and the societal level (what are the social dynamics in which these texts are embedded?; what social role are these texts meant to play?).
The October 12th statement includes the expressions “intellectual freedom” (three times) and “freedom of expression” (once). Since “intellectual freedom” is the usual expression used within librarianship, this situates the October 12th text firmly within that body of theory and practice. “Freedom of expression” is the language used in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (Article 2b) which situates the discourse of the October 12th text within the context of Canadian constitutionalism. So far so good, both the profession and the Canadian legal context make sense as “orders of discourse” for the October 12th statement.
One other thing to note about the October 12th statement is that it is entitled “Statement from City Librarian on Room Rental Event”, and it is formatted as a quoted text - both giving an indication of mediation. The text was delivered by the City Librarian to the TPL Media Relations department. This differs, as we will see, from the October 15th statement.
Returning to October 12th, we have seen how this statement does not use the expression “free speech”, but it does link to Alvin Schrader’s piece for the Ryerson Centre for Free Expression entitled “Can Public Libraries Maintain their Commitment to Intellectual Freedom in the Face of Outrage over Unpopular Speakers?”. I have already criticized this post in terms of political content, but it’s also important to look at it in terms of language. From the very beginning, the terms of the debate are being set: critics of free-speech absolutism (and since this piece was cited by Bowles, critics of TPL) are “outraged” while transphobic speakers are merely “unpopular”. This sets up a false dichtomy between an unruly, irrational mob of critics against speakers whose positions have no causal power in the world, merely an emotional effect (“unpopular”). This coincides with Jim Turk’s inability to move beyond the emotional effect of “offensiveness” to the social effect of real harm which I touched on in my last post.
What is most important here, however, is that it is in Schrader’s piece that semiotic shift from “intellectual freedom”/”freedom of expression” to “free speech” occurs. Schrader writes that:
The various arguments against controversial community and event space rentals by Canadian public libraries reveals an incomplete grasp not only of core values and library missions but also of the Charter and Criminal Code frameworks within which these institutions are statutorily governed and free speech is regulated.
But as we have seen, the Charter of Rights does not regulate “free speech”, but “free expression”. We will bracket the actual similarities or differences between these two concepts for now, because what I’m interested in is the shift in language. Why was “free speech” selected here? Let’s check out the Criminal Code. I assume Schrader is referring to Section 318 and Section 319 on “Hate Propaganda” and “Incitement of Hatred”. Neither section refers to “speech” or “expression” (only to “communication” and “statements”) so their regulatory effect on free expression is only implied, not explicit. “Free speech” is used in five places in Schrader’s text, “freedom of expression” six times, and “intellectual freedom” seventeen times (by my count). So Schrader’s post still primarily positions itself within the context of librarianship, while secondarily positions itself equally between Canadian jurisprudence (“freedom of expression”) and the American context (“freedom of speech”). The first quotation Schrader uses is from Oliver Kamm, a British journalist for The Times. In an interview with Norman Geras, Kamm was asked to “name a major moral, political or intellectual issue on which you’ve ever changed your mind?”, and his response was “Realising that the crucial distinction in politics is not between Left and Right, as I had once tribally thought, but between the defenders and the enemies of an open society.” This disavowal of “right” and “left” is a hallmark of political populism. More to the point, “Free speech” is therefore part of the “militant liberalism” Kamm espouses. In the piece Schrader quotes, Kamm concludes by writing:
Respecting the beliefs and feelings of others is a lethal affectation in public policy. It is easy to depict freedom of speech as liable to cause hurt, precisely because it is true. The policy that follows from that is counterintuitive but essential: do nothing. The defence of a free society involves not taking a stand on its output, but insisting on the integrity of its procedures.
Again, the causal efficacy of speech is limited to “beliefs”, “feelings”, and “hurt” (as opposed to “harm”), but more than this, Kamm espouses a procedural view of a “free society”, one in which an ethics of rules (as opposed to an ethics of consequences or an ethics of virtue) holds sway. This kind of proceduralist perspective is easily co-opted by the right wing, for example in Jordan Peterson’s Twelve Rules for Life, Steven Pinker’s “13 Rules for Good Writing” (not that the left is immune from proceduralism, these are two recent examples that have come in for a lot of criticism).
Now, more significant than Schrader’s quoting of Oliver Kamm, is the fact that “free speech” is enshrined in a particular legislative framework, just not the Canadian one. The text of the First Amendment of the US Constitution is as follows:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
The rhetorical shift from “freedom of expression” to “freedom of speech” shifts the discourse from a Canadian context to an American one. Significantly, the limits on speech protected by the First Amendment are much clearer than the limits on expression provided by the Canadian Criminal Code. Most importantly, “incitement to hatred” of an “identifable group” (“any section of the public distinguished by colour, race, religion, national or ethnic origin, age, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, or mental or physical disability”) is unprotected expression in Canada, but protected speech in the US.
Let us pause here to look at the October 15th statement, now not “from the City Librarian” and not marked as quoted text, but “City Librarian Statement”. This text appears to be unmediated, closer to Vickery Bowles’ own position and textual expression. “Intellectual freedom” is completely absent from this statement, while “expression” is only used once (in a quote from the Charter). “Free speech” on the other hand is used five times. This text is no longer situated within the discursive orders of librarianship and Canadian legislation, but is firmly planted within the American context of free speech and no criminal sanction against “incitement of hatred”. It is precisely this discursive order that allows Vickery Bowles to argue that section 4.4.a of TPL’s own room booking policy does not apply. This section claims for the library the right to cancel a booking if
use by any individual or group will be for a purpose that is likely to promote, or would have the effect of promoting discrimination, contempt or hatred for any group or person on the basis of race, ethnic origin, place of origin, citizenship, colour, ancestry, language, creed (religion), age, sex, gender identity, gender expression, marital status, family status, sexual orientation, disability, political affiliation, membership in a union or staff association, receipt of public assistance, level of literacy or any other similar factor.
The room booking policy is thus in line with the Canadian Criminal Code. The discursive shift also allows Bowles to argue, as she has done in interviews, that the speaker in question, and the event itself, do not break Canadian law, and that breaking the law is the bar for refusing or cancelling a room booking.
The discursive shift from “intellectual freedom”/”freedom of expression” to “free speech” marks not only a shift in the social and political terms of the debate (from Canadian charter rights and limitations on hate speech) to the American one (of First Amendment rights and no limit on hate speech), but also obscures the reality of the social condition of the texts (and the controversy itself) in the minds of Bowles and Schrader. By shifting the language that they use, they have shifted the terms of the debate, not only placing TPL (most likely) in contravention of the Canadian Criminal Code, but also instituting a mystified and bad-faith defense of Bowles’ decision and authority. What’s worse, by framing the debate in terms of “free speech”, and the First Amendment, Bowles and Schrader open the entire discursive order around room booking in Canadian librarianship up to co-option by the far right, for whom “incitement to hatred” is an unrecognized limitation and is, indeed, their daily bread.
I hope this kind of linguistic analysis can prove useful, not only for those who are defending bigoted decisions to pay more attention to the language that they use, but also for those of us critical of such decisions to call out semantic and semiotic choices as and when we come upon them.