Social media, still in its infancy, has already become one of the most powerful tools of mob action.
The connotation is typically negative, but not always. As Gwynne Dyer highlighted in a talk last week, the success of sweeping democratic changes in the Arab world, starting with the so-called Arab Spring, can be largely credited to instant networking.
But social media can have a strongly negative impact, too. It can create instant hysteria that spreads like wildfire before any mitigating perspective has a chance to gain hold.
Such is the case with University of Calgary professor Tom Flanagan, whose career suddenly went pear-shaped last week when controversial comments he made during a talk surfaced on YouTube.
Flanagan is already controversial in the public eye. A former adviser to Stephen Harper and to Alberta’s Wildrose party, he is a well-known commentator who likes to shake things up with unconventional, libertarian notions.
In the YouTube video, taken by an audience member at the University of Lethbridge, Flanagan is asked by a student to explain his opinions on child pornography.
Flanagan reiterated questions he raised in 2009 as to whether jailing people for their “taste in pictures” really helps curb the problem. The students reacted angrily. And that was only the beginning.
Within hours of the video surfacing, CBC-TV booted him off its payroll, and he was publically disowned by Harper’s office and the Wildrose party. The University of Calgary distanced itself from his comments, and the Manning Institute cancelled his engagement as a conference speaker.
Flanagan became the pariah du jour.
But two important factors got lost in the furor. The first is the intended point Flanagan was making. The second is the context in which it was made.
Flanagan addressed both points in a National Post submission Monday. Even for those who harbour a distaste for his views, the explanation is reasonable.
To begin with, Flanagan concurs completely with tough laws against the creation and distribution of child porn. He alluded to this in Lethbridge. And he understands the desire to clamp down on the market for such material.
But he did openly question the wisdom of jailing those who are lured into simply looking at it.
In this wired world, one can easily view child porn without physically possessing it, which is why the law specifically prohibits both. There are exceptions: it can be viewed for “a legitimate purpose related to the administration of justice or to science, medicine, education or art.”
“Canadian law now provides mandatory minimum jail sentences for convicted voyeurs,” Flanagan wrote in the Post, “but is imprisonment the best remedy? Might a regime of counselling and therapy be better, both for them and for society at large?”
Flanagan then appeals to the context of his comments. He was speaking to university students, and therefore was comfortable in using what he refers to as “classroom language.” Specifically, his remarks were posed as questions for debate, not declarative statements of opinion.
“In general, students like to be provoked by the Socratic method of asking questions,” he wrote. “They respond with questions and comments that lead to lively debate, in which everyone draws deeper understanding from their own experience.”
It’s a matter of academic freedom. And yet, many universities have become more like bastions of censorship than of free expression, a trend that springs mostly from the students, not the faculty.
In short, Flanagan’s observations may seem callous or misguided to most. But given the shared premise that making or distributing child pornography is inherently abhorrent and unacceptable, it seems oddly Orwellian to blacklist any discussion of how and when the administration of justice is most effective.
Peter Jackson is The Telegram’s
commentary editor. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.