Ideas Have Consequences

“We have 17 orphans. We have six widows. We have five wounded. We ask Allah for them to get them out of the hospital as soon as possible. Did I go through the complete list of victims? No. There is one victim. None of us want to talk about him. But given my age, I have the courage to say it. This victim, his name is Alexandre Bissonnette. Alexandre, before being a killer he was a victim himself. Before planting his bullets in the heads of his victims, somebody planted ideas more dangerous than the bullets in his head.”—Imam Hassan Guillet

On the evening of January 29, 2017, Alexandre Bissonnette went into a house of worship in my home province and shot 23 of my fellow citizens as they prayed. Six of them died. Do I think far-right groups like Breitbart News and Rebel Media are responsible for what happened at the Grande Mosquée de Québec? Do I think they’re responsible for what Bissonnette did? Of course not. A full-grown man of sound mind is responsible for his own actions. But if mosque massacres of this kind become more and more common in the years to come, can we really say that those who encourage them aren’t at least partially to blame? I’ve talked at length with people who’ve gone down the Rebel Media rabbit hole, and they’re every bit as paranoid and delusional as the worst kind of religious fundamentalist. If, like me, you traffic in ideas, it’s good to remember that they have consequences.

Just as globalization and the overuse of antibiotics have produced resistant strains of bacteria—super-bugs, capable of doing a great deal of damage—the Internet has produced resistant strains of ignorance—super-idiots, like Alex Jones and Ezra Levant, capable of doing a great deal of damage. These days, any simpleminded partisan with a political ax to grind can find an online community of like-minded whack-jobs who’ll be happy to provide him with plenty of ideological ammunition (e.g., bogus stats, pre-fab arguments, etc.). Before long, what was once a more-or-less harmless, single-issue troll has morphed into something far more monstrous and formidable: a veritable Swiss-army knife of bullshit, a perfect storm of bad ideas, a walking Wikipedia of stupid.

Irresponsible religious leaders can create toxic worldviews which encourage otherwise normal people to do unspeakable things. The same is true of irresponsible political leaders. Pauline Marois tried to win an election by throwing Canadian Muslims under the bus in 2014. Stephen Harper did the same thing in 2015. Marois lost, as did Harper, but the costs were steep: hate crimes surged during those ugly election campaigns. Will Jean-François Lisée, leader of the Parti Québécois, try this morally-bankrupt strategy again in 2018? In light of recent events, I certainly hope not.

Imagine that you’re living in an ancient world defined by a religion that’s been around for over a thousand years. Its sacred scriptures contain the following passage: “Thou shalt not suffer a twin to live” (Sexodus 22:18). The high priests and scholars concluded, centuries ago, that you don’t have to kill both twins, just the second one: Esau can stay, but Jacob’s gotta go. As everyone knows, if you allow the second twin to live, great evil will descend upon you and your household: crops will wither, animals will sicken, people will perish. Now, if you’ve grown up within the confines of this worldview, and your wife gives birth to twins, can you be blamed for throwing the second twin in the river? Are you not simply doing your duty? Thinking along similar lines, if it turns out that Alexandre Bissonnette internalized a toxic worldview from, say, Rebel Media or Breitbart News, are they not at least partially responsible for what he did?

What do we do about those who refuse to be responsible? Do we ban hate speech? Shut down groups that produce it? Do we start punishing people for talking about doing things they have no intention of doing? In the wake of the Mosque Massacre, there are no easy answers to these questions. Our provincial police force, the Sûreté du Québec, just announced the hiring of 55 people whose entire job will consist of monitoring social media websites. I get that we’ve got to do something, but is this really what we want to do? What’s next? Undercover cops at every Tim Horton’s in the province, eavesdropping on conversations, making sure nobody says anything mean? If you think this new surveillance capacity is going to be used exclusively to prevent hate crimes, I suggest that you speak with Patrick Lagacé.

—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2017)

About John Faithful Hamer

John Faithful Hamer is a college professor who still can't swim, drive, or pay his bills on time. His sense of direction is notoriously unreliable, yet he'd love to tell you where to go. His lack of practical skills is astounding, and his inability to fix things is renowned, yet he'd love to tell you what to do. His mismanagement of time is legendary, as is his inability to remember appointments, yet he fancies himself a philosopher and would love to tell you how to live. He wouldn't survive in a state of nature, of that we can be sure; but he's doing quite well in the big city, which has always been a refuge for the ridiculous, a haven for the helpless, and a friend to the frivolous.

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