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     Piling On Tom Flanagan Was Unfair

 

   By Peter Russell

Ten days ago, a camera caught Professor Tom Flanagan expressing the view that he “had some grave doubts about putting people in jail because of their taste in pictures.”

Flanagan’s comment was in response to a question asked at a University of Lethbridge seminar about child pornography. Within hours his comment was all over the media and he was being vilified as a pariah – a man who condoned child pornography.

Tom Flanagan has been a friend of mine for many years – since he joined the University of  Calgary’s political scientist department over forty years ago. 

This may surprise some people because I am generally regarded as left-of-centre while Tom is certainly a right winger.

But while Tom and I disagree on a great many issues, we have always agreed on one thing – the value of respectful discussion and debate, not only with like-minded people, but with those who hold opinions different from our own.

The torrent of abuse hurled at Flanagan for expressing doubts about putting consumers of child pornography in jail shows how difficult it is becoming in our contemporary society to engage in a civilized discussion of the kind Tom Flanagan and I cherish.

His contentious remark was totally detached from the context in which he made it.

In the discussion, he made it clear that he deplores child pornography and understands that consumers of kiddy porn increase the business of producers of child pornography, and that it is in making the product that the worst damage is inflicted on children. Nor was   he opposed to punishing consumers.

The question he was pondering was whether those who only consume should go to jail for their crime.

In a society that values freedom, imprisonment should be reserved for the most serious crimes.

Is watching child pornography one of those serious crimes?

That is the question Flanagan was inviting seminar participants to consider.

Even if you think consumers of pornography ought to go to prison, do you think it is absolutely beyond the pale to even raise the question? 

Do you agree with the headline writer in our ‘national newspaper”, the Globe & Mail, that a professor’s raising the question in a university seminar should be a career-ending act?

Flanagan’s close association with the prime minister made him a tasty target for the media.

But a few years ago, another friend of mine, Shiraz Dossa, a professor of political science at Saint Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia, who was no friend of the prime minister and a left-winger, suffered a similar experience to Flanagan’s.

The media discovered that Professor Dossa had attended a conference in Iran where a number of papers had been critical of the United States.

Dossa’s paper was on “Occidentalism” – the difficulty westerners have in understanding the Islamic world.

For this he was denounced for consorting with terrorists, and for a time was suspended from giving classes.

Fortunately many of Dossa’s academic colleagues came to his defence and his suspension was short lived.

While Tom Flanagan’s political “friends”, the Prime Minister and Alberta’s Wild Rose Party, have abandoned him, many of his academic friends have rallied behind him. At 69 he is ready to retire from university teaching, but he will, we hope, continue to contribute to Canada’s intellectual life.

But we should be alarmed by Flanagan’s being chased out of public life.

One test of a truly liberal democracy is its capacity to sustain a civilized discussion of the many controversial issues that animate its public affairs.

In the Flanagan affair our country failed that test. 

About Peter Russell

Peter H. Russell is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Toronto. He is one of Canada’s leading constitutional scholars, has published widely in the fields of aboriginal policy, the judiciary and parliamentary democracy, and is a frequent commentator on Canadian government and politics. He is the founding Principal of Senior College at the University of Toronto. Peter Russell is an Officer of the Order of Canada and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.
Posted date : March 12, 2013

View all of Peter Russell's columns
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