Nova Scotia loves to get on the bandwagon a few months or years after a trend has hit its saturation point everywhere else. It’s a few years late, but we’re still all in on hamburgers, re-opening coal mines and building failing convention centres. The latest cool thing from last year is enlisting to fight in the free speech wars.
If you’re in search of an off-brand version of Trump, Peterson or Shapiro in Nova Scotia, then you are in luck. This province has no shortage of aspiring public figures who have tried to cast themselves as martyrs telling hard truths, even if those truths are actually just demonstrably false. Rick Mehta and Matt Whitman are the most obvious local examples, following a now-tired script of saying wildly and intentionally offensive things and then acting aggrieved when they get the exact reaction they tried so hard to provoke. Whitman simply revels in the reaction but Mehta and his defenders have tried to frame his provocations as one piece in some bigger debate about fundamental freedoms.
Aside from being boring and largely inconsequential, these very public and very stupid debates often obscure much more about free speech than they elucidate. By concentrating almost exclusively on the rights of students, academics and professional commentators, free speech is cast as the right of an extremely narrow group of people, speaking or writing in very specific venues, often about issues which do not impact their daily lives or material survival.
In contrast, the most egregious assaults on the free expression of Nova Scotians in 2018 haven’t come from angry students, constituents or Twitter users, but instead from bosses. After going public with allegations of racism and indicating that they would be filing human rights complaints, six Black janitors say they were fired. Similarly, months of bouncing paychecks and other workplace issues led workers at six Smiling Goat coffee shops to apply public pressure to a boss who refuses to follow the already inadequate legal requirements of being a boss, including organizing the four previously non-unionized shops, holding rallies and speaking to the media. One worker alleges that after exercising his right to demand that he get paid, the Smiling Goat’s owner fired him.
Working people whose bosses have allegedly refused to follow basic employment and human rights law have—allegedly—been economically punished for talking about it. Threatening low-income workers with sudden unemployment if they speak out is an obvious assault on free speech, so where is the outrage from the national free speech organizations? Why haven’t we been blessed with the opinions of Toronto’s pundit class lamenting a culture of entrepreneurial entitlement? Where is the pearl-clutching from our local political commentators? For too many free speech warriors fighting over who is allowed to say what isn’t about a commitment to any real concept of economic or political liberty, it’s just another front in the culture war.
If we’re going to talk about our right to speak openly then we need to acknowledge something right off the bat: The vast majority of people do not study or work on a university campus, write a column or hold elected office. But almost all of us have had a shitty boss, and those shitty bosses already have way too much control over our lives. So if we’re going to have a debate about free speech let’s not make it a debate about whether or not ageing edgelords have the right to trigger the libs without any pushback. Let’s make it a fight about our need to be able to use our right to speak to make our lives and the lives of other people a little bit better. Because at the end of the day, the right to free speech doesn’t mean anything if you don’t have the right to tell a bad boss to fuck off and pay you the money you’re owed.
This piece was first published by The Coast.