06/02/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Outrage Is Wasted on the Outrageous

People who can't think of anything better to do with their outrage than interfere with the speech rights of others probably aren't that educable to begin with and don't belong in institutions of higher learning. They should leave the colleges and take up a trade -- hopefully, one that isn't too taxing, lest they decide it outrages them and they have to steal all the paper cups from the water cooler.

What is this about, you ask? It's about a couple of topics I didn't want to talk about when they happened, and I don't really want to talk about now. And it's about outrage, and what you do with it.


For example, I didn't really want to weigh in on Ann Coulter's aborted visit to the University of Ontario. In my view, Coulter is sort of a political version of Monty Python: either you get the joke, you don't get the joke, or you simultaneously get the joke but don't find it funny. But arguing over the things Ann Coulter says is about as productive as arguing over whether a dead parrot is really dead.

But since some people are still outraged, here's what you should be doing with that feeling: lobbying for change in Canada's human rights laws, to the extent those laws have been interpreted to permit censorship of ideas. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees freedom of expression "subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society."

One of those supposedly reasonable limits is the Canadian Human Rights Act, which prohibits, among other things, employment discrimination, discrimination in public accommodations, and the communication of "any matter that is likely to expose a person or persons to hatred or contempt" due to someone's membership in a protected class.

It's an exception that swallows the rule, and one which many Canadians are fully aware is at odds with a free society.

So, outraged Canadians, our societies are mutually evolving and have much to learn from each other. Here's one for you: you have nothing to fear from Ann Coulter. We've let her talk for a long, long time, and somehow, the sun still rises, crops still grow, and our milk still comes in containers that retain a shape like any half-sensible liquid container should. (Wait, what?)

Furthermore, on behalf of sentient people everywhere, you underestimate your citizens if you believe that Canadians will be indoctrinated into bigoted viewpoints merely because they hear them--or that silencing those Canadians who harbor such views will be more constructive than confronting them with new ideas.


The other situation I didn't want to weigh in on was the one involving Alex Knepper, a columnist for American University's student paper, the Eagle. Knepper wrote a column that managed to be both rabid in its anti-feminist tone and utterly casual in discussing sexual assault. In essence, the column suggests that that consent to get drunk at a frat party and leave with a fellow attendee is consent to sexual activity. (In the interest of full disclosure, I know an editor at the paper, though we haven't spoken about this topic.)

The campus is, of course, outraged. And segments of the campus expressed that outrage by dumping the newspapers outside the Eagle's office in a heap, with the outraged sign: "No room for rape apologists." Evidently, no room for the dozens of other students who had work in the newspaper, either, even though they didn't do anything. The room previously set aside for the Eagle is, evidently, now occupied by stacks of outrage.

So what's come of it? So far, after a number of meetings on the campus and proposals to reform, it seems like this what the outrage has accomplished: everyone (except one loudmouth with a column) agrees date rape exists and is bad and we really, really, really need to prevent it.

This seems like something of a meager accomplishment, considering everybody agreed on that before the outrage, except one loudmouth with a column. And it's far from clear he ever believed what he said. And it's even less clear that you've convinced him otherwise. But perhaps, when you went out to take a bunch of campus property and throw it in a heap, you were acting out of outrage and not, say, a desire to do anything actually constructive?

Even if you manage to turn this temper tantrum around into something constructive--even if you prove that you are the future leaders of this country and that you possess all the creative, progressive energy a college student should--wouldn't the spark that triggered that great accomplishment still be... Alex Knepper?

And if that's true, isn't it possible that the lessons you're supposed to be learning from college include how to respond constructively to ideas that are repugnant and hateful? Perhaps with something more than petty vandalism? Perhaps even with reason, logic, and improved ways of thinking that can help people with limited horizons learn that the horizon is an imaginary line that moves when we move our perspective?

In fact--isn't it possible that we can hear someone's ideas and respond to those ideas with our own ideas, in some kind of, oh, I don't know, "marketplace of ideas," which the classroom is particularly supposed to be?

Showing your outrage to Coulter or Knepper won't convince them that they're wrong. Outrage is wasted on the outrageous. Invest that effort in being right and in defending the rightness of your ideas without trying to silence dissenters.