Toronto
3 min

The Flanagan files

We should be asking difficult questions about our child pornography laws

There’s been a lot of chat in the media these past few weeks about what constitutes child pornography. Conservative overseer Tom Flanagan made some now infamous remarks concerning the right to look at sexually explicit images featuring children without fear of arrest. The arguments on either side have been surprising. Certain parties one might normally think of as progressive have proclaimed such images should not exist at all, while other — more typically conservative — commentators muse that there might be such a thing as victimless kiddie porn, and perhaps the urges of pedophiles are best treated somewhere other than prison.

This discussion brings up many issues. When do we allow the thought police to intervene? Do we have to wait for the internet cannibal policeman to kidnap and eat a woman before we act? Is swooping in to stop a terror cell from creating a bomb legal if the bomb hasn’t actually been built? Is the woman undressing that man with her eyes on the subway committing some sort of sexual assault? Is anyone who makes or views a film about a 17-year-old having a sexual relationship with a 24-year-old complicit in a crime? Is an adult artist exploring his or her own childhood sexual abuse at the hands of an adult flirting with jail time for sharing images of that experience in a public forum?

These are difficult, nuanced questions; important questions Canadians should ask themselves. What surprises me is that they’re coming from a group of people, most from the right, who aren’t exactly known for their deep humanism or moral sophistication. Yet suddenly, when one of their own is taking the kind of metaphorical beating they’re only used to administering, they’re all about the more complicated question.

It seems we’re supposed to conveniently forget the policies of Stephen Harper’s Conservative government and its emphasis on new, privately owned super-prisons. Just to review, as things currently stand, drug addicts are jailed, not treated. The mentally ill are jailed, not treated. The poor and desperate are jailed, not treated. The age of consent has been raised to 16. Artists and arts organizations are censored or sanctioned if they dare to explore territory the government doesn’t approve of. Banks and corporations are afforded more respect than any citizen. The oil industry is permitted to rewrite our environmental laws. All of these policies are justified by many of Flanagan’s apologists in their support of Harper’s regime.

So excuse me if I find all of this new concern with the plight of people who get off on pictures of children being raped just a tad convenient and hollow. Flanagan made a stupid mistake, and if that same mistake had been made by someone on the other side of the political spectrum I suspect most of the pundits defending Flanagan would have had a very different reaction. As is always the case with Conservatives, nothing makes them howl more than having their own tactics reflected back on themselves. Flanagan, in his desperate backtracking, claims he was trapped by the questions, and that may well be the case. But being a university professor and professional speaker known for his controversial opinions who, for many years, had the ear of the prime minister, he has no one to blame but himself. A savvier, less arrogant person might have realized these ideas in this context weren’t going to fly the first time he did it, three years earlier. That he chose to say such things a second time suggests there could be psychological issues at play.

However, if Flanagan’s fans are genuine in their concern, there are a great many citizens of Canada serving time in prison for having obtained and viewed child pornography without having actually physically harmed a child who are probably craving their support. I will particularly look forward to writers from the National Post and the Sun chain of newspapers coming to the defence of these people and helping us achieve a more balanced and reparative justice system.

And perhaps, while that’s not happening, as it surely won’t, some enterprising “journalist” will find out how Flanagan ended up being on the North American Man/Boy Love mailing list for two years while trying to root out racists in Preston Manning’s former “oh so inclusive and multinational” Reform Party. That’s a story I’m sure we all want to hear.