Don Cherry, “Free” Speech, and The Death of Canadian Social Conservatism
By David Metcalfe
November 13, 2019
It was completely shocking to hear the news that Don Cherry said something insensitive- that is, for anyone who has never heard him speak before. Many of us who have watched hockey for years know that the only thing weirder than Don Cherry’s suits is whatever the heck is going on in his brain. He’s certainly not your typical hockey announcer; he says exactly what he thinks, and he has a lot of “old school” opinions- about masculinity, what “proper” hockey is, and from time to time, he mixes in a bit of his social values.
The typical hockey commentator speaks like they are reciting lines (and many times, they are). They say generic technical jargon, analyzing every little aspect of the game. Every once in a while they try to tell some story about the goaltender’s childhood in Mississauga or whatever…needless to say, there’s nothing that interesting about it. If one hockey commentator got fired and replaced the next day, I would hardly notice (in fact, it happens quite often).
But Don Cherry is an interesting guy. He’s probably wrong about some of his analysis of the game, and certainly wrong about a ton of his beliefs outside of hockey, but he’s not generic, and he’s not replaceable. People want to listen to him precisely because he is so free spirited. Coaches are not listening to Don Cherry’s insights so they can actually apply them to their game plan, and audiences at home are probably not basing their political views on the things he says. He’s interesting, a little crazy, and basically harmless.
But last week he said “you people”- and he was referring to immigrants. In the same way that taking the Lord’s name in vain was considered a horrendous sin to the ancient Jews, referring to immigrants as anything short of heroes is a horrendous sin in the modern liberal culture that dominates Canadian sensibility. And worse, he went on to imply that immigrants are not patriotic, and that everyone needs to wear a poppy in order to be a “real Canadian”.
I’ll be the first to say- Don Cherry is an idiot. He’s a high school drop out who formed most of his opinions within hockey culture in the 1950s and 60s- a place full of sexism, toxic masculinity, and heavy drinking. Cherry’s opinions come from his gut- not books, articles, experts, or anything of that nature. The guy is not a thinker; never has been and never will be. So yeah, when you give an old, angry, poorly educated man a microphone, he’s going to say some dumb things- there’s no getting around that.
But I have to ask: is “you people” really severe enough of a crime to warrant being fired? Is Sportsnet throwing the baby out with the bathwater? What kind of precedent is this setting for free speech in Canada?
Everyone (Who Is Liberal) Has The Right To Free Speech
Free speech- in the most literal sense- does not exist. It has never existed and it will never exist. You cannot yell “fire!” or “there’s a bomb!” in an airport just for fun. You cannot tell a Jewish person “I wish Hitler had finished the job with you people”. You cannot accuse a random Muslim co-worker of being a terrorist. So on and so forth, there are important and necessary restrictions that have to be made to what people can say.
In Soviet Russia, there were a few more restrictions added “for the good of society”. They figured that ideas against communism or that criticized Stalin were detrimental to the common good, and should not be spoken. The punishment could range from losing your job to being put in prison to being killed. Meanwhile, in America, ideas- although still censored- had much more freedom to be spoken and developed. To this day, western nations continue to be some of the most free places to speak your mind, pursue truth as best as you can attain it, and live based on what you believe.
Consider this: does Don Cherry have the right to speak his mind, pursue truth as best as he can attain it, and live based on what he believes? Well sure, until this week. Getting legally fired for having a certain opinion means that opinion is off the table. If Don Cherry can be fired from Sportsnet for saying his “you people” comment, it means you can get legally fired for saying that same thing. There are necessary restrictions on free speech for people’s basic safety, but this doesn’t sound like it falls in that category. This isn’t about freedom of speech as much as it is about freedom of ideas. The liberal media is in the business of promoting their agenda, and they get to censor anything they don’t like.
Keep in mind: I don’t like what Don Cherry said. But I would not wish to live in a society where what a certain individual “doesn’t like” determines what can and can’t be said or thought by the rest of society. I have trouble thinking that Don Cherry infringed on the rights of immigrants by saying they should be more patriotic. Is it stupid? Yes. Should he lose his job over it? Hmm…I’m not convinced.
But it raises a much larger point- what are we policing with free speech? Are we restricting speech for the purpose of public safety? For the purpose of guaranteeing everyone their essential rights outlined in the “Charter of Rights and Freedoms”? Or is it merely about whether or not they agree with the prevailing agenda?
The last question is the one they asked to determine acceptable speech in Soviet Russia, and I wonder if that’s what many modern liberals in current Canada have been asking lately- on university campuses, in government, on social media, etc.
I do think there’s a legitimate case to fire Don Cherry. As I said, he’s an idiot. There’s a lot of hockey experts who give way better game analysis, and don’t constantly create unnecessary controversy. And more so, I would hate to think that a Canadian immigrant would feel marginalized or worse about themselves while trying to watch Canada’s favourite pastime.
But I’m not so sure Don Cherry was fired because he’s a bad commentator; I think he may have been fired because he didn’t adhere to the liberal zeitgeist. There’s something about it that worries me. It’s the same thing that worries me when people aren’t allowed to say that the 9/11 terrorists were Muslim, or that homosexuality is a sin according to the Bible, or that humans have two genders. Not that I would necessarily say those things myself, but they are ideas that I would like people to be able to think about, share, and discuss without fear. That was always the ideal of liberalism- to think, believe, and act freely, so long as it does not directly infringe on the basic rights of another person.
As someone who agrees more with liberal values, I happen to live in a time when the ideas I have about social and political things tend to fall into the “acceptable” category. But I want to be able to freely critique my own ideas and the ideas available to me. I don’t want to live in fear that I may lose my voice, my income, my freedom, or my life, for thinking the “wrong” thing. And though people like Don Cherry may have stupid ideas, and might be insensitive towards people, I still care about upholding their right to say and believe such things.
So Sportsnet, if you think Don Cherry is a bad commentator, then ok, you can fire him. But if you merely don’t agree with everything he says, then I’m curious how your free speech standards are different than Soviet Russia.
Don Cherry said, following the firing: “To keep my job, I cannot be turned into a tamed robot… I would have liked to continue doing Coach’s Corner. The problem is if I have to watch everything I say, it isn’t Coach’s Corner.”
Congratulations, liberals, you’ll get your tamed robots to comment from now on.