John Carpay – The Post Millennial
The Supreme Court of Nova Scotia has bestowed its blessing on cancel culture–the twisted phenomenon whereby universities and public libraries cancel scheduled events just because someone claims to be offended. In Nova Scotia, cancel culture has spread to personalized license plates. Justice Darlene Jamieson ruled on January 31, 2020, that one anonymous complaint about Lorne Grabher’s personalized “GRABHER” license plate was enough to warrant its permanent cancellation. The Court affirmed the January 2017 decision to cancel the plate which the Grabher family had used for over 25 years, because Mr. Grabher’s surname could be “misinterpreted” as a “socially unacceptable slogan.”
Lorne Grabher is of Austrian-German heritage. His family immigrated to Canada from Europe in 1906. His father served in the Canadian Armed Forces, and was stationed in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. The family’s history, including their name and the heritage it signifies, is important to the Grabher family. In or around 1990 the Grabher family applied for the “GRABHER” plate, originally a gift to Lorne’s father and later used by Lorne’s son. For 27 consecutive years, through three generations of Grabhers, the Registrar authorized the plate for use on the family’s motor vehicles in Nova Scotia. Each year the Registrar of Motor Vehicles renewed the plate without issue.
All it took to wreck this noble family tradition was one anonymous complaint to the Registrar, in October of 2016. Without taking into account the Grabher family’s pride in its Austrian-German heritage, and ignoring all prior decisions to renew the plate year after year after year, Janice Harland of the Registrar of Motor Vehicles told Lorne Grabher: “While I recognize this plate was issued as your last name, the public cannot be expected to know this and can misinterpret it as a socially unacceptable slogan.”
For Lorne Grabher, this case is about more than a personalized plate. It’s about his family’s name, personal dignity, and the ongoing insult by the Nova Scotia government in its censorship of the plate.
Justice Darlene Jamieson has effectively equated Lorne Grabher’s surname with EATASS, FOQME, HOTCOK, BLOWJB, BRDSHT, FSTFK, FCKPIG, 8CUNT, DCHBAG, GNGBNG, FQUALL and other objectionable terms on the Banned List of words that are prohibited by the Nova Scotia Registrar of Motor Vehicles. The court was not moved by the double standard of foul language used by another government entity, the Halifax Water Board, whose bus ads included the phrases “Powerful Sh*t” and “Be proud of your Dingle.” The court also deemed irrelevant the existence of Canadian place names like “Dildo, Newfoundland,” “Swastika, Ontario,” “Red Indian Lake, Newfoundland,” “Crotch Lake, Ontario,” “Old Squaw Islands, Nunavut,” and “Cape Negro” in Nova Scotia.
Justice Jamieson relied heavily on a report by Carrie Rentschler (https://www.mcgill.ca/ahcs/people-contacts/faculty/rentschler) a McGill University professor of “feminist media studies” who specializes in things like “the construction of new political subjectivities,” “emergent forms of social collectivity,” and “the shape and practice of contemporary feminisms in social media networks and hashtag publics.”
Professor Rentschler argued that the “GRABHER” license plate supports or increases violence against women; that exposure to cultural slogans normalizes sexual violence against women; that Mr. Grabher’s plate creates an elevated risk of rape; and that Mr. Grabher’s surname is a statement in support of physical violence against women. As the Professor explains in her revised report:
“As an expression, the meaning of ‘Grabher’ could be understood to signify the support, condoning and encouragement of gendered physical violence against girls and women. ‘Grabher’ – read as ‘Grab her’- is a speech act that can potentially contribute to the harms of gendered violence against girls and women, ‘crossing over from expressive activity to threat’… As an injunction, recipients of the phrase may interpret it as encouragement to grab or grope female individuals without their consent.”
There was no evidence before the court that there is less crime in Nova Scotia, or in Mr. Grabher’s neighborhood, since the plate was revoked. There was no evidence that anyone, including the anonymous complainant, had suffered any harm as a result of the plate.
Professor Rentschler claimed that Mr. Grabher’s plate is broadly “offensive” to the public, but provided no examples of any specific people or studies who find it so. Professor Rentschler is not from Nova Scotia, admitting on cross-examination that she did not know the name of the big blue ship in the background on all Nova Scotia licence plates. She provided no evidence to support her claim that the plate endangers the general public. Nor did the Nova Scotia government present any evidence to support any of Professor Renstchler’s assertions. There was no evidence that any roadway or motorist or citizen, female or male, was ever once endangered by the plate. There was therefore no evidence that the plate represents “language that supports gendered violence” or that the “plate promotes violence against women.”
Despite the absence of evidence to support Professor Rentschler’s wild claims, Justice Jamieson actually agreed with her, ruling that “the seven letters ‘GRABHER,’ without added context to indicate this is a surname, could be interpreted as promoting sexualized violence against women and girls.”
Justice Jamieson decreed that banning Mr. Grabher’s plate is justified to prevent harm, to ensure a “safe and welcoming” environment on Nova Scotia roads, and to protect individuals in society from the effects of offensive expression. She stated: “Clearly the provincial government cannot sanction having vehicles with government-owned plates travelling the highways of this province and country bearing messages that could be considered ‘offensive or not in good taste’.”
Where would we be without the government to keep us safe from the scourge of peoples’ offensive surnames?
What actual harm Mr. Grabher’s personalized plate had caused from 1990 to 2017 was not explained by the Court, nor could the Registrar of Motor Vehicles point to any harm. The Nova Scotia government suggested the GRABHER plate hurt tourism, but the government’s witness, Peter Hackett, later admitted that there was no such evidence.
The Registrar provided no evidence on behalf of the person who complained, why that person complained, or even whether she or he resided in Nova Scotia. The Registrar treated an ethnically German name as an English phrase, and then attached an idiosyncratic and demeaning reading to it. Mr. Grabher’s claim of discrimination against Canadians of Austrian-German heritage was dismissed because, according to Justice Jamieson, persons of Austrian-German heritage do not suffer from any “pre-existing disadvantage or stereotyping in Canadian society.” Essentially: discrimination is only wrong if you belong to the right group.
The court minimized the hurt and humiliation experienced by Mr. Grabher in the past three years, claiming that he is “free” to “choose another personalized plate consisting of up to seven letters or numbers. As Justice Jamieson explained it: “He is not denied access to personalized plates, but solely access to the seven-letter, personalized “GRABHER” plate.” This “freedom” is rather worthless because no other expression on the plate would communicate the same idea as the family surname. If you cannot say what you want, there is no free expression. For a court to say “no worries, you are allowed to say other things” misses the whole point of free expression.
Cancel culture panders to the fragile snowflakes who file anonymous complaints. Their desire, to avoid feeling offended by their own imagination about what someone else’s last name could mean if translated into a different language and then distorted into something it is not, must take precedence over someone else’s right to display his own last name with pride.
When courts promote cancel culture, they harm the free society.