I'm not a big fan of the musical stylings of Curtis Jackson, aka 50 Cent, but I find it laughable that Liberal MP Dan McTeague wants to ban the rapper from entering Canada.
Closing the border to the bullet-ridden rapper is supposedly a response to his gang- and gun-glorifying lyrics. The pomposity of pimp culture, carefully packaged by the entertainment industry, has clearly hit a raw nerve in a city reeling from an inexplicable explosion of gun violence.
But using the law to go after artists and entertainers for causing anti-social behaviour is just a modern variation on the primitive theme of scapegoating. It is conceptually no different than the medieval response to famine, disease and other hardships: blame the imaginery witches. When experts cannot pinpoint the cause of a societal problem, there is an instinctual need to blame something or someone.
There is no doubt that gun violence is rocking Toronto, despite an overall decline in violent crime in the past decade. The phenomenon defies simple explanation and analysis, so it is easier to blame some crude purveyors of pop culture.
As much as the softly spoken words of 50 Cent may be seen as painting a promotional picture of comfortable living in a world of urban violence, the recurring efforts to legally hold entertainers responsible for causing complex social problems are ludicrous. In the 1990s efforts were made to ban Ice-T's song Cop Killer, and now Ice-T plays a cop on television.
Popular music may have enormous cultural impact in terms of style and attitude, but its potential as a revolutionary threat to law and order is eventually defused in its conversion to music industry product.
To believe that clowns like 50 Cent pose a real threat, you have to believe that violent expression is a trigger for violent behaviour. This hypothesis has defied empirical verification.
I prefer the "safety-valve" hypothesis. Releasing aggression in an expressive medium allows it to exist only in the worlds of imagination and fantasy.
There will always be a few lunatics and psychopaths who will have their aggression fuelled by violent expression, and the trigger can be a great work of art as much as industry-driven music.
Nonetheless, for the most part, the glorification of violence and aggressive sexuality within the world of arts and entertainment is ultimately not a significant cause in the breakdown of social order.
The current hullabaloo over 50 Cent is a bit of déjà vu for me. In 1991, I defended London book merchant Marc Emery on charges of obscenity for the sale of the sexually aggressive record As Nasty As They Wanna Be by rap artists 2 Live Crew.
The judge was not amused by songs like Me So Horny and convicted Emery. Though 50 Cent and 2 Live Crew may not be graduates of the Berklee School of Music, there is some rudimentary artistry within their songs. If taken literally in a serious vein, both artists' work can be perceived as misogynistic and promoting violence, but this doesn't mean they should be held responsible for the societal evils their lyrics reflect.
In defending 2 Live Crew, I struggled with moral ambivalence, just as I do when I listen to 50 Cent. I can understand the moral outrage. It's hard to see redeeming social value in ugly imagery expressed with such a lack of sophistication and subtlety.
But I've always believed that as a society we stand more to lose when we rely upon state institutions to silence a messenger with a disturbing message. Unless the message is an immediate incitement to violence, I believe the values of free speech outweigh the speculative harms of speech that glorifies a life of violence.
There is little reason to bring the government in to fight our battles when confronted with offensive expression.
You don't like the recording?
Don't buy it. Don't let your children buy it (but be careful with this approach). Complain to private enterprise. Business people don't give a shit about artistic integrity; if they don't think they can sell a product, they'll abandon the entertainer.
If you don't like what someone has to say, then you have to speak louder than your opponent. It's cowardly and dangerous to ask the government to banish from sight expressive acts that do not cohere with our vision of humanity.
50 Cent will come and go, but gun violence will remain and periodically explode every couple of years in many American and Canadian cities. Meanwhile, attempting to impose legal constraints on 50 Cent and his product will just increase his sales.
Banishing the imaginary depiction of a social problem just fuels forbidden-fruit curiosity. It's more productive to tackle the real problem than look for imaginary scapegoats.
Alan Young is a professor of law at Osgoode Hall. His column appears every other week. Alan Young is a professor of law at Osgoode Hall. His column appears every other week.