What Happened to Free Speech?

Our society is suffering immeasurably from the fact that free speech is now routinely curtailed. To put a point of view that is at odds with the left-wing politically correct position is immediately to expose oneself to unjustifiable vilification.

If for example I try to argue against same-sex marriage, I will be immediately accused of homophobia notwithstanding the fact I have lesbian and gay friends that I get along with well.

Or if I complain that indigenous issues have been hijacked by a coterie of academics whose indigenous origins are, at the best, dubious I will be shouted down as racist. And yet I have tried to advance the causes of our indigenous fellows for most of my life.

Garton Ash, in his book Free Speech argues that a precondition for free speech is “robust civility”. This seems quite obvious. If we are to come to a considered position we need to carefully listen to the arguments from both sides. Cunningly however, the protagonists of political correctness have stymied this concept by claiming that ideas contrary to their own are “offensive” and as a consequence lie outside the bounds of civility. Opposing views are thus silenced.

This is a marvellously effective device because it means that opposing viewpoints are just put aside without any requirement to counter them.

Unfortunately people are now perceived (and often perceive themselves) as vulnerable, capable of being either harmed or incited to harm others by words alone.

In his book Trigger Warning, Mick Hume complains:

The view of humanity as vulnerable, thin-skinned and ultra-sensitive makes free speech appear more dangerous today. In the twenty-first century you can draw moral authority from your status not only as an old-fashioned warrior or leader, but more often from claiming public recognition as a victim. The elevation of vulnerability into a virtue has clear implications for attitudes towards the liberty of others to indulge in offensive speech.

Our society has prospered because we have been able to accommodate diversity. The ability to take the best from diverse ideas and meld them into some acceptable construct has progressed our society time and again. Avoiding the discomfiture of having to consider viewpoints different from our own will inevitably lead to a poorer society.

We progress when we make the effort to understand the different viewpoint of others. We stultify our intellectual growth when we discard points of view that we are afraid to confront. There is a degree of intellectual dishonesty here. The casual discounting of opinions other than our own, suggests that the purveyor of such opinions cannot justify them in rational argument.

Science teaches us a valuable lesson with respect to challenging ideas. Karl Popper demonstrated that knowledge grows by testing ideas. In advancing knowledge (although constrained by their own paradigms as Thomas Kuhn showed us in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions) scientists routinely test alternative theories. In the socio-political world competing theories are dismissively discarded without proper scrutiny at all. Without those brave souls who questioned conventional wisdom we would still live in a world that was deemed to be flat, or at least a celestial body at the centre of the universe, we would still believe that the creation myth in the Book of Genesis was really the literal truth and we would still be burning witches..

The most important role of free speech is to create the conditions required for the advancement of knowledge. What’s more someone (the source now escapes me) suggested that it was a sign of psychological maturity to be able to keep in mind two conflicting ideas! The reaction I see in the press every day from people cursorily dismissing ideas counter to their own, would suggest to me that our public debate is overwhelmed with immaturity!

Regular readers would know that I don’t hold orthodox religious beliefs. But I must confess I was appalled that activists sought to make an anti-discrimination case out of the fact that the Catholic Archbishop of Hobart distributed a pamphlet to parishioners defending the traditional concept of marriage.

In recent months we have also seen left-wing activists peddling a program in schools that was purportedly about reducing bullying but was in fact about promoting gender issues to young children. The arguments of those who disagreed were immediately dismissed as the rantings of bigots and homophobes. It is almost impossible to raise a voice to be heard in public on such issues without being vilified by the so-called “progressives”.

It would seem that we in the West now spend far more time discussing how to restrict and outlaw types of speech rather than defend that precious liberty that is free speech.

Mick Hume, quoted above, writes:

Almost everyone in public life pays lip service to the principles of free speech. Scratch the surface however, and in practice most will add the inevitable ‘But……’ to button that lip and put a limit on liberty.

In recent years it has become fashionable not only to declare yourself offended by what somebody else says, but to use the ‘offence card’ to trump free speech and demand that they be prevented from saying it.

In the development of Western civilisation our universities have provided forums for the exploration of controversial ideas which compelled students to get outside their comfort zones and contemplate ideas considerably different from their own. Now universities provide ‘safe spaces’ so that minorities can cloister themselves away from exposure to confronting ideas. They ban guest speakers whose pedigree offends political correctness. They treat adult students as though they were delicate flowers that might wilt in the face of controversy. The only controversies they allow are at the margins of left wing thought.

Unfortunately for these sensitive souls who contrive to avoid having their points of view challenged, freedom of speech might actually lead to offence being taken. That is not to say that there is any valid reason for them to take offence. They have learned to take offence to avoid questioning. Any robust person who was secure in their beliefs, or who was genuinely interested in ensuring their point of view was well-informed, has no reason whatsoever to confect offence when confronted with an intellectual challenge. I believe it is my right to offend such people – not that I want to, but I do have a right to put my point of view and if they choose to take offence at that I don’t see how that is my problem at all!

The uncomfortable thing about free speech is that it needs to be extended to everyone. Our so-called “progressive” thinkers believe that free speech is only the prerogative of people who think like them. Attorney General, George Brandis, was correct when he said, “People have a right to be bigots” (although, of course, he was vilified by the left for having made such a comment). The contest of ideas should always be in the open and exposed to public scrutiny.

I don’t want to suppress the champions of alternative ideas such as those who deny the holocaust, oppose immunisation, protest that fluoridisation of our water is poisoning us, believe that the destruction of the twin towers was a CIA plot, that fairies actually exist or that Elvis Presley still lives. Let them state their case and let us decide on the evidence. You see the good thing about free speech is that although people can say what they will you are also entitled to respond however you see fit.

The words attributed to Voltaire (but actually written by his biographer Evelyn Beatrice Hall) “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” no longer inform public debate.

(Oscar Wilde in his inimitable way put Voltaire’s dictum thus: “I may not agree with you but I will defend to the death your right to make an ass of yourself!”)

Too often now, if I disapprove of what you say, I will take steps to silence you. In doing so our freedom is diminished.

A good example of this trend may be seen in the current attempt to change the Marriage Act to cater for same sex marriages. When still Prime Minister, Tony Abbott promised that if re-elected the government would move early in its next term to conduct a plebiscite on this issue. Malcolm Turnbull has confirmed that is still the government’s intention. The same sex marriage advocates have railed against this proposal on the basis that proponents for traditional marriage, in arguing their case, would most likely cause offence. Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, Penny Wong, in a recent essay wrote, “Opponents of marriage equality already use words that are both hurtful and intended to hurt.”

Nick Cater, Executive Director of the Menzies Research Centre, responded in this way to Wong’s statement:

Wong, in other words, wants to curtail free speech; those who disagree with her forfeit the right to be heard. ‘All silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility,’ wrote John Stuart Mill.  The truth of that aphorism has seldom rung more loudly than in the debate over same sex marriage. Proponents divide the world into two classes of people; tolerant folk like themselves and intolerant bigots who oppose what they slyly call ‘marriage equality’.

We thought we had just about won the battle for free speech but unfortunately it is being eroded away under our feet and it would not take much more for one of the basic platforms of our hard-fought-for democracy to become fatally undermined.

Let us try to rebuild that “robust civility” that Garton Ash identified as necessary for free speech. This will require us to look over those mean little walls that we manufacture to make us feel secure in pursuit of our particular chosen identity.

Let me finish with the words of Kenan Malik, the Indian-born English writer, lecturer and broadcaster.

Any form of progressive politics requires us to overcome, rather than embrace, the barriers of identity. Free speech is an essential tool with which to breach the barriers of identity. At the same time, only by breaching those barriers, reconnecting that which we have disconnected, will we be able to nurture free speech in its fullness. 

10 Replies to “What Happened to Free Speech?”

  1. Good article Ted. I support free speech. But I am appalled at what some people say. People can attempt to win me over and reinforce their own beliefs. But is it my right not to listen. Bertrand Russell once wrote in response to a letter from a fascist “I feel obliged to say that the emotional universes we both inhabit are so distinct, and in deepest ways opposed, that nothing fruitful or sincere could emerge from association between us.” So by all means express free speech but don’t be surprised if I walk off shaking my head!

    1. Thanks Peter. A nice quote from Bertrand Russell – I will store it away for further reference!

  2. One of the most pernicious effects of the denial of freedom of speech and open debate is that it causes smouldering resentment which breaks out in sometimes overwhelmingly negative ways. It promotes stereotypical, bigoted thinking and tries to eradicate complexity and uncertainty from any debate. I see political correctness and racism, sexism, genuine homophobia etc as two sides of the same coin. Neither side is interested in truth, both sides deal in simplistic stereotyping, neither give the majority of us any credit for intelligence and the ability to deal with complexity and uncertainty. To me the Cronulla Riots are an example of extremely regrettable but predictable backlash. If you assume that we are all boneheaded racists and treat us that way, then too many of us start behaving that way. What is happening in Europe and America are further examples. The total inability of the European political elite to recognise that mass, uncontrolled migration is an existential threat to the cultures and ways of life of the nations being overwhelmed is driving voters to look for salvation at the extreme ends of the political spectrums. Europeans have a right to preserve their culture and religions as much a anybody else. If that right is threatened the majority will react and not always rationally. In the US a vulgar populist is gaining huge support for the simple reason that he refuses to be PC. The great paradox is that the fanatically politically correct give great encouragement to exactly that which they tell us they oppose – extreme bigotry. They behave exactly the same way as the bigots behave. That is the greatest danger of political correctness. When I was a student I was deeply affected by Jacob Bronowski’s TV documentary series ‘The Ascent of Man’. I have burned into my memory the scene in which he stood out side one of Europe’s worst Nazi extermination camps next to a muddy pool that he told us contained the ashes of his murdered relations. He thrust his hand into the pool and raised a handful of muddy ash. He said ‘This is what men do when they are certain they are right’. In a brilliant rhetorical masterstroke he also said ‘I beseech you in the bowels of Christ to always accept that you may be wrong.’ He quoted the words of a bigoted fanatic, Oliver Cromwell written to the Scottish Presbyterians to try to swing them to his side in the English Civil War. Bronowski used those same words to beautiful affect to attack exactly the sort of bigoted fanaticism that the brutal Cromwell promoted.

    1. That is a very erudite response, Dave, and I thank you for it.

      I was also impressed with Bronowski. The book assembling the TV presentations he gave, still sits on my bookshelf.

      I can only agree with your assertions that both in Europe and the United States we are starting to see the natural outcomes of suppressing free speech.

      Thank you for your insightful contribution.

  3. Hi Ted,

    I support free speech and often recoil at overt PC responses.


    To walk a mile in somebody else’s shoes is to understand them better. As a white, heterosexual, anglo saxon male growing up in Australia I can’t imagine there were many times when your voice couldn’t be heard.

    Try being one of the marginalised and see how free speech really is. I can understand why minority groups use whatever tools come to hand to help their causes.

    The church, by way of example, claim to be marginalised by political correctness. This is disingenuous. The church has totally dominated discourse in the area of social morality for centuries. The issue as I see it, is not so much that the church is being marginalised, but rather that they do not want to cede any space in the social discourse.

    I feel I must also comment on marriage equality. Let’s remember that marriage was introduced to protect the property of the wealthy from bastard children and that celibacy of the clergy was introduced to protect the property of the church. Bible examples of marriage include polygamy and concubines. King Solomen and King David had wives and concubines numbering in the hundreds. Further, the beating and killing of wives was sanctioned.

    Current TV shows include, The Bachelor, Farmer needs a wife, Married at first sight etc. Where is the hue and cry for these blasphemies against the sanctity of marriage.

    To be clear, I have no interest in marriage equality; whatever that means. I do however expect to able to protect my assets and my partner, which under current laws are afforded only to married couples.

    1. A wonderfully eloquent response Bruno! You have made a number of good points, but most importantly you have argued your position thoughtfully without having to recourse to petty name calling. You are exemplifying the way free speech should work.

      Great to hear from you again. I trust things are well with you.

  4. I am not an Anglo-Saxon male although I am white and heterosexual. I was born in Australia the eighth of nine kids into a very working class Irish style Catholic family of good convict stock. I know what it is like to live with a ghetto mentality, to feel persecuted and resentful. I also know what it is like to take advantage of the opportunities offered by a Conservative government to work like hell, finish school and go on to university where I discovered for the first time, through my reading, that my family lived below the poverty line in a rich country. I also know what it is like to be indoctrinated into an intolerant and authoritarian belief system and to liberate myself from it with a great deal of resulting emotional pain. I am also deeply proud of who I am and of my heritage and culture and everybody else should be as well, whatever your heritage is.

    I don’t like the facile ‘walk a mile in somebody else’s shoes’ thing for a very simple reason. My Aboriginal wife had hardly worn shoes when she and I first got together. I have walked beside her for 37 years and now she does wear shoes most of the time. Some would think that an improvement.

    I am heartily sick of the mantra of uncritical praise for my wife’s culture. She speaks an Aboriginal language as a first language, her parents didn’t see a white man until they were in their late childhood, she was born under a tree, spent her childhood sleeping in a humpy, was promised in marriage to a man around 30 years her senior already married to her sister, she saw girls in their young teens savagely beaten and was told that one was killed, for trying to avoid such a marriage, she was a mother before she turned 13 and was savagely beaten by the father of her child publicly with no protection offered to her from those watching. She watched her son die at the age of 10 from leukemia, came to within 20 hours of death from end stage renal failure at the age of 24 and has survived all of that and a marriage to an Anglo-Celtic, heterosexual (and therefore obviously privileged) white man to earn a bachelor degree and become and MLA and minister of the crown.

    There are a lot of problems with our Anglo-whatever culture and the politically correct love bringing them to our attention in minute and ideologically absurd detail every chance they get. There are a lot of problems with my wife’s culture as well and we are convinced that Aboriginal people will not get anywhere near solving their own problems without making some pretty significant changes to the way they see the world and organize their responses to the problems it now brings. My wife, and my fiercely proud daughter, are very keen to initiate and maintain an honest discussion with Aboriginal people and other concerned Australians about what those problems may be and what Aboriginal people themselves can do to deal with them. As one example, the beating and killing of wives are still sanctioned by many as much as they were in Biblical times and, of course, the august and ancient institution of polygyny is still practiced by many as part of the world’s oldest living culture, as is the idea of blood revenge. Their biggest obstacles in their path are put there by the politically correct.

    They have both received death threats from Aboriginal activists convinced by the politically correct that they are Victims and therefore have the right to be as aggressive and violent as they feel like being at any time especially towards Aboriginal women who dare to disagree with them. My daughter in particularly has been vilified on the internet by a young, indigenous, gay, male activist in terms as violent, misogynist and racist as the very nasty påost that Nova Peris was recently subjected to. The difference is that the politically correct are not interested in bringing any of this to the attention of the public, will actively suppress news like this and will vilify as ‘right wing’ or ‘racist’ any white journalist or politician who tries and will snub and simply ignore any Aboriginal person who tries. So, instead of trying to ‘walk in somebody else’s shoes’ you could try walking beside the cowed and shoeless until you learn to hear their voices unfiltered by the politically correct members of the master race or their nasty and intolerant mentees.

    On marriage, I am not worried about churches and their attitude to marriage or what I would call a pretty facile explanation of the reason for the existence of marriage in our culture. My marriage is the most important single achievement of my life, I don’t give a damn what uses European aristocracy made of it and I am very concerned that we retain what little we have left of it for our kids’ sake. Every society that our species has ever evolved to allow them to deal with the circumstances in which they found themselves have developed an institution that you could call ‘marriage’ and all cultures tend to be extremely conservative in their attitudes towards that most fundamental of institutions. Marriage has always been primarily about stabilizing and controlling sexual relationships because these relationships often end up producing children. Children can only be produced by those who have the biological plumbing to make that happen. It’s all about biology and evolution not churches and property. They are also concerned, of course, with the protection and inheritance of property rights, even those of the churches once, but they are also about protecting the rights to shell money, access to hunting and gathering grounds, gardens, herds of domestic animals and so on. To narrow it all down to just the rights of churches to property rights is naively and extraordinarily simplistically Euro-centric. But mostly, for me, marriage is about producing and raising kids in a stable environment and how that is done will of course depend on the society that produced that particular version of this, the most fundamental of institutions. Which means, for me, that we all have a right to the free expression of our views on an attempt to change the institution in a fundamental way without being labeled a homophobic bigot by the most self righteous and arrogant of all bigots – the politically correct. And I have the right to pass an opinion on the polygyny and forced marriage of child brides that my wife was subjected to without being labeled ‘racist’.åç

  5. Dave, you, your wife and your daughter are exemplary Australians. I have admired the way you have confronted indigenous issues without ever taking up the victim mantle. You and I know that indigenous advancement will never occur until indigenous people take responsibility for their own lives. As I said in my “And Another Thing” piece too many indigenous people complain about their lot without actually proffering solutions. It is always someone else’s responsibility to save them from their misfortune. And you are right in condemning those who hold up aboriginal custom and tradition as being noble and praiseworthy when it is often misogynistic, demeaning and stultifying.

    But let me say that I know Bruno quite well and he is a concerned intelligent human being whom I admire. He has suffered from being a member of a minority group, and just like you, I have never heard him take on the mantra of victim.

    I feel privileged to have you both contribute to the debate on my blog site.

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