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.