Offense and Other Nonsense

This is an era when the rarest commodity is a person who says what they think and thinks about what they say. There is a sense that we are being deafened by a cacophony of multimedia noise at the same time we are being crushed into conformity.

Chris Kenny, Associate Editor, The Australian

The good Dr Phil recommended to me a book some time ago that I have been reading. The book is called The Master and His Emissary by Iain McGilchrist. It is a fascinating and very scholarly work about the propensity of the left brain to dominate the right even though so many of our more important human propensities are assuredly right-brain driven.

In terms of its impact on society, McGilchrist points out that the French political thinker and historian, Alexis de Tocqueville was very prescient. De Tocqueville recognised that the lack of right-hemisphere values would lead in time to a process in which we became, despite ourselves, subject to bureaucracy and subject to our capitulation to the State.

De Tocqueville declared,

It will be a society that seeks to keep its citizens in ‘perpetual childhood’.

He maintained it would seek to preserve their happiness, but it chooses to be the sole agent and only arbiter of that happiness. Society will, he says, develop a new kind of servitude which:

…..covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characteristics cannot penetrate……. It does not tyrannise but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to be nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which government is the shepherd.

Considering these words were written over a century and a half ago, one can only marvel how prescient de Tocqueville was of the “Nanny State”.

And of course, prime among the examples that would support de Tocqueville’s thesis, is our nation’s laws regarding free speech. Section 18c of the Racial Discrimination Act goes to the heart of the matter.

This law says you cannot say anything which is “reasonably likely … to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person or a group of people” because of their “race, colour or national or ethnic origin”.

As a result of this law people are being prosecuted for saying things that the so-called “victim” maintains offended them.

The most recent prominent example of such offense being taken involves students at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT). Students are being hauled into court and having their reputations tarnished with claims of racism because they used words, that a young woman working there, insists hurt her feelings and caused subsequent psychological damage. I have written about this case before and so won’t go over the details again.

Through this dubious mechanism, it has been possible for people to shut down the entitlement to free speech of those whose opinions they disagree with by confecting offense. This device has been rendered even more effective by the growing tendency of our left-wing commentariat to encourage a sense of victimhood in various minority groups.

Others seem intent on advancing the cause to ridiculous lengths to impress upon us how caring and respectful they are. Former Army Chief and current Australian of the Year David Morrison launched a new diversity program calling on Australians to stop using gendered terms in workplaces. He counselled against using the word “guys” to describe mixed groups. One can only believe that the state of Australian society must be in a wonderful place if this is the only issue the Australian of the Year feels compelled to bring to our attention. I am sure his pronouncement will bring a lot of comfort to the homeless, the abused children in remote aboriginal communities and the second or third generation of unemployed in those communities that our economy has seemingly by-passed. And no doubt it gladdens the heart of the “thought police”.

But I am sure you have noticed that we seem to tolerate a strange dichotomy in our society about what is allowable to be said. So here we have a movement dedicated to not allowing us to say anything that might offend the sensibility of some certain delicate folk who need to be sequestered from ideas that might challenge them. But on the other hand we have some who are seemingly allowed to make the most confronting statements and even incite violence and murder in support of their archaic religious beliefs and we dare not challenge such dysfunctional ideas in case we are tarred with the brush of Islamophobia!

In the wake of the Orlando tragedy, which I referred to last week, we have seen quite a number of Imams tell us that the murder of gay and lesbian people is not only supported by Islam but is also in the best interest of the transgressing homosexuals! Yet the condemnation of such ideas has been decidedly muted. Surprisingly there seems little reticence in criticising the beliefs of Christians and Jews. Could it be because proponents of these religious beliefs don’t resort to Jihad and fatwahs to silence their critics?

There is also a body of thought amongst the fundamentalist Islamists (perhaps accidently reinforced by the controversial “Safe Schools” program) that homosexuality is a matter of individual choice and that proponents can be “treated” and thus revert to heterosexual practices. Such perverse thinking is an irrational assault on the innate sexual proclivities of gay people.

But of course we are not allowed to talk about such things. Penny Wong states that a plebiscite on gay marriage is just a stimulant for “hate speech” which is merely a pseudonym for opinions that she disagrees with. The underlying motif here is that it is hurtful for you to express a point of view we disagree with and consequently you should just shut your mouth and let us make your decisions for you because we know better!

We pride ourselves in Australia that we are one of the bastions of free speech. And perhaps we are, but it seems to me we take this freedom too much for granted and turn our backs on the insidious influences that are slowly eroding it away. There is a danger in Western civilisation generally that we over-estimate how secure that liberty really is.

There is also a danger that we mistake the nature of free speech. Attorney General, George Brandis, was pilloried for claiming that even bigots should be allowed access to free speech. But he was entirely right! Free speech is an indivisible and universal right. We either defend it for all, or not at all.

I don’t believe for example that we should be preventing the fundamentalist Islamists from telling us what they believe. But I do think we should be countering their dangerous ideas by pointing out the fallacies and the irrationality on which they are based.

I don’t think Penny Wong, or anyone else, should be silencing people by labelling their ideas as “hate speech”. Let them say what they will and then counter their arguments if you will with rational debate – but don’t silence them.

Either our ideas have merit or they do not. If they don’t, let them be discounted by the force of other ideas – not by suppressing them.

But we should acknowledge the genius of Alexis de Tocqueville with whose insights I started this essay. Moreover we should also pay tribute to McGilchrist and his insightful analysis. It is indeed the tyranny of the left-brain that compels us to always be right and to knock down the opposition to our beliefs rather than consider alternative ideas. Because of the left-brain influence, our sense of self not only becomes identified with the body of an individual, but also to the assumptions and beliefs that the individual holds. Once this false connection is made the individual then becomes even more vulnerable because not only then must the body be strenuously protected but beliefs must also be preserved lest our sense of self is eroded. In short, under these circumstances the protagonists of particular ideas can’t afford to have them questioned and any strategy to shut them down is seen as legitimate.

So the dilemma I pointed to above has two faces.

Firstly let us allow people to say largely what they like (whether they be bigots, fanatics or even Blues supporters!).

But secondly let us be courageous enough to argue against those ideas we don’t agree with. Don’t allow the protagonists of views with whom we disagree to flee to the security of the sanctuaries of offense, political correctness or religion.

Perhaps the best thing we can do in advancing this cause is to try to help people become more psychologically robust. As the good Dr Phil might say, once people know who they truly are, they would be immune from offense. But I suspect that the “offense defence” is too easy and too comfortable for them to give up easily. After all it absolves them from having to confront opposing ideas and allows an easy mechanism to denigrate the detractors of their ideas.

One Reply to “Offense and Other Nonsense”

  1. The reactions to the Brexit vote are yet another indication that maturity has been delayed for some recent generations, and that ‘not getting your own way,’ is now something for which too many are not prepared.

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