Free Speech

Free Speech: In Search of True Defenders

Note: the bulk of this article below was written before the outcome of the recent parliamentary inquiry into proposed changes to Section 18C. I have left the article largely intact, with just a few nods to events of the past month.

Free speech advocates have every reason to feel aggrieved with the current government. Why, just a few weeks ago – after a parliamentary inquiry into proposed changes to Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act – Coalition politicians somehow managed to combine pusillanimity with pugnacity. Scott Morrison brusquely claimed to “know” that “this issue doesn’t create one extra job”, failing to “see any intersection between the issue and those [i.e., economic] priorities” (Michael Koizol, “Scott Morrison Warns Against Internal Fight Over Free Speech Laws: ‘It Doesn’t Create One Job’”, The Sydney Morning Herald, March 1st, 2017). Other ministers made the same attempt at compensating for their lack of ideological fortitude by publicly scorning the expansion of free speech.

This is not a new claim, by any means. Morrison’s argument reminds me of some rather tremulous comments the Prime Minister uttered last August in response to the same issue:

“With all due respect to the very worthy arguments surrounding it, it is not going to create an extra job or…build an extra road” (Paul Karp, “Labor Accuses Coalition of Changing Stance on Racial Discrimination Law,” The Guardian, August 19th, 2016).

Around the same time, one of Turnbull’s ministers, Mitch Fifield, said much the same thing on ABC’s Q and A program (even repeating the phrase “worthy arguments” to ensure everybody knew he was on message):

“While I appreciate many of the worthy arguments that some of my colleagues put forward in relation to 18C, it’s not something that we have an intention to change” (Q and A, August 22nd, 2016).

Fifield went on to offer a rather insipid rationale for inaction, which sounded uncannily like his leader’s. And last December, John Alexander (the Liberal member for the federal Sydney seat of Bennelong) urged the government to concentrate on “productive things rather than political things [i.e., debates over amending 18C]” (Rosie Lewis, “Malcolm Turnbull Faces Section 18C Test Amid Ethnic Opposition,” The Australian, December 29th, 2016). It seems that this kind of febrility is endemic within the Liberal Party.

To be sure, Turnbull has softened his opposition to changing 18C, and his government is now proposing certain amendments to the offending act. He’s offered a welcome rationale for the public modification of his assessment, saying “there is a view” that “the bar has been set too low” with regards to the law in question, thereby constituting an unwarranted “restriction [upon] free speech”. This is quite reasonable: as recent controversies have indicated, views that appear to fall outside the definition of racially offensive speech have nonetheless proven vulnerable to legal censure. To what extent Turnbull’s change of heart has been the result of a genuine shift in perspective – as opposed to a restive backbench – is uncertain. But even some of his more recent reflections on the subject are relatively muted: witness the way he talked about freedom of speech in the abstract (“there is a view…”), as if he himself were too afraid to own the opinion to which he was referring. A full-throated shout of defence it was not.

The lack of conviction is still a worry, particularly from someone who supposedly holds to the tenets of classical liberalism. That other segments of the Liberal Party – you know, that party of small government and personal liberty – should also be shy on this issue is equally troubling. Even if the Coalition is successful in securing changes to 18C, the fact remains that a number of senior ministers have staked a lot on the argument that amending the law is a mere distraction from the task of financial and economic management. Moreover, they seem to suggest that trying to change the parameters of 18C – even if successful – would do nothing to improve the budget’s parlous state, ease the country’s financial woes, or expand employment opportunities for people. These two concerns are, it seems, mutually exclusive.

However, the basic assumptions resident in the above comments raise crucial and abiding questions about the kind of culture we want to see prevail in this country; the fundamental values that undergird Australia’s liberal democracy; and even the relationship (if indeed there is one) between basic politico-philosophical values and economic prosperity. Their Quisling character aside, the arguments proffered by Turnbull, et. al., revealed a surprising degree of ignorance regarding the relationship between free speech and a healthy body politic. I’ll say more as I proceed.

A Hollow Vision

In making their argument against pursing changes to 18C, Coalition ministers repeatedly offered what could be called the “technocratic defence”. Theirs were the words of dry administrative experts – of elite technocrats, committed only to solving the impersonal problems of a modern industrial economy. They seemingly lacked sufficient interest in more substantive, indeed existential,[1] issues such as freedom of thought and expression; instead, they preferred to hide behind a supposedly exhaustive obligation to the nation’s technical-economic challenges. In other words, their justification represents the evacuation of philosophical and cultural substance from the project of governance, reducing it to a hollowed-out form of managerialism. Worryingly, their views implicitly devalue the constitutive importance of the basic liberties this country possesses, and upon which our politics – and indeed our society – are built.

As one of those basic liberties, freedom of speech has made an essential contribution to the enviable character of contemporary Australia. Similarly, it is integral to the tolerant and intellectually rich societies that have developed over the centuries in the West. Freedom of speech has been astonishingly successful in enabling Western states to resolve a complex array of problems across virtually every field of inquiry. Without liberality of speech, one loses many of the other important freedoms we cherish: freedom of religion as a crucial subset of free speech; freedom to assemble peacefully for the purposes of, say, political expression; or the freedom to vote for the party of one’s choice (and to later criticise it), as a further instance of the citizen’s articulation of his or her views. Moreover, freedom of speech cannot be separated from freedom of thought: curtail the one, and you inevitably restrict a person’s right to pursue the other. Liberal democracies, which have come to represent the fruits of Western culture in political form, cannot properly survive without these elements. They are intrinsically, indissolubly, connected. Almost by definition, Western culture prizes freedom of speech as the public manifestation of rational, free-thinking individuals. Restrict it, and one ends up desiccating the culture to which it gives life.

Advocating for the liberal expression of one’s views – in this case, by urging amendment of an illiberal law – is therefore no mere symbolic act. Conversely, to leave it alone as too controversial is far from inconsequential, such is the deep relationship between this feature of the West’s cultural legacy and the kind of convivial, open society modern Australians enjoy. By contrast, the vision of the putative technocrat, with his narrow dedication to achieving a balance between economic inputs and outputs, is largely empty. It appears satisfied with a rather barren political culture – bereft of the vibrancy that stems from a vision of what makes for a mature, responsible, truly flourishing citizenry. As John Roskam, head of the free-market think-tank Institute for Public Affairs, recently quipped, if things like road-building are the final measure of good governance, there really is nothing to separate Australia from North Korea.

To be sure, I am not arguing for an activist administration; states should never be the final guarantors of free speech and ideational exchange (as if all depended on their paternalistic largesse). Nevertheless, there is much they can do to limit themselves so that individual liberty is preserved, even expanded – including divestment of any powers they might have to improperly police individual expression. Anything less is an abnegation of responsibility on the part of liberal democratic politicians and lawmakers. It is therefore surprising in the extreme that elected officials – particularly those in the liberal mould – should have thought that road-building and budget repair, as important as those activities are, rank higher than one of the supporting pillars of Western culture.

But the hollowness of vision to which I am referring runs deeper than that. In many ways, political questions can ultimately be reduced to questions regarding the nature of the human person, and the proper ordering of human relationships. That is, one of the fundamental issues lying behind political debates is what it means to be truly human – and, hence, what kind of community or social order is likely to be most conducive to human flourishing. Listening to Turnbull, Fifield, Alexander and Morrison trying to play economics off against philosophical concerns, one would get the impression that for them, a human being can be reduced to a determinable economic unit, who will respond appropriately to positive material stimuli. It’s a view that casts individuals as pure consumptive actors, without reference to the kinds of core principles or qualities that animate a person. This is, of course, incredibly shallow. Humans are not simply objects that can be deterministically manipulated by mere material considerations. They are conscious beings, possessed of rationality and free will, capable of exercising these powers as they receive and analyse the world around them. Humans are, as it were, agents, acting and engaging and negotiating with reality on the basis of a fundamental orientation – sometimes misaligned, but nonetheless present – towards the attainment of truth.

Freedom of speech respects these insights into the human condition. It rests on the presumption that humans are rational beings, capable of using logic and evidence to explore and determine their views on a particular issue. It places faith in the capacity of human beings to combine intellectual concepts in a coherent and ordered way, such that they may arrive at (rough) approximations of various aspects of reality. To that end, advocates for freedom of speech – correctly, in my view – argue that the best way for grasping the truth, or of deciding on a matter of public importance, is to allow all views to be heard; that way, the individual can, with relative liberty, reason through different lines of argument. This isn’t perfect by any means, since nothing that humans devise ever is. But comparatively speaking, liberality in speech provides a surer means of developing adequate knowledge about the world, and securing correspondence between one’s beliefs and that which is true. To paraphrase the late Michael Novak, free speech gives “play…to [the] unlimited drive to ask questions, and to [the] unrestricted desire to know” as humans seek out truth.

Such accounts also implicitly assume the human person is more than the sum of her biological or socio-cultural parts. They tend to conceive of the individual as a positive entity (rather than the mere intersection of broader forces), possessing a self-regarding, self-critical ability to interpret the world around her, and to make decisions accordingly. It respects the fact that whilst a person is obviously shaped by various external factors, she is no mere passive receptacle or programmed automaton. Favourable treatments of free speech assume that the person still bears the freedom of will to select some truth-claims over others, and to decide for herself (based, one hopes, on rational thought) where the truth might lie. Of course, presuppositions, unacknowledged self-interest, or the effects of social conditioning will invariably insinuate themselves into the structures of an individual’s thinking. However, free speech advocacy takes seriously humans’ capacity for reasoned choice. On this view, an unrestricted exchange of views promotes intellectual virtue, and provides the most expansive context within which human rationality may flourish.

Unwarranted restrictions on speech, on the other hand, undermine crucial aspects of human uniqueness. Beliefs that have been coerced (or manipulated via the proscription of unpalatable views) are neither rational nor free: they aren’t rational, because coercion as a means of guaranteeing “correct” belief breaks the logical link between adherence to a certain truth-claim and its rational or evidential merits; and they aren’t free, for the self-evident reason that force or arbitrary restriction is the very antithesis of political – even volitional – liberty. Indeed, to accept veridical claims on the basis of active compulsion or government censorship represents the very negation of rational discourse between responsible, thinking beings. To suggest that the concerns of the modern, technocratic state are more important than amending an affront to freedom of speech doesn’t just mute a key aspect of the West’s cultural heritage; it also invites a diminished view of the individual, and inhibits a crucial mechanism for the intellectual thriving of human beings.

A False Choice

If what I have written were the only reasons for criticising Turnbull and his ministers, then I’d say it was enough. But in addition to implicitly deprecating the substantive value of free speech, their comments represent a false choice between economic concerns and philosophical principles. The idea that they are separate and separable fails as a general argument, precisely because of the intrinsic connection between the free exchange of ideas and the generation of wealth and economic prosperity. Whilst Coalition ministers sought to play the “productive” off against the (so-called) “political”, they were seemingly unaware that the former is, in many ways, reliant on the latter. That is, communication that is largely unrestricted forms a necessary pre-condition for the sort of mesmerising prosperity Western countries have historically enjoyed. More prosaically, the ability to freely debate important issues offers a society the best chance of developing credible – and, for our purposes here, economical – solutions to complex problems. The economist and economic historian, Deidre McCloskey, has argued the Great Enrichment experienced by the Western world since the middle of the nineteenth century can be explained in large part by the success of certain ideas. As McCloskey suggests:

“What mattered [in relation to the enrichment of the West] were two levels of ideas: the ideas for betterment themselves (the electric motor, the airplane, the stock market), dreamed up in the heads of the new entrepreneurs drawn from the ranks of ordinary people; and the ideas in society at large about such people and their betterments – in a word, liberalism” (Deidre McClosky, “The Great Enrichment,” NRO.com, November 7th, 2015).

According to McCloskey, the West’s unprecedented levels of economic development (unprecedented in historical, and even current global, terms) cannot be understood unless one takes note of their intellectual basis. At one level, that meant the ideas of betterment themselves: technical innovation that led, either directly or indirectly, to expanding prosperity. It hardly needs saying that advances such as these are offered a boon when ideas can be freely exchanged, without restriction. And indeed, at another level, McCloskey seems to be saying exactly that: the “massive ideological shift towards market-tested betterment”, generating not merely technical innovation, but a fundamental change in the way (Western) societies were composed, as well as the manner in which individuals – now seen as beings possessed of freedom and equality – related to each other. McCloskey is clear: “our riches [came] from piling idea on idea…”

This should hardly come as a shock. After all, there exists a connection – one that can be intuitively grasped – between freedom of speech and economic prosperity. It may not always be direct, but it is there. Considered as an economic doctrine, freedom of speech promotes the open transmission of ideas conducive to social and material betterment – ideas that, when co-mingling, have the potential to generate profound advances in technological sophistication and material wealth. The zoologist and science writer, Matt Ridley, has cheekily called this process “ideas having sex”. By that, he means that the complex marriage of diverse concepts – sometimes from very different fields of enquiry – generates new knowledge, driving significant economic progress. Freedom of intellectual exchange stimulates creativity, leads to an intellectually fertile citizenry, and ultimately spurs on all manner of innovations. As the academic Brett Christensen has written, “free flowing ideas and debates contribute to creativity…education, and cultural evolution”. The thinking that some of our elected officials have recently showcased relies on a spurious division between two phenomena that are intimately intertwined.

There is, of course, one obvious rejoinder to what I have just said – namely, what any of this has to do with proposed amendments to a law which putatively concerns racially offensive speech. Indeed, whilst some may well concede the above points as theoretically valid, they might still argue that issues relating to free speech and racial vilification (on the one hand), and economic progress (on the other) are simply unconnected. To put the point in the form of a question: just how would amending or abolishing 18C of the RDA help politicians improve productivity or tackle the country’s budgetary woes?

But if the rejoinder is obvious, so too is a surrejoinder: it is simply impossible to predict what ideas may flow, interact or “copulate” as a result of the removal of restrictions to speech and the exchange of ideas. This may not happen immediately or directly. But if the history of economic and technical progress is anything to go by, the germination of some ideas by others (including those that may, at first blush, appear entirely unrelated) can occur in the most surprising of ways.

Please bear in mind, I am not making the rather outlandish argument that giving space to racially insulting speech might somehow lead to economic enrichment, or usefully contribute to policy discussion. What I am saying is that winding back 18C might provide clear air for views that have been illegitimately captured by the law – views that might, if given an honest hearing, open up discussions around important issues that touch on both society and economics (however obliquely). Indeed, as UQ professor of law James Allan has remarked, the remit of 18C has expanded to the point where it is now invoked to try and silence serious views regarding culture and public policy, on the spurious grounds that they are racist. This is in large part because of problems with the law itself. Amend it, and politicians and policy-makers wrestling with complex, multifaceted problems might find themselves aided by propositions that now fall under the shadow of legal sanction.

I think this response can be sharpened up a bit by focusing on one particular manifestation of the wider controversy. Recall the original context in which Turnbull made his comments. They were partly sparked by a complaint (using 18C) against the late cartoonist, Bill Leak, and a cartoon he’d drawn in The Australian of an Aboriginal man who didn’t know the name of his wayward son. Leak sought to go behind the events of the day, which were related to a contemporaneous report on Four Corners, alleging despicable treatment of young indigenous men at a youth detention facility in the Northern Territory. Leak wanted to ask why these young men were locked up in such facilities in the first place. His point, pungently made, was that the real scandal lay in the neglectful environments in which the boys had grown up, where parents had commonly failed in their duty to model responsibility, moderation and self-control. Certain individuals began legal proceedings in response to the cartoon (since abandoned), which led to several fraught weeks for Leak and his employer.

What has all this to do with economic issues? At first glance, very little. But think about it for a moment. The ongoing ill-health of many indigenous communities – particularly those in remote areas – is very costly. It is costly in human terms, of course, as lives are sometimes irrevocably damaged. But it is also costly economically. All those young indigenous men who languish in prisons and detention facilities around the country obviously aren’t contributing to the economy: they’re consuming public resources and they’re not in the workforce. Their previous crimes have cost individuals and the state both resources and money. Looking at the issue through a purely economic lens, it’s clear that those young men are adding to the overall financial burden of both the states and the Commonwealth.

Leak’s visual commentary sought to provide one explanation for why dysfunction prevails in certain Aboriginal communities – dysfunction that, whilst devastating on a purely human level, also has an important economic dimension. It is an urgent issue that warrants open debate. If the reasons for the existence of such deleterious environments – environments that seem to produce an inordinate number of young men with a propensity for delinquency and criminality – can be found, so much the better. However, if certain views are deemed illegitimate, and attempts are made to silence them via the threat of litigation, then an important public conversation is curtailed. Such restrictions upon ideas and opinions simply chills free debate, deprives people of possible solutions, and risks perpetuating tragic and costly problems.

Effective public policy cannot long survive without the existence of facts. I’m not referring to dominant narratives, nor comforting ideologies, but to stark, uncomfortable, messy facts. That is the only way a country’s socio-economic problems can be properly tackled. If policy is founded upon a bed of truth, then politicians can better target their efforts. But it becomes exceedingly difficult to achieve such a goal when communication and inquiry is diminished – haunted – by the spectre of state-sponsored censorship. Ultimately, this is not a question of whether, say, Bill Leak’s views are correct (although for what it’s worth, I think his cartoon was spot on). The point is that the susceptibility of certain views to legal censure, before they have even been discussed or debated, represents an irrational, arbitrary approach to public discourse and the resolution of such desperate issues.

Indeed, if it can be shown why some Aboriginal communities are seedbeds for the kinds of young offending we have seen, then policy (to the extent that government policy should be wielded in this area) can be effectively applied. That, of course, can have economic and budgetary flow-on effects, as communities are stabilized, children are properly educated, young men are kept out of jail, people are placed in employment, costs are reined in, and the financial burden shouldered by the state is reduced. In point of fact, then, changes to certain race-based laws have the potential to (indirectly) contribute to the very goals our fearless leaders claim to be concerned about. As such, the argument that economic issues and possible amendments to 18C are incompatible or unrelated is false, and anyone making it is either being obtuse or disingenuous.

***

Again, the government’s recently-proposed changes to 18C is a welcome development. But one gets the feeling that its heart is still not in this fight. And it is just one of several debates around principles and philosophy from which the Coalition has tried to run, or on which it has remained frustratingly silent. By dragging this particular debate out over several months (and more), the government has needlessly wasted time and political capital. More importantly, by grounding so much of its resistance in spurious arguments, it has undermined its own political and philosophical outlook. Despite the current shift, the vehemence and consistency with which the above views have been articulated by members of the Coalition makes it difficult to believe that they have simply withered away. This is either a sign of political cravenness or a basic loss of liberal values. Is it any wonder, then, that voters have begun to look elsewhere?

[1] ‘Existential’ in the sense of the deeper character and quality of existence, not its mere presence.

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Free Speech and its Discontents: Part One

Introduction

Freedom of speech is to liberal democracies what air is to a person: if either one is cut off, the body begins to asphyxiate. The largely unfettered right to speak freely is a necessary and fundamental feature of modern Western political culture, without which it could not exist. Indeed, it’s not too much to say that the West’s relative prosperity, technological sophistication and civic stability owe much to the long-standing traditions of open enquiry and the liberal exchange of ideas.

Despite the importance of free speech, however, recent times have witnessed various attempts to circumscribe it. Under the guise, say, of creating a more harmonious society, encouraging “responsible” discourse, or redressing past wrongs, a select few seek to outlaw or extirpate dissenting ideas — dissenting, that is, from the dominant cultural narratives they themselves have propagated. Sadly, it’s often the self-styled paragons of tolerance and compassion who support such restrictions most ardently: progressive elites, who see themselves as members of a kind of moral vanguard, moulding the amorphous mass of society in their own image.

Few Western countries have been immune. Sometimes, activists have harnessed the legislative powers of the state to silence that which they deem offensive or scandalous. Others have sought to create cultural environments on university campuses (so-called “safe spaces”) in an effort to shield students from countervailing ideas and opinions. In a sad twist of irony, they often employ hostile, even violent, methods to achieve their goal of censoring or expelling unpalatable views. Vignettes aside, the ebbing of free speech has been reflected statistically: not so long ago, for example, the Pew Research Forum found that 40% of millennials (those born after 1982, and reaching young adulthood some time in the mid-2000s) thought that insulting speech should be liable to legal sanction.

Australia, too, has been an ideological battleground for conflict over the open trafficking of ideas. Case-in-point: the ongoing debate over Section 18c of the Racial Discrimination Act, and the pernicious effects it has had on a person’s ability to speak freely. Recent cases involving university students and a political cartoonist have exposed the absurd implications of that law. Similarly, 2015 saw the Catholic archbishop of Tasmania hauled before that state’s anti-discrimination tribunal, simply for disseminating literature which upheld the church’s view of marriage to parochial schools in the archdiocese  (a view which happens to conform to current Australian law). These instances are quite telling, but they are only the tip of a great iceberg — one whose ideological mass remains largely invisible, submerged beneath the welter of everyday events. They are, in fact, products of a long intellectual and cultural gestation,  representing the latest outworking of trends that now significantly shape the character of Western societies. Having been nurtured in progressive and left-wing circles, their effects are being felt beyond the confines of the academy. More to the point, they have succeeded (at least to some extent) in eroding the robust commitments liberal democracies have traditionally had to freedom of speech and opinion.

It’s important, then, to try and understand just how we reached this point, and to uncover the sources of the current ideological ambivalence — even hostility — towards freedom of speech. The above examples will serve as reference points, since their respective features so clearly distill the main currents of thought I have in mind. I suggest we ought to consider at least four main intellectual strands, all of which have gradually, yet inexorably, insinuated themselves into key areas of modern society: scepticism regarding the so-called Western project (of which freedom of speech is a key feature); the popularization of post-modernity; multiculturalism and the rise of identity politics; and a philosophical penchant, endemic within progressive politics, for trying to remake society from above.

None of these trends has operated in isolation. More often than not, they have worked in tandem, mutually reinforcing the distinctive contributions each has had to make in the burgeoning restrictions upon free speech in Western polities. It is easy to see, for instance, how a demoralized perspective regarding the West (given a fillip by Marxian-critical and post-colonial accounts of Western culture) might dovetail with the ideological assumptions that have given rise to certain strains of multiculturalism and identity politics.

On the other hand, I think post-modern thought has had an enervating effect upon freedom of speech through popular dissemination of several of its features. To be sure, it may not have independently led to the restriction of the boundaries of free speech (for one thing, post-modernism resists all meta-narratives and claims to truth, regarding them as ill-fated attempts at intellectual authoritarianism). However, the implications of its basic assumptions have succeeded, I think, in undermining the cogency of the principle, providing the ground for other perspectives — far less conducive to the maintenance of free speech — to substantively challenge this singular Western achievement.

Another little caveat before we move on. It’s sometimes tempting to think that if one has uncovered the origins of an idea, development or phenomenon with which one take issue, the object of criticism has thereby been falsified. Not so. That is what philosophers call a genetic fallacy: the belief that by pointing to the genesis of an opinion, a conclusion regarding its veracity can be drawn. But exposure of origins and exposure of fallacy are not necessarily the same thing. Where the logical and philosophical roots of a particular trend are weak or febrile, I might endeavour to point this out, hoping then that doubt may be cast on the justifications used by current advocates of censorship. I shall, however, reserve more substantive criticisms of those who support such restrictions, or who see little wrong with current laws in this field, for later posts. At any rate, it is crucial that we understand the deeper forces at work within contemporary culture, and how they have helped subvert a key precondition for many of the other freedoms people in the West enjoy.

Doubting the Value of Western Culture: The Voices of Scepticism

In this opening post, I’ve adopted a fairly broad-brush approach towards the issue by surveying the diffuse manifestations of scepticism towards the Western “project” — that is, doubts over the preservation, promotion and consolidation of the fundamental freedoms characteristic of the West. It is an increasingly fashionable mode of engagement with the Western tradition, and for many people, constitutes a basic orientation towards their intellectual heritage. This is true, not only for those dwelling in the rarefied environs of academia, but for ordinary folk, who have bought into a populist version of wariness about one’s own culture. They do not simply express doubts over the spread of the West’s values beyond its traditional geographic boundaries (something that ought to be approached with due caution, of course). Rather, sceptical attitudes regarding the superiority or desirability of key  Western values within the West are on the rise.

Though now a common attitude, the source of such widespread disenchantment lies in certain sections of the Western intellectual and cultural elite. It has long adopted a doubtful, even hostile, attitude towards the values that undergird the Western enterprise — including as they do a commitment to free enquiry, pluralism and the unfettered exchange of ideas. One might call it a kind of internalised cultural antipathy. It’s not a new idea, either. Orwell was alive to this reality, and observed it regularly among the left-wing intelligentsia of his day. His essay, “Notes on Nationalism”, provides a window into his thinking. Reflecting on varieties of pacifism during the Second World War, Orwell argued that the younger breed of intellectual directed his or her opposition in a decidedly partial way, which invariably meant criticism of Western countries for their use of defensive force. According to Orwell (as I read him), the intellectual form of pacifism he identified functioned as a veneer for what was, in reality, anti-Western sentiment.

That sentiment is, even today, linked to a wider — indeed, jaundiced — view of the West as little more than a cesspool of entrenched privilege, structural oppression, economic rapacity, environmental vandalism, and pervasive neo-colonial attitudes. The academic and social theorist, John Carroll, puts it well:

“[The Left’s] carping negativity continues to thrive. [They use] neo-Marxist categories of exploitation and oppression to find ‘victims’ of their own country’s mendacity, as a device to whip it – so Australia becomes racist, cruel to refugees, misogynist, homophobic and increasingly riven by inequality.” 

What so distinguishes these critiques is a suspicion, often pervasive and deep-seated, towards Western values. In some cases, it reaches a point of comprehensive repudiation. Some critiques aren’t as bold as Carroll’s rendition, to be sure. Gentler approaches may simply evince a certain ambivalence, or lack of confidence, in the Western project. But underlying many of them is the tacit assumption that, far from being something worth preserving and advocating for, Western culture is morally questionable (at best) or entirely bankrupt (at worst). Having wended its way through the academy, this view has now trickled down to the masses — such that even those who happily swim in the West’s cultural waters may implicitly view it as responsible for little else besides the creation of misery suffered by the benighted recipients of its “civilizing” mission. It’s not that this view is entirely bereft of truth (goodness knows Western actions, past and present, have been responsible for suffering). The problem lies in the fact that it is mischievously, perniciously, one-dimensional.

The foregoing narrative comes in many forms. Critical theory, in both its Marxist and post-colonial guises, has provided much of the intellectual scaffolding for those ready to rehearse their monochromatic story. Post-modernism, about which I will say more, also informs critics’ views. Often,  these intellectual strands can be found co-mingling, making their presence felt across a diverse array of issues. Opposition to the activities of Western conglomerates is one such manifestation. Multinationals are often condemned for the apparent economic ruin they wreak on non-Western peoples (with sweatshops serving as the primary bête noire). Closer to home, Australian government policy towards Indigenous affairs is cast in a similar light, with certain strains of criticism seeking to draw a genetic link between them and historical instances of avowedly racist, colonial practice. Or what of the progressive’s ongoing love affair with dictatorial leaders, especially where they are seen to be heroically defying the alleged predations of the West? This was made clear recently upon the death of long-time Cuban leader, Fidel Castro. The tributes that flowed from some sections of the ideological Left (British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn comes to mind) revealed a curious incongruity: admiration for an authoritarian ruler who ruthlessly suppressed free expression, juxtaposed with wariness — even deep and unrelenting criticism — of their own intellectual and cultural milieux.

So, what does all this have to do with free speech? At first blush, any relationship might seem rather distant. However, when a basic scepticism or suspicion becomes the overriding context for one’s thinking about the West and everything that distinguishes it, it is easy to understand why freedom of speech — one of the key markers of the Western tradition — may be treated with a certain degree of reserve.  Why expend energy upholding something (other than in a heavily qualified manner) that is intimately bound up with what is perceived to be a tainted — even morally spent — cultural system? More than that, if free and open enquiry is viewed as part of a system of moral and political hypocrisy, the progressive critic may well feel justified in trying to actively limit it in some way. Censorship, then, becomes a mark of ideological virtue. Even when the posture of doubt is characterized merely by an oscillating uncertainty towards the propriety of Western culture, that could well be enough to stifle a full-throated shout of support for free speech. And if ideas or issues happen to overlap with the experiences of minority groups (be they ethnic, sexual, or whatever), then misplaced guilt over the West’s chequered history or a fear of cultural chauvinism can easily weaken one’s commitment to it.

In contemporary Australia, themes of racial and neo-colonial dominance seem to inform suspicion of the Western tradition, and drive some of the stronger critics of unfettered speech. Nowhere is this more apparent than in current debates over the balance between liberality in the exchange of ideas, and racial or cultural harmony. It is in the midst of those debates that fundamental ideological and philosophical fault-lines have been exposed. Where conflicts over freedom of speech have touched on matters of ethnic identity, defenders have often been crudely drawn in essentialist terms, portrayed as standard-bearers for the reactive forces of cultural and racial (i.e., White) privilege.

As noted, the debate over S.18c of the RDA provides one particular window into this phenomenon. Take the academic and columnist, Waleed Aly, for example. He recently asserted that those who want to see S.18c repealed (or, at the very least, significantly amended) aren’t really concerned about the legislation. Nor are they defending a principle they believe to be right and good. According to Aly, for those (White) individuals:

“It’s [about] the message that amending it [S.18c] will send to the minorities who take heart from the thought they’re protected. And it’s the message it will send to those of the majority keen to reassert the cultural dominance they feel they have lost.”

For those wary about principles that are part of the Western tradition — connected, perhaps, to a belief in the West’s intrinsic hypocrisy, or to the shameful misdeeds of the past — a purist’s conception of freedom of speech is likely to be construed as a coded attempt to re-assert Western and/or White hegemony. A malaise about the intellectual fundaments of the Western outlook has seen critics like Aly tacitly employ a “hermeneutics of suspicion” in responding to advocates of repeal or amendment of S.18c. They cast such advocacy as a disingenuous attempt to aggressively silence minority rights, in a réprise of colonial suppression. In other words, a particular defence of free speech is interpreted, not as a principled stand, but as little more than a proxy for an atavistic agenda with quite different goals in mind. Aly is just one instance of this attitude (and a fairly genteel and erudite one at that). He is certainly not alone.

If the key values of the West are viewed as the instruments of oppression, and if the overarching project of which they are a part is seen as lacking legitimacy, is it any wonder that those cultural markers would be met with a basic scepticism? That distrust, whatever its source, translates well into support for restrictions on free speech. Even a demoralised attitude towards Western values — one that does not bear the hallmarks of explicit hostility, but is nonetheless equivocal — can successfully erode one’s ability to defend the principle. Whatever their differences, however, they lie along a spectrum of views. Ultimately, those views gain credence from an ideological perspective that is, at best, ambivalent to a crucial token of the West’s cultural and intellectual heritage.

Free Musings on Free Speech

(This is an old post that I never got around to finishing. It’s largely complete now, so I thought I’d throw it up. Enjoy!)

As some of you may be aware, Nicola Roxon, Australia’s former Attorney-General, retreated earlier this year on the issue of anti-discrimination laws. Initially, these laws could have led to punishment for saying or writing things about a person’s ethnicity, religion, or even “social origin” (whatever that means), by which the aggrieved might have been offended or insulted. After admitting some of the legislation may have been clumsily worded, Ms. Roxon oversaw a modification of the proposed laws, removing the ambiguous references to “offence” and “insult”.

All well and good, I suppose; problems remain, however, and it is clear that the proffered changes did not go far enough. There are still elements of the legislation that are worringly vague, and all one needs to do is allege offence at something another person has said or written. The burden of justification lies with the so-called “offender”. Be that as it may, the campaign that sprang up as a result of the legislation’s proposal has been heartening, for two reasons. First, it demonstrated the ineradicable power of ideas; and second, it offered a rather timely object lesson regarding the value of the very intellectual processes these proposed laws sought to truncate.

The fact that disparate groups and individuals could create such a successful, and united, front against the onslaught of such pernicious laws is proof of the inherent power of good ideas. In this case, the power of the idea of free speech was upheld in the face of legislation whose intention it was to staunch the flow of ideas and free communication in the intellectual marketplace. A moment’s thought will reveal the value of ideas, and the concomitant importance of free speech.

Clearly, an unfettered right to free communication is fundamental to other, subsidiary rights. Freedom of thought, for example, would not truly be free if it was prevented from traversing intellectual lands that had been fenced off by laws seeking to de-legitimise certain forms of communication. A person who is not able to explore certain ideas simply because they have been deemed forbidden suffers from a rather diminishing form of incarceration. Similarly, freedom of religion is curtailed when adherents are not able to freely practice certain elements thereof, having been declared unlawful through legislative fiat. Religion, just like any other kind of belief system, relies on particular strains of thought that are inescapably animated through the liberality of unbound communication. Even something as seemingly unrelated to free speech as, say, welfare distribution policy, could not long survive if ideas surrounding that particular issue are not allowed to flow. Ossification of once-fresh ideas is certain if they can never be challenged, debated or sharpened. How else is a political community able to arrive at some approximation of the “truth” if certain ideas and opinions are ruled out of the public discussion through the oppressiveness of misguided lawmakers?

The organisations, groups and individuals who stood up for the idea of free speech were standing up for a valuable idea, one that undergirds so much else in the contemporary West – and indeed, upholds one of the West’s great innovations. What they proved was the value of an idea, whose inherent power was able to nullify a poor, yet oppressive, shadow. The ensuing debate was itself evidence that the free-flowing exchange of knowledge, ideas, thoughts and opinions (in this case, in the context of widespread opposition to draconian laws) is a vital cog in the large and complex machine we know as the democratic polity.