What is Free Speech? Don’t Ask Peter Van Onselen

I like reading The Australian newspaper, but whenever I come across an article by one of its star columnists, Peter Van Onselen, I always find myself having to remember that he has a PhD. Why must I do this? Because I naively believe that possession of a doctoral degree means that a person is capable of engaging in subtle thinking, and rendering sound judgments based on fine distinctions — skills that Van Onselen consistently, and conspicuously, fails to practice.

Recently, I highlighted Van Onselen’s rather facile (and erroneous) equation of religiously conservative wedding operators who decline to lend their creative talents to a same-sex wedding, and racist business owners who refuse to serve someone because of the colour of their skin. Last weekend, he committed another grievous sin against clear-headed thinking (article paywalled, unfortunately). Speaking about the recent furore surrounding the date of Australia Day, Van Onselen argued that conservatives who doggedly oppose Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act are guilty of high hypocrisy for supposedly “shut[ting] down debate about whether Australia Day should” be shifted to another date. After caricaturing the views of S18C’s opponents — it is quite misleading to say their goal is that “humiliating and intimidating rhetoric should prevail” — Van Onselen suggests that their dismissal of such discussion amounts to “mind-boggling” sanctimony. He gleefully thinks he’s exposed an egregious example of moral posturing by political conservatives: of individuals hobbled by unacknowledged double-standards, whose apparent devotion to principle masks a willingness to censor others if their own sacred cows are at risk of slaughter.

To be sure, Van Onselen does make a number of pertinent points later in the article. But when it comes to the alleged inconsistency of free speech advocates, he only manages to cite one example of the phenomenon he claims to have uncovered. In the first couple of paragraphs, he makes passing reference to Citizenship Minister Alan Tudge, who apparently labelled calls to change the date of Australia Day as “ridiculous”. If this is the most troubling instance Van Onselen can find to substantiate his argument, then I’d say the prospects for the Australia Day debate are pretty healthy.

Let me put this as plainly as I can. Whatever one thinks of changing the date of Australia Day, or of dismissive responses to such calls, there is an entire world of difference between criticising another person’s view as “ridiculous”, and deploying the apparatus of the state to silence individuals — on pain of financial penalty — who utter views that are deemed unacceptable. This is precisely what happened to a group of university students at the Queensland University of Technology a few years ago, under the auspices of S18C. It dramatically highlighted the problem with the law, and why so many conservatives have opposed it as an affront to free speech. If Van Onselen can’t distinguish between this and the (robust) dismissal of a view with which one disagrees, I’m not really sure what else to say.

But say something I will. Just so there is no misunderstanding, free speech advocates — and in particular, advocates of the repeal of S18C — do not argue that a person ought to be immune from criticism, or even ridicule. In fact, advocacy of free speech demands that all ideas be exposed to such scrutiny. Nor does it mean that one is obliged to listen to, or entertain, an idea that another person propounds. What the so-called “hairy-chested warriors” for free speech (Van Onselen’s words) argue for is the freedom to speak one’s mind without fear of censorship or punishment — especially when it is practised by the state.  As an embodiment of this kind of legalistic restriction upon freedom of speech, S18C represents just such a threat. There is absolutely no weight to the charge of hypocrisy that Van Onselen levels at political conservatives (who, aside from Tudge, remain curiously anonymous). They oppose S18C as a corrosive element in a modern liberal democracy, since it hampers the free exchange of ideas. But again, this in no way entails that ideas should remain quarantined from either critical examination or blunt rejection. Meanwhile, calling an opinion “ridiculous” hardly qualifies as “shutting down” debate, whatever Van Onselen thinks. A sense of proportion would certainly go a long way.


I said earlier that having a PhD should mean that one is least able to demonstrate a commitment to fine-grained thinking. But it now seems reasonably clear that the distinctions Van Onselen fails to recognize aren’t fine at all. Rather, they’re quite obvious — so obvious, in fact, that someone without an ideological axe to grind, and without a penchant for trying to humiliate so-called “reactionaries” in every article,* is able to see it quite easily.

*Just Google “Peter Van Onselen” and “reactionaries”, and observe the results.