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September 21st 2017 print

Paul Collits

Two Cheers for Freedom of Speech

Those who regard Section 18c as a foul hobble on the right to express an unfettered opinion are on the side of the angels, but only just. When the holder of a dissident opinion can be fired and lose their livelihood, as has just happened in Canberra, the State is far from liberty's only enemy

gagged toleranceNo lesser a global conservative luminary than Mark Steyn has described freedom of speech as the first and greatest freedom.  Invoking the spirit of the Enlightenment and Voltaire, and tracing a lineage through J.S. Mill all the way down to the Section 18C warriors of the Institute of Public Affairs, Steyn and his compadres make a persistently powerful case.  As a victim of the oppressive restrictions on speech that government imposes, in his case in Canada, Steyn is well qualified to speak on the subject. British commentator and blogger Brendan O’Neill is another who routinely and eloquently makes the case for freedom of speech.

The limpness of those who light candles after terrorist attacks and bleat “je suis Charlie” on cue in the name of free speech, but who then cower and squirm this way and that under the weight of the Islamist tsunami, is a reminder of the hollowness of their “support” for free speech.

Yes, the cries of supporters of freedom of speech are compelling.  One hesitates to take issue with them.  But I do.  Or at least I take issue with their narrow focus which, I believe, neatly avoids most of the ghastly treatment of individuals that now occurs routinely in our midst.

Some years back I did indeed make a challenge of sorts to the focus, if not the direction, of the freedom of speech warriors.  This occurred at one of the Samuel Griffith Society’s admirable conferences, and my challenge was to one of the IPA’s esteemed research fellows.

I queried the exclusive focus of the 18C reformers on the restrictions on free speech imposed by government, drawing attention to the far more common persecution of those who publicly oppose elements of the current political correctness — for example, those who have publicly opposed homosexual marriage.  I quoted the case of Brendan Eich, creator of JavaScript and former CEO of Mozilla.  Years before, in 2008, Eich was revealed to have supported California’s Proposition 8 in favour of traditionally understood marriage, and then was sacked for this in 2014.  From the company he started!  Yes, sacked.  Not just ostracised.  Sacked.  (Proposition 8 was indeed passed by a clear majority in, yes, would you believe, California).

The response I received was along the lines of – so long as the prohibition of views was “socially” imposed, that is, not enforced by government, then that is fine.  Section 18C bad; getting the sack for holding an opinion, OK.  Life can be tough.  In a sense, libertarians must say this because they are opposed to government coercion, and not much else.

In the uncivilised, bullying Australia of 2017, I don’t think this is good enough.

The imposition of State prohibitions on free speech, in effect, interacts with the social-bullying culture runaway political correctness has delivered.  And, as anyone in any modern workplace or on any campus knows, the bullying isn’t limited to getting fired.  Police forces (the term “force” is itself outdated, as they  are merely spectators at many demonstrations) stand by and do not interfere when certain groups are being harassed.  Venues are bullied into not hosting events organised by those deemed to be on the wrong side of history.  Those who hold certain views are publicly shamed and vilified.  Employees are pressured to attend certain events and forced to stare at PC posters celebrating whatever the latest diversity or rainbow fad happens to be.

Actually, freedom of speech is not the first and greatest freedom.  That honour goes to freedom from coercion.  The protection therefrom, as the great libertarian (well, at least libertarian for a time) philosopher Robert Nozick pointed out in his 1970s argument for the “minimal state”, is the first and only justifiable purpose of government. The protection against coercion includes, but is not limited to, protection of one’s right to free speech.  It has been taken by many to include protection against the “coercive” taxation of the individual by the State, indeed.  It justifies the existence of police forces and armies, and of the practice of protecting one’s borders against military invasion or infiltration by the undocumented.

So far, so good.  The State should protect us from coercion, and not itself be coercive in relation to our core freedoms. But …

The key question in Australia and elsewhere has now become – is bullying coercion, and whether or not it is “coercion” in the traditional sense of the term, does it deserve our censure and its victims our protection, in a civilised society that values real tolerance?  Bullying does harm.  Schools now routinely come down hard on it, or at least they pretend to.  As do workplaces.  Being belted up in the playground is not the only way a young life can be destroyed, or harm done.  So, too, with adults. Just ask Brendan Eich.  Or Tasmania’s Archbishop Julian Porteous.  Or the Christian students at Sydney University wanting simply to have a view of the world and to be able to promote it.

As a matter of tactics and strategy, I would urge those who oppose the restrictions of 18C to broaden their gaze considerably.  Most people actually haven’t even heard of 18C and the Bolt case.  They are far more likely to have been bullied for holding unfashionable views.  And they (we) are scared witless of the coming wave of PC enforcement should the Yes case prevail and the ruling class that supports untrammelled gay rights get its way.  Ironically, these folks also quote J.S. Mill. Often.

Many years ago, Irving Kristol, for many the father of neo-conservatism, offered “two cheers for capitalism”.  Well, I offer two cheers for freedom of speech and, in particular, for the way the current case for it is being prosecuted.  If it is OK that you can lose your livelihood for holding an unfashionable opinion, then that is not a society that I believe we should regard as civilised.  There are elephants in rooms here.  Destroying livelihoods is not OK.  And the 18C brigade gives the impression that it just doesn’t get this.

Comments [4]

  1. whitelaughter says:

    The difference between the ideal and what is practical is relevant here. In an ideal world, the sacking of the young lass would simultaneously be considered legally acceptable and inevitably result in the bankruptcy of the employing firm as people (including those opposed to her views) refused to use the firm due to their actions.

    We aren’t in an ideal world. The thuggish behaviour of her boss will probably *increase* the firms’ business. Brandis should – and if he was thinking clearly would – bring the hammer of his new powers straight down on the offending boss. Since he wants SSM, he has the additional reason of wanting to reassure the people who will be voting ‘No’ from fear of what happens next. That the legislation is appalling is another reason to do so: use it on a twerp so that parliament can see its’ absurdity and so get rid of it.

  2. Bill Martin says:

    A very valid point, very well made. What is missing from the essay is the remedy to counter the bullying of the PC warriors. We most certain!y do not want government to utilise its coercive powers against them or anyone else in related matters. The only alternative to that would be a determined, unified attitude and behaviour of all true believers of the freedom of speech. PC bullies must be exposed and called out every time they descend on someone for expressing a view they disagree with. That can only be done legitimately by individuals or civic organizations of society at large. The IPA does speak up regularly along those lines but it could most certainly be far more active in that endeavour than has been the case up to the present.

    • Warty says:

      This is an extraordinarily tricky area, Bill. We conservatives (ironically) are on the side of the libertarians with regards to free speech, and yet I am totally opposed to gay marriage because I feel it is undermining a corner stone of our Western culture. I am opposed to the intrusiveness of big government into our personal lives, but am horrified by the fact that the lauding of the individual, which was an outcome of the Enlightenment, has contributed to the unravelling of the intricate, often intangible bonds that help maintain that enigmatic institution called society. It seems to me the further one pushes out the boundaries of what it is to be an individual, the greater the destruction to that body we once called a society, to the point that our own supposedly intelligent PM had great difficulty articulating his understanding of ‘Australian culture’.
      Values cannot be enforced, lest such enforcement leads to a tyranny, but once a false ideology begins to unpick those shared values; once morals become relative, or truth becomes your ‘truth’ or simply my ‘truth’, then society itself begins to unravel, leading to an inevitable backlash.
      We can see that backlash developing with regards to this SSM ‘debate’ (some debate!!) where the bulk of the intolerance appears to be coming from the ‘progressives’ (one of the most misleading, politically-charged euphemisms I can think of).
      In other words, prohibitions need not come from governments; they need not come from tyrants: they can come from a society as a whole, when it becomes clear that there is a gross imbalance. This is the ‘silent majority’, the ‘deplorables’ or whatsoever one wishes to call them. Perhaps it’s a nation’s conscience, manifesting in the tearing down of a Berlin Wall, or as the Solidarity movement in Poland, or the forces that gave rise to the (abortive) 1956 revolution in your native Hungary.
      This conservative backlash is beginning to occur in Europe, where the AfD is predicted to pick up 100 seats in the upcoming German elections, though Merkel, the chief architect of German decline is likely to be re-elected as Chancellor. It is happening in America through Trump and reinforced by his landmark speech at the UN. It is beginning to happen here, albeit on ‘trickle-charge’.
      Freedom was one of the more fundamental ideas underlying The Enlightenment, but Marxism, which first raised its ugly head in 1848, was part of that movement. Freedom was one of many catch-cries bandied about at the time of the Russian Revolution, but because its implementation was controlled by an intellectual elite, it very quickly led to a tyranny. Freedom was a fundamental idea giving rise to the Civil Rights movement in America, back in 1968, which gave rise to the Black Panther movement (the forerunners of the BLM) to the ‘sexual revolution’ to feminism, to homosexual rights and the decline of Western Civliisation.
      It is said that democracy leads to anarchy, which in turn gives rise to tyranny.
      I wonder where we are in the scheme of things?