… this is actually all about the free market. This is why I am bringing in the rich old white men … It’s about who has money and we’ve come to a stage where freedom of expression is bought by money. It’s the market. I don’t have $6000 to go and spend on an ad. I don’t have rich—you know, rich, old, white men who are racist who are going to provide the money for this.”
—Mona Eltahawy, Q&A, March 31, 2014, in response to the government’s proposed changes to section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act
Like the award-winning Egyptian-American columnist and international public speaker Mona Eltahawy, I am not especially rich. Nor am I old, or particularly “white”, or a man. Despite these crippling disadvantages, I have had many opportunities to express my political views, and it has not cost me a cent.
It is simply not true to say that you need deep pockets to fund your participation in public debate—although if you act outside the law in the course of your political self-expression, you might need substantial resources to fund your legal defence. If you defame an individual in making your political point, then you might need very deep pockets indeed. Or, if your self-expression entails damaging another’s property (as in Mona’s case, when she spray-painted over a subway advertisement that she believed to be racist) then you may face expensive legal consequences. If you can express yourself clearly and persuasively, however, you do not need to be a rich old white male (a “ROWM”) to have your say. Nor should you need to resort to defamation, vandalism, abusive slogans (such as “F**k Tony Abbott” T-shirts) or BDS-type campaigns in order to express a valid political point as a free citizen.
“Aha!” says a hypothetical Mona. “But Andrew Bolt defamed and abused a number of Aboriginal people in order to make his political point. Doesn’t that mean his point was not valid?”
If they had chosen to do so, the Aboriginal litigants might have brought a case of defamation against Bolt, though the case might not have been successful. The civil wrong of defamation was not the test that was applied to Bolt’s actions, however. It did not need to be proven that he had defamed anyone for a guilty verdict to be found, because we have a deeply stupid law that governs our political self-expression. Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act strives to ensure that the rich white kids play nicely in the political sandpit with the poor, brownish-coloured kids. In the Bolt case, it was decided that Andrew was being a meanie when he made fun of the Aboriginal gang’s sandcastle, so he was made to say sorry to Pat Eatock and her friends. Some might argue that this in fact demonstrates the value of laws such as Section 18C, in ensuring a degree of civility in political discourse, and in lending a more equitable degree of political power to non-ROWMs. I would argue instead that this positions the state as Supreme Childcare Worker, compelling adult citizens to hold hands and sing mindlessly in unison. Suppression of freedom of political expression does not give vulnerable or marginalised people a greater degree of political power—it simply makes children of us all.
If you feel you must break a sensible law to make your political point, or invoke a stupid law (such as section 18C) to suppress an opposing political view, perhaps this does not so much demonstrate that you are a victim of an unjust system, but rather that the position you have adopted is untenable. Of course, there are exceptions. Acts of civil disobedience have been instrumental in the repeal of unjust laws such as those enforcing racial segregation in the USA. Civil disobedience can also highlight the need for legislative and policy responses to support vulnerable groups, such as actions taken to promote legal and material protection for women escaping domestic violence, before there was recognition that such a problem existed or acknowledgment that women should not have to put up with it. (Such actions achieved success through engaging with and gaining the support of ROWMs; not through sitting around complaining about their existence.) But to suggest that some of us are so powerless that we need to break the law, behave outrageously or silence the views of others in order to exercise our right to self-expression is plain silliness.
I am not an award-winning journalist like Mona Eltahawy, but I understand the difference between “equal rights” and “equal access”. Eltahawy conflates the right to freedom of expression with access to a megaphone to broadcast one’s views—confusing the right to speak with a right to be heard by an audience. The former must be a universal right, while the latter cannot be a universal entitlement, or the world would be a very noisy place indeed. Eltahawy is hardly the only journalist who feels she herself deserves more time on the megaphone, and she is not alone in feeling that some other journalists receive too much airtime. The power dynamics within a particular profession and a particular industry do not necessarily mirror the political landscape as a whole; although again, Mona Eltahawy would certainly not be the first journalist to presume that her world is the world.
Eltahawy says that “freedom of expression is bought by money”. In some ways I agree, though perhaps not as Mona intended. It can be difficult to manage the impact of one’s participation in political debate upon one’s private life and livelihood. We may be able to say almost anything we like, but most of us still need to turn up to work on Monday morning. When you express a political point of view, the first thing everyone wants to know is which institute, lobby group or think-tank you represent. Such interest is a boon for the journalist and the professional opinion-maker, but not so great for the ordinary working person who just wants to have his or her say, because our employers are (understandably) uncomfortable with any implied political associations that might affect public perceptions of their business. Rather than say that freedom of expression is bought by money, it may be more accurate to say that the degree of freedom we enjoy to express ourselves is subject to the constraints imposed by our personal and professional circumstances. It makes no sense to blame those with more wealth or personal freedom for the inherent unfairness of life, nor is it sensible to expect the state to intervene to level the playing field of political self-expression. All we can do is sharpen our pencils, apply our intellect, express our views as coherently as possible, and deal with any consequences in our personal lives as best we can.
So yes, it would be nice to be one of these rich and powerful people that Eltahawy has such a problem with, because then I could spend my time freely doing and saying whatever I wanted, with fewer repercussions. Or perhaps it would be nice to be one of Eltahawy’s “old” people, speaking my mind from the safety of retirement. Would there be the same level of interest in my opinions on free speech if I were a ROWM, rather than a “person of colour”? Probably not.
Mona might argue that this is precisely the problem; that my access to political expression is not so much due to my ability to express myself clearly and persuasively, but because the views I am expressing as a “non-white” person are to the liking of powerful ROWMs. It has been suggested that “non-white people” who support the proposed changes to section 18C must be moral degenerates or self-loathing sad-sacks, aspiring to “whiteness” and craving the acknowledgment, validation and acceptance of “white people”—ROWMs in particular. Up to this point I have refrained from engaging with the diagnoses offered by amateur psychoanalysts to explain my own political self-expression—diagnoses ranging from “depressed” and “deeply disturbed” and “low intelligence” to “attention seeking”, “pandering to the rednecks” and “merely angling for a plum job with a right-wing think-tank”. I am addressing it now because I am sick of the high-handed racism of those who assume any “non-white” person who refuses to be patronised must be insane, stupid or corrupt.
It is probably pointless for me to argue the reasons why I don’t believe that I—or any of my “non-white” colleagues in this cause—am particularly mad or especially dumb, as anything I say will inevitably be taken as further evidence of my insanity or stupidity by people determined to believe this to be so. But the suggestion that “non-whites” who support freedom of expression and the repeal of section 18C are, in fact, consorting with the ROWM enemy in exchange for personal gain at the expense of their coloured brethren cannot go uncontested. Of course, almost everyone is too well-bred (or perhaps too poorly-read) to utter the words “Uncle Tom”, but that’s the insinuation.
Apparently my support for freedom of speech would suggest that I either have a penchant for wealthy, Caucasian male senior citizens, or that the ROWMs have something that I want—and that I can get it from them by engaging in some public bootlicking. Let’s start with the appalling suggestion that I might express certain views to secure validation from “white people”. It simply makes no sense, given that I have cheerfully said things that I knew would annoy a lot of so-called white people, and plenty of brownish-coloured people too. Clearly I do not crave the esteem of every white person simply because they are white (whatever “white” is supposed to mean anyway). That leaves us with Rich, Old and Male.
I think we can safely assume that by “Old”, Eltahawy does not refer to impoverished and marginalised pensioners living in boarding houses and nursing homes. Rather, Eltahawy’s “Old” denotes seniority, venerability, conservatism and authority. While those benefits of ageing sound like nice things to have, I am in no hurry to claim my share. With respect, they can keep their “Old”. Now we are left with “Rich” and “Male”.
The ROWMs can keep “Male” as well. I do not envy the supposed benefits of being male—which is just as well, given that I have no hope of ever sharing in any such benefits. And so that leaves “Rich”, which is the one quality it is hard not to envy. I would certainly like to have more money, and it would perhaps be nice to have come from a class and cultural background that supported educational and career achievement, genteel manners and straight teeth. Yet while wealth may be enviable, I do not need to espouse certain political views or to please ROWMs in any way in order to sustain myself, because I have a job. It is a good thing that I do not depend on the esteem of ROWMs for my livelihood, since they have been very slow to offer me any material rewards for my activities, and I receive no financial benefit from spending time in their company.
I am in the fortunate position of being relatively free to express certain political views if and when I want to, regardless of whether my views please anybody else. I say I am “relatively free” because I am still subject to the constraints of time, personal resources and consideration for the codes of conduct that govern my employment. Eltahawy is in a different position. As a journalist, she belongs to an industry that is heavily influenced by the interests of ROWMs. Her livelihood depends directly on her ability and willingness to say things that meet the approval of ROWMs, and the things that meet their approval are no doubt those things that sell newspapers or attract clicks, and that will sit comfortably with advertisers.
Mona is probably right to complain that the free market is a problem for her freedom of expression as a journalist, particularly if she is producing material that too few people are interested in paying for. She may also be right to express concern that market forces sometimes compromise the ability of the fourth estate to hold our institutions to account, with quality investigative journalism losing ground to cheaper, easily digestible opinion pieces and infotainment. It is not clear, however, how Eltahawy’s professional frustrations demonstrate that free markets somehow inhibit the ability of individual citizens to express their views, or that freedom of political expression is a right that is unfairly distributed to favour ROWMs. It is also not clear how maintaining a law that limits freedom of expression and that discourages journalists from engaging in certain important policy debates is supposed to improve the situation.
Eltahawy’s assertion that freedom of political self-expression is open only to ROWMs sounds more like the complaint of a disgruntled journalist than a political activist’s call to arms. I am sure she would happily accept the support of any ROWMs who happened to agree with her point of view, just as I gratefully accept the support of anyone—ROWMs or otherwise—who agrees with my own views. I do not need anyone else’s material or moral support in order to express my political views freely—none of us do. However, the support of influential others affords me greater access to a megaphone than I would otherwise enjoy. These influential others provide me with this access because they like what I have to say; and because I am a “non-white” person, my views can sometimes have more political impact than when ROWMs say the same things themselves. Yet despite their awesome power, the ROWMs cannot save me from making an idiot of myself. When I take up the megaphone, I do so in the full knowledge that my expressed opinions will stand or fall according to their merits. The ROWMs might be able to give me some guidance and grant me access to an audience, but they cannot make my arguments more valid or protect me from my audience’s reactions. If my engagement in debate over freedom of speech and section 18C is driven by a servile and grasping “Uncle Tom”-like intention, then I would have to be very stupid indeed, since grovelling to ROWMs actually brings minimal personal gain.
In asserting that “the people who go on the most about freedom of expression … are usually old, rich, white men who parade under the term libertarian”, Mona Eltahawy has got it backwards. The people who go on the most about freedom of expression can be loosely gathered under the term “libertarian”. Some of us are old, but not all of us. Some of us are well-off, but not all of us—and the well-off amongst us are not feared or resented for being more powerful, but are simply valued for being more useful. We are various shades of flesh colour, and there are two genders (at least) represented within our numbers.
The business of speaking up in defence of freedom of speech—or in defence of any other political position—is not a closed shop, with access only open to rich, old, white males. We are fortunate to live in a country where political expression and participation are open to any who are willing to apply themselves to the task of expressing a clear and coherent opinion. Those of us who are not particularly wealthy, accomplished, well-bred or distinguished are just as capable of applying ourselves to this task, though some of us may require more practice and guidance to hone our skills. Disgruntled activist-journalists might prefer us to believe that we are neither free nor competent to express our views for ourselves—because then we must look to them to speak, protest, vandalise, hector, bully and obfuscate on our behalf.
I remain wary of anyone—whether governments, journalists or activists—who tells me that my ability to engage in political debate as a free and equal citizen is impaired by my gender, my “race”, my age, my income, my class background, or any other personal characteristic. I am especially wary of those who would encourage me to view members of a particular social group (such as “rich, old white males”) in blanket terms of dominance and oppression, rather than as a source of potential allies in effecting social and political change.
Kerryn Pholi wrote “Silencing Dissent Inside the Aboriginal Industry” in Quadrant‘s December 2012 issue.