No 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.
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 Police forces (the term “force” is itself outdated, as they are merely spectators at many demonstrations) stand by and do not interfere when certain groups are being harassed.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.