I love free speech as much as the next guy (unless the next guy is Nicola Roxon, of course). I subscribe whole-heartedly to its underlying principles: that the criminalising of thought and belief is wrong, that dissent and debate are vital, and that censorship is counter-productive. People should be free to offend and be offended, whether in thought, word or action.
But we should never fall into the trap of validating all speech or thought as equal, or even valid. The problem with Terry Barnes’ defence of the ‘cashed-up bogan’ (The Spectator Australia, 5 January) was not that it sought to reclaim a pejorative word, but that it sought to recast the ‘bogan’ ethos as something worth aspiring to and celebrating.
An unfussed Mr Barnes describes bogans as ‘loud and brash’ people who ‘don’t care overly about what others say or think of them’ and are not ‘much interested in the wider world’. Well, volume and temperament are of little consequence. An indifference to the judgment of strangers is problematic but not altogether objectionable. But lack of interest in the world around you — well, actually, that’s not an attribute worth celebrating. It’s not worth defending. It’s not even OK. That sort of selfish, unthinking existence is something to be called out and opposed at every possible opportunity.
The example proffered by Barnes — those ostentatious Christmas lighting displays that adorn so many suburban mansions throughout December — is something of a case in point. Apparently some residents of Patterson Lakes decided to cut back on the extravaganza and were ‘very, very unhappy’ about having to do so. The rather juvenile insinuation of the whole column was that the Gillard government’s carbon tax stole Christmas.
Well woe is me. I can’t believe I’m being asked to feel sorry for a bunch of waterfront-dwelling, Harley-owning, plasma-watching ingrates who, by Barnes’ own admission, have decided to double their yearly power bill by desecrating their front yard with Christmas lights. It is one thing to have families on $200,000 crying poor on the front page of the Australian because the government took away a fraction of their Howard Bribe. But to have ‘successful’ people, people who ‘score high on household income’, people with ‘home cinemas capable of being seen and heard on the moon’ (these are all Barnes’ descriptors, not mine), moaning about the cost of their Christmas display… well, that is unconscionable.
It would be bearable if we were merely being asked to tolerate this selfishness. But we are being asked to change national policy because of it. Barnes and Abbott argue the carbon price should be abolished because Christmas lights are under threat. Australia should forego a market mechanism for lowering carbon emissions so that Yuletide enthusiasts in south Melbourne need not sacrifice a few fluorescent baubles.
Anyone is free to believe this thesis. Anyone is free to agree with the inhabitants of Patterson Lakes. Anyone is free to shout from the rooftops that climate change is a CSIRO conspiracy. But people who are not ‘much interested in the world around them’ should not expect the world to show much interest in their parochial views. Nor should they expect their opinion, backed up only by self-interest, to be judged equal to the verdict of scientists, economists, policy advisers and other people whose job it is to study evidence, consult widely and consider our collective welfare. Ah yes; those opprobrious university graduates who dare cast their minds beyond the white picket fence.
In October, one such educated upstart — Patrick Durley, a philosophy lecturer at Deakin University — wrote in the Conversation about an important lesson he imparts to his students. ‘You are not entitled to your opinion,’ he tells them. ‘You are only entitled to what you can argue for.’
It’s not actually a radical proposition. But this country is coming dangerously close to accepting the equality of opinion as gospel. Much of our media has fallen under the false spell of defining objectivity as giving equal airtime to both sides, rather than seeking out the truth or forcing people to rationalise their opinions.
Indeed, Arthur S. Brisbane, former public editor of the New York Times, asked early last year: ‘Should The Times Be A Truth Vigilante?’ Many readers misunderstood his question, seeing it as an admission that the Times had been failing in its Fourth Estate duties. But Brisbane was actually asking: should his newspaper add corrections and clarifications to the partisan half-truths of its sources? Should journalists use their own intellect and resources to dispute claims in news reports, rather than using quotes from vested interests?
Such an editorial philosophy would actually represent a significant departure from the view that the media is there merely to report on the actions of others in a world where all opinions are equal. The courts have always recognised this principle: only the opinions of credentialed experts are admissible — everyone else can take a hike. And so it is that mothers who think vaccinations are evil should probably go to medical school, men of faith who oppose abortion should try getting knocked up, and the residents of Patterson Lakes should book a flight to the Pacific Islands to see the real effects of climate change and poverty.
The Australian sense of entitlement which Laura Tingle so expertly scrutinised in her recent Quarterly Essay has taken reason and rationality as its prisoners. It has poisoned people with the idea that their personal interests are of equal weight to anyone else’s. It is an unfortunate quirk of egalitarian Australia, where ‘tall poppies’ are cut down and ‘too much’ education is regarded as mildly suspicious and unnecessary.
If we fail to respect educational qualifications, scientific evidence and familiarity with the issues, then public policy becomes an impossibility. Cheap Christmas lights are not more important than global warming — they’re just not. One perspective is not equally valid with another just by virtue of existing. All opinions are equally free, but when it comes to substance, some are more equal than others, and that’s as it should be.