In caving into censorious chattering-class pressure and ditching its plans to reform Section 18C, the Federal government has failed its own free-speech test.
George Brandis set the test when I met him at the political haunt of Machiavelli’s in Sydney in April to interview him for my online mag spiked. Lubricated with wine, the liberty-loving words of Voltaire and John Stuart Mill fizzing in his mind and falling from his mouth, Brandis told me that standing up for the free-speech rights of the hateful and the horrible was the ultimate test of a nation’s devotion to freedom. It’s no good only defending freedom of speech for folk whose ideas chime with your own, he said – you must also “defend the right of people to say things you would devote your political life to opposing. That’s the test.”
He’s right, it is. The measure of a man’s commitment to liberty has long been whether he will do the decent Voltairean thing of defending to the death other people’s right to think, utter, scribble and publish stuff that he himself finds foul. And it seems the Abbott government won’t. The Abbott government will not, after all, defend freedom of speech for all, which ultimately means you don’t have freedom of speech in Australia. You have state-approved speech – speech-rights for those decreed by the government to be racially on-message, and therefore acceptable, but not for anyone else.
I don’t buy the idea that the reason Abbott took the ‘leadership call’ to park the plans to overhaul Section 18C – which forbids insulting, humiliating or intimidating a person or group on the basis of their race or ethnicity – is because those plans had become a ‘complicating’ factor in his government’s dealings with the Muslim community.
Apparently the PM was concerned that watering down Section 18C would weaken his ability to win the backing of Muslim groups for tough new terror laws, some of which are pretty authoritarian themselves. In short, he decided to keep a law that censors intellectual reprobates in the name of making it easier to pass a law that will empower the state to retain citizens’ online data. What a double-whammy wallop to the face of liberty! In essence the PM is saying, ‘We need to keep censorship in place in order to make it easier for us to introduce laws to spy on you’, which is enough to make a libertarian like me (and Brandis, surely?) sob into my dog-eared copy of On Liberty.
But I think there’s more to the sellout on Section 18C than Muslims. The real problem is the distinct and depressing lack of appetite in modern Australia, and across the Western world today, for full-on, balls-out free speech.
The flak Brandis got simply for saying ‘I think everyone should have freedom of speech’ was remarkable. He was shrilly accused by the weirdly illiberal small-L liberals that make up modern Oz’s chattering classes of unleashing bigotry, of endangering the lives of poor little ethnic people through giving a green light to the expression of crazy hateful nonsense. It spoke volumes about the modern left’s Stalin-style allergy to liberty, their searing distrust of the gruff public, that they could so casually equate freedom of speech with violence, fantasising that the utterance of problematic ideas would instantly lead to real-world roughings-up and possibly pogroms. Like every other censor in history, from the Inquisition’s warriors against heresy to the stuffy British judges who banned Lady Chatterley’s Lover, the pro-Section 18C mob was driven by the poisonous conviction that the little people are too volatile to be able to hear outré ideas and thus must have their eyes and ears covered by the cool-headed censors of officialdom.
Tragically, this illiberal creed, this belief that words cause mayhem because the public are stupid and suggestible, is deeply entrenched today. It informs debates on everything from climate change (if you deny this orthodoxy apparently the world will be plunged into eco-apocalypse) to so-called ‘rape culture’ (if blokes see saucy images of women they will become rapists, because they are basically robots). This modern fear of freedom, which is at root a fear of the rabble and what it might do if it reads outrageous words, makes it really hard to be a true Voltairean today. At a time when to be an out-and-proud fighter for free speech means you will be branded a facilitator of bigotry and apocalypse, it can sometimes feel preferable to say: ‘Okay, you win, I’ll add a “but” to my commitment to free speech.’ Which is what the Abbott government has now done: ‘We believe in freedom of speech, but not for racists…’
We need to recognise what a terrible impact such liberty-qualifying ‘buts’ have on the Enlightenment values of freedom and tolerance. Something like Section 18C, a massive ‘but’ to free speech, does two things: it strangles liberty through forbidding the expression of certain ideas, and, in an eye-swivelling irony, it actually makes it harder to challenge hatred and prejudice.
Section 18C polices thought and speech through allowing the state to dictate which ideas are acceptable, which not. This doesn’t only impact on people who really do spread racist BS but also on those, like Andrew Bolt, who simply have un-PC political views on multiculturalism or immigration. That is, like every other act of crude, clumsy censorship in history, it punishes the politically non-conformist as well as the bovinely prejudiced. And 18C fails to stand up to hatred through helping to push hateful ideas underground. This is a massive problem with anti-hate speech laws: in silencing hateful opinion they deny to the rest of us, the right-minded majority, the right to have a reckoning with such ideas, to know them and wage war on them. They push hatred underground, where it festers, unchallenged by free and open public ridicule. Don’t believe me? Look at France. Twenty years ago it banned Holocaust denial, yet today it has a terrible anti-Semitism problem. The banning of Holocaust denial ironically made it seem more enticing to certain sections of French society, and they indulged in it in hidden forums, safe from the rational challenges of people who know their facts and don’t hate Jews.
This is what we lose when something like 18C stays on the statute books: the freedom to speak our minds and the ability to tackle hatred. Abbott’s about-face on Section 18C is a dark day for Australia.