Recent events here and abroad have amply demonstrated that the Western libertarian idea of individual free speech is a many splendoured thing. Public debate has been full of sweet reason, bitter division and outrageous and outraged dissent. The temper and tone of democratic debate has ranged from the well-mannered, polite and robust to vulgar abuse, invective, hatred, contempt, humiliation, and ridicule according to the standards of the undifferentiated mass of ordinary individuals. Bravo!
Will we live to see anything to match the suddenness, the scale and the ferocity of the eruption of hatred and loathing directed by the global know-it-alls at the 17.5 million Britons who, when invited to express their democratic wishes, had the temerity to vote in favour of the UK leaving the EU? Those envious, uneducated, ignorant, poor fools simply don’t understand: Inclusion rules OK!
Some Australians share the horror of the know-it-alls. The prescriptions of some of them reflect the (post)modern curse of abstractionitis. There are taboo ideas. We are told which words we must or must not use. They insist that ‘debate’ is bad. We must always ‘engage’ one another in ‘conversation’ (provided it is ‘meaningful’). We must be ‘inclusive’ and ‘respectful’ and otherwise comply with many other abstract multicultural pieties. We must tremble and wring our hands in timidity if we are exposed to anything remotely ‘divisive’ or ‘unsafe’.
This prescriptive school of democratic correctness is backed up by the legally enforceable censorious command of the Australian Human Rights Commission that we worship at the high altar of difference and diversity. A word search of the AHRC online archive demonstrates that the word ‘dissent’ is not part of its vocabulary. Its motto is ‘everyone, everywhere, everyday’. (The online anagram generator produced ‘evade or eye envy or nervy eye’). In truth, the AHRC is exhorting Australians to think and speak according to a simple rule – diversity in everything, EXCEPT OPINION OK!
Public money is lavished on the AHRC to preach its gospel of conformity enforced by way of ghastly, tribal ‘hate speech’ censorship. It is addicted to the impenetrably obscurantist ideology of confected ‘oppression’ of ‘vulnerable’ minorities. Its position on free speech is selective. It simultaneously preaches that free speech is a dangerous thing and turns a blind sectarian eye to religiously motivated speech inciting homicidal violence. It is unmoved by the depraved use of small children to convey such barbaric sentiments. And it gets het up at occasional displays of stupid juvenile vulgar abuse at sporting events and on the trams and trains and buses, but is on record as saying that the casual racism of exchanging ‘Irish jokes’ is just fine and dandy.
Unsurprisingly, the AHRC uses its express statutory authority to engage in relentless politicking to promote its position in the highly controversial area of human rights protection. On the day of the UK Brexit referendum, the Race Discrimination Commissioner delivered the Vincent Fairfax Ethics in Leadership Oration at The University of Melbourne in the course of which he vouchsafed to his audience a contextual assessment of the referendum.
He referred to the alarming growth in the predominantly white working class constituency supporting the Donald Trump presidential candidacy which was to be likened to the cause of Brexit and far right-wing populist political parties and movements across continental Europe. Leadership on race was, he said, often about putting certain passions in their place – about ensuring that they don’t contaminate our communities. The more negative message of the Leave case appealed to fears about immigration, warning people that things were at breaking point with the flow of refugees coming into Europe. All this was manifested by those rallying behind and campaigning for Brexit. They had unleashed a nasty climate of xenophobia thereby contributing to the murder of Jo Cox MP. This nastiness was to be contrasted with the praiseworthy patriotic stirring stuff of Gordon Brown in supporting the self-evidently superior Remain case.
The AHRC’s frank collegiate expression of its intense dislike of the ideas and opinions of entire community groups in the US and the UK is as good a recent Australian example as can be found to demonstrate what is at stake in the ongoing uphill struggle to restore free speech to its position as the paramount individual freedom upon which all other individual freedoms depend. Is it not possible for 17.5 million citizens of the UK (at least some of whom don’t have a job, and certainly not one paid for out of the public purse) to hold and express opinions (say, about immigration, and refugee protection or the EU) without an agency of the Commonwealth of Australia likening them to a contaminant and jeering at and denigrating them by reason of their racial grouping or their additional defect of belonging to the ranks of the common toilers? Perhaps, just perhaps, the white working class Britons who, when invited to have a say, voted for Brexit simply because they considered it was the right thing to do and that they ought to express their detestation of the EU loudly.
Historically-minded Australians adapting the words of that very divisive Englishman, Oliver Cromwell and drawing on George Orwell would say to the AHRC: ‘[We] beseech you in the bowels of Christ think it possible you may be mistaken in your Groupthink’. Others having no illusions about the ‘everyone, everywhere, everyday’ ordinariness of ‘hate speech’, would recall the observation of Justice Potter Stewart of the US Supreme Court (1964) in striving to define ‘hard-core pornography’: ‘I shall not attempt to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that [abstraction], and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it’. The hated common working people of the UK and US know hate speech when they read and hear it.
The loathing and ridicule of the know-it-alls may turn out to be the instrument which delivers a death blow to the fatuous and authoritarian ‘hate speech’ censorship movement. If so, it will, as an act of thoroughly well-deserved self-destruction, rank high in the stratosphere of postmodern irony.
The author is a Melbourne barrister