Freedom to speak badly: one rule for protestors, another for Bolt?

24 Mar
Bad Manners Are Unedifying

Bad Manners Are Unedifying


Peter van Onselen devotes almost an entire page in the Australian this morning (paywalled, sorry) to complaining about the “unedifying” display of bad manners by some protestors who took part in the March in March rallies, comparing them with the infamously abusive banners held aloft by the three hundred or so activists who took part Alan Jones’s 2011 Convoy of no Confidence against Julia Gillard and her Labour government.

I would appreciate someone drawing up a comparison of the two situations, given my impression that the number of participants in the Jones rally carrying offensive placards constituted a far greater percentage of the whole than those in the March in March rallies.

As van Onselen concedes, in the Jones protest virulent expressions of rage and hatred were legitimised by the presence of leading politicians photographed under the placards. No such validation took place of the relatively few offensive banners on display during March in March.

“Calling a conservative a fascist and portraying his image to replicate Hitler is deliberately designed to undermine their ideological positioning in the same way that calling a woman a ‘bitch’ or ‘witch’ carries clear sexist intent,”  van Onselen states, in his comparison of the two situations.

I would not so readily presume an equivalence between sexist intent, and the desire to critique, albeit with a degree of hyperbole, an ideology. Sexism attacks the woman for nothing other than being a woman. Describing Abbott as “fascist” in no way attacks his gender, and is merely commentary on the manner in which he is perceived to enact his conservatism.

Placards claiming that the Abbott government is “illegitimate” are not abusive, offensive or threatening, rather they are simply wrong, and likely being employed as payback for the years of the LNP opposition equally inaccurately describing the Gillard government as “illegitimate.” What is apparent is that there are hot heads and wrong heads on both the conservative and Labor side of politics. This should not come as a surprise to anyone.

Along with Tim Wilson, Human Rights Commissioner for Freedom, (I’m sorry, I don’t know what that title means) van Onselen is disturbed not at the exercise of freedom of speech demonstrated by both rallies, but at the ill-mannered, impolite, potentially violent and “irresponsible” speech used by a small number of participants in their signage. A similar rabid element is guilty of foully derailing many otherwise useful Twitter discussions, claims van Onselen, quite rightly in some instances, though there are sensitive souls renowned for “rage quitting” Twitter when they confuse disagreement with abuse.

Van Onselen and Wilson’s desire to see public speech free from offensive, insulting and at times threatening expression is shared by many people, but quite how to achieve that remains a mystery. Bad speech must be countered by good speech, Wilson has asserted, however, taking the case of Andrew Bolt as an example, it’s difficult to see how someone with a large public platform such as Bolt, or fellow shock jocks Alan Jones, or Ray Hadley can be challenged by the people they offend and insult, who rarely have an equivalent public platform from which to counter their attacker’s bad speech with good. It is for this reason we have legislation intended to protect people from racial vilification, for example, the very legislation Mr Wilson is now intent on seeing repealed, as he believes it interferes with the absolute freedom of speech he appears to favour.

I can see Wilson’s point, however, as long as there are more powerful enunciators of bad speech with large platforms than there are good, perhaps we need other precautionary measures.

I couldn’t help but wonder, as I read the article, what van Onselen and Wilson would make of public demonstrations in other countries, Mexico perhaps, where I witnessed protests in which politicians were represented by enormous papier-mache figures with grossly exaggerated sexual organs, accompanied by banners that claimed they fucked both dogs and their mothers and ate children. Nobody saw any cause for offence. Compared to such robust expression, the complaints seem rather prim.

Amusingly, van Onselen concludes his article with the reminder that “Protest is as an important part of democracy as are institutions designed to uphold democracy, but only when practised within the spirit of Australia’s well established political structure.” I am completely unable to see how any of the offensive signage fails to fit in with that spirit. Australian politics have, for the last few years and most certainly during Gillard’s entire term of office, been such that one would think twice before taking school children to witness Question Time, and I really don’t know who van Onselen thinks he is kidding.

The ongoing discourse about how we should conduct our discourse is unlikely to change anything. Van Onselen’s piece appears to make the claim that those who offend middle-class sensitivities undermine the more moderate message and concerns of mainstream protestors, and destroy their credibility. This may well be the case, but only because people such as van Onselen make it so, opportunistically denigrating the whole on the basis of the actions of a very few.

It is not possible to eradicate voices some consider undesirable from public expression. Otherwise we would not have to put up with the Bolts. A sign held aloft at a demonstration cannot do one tiny fraction of the harm done by Bolt, Jones and the like. If we are to conduct serious conversations about how public discourse influences attitudes and behaviours, surely we must start by interrogating the enunciations of those with the furthest reach.

36 Responses to “Freedom to speak badly: one rule for protestors, another for Bolt?”

  1. Michael Taylor March 24, 2014 at 5:02 pm #

    Another brilliant post, Jennifer. You’re in fine form. Let me know if you’d like me to share this one too.


    • Jennifer Wilson March 24, 2014 at 5:26 pm #

      Thanks Michael, yes, please do share


      • paul walter March 26, 2014 at 10:05 am #

        Michael Taylor has his own exceptionally worthwhile blog, a good pair for this one or Bob Ellis or David Horton and a few other genuine sites about.

        AIMN…except that my computer crashes half the time I go there.

        He reckons they are changing the system; sooner the better.

        Off to techie after this, a series of hacks has the email shut down, ho-hum.



        • paul walter March 26, 2014 at 10:06 am #

          Australian Independent Media Network, that is..


  2. wooster87 March 24, 2014 at 6:39 pm #

    Reblogged this on woosterlang87.


  3. saturnreturnsurvivor March 24, 2014 at 7:46 pm #

    If I recall rightly Kevin Rudd was compared to hitler on the front page of a newspaper during the last election. Is it not offensive if a newspaper does it, only if protestors do it?


  4. paul walter March 25, 2014 at 12:04 am #

    Caring and sharing.. Van Onselen; the World Preppie.


    • Marilyn March 25, 2014 at 12:34 am #

      He even said a few weeks ago that even though he hates our so-called refugee policy, hope everyone watched 7.30 tonight, he thinks we should all just shut up and suck it up now.


      • paul walter March 25, 2014 at 7:08 am #

        He is a quiet version of Pyne.

        But as people here know from the history of passing wind, the quieter ones are often the more deadly


  5. hudsongodfrey March 25, 2014 at 2:42 pm #

    Denigration on the basis of something that someone is such as sexism, racism or homophobia clearly differs from any disregard we may hold for some act they commit or ideology they hold. The content of the former is merely a kind of disdain towards the “other” that lacks any merit, whereas the latter contains nothing but questions pertaining to the merit of their thoughts and deeds.

    On the matter of illegitimacy if by that you simply mean the word “bastard” was used in some of the signage, then surely most Australians realise that epithet is commonly used to express general distaste for an individual rather than to question their actual legitimacy.

    When on the other hand it comes to actual legitimacy then I think Abbott does have some questions to be answered as to whether a mandate really exists for broken promises and new policy directions taken without prior consultation after ascending to government in an election that was more about Labor’s leadership implosion than any heartfelt desire on the part of many Australians to return to Howard era politics. It’s little wonder people are in the streets!

    When they do take to the streets it comes to pass that the burning of effigies and other such disrespectful displays aptly symbolise our distaste for politicians. Once again this is well understood and typical of protests worldwide. Also once again there was a difference, quickly recognised at the time, between some of the vitriol towards Julia Gillard in the form of ill-chosen epithets like “bitch” and “witch” that went beyond just targeting her as a politician to sexist disparagement of her entire gender.

    There is of course also the problem of gendered language in the vernacular such that “bastard” is generally male. If looking for a female equivalent is what using the word “bitch” represented then within the context of a society that has some distance yet to travel in eradicating sexism towards women is clearly problematic. There is little doubt that any other form of political communication is preferable to that misogynistic expression which detracts from your grievance.

    So when Tim Wilson makes the point that there are a relatively small subset of tweets and protests that bring down the tone he also deflects the point that the majority of other speech against the government is the sort of “good speech” and valid questioning in a marketplace of ideas that demands answers of the government.

    On Tim Wilson’s other points in line with government designs upon changing 8C of the racial discrimination act to protect the likes of Bolt I think the point to be made is that justice needs to be scalable in line with the kind of harms caused by those media outlets whose potential to denigrate is magnified by their relatively large distribution. In other words the notion that free speech is met with better speech is only given effect to if an equivalent voice is given to both sides of the debate. There would otherwise be no compunction for a racist publication supporting Andrew Bolt to offer right of reply to somebody such as Marcia Langton.

    Personally I suspect that Marcia Langton, who I greatly admire, may either have erred in judgement or been legally wrong footed in not being prepared to call Bolt Racist on Sydney radio. It might have been better to express the view that we’re all a little bit racist as those Harvard IAT test will demonstrate, but that in saying skin colour was any factor in whether aboriginals are best represented by light skinned advocates Bolt inherently neglected that community’s ability to judge fellow travellers in their culture on their merits, and he did so in a way that introduced race in a clearly prejudicial context. When the Supreme Court also sides with that view I think there is reason despite any well intentioned social graces to put that to the offender as constructive criticism. She says she means no gratuitous offence as I gather did Bolt, but that makes no matter in the overall debate over whether anti-discrimination provisions ought exist to ensure minorities are fairly treated in the public discourse.

    What is lacking in Bolt’s rhetoric, what Tim Wilson says, and what members of the Abbott Government especially George Brandis are now advocating isn’t a sense that they understand how free speech works in public discourse so much as any indication they can be relied upon to properly distinguish bad speech from good. While they fail to hold themselves accountable to that standard then the clear inference from their woefully inadequate responses is that they equate the ability to act badly with the right to do so….

    We have in effect the kind of “might is right” mentality here that Putin would envy!


    • paul walter March 25, 2014 at 3:49 pm #

      You are back, refreshed.
      That is a gem.
      I’m adding there is a mischievous conflation in Brandis’ line, too simple for Brandis himself not to be aware of,alluded to indirectly in hg’s beaut posting.

      There has never been any crime in being a bigot (eg, ignorant) per se, there is a justifiable law as to incitemental hate speech, where no right of reply is afforded to answer a claim, as occurs with Murdoch tabloidism, or worse still no recompense for harm done after the event.

      Too late, if you are someone of an ethnic minority beaten up, even killed, by brownshirts.

      Leave the laws alone, let people continue to understand that abuse is no substitute for reasoned argument and that they need to argue on issues rather than just slag off, doing irrational psychological or even physical harm to another.


    • Jennifer Wilson March 25, 2014 at 6:53 pm #

      Oh, HG, that is a brilliant post, thank you so much.


    • doug quixote March 26, 2014 at 2:37 am #

      By the way, HG you got BACWA into the dictionary; have you managed an entry for

      “tabbott” – worst insult in the English language, far worse than ‘cunt’, since cunts are useful and a tabbott is totally useless.

      It also has the virtue (the word, not the thing) of not being banned, so far. 🙂


      • hudsongodfrey March 26, 2014 at 9:01 pm #

        There are some things even the dictionary won’t stoop to!

        Though I’m told that if you look up “Tony Abbott” in some of the better guides you’re greeted with a picture of an ape in soiled red budgie smugglers.


  6. doug quixote March 25, 2014 at 7:38 pm #

    The enemy of my enemy is my friend.

    Anyone prepared to protest is fully entitled to do so. The organisers and the vast majority are not responsible for the behaviour of the few in such rallies, as any commentator with any intelligence would know.

    This miserable excuse for a government hasn’t seen anything yet. I will even agree with Marilyn that if we let up, they will bring back Serfchoices, and slavery if they can.


    • paul walter March 26, 2014 at 9:48 am #

      You’ve earned a knighthood for that, dq.


      • doug quixote March 26, 2014 at 12:36 pm #

        Already the Knight of the Sad Countenance and the Knight of the Lions, courtesy of Cervantes. I would expect a peerage at least from the tabbott, once I contribute to Looters Party coffers.

        Half a million should do it.


        • paul walter March 26, 2014 at 12:44 pm #

          I shall be a knight of the Long Knives.

          Good Knight, nurse…


          • helvityni March 28, 2014 at 9:59 pm #

            I would not play with knives, someone will get hurt, unless they are very blunt…the knives I mean…


        • helvityni March 28, 2014 at 10:04 pm #

          Abbott could perhaps be the Knight of Wombats, or Kangaroos…or if truth be told, the Knight of Rats.


      • hudsongodfrey March 26, 2014 at 8:44 pm #

        A night hood you say? He probably wouldn’t wear it! 😉


        • paul walter March 28, 2014 at 8:01 pm #

          would you?


          • hudsongodfrey March 28, 2014 at 8:12 pm #

            No it doesn’t fit!


            • helvityni March 28, 2014 at 9:57 pm #

              If your head too big for the hood, buy a bigger hood, or a smaller head…


              • hudsongodfrey March 29, 2014 at 12:32 pm #

                Okay I’ll go with the obvious reply….. Sometimes its possible to get a bigger hood, but it’s not always easy to get a little head 🙂


                • helvityni March 29, 2014 at 8:18 pm #

                  Hey Huds and Paul, I was only kidding with my silly comments, in this blogging world there’s always someone without a sense humour, I trust you two are not part of that mob…


                  • hudsongodfrey March 31, 2014 at 1:08 am #

                    Au contraire, the problem with my sense of humour isn’t a lack thereof so much as a taste for the risque that’d make the whore of Babylon blush, and a hair trigger for indulging it. The fault I assure you is all mine, and loving it! 🙂


        • helvityni March 28, 2014 at 9:55 pm #

          Many kids wear hooded tops any time, in olden days women used to wear scarves over their hair curlers, hoods were not invented yet, night hoods would have been ideal…


  7. Marilyn March 29, 2014 at 6:30 pm #

    Today the ALP are taking full credit for the murder on Manus, they think it is a badge of honour.


  8. doug quixote March 30, 2014 at 8:45 am #

    It is a little more subtle than that, Marilyn. Thus it is an argument that probably won’t get them anywhere. But the fact remains that the asylum seeker numbers were seen as a problem. Seeking to cross to Australian territory by small, unseaworthy and overloaded boats is a deadly dangerous thing to do, and one often undertaken in poor weather to try to evade detection until too close to their destination to be turned around.

    There is a lead-time between when such decisions are made and then carried out; the numbers of boats had been steadily shrinking since the middle of last year, as a result of turn-around policies, and the PNG (Rudd) solution.

    If only the boats have really been stopped, rather than just a pause.

    What should happen now is an enlightened policy of accepting more refugees who are currently in Indonesia, which Labor might have done. Don’t hold your breath for this lot to do any such thing.


    • Marilyn March 30, 2014 at 5:45 pm #

      Bullshit, every vessel was watched from the time it left Indonesia and it is not up to us to say when people can sail or not, there is no law in the world and no right for us to stop even one fucking boat by attempting to murder those who get here quite safely.

      I am sick to death of the whinge that we are saving lives by not letting them drown, we don’t give a flying fuck if they drown.

      Read and see the fucking truth. And taking refugees from Indonesia as if they are trade products is not the point, we cannot stop anyone on the seas. From international refugee law expert James Hathaway – “”Allegedly humanitarian steps taken to shut down escape routes – such as the formal agreement between the US and Cuba in 1994 requiring Cuba to “… take effective measures in every way it possibly can to prevent unsafe departures using mainly persuasive methods” – are unlawful and paternalistic. It is the refugee’s right – not the prerogative of any state or humanitarian agency – to decide when the risks of staying put are greater than the risks of setting sail.””

      Patronising racism disguised as care is just racism.


      • doug quixote April 3, 2014 at 6:23 am #

        Unlawful? Hathaway might say elsewhere just which law is being breached. Please quote him properly or not at all.

        Paternalistic, certainly. Which government is not paternalistic?


  9. Marilyn March 30, 2014 at 5:48 pm #

    That there is nothing humane about a voyage across dangerous seas with the ever present risk of death in leaky boats captained by people smugglers;
    That Australia’s basic decency does not accept the idea of punishing women and children by locking them up behind razor wire or ignoring people who are fleeing genocide, torture, and persecution, nor does it allow us to stand back and watch fellow human beings drown in the water, but equally that there is nothing inconsistent between these decencies and our commitment to secure borders and fair, orderly migration. The rule of law in a just society is part of what attracts so many people to Australia. It must be applied properly to those who seek asylum, just as it must be applied to all of us; That no one should have an unfair advantage and be able to subvert orderly migration programs;
    That there should be no incentive for people smugglers, to take even bigger risks with people’s lives in the name of mercenary profits;
    That people smuggling is an evil trade to be punished;
    That hardworking Australians who themselves are doing it tough want to know that refugees allowed to settle here are not singled out for special treatment;
    That people like my own parents who have worked hard all their lives can’t abide the idea that others might get an inside track to special privileges;
    And that finally, if this were to happen, it would offend the Australian sense of fair play”

    Guess which arch racist said this crap? And pretended to be humane? what sort of racist garbage thinks refugees from genocide, torture and other human rights violations don’t deserve some advantage like life.

    Yep, you favourite racist Julia Gillard in the most racist speech given in decades in July 2010. The ALP vote dropped like a stone just afterwards..


    • doug quixote April 3, 2014 at 6:18 am #

      A carefully crafted and unobjectionable speech.

      You really ought to get over your obsession with Gillard. Try talking about the current situation.

      (Hint : Abbott is PM and Morrison is the relevant minister.)


  10. August 25, 2014 at 7:03 am #

    Immediately after acquiring down below two hundred, my take care of was skydiving (as I had been now beneath the xiu tang bee pollen limit). My intention variety reward might be a tattoo. Garments constantly get the job done also, for those who don’t need to possibility your daily life or hepatitis. Most effective of luck on your own journey!



  1. Freedom to speak badly: one rule for protestors, another for Bolt? « The Australian Independent Media Network - March 24, 2014

    […] article was first published on Jennifer’s blog No Place For Sheep and has been reproduced with […]


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