This morning I’m thinking about Freedom Commissioner Tim Wilson’s infamous “Occupy Melbourne” tweet; this piece I wrote about Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s tyrannical demand that public servants “dob in” workmates they suspect of speaking ill of the government, and the fantasy of the “freedom to be heard.”
Wilson’s Timsplain on the “civilising” and “regulating” goals of curbing freedom of speech, specifically in employment contracts, can be read here.
@timwilsoncomau Walked past Occupy Melbourne protest, all people who think freedom of speech = freedom 2 b heard, time wasters … send in the water cannons
While sending in water cannons certainly serves to “regulate” behaviour, it is not in itself a civilised reaction to citizens exercising their right to speak freely about the principles and actions of governments. It still disturbs me to know that the Australian Commissioner for Freedom advocates state violence to suppress what he regards as “time-wasting” dissent, and considers such action “civilised.”
There is no such thing as the freedom to be heard. It’s impossible to make someone hear if he or she doesn’t wish to hear: they may give all the appearance of listening, but that doesn’t mean they’re hearing. It’s part of the vulnerability of being human that we can’t make anyone hear us, we can only hope that the other will care enough to bother.
Exercising the freedom not to hear is not a license to forcibly silence, whether by the use of water cannon or by implementing laws designed to protect those who don’t want to hear. For example, if Mr Wilson doesn’t want to hear protestors he doesn’t have to: he can take an alternative route, turn up his iPod, ignore news reports, in short, he can take responsibility for protecting himself from what he doesn’t want to hear, rather than depending on the state to do it for him.
While there is no right to freedom to be heard, there is no right not to be offended either. The increasing demand for the state to protect individuals from what is regarded as “offensive” across the entire spectrum of human behaviours is alarming, and crippling. It is paradoxical that conservative politicians and public figures make much of their desire for “small government,” while simultaneously seeking to prescribe state enforced restrictions on a wide range of attitudes and behaviours in their attempt to establish a society in which no one behaves in a manner determined by them to be “offensive.” To “offend” someone has become a significant, well, offence.
It goes without saying, one imagines, that to commit any crime against another is inherently offensive, and our laws already have crimes covered. Offence is subjective: I am offended by Mr Wilson’s use of social media to advocate state violence against protestors, however, even if I wanted to, I have no means available to me to turn the water cannon on him because he does not have the freedom to be heard. I can ignore him. Block him on social media. Complain about him on my blog. In other words, take responsibility for regulating and civilising my own world without calling upon the state to do it for me.
The only citizens the state will protect from “offence” are those with whom it is in agreement. All others it will seek to silence, one way or another. Even in a liberal democracy such as ours, the state will and does seek to silence dissent. It is in the nature of political power that those who have it seek to retain it, by any means available. The courts are hog-tied by whatever legislation the government of the day manages to implement.
For an insight into this demand for protection from the “offensive” on a popular cultural level, it’s worth reading Helen Razer’s piece on how difficult it is to be a “bad girl,” and the effort now required if one is to be at all transgressive, and why.
Transgression is impossible without causing offence. Transgression is by its very nature offensive to someone. A society that punishes what it considers offensive, making the offensive a crime in itself, is a society in which transgression of all kinds is increasingly curtailed and silenced. The current dearth of satirical political comment in this country is but one example of this curtailing of transgression on the grounds that it is “offensive” and, as Mr Wilson would have it, uncivilised.
There is no human right that promises the freedom not to be offended. It is to say the least extremely unfortunate that we have in this country a Commissioner for Freedom who advocates turning water cannon on those who offend him. The protestors did not attack him. They did not threaten him. They merely spoke what he did not wish to hear. If we are entering or have entered a period in which another’s free speech is just cause for advocating state violence in order to silence them, we are in very dangerous waters indeed.
(I just looked out of my bedroom window to see snow falling. Ah.)