Water cannon. Free speech. The right not to listen.

22 Jan


A metal toggle switch with plate reading Listen and Ignore, symbolizing how we choose to pay attention to certain messages

The robust exchanges of the last few days on the subject of so-called “brokens” and the need to control or silence their allegedly “broken” speech reminded me of Human Rights Freedom Commissioner Tim Wilson’s unfortunate tweet, posted shortly before he was parachuted into a job created specifically for him by Attorney-General George Brandis. Wilson was apparently walking through a public space in Melbourne on his way to somewhere else, when he suffered considerable affront at the sight and sound of an Occupy Melbourne protest:

@timwilsoncomau Walked past Occupy Melbourne protest, all people who think freedom of speech = freedom 2 b heard, time wasters … send in the water cannons 

What Wilson overlooked in this tweet is that nobody was forcing him to hear the protesters, except momentarily: he could walk right by them, remove himself from earshot, get on his train or tram and continue with his journey, free from the sound of others enacting their right to speak.

But Wilson was not interested in taking responsibility for himself: instead he felt an entitlement to protection from momentary affront, and it was to the state that he turned for his preferred method of protection. People exercising their freedom to protest deserved to be injured and silenced by water cannon, because Tim Wilson was aggravated by noisy views he did not share.

Engagement in social media is going to bring most participants slap bang up against views they do not share, oftentimes expressed in a manner to which they are not accustomed, and do not necessarily like. This happens to me regularly. I can either take the Tim Wilson route and demand these voices be silenced by some authority because I have a right not to listen to them,  or I can use my mute button, my unfollow button, or even my block button, and take responsibility for creating my own online environment that doesn’t include people who, for whatever reason, bother me.

The right not to listen goes hand in hand with the responsibility to take your own measures to protect yourself against another exercising her freedom of speech, if the content or manner of her expression bothers you, rather than appealing to the state or some other authority to do it for you, or demanding that the bothersome voices somehow be silenced so you aren’t subjected to them.

There are laws already in place that deal with dangerous situations and threatening people, but they don’t deal with boring people, or repetitive people, or people who don’t want to stop arguing their case, or people you think are stupid, and neither should they. I have the right not to listen to people who aggravate me, and I have a responsibility to enact that right myself when I have the means to do so. I’m not entitled to demand that the environment I want be created for me by the silencing of others.

None of us is entitled to protection from momentary affront caused by someone else enacting their right to freedom of speech. None of us has to listen either. But my right not to listen doesn’t trump your right to speak, unless your speech is illegal, or you’re forcing me against my will to listen.

One person’s broken record is another person’s gutsy persistence, and there are countless examples of situations in which injustices of all kinds would have continued unchallenged if it wasn’t for one person’s gutsy persistence, that could well have been perceived by others as “broken record” behaviour. There are also countless examples of people who vainly thrust at windmills, and so what?

If you desire civil discourse you won’t call for the water cannon, either literally or metaphorically, to silence those who in some way fail to attain your standards of debate. You’ll engage with others who have the same goal, rather than complain and angst about what we have to do to get those “brokens” as evolved as we are, or is it better just to condemn them to the margins because they’re incorrigibly dumb and boring and not worth the energy.

If you’re so damn smart, how come you haven’t worked out that you don’t have to listen, it’s a choice, and you’re the master or mistress of your online domain, if you only take responsibility for it?



12 Responses to “Water cannon. Free speech. The right not to listen.”

  1. Galavanting Gran January 22, 2016 at 6:28 pm #

    Well said. As always

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Gina January 22, 2016 at 9:54 pm #

    Mistress of my own domain. That’s the one!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jennifer Wilson January 23, 2016 at 6:44 am #

      That always reminds me of a Seinfeld episode about self-pleasuring


  3. Forrest Gumpp (@ForrestGumpp) January 23, 2016 at 7:37 am #

    “… I can use my mute button, my unfollow button, or even my block button, and take responsibility for creating my own online environment …”

    Indeed we all can!

    It is notable that the blog post that led to the generation of this one featured a linkage to a storify presentation and commentary upon some Twitter conversations involving proponents of the term ‘brokens’. The sources for such storifications derive from the ability of all Twitter users to access, if they are seeking the full context of such conversations, the ‘All tweets’ Twitter timelines of the users whose views they may be interested in.

    What are the implications for online discussion if, however, similar muting, unfollowing, and purported blocking of selected users is able to be undertaken by a third party such that ALL viewers of timelines are only allowed to see parts of any given conversation, not all of it?

    An example of this is recorded in the thread following this comment by Jennifer:



  4. doug quixote January 23, 2016 at 11:08 pm #

    All true, all sensible.

    But if you run a blog, or a newspaper, or a television show/network, it is not incumbent on you to allow your enemies the space and time to attack you or your ideas.

    They are free to exercise their right to free speech elsewhere.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Forrest Gumpp (@ForrestGumpp) January 25, 2016 at 6:00 pm #

    There appears to be another option, not mentioned by Jennifer, available to those Twitter users wishing to avoid the intrusions of tweeters of a lesser blog into their conversations.

    It is that of ‘protecting’ one’s tweets, an option available to every user. Here is how Twitter explains that option:


    I wonder why it is not used more?


  6. Forrest Gumpp (@ForrestGumpp) January 27, 2016 at 4:20 am #

    It seems the possibilities for determining one’s Twitter environment are ever expanding:

    I wonder whether references to block lists might provide a basis for distinguishing between blocks that have been genuinely applied by any given user and the purported blocks that are in fact a result of the deployment of a Twitter disruption tool?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jennifer Wilson January 27, 2016 at 8:39 pm #

      I am still getting my head around the notion of block lists. But I don’t know how anyone would be able to tell the difference between the blockages


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