Tag Archives: free speech

I don’t like this so ban it for me.

27 Oct

nospeech_fullsize

 

I don’t know how it came to this, but my post defending Germaine Greer’s proposed lecture at Cardiff University has caused me to be described as transphobic.

Given the current circumstances of my life I am strangely unmoved by this accusation, however what does cause me some annoyance is that it seems to have become increasingly difficult to say, I do not agree with this person’s views on a subject but I do support his or her right to express them, and I welcome the ensuing debate.

As I understand it, Greer wasn’t intending to speak about transgender people. However, because she has spoken negatively on this topic there is a view that she is not, apparently, permitted to speak on any topic at all.

The list of topics on which Greer has spoken negatively and with abrasion is very very long. It is this characteristic and dare I name it, talent, that provoked a revolution amongst women decades ago, and were it not for Greer, among other equally provocative feminists, we wouldn’t be getting our own mortgages and living as fluidly as we are, even though we have still a very long way to go.

With thanks to Jo Tamar, I’m linking to this explanatory post on the complexities of changing gender. I was vastly irritated by the tone, but if you can get past that it’s worth a look.

And this post, Who’s afraid of Germaine Greer, is also worthy of a read.

Accusations of transphobia, like all name-calling, serve to distract from the essence of my argument, which is that banning speech rarely results in a positive outcome, whilst engaging in debate can be creative and productive. It ought to go without saying that I don’t include hate and inflammatory speech, but I know it won’t go without saying so I’m saying it.

Students at Cardiff University wanted the authorities to ban Greer’s lecture. The University refused to do this, to its credit. Students could have, and should have, taken responsibility for expressing their disagreement and displeasure with Greer in any number of ways: boycotting, back-turning, protesting, writing, and speaking, however, demanding that authorities do their oppositional work for them was both idle and cowardly. I don’t like this so ban it for me. Well, ok, but don’t complain when you find yourself in a fascist state.

 

 

 

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Freedom to speak. Section 18C and terrorism

13 Jan

 

voltaire-quote1

 

I find myself in a familiar turmoil over the issue of free speech, raised again most recently by the Charlie Hebdo massacres. Those lives were not lost because of the exercise of freedom of speech. They were lost because violent, brutal ideologues murdered them. The lives lost in the 9/11 attacks had nothing to do with the exercise of free speech. Thousands upon thousands upon thousands  of civilian lives lost in wars waged by western powers were not lost because the victims were exercising freedom of speech.

While I abhor the dehumanising stereotyping that is at the heart of hate speech and racial vilification, murderers are responsible for murdering and those ideologues determined to murder will do so, and they will find any reason to justify their thirst for destruction. It is ludicrous to claim that offence and insult are provocation enough to incite them, and that attempting to restrict offence and insult will do anything at all to restrain their murderous impulses.

Race is a construct, used to justify ill-treatment and dehumanisation of those not in the dominant tribe. Religion is a construct, also used to justify ill-treatment and dehumanisation of those not of the dominant belief system. Race and religion are equally illusionary, that is, they are human constructs that have come to be reified as monolithic truths for which people are willing to kill and to die. Section 18c of The Racial Discrimination Act will not affect these monolithic truths, and the willingness of their adherents to murder and die for them.

The human species has not yet evolved out of its need to gather in tribes of one kind or another, and take arms against those they define as not of them. Restricting free speech does nothing to address these fundamental problems.  In many situations it serves to exacerbate division, for example in defamation legislation that inevitably favours those with wealth and power over those with none.

There have always been and will always be extremists and radicals. We can no more expect to live free of the threat of terrorism than we can expect to live without the air that we breathe.

In the end, nothing will be as effective against terrorism as the freedom to speak, even if that speech is offensive and insulting. Those of us who aren’t murderous extremists must learn to deal with speech that insults and offends us because the option, a mass silencing,a mass surveillance of thought, word and deed is far too horrific to contemplate. There is no human right not to be offended. A life without insult is a sheltered life indeed. It is a serious loss to Australian society that a magazine such as Charlie Hebdo could not be published in this country. If you don’t like it, don’t read it, but to make it illegal is unacceptable.

What is wrong with us is that we do not regularly mobilise as did the French in Paris yesterday, visibly united against terrorist attacks. What is wrong with us is that we have become too precious, too willing to allow governments to take responsibility for us in legislation that is and can be little more than a band-aid. Over-protection weakens and infantilises us, and causes us to give up our power to those who would control us, whether they are elected governments or murderous extremists.

Terrorism, and political and governmental reaction to it is spectacle, and it is the same, shared spectacle. It is bad theatre. It is full of sound and fury, signifying nothing and it will not save us from death and destruction, metaphorical and literal, by those who would silence us.

 

Update: This is the piece on Charlie Hebdo being published in Australia, to which I attempted to link in The Australian and was initially foiled. Suck it up, Rupert.

 

Being Charlie — with 18c in place, Australia says ‘non’

 

Charlie Hebdo from October 2014.

SATIRICAL French publication Charlie Hebdo could not be printed in Australia under existing restrictions on free speech, despite its cartoons being embraced across the world as a symbol of Western liberties after the massacre at its offices.

Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson told The Australian the restrictions contained in section 18c of the Racial Discrimin­ation Act would “ensure it would be shut down”; he was supported in this position by media law ­experts.

The carnage in Paris has also encouraged two Liberal MPs to publicly call for the debate about changes to section 18c to be re-opened after the government last year unceremoniously dropped its planned reforms following a fierce public backlash.

Mr Wilson, dubbed the “freedom commissioner”, has taken aim at opponents of the 18c changes who are now rhetorically embracing free speech, warning that words needed to be backed up with concrete action.

Failure to do so would be seen as hypocritical, he said.

“The Charlie Hebdo attack is a wake-up call for a lot of people who rhetorically support free speech but when it comes to the nub would choose political ­advantage over sensible reform,” he said.

“This is where they have an opportunity to rise to the challenge, like the leaders of Europe are now doing, rather than being held out as hypocrites.”

In The Australian today, the chairman of the parliamentary joint committee on human rights, West Australian senator Dean Smith, challenges Tony Abbott and Bill Shorten to support a private senator’s bill proposing a middle pathway forward on an 18c overhaul.

The Opposition Leader yesterday indicated he remained unmoved on 18c.

“You don’t give the green light to hate speech when in fact it’s hate which is what we’re all ­united against,” he said.

Mr Shorten said it was distasteful to turn the events in Paris into a domestic political issue. “It is an inappropriate stretch … to see government MPs trying to use what happened in Paris to justify divisive debates.”

The government has formally ruled out any changes to 18c, saying they are “off the table”.

While Mr Wilson argued that many of the religiously themed cartoons in Charlie Hebdo would not fall foul of the discrimination act, he said that racial stereo­typing of Jews and other ethnic groups would create too many legal issues for such a publication to continue in an Australian context.

“18c only covers issues of race and ethnic origin, which would cover some of the material but not all of it,” he said. “It would cover Jews and ethnic representations, but it wouldn’t cover Muslims and other bits. In the end, the legal problems would essentially ensure it would be shut down.

“I think there are lots of different avenues for reform, but I think there are more issues than just 18c that need to be considered.”

Senator Smith threw his support behind Mr Wilson, but urged for a renewed focus on 18c. He is urging both sides of politics to back a private senator’s bill he has co-sponsored with Family First senator Bob Day, Liberal Democrat David Leyonhjelm and Liberal colleague Cory Bernardi.

Senator Smith says the bill could form a “legislative monument to the human price paid by France” and would simply remove the words “offend” and “insult” in a finetuning of 18c.

“By agreeing (to the bill) … Tony Abbott and Bill Shorten will have kept the protections against ­‘humiliate’ and ‘intimidate’,” he writes. “Our leaders have read the mood with precision and Tony Abbott is right to remind us to be prepared to ‘speak up for our ­beliefs’ and ‘call things as we see them’. It is now time to crown our words of vigilance with a deed.”

Senator Bernardi said he absolutely supported the passage of the bill.

Simon Breheny, the director of the legal rights project at the Institute of Public Affairs, told The Australian that Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons certainly “would have been caught in Australia by section 18c of the Racial Discrimin­ation Act”.

“Even if it wasn’t caught by section 18c, there is no doubt they would have fallen foul of restrictive state racial and religious vilification laws. This is one of the possible explanations as to why we don’t have any kind of publi­cations in Australia quite like it, because our laws restricting freedom of speech are so severe.”

Legal experts also united to suggest that Charlie Hebdo would be unlikely to meet the existing tests enshrined in current Australian law, pointing out that satirical cartoons do not occupy the same status in Australian culture.

“You would have a complaint if those sorts of cartoons were to run here,” said Minter Ellison Partner and Fairfax media lawyer in Victoria Peter Bartlett.

“I think they would certainly, run up against 18c and we would receive complaints and we would then need to deal with those ­complaints.”

Mr Bartlett also warned that there was already “some evidence of self-censoring”, given the ­caution around the existing racial discrimination laws.

Justin Quill, a media lawyer used by The Australian, said the publication would have “serious difficulties” and would constantly need to justify its actions. “If someone took action against them — probably more than once — it ultimately would mean that it would be difficult to survive and it could mean it had to be shut down,” he said.

“I can easily say I think there would be occasions where it would lose an 18c argument.

“It’s easy for those who support 18c to say ‘I think they wouldn’t’. What is clear is that the publication would have to successfully bear the onus of proof in proving their defence.”

Charlie Hebdo cover depicting Jesus on the cross.

 

Abbott’s tyrannical silencing of 1,892,100 possibly critical political opinions

9 Apr

GovernmentThe recent directive from the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet on the lack of freedom of speech public servants have as private citizens, includes the expectation that government employees will dob in colleagues they believe are criticising the government.

This report in the Guardian, linked above, begins with a declaration by Tony Abbott before he became PM:

There is no case, none, to limit debate about the performance of national leaders. The more powerful people are, the more important the presumption must be that less powerful people should be able to say exactly what they think of them.

I’m baffled as to why this noble sentiment isn’t applied to public servants. Engaging anonymously on social media is no protection for them, as is evidenced by the sacking of Immigration Department employee Michaela Banerji who tweeted critically of the department using a pseudonym, and lost her job.

In subsequent action, Ms Banerji argued that there is an constitutionally implied freedom of political communication for public servants, however, the prospective costs of prolonged legal action caused her to withdraw and settle out of court, leaving the claim untested.

There are some 1,892,100 public servants in Australia, accounting for 16.4 per cent of the workforce. None of them are permitted to offer personal political opinions critical of the government on social media. It is unlikely that this restriction will be challenge by an individual. The government has deep pockets and access to the best advice, when it comes to defending legal action against it. Yet it would seem a matter of urgency that a challenge to such tyranny is launched.

It is tyrannical to forcibly silence critical political opinion with the threat of loss of livelihood. While no one can reasonably endorse public servants using knowledge obtained in the course of their work to criticise the government of the day, general personal opinion, of the kind expressed by Ms Banerji in her tweets ought to be permitted, unless the government is so insecure it cannot bear scrutiny.

A robust and confident government should not fear robust critique. Politicians need to be reminded that they have their jobs only because the electorate allows them that privilege. Stifling dissent will never endear governments to the citizenry. Part of a politician’s job is to weather the inevitable storms of criticism, and if they are too weak to do this, they are too weak to govern a country.

Human Rights Commissioner for Freedom, Tim Wilson, has this interesting take on the responsibility of public servants to the governments that employ them, noting that respect and civilising behaviour are the admirable goals of speech conduct codes.

As Mr Wilson once tweeted that protesters should have a water cannon turned on them, his notions of civilised behaviour are likely unreliable:

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

Wilson also draws a comparison between criticism and respect, which to my mind is totally false. Respect does not, and never has implied inevitable agreement or lack of criticism. It is a very dangerous conflation Mr Wilson makes, and it is especially concerning that the Commissioner for Freedom (I still don’t know what that means) seems unable or unwilling to consider the complexities of competing rights.

My sympathies are with the many people I know who work for the government. To live in the knowledge that one must be constantly aware of one’s speech for fear of losing one’s job is not how one expects to dwell in a liberal democracy. It is absolutely unacceptable that so many Australians must live this way, with the additional fear that a colleague may at any time dob them in. I am at a loss as to understand just what kind of society the Abbott government envisions for our country. The tyrannical silencing of so many people because it is too weak to withstand critical commentary, does not augur well.

If any public servant wants to be an un-named source, he or she is very welcome on this blog.

Jenny Craig & Jackie O

28 Mar

The Alliance of Girls Schools recently invited the CEO of weight loss company Jenny Craig to speak to hundreds of teachers at their upcoming conference. Amy Smith plans to speak on women and leadership, not body image, however the invitation has caused outrage among some health professionals, who have organised an online petition with over a thousand signatures so far, claiming that by inviting Ms Smith the Alliance is endorsing unhealthy dieting practices.

I was initially confused, and thought Ms Smith was speaking to girls about Jenny Craig. Fair enough to question that I thought. But no, she’s speaking to teachers about women and leadership.

It seems to me that if health experts are enraged by Ms Smith speaking, they’re going to have to protest if any woman who has anything to do with the fashion industry, women’s magazines, the cosmetic industry, and cosmetic surgery, all of which promote an unhealthy obsession with physical appearance that ought not to be encouraged in girls, is invited to address any conference that has anything to do with people who are employed in girls’ education.  Otherwise they will appear inconsistent and lacking in credibility.

I’d engage anyone in a debate as to whether Jenny Craig or Cosmopolitan is more damaging to girls’ notions of how they should look. I’d also take on the magazines that contain pages of fashion and slimming advice, followed by an orgy of food porn, followed by scorn for celebrity cellulite and muffin tops. Mixed messages, anyone?

Body Matters eating disorder specialist Lydia Jane Turner says “…the idea of this person [Amy Smith] actually speaking about inequality of girls and the economic standing of women I find incredibly hypocritical.” Ms Turner justifies her feelings by pointing out that Jenny Craig has sponsored the Kyle Sandilands show, and that Vile Kyle has a history of “fat shaming.”

I may be on shaky ground here, as I recently called Clive Palmer a “fat shit” on Twitter. However, in my own defence, the mental image that term of abuse conjures for me is literal: a great big stinky brown log that won’t go down no matter how much you flush.

To me, there is something abhorrent in demanding that anyone not be allowed to speak. For example, I was highly offended when Tony Blair last visited this country, was fawned over by the media, and addressed university students in his usual messianic fashion, justifying his part in the invasion of Iraq because he felt it was “morally right.”  In my opinion, Blair is a war criminal and I don’t like the idea of a war criminal let loose to influence our young. However, petitioning to have him silenced is more offensive to me than allowing him to speak. As with Ms Smith, everyone knows where he’s coming from. Adults can make up their own minds about his message. Not everyone shares my perceptions of him, and why should I claim the right to impose my beliefs on others?

It isn’t Ms Smith’s stated intention to “fat shame” anyone. She’s a woman who’s done well in the business world, and she plans to talk about her experiences. Yes, she’s part of an industry that has a dark side. Is there any industry that doesn’t? And do we silence all representatives because of that? Cardinal George Pell had better give up public speaking for a start. There are few industries more dangerous to children than his has proved to be.

 

Speaking of Kyle Sandilands, this spray against his on-air partner Jackie O appeared on the mamamia website the other day. Jackie O apparently declined to describe herself as a feminist, incurring the wrath of Mia Freedman, who feels that we should all call ourselves feminists a) because we’ve benefited from the efforts of our predecessors, and b) because if we believe in equality we are feminists. This generous definition doesn’t take into account the furious public debates between feminists as to who is and is not deserving of the title, debates that caused confusion and resentment, and quite likely prompted more than one woman to vow she did not want the title anyway.

Prue Goward by publik15 via flickr

I first became aware of Jackie O when she was on the receiving end of a gratuitous attack by the NSW Minister for Middle Class Morality, Prue Goward. At the time I wrote this:

Prue Goward, recently appointed NSW Minister for Families, whatever that is, has taken a nasty swipe at radio personality Jackie O for the manner in which she fed her baby.

Apparently Jackie O gave the child a bottle while simultaneously walking across a pedestrian crossing, an action Goward likened to the famous Michael Jackson moment when he dangled his little son over a balcony in Germany and subsequently earned global contempt for his fathering skills.

Why this is a concern for the Minister for Families remains a mystery to me. An over-zealous commitment to her new portfolio? Is she going to focus on perceived child abuse by the rich and famous? If the mother had been a working class woman would Goward have even blinked?

I’m glad she wasn’t in the nursery when once, in a sleep deprived state similar to those experienced by former PM Kevin Rudd, I accidentally stuck my fingers in the wrong jar and pasted my baby boy’s bits with Vicks Vapour Rub instead of nappy rash cream.

Soon to become a dad himself for the first time, he looked at me speechless, and quite judgmentally, I thought, when I recently confessed this transgression. Too late I realised my mistake. Now I probably won’t be allowed anywhere near the new baby, but at least we know the Vicks didn’t do its daddy any damage.

My sympathies at the time were firmly with Jackie O. I’ve since had cause to reflect that her relationship with Kyle Sandilands does remind me of a variation of an abusive situation, in which Jackie plays the role of enabler.  In spite of this I’ve never quite lost my impression of her as vulnerable, so when I read the criticism of her not identifying as a feminist I wanted to protect her.

The inimitable Helen Razer has her say on the matter here.

Refusing to call yourself a feminist is a crime for which there is apparently no adequate punishment, and from which there is no possibility of redemption. You just have to do as you’re told and say you are, even if you don’t feel it’s really you. Here, as with the attempts to dictate whom the Alliance of Girls’ Schools may and may not invite to address them, we see further efforts by ideologues and morality police to control our public and private discourse, to the degree that we are told we should call ourselves something we do not feel we are.

Life seems increasingly to be a battle to preserve one’s own integrity against the onslaught of busybodies who’s own life purpose seems to be telling everybody else who we should be, what we should do, who we should listen to (invariably them) and what we can see. Personally, I’m over it. The only obligation anyone has is to be upfront about where they are coming from if they want to have a public voice. Silencing people is not on, and neither is telling women how to describe ourselves. Haven’t we got enough of that already from the patriarchy and the beauty industry, and the religious people and and and and……

Bolt lands TV show, thanks to Gina

8 Apr
Fair & Balanced graphic used in 2005

Image via Wikipedia

Andrew Bolt has landed a Sunday morning gig on Channel 10, thanks to his über wealthy fan, mining heiress Gina Reinhart.

Reinhart recently acquired a 10% stake in the network, and has decided that it’s about time for a “Fox News style show” on 10.

Reinhart’s move into media gives her an opportunity for far wider cultural influence and control than she currently enjoys, and it looks as if she’s wasting no time getting that up and going.

Bolt is embroiled in legal action taken against him by several high profile Aboriginals, following his observations that some light-skinned Indigenous people exploit their heritage for personal gain. Bolt apparently thinks that if you don’t look Aboriginal you shouldn’t be claiming that you are, given that he thinks the claims may give you a leg up in your profession and position in the world, and an advantage over non Indigenous competitors.

All the evidence points to Bolt’s on-going enjoyment of the publicity and attention the court case has brought him. Scoring his own weekly TV show must be icing on his cake. Taking personalities such as Bolt on publicly usually does backfire: giving them an even bigger stage on which to parade their opinions seems to work largely in their favour.

Whatever you may think of Bolt’s opinions, he does have the right to express them. Easy enough to support free speech if it’s agreeable, it’s when agreement is absent that the principle really matters. And as somebody said, the only way to contest bad speech is by more and more good speech: trying to stifle opinions, no matter how wrong-headed you might think they are, isn’t going to work well.

On the question of heritage, I can understand why people want to proudly claim everything they’ve got. As someone who has no knowledge of my father and his family, I’ve had my struggles with genealogical confusion.

It also seems pretty natural to me that if one does have a heritage in which family was maligned and discriminated against, there can be a strong desire to restore that heritage and the family to its rightful human place, personally, politically and culturally. It’s a personal healing process, a fulfilling of responsibility to ancestors, and a powerful assertion of place and belonging.

I guess the fact that Andrew Bolt can see it only as exploitative and opportunistic says a great deal more about him than it does about those he’s maligned. But I’m not about to give Bolt the satisfaction of being one more person railing against him. Go for it Andy. There’s still plenty of us producing good speech. You’ve got a long way to go before you drown us out, even with the Fox News template on your side.

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