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?