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Friday 5 August 2016

Free speech is not free

"Free" speech, one of the most esteemed of the ideals of western society is not free. Even in the very societies that espouse it most vehemently, it always comes at a cost.

Any view contrary to the "accepted norm" is attacked and the proponent personally vilified for transgressing the dictates of "social nicety". The arbiters of the rules are today the "Chatterati", that loosely aligned troop of media and academic commentators who patrol the airwaves with conspiratorial zeal. Like sharks at the smell of blood they are ready to mount a frenzied attack on the "mis-informed', "illiterate", "stupid", or "insane".

I don't have to go far for examples. They nominate themselves.

Think Pauline Hanson, Andrew Bolt, Cory Bernardi. A mere mention of their names brings to mind multiple character assassinations. They are however experienced and know the drill having come to terms with the not insignificant costs of their free speech from death threats, mob rule and, arguably, even a jail term.

Not so Sonia Kruger. She wandered apparently innocently outside the accepted boundaries. She may well have been surprised at the extent and scope of the reaction.  By raising the question of "Muslim Immigration" she unleashed a barrage of invective addressed at her personally rather than the argument she posed.

Attack the messenger

This is a common pattern. Rather than responding to arguments on their merits with counter arguments and counter facts, the attack is usually personal. Seemingly in fear that an unorthodox view may win over the masses, the self-elected thought-police use personal attacks to shout down and shut down debate.

Kruger's "cost" for her 'free speech' has so far amounted to multiple personal attacks by the Chatterati and social media. As a TV personality this will no doubt impact the way she is viewed and accepted by her colleagues and fans. However she may face even greater 'costs' following comments from some sponsors asking her to be removed from her role, as they do not want to be associated with someone with her views. This may turn out to be a high price indeed. Of course there has been support too, from loyal colleagues, from fellow outcasts like Bolt and Hanson, as well as from Free Speech advocates.

The Limits of Free speech

The Sonia Kruger events demonstrate that free speech is not free but has consequences. Is this reasonable?

In any civilized society hate speech, speech that incites violence against individuals or groups, is and must be punishable by law. However, expression of ideas that do not incite violence should be free of legal sanction. Contrary to 18C of our Racial Discrimination Act individuals should be allowed to express views that may offend others.

Of course that does not mean there won't be any consequences.  Expression of new, radical, contrary views will always elicit a response. A free society will not stifle such debates. On the contrary it will encourage them. For it is only by openly addressing each argument for or against a proposition that individuals come to accommodate what may seem to be opposing views. By seeing both sides of an argument we are more willing to compromise our own views.

Too often, however, those with main-stream views use their media power to shut down debate without proffering arguments but by attacking the messenger.

The repeated success of this approach has led to under-the-cover, half-hearted debates with many topics now closed to open discussion. Debates that we should be having like Kruger's Muslim Immigration, Same sex marriage, the recognition of aborigines in the constitution, to name just a few.

Repressing open discussion does not eliminate contrary views, it sends them underground and polarizes society. Paradoxically it leads to more extreme views rather than the opposite.

Yes there will always be and there should be consequences to expression of views. The consequences should however be counter argument rather than personal abuse.

Shame on You

To all those who attack the messenger "Shame on You". To sponsors who cave at the first sign of controversy "Shame on you". To those mainstream opinion-brokers who try to shut down debate by inciting protest against the person "Shame on You". By attacking the messenger you raise the cost of dissent and perpetuate conflict.

To Sonia Kruger and others brave enough to speak out against mainstream opinion, I thank you. I may not agree with your views but will fight for your right to express them.

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