This was originally published in The Saturday Paper.
Call it mass cognitive dissonance. All around us, the loudest proponents of free speech, in politics and the Australian media, are in many ways the most flagrantly hypocritical. These actors set a dangerous precedent: by refusing to acknowledge their double standards, and by bullying and harassing those who disagree with their version of the truth, they become the very tyranny they claim to stand against. The hypocrisy is so blindingly obvious that it is almost comical to point it out. It is as if the mere act of highlighting something so clear diminishes the identifier, rather than the perpetrator.
Let’s zoom out for a moment and take the broader view. What is the point of free speech? A concept talked about so readily, debated so passionately and defended so feverishly, in many ways benefits from an ambiguity of purpose when discussed. Is it the pursuit of truth or the freedom to offend? Each ardent defender sees in the concept what they choose. Is one purpose more noble than another? Why is free speech shared so unequally? And why is it that freedom of expression seems to enjoy an elevated status above all other rights?
The concept of free speech is so deeply misused and misconstrued in our public discourse that a key fact is often obscured: freedom of speech in Australia is not explicitly protected. Arguably the only Western liberal democracy without a bill of rights, Australians have an implied freedom of political speech. There is very little protecting us from the consequences of “free speech”.
There is, of course, more than one way of policing a society. The Australian debate is conducted in the context of what is socially permitted and acceptable. It is policed by a concentrated media and a hyper-partisan political system.
I have been thinking a lot recently about free speech, and have been interested in what the English philosopher John Stuart Mill wrote about the danger of limiting expression and “the tyranny of the majority”. In his opinion, free speech is concerned with the pursuit of truth.
He wrote that “the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”
The collision of a true proposition with an erroneous one, Mill argued, is how we get to truth, or the closest possible expression of it. Presenting a hypothesis and then having it tested by others without fear of reprisal is, arguably, how scientists strengthen their research, how engineers iterate a design or how chefs perfect their recipes. In the right environment, it is an undeniably effective method of convergence.
At the civil society end, Human Rights Watch’s definition seemingly squares with Mill’s. The international non-governmental organisation articulates freedom of speech as a bellwether, stating: “how any society tolerates those with minority, disfavoured, or even obnoxious views will often speak to its performance on human rights more generally”. What the organisation believes constitutes freedom is less defined; however, it is largely focused on government interference with citizens. This would align with Australia’s implied freedoms of political speech. But what about beyond that?
Typical proponents of free speech use Mill’s arguments to warn against their “silencing” – whether Lionel Shriver on cultural appropriation or Margaret Court on Christians being unable to speak against queer rights. Defenders of Shriver and Court might even use arguments based on Mill, announcing that we should always “err on the side of free speech”, and that “our right to speak our minds is under threat like never before”. Although useful, when Mill’s argument is used in today’s discourse, it is often stripped of context, applied in a peculiar vacuum and devoid of an understanding of history and power. The colliding of opinions will only lead to the emergence of truth if the force behind both is equal, if the playing field is level, if there is a commitment to truth rather than to an agenda that is self-serving. Herein lies the rub: those who claim to be the biggest proponents of free speech seem uninterested in the pursuit of truth, unable and unwilling to accept any version of truth that is not their own. The cognitive gymnastics that allows those who are the most powerful to persuade themselves and others they are being silenced is remarkable, and, in a perverted way, almost awe inspiring. To quote an unlikely ally in this, here is Janet Albrechtsen: “free speech has become a political smorgasbord where who you defend depends on partisan tastes rather than principles”.
Free speech is shaped and at times distorted by society’s informal but powerful mandates and norms, led and bolstered by actors in media, and reinforced by politicians, corporates and influencers online. This, in Mill’s writings, is “a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression … it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself”. This tyranny rears its head when the sacred cows of prevailing opinion are challenged and existing power structures are questioned: Anzac Day, Invasion Day, the rights of First Nations people, climate change. One does not need to look far for proof: the treatment of Adam Goodes, Tarneen Onus-Williams and Gillian Triggs are all examples of individuals targeted for expressions deemed by a powerful elite as “unacceptable”. Life for these figures, and anyone who chooses to speak outside socially acceptable norms, is made deeply uncomfortable through the use of overwhelming social pressure and the concentrated fury of a public shaming. Believe me: I know through personal experience. To paraphrase Guy Rundle, no one goes through being on the front page, day after day, as a hate figure and comes through unscathed. That is precisely what is intended.
The platforms arrayed by these interests are the very operation of the social tyranny that Mill warns against. On some issues, public sentiment has changed over time: marriage equality is a fine example of how the agenda of some media and conservative politicians was deeply out of step with the electorate. However, there are still some issues on which there is little empathy for an alternative perspective.
The danger here is twofold. First, Mill’s concern becomes prophetic: the tyranny of prevailing opinion limits us as a society from achieving our fullest potential and leads us to a place of political despotism. Less obviously dire, but perhaps more urgently, is that the way in which power is exercised in today’s public arena frightens those without traditional forms of power into actual self-imposed silence. The examples of Goodes, Triggs and even Julia Gillard are often used by marginalised voices to explain why they are afraid to speak out about issues that are important to them. Scores of young people contact me and share their concerns, stonewalled by their fears of voicing them too loudly, lest they attract the ire of media dragons lying in wait. “Look at what happened to you,” they whisper. “What chance do I have? I need to pay the rent.”
Is this a society that we believe is truly free? Is this the world that proponents of freedom of speech want to build? Because if their objective is “truth”, they are doing quite a poor job of securing it.
The other peculiarity in the furore around free speech is why it is that those who have access to the largest platforms feel so disproportionately injured by any questions around their ability to say as they please. The answer seems impossibly simple: they already have everything, but if they give up any of that space, if their opinions are questioned or even usurped by people who look and think differently to them, the systems of oppression on which their power is built could come crashing down. If you live emboldened by the power of patriarchy, racial supremacy, able-bodiedness and wealth, you have the power to glide effortlessly where you want. Even the whiff of a headwind, an opposing view, a dissenting perspective, seems personally offensive. This is why freedom of expression takes up so much space in our public discourse on rights, rather than freedom of movement, freedom from torture and inhuman treatment, the right to social security. These are rights and freedoms that are infringed upon on a daily basis by our very governments but are not met with nearly as much outrage by pundits in power. One wonders why.