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Suffocate debate and we all lose

9 February 2013 4,243 views No Comment

FREE speech is fundamental to freedom and the very basis of democracy. All ideas, whether great or small, common or controversial, benefit from debate. Silencing argument, by contrast, is counterproductive and dangerous. It closes minds, forecloses options and ultimately risks removing effective political power from the hands of the citizenry.

Yet history demonstrates a pronounced tendency among committed ideologues of all types to silence anyone who disagrees with them. In Australia and the West, it is the so-called progressives from whom free-speech advocates have the most to fear.
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The shrillness that defines the attempt by the Gillard government to “tighten up” all our anti-discrimination legislation is a discouraging sign that freedom of speech is at risk. Most concerning is the power of many on the Left, including the so-called red Greens, who would prefer all of us to think alike or keep quiet if we don’t. In recent years we have been foolishly allowing legislative, social and other sanctions to be added to those that traditionally send unwelcome political ideas to the sidelines.

It is shocking that in today’s fractious environment, people who give voice to ideas considered to go against received wisdom become the objects of mass opprobrium. Attempts to silence broadcasters such as Alan Jones and Andrew Bolt should be viewed with great concern.

That is the Jacobin road. Supposedly progressive movements have a long history of trespassing on basic freedoms. The attempt to refashion society by wiping out the old and bringing in the new, and in the process to silence dissent, has a long provenance. As Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote in 1846 in ‘The German Ideology’, the aim of communism was to entirely “wipe away the muck of ages”. It mattered naught that to create a much better and supposedly classless world, many so-called bourgeois freedoms, including free speech and the right of dissent, would have to go. Hence VI Lenin, the militant Marxist-Leninist, was willing to sacrifice sections of Russian society to achieve his Bolshevik aims.

The essential idea of totalitarianism is that those who achieve power are entitled to completely remake society. This didn’t start with the Jacobin Maximilien Robespierre in France or end with the Bolshevist Lenin in Russia. Maoist China in 1949 and the horrific regime of Pol Pot in Cambodia in 1975 silenced free speech. Pol Pot drew direct inspiration from the French Revolution, renaming 1975 “Year Zero” in honour of Year One of the French Revolutionary Calendar of 1792. He purged tens of thousands of opponents and in slightly less than four years eliminated two million people (about 30 per cent of Cambodia’s population) in his killing fields.

In a minor way, in Australia, a supposedly progressive but in fact anti-liberal philosophy has been taken up by the Labor Left and the red Greens, whose loudest voice is the radical ex-Marxist, NSW senator Lee Rhiannon, whose parents Bill and Freda Brown were long-term pro-Moscow Communist Party members dating from the Stalinist era.

The war against “unauthorised” dissent has also been taken up by a virulent social media whose aim is to silence those who oppose what is perceived as the correct political, racial, ethnic or social line. The internet has in this sense become the 21st-century mob. A new Bastille is stormed almost daily in pursuit of some passing political or social passion that quite often involves the attempted extermination of what they regard as offensive speech or utterance.

There have been several recent examples of this distressing, though still relatively new and thus reversible, development in attempting to denigrate and silence opponents. For instance, Prime Minister Julia Gillard decided to redefine misogyny after Opposition Leader Tony Abbott criticised her policies and her political behaviour. Who cares about the integrity of the English language when there’s a political score to settle?

Abbott is defined by Labor (and the Greens) as a woman-hater for no other visibly substantive (or substantiated) reason than that the Prime Minister is female. But the Gillard issue is not that she’s a she. It’s that she’s widely seen as an incompetent leader, who appears willing to say or do just about anything to stay in office.

The place to resolve political difficulties and differences is the ballot box. Gillard has taken the novel step of announcing an election date nearly eight months out from polling day. It testifies to her improbable definition of parliamentary government that she then asserted there was no campaign – it would be government as usual until parliament was prorogued in August.

It’s necessary in a democracy to have robust political argument. We should demand nothing less from those who lead the nation or seek to do so. But it doesn’t always need to be shrill, or to be based on an imperfect understanding of issues (or history), or to descend to personal denigration.

And most of all, it doesn’t need to be conducted by those who will happily dish it out but won’t cop getting it dished back.

The new Attorney-General, Mark Dreyfus, declared himself upset that Christopher Pyne had lampooned the shambles that is the Gillard government by drawing an analogy from the movie ‘Downfall’, which depicted the last days of Hitler’s pernicious regime in Germany.

Pyne’s point was either apt or not, depending on one’s view. But there’s no denying it was a neat quip given that the famous Hitler rampage scene from the movie has been appropriated on the internet many times for a robust laugh, with any number of unfortunates dubbed into the central role. In this context, that’s politics.

In 2011, Dreyfus compared Abbott’s “truth campaign” – aimed at Gillard, whose dexterity with redefinition had by then become legendary – to the work of Hitler’s propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels. When taxed with this after the ‘Downfall’ quip, Dreyfus said he’d meant that Abbott was Goebbelsian, not that he was a Nazi. The Attorney-General is a defamation lawyer and knows how to spot a handy rabbit hole.

There are times when it is best to go back to basics and to the lessons of history. One plain lesson is that it is far better – and ultimately a lot safer – to let people say what they think and to welcome and encourage real argument.

The French Enlightenment writer Voltaire once said this: “It is dangerous to be right in matters where established men are wrong.” We can safely conclude that nothing has changed.

He famously did not say, in his ‘Essay on Tolerance’: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” That redaction of his words is a fiction in a 1907 book called ‘The Friends of Voltaire’ by Evelyn Beatrice Hall.

Voltaire actually wrote: “Think for yourselves and let others enjoy the privilege to do so too.” It’s not as catchy as the punchy misquote, but it carries a lot more meaning.

Let’s think about that. It means, in a modern context, that anyone is entitled to think – and therefore to say – whatever they please (defamation lawyers and attorneys-general please note) and that society owes itself the sensible democratic benefit of encouraging the presence of the widest conceivable range of views.

It means that shock jocks on radio, scribblers in newspapers, bloggers on the internet, and anyone else are all free to express a point of view. If someone says or writes something offensive, we should be free either to dismiss it as noxious babble or else accord it the privilege of consideration.

The danger to Australian democracy today lies chiefly in the increasing trend to shout people down or shut them out, to resort to defamation actions over trivialities, to campaign to have people banned from the airwaves or the blogosphere for voicing opinions that run counter to politically correct form. And, perhaps above all, to attempt to silence debate before it’s begun.

The truth is that the right to free speech is not worth a fig unless it protects the right to write or say things that are deeply offensive to some groups or individuals.

The lessons of history demonstrate the danger of silencing opinion and utterance. Mob rule never works and is in any case morally corrupt. The French Revolution is the exemplar – not the American one, so often cited – because the former removed a dilettante, dysfunctional, atrophied, venal, dissolute and thoroughly unpleasant regime that deserved to be consigned to the dustbin.

That lesson turned out to be a harsh one for the French, because their revolution was hijacked by an even worse set of murderous characters, more careless of people’s rights than the regime it had displaced. The Jacobins, led by lawyer-politician Robespierre (himself ultimately a guest of Madame Guillotine) and bent on creating a centralised dictatorship, created a reign of terror, cynically used the street mob to achieve their police-state aims, silenced dissent by mass murder and foreclosed entirely on free thought.

Our lesson should be a much gentler one. No tumbrels will rattle down Australian streets. But we do need to be more civil and inclusive of contrary views and to be much more tolerant, as Voltaire sensibly suggests, of those on soapboxes and their modern cyber equivalents who especially cause their progressive ideological opponents such intense irritation.

Otherwise we shall indeed be placing our precious freedoms at risk.

Emeritus professor of history and politics Ross Fitzgerald is the author of 35 books, including My Name is Ross: An Alcoholic’s Journey and the political-sexual satire Fools’ Paradise.

The Weekend Australian February 9-10, 2013, Inquirer p 15.