The chal­lenge of free speech

New Zealand Listener - - EDITORIAL -

It’s tempt­ing to be re­laxed about the is­sue of hate speech in this coun­try, when the sort of racist ex­trem­ists who are a scourge in­ter­na­tion­ally can muster only a half-dozen mis­er­able spec­i­mens for a protest at Par­lia­ment. Our so-called National Front may be ris­i­ble. But the same week­end its fee­ble protest was drowned out by anti-racism de­mon­stra­tors, Ira­nian Em­bassy first sec­re­tary Hor­moz Ghahre­mani was re­ported as giv­ing an in­flam­ma­tory anti-Is­rael ad­dress at a mosque meet­ing at which oth­ers called for the an­ni­hi­la­tion of Is­rael and de­nied the Holo­caust. It is hard to be re­laxed about this. The meet­ing in Auckland was in­tended to re­main pri­vate; an un­sanc­tioned ­YouTube ­post­ing was sub­se­quently de­plored by the speak­ers. But it’s not the first time hate speech has been outed in our Mus­lim ­com­mu­nity, and the tenor of th­ese com­ments is al­ways a gut-punch to the New Zealand ethos. We are not im­mune to the many va­ri­eties of racist ex­trem­ism that cause so much tragedy abroad.

As the re­cent movie De­nial drama­tises, the seem­ingly ­ir­re­duc­ible ap­petite for race-ha­tred con­stantly seeks new ways to weaponise it­self us­ing in­ge­nious pro­pa­ganda. Like moon-land­ing de­niers, anti-Semites bal­last their hate speech with al­le­ga­tions that, al­though they can­not with­stand fac­tual scru­tiny, are ­nev­er­the­less read­ily be­lieved by a rump of so­ci­ety.

Huge ef­fort goes into mak­ing th­ese bo­gus nar­ra­tives plau­si­ble to a will­ing au­di­ence. De­nial’s sub­ject was the fall of Bri­tish his­to­rian David Irv­ing, who spent years fal­si­fy­ing ac­counts of the treat­ment of Jews by the Nazis. His work was only able to be metic­u­lously re­futed when he sued Amer­i­can pro­fes­sor Deb­o­rah Lip­stadt for li­bel, ­prompt­ing re­searchers in her de­fence to do line-by-line au­dit­ing of his writ­ings and ut­ter­ances. Doc­u­ment­ing Holo­caust sur­vivors’ ac­counts re­mains an im­per­a­tive we, es­pe­cially the me­dia, must keep hon­our­ing. Yet even as to­day we gasp afresh at Irv­ing’s ma­lign men­dac­ity, the ap­petite for such hate-fu­elling man­i­festos en­dures, fanned by the in­ter­net.

It’s tempt­ing to ban or de­port such hate­mon­gers, but that would only strengthen their fol­low­ers’ con­vic­tion that they’re mar­tyred mes­si­ahs. More im­por­tantly, the sup­pres­sion of views, how­ever nox­ious, com­pro­mises demo­cratic free­dom. Free­dom of speech should have as few ex­cep­tions as pos­si­ble. Un­less ­some­one ac­tively in­cites vi­o­lence or acts of ha­tred, so­ci­ety is bet­ter off hear­ing their views than not. In­flam­ma­tory speech can rad­i­calise peo­ple, but at least if we all know about it, we can counter it. The mosque speak­ers must now be left in no doubt that an over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity of New Zealan­ders de­plore their views and would op­pose any en­act­ment of them. Sun­light is still the best dis­in­fec­tant.

Hate-speech sup­pres­sion also founders on the im­pos­si­bil­ity of get­ting a so­ci­ety or le­gal con­sen­sus on where to draw the line. Al­ready we tend to­wards over-rig­or­ous pa­trolling of speech on con­tro­ver­sial top­ics. For in­stance, any­one ex­press­ing reser­va­tions about the pace or ex­tent of im­mi­gra­tion trig­gers the re­flex­ive ad­mon­ish­ment of “racist!” Feel­ing alien­ated by rapid change in the make-up of one’s neigh­bour­hoods need not con­note racism. Fear of change is a com­mon hu­man re­sponse. Reser­va­tions should be couched in terms of cul­ture, which can adapt, rather than race, and must be based on ev­i­dence. But re­mon­strat­ing with peo­ple who are ap­pre­hen­sive about im­mi­gra­tion doesn’t ease or even ad­dress that ap­pre­hen­sion; rather, it’s apt to make it fes­ter.

In Bri­tain, it was a prime

­driv­ing force be­hind the national frac­ture-point of Brexit. In the US, haugh­tily sup­pressed im­mi­gra­tion anx­i­ety helped em­bolden Don­ald Trump, who has made hate-filled speech a spe­cial­ity and now runs po­ten­tially the most glob­ally desta­bil­is­ing White House ­Ad­min­is­tra­tion ever.

Chill­ingly, Trump now at­tacks the prin­ci­ple of free speech for oth­ers when he de­mands AfricanAmer­i­can NFL play­ers be fired for ex­er­cis­ing their right to protest dur­ing the national an­them.

In­creas­ingly, over­seas uni­ver­si­ties are the test­ing grounds for the bound­aries be­tween free speech and hate speech. Con­tro­ver­sial speak­ers are typ­i­cally ve­toed by stu­dent or fac­ulty ac­tivists, or ren­dered silent by bel­li­cose protest and lo­gis­ti­cal dis­rup­tion. This in turn cre­ates a back­lash, so set­tles noth­ing. It’s per­haps ­ground­ing to re­turn to the sum­ma­tion of Voltaire’s phi­los­o­phy by his bi­og­ra­pher Eve­lyn Beatrice Hall: “I dis­ap­prove of what you say, but I will de­fend to the death your right to say it.”

Let’s vig­or­ously, loudly and un­fail­ingly de­plore hate-speak­ers – but let’s also ac­cept that ban­ning or over-shout­ing them will not si­lence them, let alone change their views. Only free speech, good­will and truth can do that.

Ban­ning hate­mon­gers would only strengthen their fol­low­ers’ con­vic­tion that they’re mar­tyred mes­si­ahs.

National Front mem­bers and anti-racism de­mon­stra­tors in Welling­ton.

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