The challenge of free speech
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.