Free­dom of speech fun­da­men­tal

Waikato Times - - COMMENT&OPINION - PETER DORNAUF

It’s that time of the year in the three­yearly cy­cle when cer­tain peo­ple, mostly pre­sent­ing in suits, are of­fer­ing us the moon. At the mo­ment, there are more pledges, prom­ises and plights out there than one can shake a stick at. And we all know that de­spite who­ever suc­ceeds to the throne, things will ba­si­cally stay the same. They’ll get a lit­tle bet­ter and a lit­tle worse af­ter a good deal of brouhaha.

We’re gonna build 10 new houses. Well, we’re gonna build 20 new houses. And so on. Bet­ter and the same, only bet­ter. I no­tice that the demo­cratic process is be­ing se­ri­ously in­ter­fered with here in Hamil­ton with the on­go­ing de­face­ment and de­struc­tion of po­lit­i­cal hoard­ings and bill­boards. It’s the kind of thing one as­so­ci­ates with the ac­tions of dumb ado­les­cent van­dals or fascistin­clined adults.

If you want to make a state­ment, please make it half in­tel­li­gent. I’d like to see dis­si­dents putting up ri­val posters next to the kosher ones with sharp ob­ser­va­tions and crit­i­cal com­ment.

I al­ways feel slightly in­sulted when I see posters with noth­ing to say ex­cept ‘‘vote me’’.

Full marks to artist Sam Ma­hon and his over­sized and anatom­i­cally cor­rect de­pic­tion of MP Nick Smith clev­erly, if a lit­tle bla­tantly, mak­ing its point. But thumbs down to those peo­ple who ac­costed Smith and rubbed rat poi­son in his face. That kind of in­tim­i­da­tion has no place in a free and open democ­racy.

This un­savoury el­e­ment is un­for­tu­nately creep­ing into and in­fect­ing our coun­try and cul­ture, even threat­en­ing our free­dom of speech. It has re­cently been re­vealed that Waikato Univer­sity lec­turer Dr Ray­mond Richards re­ceived death threats af­ter he de­liv­ered a lec­ture on the Mor­mon Church’s his­tory of vi­o­lence and polygamy. The univer­sity was forced to hire a se­cu­rity guard to pro­tect Richards on cam­pus. This is ex­tra­or­di­nary. One ex­pects such sce­nar­ios to play them­selves out in places like China or Rus­sia or some Mid­dle Eastern state, but in New Zealand? It’s as­ton­ish­ing and also dis­turb­ing. More sub­tle forms of the same thing ev­i­dence them­selves here in this coun­try when some peo­ple in­stinc­tively reach around for the race but­ton in or­der to sti­fle cri­tique. It’s a dis­con­cert­ing trend.

Richards again has been the tar­get of this more de­vi­ous form of in­tim­i­da­tion. His mild rib­bing of Mus­lim be­lief and prac­tice re­cently on Face­book, as a pri­vate in­di­vid­ual, pro­voked ‘‘an­tiIs­lamic’’ and ‘‘racist’’ charges. Com­plaints have been laid.

This kind of hair-trig­ger re­sponse with the aim of clos­ing down crit­i­cism to the sort of stuff that would all be in a day’s work for some­one like Richard Dawkins is a cal­cu­lat­ing and danger­ous de­vel­op­ment. We ei­ther live in an open so­ci­ety or we don’t. The ‘‘hate speech’’ trope is wide open to abuse and is be­ing cun­ningly em­ployed by peo­ple ob­vi­ously not ac­cus­tomed to liv­ing in a lib­eral democ­racy. Peo­ple have the right in this coun­try to speak out and have their say and re­li­gious, cul­tural or eth­nic groups are not sacro­sanct or im­mune to crit­i­cal scru­tiny. At­tempt­ing to gag ex­pres­sion with such ex­ploita­tive tac­tics be­longs more com­fort­ably in au­to­cratic regimes, but not here in New Zealand.

Those who can­not brook crit­i­cism or lam­poon are a dan­ger to them­selves and to oth­ers, but there are a lot of them about and the phe­nom­ena is grow­ing in the West. Ed­ward Luce in his new book, The Re­treat of West­ern Lib­er­al­ism, makes dire pre­dic­tions about the demise of lib­eral democ­racy, quot­ing the as­tute ob­ser­va­tion: The price of free­dom is eter­nal vig­i­lance.

In the age of iden­tity pol­i­tics, where tak­ing of­fence has been pro­moted to the nth de­gree, in­sid­i­ously com­ing at the ex­pense of free speech, the ob­ser­va­tion is a a timely re­minder.

Trash­ing po­lit­i­cal hoard­ings and at­tempt­ing to shut down cri­tique by mis­chie­vously play­ing the race card are sim­ply two sides of the same coin. And cry­ing wolf in this re­gard where there isn’t one is an abuse and mis­use of lan­guage. Such over-the-top re­sponses to healthy crit­i­cism are an at­tempt to erode free­dom of ex­pres­sion, set­ting up re­ver­ber­a­tions that chip away at an open so­ci­ety, and, as hap­pens in au­to­cratic states, makes peo­ple timid, ner­vous and afraid to speak out, ques­tion or chal­lenge.

Artists, co­me­di­ans, satirists, nov­el­ists, play­wrights, poets and lec­tur­ers in in­sti­tu­tions of higher learn­ing, if they’re do­ing their job, help to point the fin­ger, keep things open and hon­est, ex­pose stu­pid­ity and poke the bo­rax. We need them.

We need more Sam Ma­hons, artists with po­lit­i­cal kick-arse qual­i­ties, and more poets and satirists to re­mind us of our hu­man fool­ish­ness and folly.

There are ob­vi­ous lim­its to free­dom, of course, thresh­olds to what one can do or say, but press­ing the anti but­ton over and over in re­ac­tion to crit­i­cism is a ma­nip­u­la­tive act that rep­re­sents an at­tempt to muz­zle in­tel­lec­tual and moral judg­ment and si­lence or­di­nary hard-won lib­er­ties nec­es­sary for a healthy democ­racy.

LET­TERS TO THE EDI­TOR

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