Freedom of speech fundamental
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