Yass­min Ab­del-Magied on how free speech fuels progress

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Call it mass cog­ni­tive dis­so­nance. All around us, the loud­est pro­po­nents of free speech, in pol­i­tics and the Aus­tralian me­dia, are in many ways the most fla­grantly hyp­o­crit­i­cal. These ac­tors set a dan­ger­ous prece­dent: by re­fus­ing to ac­knowl­edge their dou­ble stan­dards, and by bul­ly­ing and ha­rass­ing those who dis­agree with their ver­sion of the truth, they be­come the very tyranny they claim to stand against. The hypocrisy is so blind­ingly ob­vi­ous that it is al­most com­i­cal to point it out. It is as if the mere act of high­light­ing some­thing so clear di­min­ishes the iden­ti­fier, rather than the per­pe­tra­tor.

Let’s zoom out for a mo­ment and take the broader view. What is the point of free speech? A con­cept talked about so read­ily, de­bated so pas­sion­ately and de­fended so fever­ishly, in many ways ben­e­fits from an am­bi­gu­ity of pur­pose when dis­cussed. Is it the pur­suit of truth or the free­dom to of­fend? Each ar­dent de­fender sees in the con­cept what they choose. Is one pur­pose more noble than an­other? Why is free speech shared so un­equally? And why is it that free­dom of ex­pres­sion seems to en­joy an el­e­vated sta­tus above all other rights?

The con­cept of free speech is so deeply mis­used and mis­con­strued in our pub­lic dis­course that a key fact is of­ten ob­scured: free­dom of speech in Aus­tralia is not ex­plic­itly pro­tected. Ar­guably the only Western lib­eral democ­racy without a bill of rights, Aus­tralians have an im­plied free­dom of po­lit­i­cal speech. There is very lit­tle pro­tect­ing us from the con­se­quences of “free speech”.

There is, of course, more than one way of polic­ing a so­ci­ety. The Aus­tralian de­bate is con­ducted in the con­text of what is so­cially per­mit­ted and ac­cept­able. It is po­liced by a con­cen­trated me­dia and a hy­per-par­ti­san po­lit­i­cal sys­tem.

I have been think­ing a lot re­cently about free speech, and have been in­ter­ested in what the English philoso­pher John Stu­art Mill wrote about the dan­ger of lim­it­ing ex­pres­sion and “the tyranny of the ma­jor­ity”. In his opin­ion, free speech is con­cerned with the pur­suit of truth.

He wrote that “the pe­cu­liar evil of si­lenc­ing the ex­pres­sion of an opin­ion is, that it is rob­bing the hu­man race; pos­ter­ity as well as the ex­ist­ing gen­er­a­tion; those who dis­sent from the opin­ion, still more than those who hold it. If the opin­ion is right, they are de­prived of the op­por­tu­nity of ex­chang­ing er­ror for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is al­most as great a ben­e­fit, the clearer per­cep­tion and live­lier im­pres­sion of truth, pro­duced by its col­li­sion with er­ror.”

The col­li­sion of a true propo­si­tion with an er­ro­neous one, Mill ar­gued, is how we get to truth, or the clos­est pos­si­ble ex­pres­sion of it. Pre­sent­ing a hy­poth­e­sis and then hav­ing it tested by oth­ers without fear of reprisal is, ar­guably, how sci­en­tists strengthen their re­search, how en­gi­neers it­er­ate a de­sign or how chefs per­fect their recipes. In the right en­vi­ron­ment, it is an un­de­ni­ably ef­fec­tive method of con­ver­gence.

At the civil so­ci­ety end, Hu­man Rights Watch’s def­i­ni­tion seem­ingly squares with Mill’s. The in­ter­na­tional non-gov­ern­men­tal or­gan­i­sa­tion ar­tic­u­lates free­dom of speech as a bell­wether, stat­ing: “how any so­ci­ety tol­er­ates those with mi­nor­ity, dis­favoured, or even ob­nox­ious views will of­ten speak to its per­for­mance on hu­man rights more gen­er­ally”. What the or­gan­i­sa­tion be­lieves con­sti­tutes free­dom is less de­fined; how­ever, it is largely fo­cused on govern­ment in­ter­fer­ence with cit­i­zens. This would align with Aus­tralia’s im­plied free­doms of po­lit­i­cal speech. But what about be­yond that?

Typ­i­cal pro­po­nents of free speech use Mill’s ar­gu­ments to warn against their “si­lenc­ing” – whether Lionel Shriver on cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tion or Mar­garet Court on Chris­tians be­ing un­able to speak against queer rights. De­fend­ers of Shriver and Court might even use ar­gu­ments based on Mill, an­nounc­ing that we should al­ways “err on the side of free speech”, and that “our right to speak our minds is un­der threat like never be­fore”. Although use­ful, when Mill’s ar­gu­ment is used in today’s dis­course, it is of­ten stripped of con­text, ap­plied in a pe­cu­liar vac­uum and de­void of an un­der­stand­ing of his­tory and power. The col­lid­ing of opin­ions will only lead to the emer­gence of truth if the force be­hind both is equal, if the play­ing field is level, if there is a com­mit­ment to truth rather than to an agenda that is self-serv­ing. Herein lies the rub: those who claim to be the big­gest pro­po­nents of free speech seem un­in­ter­ested in the pur­suit of truth, un­able and un­will­ing to ac­cept any ver­sion of truth that is not their own. The cog­ni­tive gym­nas­tics that al­lows those who are the most pow­er­ful to per­suade them­selves and oth­ers they are be­ing si­lenced is re­mark­able, and, in a per­verted way, al­most awe in­spir­ing. To quote an un­likely ally in this, here is Janet Al­brecht­sen: “free speech has be­come a po­lit­i­cal smor­gas­bord where who you de­fend de­pends on par­ti­san tastes rather than prin­ci­ples”.

Free speech is shaped and at times dis­torted by so­ci­ety’s in­for­mal but pow­er­ful man­dates and norms, led and bol­stered by ac­tors in me­dia, and re­in­forced by politi­cians, cor­po­rates and in­flu­encers on­line. This, in Mill’s writ­ings, is “a so­cial tyranny more for­mi­da­ble than many kinds of po­lit­i­cal op­pres­sion … it leaves fewer means of es­cape, pen­e­trat­ing much more deeply into the de­tails of life, and en­slav­ing the soul it­self ”.

This tyranny rears its head when the sa­cred cows of pre­vail­ing opin­ion are chal­lenged and ex­ist­ing power struc­tures are ques­tioned: An­zac Day, In­va­sion Day, the rights of First Na­tions peo­ple, cli­mate change. One does not need to look far for proof: the treat­ment of Adam Goodes, Tarneen Onus-Wil­liams and Gil­lian Triggs are all ex­am­ples of in­di­vid­u­als tar­geted for ex­pres­sions deemed by a pow­er­ful elite as “un­ac­cept­able”. Life for these fig­ures, and any­one who chooses to speak out­side so­cially ac­cept­able norms, is made deeply un­com­fort­able through the use of over­whelm­ing so­cial pres­sure and the con­cen­trated fury of a pub­lic sham­ing. Be­lieve me: I know through per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence. To para­phrase Guy Run­dle, no one goes through be­ing on the front page, day after day, as a hate fig­ure and comes through un­scathed. That is pre­cisely what is in­tended.

The plat­forms ar­rayed by these in­ter­ests are the very op­er­a­tion of the so­cial tyranny that Mill warns against. On some is­sues, pub­lic sen­ti­ment has changed over time: mar­riage equal­ity is a fine ex­am­ple of how the agenda of some me­dia and con­ser­va­tive politi­cians was deeply out of step with the elec­torate. How­ever, there are still some is­sues on which there is lit­tle em­pa­thy for an al­ter­na­tive per­spec­tive.

The dan­ger here is twofold. First, Mill’s con­cern be­comes prophetic: the tyranny of pre­vail­ing opin­ion lim­its us as a so­ci­ety from achiev­ing our fullest po­ten­tial and leads us to a place of po­lit­i­cal despo­tism. Less ob­vi­ously dire, but per­haps more ur­gently, is that the way in which power is ex­er­cised in today’s pub­lic arena fright­ens those without tra­di­tional forms of power into ac­tual self-im­posed si­lence. The ex­am­ples of Goodes, Triggs and even Ju­lia Gil­lard are of­ten used by marginalised voices to ex­plain why they are afraid to speak out about is­sues that are im­por­tant to them. Scores of young peo­ple con­tact me and share their con­cerns, stonewalled by their fears of voic­ing them too loudly, lest they at­tract the ire of me­dia dragons ly­ing in wait. “Look at what hap­pened to you,” they whis­per. “What chance do I have? I need to pay the rent.”

Is this a so­ci­ety that we be­lieve is truly free? Is this the world that pro­po­nents of free­dom of speech want to build? Be­cause if their ob­jec­tive is “truth”, they are do­ing quite a poor job of se­cur­ing it.

The other pe­cu­liar­ity in the furore around free speech is why it is that those who have ac­cess to the largest plat­forms feel so dis­pro­por­tion­ately in­jured by any ques­tions around their abil­ity to say as they please. The an­swer seems im­pos­si­bly sim­ple: they al­ready have ev­ery­thing, but if they give up any of that space, if their opin­ions are ques­tioned or even usurped by peo­ple who look and think dif­fer­ently to them, the sys­tems of op­pres­sion on which their power is built could come crash­ing down. If you live em­bold­ened by the power of pa­tri­archy, ra­cial supremacy, able-bod­ied­ness and wealth, you have the power to glide ef­fort­lessly where you want. Even the whiff of a head­wind, an op­pos­ing view, a dis­sent­ing per­spec­tive, seems per­son­ally of­fen­sive. This is why free­dom of ex­pres­sion takes up so much space in our pub­lic dis­course on rights, rather than free­dom of move­ment, free­dom from tor­ture and in­hu­man treat­ment, the right to so­cial se­cu­rity. These are rights and free­doms that are in­fringed upon on a daily ba­sis by our very gov­ern­ments but are not met with nearly as much out­rage by pun­dits in power. One

• won­ders why.


YASS­MIN ABDELMAGIED is the founder of Youth Without Bor­ders, a me­chan­i­cal en­gi­neer, author and ad­vo­cate.

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