For democ­racy to thrive, we must be pre­pared to up­hold free speech

The Weekend Australian - - INQUIRER - PAUL MONK Paul Monk (paul­ is the au­thor of 10 books. The most re­cent is Dic­ta­tors and Dan­ger­ous Ideas: Un­cen­sored Re­flec­tions in an Era of Tur­moil (Echo Books, 2018).

There seems to be an ex­tra­or­di­nary amount of con­fu­sion around these days re­gard­ing free­dom of speech in our uni­ver­si­ties and more gen­er­ally. But civil so­ci­ety and con­sti­tu­tional gov­ern­ment re­quire free­dom of speech. And free­dom of speech re­quires sound meta-rules re­gard­ing the way it is con­ducted.

Sup­press free­dom of speech and you move to­wards au­thor­i­tar­ian gov­ern­ment. Without sound meta-rules you move to­wards an­ar­chy and vi­o­lence.

Around the world right now we can see a dis­turb­ing drift in each of these direc­tions.

What do I mean here by “metarules”? I mean the over­ar­ch­ing po­lit­i­cal and civil rules that gov­ern the con­di­tions un­der which de­bates are con­ducted and dis­sent or protest per­mit­ted.

Ever since the Greek city-states pi­o­neered demo­cratic gov­ern­ment and free­dom of speech 2500 years ago, there has been a long strug­gle over the na­ture of the rules and how to up­hold them.

Our present de­bates about free­dom of speech, “hate speech”, cen­sor­ship and “de­plat­form­ing” be­long squarely within this tra­di­tion. It was, af­ter all, the Athe­nian democ­racy that con­demned Socrates to death for “impi­ety” and “cor­rupt­ing the youth”; but we tend to ad­mire him rather than those who con­demned him.

The meta-rules we need now, in the in­ter­ests of science as well as demo­cratic gover­nance and civil peace, are five in num­ber.

• That there is such a thing as truth and that the whole point of civilised and pa­tient dis­course is to elicit the truth.

• That, since this may prove dif­fi­cult and time-con­sum­ing, we agree to dis­agree while the in­quiry and dis­course are pur­sued, rather than sim­ply in­sist­ing on our prior opin­ion be­ing the truth.

• That the search for truth it­self be con­ducted ac­cord­ing to work­able prin­ci­ples of rea­son and ev­i­dence, not dogma or ve­he­ment as­ser­tion.

• That we strive to see the dis­tinc­tion be­tween opin­ion and truth and ac­cept that truth, once grasped, will gen­er­ally re­quire that we al­ter our opin­ions.

• That we agree to open con­tentious sub­jects up to dis­cus­sion un­der the above four rules, not shut them down.

These are pretty ba­sic ideas. One would have hoped that they would not be chal­lenged in any 21st-cen­tury lib­eral democ­racy. Yet, as Michiko Kaku­tani has writ­ten in The Death of Truth, even the first rule — ac­cept­ing that there is such a thing as truth — is now un­der chal­lenge from a be­wil­der­ing va­ri­ety of sources.

Hold­ing the sci­en­tific and philo­soph­i­cal line on this is made more dif­fi­cult by the fact hu­man be­ings gen­er­ally are prone to con­fir­ma­tion bias and other cog­ni­tive weak­nesses, which ob­struct the search for truth even in the best and most im­por­tant cases.

An­ar­chic so­cial me­dia ex­ac­er­bates these prob­lems, cre­at­ing thought bub­bles, vi­ral “road rage” and av­enues for the rapid dis­sem­i­na­tion of con­fused, men­da­cious or in­flam­ma­tory claims.

There are also de­lib­er­ate at­tempts to sab­o­tage the fac­tual and philo­soph­i­cal foun­da­tions of truth seek­ing. Michael Lewis’s lat­est book, The Fifth Risk, in his gen­tle and lu­cid man­ner, ex­poses the in­sti­tu­tional van­dal­ism of the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion in this re­gard. Con­tempt for or shame­less de­nial of fact and truth is en­demic in un­demo­cratic gov­ern­ments around the world in our time: Rus­sia, China, Tur­key, Iran, Saudi Ara­bia.

But our lib­eral democ­ra­cies should be bas­tions of the metarules. This is es­pe­cially so in our uni­ver­si­ties, which are sup­posed to be the schools of rea­son and the havens of open ex­plo­ration of ideas. Ge­orge Or­well fa­mously wrote: “If lib­erty means any­thing at all it means the right to tell peo­ple what they do not want to hear.”

But that gets us only to the start­ing gate. All too of­ten peo­ple in­sist on telling us things that we do not want to hear for the good rea­son that it is abu­sive, ig­no­rant, banal, de­graded or oth­er­wise ob­jec­tion­able.

Are we obliged to lis­ten, much less agree? And if we are not dis­posed to do so, what hap­pens next?

That’s where the meta-rules have to come in. We must be pre­pared to up­hold them and call our in­ter­locu­tors on them when they are vi­o­lated. That’s de­mand­ing work; but it is the in­dis­pens­able work of demo­cratic pol­i­tics and a sci­en­tific cul­ture.

It is for this rea­son and not be­cause one has any sym­pa­thy for big­oted or hare­brained ideas that many of us are dis­mayed by the rise of “grievance stud­ies”, the in­sis­tence on “safe places”, “trig­ger warn­ings” and the sup­pres­sion of lines of “hate speech” at all too many of our uni­ver­si­ties.

There seem to be a grow­ing num­ber of things one can­not be al­lowed to say pub­licly or teach, or say within teach­ing, at uni­ver­si­ties. Is this what the Free Speech Move­ment of the 1960s has come to at uni­ver­si­ties? Is this the prov­ing ground for well-in­formed and ar­tic­u­late prac­ti­tion­ers of free speech and demo­cratic prin­ci­ples?

I at­tended uni­ver­sity be­tween 1977 and 1987. My pur­pose was to learn enough to be able to par­tic­i­pate in­tel­li­gently in pub­lic dis­course about the forces shap­ing our world. I didn’t go to uni­ver­sity to ag­i­tate but to in­quire, though I was aware of the stu­dent rad­i­cal­ism of the 60s.

I en­coun­tered peo­ple, in­clud­ing teach­ers, of many dif­fer­ent opin­ions and ide­o­log­i­cal or re­li­gious per­sua­sions and read as widely and deeply as I could con­cern­ing where these dif­fer­ent be­liefs had come from and why any­one would ad­here to them. No po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness or ide­o­log­i­cal strait­jacket was in ev­i­dence. That ap­pears to have changed.

I did, how­ever, en­counter in­di­vid­u­als with strong opin­ions. I re­call a tu­to­rial dur­ing the 1979 course Clas­si­cal So­cial The­ory (on Marx, We­ber, Durkheim and other modern so­cial the­o­rists) in which a fel­low stu­dent de­clared bluntly and hu­mour­lessly that “come the rev­o­lu­tion” peo­ple who thought as in­di­vid­u­al­ists like me “will all be shot”.

He didn’t threaten to as­sault me on the spot, though, and it never oc­curred to me to in­sist that he be ex­pelled from the class or the uni­ver­sity for say­ing such a thing. The meta-rules were in place and I dis­agreed with his pol­i­tics. I was be­mused by what these days one might dub his “hate speech” but not in­tim­i­dated. I knew per­fectly well that my class­mate’s at­ti­tude was not merely some strange fan­tasy on his part.

Pol Pot had been over­thrown in Cam­bo­dia only very re­cently, af­ter hav­ing huge num­bers of his coun­try’s ed­u­cated elite tor­tured and shot. Deng Xiaop­ing had just crushed the Democ­racy Wall move­ment in Bei­jing and had Wei Jing­sheng im­pris­oned for — as the trial judge put it — “us­ing so­called free­dom of speech to stir up trou­ble”. The ruth­less prac­tice of Marx­ist-Lenin­ist tyran­nies through­out the 20th cen­tury was well known to me.

But be­ing at a uni­ver­sity in a lib­eral democ­racy, I felt safe enough to ab­sorb such vi­o­lent lan­guage in the tu­to­rial room.

This ex­tended to pub­lic lec­tures. In 1980, I at­tended a fo­rum in the fa­mous Pub­lic Lec­ture The­atre at the Uni­ver­sity of Mel­bourne, at which sev­eral well-known speak­ers ad­dressed an au­di­ence of hun­dreds on the sub­ject of Mal­colm Fraser’s eco­nomic poli­cies and the prob­lem of rel­a­tively high un­em­ploy­ment.

David Kemp (Lib­eral), Tom Uren (La­bor Left), Don Chipp (Aus­tralian Democrats) and Al­bert Langer (Monash Uni­ver­sity Marx­ist rad­i­cal) all spoke. None was shouted down. Langer, how­ever, gave a de­cid­edly in­flam­ma­tory adS­tu­dents dress. The first three had all ad­vo­cated var­i­ous com­pet­ing ap­proaches to macro-eco­nomics and un­em­ploy­ment re­lief. Langer de­clared openly: “Those are all bour­geois so­lu­tions. If you want to do some­thing use­ful, go and learn how to use a ri­fle. What this coun­try needs is a rev­o­lu­tion.”

There’s free­dom of speech for you: used to ad­vo­cate vi­o­lence rather than the deep­en­ing of in­quiry and de­bate. Langer was not so much a far-right Proud Boy as a Proud Lenin­ist.

Af­ter­wards, I ap­proached him and asked would he care for a cof­fee. He cheer­fully agreed and, as we strolled over to the Stu­dent Union, I con­ducted an ex­er­cise in free­dom of speech. “Al­bert,” I said to him, “let’s sup­pose, for the sake of ar­gu­ment, that you were able to or­gan­ise the rev­o­lu­tion you’ve just called for and seize power in this coun­try. What ex­actly would you then do?”

“That’s a good ques­tion,” Al­bert re­sponded.

“Sure, it’s a good ques­tion,” I replied, “so what’s your an­swer?” He re­mained silent. “OK,” I went on, “let’s as­sume you pur­sued a stan­dard pol­icy of na­tion­al­i­sa­tion, state plan­ning and in­doc­tri­na­tion, but things got gummed up and the econ­omy hit the skids. What would you do then?”

“Oh,” he said air­ily, “we’d have to have an­other rev­o­lu­tion … And why not? Af­ter all, if things worked out, it’d get bor­ing. Rev­o­lu­tions are fun.”

We pro­ceeded to the Stu­dent Union and or­dered our cof­fees. He de­scribed him­self as a “Marx­istLenin­ist-Stal­in­ist-Maoist”, which struck me as ab­surd and ob­jec­tion­able but not suf­fi­ciently so as to de­rail the con­ver­sa­tion. I have never since, how­ever, been able to take Langer se­ri­ously. He re­mained at lib­erty, car­ry­ing on with his rat­bag­gery for years. For­tu­nately, though, he wasn’t able to or­gan­ise an armed rev­o­lu­tion and I was able to pur­sue my stud­ies without be­ing purged or shot.

The year af­ter that pub­lic fo­rum, cu­ri­ous about stu­dent rad­i­cals such as Langer, I un­der­took an hon­ours the­sis on the stu­dent re­bel­lion and gen­eral strike in France in May of 1968. The soix­ante-huitards (sixty-eighters), as they have been dubbed, had quite an­ar­chic ideas about free­dom of speech and so­cial change. “All power to the imag­i­na­tion,” was one of their most fetch­ing slo­gans.

From a con­ser­va­tive point of view, they were as­sorted im­be­ciles, suf­fer­ing from var­i­ous Cas­troite or Maoist fan­tasies and Mar­cusean delu­sions. Charles de Gaulle de­rided them as “bed wet­ters”.

I was in­ter­ested in the well­springs of their re­volt and how it played out in ad­vanced in­dus­trial so­ci­ety. My in­quiry was un­hin­dered and I drew my own con­clu­sions, crit­i­cally eval­u­at­ing the full spec­trum of ide­o­log­i­cal opin­ions about les even­e­ments de Mai. It was a valu­able learn­ing ex­pe­ri­ence.

The Free Speech Move­ment as such had arisen at the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley, in 1964-65 among restive stu­dents who had come to be­lieve that learn­ing at uni­ver­sity was not enough. Ag­i­ta­tion for so­cial change was in­cum­bent upon them and should be ac­com­mo­dated by the aca­demic au­thor­i­ties.

There was a strug­gle over this. The FSM was part of a groundswell of such ac­tivism in the early 60s, not least through the na­tion­wide Amer­i­can move­ment called Stu­dents for a Demo­cratic So­ci­ety. As the prob­lems of war in Viet­nam and racism heated up, el­e­ments of the SDS threw the meta-rules of demo­cratic so­cial or­der over­board and opted to at­tempt vi­o­lent rev­o­lu­tion. They formed the Weather Un­der­ground Or­gan­i­sa­tion, in­spired by the in­sur­rec­tion­ism of Che Gue­vara and Car­los Marighella in Latin Amer­ica. I stud­ied all of this in the 80s when it was still a mat­ter of re­cent his­tory; dur­ing doc­toral stud­ies on Amer­i­can coun­terin­sur­gency strat­egy through­out the Cold War.

I iden­ti­fied to some con­sid­er­able ex­tent with Tom Hay­den and the founders of the SDS and em­pathised with armed rebels in coun­tries such as El Sal­vador and The Philip­pines. I was wary of the Marx­ist-Lenin­ist brand of vi­o­lent rev­o­lu­tion, given its ap­palling his­tory in the 20th cen­tury, but ap­palled by the death squads that plagued Cen­tral and South Amer­ica in those years. My in­ves­ti­ga­tion it­self, af­ter all, re­quired the meta-rules of lib­eral democ­racy.

Robert Red­ford’s 2012 film The Com­pany You Keep, star­ring Red­ford, Su­san Saran­don, Julie Christie, Nick Nolte, Stan­ley Tucci, Sam El­liott, Chris Cooper and Shia LaBeouf, ro­man­ti­cises the Weather Un­der­ground and its rad­i­cal pol­i­tics. The film’s worth see­ing, but it’s not a good in­tro­duc­tion to what hap­pened back then.

Brian Bur­rough did a vastly bet­ter job in Days of Rage: Amer­ica’s Rad­i­cal Un­der­ground, the FBI and the For­got­ten Age of Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Vi­o­lence (2015). Cru­cially, for our present pur­poses, he shows how the FSM and SDS strug­gled with the meta-rules re­gard­ing free­dom of speech and civil so­ci­ety and how the im­pa­tient and “rad­i­cal” wing threw away those rules and opted for vi­o­lence of the kind Langer ex­tolled.

Such would-be rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies, like neo-Nazis or vi­o­lent an­ar­chists or re­li­gious fa­nat­ics, pose a di­rect threat to the meta-rules. It’s all very well, af­ter all, to seek truth in con­ge­nial, in­tel­li­gent, wellinformed and pro­fes­sional com­pany. But what do we do when we con­front venom, ig­no­rance, hos­til­ity, en­trenched re­sis­tance — when we con­front one kind or an­other of what Churchill called “the fa­natic”: some­one who can­not change his mind and will not change the sub­ject?

Well, that’s ex­actly when de­fence of the meta-rules, in­clud­ing by po­lice pro­tec­tion if nec­es­sary, is most im­por­tant.

Na­dine Strossen, the first fe­male na­tional pres­i­dent of the Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union and pro­fes­sor of con­sti­tu­tional law at New York Uni­ver­sity, has just given us a fine re­flec­tion on this chal­lenge: Hate: Why We Should Re­sist it With Free Speech, Not Cen­sor­ship. She makes a pow­er­ful case that when we find ideas ob­jec­tion­able, we need to have the courage to stand up and chal­lenge them, not merely shout them down or try to ban them.

An unim­peach­able “lib­eral” on race, class and gen­der, she states forthrightly: “On many cam­puses … stu­dents com­plain that they have been ‘as­saulted’ when they are ex­posed to ideas that of­fend them, or even if they learn that a provoca­tive speaker has been in­vited to cam­pus. This false equa­tion be­tween con­tro­ver­sial ideas and phys­i­cal vi­o­lence fu­els un­war­ranted calls for out­law­ing and pun­ish­ing ideas, along with vi­o­lence.”

For rea­soned de­bate and fruit­ful in­quiry to take place, it is nec­es­sary that vi­o­lence be out­lawed, but it is counter-pro­duc­tive for ideas to be out­lawed. What’s re­quired is to fos­ter the op­por­tu­nity for stren­u­ous de­bate and what may of­ten be painful and dif­fi­cult learn­ing. If we can­not agree on that, our po­lit­i­cal and in­tel­lec­tual cul­ture is in trou­ble.

Un­fash­ion­able as it is to state this these days, the ideas of free­dom (eleuthe­ria), po­lit­i­cal equal­ity (isono­mia), equal­ity of speech (isego­ria), free­dom of speech (par­rhe­sia) and democ­racy (demokra­tia) de­rive from clas­si­cal Greece. They were im­per­fectly re­alised in the an­cient world and the Greek and Ro­man re­publics gave way to au­to­cratic rule. But we de­rive our key modern ideas about free­dom and re­spon­si­ble gov­ern­ment from those be­gin­nings.

As Josiah Ober wrote in The Athe­nian Rev­o­lu­tion: “Some 2500 years af­ter the rev­o­lu­tion that made it pos­si­ble, democ­racy is widely re­garded as the most at­trac­tive form of prac­ti­cal (as op­posed to utopian) po­lit­i­cal or­gan­i­sa­tion yet de­vised. Among democ­racy’s virtues is its re­vis­abil­ity — the po­ten­tial of the po­lit­i­cal regime to re­think and to re­form it­self, while re­main­ing com­mit­ted to its core val­ues of jus­tice, equal­ity, dig­nity and free­dom.”

At the root of all this is free­dom of speech. If we wish to pre­serve and ex­tend our lib­er­ties or main­tain our democ­ra­cies, we need to un­der­stand this. We must equip our­selves to prac­tise it well, ed­u­cate our young to un­der­stand how un­usual such lib­erty has been in hu­man his­tory and how dif­fi­cult it is to main­tain. Do­ing these things it­self de­mands that we ad­here to the meta-rules that make it pos­si­ble. And here’s the kicker: so will build­ing any re­al­is­able “utopia” be worth striv­ing af­ter? Mar­tin Luther King Jr knew that and spoke faith­fully to it, call­ing for the Amer­i­can repub­lic to live up to its found­ing meta-rules.

Socrates re­mains ad­mired for his ideas, un­like the democ­racy that or­dered his death


oc­cupy the Sor­bonne head­quar­ters in May 1968


Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Los An­ge­les stu­dents at a Love Trumps Hate rally in 2016

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