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Jul 3, 2014

Rundle: Brandis' most important value is not free speech, it is whiteness

George Brandis is a champion of free speech -- except, of course, if such speech is "dangerous" or "extremist".

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Three months ago, Attorney-General George Brandis said that people had “a right to be bigots”. This inept way of putting it doomed his Racial Discrimination Act section 18c reforms and might cost the Libs several inner-city seats, but he was of course  correct — the sphere of private thought and opinion must remain inviolable. Only direct threats and intimidation should attract legal sanction. Anything else violates the principles of free speech laid down in J.S. Mill’s On Liberty.

So why is Brandis going to Muslim “community” leaders to talk about ways of “tackling” extremism, by which he means fundamentalist political Islamism? Surely Mills’ liberty principles mean that no form of speech should be treated as inherently toxic or dangerous?

They do, and this fudge on Brandis’ part indicates why his 18c fight was such a failure. Because for all their bluster, Liberals will not renounce the central tenet of multiculturalism — the idea that there are ethnic “communities” within the wider Australian society, and that these communities have leaders who can be called upon to regulate the speech of their members, because such speech might be “dangerous”, “infectious”, etc.

Once you cede this idea, you cede a liberal position on free speech, because speech is not then a free political act in an open social space, but something to be negotiated between “communities”. If Brandis had wanted to stand up for free speech, he would have said, “Say what the hell you like about the caliphate, Israel, etc, what do I care? But urge people to kill person or group X or Y, and the law will be involved.” Once you define any set of beliefs as “extremism”, you have adopted the “bacillus” model of speech — the idea that speech, rather than being a set of arguments which might persuade someone by its content, is instead a virus which can infect people with an idea that someone has already judged to be noxious.

Under this model some ideas, prior to any debate concerning their content, are held to be “dangerous” — as though they had some occult power to hypnotise people and turn them into automatons to do their bidding.

Hard to know whether people like Brandis realise this and try to busk it anyway, or whether they are genuinely oblivious. I lean to the latter, because such abstract liberalism is really based on a more concrete principle: that of whiteness. The ideas that are treated as a bacillus are those coming from the non-white world and explicitly challenge the notion that the modern era was some sort of “level playing field”.

Why is it, for example, that political Islamism can be treated as a social hygiene problem, while the statements of the manifestly odd and potentially violent Senator David Leyonhjelm — a gun nut who had suggested that John Howard should be shot — are seen as mere speech? Should not the “leaders” of the Swedish-Australian community — probably some bloke running a smorgasbord cafe in Gardenvale — be asked to intervene? No? Can we then admit that the idea of free speech is only extended to certain people? And that the people Brandis is negotiating with are those organising for the defeat of 18c reforms? And that the Liberals can’t run even a bad culture war?

Guy Rundle — Correspondent-at-large

Guy Rundle

Correspondent-at-large

Guy Rundle is Crikey's correspondent-at-large. He was co-editor of Arena Magazine for 15 years, and has written four hit stage shows for Max Gillies, two musicals, numerous books and produced TV shows including Comedy Inc and Backberner.

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18 comments

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18 thoughts on “Rundle: Brandis’ most important value is not free speech, it is whiteness

  1. Brendan Jones

    @Mark out West > “Is the ability to accost woman outside a birth control center a good use of this freedom, I think not.”

    The US balances the right to freedom of speech with the right privacy. You have the right to speak, and (despite what Tim Wilson thinks https://twitter.com/timwilsoncomau/status/127208106517213184 ) the right to be heard, but people have the right to choose not to listen. (There’s a subtle difference the “Freedom Commissioner” doesn’t appear to appreciate).

    So you aren’t permitted to corner (or barricade, or stalk) someone to force your views upon them. They call this the Captive Audience Doctrine.

    US Supreme Court Chief Justice Burger: “The right of every person ‘to be let alone’ must be placed in the scales with the right of others to communicate.”

    For example, when the Westborough Baptist Church protested at the Funeral of US Marine Matthew Snyder, they had to so at a distance from funeral, out of direct view and earshot of the funeral attendees. There are similar laws for abortion clinics, though arguably they don’t go far enough.

    http://victimsofdsto.com/hrc/#_edn14

    BTW I use US examples because they’ve had a 250 year head start debating on matters of free speech. The Australian Constitution by comparison gives exceptionally poor protection of individual rights. The roll of paper I keep in the smallest room of my house gives me better comfort and support.

    “A free press is not quite fitted to a servile population” – Sir Francis Forbes, 1st Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of NSW.

    Indeed.

  2. Jack Robertson

    It would be immensely helpful if everybody claiming the right to ‘free speech’ – a red herring – started calling it it’s proper name – the right to ‘speak freely’. Freedom of speech isn’t defined as an absence of external imposition of restriction on content, it’s defined by an absence of external restriction on delivery. In fact in Australia, we have no meaningful free speech restrictions at all – I’m free to express whatever I want, it’s just that the consequences might rather vary. (Frankly, the only genuine way to remove someone’s freedom of speech is by applying death – and routinely throughout history and still today people have chosen exactly that, ahead of not saying what they thought – saying it ‘freely’, in public, attaching the abstract idea to their physical self without any fudge or equivocation or safety net). I will say what I think, in public, even if it means you then kill me, because I think my idea so true and important – not just some petulant teeny tyre-kicking, or farting in public, or bored stirring, or dangerous opportunism – that it’s better that I die in the saying of it (if, gulp, it comes to that) than it not be said.

    Really, to be mucking up this debate in a country like Australia is embarrassing – what everyone is arguing about here is not the right to speak freely, but the right to say whatever we want and suffer no consequences at all. Wah-mummy, boo-hoo poor little middle-class webels. There is no restriction on freedom of speech in Australia. None. Seriously, harden the f**k up and speak your abstract mind. If you’re not prepared to risk this or that consequence, fair enough, but sorry, then your idea is as weak as piss and not worth my time.

    And ‘external restriction on delivery’ crucially includes self-imposed restrictions – such as the donned cloak of anonymity. You are not speaking ‘freely” – expressing free speech – if you’re speaking encumbered by any kind of authorial fudge. That applies to all you anonymous commenters, but is also applies to anyone who ‘speaks freely’ at The Sydney Institute (we don’t know who is funding the wine and biccies and therefore the full provenance of the free speaker is just as be-cloaked and murky to us as the balaclava’d call-to-jihad whacko on Youtube). It applies to any anonymously-penned newspaper leader, to graffiti, to most advertising, to most political comment and debate, to election campaigns, to Facebook, to pretty much everything in the public realm now, an ever-increasing percentage of the overwhelming tsunami of information we’re awash in. A diminishing number of us are speaking truly freely because we are all learning fast to play the game of information meta-attenuation, self-censorship, image-making, marketing. We’re all donning sophisticated balaclavas for our ‘free speech’ utterances and we don’t even know it, and understanding this tectonic plate-shift in human communication is crucial in the current dizzying epistemological era because – as we are seeing with the use of social media to publicly out cranky twits having a bad day on trains – thank God for the lived Norman Rockwellian freedom of speech of a bunch of commuting bogans – shaming them into retraction and apology within hours after the police had walked away and long before Brandis even heard about it – unquestionably the single most powerful prophylactic against the danger of (unjustifiable) dangerous incitement (AND idiocy, AND bad taste, AND offence, AND harassment, and crap human behaviour in general), is the simple act of starkly-revealed authorship. You pull off the nutter’s balaclava, so his mum gets to see his face.

    It applies to Rupert Murdoch no less than the screechy jihadist.

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