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?

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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?

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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