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".

Guy Rundle — Correspondent-at-large

Guy Rundle


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?

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

  1. klewso

    “Always look on the white side of life….”

  2. The Cleaning Lady

    I need to get this out of the way first: I can’t believe I’m about to defend Brandis.

    Guy, your argument rises or falls depending upon what Brandis means by “extremism”. Ultimately, if he wants to try to forestall people travelling overseas to join wars and insurrections, or to commit acts of terrorism here or elsewhere, then I’m perfectly fine with him seeking to suppress the expression of any speech that would incite such actions.

    I don’t recall “On Liberty” now enough to say whether that category of speech would have met with Mr Mills’ approval. Would it?

    Might not Brandis be seeking to exhort moderates within the Islamic community to engage in public discussion in order to counter (by debate!) the kinds of speech that involve incitement to terrorism/war/insurrection?

  3. Brendan Jones

    The irony here is that while the ACLU were able to defend free speech by the *Nazis*, the Liberals haven’t been able to defend the free speech rights of their own Andrew Bolt.

    I wrote this to “Freedom Commissioner” Tim Wilson pointing out that and his own double-standards on free speech by public servants:

    He acknowledged it but didn’t respond. The other Human Rights Commissioners Broderick and Soutphommasane didn’t respond either. They’ll talk, but they won’t listen.

  4. klewso

    If he’d been around back then, I wonder how he would have viewed the Boer War, for starters?

  5. David Brooks

    If,Guy Rundle, your words were in a simpler form you may have imparted some understanding.
    To discuss Free Speech in such a context is bullshit. Let’s get down to the facts. Free Speech is on the nose. It is attacked by every Socialist and almost every Tory and by most liberals. Especially those holding public office and those with “power” in the corporate world. Hell, we can’t have everyone knowing and discussing all our foibles!

    If you really want to do something about Free Speech (in the JS Mill tradition) lets start with “defamation.” The means whereby the Rich and famous and powerful, shut up the public. Where every idiot with a lawyer in his pocket can shut up enquiries and comment and investigation and publications on the grounds that they are “defamed.” This, “defamation,” is a primary violation of free speech. Let’s see you shout about that and carry the debate to actual legislation removal in the parliament.

  6. Rais

    As an Aussie Muslim I’m all in favour of preventing young hotheads from running off and fighting wars in other countries: All of them, whether on behalf of ISIS or Israel. But let’s not provoke them into doing it by making racial and religious bigotry acceptable.

  7. Mark out West

    @ Brendan Jones

    Firstly great piece to Mr Wilson BUT the issue that is never brought into the mix of free speech which must be CENTRAL is where and how.

    If the editors of a paper can espouse untruths marginalizing a minority then this inequity of the ability of any group to respond MUST be taken into account.

    Is the ability to accost woman outside a birth control center a good use of this freedom, I think not.

    Free speech must be accompanied by EQUALITY.

  8. Keith Thomas

    @Rais – Isn’t the issue not whether such speech is ‘acceptable’ (I think most of us think it is not), but whether it should be ‘illegal’ and punishable (and punished) under a law? Supporting free speech means supporting the right of others to offend you, to make claims you find indefensible and to say things that you find ‘unacceptable’.

    There may be occasions when certain speech, in certain places at certain times needs to be restrained to prevent serious violence, but that is a separate class of issue.

  9. David Brooks

    Ah! But Rais, as you said. It is perfectly OK to fight for the Israelis and to serve on their “other” government departments. There is no crime in joining the British army, the NZ army the US or Canadian or French or German etc. But you join the Syrian, Lebonese, Russian, Chinese(?), Iranian, etc. It is all a matter of politics and people control. And, of course, pandering to the women and wimp vote!

    All the talk about “bigotry” is simply a control freak diversion. Most bigots are found in the parliament, well camaflouged. If you take action against bigots where does that put you? It only drives them underground. It is better that they are in the open where you can see them!

  10. JohnB

    The Cleaning Lady is either an optimist or a troll.

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