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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".


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: http://victimsofdsto.com/hrc/

    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.

  11. AR

    One of the phrases that really makes my teeth ache is “community leaders” – always a sure sign that bullshit is in the air.
    It inclines me to paraphrase the line so often misattributed to Goebbel’s, “when i hear ‘community leader’ I reach for my Claymore”.

  12. Ken Lambert

    Keith Thomas,

    Quite right Keith….what is unacceptable and what is illegal are two different things.

    Incitement to violence is illegal, offending someone is generally not, unless you are non-white or a minority of some kind invoking 18C.

    If someone says something about you which is untrue and damaging to your reputation you can take them for defamation – a civil matter except in rare case of criminal defamation under parliamentary privilege which was famously invoked against Al Grassby in the Donald Mackay case.

    The Bolt case showed that what should have been a civil defamation was now illegal and criminally prosecuted if a minority feels offended.

    Being called a whitey and racist would no doubt cause amusement and fail in an 18C case brought by a older white victim, but would be a heinous crime if the situation was reversed.

    Guy is quite right about Brandis in his inconsistency about free speech. Muslims are entitled to rant about ‘white meat’ and obliterating Israel in the privacy of their homes but not in public when an incitement to violence might be heard.

    And older Anglo white males are entitled to do just the same thing.

  13. graybul

    . . . . and a pox on both the homes!

  14. Will

    “The Bolt case showed that what should have been a civil defamation was now illegal and criminally prosecuted if a minority feels offended.”

    Bullshit alert. A ruling under the RDA is not a criminal prosecution. Indeed, Bolt suffered only a nominal remedy under civil jurisdiction.

  15. 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.


    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.


  16. Abdullah WIlliams

    Brandis and Abbott are A-grade hypocrites. Free-speech it suits them.

  17. 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.

  18. Jack Robertson

    Its not it’s. Cretinous.


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