To claim, as people have for centuries, that modern speech is rubbish often presupposes that at one point, speech wasn’t made from a bin. Let’s ignore those who would say that speech of the present deserves our pity or scorn and, while we’re at it, let’s snub those too who would say that speech has never been as free as it is in the current day. Let’s agree that there has never been a time where eternal truth was spoken well by many and that we haven’t been much further, or much closer, to a golden conversation about the inalienable rights of humankind than we are in this very moment.

In short, let’s agree that most people have been going on with a lot of shit for a very long time.

Every era yields an unreasonable amount of shit and a small volume of reason. The only real distinction of our era lies not in the particular shittiness of our speech but in the newly widespread tendency, and ability, to confidently produce and exchange total shit. Once we claimed we were entitled to an opinion. Now we are more likely to feel obliged to an opinion — if you don’t believe me, just look at your Facebook feed and see how the opinions of your Racist Uncle George, once confined to the Boxing Day barbecue, have become so freely incontinent, and even praised by others. A technological freedom has made possible our servitude to shit.

Last month in London, Julian Assange said: “What we thought would happen with the advent of a global source of information, i.e. the internet, also created the opposite: intellectual, global, homogenisation of ideas also became the Scottish becoming more Scottish, and the right becoming more right. Those who wanted to connect came to connect even more.”

Our era has, perhaps, no individual more famously committed to the free exchange of information than Assange. But even this person, dedicated to the eradication of privilege and of passcodes, sees not a diminution of but a deepening of divides.  There is, he said, greater “identification with distinctions between us”. We have, he said, the increase of homogeneity. Not its un-shitty heterogeneous opposite.

Assange, always interesting, has become even more interesting in his confinement. With little to do but read and accept visits by some of the world’s greatest thinkers, he has had time to consider the interaction of technology with shit. There is, in his present view, an agony to connection that he didn’t always see coming. It’s not that the technology that he once saw as an instrument of reason is itself shit. It’s just that it has made possible the high-speed intermingling of shit that was immanent in the social.

We may have, thanks to WikiLeaks and Assange, a clear document of corrupted power. What we also have is the widespread suspicion that each of us knows everything that there is to know. In this climate, so many of us compulsively produce shitty opinions and present them as fact.

If Assange, a critic of the left as much as he is of the right, had time or inclination to talk about the last week of Australian speech, we should be very grateful to listen. Because, damned if it’s easy to work this shit-show out.

The homogenisation of ideas — which now happens everywhere, not just the internet — is always easy to see at The Australian. A cartoon printed yesterday bearing the name of Bill Leak  was greeted with widespread shock.

The work, which depicts Indian persons receiving solar panels with confusion, is, of course, quite awful. It is remarkable only for its simultaneous revulsion for action on climate change, subsidy and brown people. One of the three men depicted suggests applying “mango chutney” to the gift from the West and it betrays such gross indifference to the issues it presumes to depict, to call it, as many have, a throwback to the 1950s does disservice to the Cold War.

A young Crikey colleague asked of the piece, “Like what was the joke exactly?” I had a similar reaction — not even of incredulity that someone could be such a dick, but an absolute failure to understand how this might be a joke (for what it is worth, the publication’s editors felt compelled to explain the “joke” was that climate change activists would send something Indians don’t need — solar panels — instead of something they do, like cheap power, which comes from …). And it occurred to both of us that such a “joke”, which managed to discount the urgent need for action on climate and the great technological capacity of India, was not made, so much, to be funny. It was made to rile the left. The point was, as it so often is in The Australian, to show that the left is a bunch of idiots.

Idiotically, The Guardian spoke to a professor of sociology just to confirm that the cartoon was wrong. The professor confirmed that it was “unequivocally racist”, which of course, in the reasonable view of many, it is. But the very act of confirming the extremism of this piece necessitates the question “is it extreme?” There should be no such question. Of course it’s extreme and to suppose that there is a possibility that it could be anything but makes about as much sense as asking “is threatening to rape someone wrong?”.

But this is a question that has been amply asked across the last week as well. Is it wrong to make threats against women? Of course it bloody is. That anyone is even allowing this to be the subject of discussion is insane and evidence of the deep homogeneity in thought that Assange has observed.

What we now have in Australian speech on both sides of politics is a faux-conversation with accusations directed at an imaginary other. The right can say “Indians can’t be trusted with complex Western technology” and the left will respond “yes they can”. The left might say “women have every right to call out their attackers” and the right will say “no, they don’t”. Each side keeps supposing the other of extraordinary ignorance or evil and so, when that other side responds, it is in these terms. So the left says “the right is full of rape apologists and climate change deniers” and the right says “let’s watch the left call us rape apologists and climate change deniers” and there is no sort of real freedom for speech within this divide. Just more of the homogenous shit that Assange has observed.

To respond or to speak in the terms of absolute opposition and to only write, as so many commentators now do, to seek a reaction from a shit-thinking other is not to be free. It’s to affirm captivity in non-thought of the sort Uncle George has been enjoying for years. We must not ask the question “is this racist?” when the answer, quite obviously, is yes. We un-follow our toxic uncle and refuse, except on Boxing Day, to be exactly the kind of lefty apologist who can even be arsed entertaining his grandiose stupidity.

It’s not that this time for speech is shittier than any time previous. It’s just that we delude ourselves that it is either better or worse and not, as it is, and as Assange sees it to be, a more complex case of shit.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey