Of all the low Western intellectual moments passed in the last decade, it’s hard to choose a particular stinker. But the stolid pong of “freedom” that described Charlie Hebdo one year ago really takes some beating. In the days that followed the brutal slaughter by the Kouachi brothers of several of the magazine’s cartoonists, reason itself was ended. In its place was a false defence of a false idea as the Western world congratulated itself for its liberty.
What we saw in Paris and around the Western world following this vile murder was not a spontaneous endorsement of free expression, but an idiot’s jubilee. Behind the banner of “Freedom and Democracy”, world leaders with a very particular revulsion for press freedom marched for press freedom. Saudi Arabia, a nation that flogs dissenting bloggers, was among the nations officially represented at this assembly for “freedom”. Israel found the time to pop along as well.
France itself lost little time in cracking down on free speech. There were prison sentences for those who criticised Charlie Hebdo. “Free speech” came to mean a very narrow kind of speech: we were “free” only to pillory Islam and tolerant only of the most extreme hypocrisy.
To be gracelessly clear: it was atrocity that unfolded in the offices of Charlie Hebdo. But the new and specious definition of free speech that followed these actions was its own kind of barbarism. Of course we must seek to create a society that can brook extreme speech — even that which takes a dead Syrian toddler, as Charlie Hebdo recently did, and refigures him as a molester. But what we cannot continue to do is to valorise some forms of speech as free, even as we say that others are an assault on our liberty.
In France, it is legal, and acceptable, for Charlie Hebdo to depict the failure of the Koran to stop bullets from penetrating the chest of a cleric. It is now criminal for a French teenager on Facebook to depict the same fate for the producers of Charlie Hebdo. In Australia, as in all the liberal democracies of the world, we said “Je Suis Charlie” and upheld the right to laugh at a dying Muslim. Few upheld the right to laugh at a dying cartoonist.
There can be no rational argument for elevating the rights of one speaker and withholding the rights of another. People have tried, of course, and they will say that the French teenager’s cartoon constitutes a threat to national security, whereas the Hebdoiste’s work upholds the best principles of French liberty.
Oh, bollocks. There is not a freer kind of free speech for us to utter. If we are free only to express ideas acceptable to me, the French government or radical Islamists, then we are not free to speak. We are free only to speak our way to broad acceptability.
It feels undignified to repeat that (quite French) old idea, but it bears repeating: the defence of free speech invariably means a defence of disagreeable speech. Unfortunately, this might mean tolerating the right of Reclaim Australia to behave like tits. We either countenance free speech or we don’t. No matter how you church it up, the idea of free speech remains that tediously simple.
Of course, the world is not tediously simple and freedom itself is quite unevenly felt, despite its nominal guarantee. Some citizens, even in Australia, are far freer to have their free speech amplified than others and particular ideas and particular speakers are coerced into very particular forums. It is quite true that truly free speech can be reliably purchased only from our nation’s most expensive schools.
It is also true that we will not secure free speech by regulating its expression. We might eventually secure it by, say, ending our absurd attachment to posh schools. But, we don’t make speech free by identifying some of it as less than acceptably free.
In recent years in Australia and around the western world, a means to assess the freedom of speech has emerged. If speech, so the test goes, is un-free in either its development or its intent, then it is not truly free and should not be freely spoken.
We can see this in the many op-eds that decry satire that does not “punch up”. Setting aside the difficulty of deciding whether one is punching up or down — and who could reliably say what the Egyptian satirist Bassem Youssef is doing when he pillories Islam — we must ask: what the actual shit? A satire governed by rules is, surely, no longer satire. It’s certainly not “free” but a process that is expected to move toward a particular outcome.
This is not, for a minute, to suggest that persons should not object to the things they find objectionable — knock yourself out with the important work of improving the culture. But, there is a great difference between decrying or boycotting something because you don’t like it and saying, as is now so often the case, that it should be removed from the public sphere because it is not “free”.
And, this is the criticism levelled in recent days at former ALP leader Mark Latham. In a range of news media, a range of critics have all been careful to use the Ingsoc logic of post-Hebdo France. It’s not that we want to stop Latham talking. It’s just that we believe that his speech is dangerous and dangerously un-free.
The SMH warns of the “damage” Latham is doing. The Hun calls him dangerous. Pedestrian charges the radio station that has broadcast Latham with actively hindering an end to family violence and a news.com.au editorial calls Latham a “dangerous person targeting a vulnerable section of the community”.
If you care to listen to Latham’s amateurish, and surprisingly mild, podcast, you can do so here. If you care to place your trust in your (probably un-free) correspondent, this is the dangerous thing that Latham said: we can hold forces other than misogyny to account for incidence of family violence.
To be clear, this is no defence of Latham. Latham, in my view, is a tool. Latham is a swinish thinker and communicator whose revulsion for “uppity” middle-class women has mutated very badly since his time in the Labor right. This former scholar of the elitist Third Way must not be permitted his working man’s posture and anyone who has spent that much time reading Anthony Giddens doesn’t get to pretend that his primary text has always been a steak in a western Sydney pub. This is no defence of Latham, whose cultural significance peaked with an observation about a “congaline of suckholes”. This is no defence of Latham, who has begun to call anything that he does not like, including Malcolm Turnbull, the “left”. This is a defence of the very basic idea of free expression.
You just can’t go about calling for an end to everything that may be “dangerous”. Yes, shouting “fire” in a crowded cinema is clearly a criminal act, but Latham’s recent presentation was nothing of the sort. He proposed, although not nearly as well or as sincerely as Martin McKenzie-Murray did in the Saturday Paper or as my colleague Guy Rundle did in Crikey, that the current view that violence flows from a lack of respect may be flawed thinking.
A serious problem deserves serious consideration and if we are to solve the social problem of family violence, we need to know how it starts. While it is entirely possible that Latham has far less heartfelt interest in determining the origins of family violence than he does in telling the “left” why they are wrong about it, the fact is, he stumbled on an important line of inquiry. The idea that violence, which has a greater prevalence in lower income communities, comes from a lack of “respect” is a pretty shaky one. It’s also one, as McKenzie-Murray details in his fine piece, that may not produce effective policy outcomes. Respect may be no more a prophylactic against violence than the pages of Charlie Hebdo. If there are other factors that produce violence, and there is evidence that a culture of purported respect does not diminish violence, then surely, it is more dangerous not to talk about it than to broach the topic as Latham, however fumblingly and meanly, has done.
But, what we have said these past days instead is that Latham is dangerous and must be silenced. By being un-free, he has foregone his freedom of speech.
For mine, this logic is no less absurd than that of the French government. We don’t hope to advance the cause of freedom by controlling its expression. We can, of course, boycott and protest and rail at Triple M, which has not enjoyed quite so much publicity since the last pair of acid wash jeans rolled out of a textile factory. But we must not delude ourselves that our revulsion for certain kinds of speech is freedom.
*This article was originally published at Daily Review.