Let’s be frank, here: Voltaire was a bit of a piss-wit. His contract of liberty came with some terrible Terms and Conditions, which included a ban on it for Jews. He routinely failed to do the work of the popular philosopher, which is to write pithy and quotable things. “I wholly disapprove of what you say and will defend to the death your right to say it,” is not his own sharp formulation, but that of biographer, Evelyn Beatrice Hall. That the guy was much interested in advancing any free speech that wasn’t his own is iffy. That we in Australia now find ourselves overwhelmed by thought on free speech even more conditional than Voltaire’s is certain.
This week, Rundle gave us a first-rate rundown on this cut-price “debate”. We can’t be sure why Guy chose to endure Q&A — a reliably disappointing fairground ride of argument — but we can be quite glad that last Monday he did. He caught and photographed a two-headed creature that shows just how mutant and inbred the “free speech” “debate” has become.
One bit of the trawl was filled with the views of Brendan O’Neill, a person who’ll defend to the death his right to misinterpret Voltaire. The other was stuffed with Corinne Grant, a person with absolute faith that good laws can, somehow, produce good people. That both of these heads claim to be leftist is interesting, but let’s leave it to Rundle to remind both of them that they’re placed about as left as a fish knife at an IPA banquet.
OK. I lied. I can’t help myself. I will say that if O’Neill can find the means to “love hate-speech”, then he hates revolutionary Marxism even more than he does 18C, the section of the Racial Discrimination Act discussed on Monday night and everywhere at all times in Australian media. Sure, Marx was pretty keen on disturbing the myth that the modern state can legislate for equality while it sustains its partner economy, but nowhere does he say “I heart hate-speech”. I will also say that if Grant thinks that the juridical system is in the independent habit of assuring equality, then she got all her leftist education from Julia Roberts as Erin Brockovich.
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In short, both of these persons are Enlightenment liberals, not leftists. They’re arguing from mildly different bits of the same ideological background; one thinks the state is a reliable daddy and the other thinks of it as a hostile patriarch. But neither of them thinks that the marketplace of ideas is coerced by the actual market, ergo, neither of them can make legitimate claim to being anything like “left”. But, oops, I did it again. I said I would sensibly leave it to Rundle to throw The Collected Works at this pair of twinned fish, and now, I will.
What I did want to talk about was the current focus in media, both traditional and social, on speech. This obsession, as it currently plays out, has very little to do with political belief, and everything to do with protecting the interests of the knowledge class. To use a bit of Marx here, which O’Neill claims to have read (I reckon about as thoroughly as he has read Voltaire) “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas”. So, the idea that communication is the most important thing is the idea of the communicators, who now hold so much influence.
No matter if one is “left”, as O’Neill claims to be, “progressive” as is the case for Grant, “conservative” a la Bernardi, or a “classical liberal”, as has become the fashion for the Brandis set, one believes utterly in maintaining the power of public speech. As it stands, of course, public speech is powerful and does have the capacity to impact real lives — nowhere is this more starkly illustrated than in those pronouncements of the Howard government on asylum seekers that began in 2001 — but the utopian point is: it doesn’t have to be that way.
It’s a ruling class of communicators of all political hues who decide who speaks in this country and the circumstances in which they speak. Whether it is Grant, so confident in the ability of judges to rule in favour of equality, or O’Neill, so eager to overlook the coercive influence of corporate media, everyone thinks this speech thing should retain its dominance. No one wants to disturb the power of speech, the primacy of certain kinds of speech (usually, it’s a choice between “tolerant” or “hate”) or the very idea that speech doesn’t have to be that important.
There is a consuming fear among liberal extremists of the Grant type that, for example, a plebiscite on same-sex marriage will produce “dangerous” speech. There is a consuming fear among conservatives of the Bernardi type that a schoolroom discussion on sex and gender will turn kiddies strange.
While it’s true that there are very particular kinds of public speech that demonstrably cause real or harmful change — specifically, irresponsible media reporting on suicide and reckless political dialogue on ideological terrorism — it is also true that speech only continues to matter so much if we work to ensure that it does. There are plenty of other ways in which persons are convinced of a dangerous truth than speech. A person can be deluded into thinking that civil law is a powerful equaliser, for example, if they study it at a sandstone university as Grant does. A person can be deluded into thinking that speech is really, really important if they make a living out of mangling it, as O’Neill does.
And all these gay at-risk teens invoked by Grant & co can be much more powerfully deluded into thinking that their orientation is somehow off by the fact of homelessness than by a national debate on same-sex marriage. But, it is not in the interest of the knowledge class to fight for the material right of young homosexuals to shelter. It’s much better to shore up your own privilege to speak and to practice law.
The knowledge class is busily defending to the death its own right to produce free speech for money.