Freedom of speech. This extraordinary notion, in the wake of the French shootings and sieges this week, is now being dusted off, lauded, and reaffirmed as one of the centre-pieces of our modern democratic lives. And it is. The problem is that we seem to be losing track of the notion of speaking freely, concentrating instead on using the idea of ‘Freedom of Speech” as a pretext for whatever ideological barrow we want to push or extinguish. Over the last couple of days I’ve identified three kinds of pretexts involving free speech from the discourse in the wake of the initial killings in Paris. The first one accords with my opinion, the other two, not so much.
Freedom of Speech as a pretext for acts of terror
Freedom of speech, as employed by Charlie Hebdo artists, was not the reason for the attacks. Sure, the staff were exercising the right (more on this shortly) but their exercise of that right (some pretty blimmin’ offensive cartoons) was not really why they were attacked. Those set upon a course of creating their own war require pretexts upon which to act. The pretexts just have to resound enough with some prevailing ideology to ensure that at least some people will give a patina of ideological rationale to the acts about to be carried out. Offensive/satirical cartoons are as good any other kind of pretext. A girl sitting on a school bus, an Iraqi queuing to join the local police. The murder of some teenagers. Rationales can always be found when required for a course one has already decided upon anyway. For this reason I don’t really hold with those who wax lyrical about how the cartoonists and the cleaner and the cop outside at the Paris attack were heroes of free speech. They and their families deserve commemoration and respect. To be clear, though, they were the chosen victims, because of their connection to the most convenient pretext to serve as a rationale for what the terrorists wanted to do. 61 journalists were slaughtered around the world in 2014, 17 of them in Syria. I don’t recall any freedom marches for them.
Freedom of Speech as a Pretext for Cultural Imperialism
Derek Fox, who is something of a bloody-minded curmudgeon on a good day anyway, reckons the victims got what they were looking for. He, like me, thinks freedom of speech is being used as a pretext, but in his view, a rationale not so much for the gunmen in Paris, but for the actions of the cartoonists and the magazine editor; as an excuse to perpetrate cultural imperialism by magazines in order to sell more magazines. “Well” spat Derek, “now they have been severely bitten on the bum.” Well, bitten on the bum, slaughtered, in the case of that particular magazine, but yeah, same thing, clearly, Derek. Putting to the side my niggling questions as to whether Derek has been taking sensitivity training from post-Steve-Irwin-stingray-attack Germaine Greer, one of the criticisms made by Derek was:
Power cultures all like to use the old chestnut of freedom of speech when they choose to ridicule people who aren’t exactly like them, and mostly they get away with it.
I don’t exactly disagree with Derek on this. Good arguments can be made that much bad stuff has been done upon the pretext of bringing liberation and the values of Western democracy and values to the ‘other’. But Derek’s notion of what free speech is restricted to, it seems, thing being said by:
…people who believe they can use the power they wield by way of dominating the media to abuse and ridicule others they believe to inferior to them – just like [in] this country
So in his view freedom of speech is merely a pretext if the wrong people are exercising the right, and saying bad things. But actually, that’s kind of how it works. Freedom to speak will mean that sometimes the wrong people will speak awful stuff. (By the way, Elipsister’s powerful and more eloquent critique regarding the use of freedom of speech as this kind of pretext setting can be found here).
Freedom of Speech as Enabler of New Zealand white male bigotry
In New Zealand there is a lot that people can say that is not prescribed by any kind of law. Cameron Slater, Muriel Newman, Rodney Hide, that woman who thinks women should ‘surrender’ to their men, that Alan Titford supporter, that pastor in Auckland who thinks and says gay people should go to hell; all of them can express these views within the bounds of legality. OK…that old Evelyn Beatrice Hall quote comes to mind: “I disapprove of what you say, but I defend to the death your right to say it.” It’s a seductive tenet, right? But some of the comments emerging in the wake of the Paris attacks in support of Derek Fox’s comments have focused on the New Zealand context expressing the view that in New Zealand free speech is something of a ‘one-way street’ and apparently extends to having to tolerate, or enable views that may be perpetrating oppression of whatever nature, once again. Another observation might be expressed like this: “by virtue of his/her privilege this person gets to be heard all the time anyway, and alternative voices get lost.” Free speech once again becomes merely a pretext for something far more sinister apparently: the perpetration of the right-wing agenda (not that I am entirely sure what that is..)
Flippancy aside, I have some sympathy for the view that only certain (usually Pākehā) points of view tend to filter through our mainstream media. But I’m not sure that the fact we have a fairly homogenous set of voices in our mainstream media means that freedom of speech has somehow become reduced to a mere pretext for this state of affairs. Freedom of speech, according to some of these voices, has merely become shorthand for exclusion, oppression and marginalization of various groups within NZ society. I was reminded by the reaction, on FB, to Gareth Morgan’s set of articles about the Treaty of Waitangi derived from his recent book. According to some of the reactions, he’s an economist with no background in the Treaty. He perpetrates disinformation, he is just another white male speaking to other white men. Maybe so. I don’t have time here to critique his writing (there are some problems with it, and some good stuff too, but I’ll leave that for another day) there are some interesting response pieces already out there, such as from Potaua Biasiny-Tule here, and from Morgan Godfrey here. But here’s the thing…he is speaking and writing freely, and we, in response, are speaking and writing freely. The structure and biases of mainstream media does not cancel out that freedom, does it?
Thinking back in wistfulness to Evelyn Beatrice Hall again…Just why is it that we seem, some of us at least, to presume that freedom of speech only really matters when we agree with what is being said? An interesting column on this can be found here. I guess my point is that for free speech to mean anything other than the pretexts other people load on to it we need to be active in speaking freely and (critically important) allowing others to speak freely. The greatest threat to free speech is not Al Quaeda or ISIS or Boko Haram, or even the editors of the Herald. The greatest threat to free speech lies within our own tendency to want to stomp on dissenting voices, from any part of the political, cultural or social spectrum. So let’s worry less about the pretexts for which the idea of freedom of speech is being manipulated. Let’s just get on with the business of speaking freely, and maybe, even once in a while, listening.