We all know how the Gillard government and the Greens hate free speech. From seeking to ban ‘insults’, to proposing new media controls, to supporting the Bolt inquisition, this has been the most anti-free speech government for decades. What is not clear is how supporters of free speech should respond tactically and strategically to this development. I hope some of the ideas below help to clarify matters.
A generation and a half ago, the political establishment in most Western countries was broadly conservative. The status quo was pro-business, pro-church, pro-traditional family and wowserish on issues like pub opening hours and pornography. As late as the second half of the 1970s, the media were generally hostile to Labor governments. Even Fairfax editorials called Neville Wran a ‘socialist’ and warned of the dangers of electing ‘socialist’ governments like Gough Whitlam’s.
Social democrats were an anti-hegemonic movement, attacking the outdated strictures of the ‘reactionary establishment’; the calls for ‘social liberalism’ and reducing moral constraints were very appealing to the younger generation. As with most opposition movements, the Left were unequivocally pro-free speech, not just because it was in their interest to be so, but because the new permissive zeitgeist required it. Being offensive was not just a ‘right’, it was positively desirable and a useful way to shock the establishment.
Then something changed around the 1980s. As the graduates of the 1960s and 70s got promotions and wormed their way into positions of influence, the status quo gradually shifted. By the end of the 1990s, the establishment could be broadly identified as Leftist in nature. Now, it is the Liberals’ turn to be on the outer – they are the ones who have to govern within tight constraints imposed by the media and the bureaucracy, as Labor had to 40 years ago. Labor governments now face far fewer constraints. Consider that John Howard took 10 years to implement his IR agenda; it was repealed in two. Consider that nearly every item on the Left’s wish-list would get through a hung parliament, with fewer Labor than Coalition seats, speaks volumes.
Being the status quo now, the Left no longer have a compelling interest in supporting free speech, and virtually every piece of Leftist legislation in the last two decades relating to free speech has been an attempt to tighten the controls on free expression, not to loosen them. The sine non qua of the Left is equality. The arguments made against free speech by the Left do not begin with a requirement to avoid offence or licentiousness as with the old establishment – this is a secondary matter for Leftists – but rather a determination to create equality, as at least one Catallaxy contributor has said before.
The problem is that equality, or anything approaching equality, cannot possibly be achieved in an advanced technological civilization, and wouldn’t be a desirable goal even if it were achievable, thanks to the division of labour (less specialization, lower productivity and therefore less goods to go around). Working in total opposition to reality, the greater one strives to create equality, the more authoritarian the government becomes. The most extreme cases were the Communist movements that swept through East Asia last century, killing far more people than their European comrades did.
From anti-discrimination laws through to the recent Bolt case, the attempts to produce equality by placing ever greater constraints on behaviour have spawned an intricate hierarchy of victims, where the permissibility of an action or statement is determined not by its objective content, but by the social position of the speaker. If they are deemed to be ‘socially-oppressed’ in some way, then they should be allowed to say anything, even if it is defamatory in nature. On the other hand, if they are identified as being ‘powerful’, regardless of whether in fact they have any power or influence at all, then they can expect censorship.
What this means in terms of public discourse is that there is no way to reason the Left out of their authoritarian stance on free speech, despite its being based on a flawed first principle and on false secondary assumptions about who can be identified as ‘strong’ or ‘weak’. Conservative commentators, such as Janet Albrechtsen, have written some very eloquent defences of free speech in recent years, but in addressing themselves to the Left, by really pleading with the Leftist establishment not to restrict free speech, such exercises in eloquence are futile. They don’t care about Areopagitica – that’s stuff for dead white males.
Those of you who have children will know that the most effective means to get your way with someone is not to reason with them, but to impose a high cost on their behaviour should they act contrary to your wishes. Regardless of whether the other person is able to extract any moral principle from your act of deterrence, the constraints placed on them will establish patterns of behaviour that are not easily broken. This has been applied on a large scale, with a lot of the Latin American Left having been put in their box by the harsh discipline imposed on them in the 1980s, as Chomsky has argued. Danny Ortega looks like a broken man nowadays, and the post-Pinochet Chilean Left have remained within the neo-liberal paradigm.
Where am I going with this? I am totally opposed to discussing freedom of speech with people who only pay lip service to it, and who reject it at the deepest level. Instead, we must openly talk about the uselessness of Leftism, and how it wouldn’t be missed at all if it were to disappear. Names of people who ought to have their right to free speech taken away should be casually dropped, focusing particularly on those who have been the loudest in opposing free speech for others. It should be intimated to the apparatchiks who work directly in the commissions and bodies that control free speech that they still have time left to update their CVs.
The purpose of this is to change the nature of the debate, from a defensive discourse about rights that are steadily being eroded by the establishment, to a more assertive discussion about how to deal with those who oppose liberty, and who should be sacked or demoted and who should be allowed to stay on. Campbell Newman has shown that mass sackings are possible, and now we should take his example and give it some ideological steroids. Only when the opponents of liberty come to believe that they could risk their own freedoms and livelihoods if they continue on the current path, will they be stopped dead in their tracks. Repealing the authoritarian agenda would then be a matter of time.