We have democratised censorship


The “Infidel” Ayaan Hirsi-Ali is coming to Australia on a speaking tour in April and she will be exercising her freedom of speech as an atheist ex-Muslim and a women’s rights campaigners to put forward her case on why, contra Yassmin Abdel-Magied, Islam is not a feminist religion.

A group of Muslim women community activists is exercising their freedom of speech through a petition titled “Ayaan Hirsi Ali does not speak for us; Muslim women unite to oppose Hirsi-Ali visit”. The petition, currently signed by 299 women, does not call on Hirsi Ali to be banned, but it merely expresses “utmost disappointed” at the tour, while criticising the speaker for her “hate-mongering and bigotry”, “vitriol”, and undermining “social cohesion”. The signatories are of course entitled to their views. But just when I thought that while agreeing to disagree with them on the merits we can at least agree that ideas should be debated rather than dismissed or banned I read:

We welcome and encourage vigorous discussion and debate regarding Islam and the status of women. However to conflate hate speech with free speech undermines both the intelligence of our community and the efforts we have made to maintain respect and dignity in an environment of such hostility. Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s conversation does not contribute to any insights nor further the debate in any way. This is simple sensationalism designed to fuel division and hate. Australia deserves better than this.

So we’re not going to ban her or prevent her from speaking, and we don’t like what she’s saying, but she doesn’t deserve to be debated. OK.

As you might have gathered by now following The Daily Chrenk, I’m quite fascinated by the debate over free speech. My particular interest stems from having grown up under a system of government where there was no freedom of speech in as much as a large range of topics were deemed by the authorities to be off limits and penalties for disregarding the authorities in that instance ranged from a prison time, through the loss of a job or education opportunities, to, at best, a stern talking to combined with a black mark on your file. Even thirty years later I get slightly sensitive when somebody tells me I can’t say X or Y. But that’s just me.

It is a very complex topic, made more complex by the fact there is no agreement or consensus at all as to what constitutes freedom of speech and what constitutes censorship, and what circumstances, if any, justify restricting or circumscribing the right to free expression.

As far as I’m concerned, the distinction is pretty simple:

  • criticism
  • arguing
  • ridiculing
  • calling names

don’t mean you’re being censored or silenced. On the other hand

  • prosecution under the law
  • loss of a job or an economic loss
  • threats and intimidation
  • being prevented by force

mean you are.

There are those, of course, who think that criticising, arguing, ridiculing or calling names should not be allowed when it constitutes “hate speech”, being racist, sexist, homophobic, Islamophobic and many other kinds of ist and phobic.

Most people would, however, at least agree that merely expressing a different opinion is not the same as preventing you from saying what you want to say, whereas being subject to an action under section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act is.

But what really fascinates me is the 50 shades of grey in between the clear cases at each end of the spectrum, particularly boycotts, pressure, denials of forum.

A few days ago some of Australia’s most prominent big businesses called on the federal government to legislate for same-sex marriage. Unless I missed something, no one argued they had no right to express that opinion or that they should be prevented from doing so. Many, however, disagreed with and criticised their policy stance, including Minister Peter Dutton, as was also their right to do so.

A few days prior to that controversy, Coopers ale was featured in a very civil debate between two Liberal parliamentarians, one for and one against same-sex marriage. Coopers brewery did not express an opinion either way, but many on the left took its apparent endorsement of a debate as a position in itself – if you’re not completely and unequivocally with us, you’re against us. Apparently it’s not just bigoted to be opposed to same-sex marriage but also to acknowledge that there might be a debate about the issue, where both sides deserves to be heard (the echo of labelling Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s position as hate speech and concluding that her “conversation does not contribute to any insights nor further the debate in any way”). Coopers was subject to strong criticism (some would call it vitriol and abuse), intense pressure to disassociate themselves from the debate, and threats of boycott. The brewery folded very quickly, releasing a contrite statement in strong support of same-sex marriage.

Is that an example of private (i.e. not government) censorship or silencing? Or punishing somebody for their perceived beliefs – or, in this case, the lack of unequivocal ideological purity and a “correct” position on a particular issue – the post-medieval equivalent of forcing the heretic to recant and return to the true faith? There is a definite religious sentiment to it, the unshakable righteousness, the choice between heaven and hell. Or in more secular terms: the right thinks that the left is wrong, the left thinks that the right is evil.

Many (from both the right and the left) will tell you that boycott is simply another form of free speech. People should be free to vote with their wallets and spend or not spend their money as they see fit; you can’t force them to be patrons at a particular business if they don’t want to, for whatever reason – be it the quality of the product or the beliefs of the owners. Similarly, people have a right to try to persuade others to withhold their custom. And maybe it’s true – and perfectly legal – but you can’t tell me this is not an attempt to silence an opinion you don’t like and punish the opinion holder by hitting them where it hurts the most – and make them either shut up, or better still, change their opinion to the one you prefer. A club is not an argument.

Boycotts are quite common, and range right across the political spectrum; the left boycotts Chick-fil-A, the right boycotts Starbucks. Most of these sort of boycotts don’t have enough economic impact on their target to achieve their desired result, but what if instead of a big international business you are targeting a suburban mom-and-pop operation? It is very easy to send a small business to the wall through a boycott or bad publicity. Sure, they are still free to say what they want, but is it really freedom if the consequence is the loss of their livelihood?

Is it fair that businesses cannot discriminate against customers – the proverbial Christian bakery which has to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding – but customers are free to discriminate against businesses on whatever ground they want, including the political beliefs of the owners? I’m not arguing in favour of discrimination (though libertarians believe that private businesses should be free to conduct business – or not – with whomever they choose), but merely pointing out a different treatment. Of course, in many instances you can’t prove why a particular customer decided not to do business, but the matter of intent and justification is far clearer in the case of those who organise, as opposed to merely participating in, boycotts. But I’m not arguing in favour of restricting boycotts, either.

Similar issues surround the situation where employees are fired for their expressed (and increasingly assumed) beliefs. Their freedom of speech is illusory if the consequence of its exercise is a loss of a job. Of course, one can argue that employees at least partly surrender some of their rights as part of the contract with their employer, either explicitly where the terms of the employment contract prohibit them from making public statements, or implicitly where employees are made to understand they shouldn’t through their words or action bring their employer into disrepute or create any controversy that might negatively impact on the employer’s reputation and business. Again, this might be exactly the case and all perfectly legal, but if you organise a campaign whose intent is to get someone fired because they are (at least according to you) a fascist or a communist or a homophobe or an Islamophobe or an anti-Semite, you can’t argue that you’re not actually trying to silence them and/or punish them for expressing beliefs, which might otherwise be quite legal to hold and express (for example the current campaign against the managing partner at IBM Australia who is involved with religious groups, which are opposed to same-sex marriage, even if the partner himself makes no statements on the issue).

A denial of forum is another interesting variant. No one has a right to be published or to have their beliefs publicised by others; media outlets and publishers are under no obligation to print your writing, even if they have previously agreed to. But by the same token, and as above, if you campaign that a certain columnist be dropped by a newspaper on the account of their views, or that a publisher drops an author and their book, you might say you are exercising your free speech and you’re not doing anything illegal, but you can’t say that that you’re not trying to silence and/or punish someone you disagree with. This is not a matter of simply disagreeing, criticising and debating, it’s trying to make it more difficult or even impossible for somebody you disagree with to exercise their free speech.

One can easily argue that in our Western democracies it’s not the governments but fellow citizens, individually or collectively through groups and organisation, who do most of the censoring of debate. A tyranny of the minority. We have democratised censorship.