Triggser warning


The Australian Human Rights Commission president Gillian Triggs has finally found freedom of speech she would like to defend – Yassmin Abdel-Magied’s. Being inexperienced in the area, Triggs of course manages to misunderstand the concept of freedom of speech, but it’s probably sexist of me to point that out so I won’t (“I’m am coming to the view that they have been able to say things about me, and attack me, in a way that never would have happened to a man. And I am sorry to say that, but it’s true,’’ Triggs says later below. I, for the record, don’t care which of the 33 genders she identifies with, or the socially constructed colour of her skin, but only about the content of her mind).

Human Rights Commission president Gillian Triggs has savaged critics of ABC presenter Yassmin Abdel-Magied’s Anzac Day Facebook post, highlighting the outcry as an example of increased racism

She told a packed house at the Melbourne Town Hall last night that Ms Abdel-Magied’s Facebook post was a “relatively minor incident” and that her freedom of speech was constrained.

“The recent example of a growing intolerance of demonising Muslims generally has been the controversy of a Facebook comment on Anzac Day by Abdel-­Magied, a hijab-wearing Muslim woman,” Professor Triggs said at an event hosted by the Ethnic Communities Council of Victoria.

“She drew attention to the plight of the detainees on Manus and Nauru and the refugees in Syria and Palestine.

“Despite a speedy apology from her, to what she said was a disrespectful comment on this important day of remembrance, this relatively minor incident has been used to demand the removal of Abdel-Magied from the Council of the Australian-Arab Relations, to constrain the right of freedom of speech and to demand that as an Australian resident since she was a child she should return to Sudan, her country of origin”…

She lauded Foreign Minister Julie Bishop for resisting calls to sack Ms Abdel-Magied from the Australian-Arab council.

“It is very encouraging that (Ms Bishop) has not succumbed to this kind of abuse,” she said.

“This single incident, however, clearly touched some raw nerves. The head scarf has become a lightning rod for attacking Muslim women. The incident also prompted further ritual attacks on the independence of the ABC and the populist nationalist language has emerged that we ‘should put Australia first’.”

Where does one even start?

Probably with the alleged use by some of Abdel-Magied’s Anzac Day post controversy to “constrain the right of freedom of speech” she has. As I have pointed out previously on many occasions, to disagree with and criticise someone else’s opinion is not a restraint on that person’s freedom of speech, it is freedom of speech exercised by others. Triggs doesn’t seem to grasp this very basic concept that the right to express an opinion entails others’ right to express a contrary opinion. If disagreeing with someone restraints that someone’s freedom of speech, then freedom of speech essentially equates with silence, or no speech (and freedom with slavery, etc.).

Of course, for all the (justified, in my opinion) criticism Abdel-Magied received over her injection of leftists politics into a day of commemoration of the war dead, her freedom to express this or any other view has in no way been curtailed, and Triggs doesn’t and wouldn’t be able to point to any actual instance or example. Abdel-Magied is still very much active online, she still has her job with ABC, and she has not been nudged out of any government gravy trains, as even Triggs herself acknowledges. In other words, very much the status quo ante, with the added bonus of perhaps more Twitter and Facebook followers as a result.

Contrary to what Triggs say, it is the very fact that Abdel-Magied is a young woman, of migrant origin, and a Muslim that makes her relatively immune from having her freedom of speech truly restrained, as opposed to her views being simply criticised. ABC, which fires other young female journalists for having a brain snap and not realising they are back on air, wouldn’t dream of cutting ties with Abdel-Magied. Remember Scott McIntyre, the SBS journalist who was dismissed for his Anzac Day tweets in 2015? He must wish he was an African woman and not just another white male. As an aside, it’s instructive to note that Triggs seems to equate the independence of the ABC with imperviousness to any public criticism or feedback. Being a public broadcaster clearly means not having to care for what the public thinks – ah, the joys of relying on taxes as opposed to the market for one’s livelihood.

And in the (Liberal) government, everyone from Julie Bishop down is terrified of ending Abdel-Magied’s involvement with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and other public bodies, precisely because they would be howled down as sexist, racist, Islamophobic bigots who can’t tolerate diversity of opinion.

Perhaps most importantly, Abdel-Magied has not been subject to the attention by Triggs’ Australian Human Rights Commission or any other similar body with real powers to silence people for expressing their views. Abdel-Magied was born in Islamist Sudan and I was born in communist Poland; I suspect – I hope – that we both know a thing or two about what real censorship and real restraint on freedom of speech looks like. And this ain’t it.

No doubt some of the reactions, albeit none prominent, to Abdel-Magied’s Anzac Day thought bubble went beyond criticism and into personal abuse. This is indeed sad, but as somebody who like Abdel-Magied has also been many a time called a c*** and told to go back to where I came from (so much for my white male privilege), I can tell Gillian Triggs and Yassmin Abdel-Magied that abuse is unfortunately a standard part of political discussion, always has been, and always will be, particularly now that the internet and the social media have truly democratised political debate by giving everyone their own private megaphone. From my own vintage point, I can also tell Triggs and Abdel-Magied that many of those on their side of politics are as vile, sexist, homophobic, racist and offensive to those with whom they disagree. It’s quite touching to see that the left still thinks they somehow have the monopoly on the virtue, tolerance and good manners.

Gillian Triggs has been the recent recipient of the Voltaire Award from Liberty Victoria for her contribution to freedom of speech. It says something about our topsy-turvy political discourse these days that Voltaire himself would never be able to win the Voltaire Award. Nevertheless, congratulations to Ms Triggs and best wishes on her post-AHRC political activism.