This ain’t an honour, it’s a circle jerk


Some of my readers keep asking why I keep blogging about the adventures of Yassmin Abdel-Magied. After all, to keep talking about her merely gives her more oxygen and needlessly perpetuates her status as an important public figure. Secondly, since her self-imposed exile to the United Kingdom, she is not even here anymore. All I can say by way of answer (or an excuse) is that it is like watching a car crash – one simply cannot tear oneself away. Or, to quote Willie Sutton who, when asked why he robs banks, replied “That’s where the money is.”

And so, once more unto the breech:

As Liberty Victoria explains in their press release, “the Voltaire Award honours a person or group considered to have furthered the right of free speech in the previous 12 months. It recognises those who in their work, interests or passions make an extraordinary contribution to these rights, whether it be through speaking out, writing, campaigning, whistle-blowing or defying authoritarianism. Those honoured have often gone beyond the call of duty or office by refusing to be cowed or silenced.”

So far so good when talking in general, but then we get to the particular:

Yassmin’s courageous activism on topics of race, equality and unconscious bias have brought her to the forefront of public debate in Australia and abroad. Her acclaimed TED talk, ‘What does my headscarf mean to you’ and other public appearances have made her a globally renowned speaker.  Yassmin has published an autobiography entitled ‘Yassmin’s Story‘, which tells the story of growing up as a Sudanese Muslim woman in Australia.

After a social media post on Anzac Day saying ‘LEST. WE. FORGET. (Manus, Nauru, Syria, Palestine…)’, Yassmin was attacked by internet trolls, tabloid newspapers and even numerous Members of Parliament. Yassmin refused to give in to fear mongering. Despite being personally targeted by high profile political figures through inaccurate and racist media reporting, she would not be silenced. She continued to speak out against racism, discrimination and harmful stereotypes. Yassmin continues to give voice to the experience of young Muslim women in Australia and beyond.

Here’s the rub: if “further[ing] the right of free speech” and making “an extraordinary contribution to these rights” essentially just means making public statements – any public statements – and then refusing to “give in to fear mongering” and to “be silenced”, than the award can pretty much go to anyone – including, for example, Pauline Hanson, who regularly finds herself in these sorts of circumstances – or, for that matter, to the former Attorney-General George Brandis, who got hammered for saying that people have the right to be bigots.

Now, Voltaire never actually said “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”. These are the words of his 19th century biographer, Evelyn Beatrice Hall, constituting her attempt to succinctly summarise Voltaire’s position regarding the freedom of speech. If they indeed are an accurate summary then Liberty Victoria is either ignorantly taking Voltaire’s name in vain by misnaming their awards or consciously misrepresenting Voltaire’s attitude to add extra, and undeserved, credibility to the awards.

This is because Abdel-Magied is one of many public figures who confuse any criticism of the substance of their views with an attempt to silence them or deny them their freedom of speech. Anyone who doesn’t recognise the validity of other people exercising their freedom of speech to criticise or argue contrary positions arguably doesn’t understand what freedom of speech is and therefore does not deserve an award for furthering that right. And sadly for Yassmin as well as for Liberty Victoria – not to mention many of the previous award recipients, like Gillian Triggs – freedom of speech means 1) the right to express my opinions and the obligation on all others to unquestioningly accept my opinions as valid and correct, and 2) the right to express any opinions except those I consider to be racist, sexist, homophobic, bigoted, hurtful, harmful, hateful, etc etc. In other words, it’s not actually freedom of speech – it’s freedom of left-wing speech, or freedom to not be disagreed with.

The ultimate irony is of course the fact that Voltaire himself would never be able to receive the Voltaire Award from Liberty Victoria. Consider Voltaire’s views on the three Abrahamic religions, at least the ones in relation to Islam would be considered “inaccurate”, “racist” and “bigoted” enough to put Voltaire on the same side as “internet trolls, tabloid newspapers and even numerous Members of Parliament” rather than Abdel-Magied’s:

But that a camel-merchant should stir up insurrection in his village; that in league with some miserable followers he persuades them that he talks with the angel Gabriel; that he boasts of having been carried to heaven, where he received in part this unintelligible book, each page of which makes common sense shudder; that, to pay homage to this book, he delivers his country to iron and flame; that he cuts the throats of fathers and kidnaps daughters; that he gives to the defeated the choice of his religion or death: this is assuredly nothing any man can excuse, at least if he was not born a Turk, or if superstition has not extinguished all natural light in him (Letter to Frederic II of Prussia, December 1740)

Every sensible man, every honorable man, must hold the Christian sect in horror (“Examen important de milord Bolingbroke”, 1736).

The Jewish nation dares to display an irreconcilable hatred toward all nations, and revolts against all masters; always superstitious, always greedy for the well-being enjoyed by others, always barbarous — cringing in misfortune and insolent in prosperity (“Essai sur les Moeurs et l’Esprit des Nations”, 1753).

Not to mention Voltaire’s views on race:

It is a serious question among them whether they [Africans] are descended from monkeys or whether the monkeys come from them. Our wise men have said that man was created in the image of God. Now here is a lovely image of the Divine Maker: a flat and black nose with little or hardly any intelligence. A time will doubtless come when these animals will know how to cultivate the land well, beautify their houses and gardens, and know the paths of the stars: one needs time for everything (“Les Lettres d’Amabed”, 1769).

Now, if Liberty Victoria truly followed Voltaire’s spirit, they could once in a while recognise those whose views they disapprove of, since being supposedly the Voltairian champions of free speech, they presumably defend to death the right to express these views. Instead, Liberty Victoria merely reward the courage of left-wing, progressive or politically correct (however you want to term it) activists in expressing their left-wing, progressive or politically correct views. This is not honouring the extraordinary contribution to furthering freedom of speech; it’s an activist circle jerk. Which is all fine and well, but don’t exhume an Enlightenment philosopher to paint it as something it’s not.