The arguments about free speech are often complex. But freedoms and liberties must be defended
Tristan Ewins, Jan 11th, 2014
Andrew Bolt has fired another salvo against the Australian Left (Heald-Sun, Jan 10th 2015); this time accusing the Left – and what he ironically calls ‘the ruling classes’ of this country – of ‘giving in’ in the face of Terror. He argues that the French satirical publication ‘Charlie Hedbo’ was “almost alone” and that this emboldened the killers. He argues that ‘the Left’ is hypocritical in the sense of constantly satirising, attacking and mocking Christianity – while claiming Islamophobia in response to critiques of Islam. For Bolt censorship and self-censorship mean ‘the Terrorists have won’. Bolt also condemns the racial vilification laws which he claims led to the ‘banning’ of two of his articles. Bolt complains of ‘mainstream’ journalists ‘celebrating’ this decision; though surely this is a bit ingenuous given his claim to be ‘Australia’s most read columnist’. He also attacks Australia’s migration program in so far as it welcomes “mass immigration from the Third World”. Finally he claims Islam’s claim to be ‘a religion of peace’ is false in light of Koranic scripture urging the deaths of those who mock the Prophet Muhammed.
Where do we start in responding to Bolt?
On the matter of Left hypocrisy I personally sometimes cut a lone figure in requesting respect and sensitivity towards the Christian faith in the face of sometimes-hateful attacks. The Christian emphasis on ‘turning the other cheek’ perhaps suggests a certain acceptance even in the face of criticism. Rational (not hateful) criticism, indeed, is welcome – and has informed a shift in Christian thinking over recent decades to made an accommodation with liberalism. Though in earlier centuries some church leaders were complicit in repression and Terror.
There are liberal Muslims just as there are liberal Christians. Though in the West liberal Christianity is more prevalent. There are relatively rare Christians who still advocate an unreformed interpretation of Scripture. But most today have turned from ‘Biblical literalism’ in areas such as Creationism for instance. (instead Genesis is held by some to be a parable containing a mystery which few understand; Though this should not mean we close our minds to the prospect of mysteries as yet not understood – for instance free will and consciousness itself)
The shift towards liberalism; of ‘turning the other cheek’; and the rejection of literalism has moderated what social conflicts may have arisen between liberalism, secularism and Christianity. These tendencies in Christianity reveal the falsehoods in many hostile caricatures of the faith. We have had ‘Piss Christ’ and ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’, and yet many Christians accept that even while this may be hurtful, it is part of the liberal pluralist order we live in.
But where does Islam stand? Just like there is liberal Christianity and Reform Judaism, also there are liberal movements within Islam. There have been attempts to moderate the message of Islam. Greater gender equality is promoted as well as pluralistic and individual interpretations of the Koran. There is respect for democracy and human rights; slavery is rejected. Yet arguably if one looks around the world today, both Shia and Sunni regimes – from the Saudis to the Iranians – these regimes have been reticent in adopting a liberal/reform orientation. There are barbaric instances of corporal and capital punishment; women are often second class citizens; sexuality is stigmatised. Yet in a throwback to an earlier time self-proclaimed Christians in Uganda have sought to criminalise homosexuality as well – with potential life sentences for those practicing their sexuality.
In response to Bolt it is fair enough for a democracy to hesitate before welcoming any who do not share basic precepts when it comes to liberal and human rights. To welcome refugees is an exception – as there is the global responsibility to provide refuge for the persecuted. And often the wars which refugees flee are proxy conflicts – the consequence of ‘Great Power’ interventions.
It ought be noted that in the past similar arguments have been deployed to prevent communists and other left radicals from being accepted into our society. But while in the past many were deluded about the reality in ‘really-existing’ communist regimes, their orientation was nonetheless progressive when it came to defending liberal rights at home; as well as the rights of women, indigenous peoples, those of queer sexuality, the industrial liberties of workers and so on. But anti-modernist radicals – whether they are Sunnis from Saudi Arabia, Shia from Iran, or Christians from Uganda – pose a potential threat to liberalism if ever their challenge to Modernity reached the critical point. That is for example in Australia: if ever they comprised so formidable a bloc as to hold decisive political and cultural leverage
Against this – Despite some peoples’ over-blown fears, those of Islamic faith comprise only two per cent of the Australian population. And well-intentioned engagement between liberals and Muslims could result in many more Muslims shifting into the liberal camp. Much as occurred with Christianity. An uncontrolled influx could change this; but that is not the situation.
Yet that engagement is threatened by the ‘culture war warriors’ who would preach a message of civil conflict on religion rather than engagement. Bolt is sceptical of Muslims claiming that theirs is ‘a religion of peace’. But we would do well to remember it was not all that long ago that religion was cited as a rationale and a justification for centuries of colonialism and Imperialism of various European Great Powers. Today strategic interventions and proxy wars are also justified on the basis of liberal and democratic Ideology. But beneath the surface a more complex picture emerges. Great Power bases in Syria and Qatar; fears over an Iranian bomb; attempts to isolate Iran through destabilising its Syrian ally (with over 200,000 dead!); the Syrian intervention backfiring with the rise of Islamic State – and yet even Islamic State could be could be seen by some as a counterbalance to Iran in the region. It is often very cynical. (the previous balance of power was wrecked through George Bush’s Second Gulf War, which ironically for the time was supported by Israel).
Finally we come to Bolt’s cries of censorship.
Censorship is a difficult question, and interestingly today it is self-proclaimed right-libertarians who advocate unmitigated and unmoderated free speech in the face of suggestions from others on the Left that speech be regulated – whether through state interference in the monopoly mass media, or through enforcing stronger racial discrimination laws.
There is a lot to be reviled in the American settlement when it comes to their threadbare social security and welfare safety net; the neglect and rescission of workers’ liberties; oppressively low minimum wages; tolerance of homelessness on a mass scale… But despite the hypocrisies of McCarthyism in times past for instance, ‘free speech’ is enshrined in the American Constitution and as part of American identity. This notion of ‘absolute’ and ‘inalienable’ rights gives the far right conditions under which they can organise. But it also provides a vital protection for the Left which could be utterly crucial, perhaps, in the future. Without the argument of ‘free speech’ Doc Evatt would most certainly have failed in his defence of the liberal rights of Australian Communists.
In Australia we face similar dilemmas. Andrew Bolt’s comments about indigenous Australians were hurtful, offensive and I believe they were cynical. Indigenous identity is about more that the colour of ones’ skin. And preferential assistance through Abstudy, for instance, is intended to ‘close the gap’ when it comes to educational opportunity. Arguably ‘Closing the Gap’ needs to be a core aspect in a future Treaty.
Though Justice Bromburg, who decided on the Bolt case, insisted that he was not banning Bolt from sincerely debating the issue of indigenous identity. And Bolt-critic Chelsea Bond argued that Bolt was not actually a racist. Yet Bond argues that Bolt’s approach: “reveals his own anxiety toward the dilution of the 'coloniser's' identity, power and privilege.” Bolt was exploiting these anxieties for cultural and political gain; and to this author therefore his endeavours were cynical in nature.
There are important arguments here – for instance the need for a cultural settlement which reconciles the plurality of Australian identities – including that of pre-multi-cultural and Anglo identity and culture – as a means of ‘heading-off’ grievances, far-right organisation and irrational conflicts into the future. (Although there never was a ‘mono-cultural’ Australia; and a past-world of Anglo/Irish tension is forgotten now by many) Rejection of an ‘older’ Australian identity could drive many into the arms of the Reaction.
But should Bolt’s cynical comments have literally been BANNED? Certainly Bolt himself appears intolerant of any place for radical progressive speech in this country. His depiction of the ABC as a mouthpiece of the Left plays up to a now familiar Right-discourse around supposed Left-cultural-elites’ versus ‘the ordinary people’ – ‘the masses’. This perspective was developed by Constitutional Monarchist and Conservative David Flint. It is intended to remove any and almost all space available for the ‘genuine Left’ to be heard. The ABC appears to feel it needs to prove ‘it is not radical’. And at the same time the ABC increasingly leans towards ‘Centrist’ and ‘Centre-Right’ commentary.
This discourse on ‘Elites’ is deployed in order to play to cultural anxieties; while at the same time downplaying the class interests of the great majority of working people, as well as the marginal and the working poor. American author Joe Bageant has compellingly written in his “Deer Hunting with Jesus” book how in the United States how ‘the white working poor’ are increasingly propagandised by right-wing Ideology; and how this process is inflamed by ‘class based putdowns’. (indeed: we could also raise such language such as ‘white trash’ – which at once vilify on the basis of class AND race) American liberalism’s de-prioritisation of social class as an unifying issue inflames the problem further; and the Labor Party in Australia might be seen as falling into a similar trap.
The answer is not to ban conservative speech. Though perhaps there are exceptions such as Holocaust Denial – which could lead to ‘a culture of forgetting’ – and in the long term even a rehabilitation of fascism. (or even fascism’s worst historical manifestation, Nazism) But every time we make an exception to free speech and weaken its absolute nature we potentially provide our enemies the very weapons that could be turned against us into the future. Also – while perhaps an impossible ideal, Jurgen Habermas’s ‘Perfect Speech Situation’ is such an ideal as to be worth questing after in many respects. Along with pluralism and acceptance of mediated conflict engagement is also a potentially core-foundation for liberal democracy.
The problem is that on the Left we simply do not have the resources to be heard and considered alongside the cacophony of right-wing viewpoints. So we are far from a ‘Perfect Speech Situation’. Censorship is not the answer; but the articulation of a broad new historic bloc is. What is needed is a united front against domination and injustice. That is to mobilise the necessary resources to bring about what Austrian Social Democrats once called ‘growth from within’ – but on a broader basis - amidst disciplined solidarity. There is scope for ‘asymmetrical cultural struggle’ with the rise of the internet. But also a need to promote REAL pluralism via public and community media; involving an inclusive exchange across the entire spectrum – save for the far right. The same inclusive pluralism must guide reform of school curricula also.
But none of this demands the silencing of Andrew Bolt. Rights might not be absolute – especially in the midst of extreme circumstances. But we all have a duty to avoid the escalation of civil conflict to the point where brute repression and Terror become reality. We can challenge Andrew Bolt without banning his speech. And we can show solidarity with Charlie Hedbo by confronting the associated issues openly and open-mindedly – but avoid an escalation of rhetoric which would only polarise our society along religious and ethnic grounds. And we must learn the lessons of past interventions – for instance in Iraq – which created the conditions for the war in Syria, and also the rise of the Islamic State movement.
Finally – without supressing speech – a discourse on ‘responsible’ speech should aim to avoid language of extreme escalation and polarisation on the grounds of religion or race.
We must be uncompromising in defending rights of speech, assembly, association, conscience, as well as other liberties. (eg: industrial liberties) The mass rallies in France and Australia demonstrate that Charlie Hedbo is now far from alone: Hundreds of thousands have mobilised to support free speech; and to reject intimidation through Terror.
But ideally freedom should be balanced with honest self-criticism. This may seem to go ‘against the spirit’ of Charlie Hedbo. But it might be a precondition for the engagement which could promote long-term harmony between religion and liberal rights in this country.