Tuesday, August 14, 2018

I'm a bit happier now than I was a few weeks ago

So where are we, after a month of fervid debate about freedom of speech?

Call me a pollyanna, but I reckon we’re in a slightly better place than before.

I didn’t feel so optimistic when Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux were barred from speaking in Auckland Council-owned venues, and even less so when the owners of the Powerstation in Ponsonby were intimidated into reneging on an earlier agreement to host the Canadians.

In both instances it seemed a victory for the enemies of free speech. The message was clear: all that’s needed to deny someone a platform is to make a lot of angry noise and threaten disruption. Presto – problem solved. The safety and security mantra not only gave risk-averse officials an out but, more importantly, got Gauleiter Phil Goff out of a hole after he had self-righteously taken it upon himself to decide what views his fellow New Zealanders could safely be exposed to.

At the risk of labouring a point, I should repeat that the debate wasn’t about the Canadians’ ideas, although the protesters tried to frame it that way. It was about the right of New Zealanders to hear them and make up their own minds. Even now I don’t know whether I agree with Southern and Molyneux on anything, because they never got a chance to tell us what they were on about.

Newshub’s Patrick Gower could have helped enlighten us when he interviewed them, but he blew his chance because he was more interested in trying to score points. By the time the Canadians flew out, the only conclusion I’d come to was that they were a pair of rather egotistical self-publicists and probably not the sort of people you’d want to be confined with in a small room.

So that was Round One of the great free speech debate, and I admit that it left me feeling pretty morose. I should know better than to take much notice of media opinion, which has probably never been less reliable than now as a barometer of what the public is thinking, but the hostility of the media commentariat toward Southern and Molyneux did lead me to wonder what hope there could be for free speech when the very people who depend on it, such as columnists and bloggers, were so vigorously attacking it.

But then Massey University vice-chancellor Jan Thomas did us the great and unexpected favour of introducing Round Two by barring Don Brash from the Massey campus, and suddenly the tone of the debate changed completely. The backlash against Thomas, from across the political spectrum and in media forums that had been uncertain about Southern and Molyneux, was emphatic, salutary and heartening. New Zealanders may have been uncertain whether the Canadians were suitable pinups for the cause of free speech, but they had no trouble deciding that Thomas’s attempt to portray the mild-mannered Brash as a dangerous demagogue and a threat to student safety was preposterous, and that the underlying reason for her objection to him must therefore be ideological.

Thomas apparently issued her edict on the basis of a single letter from an overwrought student railing against what he called (quite erroneously) Brash’s “separatist and supremacist rhetoric”. It was a spectacularly inept own-goal, made worse by public indignation that Thomas, an Australian and a relatively recent arrival at that, should consider herself entitled to decide what New Zealanders could safely say to each other. Ironically, the speech that Brash never had a chance to give barely touched on the divisive issues that Thomas was so nervous about.

So where does all this leave us now? Well, we’ve had had a useful and frank debate about freedom of speech. At times it has been overheated. I admit I’ve contributed to that febrile atmosphere myself, because few issues are more important to me and I sometimes have a rush of blood to the head.

It would be wrong to say a consensus has been reached, because everyone has their own idea of what free speech should look like, but I think we have a much better appreciation of how important free speech is. Most importantly, there has been a concerted pushback against those who want to restrict it. The strident alarmists who cry “hate speech” at the distant sound of a contrary opinion haven’t been silenced, but they no longer dominate the debate and I suspect their smug self-assurance has taken a bit of a knock.

There has also been an outpouring of support for Brash, who is unquestionably the most vilified man in New Zealand. Some of this has come from leftists to whom Brash’s brand of neo-liberalism is anathema, but who nonetheless uphold his right to be heard. In fact one of the most striking aspects of the entire debate has been the ringing defence of free speech from old-school Marxists. They have a particular reason to champion free speech, because restrictions on free speech have historically been used in an attempt to crush them.

This doesn’t signify any softening of their ideological line. It will be a cold day in Hell before they agree with Brash – but they understand, even if a younger generation can’t see it, that free speech benefits everyone; or to put it another way, that an attack on one person’s right to free speech is an attack on everyone’s.

That generational difference is something else that has emerged over the past few weeks. It’s the idealistic young – some call them snowflakes – who seem least comfortable with free speech, and I wonder whether they don’t value it because in their lifetime it’s never been seriously challenged. It’s a long time since the repressive Muldoon era, longer still since the 1951 waterfront dispute – when the right of free speech was shamefully curtailed – and longer again since World War Two, when New Zealanders died resisting fascist totalitarianism. Even taking those events into account, New Zealanders have little history of having to fight for our democratic rights (we’ve had no revolutions or wars of independence) and as a result we perhaps don’t cherish them quite as much as we should.

In fact I think all of us who have participated in the free speech debate, on both sides, are guilty of a certain smugness. We’re able to say exactly what we think without having to fret about the secret police banging on the door in the middle of the night. Would we be so heroically outspoken if we lived in Russia or Iran, or even Fiji? Somehow I doubt it. All the more reason, then, to uphold those rights we enjoy.

Difficult questions remain, and may always remain. Anjum Rahman from the Islamic Women’s Council, who appeared on Q+A last week, pointed out that real hate speech was allowed to prevail in Nazi Germany in the 1930s, with catastrophic consequences for humanity. How do we guard against that happening again? There’s no obvious easy answer.

Nonetheless I remain at the libertarian end of the spectrum when it comes to free speech. I support the right of Holocaust deniers to spout their crazy theories and of Valerie Morse to burn the New Zealand flag on Anzac Day, even if she then hypocritically seeks to deny others the right to give offence. I support the right of protesters to demonstrate when Brash speaks at Auckland University, but not when the purpose is to drown him out.

In a liberal democracy, all points of view should be exposed and all ideas tested, but there are no sharp, bright lines between what’s acceptable and what’s not. This argument will never be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction.  But I’m more comfortable now than I was a month ago, when the needle on New Zealand’s tolerance-of-free-speech dial seemed stuck at the wrong end. It’s shifted since then to a point where New Zealand really does seem to be the open, broad-minded democracy I have long imagined it to be. The challenge now is to make sure it stays that way.

AFTERTHOUGHT: When I wrote this post a few days ago, I omitted one other very important point. When it looked as if protesters had succeeded in preventing Don Brash from speaking during a debate at Auckland University, the crowd insisted on Brash delivering his speech in full and without disruption. It was an emphatic rebuff to the protesters, and even more encouraging was the fact that it wasn't what you might call a Hobson's Pledge audience, but a diverse one in terms of age and sex. Free speech was very clearly the winner on the night.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Free speech and the illiberal left

(First published in The Dominion Post on August 9, but I've added an important footnote here.)

If the furore over the Canadians Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux achieved nothing else, it at least destroyed the myth of the so-called liberal Left.

Extremists on the Left have been misappropriating that honourable word “liberal” for decades, aided and abetted by news media that seemed not to recognise that “liberal Left” had become a howling contradiction.

A handful of genuinely liberal Leftists still exist, and some were brave enough to speak out in favour of free speech. But those few exceptions aside, the Left now stands exposed as the antithesis of classical liberalism.

No one should be in any doubt that free speech, a fundamental hallmark of liberal democracy, is under concerted attack. We have confirmation of that from Massey University’s Australian vice-chancellor Jan Thomas, who has introduced to New Zealand the repugnant practice known elsewhere as no-platforming – denying speaking rights to anyone who doesn’t meekly fall into line with leftist orthodoxy.

Thomas vetoed a talk by Don Brash, supposedly on the basis that it raised safety issues, but her accompanying comments made it clear she was swayed by personal ideological objections.

In any case, who was likely to pose a safety risk? Certainly not Brash, who is unfailingly civil even when under venomous attack, and whose proposed speech had nothing to do with the contentious issues Thomas referred to. The risk, if there was one, would have come from those who want to shut him down.

I believe the Left targets Brash not because he holds extreme views, but for precisely the opposite reason: a large number of New Zealanders agree with him. That makes him a potent threat.

But Thomas may have done us all a favour. She has laid bare the authoritarian bigotry that thrives in institutions which once stood for intellectual freedom.

She has also provoked an almighty backlash, much of it from people who didn’t quite know what to make of Southern and Molyneux but who certainly recognise censorship and suppression of dissent when they see it.

Now, back to that word “liberal”. Liberalism is defined as being open-minded rather than prejudiced. It means favouring individual freedom, tolerating different opinions and being open to new ideas.

The supposedly liberal Left are none of these things. They have closed minds and fixed world views. They are intolerant of people who see the world differently, to the point that they will they harass, intimidate and shout down anyone who disagrees with them.

They invoke the right of free speech for themselves while seeking to deny it to others, as was seen outside Parliament recently when a crowd of pro-choice protesters created a barrage of noise with the aim of overwhelming a quiet and peaceful pro-life demonstration.

They don’t like others sharing freedom of speech. They want it all for themselves.

They use the loaded term “hate speech” to denigrate ideas they don’t like and to demonise anyone who dares express them. But the only hateful speech I heard during the Southern-Molyneux furore came from angry shouters on the Left.

Anyway, who defines “hate speech”? They do, on their own self-serving terms.

Those protesting against Southern and Molyneux even had the nerve to label the people they sought to silence as fascists and Nazis, which shows no understanding of history and even less sense of irony.

Fascists and Nazis use coercion to impose their will. It follows that if there have been any fascists and Nazis active in New Zealand over the past two weeks, it’s those who were determined to deny New Zealanders the right to hear what the Canadians had to say, and to decide for themselves whether it was hateful.

But while the illiberal Left made sure that Southern and Molyneux were denied a public platform, we have at least had a useful debate about free speech – one which, thanks to Thomas, is bound to continue.

Interestingly, most mainstream media comment was openly hostile to the Canadians. An outside observer would have formed the impression that New Zealanders were united in their distaste for the visitors.

Perhaps that’s what encouraged prime minister Jacinda Ardern to make the presumptuous statement that she was proud her fellow New Zealanders didn’t share the Canadians’ views. But an opinion poll conducted by Newshub – admittedly not a scientific sample – showed that 78 per cent of respondents thought Southern and Molyneux should be allowed into New Zealand, and by logical implication that New Zealanders should be permitted to hear them speak.

In any case, the prime minister got it wrong. This debate was not about whether New Zealanders shared the Canadians' views. It was about our right, guaranteed by the Bill of Rights Act, to "seek, receive and impart information and opinions of any kind and in any form".

FOOTNOTE: Since this column was submitted for publication 48 hours ago, there have been many ringing declarations of support - triggered by the Massey ban on Brash - for free speech. Some of the most powerful and unequivocal have come from the left, and even the hard left. If I were writing the column now, I would have to draw a sharper distinction  between the honourable, old-school left who understand the value of free speech, and the fragile (and mostly younger) creatures who shriek with horror when confronted with ideas they don't like.    

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Arthur Miller's epigram no longer holds true

One of the most striking points to emerge from the free-speech furore has been the failure of the media to reflect public opinion.

In my column in the Dominion Post today, I noted that a Newshub poll – not a scientific opinion sample, but still an indication of what the public was thinking – showed that 78 percent of New Zealanders thought Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux should be allowed into the country. (This was when their immigration status was still in doubt.)

It can be inferred from this that the majority of people believed the Canadians should be allowed to speak here – and more to the point, that we should be allowed to hear what they had to say so that we could make up our own minds about whether their views were harmful or hateful.

But you would never have guessed this from commentaries in the mainstream media, which were overwhelmingly hostile to Southern and Molyneux. As I wrote in my column, an outsider would have formed the impression that New Zealanders were united in their distaste for the visitors. Those who spoke out in defence of free speech, such as Don Brash, were generally caricatured by the media commentariat as pathetic dinosaurs and even as a threat to public safety.

There is a jarring disjunction here. The American playwright Arthur Miller famously defined a good newspaper as a nation talking to itself, but something has gone seriously wrong when the media seem so demonstrably out of touch with what ordinary people are thinking – and worse, when some in the media treat those they disapprove of with sneering contempt, lazily labelling them as racists without attempting to answer their arguments.

There is no rule that says the media should fall into line with popular opinion (God forbid), but they do have some obligation to reflect it, especially if they wish to remain credible.

To be fair, the picture improved markedly with media coverage of Massey University’s decision to ban Brash, which resulted in some spirited (if somewhat belated) defences of free speech. But Massey’s authoritarian edict was such an egregious affront to democracy that it could hardly be ignored.

And even then, some in the media couldn’t help parading their bias. Today’s Morning Report included a travesty of a panel discussion in which the three participants, egged on by Susie Ferguson, all piled into Brash – like-minded leftists united in smug, bigoted, intellectually snobbish groupthink.

Radio New Zealand, as a public broadcaster, has a special duty to observe principles of balance but it is routinely ignored, and rarely more shamefully than this morning. RNZ seems to have decided that it need only cater to the demographic group known as chardonnay socialists, and to hell with everyone else. I feel sorry for the employees there – there must be some – who take its charter obligations seriously.

Incidentally, we’ve heard a lot of semi-hysterical hyperbole in the last few weeks about something ill-defined called hate speech, but the great irony is that the New Zealander most subjected to hateful vilification is the very man who’s constantly accused by the left of fostering it.  

The perils of imported appointees

(First published on Stuff.co.nz and in Stuff regional papers on August 8.)

I wonder if Shane Jones, the Minister of Macho Bluster, had a point when he called for a New Zealander to be appointed the next chief executive of Fonterra.

After all, our biggest company hasn’t exactly covered itself in glory under the leadership of the Dutchman Theo Spierings, who will quit later this year, or his Canadian predecessor.

And while it may be simplistic to assume that a New Zealander would do the job better, Jones has focussed attention on one of our more peculiar national quirks: namely, the assumption that important jobs are best given to outsiders.

We kid ourselves that we’ve outgrown the old cultural cringe whereby we automatically defer to people from supposedly more advanced societies, but the syndrome persists.

This is most evident in the public sector, where British appointees, in particular, are rife in both national and local government. It would be a rare Morning Report that didn’t include at least one interview with a bureaucrat whose formative work experience was gained in a country 20,000 kilometres away – one with a culture quite dissimilar to our own, and becoming less like us with every passing year.

Brits tend to be naturally officious, gravitating to jobs that often involve administering rules and regulations. They come from a more rigid, rule-bound society – one described last year by the British author Lee Child, who chooses to live in New York, as “very managed and precious, the epitome of a nanny state”. 

They also tend to carry a bit of nationalistic baggage from the days of empire, and with it a belief that British ways are naturally superior. This doesn’t always gel with our more casual, egalitarian culture.

No doubt many of them are competent administrators, but you have to wonder whether some bring attitudes, values and mindsets that don’t transfer easily to a New Zealand setting.

This probably matters less where decisions on pure policy are involved – as at the Treasury, where former British public servant Gabriel Makhlouf runs the show – than in jobs that call for an intuitive understanding of New Zealand culture and the ways in which it is unique.

Another risk with high-level imported appointments is that they may have no emotional stake in New Zealand or long-term commitment to the country. The New Zealand gig may be just another step on their career path. If they screw things up, they can walk away and start afresh somewhere else.

The public sector doesn’t have a happy record with overseas appointees. Remember the unfortunate Englishwoman Lesley Longstone, who lasted only 15 months as Secretary of Education? A Massey University academic euphemistically commented at the time that she was possibly not well-equipped to read the New Zealand mood.

Another Englishman, Michael Houlihan, brought big ideas with him when he took over as chief executive of Te Papa, but his disastrous four-year tenure resulted in massive financial losses and a lot of unhappy staff. It remains to be seen whether the man now in charge - a Welshman - has a better handle on what it takes to run a New Zealand museum.

Then there was the embarrassing case of Stephen Wilce, a senior Defence official recruited from Britain, whose dazzling CV turned out to be largely a work of fiction.

Questions might even be asked about the wisdom of putting an Irishwoman, Grainne Moss, in charge of Oranga Tamariki, the Ministry for Children.  

She’s obviously capable and committed (she swam the English Channel at the age of 17), but her background is in the aged-care and forestry sectors. There’s little in her CV to indicate she has the empathy and understanding necessary to run a ministry that’s up to its eyeballs in intractable social issues and has a very substantial Maori and Pasifika clientele.

Were there no suitable New Zealand applicants for these key jobs, or didn’t we bother to look locally? I have a friend in the corporate sector who claims that executive recruitment agencies prefer to cast their net overseas because it gives them an excuse to fly around the world and stay in posh hotels.

Part of the problem is that some of the most capable Kiwis end up taking their talent abroad because this country is just too small for them. Conversely I suspect we attract a lot of second-rate people from other countries because the bar is lower here. I suspect this is especially true in academia.

But it’s not just the public sector that seems to remain locked in a mindset that people from overseas have better ideas about how to run our affairs than we do. Under an English chief executive, New Zealand Football comprehensively lost its way and managed to alienate the entire Football Ferns team by importing an Austrian coach whom no one liked.

Both men are now on their way home, and deservedly so. But how often must we repeat these mistakes before the message sinks in?

FOOTNOTE: This column was written before Massey University vice-chancellor Jan Thomas issued her edict banning Don Brash from  speaking on campus. Thomas is an Australian who has been in the job since January 2017. Her background is in veterinary science. She is not a New Zealand citizen, but considers herself entitled to determine what New Zealanders can safely be allowed to say to each other. Whoever appointed her can now bask in the knowledge that she has done serious damage to Massey's reputation and probably succeeded in alienating more New Zealanders than any Australian since Greg Chappell.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Sick to the pit of my stomach

Where should I start?

Perhaps with the prime minister, Jacinda Ardern. She told reporters on Saturday that she was proud her fellow New Zealanders didn’t share the views of the Canadians Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux.

But how would she know New Zealanders don't share their views? We never even got a chance to hear what their views are, still less decide whether we disagreed with them. That’s what this whole shameful episode was about.

In any case, I’m not aware of any opinion poll that showed what New Zealanders think about Southern and Molyneux. Does the prime minister claim some preternatural insight into what’s going on inside New Zealanders’ heads?

Then there’s Newshub’s Patrick Gower. Perhaps I should have started with him.

Gower interviewed Southern and Molyneux (it wasn’t screened, but you can see it online) and afterwards told newsreaders Samantha Hayes and Mike McRoberts that it was one interview he wouldn’t forget for a while, “and not for any good reason”.

Er, quite so. Gower complained that the Canadians’ response to his questions was “attack-like” and that they indulged in “intellectual nitpicking”. But it was Gower who set the tone of the interview with a needling, aggressive approach which seemed to proceed from the assumption that the two were purveyors of hate speech, whatever that might mean.

He can’t blame the Canadians if they fought fire with fire and left him floundering on more than one occasion. Interviewers who throw punches can’t complain if their subjects strike back.

It was not Gower’s finest moment. At one point he accused Molyneux of indulging in a rant – “rant” now being the favoured New Zealand way of dismissing any expression of opinion that someone else doesn’t like.

The Southern-Molyneux furore cried out for some sober, dispassionate journalism that sought to explain to New Zealanders why the Canadians have aroused such fury.  Well, Gower was not the man to provide it. In fact throughout this saga, the media generally have made little or no attempt to probe beyond the hysteria and the simplistic name-calling. (An example was Newshub’s panel show The Project, where “racist” – a word rendered almost meaningless by misuse – seemed to be the juvenile insult du jour.)

It’s not good enough to tell us, as Gower did in his news report, that Southern and Molyneux had made “controversial comments’” about indigenous Australians. What were these comments, exactly? If we knew, we could decide for ourselves whether they deserved to be called controversial, and whether they justified the hysterical hostility the Canadians encountered in Auckland.

Similarly, it was not good enough for Radio New Zealand to say they made “disparaging” remarks about Aborigines. Tell us what they were, for heaven’s sake, and let us decide whether they were “disparaging”. I don’t trust journalists to pronounce that something is “disparaging” or “controversial” and expect us to meekly accept their word that whatever was said was reprehensible.

A few facts would be helpful, rather than shallow, subjective judgments. But throughout this affair we have repeatedly been expected to accept unquestioningly that Southern and Molyneux are “fascists”, “racists” and purveyors of “hate speech”, as if there were settled definitions of what those overheated terms mean.

Now, where else could I have started? Oh, yes – that placard carried by a protestor at Saturday’s “Rally against Racism” in Aotea Square. “Fascist trash”, it said, in a clear reference to the Canadians. Another placard depicted a swastika with the word “Nazis”.

Pardon me, but who are the real purveyors of “hate speech” here? I have yet to see or read anything said by Southern and Molyneux that could be construed as hateful. Objectionable to some people, perhaps, but not hateful.

But to call someone “fascist trash”or a Nazi – now that strikes me as crossing the boundary between robust attack and crude, unreasoning abuse. It is, however, entirely consistent with the many other derogatory labels that have been promiscuously hurled around over the past couple of weeks as if undergraduate insults convey some immutable and settled truth.

Then there’s Shane Te Pou. Gower reported a verbal exchange in the reception area at MediaWorks involving Te Pou, who just happened, by a strange coincidence, to be standing at the reception desk when the Canadian visitors left after their interview.

Te Pou is a Labour Party activist and former Labour candidate, although Gower’s report omitted to mention that (which also seems a bit odd). Te Pou later told RadioLive that he had suggested to the Canadians that they catch the next flight home, “and don’t let the door hit you on the backside on your way out” (although I suspect that “backside” was not the word he used).

It was uncouth and unprovoked, but typical of the febrile rage that has spread like a contagion as the hard left mobilised and rarked itself up over the Canadians.

There are other players in this ignoble affair who deserve a special mention. One is the idiotic NewstalkZB talkback host Marcus Lush, who told callers on Friday night that the denial of a venue for Southern and Molyneux was a victory for free speech.

In Lush’s tortured logic, the people who bullied the owners of the intended venue into cancelling the Canadians’ engagement with only a few hours’ notice were exercising their right of free speech. ouseSomeone should try to explain to him that free speech actually doesn’t triumph if it deprives someone else of the opportunity to speak. That’s the triumph of the baying mob, pure and simple. And the lesson is that if you make enough noise, if you threaten violence and boycotts and disruption, then you’ll bully people into backing down.

I don’t know whether I agree with the views of Southern and Molyneux, and I suspect I might not like them much as people. Molyneux in particular strikes me as a bit strident and dogmatic for my taste. But New Zealanders are entitled to hear them and decide for themselves whether their views are poisonous. Our democracy isn’t so fragile that we need protecting from mere opinions. The Bill of Rights, after all, guarantees not only the right to express all manner of views, but for others to hear them.

Not that this matters to the smug, myopic prigs who celebrated in Aotea Square. It wouldn’t occur to them, in their overweening self-righteousness, that they are hypocritically insisting on their own right to free speech while denying it to others. Neither would it occur to them that a dangerous precedent is set for everyone – them included – if society decides it’s okay to silence anyone with unpopular opinions.  Who’s to say that couldn’t be used against the left in future? The sight of them congratulating themselves on suppressing someone else’s rights made me sick to the pit of my stomach.

The case against "constructive journalism"

Radio New Zealand’s Mediawatch this morning featured an interview with Stuff journalist Nicola Brennan-Tupara, who’s promoting the notion of “constructive journalism”. She’s seen it in action in Denmark, where the Danish Broadcasting Corporation has evidently adopted a policy of not depressing the hell out of the Danes by relentlessly bombarding them with bad news.

It’s an approach I have some sympathy for. A good editor will always try to ensure that bad news is leavened with more positive stuff. But the inescapable fact is that news, by definition, is about the unusual; anything that’s outside the norm. And what’s outside the norm is often bad.

To give an example, it’s not news if the 6.47am commuter train from Masterton to Wellington arrives safely and on time. But it is news if the train breaks down and catches fire in the middle of the Remutaka Tunnel.

You can try to brighten up the news with cheerful items, but tragedy, misfortune and conflict are always going to make up a substantial part of any newspaper or TV bulletin, and editors would be failing in their duty if they set out to suppress it. After all, the function of journalism is to reflect, as accurately as possible, the world as it is, not as some of us might wish it to be.

Besides, “good news” journalism has been tried before and it doesn’t work. Some people might complain that they don’t watch the TV news because it brings them down, as Brennan-Tupara says (heck, even I sometimes give the 6pm bulletin a miss at the end of a gruelling week), but they will soon see through a bland, sanitised news diet that misrepresents what’s happening in the world.

Of course there’s scope for news items that present the better side of the human condition, which is what Brennan-Tupara seems to be on about. But a zealously pursued “constructive journalism” policy risks being misleading and even downright dishonest. It could also serve as a smokescreen for social engineering, of which we have a surfeit already.

Incidentally, it’s worth noting that much of the bad news that features so frequently in the New Zealand media – for example, stories about poverty, inequality, homelessness, climate change and obesity – is promoted by agenda-driven leftist reformers whose doom-laden claims are unquestioningly accepted by sympathetic journalists who shirk the hard questions.

Much of this is opinion dressed up as news and given a spurious aura of credibility because those pushing it have academic titles like “doctor” and “adjunct professor”. If there’s any category of bad news that could be dialled back (note that I say “dialled back”, not suppressed), I’d suggest this might be a good place to start.

Friday, July 27, 2018

Why we should be very suspicious of claims about "hate speech"

(First published in The Dominion Post and on Stuff.co.nz, July 25.)

Hate speech. It’s a phrase you hear increasingly often.

I’ve used it myself as a label of journalistic convenience, but I’m not comfortable with it and never have been.

My first concern is that much of what is emotively described as hate speech isn’t hateful at all. Too often it simply means opinions and ideas that some people find distasteful or offensive. But merely being offended is no justification for stifling expressions of opinion in a liberal, open democracy that depends on the contest of ideas. 

More worryingly, accusations of “hate speech” can be used to intimidate people into silence and put discussion of certain issues and ideas off-limits. In fact I believe that’s the over-arching aim.

Anyway, who defines hate speech? The term is bandied around as if there’s some agreed definition. But there’s not, and freedom of expression is too precious to leave it to an aggrieved minority or an academic elite to define it and therefore determine what the rest of us may say.

It’s also an infinitely elastic term. In Britain, where police have the power to prosecute for hate speech, there have been some frightening cases of overkill and heavy-handedness. 

Better to set the legal bar high to allow plenty of space for free speech, as the courts have tended to do in New Zealand. By all means, draw the line at harmful acts, direct threats to people’s safety or incitements to violence against minorities. But the law already allows for criminal prosecution in such cases.

We have far more to fear from people who want to suppress speech than we do from those who say things that others find objectionable. The real issue here is language control – because if you can control the language people are allowed to use in political discourse, you can control the range of ideas people are permitted to articulate and explore.

This is not a traditional contest between left and right. Enlightened leftists understand that everyone benefits from free speech. The revered American left-wing intellectual Noam Chomsky memorably said that if you don’t believe in free speech for people whose views you despise, you don’t believe in free speech at all.

No, language is the latest battleground in what is known as the culture wars. The mounting clamour for tougher laws against so-called hate speech is an outgrowth of identity politics, in which minority groups are encouraged to see themselves as oppressed or disadvantaged because of their colour, ethnicity, gender, religious belief or sexual orientation. 

This has generated a demand for protection from comments that might be seen as critical or belittling – hence the frequency with which we hear people being accused of xenophobia, racism, Islamophobia, homophobia and misogyny.

No one likes to have these labels pinned on them, so people keep their heads down. Accusing someone of hate speech has the same effect. It’s a quick way to shut down debate.

Other code words that are commonly used in an attempt to de-legitimise valid opinions include “far-right” and “alt-right”. These labels are likely to be attached to anyone whose opinions are to the right of the political centre. You can even be labelled far-right for making statements that most people would regard as utterly unremarkable – for example, saying there are only two genders, as the Canadian commentator Lauren Southern did.

Southern is one of the two speakers who have controversially been barred from using the Auckland Council-owned Bruce Mason Centre – a ban which is now the subject of a legal challenge by the hastily formed Free Speech Coalition.

I am not a member of the coalition, but I made a donation to it and unreservedly support its goal of protecting free speech. As a journalist, I regard Auckland mayor Phil Goff’s authoritarian edict as dangerous to democracy. 

Over the past two weeks I have read many tortuously argued commentaries purporting to justify the ban on the Canadians. Stripped of all their prolixity, they can generally be summed up as “I absolutely support free speech, but not in this case.”

What especially dismays me is that I have read impassioned commentaries by idealistic young journalists who think Goff was right to ban the Canadians.

Journalists, of all people, should be ardent advocates of free speech because they have the most to fear if it’s abolished. In totalitarian regimes, journalists are often the first people to be imprisoned (as in Turkey) and even risk being murdered (as in Putin’s Russia).

But the most illiberal pronouncement I have read on the supposed dangers of free speech came from a university vice-chancellor who clearly thought that ordinary New Zealanders can’t be trusted to form their own sensible conclusions about contentious issues.

This pompous academic thought we needed guidance to keep us on the right path. And where from? Why, from universities.

We can infer from this that universities see themselves as having taken over the Churches' role as moral arbiters. God help us all.