Friday, June 2, 2017

The totalitarianism that taints public debate

(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, May 31.)

Free speech is a cornerstone of democracy, but we can never take it for granted. On polarising issues, its limits are constantly tested.

Dr Lance O’Sullivan got up on stage at a Kaitaia screening of the controversial anti-vaccination documentary Vaxxed last week and told the audience that their attendance would cause babies to die.

O’Sullivan is a much admired doctor in Northland – he was New Zealander of the Year in 2014 – and an impassioned champion of vaccination programmes.

The makers of Vaxxed claim the vaccine that immunises children against measles, mumps and rubella can cause autism – a theory discredited by medical authorities. O’Sullivan wanted the audience to know that he has held dying children who would have survived had they been immunised.

He subsequently explained to John Campbell of Radio New Zealand that he was worried that immunisation rates in Northland were declining because of erroneous anti-vaccine propaganda – hence his decision to speak at the screening of Vaxxed.

When I first heard a radio report about the Kaitaia incident, I wondered whether O’Sullivan had stepped out of line. The report seemed to suggest that he wanted to prevent people seeing the film.

That would have been an unacceptable intrusion on freedom of expression. Section 14 of the Bill of Rights Act rightly protects the right to free speech, “including the freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and opinions of any kind in any form”.

The moment we start suppressing opinions, no matter how overwhelming the arguments against them may seem, we are on a slippery slope. The true test of free speech is our willingness to uphold the right of people to say things that we don’t like.

As the American political activist Noam Chomsky put it:“If you’re really in favour of free speech, then you’re in favour of freedom of speech for precisely the views you despise. Otherwise, you’re not in favour of free speech.” It's possibly the only thing Chomsky ever said that I agree with.

But when I watched a video of O’Sullivan speaking from the stage at Kaitaia, he didn’t appear to be making any attempt to stop people watching the film. He just wanted the audience to know that he believed Vaxxed was based on fraudulent misinformation. In other words he was asserting his own right to free speech.

He reportedly performed a haka, which seemed gratuitously confrontational, but otherwise he seemed calm and respectful. His statement to the audience that their presence would cause babies to die may have been a theatrical exaggeration, but you could see where he was coming from.

Unfortunately, O’Sullivan later spoiled it all by saying, in an interview with the Stuff website, that health professionals who reportedly attended the screening should be sacked.

This time he did step over the line. It’s not for O’Sullivan to decide what opinions other health professionals should hold, or be exposed to.

At this point, his legitimate espousal of the pro-immunisation viewpoint transmuted into an authoritarian insistence that anyone who didn’t fall into line with the officially “correct” view should be punished.

This is bullying. It produces the type of cowed, conformist groupthink that we see at its most extreme in places like North Korea.

In any case, who knows what motives other health professionals might have had for attending the screening? It could be argued that it’s their duty to acquaint themselves with false propaganda so that they are then in a better position to counter it when advising patients. “Know your enemy,” the saying goes. 

But the key point is this: liberal democracies are based on a contest of ideas, and we can have that contest only if competing ideas are publically weighed and debated. People can usually be trusted, when presented with the evidence, to figure out which argument is the correct one.

Stifling free speech by suggesting people should be sacked for deviating from the approved view is a denial of democracy and intellectual freedom. Unfortunately, however, it’s typical of the ideological totalitarianism that increasingly taints public debate – the more so since social media platforms made it easy to gang up on dissenters and intimidate them into silence.

We see this manifested in all sorts of ways. Climate change doubters are constantly shouted down on the spurious basis that “the science is settled” (it’s not). In Australia, family-owned brewery Coopers was recently subjected to an angry boycott simply because it sponsors the Bible Society, which opposes gay marriage.

Intolerance of dissent takes a variety of forms, but the ultimate aim is always the same: to silence the dissenters. I saw another example last week when Wellington’s Dominion Post published an article by former MP Gordon Copeland, a devout Christian and pro-lifer, urging that the principle of informed consent should be applied when a woman is considering an abortion - hardly a radical proposition when, as Copeland pointed out, informed consent has been entrenched in medical practice since the Cartwright inquiry of the 1980s.

It was a thoughtful, sympathetic and carefully argued piece that acknowledged the complexity of the abortion issue. But a letter in response, from an abortion rights activist, attacked Copeland’s article as a “paternalistic and sexist rant”. He had committed the ideological offence, as a male, of writing about abortion, which some feminists consider none of men’s business.

Whatever anyone thought about Copeland’s argument, there was no way his article could be described as a rant, which my dictionary defines as an angry tirade.

But the enforcers of ideological orthodoxy have little respect for semantic precision. If you want to disparage an opinion you don’t like, you label it a rant. We can add this to the repertoire of tactics used to deter anyone foolish enough to exercise their right of free expression. 

FOOTNOTE: This column was written before a hysterical row broke out in Australia over tennis legend Margaret Court's public opposition to same-sex marriage. Court's personal opinion, which she was perfectly entitled to express in a free society, was seen as so threatening to the prevailing ideology that people wanted her name removed from Melbourne's Margaret Court Arena. What next, I wonder - public book burnings?  

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