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.    


Unknown said...

Another brilliant article thank you Karl. I did read your footnote regarding support for your stand from the "old" left and agree to some extent.
However, too many institutions have been taken over by the illiberal left: these include the media, teaching and the lawyers. Teachers are the worst because they are able to brainwash our children and modern parents fail (or are afraid) to provide their children with balance. That said, many parents have themselves succumbed to brainwashing because teachers have been illiberal for several generations.
Keep up your good work!
Regards, Peter

hilary531 said...

I see the 'fragility'in our own 20-somethings intermittently, in conversation about 'issues'& even casual remarks can tip them. Where does this spring from? Am I forgetting my own youthful intolerance at the same age perhaps, in the way the younger gen can get'triggered' by things their parents say or do? Certainly we experienced a different type of schooling..but not that different..?