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 support 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.