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 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.


hughvane said...

You may be happier Mr du Fresne, but please, for the sake of articulate expression of thought and opinion, do not let your guard down for one moment. The fanatical Left may have backed off for a while, but only to draw breath.

I love the term 'snowflake', its synonyms being 'precious petal' and 'plastic persona' (I also enjoy alliteration).

Karl du Fresne said...

You may be right. I didn't say I was happy - merely that I was happier than before. This fight isn't over, which is why the Free Speech Coalition (of which I'm now a member, after some initial hesitation) has resolved to keep going.

Hilary Taylor said...

Great re-cap, thanks. You're right about Brash being reviled...only the other day I was speaking with a friend over a glass who blithely pronounced him an 'a---hole'off the bat, and then proceeded to concede that in fact others she knew who had an acquaintance with him had probably countered that. Her first instinct was character assassination... almost certainly on the basis she disagreed with his views and that he was, you guessed it, a SPM. She regarded the whole Massey fuss as a 'storm in a teacup'..cos it suited her to downplay it. And she holds a PhD, no intellectual slug...just as guilty of lazy triteness as the next person. So..I'm with Hugh! Re the next generations & their fragility..yes, they are far removed from any threats and so again, blithe spirits who would rather culitvate their 'wokeness' than their historical perspective.

Trev1 said...

The reason "hate speech" prevailed in Germany against the Jews in the 1930s was because Hitler shut down free speech after the burning of the Reichstag in 1933. That's when the Nazis also began to burn books. No views contrary to Nazi doctrine were permitted. I am not optimistic about the status of free speech in New Zealand. I was shocked by the venom against free speech and the gross distortions so recently purveyed by commentators in the media. I remain concerned that this government will try to bring in new laws to restrict free speech under the guise of banning "hate speech" against minorities. We have already seen the Human Rights Commission dabbling in this. We need to remain vigilant.

Unknown said...

One thing we overlook is that the media control free speech by selecting whose voices are heard. For example Douglass Murray and Cornel West were here. Which one got to speak? The only review I can see was the Daily Blog

Murray’s intellect and laser like conservative logic is dazzling and what he argues for and about has depth, complexity and intelligence but the competing brilliance and moral certitude of radical compassion and revolutionary social justice preached by Dr West demands a call to action Murray occasionally matched but never beat.

The same goes for Professor Paul Spoonley who is painted as a good old boy when he is an activist. It has been argued that today the two main ideologies are globalism and nationalism. Spoonley is the globalist. Where is Dr Greg clydesdale who was torn to shreds by Kim Hill, he has subsequently been vindicated.

One thing I learnt when I went looking for my first house is that if you want the goods on a house you mention that house to an agent trying to sell you another house. In NZ's case "NZ has no tabloids" and the likes of Paul Spoonley think Molyneux and Southern should only have a platform on Youtube. Nigel Latta told his business audience "if we had this much coverage on Youtube we would be on Youtube"; what Spoonley is saying is that some voices should be pushed to the margins.

Newshub cauterised the debate on race and intelligence with "widely debunked" referencing an article in the Guardian but ignoring a more recent article in NYT (David Reich) warning us to be ready for challenging findings.

Unknown said...

It isn't just the left who have shut down free speech, it is the rich and powerful who support globalism why support Mike Hosking:

CORIN Let’s move on to the issue of immigration. Kerry McDonald, who’s a preeminent New Zealand businessman – for many years Comalco managing director – he wrote in a piece on his website just recently. He said immigration, and I quote, ‘The high rate of immigration is a national disaster.’ He said, ‘It’s lowering the present and future living standards of New Zealanders by serious adverse economic, social and environmental consequences.’ Now, this isn’t Winston Peters saying this; this is a respected economist and businessman who’s worried about immigration not because of who’s coming here but because we aren’t able to cope with the numbers.

CORIN You don’t want immigration to fall, though, do you? I just want to say something. I saw you in a speech after the Budget, and you were speaking to a big room of businesspeople – some of the biggest business minds in the country – and you stood up and you said, “Don’t worry about Treasury’s figure or estimation that it will go back to the trend of 12,000.” You were confident it was going to be a lot higher than that.

JOHN I just think it’s unlikely it will go to 12,000.

CORIN But it was like you wanted immigration to go up, because you were telling them, “Don’t worry. The demand in the economy is going to stay there. That’s what’s keeping New Zealand afloat.”