Wednesday, September 21, 2022

On Rachel Stewart and freedom of speech

I see that former New Zealand Herald columnist Rachel Stewart is positioning herself as a champion of free speech.

In a self-promoting column (that’s almost a tautology, since everything Stewart writes seems to be self-promoting), she draws attention to her recent appearance on The Platform’s Free Speech Friday and praises Sean Plunket’s online radio station – quite rightly – for holding out against the suppression of politically unfashionable opinions.

Fair enough. We should welcome and encourage anyone who’s genuinely committed to the principle that people should be able to write or say what they think, provided it doesn’t advocate violence or harm.

But I can’t help wondering when Stewart joined the cause, because in two posts several years ago I cited instances when she made it very clear that she didn’t think the right of free speech extended to people she disagreed with or disapproved of.

One of those people was me. Stewart couldn’t understand why the Dominion Post published a column by me when they could have one written by her. To be precise, she tweeted: “I read Karl du Fresne in the Dom and quite apart from the fact that I agree with him on nothing, I think to myself they could have me.”

Translated: “My opinions are superior, so why don’t they get rid of him?” – hardly a ringing defence of people’s right to say things she doesn’t like.

Okay, in this case I could be accused of being over-sensitive. But not so in the other instance, in which Stewart launched a full-on attack against an Otago Daily Times columnist who had criticised virtue-signalling broadcasters for showing off their mastery of te reo during Maori Language Week. Stewart wrote then that she believed in free speech “absolutely” but added that she struggled with what “basically amounts to gratuitous hate speech”.

Ah, the old, familiar “I believe in free speech, but …” line. Whenever I hear the words “I believe in free speech” followed immediately by a disclaimer excluding whatever opinion/s the speaker happens to object to, I file it under F for fake.

I suspect that what may have happened in Stewart’s case since then – her Road to Damascus experience, if you like – is that she’s found the walls closing in around her. Her own opinions once fell within the ideologically acceptable zone (she was in safe territory attacking dirty dairying and supposed racism), but the range of permissible opinions has narrowed to the point where even she feels threatened.

The ground has shifted under her. No one is safe now from woke vigilantes. The Herald's disgraceful refusal in 2019 to publish a restrained and rationally argued column in which Stewart supported the right of feminists to oppose the virulent trans-gender lobby would have been a wake-up moment.

To put it another way, my guess is that Stewart became a champion of free speech only when her own rights came under attack. But if that experience has made her a genuine advocate for freedom of expression rather than a Claytons one, that can be no bad thing.

Clarification: The original version of this post implied Stewart was sacked by the Herald. I've since learned that according to Stewart, she severed her relationship with the paper after it refused to publish her column criticising Massey University for cancelling a feminist meeting about transgenderism.


Andy Espersen said...

Quite right, Karl. If Stewart is now a genuine champion of free speech that is no bad thing – in fact it is extremely encouraging. Will she in the future write “BUT” - and immediately follow it by a disclaimer?? That’s the question. Let’s wait and see.

I actually suspect there will very soon be a rush, an exodus, of (sacked) journalists seeing the light, experiencing a “road to Damascus” sort of conversion. This whole issue is not just a New Zealand thing – it impacts on the whole western civilisation. A revolution is brewing in all English speaking countries. Next month’s mid-term US elections is what to watch, first of all.

Scott said...

One thing I would say is that the progressives of this world don't actually believe in free speech. They believe that speech that upsets them is the same as violence. They believe that they are unsafe in the presence of ideas they disagree with.
The modern progressive believes in censorship to create safe spaces. The idea of free speech appears to be on the way out.
Modern progressives are really part of a new religion where ideas they disagree with are heresy.

pdm said...

Is that the same Rachel Stewart who a few years ago threatened to break the arm (or do similar damage) of someone she disagreed with?

Was it David Farrar?

I have a vague recollection of such an incident but cannot remember the details - must be an age thing.

Karl du Fresne said...

One and the same, pdm, except that it was Farrar's legs she reportedly threatened to break:

David George said...

Here's a great wee essay on this very thing: "So now you care about free speech?"

"The chutzpah is almost impressive. Here they are accusing free-speechers of hypocrisy, despite ample evidence to the contrary. Meanwhile, they only ever defend speech they agree with. They act as if they have been vindicated, even though the arrest of those republicans actually vindicates what us ‘free-speech warriors’ have been saying to intolerant leftists for years. Namely, that if you carry on demanding censorship it will eventually catch up with you.

Even now, they’re too pigheaded to see it. Or perhaps, deep down, they know that when it comes to the state clamping down on dissenters today, toytown leftists like them are rarely the targets."

David George said...

Here's a link to the Tom Slater essay

Don Franks said...

Good conclusion. The extraordinary rise of transgender intolerance has forced many of us to reevaluate our stance on free speech and political power.

R Singers said...

Odd things happen in NZ Media circles like Dane Giraud spending a whole FSU podcast talking about funding for media in NZ, while completely ignoring that the Platform exists, or that independent documentary makers are out there trying to make content that differs from the state sponsored line.

The odder thing was Ani O'Brien not challenging him on it. They invited commentary on their socials, which I tried but seemed to be only Twitter, so I guess it wasn't the open dialogue part of free speech. (I don't use Twitter, 'cause basically I'm not that much of an arsehole.)

Perhaps there's a tendency in all you media types to become "lovies" as you get older :-)

Unknown said...

I can see why a lesbian advocate and a conservative former editor do not always get along You are both valuable advocates for free speech And Stewart ia not known for being polite .I can only guess that she was taking the piss and being rude You both argue well about the hypocrisy of mainstream media attqking opinions opinion s that do n opt match the prevailing narrative.

Anonymous said...

Along with lamingtons. They are worthy of a security detail to have around, so unsafe are they.