It is often the first instinct of the far left, when confronted with ideas or opinions they don’t approve of, to try to shut them down.
There was a tiny but telling example of this in a letter to the Dominion Post a few days ago from a reader who didn’t like my column outlining the advance of neo-Marxism. He said it was “disappointing” (note the morally superior tone and phony sanctimony) to see such opinions being given oxygen by a “credible New Zealand paper”.
In other words, he didn’t like what I said, so I should have been censored. Well, suck it up, buster. It’s called free speech.
But a far more serious and alarming threat to freedom of expression has emerged today with attempts to bar two so-called “far right” speakers from entering New Zealand next month.
There’s the first problem, right there. Both the New Zealand Herald and Radio New Zealand’s Morning Report used that term “far right” to describe the Canadians Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux, who are planning to follow a tour of Australia with a single engagement in Auckland.
I hadn’t consciously heard of Southern before today and was only vaguely aware of Molyneux, but experience has taught me to be very sceptical when the media refer to anyone as “far right”. It’s a subjective judgment that has no place in a news story, which we rightly expect to be unbiased (in contrast with this blog, which is clearly an expression of opinion).
Decoded, “far right” can mean anyone to the right of the political centre. To be consistent, the Herald should have described the activist Valerie Morse, who wants the Canadians kept out of New Zealand, as “far left”. But of course it didn’t, and thus it gave her an aura of political legitimacy that it denied to the Canadians.
In any case, whether or not Southern and Molyneux are “far right” – however that’s defined – is neither here nor there. We live in a liberal democracy that depends on free speech and the free exchange of ideas and opinions. Let’s hear for ourselves what the Canadians have to say and decide then whether it’s dangerous.
When it comes to free speech, I’m an absolutist. The only exceptions should be blatant incitements to cause harm. The moment we give in to the clamour from left-wing bigots seeking to stifle ideas they disapprove of, or for that matter anyone trying to stifle ideas they disapprove of (although it’s invariably the left that pushes for political censorship and suppression), we’re stuffed. Book-burning won’t be far behind.
It will surprise no one that the push to have Southern and Molyneux barred from New Zealand comes from Auckland Peace Action, whose spokeswoman, the serial protester Morse, claims the Canadians are coming to New Zealand to “empower local racists and to encourage racist violence”.
It’s perhaps more surprising that the New Zealand Federation of Islamic Organisations is backing the call for a ban. This is not what New Zealand Muslims should be doing if they want to persuade us that they reject the totalitarian theology of many of their co-religionists elsewhere.
So just what makes the two Canadians so poisonous? According to Radio New Zealand, they have “far-right, alternative” views on feminism, gender, Islam and mass immigration.
As one example of their extreme, “alternative” positions, RNZ cited Southern’s statement that there are “only two genders”. It’s an indication of how totally the so-called progressives have seized control of the public conversation that Southern could be held up as a pariah for expressing an opinion that’s shared by many New Zealanders – possibly even a majority – and which only a few years ago would have been considered utterly unremarkable.
Judging by an audio clip played by RNZ, Southern has also inflamed leftists and feminists by calling out the exquisite hypocrisy of their position on Islam, a religion they’re so eager to empathise with that they conveniently turn a blind eye to its repression of women.
We're told that Southern was barred from speaking in Britain, as if that’s all the justification the New Zealand government needs to turn her away. In fact she’s only one of several speakers to have been detained or turned back at British airports on the spurious pretext that their presence was “not conducive to the public good” or was “likely to incite tensions”, which really meant that they made the timid authorities feel a bit queasy.
But this shouldn’t be a case of “where Britain goes, we go”, to use Michael Joseph Savage’s famous line. Far from giving New Zealand a lead, all the British bans demonstrate is that the country from which we inherited our democratic traditions has betrayed its honourable record as a defender of free speech. We can’t allow the same thing to happen here.
Back to Val Morse. The Herald quotes her as saying: “They [Southern and Molyneux] come to recruit people to their fascist ideology. It is imperative that this type of racism is given no room to be promoted and encouraged in Aotearoa. If they come here, we will confront them on the streets. If they come, we will blockade entry to their speaking venue.”
Well, there you have it. Even if the government allows the Canadians in – and I’ll be the first to take to the streets if they’re barred – the bigots of the left will do their best to ensure no one can hear them. I ask you: who are the real fascists here?
Shouting people down is something the far left has a lot of practice at. They do it all the time in the US, Britain and even Australia. You can hear it on one of the audio clips played on today’s Morning Report, in which shrieking protesters try to prevent Southern being heard.
In the US, ironically, the Berkeley campus of the University of California, which was the birthplace of the radical student free-speech movement in the 1960s, is now synonymous with the practice of no-platforming – the very antithesis of free speech. Just as ironically, some of the speakers recently turned back at British airports had been engaged to deliver addresses at Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park, where traditionally all comers have been allowed.
Let’s assume for a moment, as a purely hypothetical exercise, that Morse’s shrill hyperbole is even remotely accurate, and that Southern and Molyneux would come here with the aim of inflaming local racists. I could only say good luck with that, because New Zealand is by world standards a remarkably tolerant and moderate society, and stolidly resistant to inflammation by extremists of any stripe.
Perhaps even more importantly, it’s a robust democracy that is perfectly capable of being exposed to rancid opinions without being swayed. I always come back to that wonderful line from Milton’s Areopagitica: “Let Truth and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?”
Here, in a way, is the essence of the issue. It all comes down to trust and control. Leftist fanatics like Morse don’t trust people to make their own sensible judgments, so they want to control what we hear and read. If we value free speech and representative democracy, we can't let them.
Footnote: I was saddened to hear Massey University professor Paul Spoonley say on Morning Report that he wasn’t opposed to the Canadians being denied entry. I respect Spoonley and have never doubted him when he described himself as a supporter of free speech. On Morning Report today, however, he added the dreaded “but …”. Spoonley said he didn’t see free speech being advanced by views that he described as “hateful and extreme”.
I have two problems with that. The first is the assumption that the opinions expressed by Southern and Molyneux are hateful and extreme. That depends entirely on the ideological prism you happen to be looking through. But more importantly, I believe that the moment we start putting qualifications around freedom of speech, we’re in trouble. Big time.