I urge followers of this blog to read a recent post by retired District Court judge David Harvey, which has only just come to my attention (it was published last month). It's a cool, rational and very thorough analysis of the multi-pronged attack on free speech by a government that appears to regard legitimate dissent as a dangerous assault on the authority of the state.
Monday, November 21, 2022
Sunday, November 20, 2022
Let me repeat that, just in case you didn’t get the irony. An agency ostensibly set up to protect our rights is upset that the government isn’t introducing new laws that would restrict them. What better evidence could there be of the commission’s highly selective interpretation – you might say perversion – of its own name?
The commission says it’s frustrated that planned amendments to the Human Rights Act won’t go as far as it would like. As it stands, the law quite properly makes it unlawful to incite ill-will or hostility against people on the basis of their race, colour, or national or ethnic origins. The commission wanted these protections extended to “other groups who are vulnerable to harmful speech, such as women, disabled people, and the rainbow community”.
Women? Really?? They make up half the population. There are now more of them in Parliament than there are men. They occupy the three most powerful positions in the country. Does the HRC really expect us to believe they are so vulnerable to “harmful” speech that they warrant special statutory protection? Come to that, couldn’t the same argument be made in respect of men – especially those who feel picked on by being disparaged as male, stale and pale? If so, don’t the two cancel each other out?
And note the “such as” in the commission’s statement. This leaves room for other groups – transgender people, for argument’s sake, though for the life of me I can’t imagine why I would choose them as an example – to also be protected against statements that might offend them. Who knows where the list of protected groups could end? It could be extended ad infinitum as political whim dictates. But Justice Minister Kiri Allan, pulling back from Labour’s original sweeping but vaguely defined proposals (and no doubt taking note of mounting public opposition), now says protection will be extended only to religious groups.
This is a nod to the royal commission that investigated the Christchurch mosque massacres and recommended tougher hate speech laws, no doubt with a view to protecting Muslims – a worthy aim but an ineffectual one, given there’s no evidence that the absence of such laws was a factor in the atrocity.
The government’s retreat from its original intention is clearly a blow and a setback to the HRC, which is so obsessed with identity politics and the supposed menace of hate speech that it completely ignores its bigger responsibility to protect New Zealanders’ freedom of expression. The commission is silent on this most crucial of democratic rights, despite it being enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ratified by New Zealand in 1978) and our own Bill of Rights Act.
To put it another way, the commission thinks it’s okay in a democracy to sacrifice the free-speech rights of the majority in order to protect supposedly vulnerable minority groups. It justifies this by arguing that restrictions on speech are needed to counter “violent extremism”. This is worryingly similar to the spurious pretexts – such as public order and public safety – routinely cited by authoritarian regimes that want to control what people think and say. Iran and Xi Jinping’s China come to mind.
Reconciling free speech with the interests of minority groups calls for a balancing act, but the commission doesn’t even attempt it. It solves the problem by simply ignoring the free speech side of the equation altogether.
All this adds up to a compelling case for abolishing the commission, as urged last year by David Seymour. It has been captured by ideologues and morphed into an extravagant travesty, endlessly haranguing and seeking to shame the public that funds it. Even Meng Foon, who as mayor of Gisborne seemed sensible and grounded, comes across as a tiresome, shouty nag in his role as Race Relations Commissioner.
The commission is a $13 million-plus per annum deadweight on the economy – money that could be redirected to any number of more worthy projects. Teaching dogs to ride bikes, for example.
The ACT leader should now go further and insist that the axing of the HRC will be a bottom line in any coalition negotiations with National after next year’s elections. It would be better still if National decided for itself that the HRC has outlived whatever usefulness it ever had, but the party of Christopher Luxon would run in fright from anything so bold and radical.
National, after all, is the party that signed us up to the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) and was in the process of appointing an Indigenous Rights Commissioner when the Labour-NZ First coalition took office in 2017. Far from resisting the advance of wokery, it has enabled the process.
Wednesday, November 16, 2022
I was vaguely aware last week that someone in Australia had caused a stir over a poster for the New Zealand band Six60; something to do with the band’s use of the Maori language. I didn’t bother to acquaint myself with the details, concluding that it was just another tedious skirmish in the culture wars. There are so many it can be exhausting trying to keep up with them.
I took a closer interest, however, when I found out a couple of days ago that the ruckus was triggered by Rowan Dean, a man with whom I have had dealings in his capacity as editor of the Spectator Australia, to which I occasionally contribute.
Dean presents a show on Sky News called The World According to Rowan Dean, and it was on this programme, while talking to Jonathan Ayling of the New Zealand Free Speech Union, that he drew attention to the Six60 poster.
Noting New Zealand’s “push for inclusivity” and promotion of the Maori language, Dean brought the Six60 concert poster up on screen and pointed out that it was entirely in Maori; “not a word in English”. Maori appeared to be supplanting English, Dean said, and he wanted to know how New Zealanders who don’t speak Maori felt about it.
The subject arose in the context of a rather confused interview in which Dean and Ayling sometimes appeared to be talking at cross-purposes. The recently passed Plain Language Act, the recently revived proposal for hate speech laws and the use of te reo all got tangled up together when they are separate and largely unrelated issues, the only unifying factor being Labour’s hell-bent drive to leave an indelible stamp on New Zealand before it gets jettisoned from office.
The confusion wasn’t helped by hyperbolic and not entirely accurate captions running across the bottom of the screen, such as: “NZ government hiring language officers”, “NZ passes Orwellian plain language bill”, “One step closer to the thought police” and “Concert poster excludes half of New Zealand”.
I felt sorry for any Australian viewer trying to make sense of it – but then, Australians have never been well served by news media purporting to explain what’s going on in New Zealand, which Australian commentators routinely portray as a slightly more remote, quaint and incomprehensible version of Tasmania.
All this happened two weeks ago, but it wasn’t until last week that controversy erupted on this side of the Ditch, and then only because of the Six60 poster which took up a relatively small portion of the interview. Predictably there was fury that a conservative Australian talk-show host was making what appeared to be disparaging remarks about the increasing usage of te reo in New Zealand. Dean’s offence was compounded in the eyes of his hyper-sensitive New Zealand critics by his failure to name the band correctly, as if by dismissively calling them “Sixty Sixty or whatever” he was delivering a further gratuitous slight against the nation.
In fact Dean appeared as much bemused by New Zealand’s adoption of te reo as critical of it. In common with many Australians, he fails to grasp the place of Maori in New Zealand culture.
His incomprehension highlights a crucial distinction between the two countries. In Australia, Aboriginal culture has historically been marginalised, despite belated attempts to give it greater recognition. In New Zealand, by contrast, Maori influence runs wide and deep. It’s accepted – in fact valued – as an essential element of mainstream society. No one watching the Black Ferns play England last Saturday could have been in any doubt about that.
If I wanted to appear learned and profound, which I’m not, I would speculate that this difference between the two countries arises at least in part from a striking contrast between Maori and Aboriginal cultures and their relationships with the European colonisers. It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that whereas the Aboriginal reaction to the arrival of Europeans was to melt into the bush, Maori confronted the colonisers head-on. They weren’t over-awed or intimidated; they demanded to be engaged with on equal terms.
And so it has continued. Pakeha New Zealand has absorbed Maori culture in a way that many Australians just don’t get. Maori are an ineradicable and invaluable part of our national character. They help make New Zealand the unique place that it is.
That was brought home to me last weekend at a friend’s funeral. Neither she nor her late husband were Maori, but they had adopted a Maori daughter and in doing so had become part of her whanau and had gladly embraced tikanga Maori (or perhaps I should say it had embraced them, because it works both ways). The funeral, which our friend had planned down to the last detail, seamlessly fused Maori and European influences – the former represented by a spirited, moving and beautifully sung waiata, the latter by Alison Krauss singing the gospel song I’ll Fly Away. Oh, and a piper as the coffin was carried out. It couldn’t have happened anywhere but New Zealand.
Dean’s difficulty with the use of te reo in New Zealand came as no surprise to me. In 2020 I wrote an article for the Spectator Australia about the relentless promotion of biculturalism in New Zealand, with particular reference to the increased official use of Maori. I also referred to the unlawful roadblocks set up by Maori activists, ostensibly for the purpose of preventing Covid-19 from being spread to remote and vulnerable communities.
Dean subsequently invited me to take part in another Australian Sky News talk show he’s involved with, called Outsiders. I initially agreed, but on learning more about the likely tone of the show I backed away. Outsiders presents a conservative perspective and the subject was to be Maori influence in New Zealand life and politics. I was concerned that the other participants in the show, who were Australian, would be dissing an aspect of New Zealand society that they didn’t understand, and I didn’t want to be a party to it.
At this point readers of this blog might wonder whether I’m going all woke here and indulging in a bout of virtue-signalling. Not a bit. It’s possible to value and take pride in the enormous Maori contribution to our national character while simultaneously being deeply concerned about the promotion of divisive, race-based policies that threaten to drive a wedge between Maori and Pakeha. In fact I’d like to think that in this regard, I’m not far out of line with mainstream thinking.
In any case, I’m allowed to criticise New Zealand because it’s my country. But I become defensive when it’s attacked by Australians (or Poms, for that matter).
Anyway, back to The World According to Rowan Dean. I thought Six60 reacted to Dean’s remarks exactly as they should have, with characteristic New Zealand good humour. Resisting any temptation to ramp up an already overheated war over wokery, they offered Dean free tickets to one of their shows and issued a new promotional T-shirt bearing the slogan “Sixty60 or whatever”. Perfect.
For his part, Ayling quietly pointed out to Dean that te reo is officially a New Zealand language and people should be free to use it. That’s a free speech issue. Use of te reo becomes problematical only when people feel compelled to use it or discriminated against for not doing so. That’s a free speech issue too.
Friday, November 11, 2022
As noted in a blog post earlier this week, I attended the first annual conference of the Free Speech Union at Auckland’s Aotea Centre last Saturday.
I thought it was an outstanding success, not so much in terms of the number of attendees – roughly 150, although I understand several hundred more watched online – as for the quality of the speakers and the ideas they put forward.
The keynote speech was delivered by Jacob Mchangama, a Danish lawyer, human rights advocate and author of the book Free Speech: A Global History from Socrates to Social Media. (His father came from the island of Comoros, off the coast of East Africa – hence the very un-Danish surname).
One of his key points was that historically, free speech has been a vital tool for the oppressed. He cited as an example the American civil rights movement, which without free speech would have been, in his words, “a bird without wings”. Conversely, controls on speech have been used throughout history to serve the interests of those in power, as in apartheid-era South Africa.
Mchangama sounded a warning that’s highly relevant in the current New Zealand context – namely, that a common argument in favour of limiting free speech is that it’s necessary to protect minorities. But the supposed cure can sometimes be more dangerous than the ailment. The Nazi Party was heavily censored under hate speech laws during Germany’s Weimar Republic but turned that suppression to its advantage, claiming it was proof that the people in power were protecting Jews, Marxists and other groups the Nazis despised.
What follows, in no particular order, are a few other points that I scribbled in my notebook during panel discussions that featured, among others, economics professor Ananish Chaudhuri, Jewish community spokeswoman Juliet Moses, ACT MP Karen Chhour, Victoria University academic David Bromell, history professor Paul Moon, National MP Paul Goldsmith and Michael Johnston from the New Zealand Initiative.
■ New Zealanders should have been allowed to read Christchurch mosque killer Brenton Tarrant’s manifesto. After all, we’re allowed to read Mein Kampf. How can we counter dangerous ideas if we’re prevented from seeing them? Suppression can make them more powerful (see the above reference to the Nazis). You don’t want to risk making martyrs out of monsters.
■ Are we safer not knowing? No. We can’t fight ideas that are hidden underground. Criminalising bad ideas doesn’t make them go away. People who are forced off censorious social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook are likely to be driven onto secretive channels and echo-chambers where toxic theories can flourish unchallenged.
■ Transgender advocates have been among the most aggressive opponents of free speech. Yet without freedom of speech, many of the gains won by sexual minority groups – for example, homosexual law reform and same-sex marriage – wouldn’t have happened.
■ The dynamics of the debate over free speech are not constant. What is today an accepted mainstream position might in time become an unpopular minority view. Restrictions on free speech that you consider acceptable or desirable now might eventually be used against you. To put it another way, be careful what you wish for.
■ People who propose hate speech laws often do so in good faith (this from Juliet Moses). We shouldn’t always assume they do so for the wrong reasons. But former Wellington city councillor Stephen Rainbow forcefully countered that there is viciousness online and jobs can be threatened by the enemies of free speech. “There are some nasty people out there.”
■ Racial or ethnic groups are not uniform in their opinions, despite pressure to conform to what is seen as the “correct” position. This point was made quietly but eloquently by Karen Chhour, who is of Ngapuhi descent but was rebuked in Parliament by Labour deputy leader Kelvin Davis for “looking at the world from [sic] a vanilla lens” and urged to “cross the bridge from the Pakeha into the Maori world”. The presumption was that Chhour couldn’t be a real Maori because she was in the wrong party. (Davis’s slur, for which he later apologised, was an echo of Willie Jackson’s attack on David Seymour for being a “useless Maori”, apparently because Seymour doesn’t support Labour's separatist policies.)
■ The cancellation of so-called “alt-right” Canadian speakers Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux, followed soon after by Massey University’s ban on former National Party leader Don Brash, was a resounding wake-up call for many conference attendees who had previously taken free speech for granted. The Covid pandemic was another catalyst; Level 3 lockdown restrictions were seen as an assault on civil liberties.
■ Young New Zealanders – i.e. the generation now coming through universities – are incapable of dealing with opposition and the stress of having their ideas challenged. Part of the solution is in raising children to be more resilient. In the words of Michael Johnston, a former Victoria University lecturer, universities should be the nerve centres of free speech. Free and open debate is crucial to a better understanding of society.
■ Incitement to violence is the dividing line between what’s an acceptable expression of opinion and what isn’t.
■ There are bullies in universities and government departments who try to shut down ideas and opinions they don’t approve of, but who quickly back down when challenged (this from FSU chief executive Jonathan Ayling, speaking from experience).
■ Free speech may be under attack in New Zealand, but things could be far worse (Moses again). “In some countries, this meeting wouldn’t happen.” The participants would quietly disappear.
■ How do we promote free speech? By standing up for people whose ideas we loathe.
A disappointing but sadly unsurprising aspect of the conference was the almost total absence of journalists. I sat next to the editor of a high-profile national publication but gathered she was there to observe rather than report. (Good on her for attending, all the same.) Otherwise the only working journalist present appeared to be the freelancer Yvonne van Dongen, who told the conference about the extraordinary obstacles, excuses and deceptions she encountered - despite her well-established credentials - when she tried to get an article published about the free speech debate. No one who heard van Dongen’s account of her travails, for which the FSU honoured her with a special award, could delude themselves that the mainstream media can be regarded as allies in the campaign for free speech.
This perception was reinforced by the fact that although Jacob Mchangama was interviewed on RNZ by Kim Hill, not a word appeared in the mainstream media about the conference. To put it politely, this is odd when you consider that freedom of the press and freedom of speech are inextricably intertwined. Journalists depend on the right of free speech every day of their working lives, both in what they report and in what they say in editorials and opinion columns. Without it they couldn’t function.
My strong impression is that editors are reluctant to align themselves with the cause of free speech, and I have to wonder what they’re frightened of.
Wednesday, November 9, 2022
It started with two Canadians named Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux, who were on a speaking tour of Australia and tacked on a visit to Auckland. Hardly anyone had heard of them, still less knew what their politics were. But when Auckland mayor Phil Goff barred them from speaking at a council-owned venue in 2018, he touched a sensitive nerve.
The banning order turned out to be a classic demonstration of the so-called Streisand Effect, whereby attempts to suppress or hide something paradoxically result in it being brought to wider public attention.
The term comes from Barbra Streisand’s efforts to prevent publication of a photograph showing her clifftop mansion in Malibu, California. The photo was taken in 2003 to show the effects of coastal erosion and was initially seen by only a handful of people. But then Streisand took legal action to remove it from the public record, and in the following months the picture was downloaded 420,000 times. I believe the technical term for this is shooting yourself in the foot.
In the case of Southern and Molyneux, a controversy erupted over freedom of speech which, four years later, is still being played out in the courts. Although they were virtual unknowns, their banning led directly to the creation of a national movement to protect free speech – something no one previously thought necessary in a country with a long history as one of the world’s most liberal democracies.
Most New Zealanders believed their right to free speech was unassailable, but what happened to Southern and Molyneux showed that this was no longer the case. Cancel culture – the phenomenon whereby the enemies of free speech try to shut down any opinion they don’t like – had arrived.
It wasn’t an isolated occurrence, because it followed several years during which free speech had come under increasing attack – in social media, to a lesser extent in mainstream media and even in universities. But the Southern and Molyneux incident turned out to be a tipping point.
Word had gone out on social media that the Canadians were dangerous activists from the far-Right. Valerie Morse, herself a career activist but from the opposite end of the political spectrum, called for them to be barred from entering New Zealand. She said Southern and Molyneux intended to stir up racist violence, a provocative claim for which there was no evidence.
Radio New Zealand reported that the two Canadians had “far-Right, alternative views on feminism, gender, Islam and immigration”, though we were never told what these views were so were unable to judge for ourselves whether they were dangerous.
Actually, that’s not entirely true. Lauren Southern had been reported as saying there were only two genders, male and female. This is a view probably shared by at least 99 percent of the population and one that would have been totally uncontroversial a few years ago, but is now apparently evidence of far-Right extremism.
Despite none of the claims about Southern and Molyneux being substantiated, Phil Goff saw it as an opportunity for some political grandstanding. “I have made my views on this very clear,” Goff declared on Twitter. “Southern and Molyneux will not be speaking at any council venues.” This was after the council had accepted a booking for the event at the Bruce Mason Centre, which it owns. The event was subsequently cancelled.
To this day we don’t know what Southern and Molyneux intended to say and so can’t judge whether they were a threat to public order and wellbeing. We were denied the right to hear them and form our own opinions. Goff apparently didn’t think the public was mature and wise enough to be exposed to their views. He took it upon himself to protect us.
The upshot of all this – and here’s the Streisand effect – was that the Canadians suddenly became a cause celebre. Goff’s unilateral action in misusing his power by banning Southern and Molyneux, as if Auckland was his personal fiefdom, was the catalyst for the formation of the Free Speech Coalition, which subsequently morphed into what is now the Free Speech Union. University lecturer David Cumin, one of the coalition’s founders, said that if the mayor of Auckland was allowed to ban people he didn’t like, all sorts of groups would be in deep trouble.
I should stress here that the coalition was formed not because its founders endorsed the opinions of Southern and Molyneux and thought they were worthy of wider promulgation. The people behind the coalition ranged right across the ideological spectrum.
Remember that at this stage, virtually no one knew what the Canadians’ opinions were, so were in no position to either endorse or oppose them. The coalition was concerned with one issue only: protecting the principle of free speech and the right of New Zealanders to be exposed to ideas and opinions regardless of whether people happened to agree with them.
This, after all, is the very heart of democracy. Democratic government depends on the contest of ideas, and the contest of ideas in turn depends on people being able to engage openly in free expression and debate. Free speech is where democracy starts. I would argue that it’s even more fundamental than the right to vote, because people’s ability to cast an informed vote depends on them first being able to participate in free and open debate about political issues and ideas.
Subsequent to Goff’s intervention in the issue, Auckland Council, possibly realising the mayor had overstepped his authority, shifted its ground by arguing that there were health and safety reasons for banning the Canadians. This was because protesters, including the aforementioned Valerie Morse, had threatened to blockade any meeting where they spoke.
But that raised an important free speech issue too, because it meant that protesters could force the cancellation of speaking engagements simply by threatening disruption.
Alarmed by these developments, the Free Speech Coalition began legal proceedings, funded by money raised through a public appeal, in the hope that the courts would declare Auckland Council to have acted unlawfully.
Lawyers for the coalition argued that the council’s action was inconsistent with Section 14 of the Bill of Rights Act, which states that “Everyone has the right to freedom of expression, including the freedom to seek, receive and impart information and opinions of any kind in any form.”
Note that the law doesn’t just refer to the freedom to speak; it gives equal weight to our right to seek and hear alternative views. There’s nothing in the Act that says opinions and ideas must be approved by people in power, such as the mayor of Auckland, before we can be safely allowed to hear them.
That court action has advanced all the way to the Supreme Court and is still in progress. Essentially New Zealand’s highest court is being asked to rule on a specific point – namely, whether Auckland Council was wrong to bow to threats of disruption and therefore restrict the rights of people who wanted to hear the Canadians speak.
Southern and Molyneux weren’t the only speakers to be cancelled on health and safety grounds. The urgency of the issue was reinforced when the vice-chancellor of Massey University barred Don Brash from speaking at an event on campus, again on the spurious pretext that people might be harmed if they attended.
It later emerged that the supposed “threat” came from a single disaffected student who said he never intended to do anything more violent than wave a sign. The real reason for the cancellation, as revealed by an information release under the Official Information Act, was that the vice-chancellor regarded Brash as a racist because of his views on the Treaty of Waitangi.
The vice-chancellor’s banning of a notable New Zealander didn’t go down well. Some people might have felt unsure about Southern and Molyneux, given that they were an unknown quantity, but Brash is a high-profile New Zealander whose opinions are very well known and who represented no threat to anyone. I wrote in the Australian edition of the Spectator that the Massey vice-chancellor, who comes from Queensland, had made herself the least popular Australian on this side of the Ditch since Greg Chappell instructed his brother to bowl underarm in 1981. Even the leader of the Massey students’ association, himself a Maori, said students had no confidence in her.
The Massey furore was another signal that free speech, which New Zealanders have historically taken for granted, was under attack by people in positions of authority. It was, to use a cliché, a wake-up call. There have been many more such episodes since then, some of which I’ll refer to later.
Events such as these formed the backdrop to an event I attended in Auckland last Saturday – the first annual conference of the New Zealand Free Speech Union, or FSU. As I mentioned earlier, the union evolved out of the Free Speech Coalition. It’s modelled on a similar organisation on Britain, where freedom of expression is also under sustained attack.
As in Britain, the Free Speech Union is officially registered as a trade union – an inspired idea which means it has the right to formally represent members whose free speech rights are threatened in the course of their work. The union has successfully invoked its statutory rights on numerous occasions, some of which I’ll mention shortly.
A vital point to note about the FSU is that while some of its critics dishonestly try to portray it as a right-wing front or an arm of the ACT Party, ideologically it’s very broad-based. Prominent figures in the union include Chris Trotter and Matt McCarten, both lifelong leftists. Members of the union’s council include a Maori university lecturer, a member of the Jewish community and a lesbian feminist.
Thinking people on the left side of politics have a very good reason to defend freedom of speech. They understand better than most that suppression of free speech has historically been used most often against the powerless and the advocates of change. Trade unionists, communists and campaigners for racial equality from Martin Luther King to Nelson Mandela all suffered under repressive controls on speech and recognised the importance of free speech as a weapon against oppression.
From the other end of the ideological spectrum, former ACT MP Stephen Franks and conservative blogger David Farrar have both been key players in the formation of the union and its precursor organisation. It follows that the FSU doesn’t take ideological positions on the left or the right and recognises that to be effective, consistent and credible, it must be politically non-partisan. Its only commitment is to freedom of speech.
The union is fighting across a very broad front because attacks on free speech are constant and come from multiple directions. But in its short existence, and despite extremely limited resources, the union has chalked up some notable victories. I’ll mention just a few.
■ It took legal action that forced city councils to back down after they refused to allow council venues to be held for meetings organised by a feminist group called Speak Up for Women, which opposed men being able to legally redefine themselves as female.
■ It took up the case of seven eminent academics who were threatened with expulsion from the Royal Society after they wrote a letter to the Listener challenging the scientific validity of Matauranga Maori, or traditional Maori knowledge. The professors were effectively subjected to a modern heresy trial and vilified in a letter from 2000 fellow academics who accused them of condoning something called scientific racism. The sheer weight and vehemence of the denunciation sent an unmistakeable message to the academic community: express dissent at your peril. But after being subjected to an embarrassing storm of international criticism and ridicule, the Royal Society backed down and concluded the professors had not breached its code of conduct. In fact I understand the society copped a furious backlash from many of its own members for betraying principles of academic freedom.
Sadly, the need for freedom of speech is nowhere more evident than in academia, where groupthink prevails and any deviation from approved ideological orthodoxy is likely to incur punishment in one form or another, whether it’s simply ostracism by colleagues or actual disciplinary action.
■ Speaking of academic freedom, the FSU also defended a Waikato University history lecturer’s right to describe people as cranks for believing, on religious authority, that the earth is flat and that humans lived alongside dinosaurs. The university threatened disciplinary action against him but backed down after the union pointed out its obligation to uphold academic freedom. Interestingly enough the Tertiary Education Union refused to support the lecturer while at the same time it was organising a conference on … academic freedom.
■ The FSU has supported several members who found themselves under attack in the workplace for opinions they had expressed in a personal capacity. In one case the union obtained an apology and retraction from a senior district council manager who harassed and intimidated a schoolteacher at his place of work for writing a submission in a private capacity in which the teacher expressed an opposing view to the manager on the issue of Maori wards. In another case a nurse was the subject of a complaint to the Nursing Council for expressing views on Facebook about transgender issues. You can probably guess what those views were.
■ In another recent case, a hospital doctor laid a complaint against a mortuary worker who used the pronoun “he” to refer to a deceased person who was biologically male but had identified as a woman. As I understand it, the employee avoided a disciplinary hearing only after the Free Speech Union intervened.
■ The union also met with the board of NZME, publishers of the New Zealand Herald, after the paper refused to publish an ad that consisted simply of the Oxford Dictionary’s incendiary definition of a woman as an adult human female. Just those words – nothing more. Newspapers, like universities, have traditionally been defenders of free speech but now seem frightened to upset transgender activists by publishing an ad that did nothing more than state a previously uncontroversial truth. You have to wonder, how did we get to this point, and where will it lead unless we resist?
These are cases that the FSU took up, but there have been plenty of others. There was the cancellation of a Harry Potter quiz at the Featherston Booktown Festival because someone objected to J K Rowling’s views on transgenderism and thought the quiz might distress the transgender community.
There was the British publishing firm that suddenly changed its mind about publishing a book by the world-famous Otago University professor the late Jim Flynn because the book raised “sensitive topics of race, religion and gender”. The book’s title? In Defence of Free Speech. So a book about the dangers of censoring free speech for fear of causing offence was itself cancelled for fear of causing offence. I think that’s called irony.
There was the bulldozer owner in Marlborough who painted the words “ALM Equal Rights for Kiwi Whites” on the blade of a bulldozer parked on his private property. This was at the height of the Black Lives Matter furore following the murder of George Floyd in the US. The letters ALM stood for All Lives Matter, but a neighbour complained that the words were racist and the bulldozer owner received a visit from the police who persuaded him to paint over them.
The concerning aspect here is the involvement of the police. There’s a very real prospect that with the proposed criminalisation of so-called “hate speech”, which I’ll come to shortly, it would fall to police officers to determine what opinions cross the legal threshold. We have ample evidence from Britain of the dangers that arise when the police are politicised and over-zealous officers take it upon themselves to decide what words are “safe”.
On a slightly lighter note, there was a complaint to the Advertising Standards Authority about a Street’s ice cream sign that said “Ice cream makes you happy”. The complainant said the sign promoted an unhealthy relationship with food. Now it seems absurd that the authority would take the complaint seriously, but sadly I have to tell you that it agreed with the complainant and the sign was removed. The enforcers of free speech are not noted for their sense of humour.
In addition to those individual cases I mentioned earlier, the Free Speech Union has been grappling with some much bigger issues, and none bigger than the proposed adoption of so-called hate speech laws.
This issue arose following the Christchurch mosque massacres and the subsequent Royal Commission of Inquiry. Recommendations for revised hate speech laws formed a small and relatively insignificant part of the commission’s recommendations. Deficiencies in existing laws were not identified as a cause of the massacres and there’s no evidence to suggest that tougher so-called hate speech laws would have prevented the atrocity. But there’s a saying in politics that every crisis presents an opportunity, and the government seized on the massacres as justification for the introduction of new laws restricting what we can say or write, ostensibly to protect vulnerable minorities. This is the era of identity politics, and Labour wants to look good to minority groups seeking protection from adverse comment. But history shows that hate speech laws can be weaponised to crush dissent – just look at Iran, which tried to have Salman Rushdie killed because he dared criticise Islam.
The problem with so-called hate speech laws is that they could impose unreasonable and undemocratic limitations on public discussion of legitimate political issues. Hurtful is different from hateful. Someone might feel insulted or offended by a statement but that doesn’t mean it’s intended to incite hatred or harm, and the courts have traditionally been liberal in recognising people’s right to express opinions that upset others – with good reason, because judges are reluctant to interfere with the fundamental right to free speech.
In any case, offences such as incitement to violence are already criminalised under existing laws and there’s no evidence to indicate those laws are inadequate. It’s an offence under the Human Rights Act to publish anything likely to excite hostility against, or bring into contempt, any group of persons in New Zealand on the ground of colour, race or national or ethnic origins. There’s a sound argument for adding religion to those categories, but you get into trouble once you move beyond that point by trying to define what is hateful, especially in a society where people are primed to take offence on the basis of sex, gender identity, race and religion. You then risk introducing what lawyers call a chilling effect which makes people reluctant to discuss issues for fear that they might be breaking the law. It becomes safer to say nothing at all.
As an aside, I was astonished to learn recently that according to the New Zealand Police website, a hate crime is an offence perceived by the victim to be motivated by hostility or prejudice towards a person’s race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability or age. So it’s down to victims to decide whether they’ve been the subject of a hate crime. This goes far beyond what the law says and shows that the police have already been well and truly politicised.
I mentioned this to my wife and she asked whether it meant that if I called her a silly old bag (not that I ever would, you understand) she could make a complaint to the police. I had to agree that it meant exactly that. This is how free speech rights are insidiously eroded, inch by inch. I'm not disrespectful toward the police, but I would have no confidence whatsoever in them exercising control over what I can say. That’s not their role.
The difficulties in defining hate speech were illustrated last year when neither the then minister of Justice, Kris Faafoi, nor the prime minister were able to explain how tougher hate speech laws would work. The Free Speech Union campaigned vigorously against a law change – 20,000 submissions to Parliament, 80 percent of them opposed – and the government quietly consigned the proposal to the too-hard basket.
Job done, the union thought. But now we have a new justice minister, Kiri Allen, and suddenly hate speech laws are back on the agenda. Not only that, but the prime minister recently delivered an address at the United Nations in which she talked about the need to combat threats from so-called disinformation – a word that seems to mean whatever the user wants it to mean.
All this points to the possibility of the government seeking to control the dissemination of information and opinion that it disapproves of, perhaps even relating to issues such as climate change, Covid vaccination, transgenderism and immigration. Hate speech and the right to dissent could become crucial issues in next year’s election, in which case it will be interesting to see whether the National Party takes a stand or leaves it to ACT to be the standard-bearer for free speech.
I want to leave you with a couple of quotations. The first is from the poet John Milton, who in 1644 wrote a famous defence of free speech called Areopagitica that included the stirring lines: “Let truth and falsehood grapple. Who ever knew truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?” In other words, it’s only through free and open debate that society tests competing ideas and chooses which ones to adopt.
The other is from the left-wing American philosopher Noam Chomsky, who said that if we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, then we don’t believe in it at all. In other words we must defend the free speech rights of people we disagree with, because whoever tries to silence them might also one day try to silence us.
You can find the Free Speech Union website here: Free Speech Union (fsu.nz)
Thursday, November 3, 2022
Spectator Australia’s Flat White website has a scorching piece on New Zealand’s precipitous decline under Ardern and Labour. It’s the most powerful commentary I’ve read on this government’s devastating combination of incompetence and malignancy. A shame the writer is not identified.
It’s sad that I should regard it as a chore to watch something I helped to pay for, but that’s the way it is. I wanted to satisfy myself that Web of Chaos was exactly what I expected, and so it turned out. There are few things more richly satisfying than having one’s prejudices confirmed.
The first clue was in the name of the director: Justin Pemberton. I vaguely recalled the name from somewhere else, and it soon came to me. Pemberton made Capital in the 21st Century, which I described in 2019 as a masterpiece of the propagandist’s art.
I wrote then that “The film uses every trick in the documentary-maker’s book to dramatise its message, which is that contemporary capitalism is overwhelmingly rigged in favour of the ultra-rich and basically rotten to the core”.
Web of Chaos uses similar techniques – powerful images, slick editing, ominous music – to create a sense of dread and foreboding. It’s a clever piece of work that will have chilled the hearts of anyone open to its message, which is that shadowy, dark forces on the far Right (that term again) are using the internet to promote hatred, division and paranoia.
If the name of the director wasn’t a pointer to the likely tone of the doco, the identities of the participants certainly were. The names were almost comically predictable: self-described “disinformation researcher” Byron C Clark, cultural historian Kate Hannah from the shadowy Disinformation Project, “media literacy expert” and activist Sanjana Hattotuwa (I presume that being an expert on “media literacy” means we can trust him to tell us which sources of information are safe), celebrity TV reporter David Farrier (memorably, if unflatteringly, described by Sean Plunket this week as a gutter-snipe journalist), the achingly woke Marc Daalder, Newsroom’s in-house proselytiser on climate change and right-wing extremism, and University of Otago philosophy professor Lisa Ellis, the one name unfamiliar to me, whose online resumé tells us she writes about “climate adaptation justice”, whatever that may be, and edits a magazine called Political Theory. Enough said.
In other words, the usual suspects: a tight little coterie of mutually supporting (and apparently well-resourced) activists marching in lockstep with a radical leftist government and mainstream media. All are caught up in, and simultaneously promulgate, a moral panic over so-called disinformation, which can loosely be defined as any information or opinion they dislike.
So … not exactly a balanced line-up, but polemical documentaries like this – even ones funded, albeit involuntarily, by the taxpayer – don’t pretend to be balanced. Would I turn to any of these “experts” for guidance on what I may safely watch, read and hear? Absolutely not. No one should.
No surprises, either, in the political phenomena that the doco presented as proof of the far Right’s baneful influence: Brexit, climate change denial, Donald Trump, toxic masculinity, evangelical Christianity (white Christianity, to be precise) and pandemic conspiracy theories all got a raking over.
There was talk of gullible people falling down rabbit holes, yet it occurred to me that the participants may have fallen down a few themselves. (Ah, I can almost hear them say, but their rabbit holes are okay.) They have immersed themselves in the same febrile, conspiratorial netherworld as the people they rail against. Perhaps they all deserve each other.
It also occurred to me (as it did with Stuff’s recent Fire and Fury documentary) that by amplifying online hysteria and paranoia, and probably doing their enemies a favour by doing so, they become part of the problem they purport to deplore. A detached observer – someone living in the real world, perhaps, and thus immune to overheated conspiracy theories from either side – could hardly be blamed for wishing a plague on all their houses.
What particularly struck me about Web of Chaos was the feeling that what really vexed the participants most is that they’re unable to control the digital conversation. Much of the leftist idealism that drove the internet in its early years has evaporated and anarchy has moved in. This is not how it was supposed to play out.
This is not to deny that some of the online content deplored by the virtuous participants in Web of Chaos is poisonous – but in the information wars, the poison flows both ways. The documentary didn’t mention neo-Marxist vitriol on Twitter or the routine cancellation of any opinions, no matter how reasoned or moderate, that run counter to woke orthodoxy. Neither did it consider the possibility that conservative opinion has been driven underground because it was locked out of mainstream social media channels such as Facebook and Twitter.
Extremism is bound to thrive when dissent is suppressed by members of a pharisaical caste that takes upon itself the right to determine what others may read and hear. This was the less than surprising conclusion to be drawn from Web of Chaos – a documentary accurately assessed by the aforementioned Sean Plunket as having the same level of journalistic integrity as Fire and Fury, but with the important difference that it was made using public money. Hence we all become accomplices in our own indoctrination.
And speaking of brazen, state-funded journalistic bias, how about the latest Sunday programme on TVNZ? In a lifetime of television viewing I’ve seen some atrocious reportage, but rarely anything so egregiously slanted as Mark Crysell’s report on the consequences of the US Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade.
Crysell took it as given that it’s a fundamental human right to take the life of an unborn child. Not for a millisecond did he bother himself with the consideration that many of the people watching his report find abortion deeply repugnant. Insofar as objections to abortion were acknowledged at all, they were presented as being confined to a slightly mad and dangerous religious fringe.
He informed us that what’s unfolding in Texas, where abortion is now illegal unless the mother’s life is threatened, is a “human tragedy”. But wait! This could be to New Zealand’s benefit, Crysell revealed, because disenchanted American medical professionals are thinking of emigrating. This could be the solution, he suggested, to the staffing crisis in our health sector.
Really? I’m not sure I’d welcome doctors and nurses who want to leave the US for the sole reason that they’re no longer allowed to kill foetuses. I subscribe to the quaint idea that we’d be better off with health professionals who are concerned with saving lives rather than terminating them. Yet Crysell portrayed the Texas abortionists as being motivated by high principle. It was a striking illustration of how grotesquely warped the abortion cult has become.
As is invariably the case in media coverage of abortion, the unborn child was unmentioned and invisible. Easier and more convenient to ignore it.
Crysell’s report was a “f*** you” gesture to all the mugs in Sunday’s audience whom he must have known would find its tone offensive. They pay his salary and pick up the tab for his flights, hotel bills and rental cars (not that they have any say in the matter), and in return he exercises an assumed right to impose on them his personal prejudices on a profoundly contentious issue.
What a contemptible creep. As an arrogant abuse of media power, it’s equal to anything Rupert Murdoch ever dreamed up.
Tuesday, November 1, 2022
When will left-leaning media commentators (please excuse the tautology) accept that the frequently heard term “far Right” is often no longer applicable?
“Far Right” implies an extreme fringe. But election results in several countries, including Brazil, have shown that so-called far-Right candidates command wide electoral support – enough, in many cases, to win elections. Jair Bolsinaro won the presidential race in 2018 and missed out by the narrowest of margins in the latest poll.
If we’re to believe media pundits, the "far Right" have won power in Italy and the supposedly far-Right Sweden Democrats were the big winners in that traditionally liberal country’s elections in September, to the great dismay of the Western political elite.
Meanwhile Republican candidates who are routinely (and I suspect lazily) labelled as far-Right have a very good chance of outpolling the Democrats in the United States mid-term elections. And of course the ultimate urban liberal nightmare, the “far-Right” Donald Trump, is on track to return to the White House in 2024.
Oh, and I read this morning that the far Right could hold the balance of power after the latest elections in Israel.
In the last French presidential elections, "far-Right "candidate Marine Le Pen was beaten but still won 41.5 per cent of the vote. That’s not exactly extremist fringe territory. India, Poland and Hungary all have governments that media commentators regularly describe as far-Right, presumably because in the latter two cases they have the audacity to resist the grand left-wing ideological project known as the EU. But those governments wouldn't have been elected unless voters approved of their policies.
So what’s going on here? How are we supposed to define "far Right" when it’s obviously not as far out as the mainstream media want us to believe?
The truth is that “far-Right” is an entirely arbitrary term, used to disparage any politician or party whose policies the left-leaning commentariat dislikes - or perhaps more precisely, fears.
This was borne out by a BBC radio current affairs programme broadcast just before the Italian elections in which the term was used to describe Giorgia Meloni, now the Italian prime minister, and her Brothers of Italy party.
A brief on-air discussion took place in which the presenter of the show and the journalist covering the elections considered whether “far-Right” was a fair and accurate label. They promptly reassured themselves that it was, specifically citing Meloni’s policies on LGBTQ rights and abortion.
Problem solved, then; no further discussion needed. It was a striking demonstration, obligingly conducted in public view, of the way a media elite assumes the right to dictate the political narrative by its use of language.
“Far-Right” is often used in conjunction with the equally damning word “populist”. But a populist politician, by definition, is one who appeals to the people. Isn’t that the essence of democracy?
Here, I suspect, is the core of the problem. “Populist” is used as a derogatory term because the progressive elite, deep down, don’t trust democracy and don’t think ordinary people, ignorant proles that they are, can be relied on to make the right choices.
For the same reason, the political elite want to control the public conversation by regulating what we are allowed to say or hear. Uninhibited political debate is dangerous. People might get the wrong ideas – hence the moral panic over disinformation.
Do the journalists and academics who so freely use the misleading term “far Right” realise that the world has moved on from the days when it described fringe nationalist groups with little hope of electoral success? Possibly not.
I think they’re in denial. They don’t want to admit that the so-called far Right has moved to the political centre, and that this is an entirely natural and predictable reaction to stifling woke authoritarianism.