Friday, November 11, 2022

A great free speech conference - but where were the journalists?

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.  



pdm said...

Karl - Jacob Mchangama is interviewed by Leighton Smith in his podcast as per the following link. I haven't listened to iy yet but intend to do so over the weekend.!!&app=io.ox/mail&folder=default0/INBOX

Gary Peters said...

"editors are reluctant to align themselves with the cause of free speech, and I have to wonder what they’re frightened of"

Do you really not know what they are frightened of or are you just incredulous that they are frightened?

Today, being "in" the know or the crowd or the sainted one's presence is the only measure many apply to themselves as they have little self esteem. What others think of them and what circles they move in allows them to believe they are of a higher station than those outside the loop. They actually remind me of a truck load of cattle looking down their noses at the "stupid" ones in the field walking when they are being "chauffeur" driven ....... to the abbatoir.

For many, the supposed esteem of others, which is merely little more than an echo in their echo chamber, is all they live for and real awareness is seldon gifted to the young. These days, the bulk of these journalists are young having grown up with overprotective mummies and we all have to be nice to them.

I have always loved a debate but unfortunately many on the left have no real ability to do the same and resort to name calling and cancel culture.

I have watched with amusement genuine lefties like Chis Trotter and Martyn Bradbury struggle to come to terms with how the so called left now operate. Both thse men thrive on healthy, and probably unhealthy, debate. They look like stunned mullets these days.

In my opinion.

David McLoughlin said...

My strong impression is that editors are reluctant to align themselves with the cause of free speech

Much of our media and journalists seem opposed to free speech. They recently took part in secret conferences that appeared designed to ensure free speech gets quashed during next year's election campaign. The existence of these secret conferences was revealed by none other than the left-wing commentator Bomber Bradbury (a staunch supporter of free speech), who was refused access to them despite having a widely read blog with likely more readers than the Spinoff. When Bomber exposed the holding of these secret events, at least one or more was cancelled because of his exposure, with the media claiming it was not safe to hold them if people knew of them. So much for an open media.

Richard said...

An interesting point on 'Free Speech' in the universities.
Varsity debating societies were not so long ago the centre of the discussion of ideas. Many of our best MPs and commentators came from that environment, both left and right wing (usually right wing it must be said - left wingers tended towards the Student Union). New Zealand did very well in the various global and Australian debating competitions.
I understand now debating events are often blighted by the involvement of the University bureaucracies and Unions in vetting, and often cancelling the various topics to be debated. Only 'safe' topics are allowed to be debated.

Anonymous said...

“How can we counter dangerous ideas if we’re prevented from seeing them? ”
Great question Karl and in the context of Tarrant’s manifesto, highly pertinent.
I have read his ramblings (thats all they are) and the reason the NZ government suppressed them in the draconian fashion they did, was simply because it didn’t support the narrative they wanted to created around it.
The Brenton Tarrant as a self described “eco-fascist” who professed admiration to Xi Xinping and the CCP is far removed from the right wing racist the NZ government went to great lengths to paint him as. The real question is why?

Unknown said...

I was disappointed the annual terrorism hui was not televised. Instead we get the sanitised version of woke media.
Last hui this etc.

Andy Espersen said...

Good question, Karl : Why don’t our main media report about free speech?

My younger brother in Denmark knows Jacob Mchangama personally. He informs me (and I quote), “Mchangama is an eminent jurist – who is being referred to again and again by radio, TV and all other media. And to top it, he is a pleasant and very likable person”.

So the main media in similar democracies to ours are quite different. Why??

It can only be because, generally speaking, our journalists and editors are biased towards our woke government – and too scared to criticise them and their ideologies. As you yourself report, they came to observe the Free-speech Meeting - but failed to write about it. Why are they scared?

Anonymous said...

Juliet Moses also seems to support the Anti-Defamation League, so I don’t think of her as a bastion of free speech, at all.

In my humble opinion.

Tinman said...

Incitement to violence is the dividing line between what’s an acceptable expression of opinion and what isn’t.


In accepting this you are stating that resistance to attack by forces needing combined efforts to overcome are unacceptable.

You are stating that the, for example, forming and supporting of the "underground" in European conflicts (both now and back as far as WW1 at least) is unacceptable.

Indeed you are stating that supporting those resisting any other country or entity except in thought is unacceptable.

Free speech by it's very definition MUST be FREE!

If you don't like someone advocating violence spell out your reasons why this is wrong. Only then can the wrong-sayer be corrected.

Phil Blackwell

Odysseus said...

Thanks for your excellent report.

New Zealand media abandoned any pretense of supporting free speech when they banned publication of any views or information that challenged the dogma of climate catastrophism. Stuff triumphantly announced their decision a few years ago, after joining an international media cabal, which if I recall correctly is somehow coordinated with Columbia University in New York and which has pledged to shut down discussion of contrary views in order to "save the planet". New Zealand journalists long ago gave up the pretense of reporting the news without fear or favour. They are promoting a social and political agenda, which they believe is threatened by free speech.

So I see no hope there, quite the contrary. Which makes blogging and social media all the more important, although I suspect the government will be coming for those outlets too shortly by means of the review of online content currently underway in Internal Affairs. Enjoy your "freedom" while it lasts.

Karl du Fresne said...

If you read my post again you'll see that I wasn't expressing my own opinions, but rather summarising comments made at the conference. Having said that, I think that in normal circumstances (as opposed to the extreme scenarios you outline), it's right that the law proscribes incitement to violence.

David McLoughlin said...

I think that in normal circumstances (as opposed to the extreme scenarios you outline), it's right that the law proscribes incitement to violence.

Absolutely, Karl. Proscribing incitement to violence in normal civil society is part of the rule of law that keeps society civil.

Using violence to oppose a a violent illegal invasion of one's own peaceful country is for very good reasons legal under domestic and international law (bearing in mind of course caveats relating to war crimes; even in justified self-defence, violence must be proportionate to the violence being fought against).

Don Franks said...

Yes, the poor journalist attendance at the event says something about our present social climate. A Redline reporter was there and wrote this:

Karl du Fresne said...

Daphna has written a very accurate and comprehensive account.

Anonymous said...

I don't think Juliet Moses supports free speech. She is a zionist, ADL supporter (primary coordinator of censorship of most major platforms) and largely seems to support hate speech laws in a loose form to give the bureaucrats enforcing it significantly leeway given her twitter comments.

Free speech traditionally existed under the assumption that it was for political speech. The purpose of hate speech laws is to push all speech which is illiberal or divisive of a political nature underground and make it punishable. The aim is to make people silent in their discontent.

The issue for the established liberal order and for the contemporary political 'centre' is that it has failed to deliver on any of its economic promises, it has imported huge quantities of different peoples to keep the GDP number growing by n% and now has a divided, alienated society which despises its elites and rulers immensely. These are revolutionary conditions and the current labour government has enacted a regime of terror against the right wing and cultural revolution on the population in education and media for its own ends.

It is going to end badly.

Karl du Fresne said...

Three points:
1. Juliet Moses is allowed to be a Zionist. That's not inconsistent with free speech. I'm probably a Zionist too, if that means believing in the right of the Jewish state to exist.
2. You say she supports the [Jewish] Anti-Defamation League but you offer no evidence to support that, and in any case I'm not sure that supporting the ADL is inconsistent with free speech either. (I don't know enough to say one way or the other.)
3. "Regime of terror" seems a bit melodramatic. It's not as if critics of the government are being abducted off the street and never seen again.
On second thoughts, make that four points:
4. Juliet Moses is prepared to stand up and be identified, even at the risk of receiving threatening phone calls. Why can't you do the same?

Hilary Taylor said...

I've paid attention to Karen Chhour from her maiden speech...her surname interested me amongst other things. I admire her & McKee, whom I noticed speaking articulately on radio after the mosque massacre over the gun thing. Both are routinely 'dissed' for their failure to toe the Maori cabal's line...& more power to them. They're both realists with pleasing manners and grounded politics.
Everyone else's comments, yep, that's what it is.
Thanks Karl...keeping us sane since forever.

hesiod said...

Hi Karl. Would appreciate it if you would get in touch with me

Karl du Fresne said...

I'd be happy to, but I don't know who you are.