The French libertarian Voltaire thought weakness on both sides the motto of all quarrels. And who would argue with him!
A Victorian tribunal has found Catch the Fire Ministries guilty of inciting hatred by suggesting, amongst other things, Muslims encourage domestic violence, are demonic and bent on taking over the country. The Pentecostal church’s web headline – ‘Freedom of speech, GONE’ – was confirmed by Jim Wallace, Chairman of Australian Christian Lobby, in The Age recently when he suggested we risk forcing ‘ourselves into a state of denial to avoid being arraigned under a bad law’.
Waleed Aly, of the Islamic Council of Victoria who initiated the legal action, tried to head-off such hype by writing in The Courier-Mail that free speech ‘is not, and never can be, absolute’. While superficially attractive, this is probably the more troublesome of the similarly flawed viewpoints.
Both men disavow freewill by contending we cannot say whatever we like. This denial is symbolic of the desperate condition we are hoping to overcome.
Society has always sought to discourage the expression of our inherent freedoms. Wishing to regulate language is understandable. But we shouldn’t mistake this with the more fundamental question of whether accompanying threats – from a bloke wanting to smack you in the mouth, right through to promised jail time – actually excise what is, ultimately, inalienable.
There are certainly consequences from speaking freely, but it cannot be ‘taken away’ – or even given.
Our judicial system is a clumsy procedure for publishing what is already preserved in time and space. It’s fluid and imperfect, while the simple yes-no answer it seeks, is not. Contention arises because there is no way to prove human intent – reasonable doubt is still doubtful. This wouldn’t be a drama if our legal institutions were about channelling varied opinions into a shared acceptance of the truth, rather than a forum for earthly judgements and retributions.
As I see it, there is only one way to change this: a heart-felt presumption that everyone is trying their best. The truth matters completely, yet it cannot be made whole and meaningful if any of those searching are prejudiced or mistrustful.
This presents a dilemma – there is no hurrying the truth. Coercion – however subtle or well intended – becomes counter-productive because the implied need undermines the innocent-until-proved-guilty principle. Harassment manifests the contradiction: ‘Why should I yield when you have compromised the process by inferring I’m unworthy of good faith?’
Having frustrated religion and the law for centuries, this conundrum now besets our political landscape. Were the kids really thrown overboard? What did the intelligence on Saddam actually say? Instead of being absolutely honest our PM arrests the process of discovering truth. He stops short, begrudging it as a testimonial to those refusing to assume the best of him and other battlers.
John Howard is like a boy who has stolen from mum’s purse. A divisible and hierarchal truth permits him to divert attention to the juveniles who dob him in. Emboldened, the hateful behaviour of others overshadows his own insecurities. Historic tragedy shunned, his fears are vented into a plausible pitch to a fretful community: disunity is a greater travesty than dishonestly.
While conditional truths and disingenuous politics are certainty unwanted, he-is-worse-than-me claims and counter-claims miss the point. Those demanding improvement must hark back to the dilemma. Arguing someone other than you must do better is no solution, as the obligation compromises the core pre-condition of having faith in others.
The ALP and various others can’t come at this. It shelters in a flaking comradeship, unable to cope with the burgeoning insight that attempting to manhandle individual freedom in the name of the socialist superlative is a losing formula. A sense of community must be arrived at freely by each of us. It cannot be captured or maintained, even according to the great Australian tradition of backing the underdog. Andrew West’s suggestion of progressive populism (New Matilda, 8 December) therefore offers no sustainable fix, as it draws on difference and promotes the same mistaken I-am-with-the-major-and-must-therefore-be-right belief that so infuriates those who despise John Howard.
The leader we crave offers a vision that affirms there is nothing more vital than the search for truth and freedom – albeit it is an eternal assignment in pursuit of the ethereal. They inspire through an enduring consciousness – words and deeds – that politicians, judges and priests can’t compel us to be truthful or speak reasonably of others. They guide our heads, but always toward the realisation that what’s truly needed must come from the heart.
A growing reliance on legal machinery as a recipe for a better society (or political party) exposes a lack of confidence that is already coming back to bite us. Mr Wallace was correct to suggest that the vilification ruling will not assist in overcoming ‘cults and aberrant world views’. Of course, he cannot see that Christianity suffers a similar plight. How can a community be unified through an unqualified openness if we are presumed sinners and adherents and declare ‘Jesus Christ is the only way to salvation?’
The absolute consensus needed to overcome conflict necessitates an assumption that we are all in this together. Religion cannot adequately address this universal struggle for meaning because it claims the remedy already lies in following their particular deity, saviour or scripture. Religious types seemingly never conclude that existing orthodoxy must be incomplete – for if this wasn’t the case, we would surely already have one ‘true’ faith.
If God exists and there is a higher purpose for humanity, this moment – as with all others – must subsist within a grander plan. Original sin, lying pollies, fundamentalism and political correctness would therefore be neither right nor wrong – just part of the scenery.
While believing such can be challenging, the evidence indicates this philosophy is now the only one capable of moving us forward, as it accommodates sufficient irony. Our religious and democratic institutions that have taken us this far cannot eclipse themselves. Heaven, liberty, equity or whatever you wish to call it, will remain unattainable while ever we credit leaders with a duty to legitimise such ideals on our behalf.
Australia hasn’t ‘lost’ its values. We are descending into the Western malaise anticipated (indeed precipitated) by Voltaire: a preference for arguing over the truth rather than being it.
It would seem a no-brainer from here. Either accept freedom as innate and the fundamental goodness of humanity, or fan the destructive conflict by renouncing them. The choice is ours, alone.
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