The Price of Freedom


In the current rather hysterical climate, the first thing I need to do before I even begin to state my case is make clear what this article is not about.

The case I am about to make in favour of free speech is not about Islam, Christianity, Zoroastriansm, Jainism (a religion I’ve always had a soft spot for), Scientology, Hinduism, Buddhism or any other set of beliefs. It is not about anti-Semitism, sexism, racism or classism. It is not even, in essence, about the Danish cartoon kerfuffle, although that is one of the triggers for putting pen to paper. It is not, in fact, about my personal beliefs about anything, except the stated subject: free speech.

The freedom for people to say more or less what they want, particularly when they present a personal opinion, seems to me to be one of the most basic and valuable rights there is.

Of course, I am not a complete free speech fanatic; I do put some provisos on it. Slander and libel in the public domain are actionable, as they should be, and incitement to violence is also unacceptable. The publication of material that was created by actually harming others child pornography springs to mind is, and should remain, illegal. People under 18 do need to be protected as much as possible in the internet age. But apart from these exceptions, I believe adults should be able to choose to see and read what they want to, and they should also be able to say, write and create what they want to.

Thanks to Bill Leak.

Unfortunately, many people don’t have the same good taste, common sense and understanding of the boundaries of decency as you and I and the problem with freedoms is that they apply equally to that unreasonable mob. The Right-wingers, the shock jocks, the pornographers, the advertisers (of whom I am occasionally one), the creators of South Park, the cartoonists, the Holocaust deniers, the White supremacists and the turgid, long-winded terminal bores all get to put their two cents worth in too.

And thank God (whichever one you prefer) for that, I say.

I detest Holocaust denier David Irving and his recently ‘recanted’ opinions, but I think that Amnesty International should explain why they are not protesting his current incarceration in Austria. Irving is, after all, in jail because he expressed unorthodox opinions, something we in the West applaud when they are opinions we agree with, but not the other way around. There is a glaring double standard here.

David Irving’s flawed history is not urging people to commit violence; in fact, his sin is to deny the violence occurred. This may be nonsense; it may even be excruciatingly painful to Holocaust survivors and their relatives. Worse, it may give comfort to those who would do harm to Jewish people if they could. But his writings remain just that: words.

In response to those words we have every right to protest, to argue, to boo, to fulminate, to ridicule, scorn and ignore (the most potent weapon, perhaps, and the least used). But if we support our own right to free speech, we must be consistent, and support his. Author Peter Goldsworthy said in an interview in the Australian that he would support Hitler’s right to publish Mein Kampf, but not his right to put his views into practice, and I agree with him.

I absolutely support the right of Muslims offended by the Danish cartoons to demonstrate, protest, shake their fists, chant anti-Western slogans and to boycott Danish goods and services. It is everyone’s right to choose what they will or will not buy. But I do not support their right to threaten, kill, bomb or intimidate. I don’t care how legitimate their grievance or how deep their feelings of offence we must not allow anyone to be bullied into silence.

Yes, the publication of the cartoons was deliberately provocative. But being provocative is important. If we are afraid to provoke, to challenge, to say things that are unorthodox, revolutionary, heretical and outrageous, we are all diminished. And it is not possible to be provocative tastefully or inoffensively. I do not personally like South Park, but I support its right to portray a menstruating Madonna (not the pop star).

But what about racial vilification words of hate intended to hurt and wound, even if only psychically? The trouble with banning any kind of speech is that it creates an illusory universe. Banning people from voicing their feelings of hate doesn’t make those feelings go away, it merely forces them underground.

By way of illustration: I have long felt that many parents, particularly of teenagers, enjoy an illusory relationship with their children. They create a situation where it is clear they do not want to know what their children are really up to, so the kids pretend to be the child their parents want them to be, and lie. To my mind, this is very risky parenting. Better to know the truth and have a real and honest if scary relationship with your children, than a nice, cosy, pretend one.

So it is, I believe, with the undercurrents of prejudice and hatred that flow through every society. Better to know about them and dispute them openly, than comfortably delude ourselves that because we do not allow them to be heard, they are not there.

And even if we settle for a kind of limited free speech (if such a thing is possible), in the name of decency, courtesy and consideration, when we remove the rude, the belligerent, the angry, the offensive and the outrageous what we call the negatives we don’t get more positives; we get bland. The soothing, inoffensive tones of the corporation and the convoluted, legalistic language of bureaucracy are living examples of what happens when all possibility of offence has been systematically excised from any communication, usually by a committee.

Most terrifying of all, who gets to decide what is acceptable and what is not; what is funny and what is not? Another committee? Saints preserve us.

If we want a rich and vibrant society, a soup with lots of spice and substance and bite, we must accept the price it exacts. We won’t like all the flavours and ingredients, some of them will get right up our noses and make us very, very nervous. But if we want to live a real life, in a real society, we must all be prepared to be regularly and gloriously offended.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.