The older you get, the more you realise life is completely unpredictable. Who could have imagined that in 2016, Australia would be falling out of love with freedom of speech? A profound affection that goes back centuries is rapidly turning into a dangerous indifference, even contempt. This is something that goes way beyond particular debates about things like section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. Freedom of speech is less a specific right than the building block that grounds most of Western liberty. Without it, there is no freedom of opinion. There is no right to a political view. There is no freedom of religion. Rights to assemble or protest are meaningless if you must remain muzzled while exercising them.


This understanding has been the bedrock of the post-Enlightenment Western approach to liberty of speech. No matter how repulsive you and your views may be, you can say, though not do, as you like. There is a fundamental value choice here. It holds there ultimately is more danger in the precedent set by silencing even the most uncongenial than in allowing them to speak publicly and to be refuted publicly as the rogues and nutters they are. Of course, there always have been exceptions. You cannot yell “Fire!” in a darkened cinema. You can defame someone but, if you do, you will pay. Progressively, though, through the years limitations on freedom of speech mercifully have become narrower and narrower.


With one understandable proviso. The genocides of World War II made us deeply fearful of speech so hateful that it might incite similar results. This so-called “hate speech” we were prepared to criminalise, but only in very confined circumstances. The problem we now face is not so much that prohibition of hate speech is itself impermissible. It is the extraordinary willingness of some groups in the community infinitely to expand that concept. The danger is that hate speech no longer denotes speech that provokes hatred. To many, it now simply involves speech that I personally hate. What this means in practice is that many of us are prepared to tolerate only the expression of views that we ourselves hold. The time-honoured freedom of speech has become the right to agree.


The consequence is that many now pay only lip service to freedom of speech. In reality, they are prepared to close down any discussion they regard as inappropriate or offensive. What is really frightening here is the emerging fault line between topics that may be freely discussed and those that may not be mentioned. The bottom line is that some forms of speech are freer than others. So arguments in support of climate change, same-sex marriage or defending Islam against imputations of cultural links with terrorism are just fine. The point here is not whether these arguments are right or wrong, but that they are permissible. Correspondingly, there is a whole series of other arguments, again right or wrong, that are off limits: any doubting of climate change; opposition to same-sex marriage; linking elements of Islam and jihad.


There are clear patterns that emerge. Generally, arguments that are “progressive” are utterable. Those that are politically or socially conservative or, worst of all Christian, are in much more trouble. These tendencies are going to be particularly tricky if the plebiscite over same-sex marriage is ever held, and the ongoing debate around it.  For principled opponents of same-sex marriage who have nothing but respect for same-sex couples, there is a real danger that they and their views will become entangled with groups that genuinely hate people in such relationships. But there also are real dangers for supporters of same-sex marriage. If they refuse to accept the existence of a contrary view and try to deny its expression, we are in for an orgy of rancour.


I had a grim lesson from a young friend on this point. Having determined we disagreed in principle on same-sex marriage, I observed that, naturally, she would concede the right of religious groups respectfully to put their view on marriage, during the plebiscite (if held) and even afterwards in the event that it was carried. She eyed me coolly and said: of course, provided those views were “appropriate”. That is the point of believing in freedom of speech. It protects the right to say things that others consider appropriate, and inappropriate.


Source: by Greg Craven Vice Chancellor Australian Catholic University

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