Speaking Truth to Power

For Free Speech Week, 18 – 24 October 2021

“Will the man in the street ever feel that freedom of the mind is as important and as much in need of being defended as his daily bread?” – George Orwell.

Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash

You may recall the public outrage earlier this year: Dr Seuss was being banned! Fox News took up the cause, bemoaning ‘cancel culture‘.This was ‘political correctness‘ gone mad! ‘Cancel culture’ is obviously toxic!

Except in reality, there was no such ban. The publisher was effectively issuing a ‘product recall’ over six titles that were deemed to contain ‘stereotypes of a clearly racist nature’. The practice of reviewing or updating older works to conform to newer social understandings is not a new one, with targets ranging from Grimm’s Fairy Tales and other fairy tales, to the works of Enid Blyton, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Mary Poppins, Huck Finn, Tintin and, most recently, various Walt Disney films and Mr Potato Head. Social and literary evolution is natural – I suspect that episodes of both Benny Hill and Hey Hey It’s Saturday would be deemed unwatchable today.

On a similar note of those bewailing social change, I saw similar protests in science fiction communities when privileged heterosexual white males began to assert their ‘victimhood’ because Doctor Who had become a woman, and because Star Trek had finally begun to portray starship crews with a healthier proportion of gender, sexuality and cultural diversity. The lack of depth and critical thinking in these arguments left me feeling somewhat speechless (another form of cancel culture?) Part of the excitement of science fiction in particular, and within much related popular culture, is surely its ability to positively and empathically represent ‘the other’ and to thereby challenge us all. Why would anyone find that threatening? Bring on Jane Bond, I say, and make her a lesbian demonstrating the correct way for 007 to treat women with respect. Or replace Captain America with Captain China, make Superman an African American fighting racism, or bring the Australian detective Boney back to television using an actual Blak Aussie actor instead of someone in physical or metaphoric blackface.

Challenging our traditional perspectives and behaviours, and making us feel uncomfortable about entrenched privilege, is surely a good thing – progress relies upon change, and we must change our minds before we can change our world. Let Captain Jane T Kirk lead the next generation of TV astronauts boldly going where no woman has gone before.

Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay

Hypocrite, Cancel Thyself!

“Freedom of the press is limited to those who own one.” ― A.J. Liebling

Some years ago – in the days when the Internet was not yet available in most homes or via mobile phones, and access was most commonly available only via an Internet Café or public library – a new censorship law was implemented to prevent morally objectionable material being available on the ‘Net. Websites and search engines were mandated to sanitise their visible content.

At that time, a friend of mine visited a library, and for an experiment, she tried to access a number of websites:

BREAST CANCER WEBSITE? Blocked.
SAFE SEX MATERIAL? Blocked.
DOMESTIC VIOLENCE ADVICE? Blocked.
THE KU KLUX KLAN? Not blocked. ​

In this spirit, it is ironic that what detractors nowadays call ‘cancel culture’ comprises censorship and oppression which has long been used by conservatives to actually stifle progressive thought and action, from abolition to trans rights.

Meanwhile, conservative Christians in Victoria bewail new laws which prevent them from conducting conversion therapy, a fraudulent religious practice that claims to ‘cure’ LGBT people under the pretense of religious free speech. Perhaps not surprisingly, such arguments do not wash with me: I lost my faith some thirty years ago after being ‘cancelled’ by my Christian friends when their conversion therapy naturally failed to ‘cure’ me. Religion has been used to ban a variety of books ranging from Harry Potter to the Bible itself. Christians have even called for the banning of drag story time readings in public libraries, and Pride Marches. They also call for Religious Freedom Laws that grant special rights to religious elites while ‘cancelling’ Equal Opportunity protections for others.

Duncan Fine highlights the irony of conservatives complaining about cancel culture when they are actually responsible for so much of it:

Just ask women who were not able to vote, be educated, get a safe abortion or work after marriage. Or members of the gay community whose love lives were subject to the criminal law. Indigenous Australians still feel the sting of cancellation…

Even today, cancelling the voices of oppressed peoples such as women does not necessarily rely on overt misogyny or hatred – sometimes all it takes is overlooking their entrenched disadvantage.

And on the issue of free speech, I was blocked from Scott Morrison’s Facebook page some years ago after I asked a question about refugees. I was ‘cancelled’ by the same Christian who plays the martyr card about Christians having their beliefs mocked – whereas I say all that ideas and beliefs are open slather for challenge, but loving thy neighbour should be sacrosanct.

I am sharing the Free Speech Love badge to show my support of freedom of expression. Learn more at www.freespeechweek.org

Human Rights and Freedom of Speech

“The human voice is the most beautiful instrument of all,
but it is the most difficult to play.” – Richard Strauss.

In the only western nation that lacks a Human Rights Bill or similar framework, Australians often display a lack of understanding about human rights as clarified under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and other modern international definitions. Article 30 of the UDHR specifies that human rights cannot be exercised in ways that destroy the rights of others. This aligns with our existing restrictions upon free speech by laws proscribing actions related to deception, blackmail, harassment, dishonesty, racism, scamming, plagiarism, perjury, sexism, libel, slander, defamation, homophobia, privacy, secrecy, national security, incitement, hate speech and bullying. We need to negotiate these things every time we open out mouths. So while some people insist upon free speech, they erroneously think that means they can say anything they like without regard to consequences.

The other common misconception is that because everyone is entitled to an opinion, that all opinions are equal – but they are not. Opinions based upon evidence and expertise are better than those based upon ignorance or misinformation. Modern public discourse is full of people promoting their presumed expertise on topics about which they are unqualified to speak: anti vaxxers, anti maskers, flat earthers, science denialists, free speechers who claim the right to say anything they like without fear of consequence, cis-gendered trans exclusionary feminists who deny equality for trans women, and men’s rights advocates who complain about TERFS and other feminists in much the same way that white supremacists used to complain about minority civil rights, etc.

Ultimately, free speech is like any other right – it has limits, and it must be balanced with responsibilities in a pluralist society. And like other human rights that are predicated upon freedom of choice – such as religion – they can change and evolve as our understandings and knowledge change. Just as we have the right to change our religious beliefs, we also have the right to change our speech when our understandings and knowledge grow beyond our previous perspectives: when we become aware, for example, of how language can be used to hurt and discriminate against others, and become a weapon to entrench privilege instead of enact equality.

Our wonderful human faculty of speech – more extensive and nuanced (as far as we are aware) than that of any other species – should surely be used to help contribute to human evolution: build up and nurture the positive, criticise and redress the corrupt and backward, but always in a way that is affirming and progressive. Human values such as compassion and community are best enhanced through reason and resolve – and a kind word cultivates better fruit than does antagonism.

“Sticks and stones may break my bones
But words shall never hurt me.”

The old ‘sticks and stones’ children’s song undoubtedly originated as an attempt to teach resilience in the face of bullying, but it is inadequate for today’s society, after all: words really can hurt. In balancing our human rights and responsibilities, we need the wisdom to judge what is helpful and what is harmful – and act accordingly, learning from our mistakes along the way.

So I say bring on change, bring on social evolution and progress. I find the idea exciting that Bruce Lee movies are now dubbed into an indigenous Australian language, even while we continue to contemplate the nuances of adopting new terminology to show respect for indigenous peoples or gender diverse people, or when we celebrate diversity by adding more letters to the LGBTQIA+ alphabet.

But let us also defer to genuinely free speech that challenges, dissects and overturns our previously treasured misconceptions and sacred cows; refines theories and opinions in the crucible of public opinion; advances new ideas and progress; allows people the freedom to propose or believe anything they like – right or wrong – while providing opportunities for debating and researching and learning; and shows positive respect for others and celebrates diversity while also protecting the sensitivities and vulnerabilities of those who traditionally face disadvantage and discrimination.

Let our free speech not be hate speech; but let it be so much more: let it be love speech – love of life, love of truth, love of people, and love of knowledge. May our thoughts, words and deeds all make a positive difference to the world for our having been here.

Ultimately, what is often disparagingly called ‘censorship’ is what I would call ‘basic human decency’ because it involves moderating our words to make allowance for the sensitivities of others. It does not mean we cannot say what we think, but simply say it kindly and cleverly and tenderly. Empathy is needed when we speak in order to protect and nurture those who are powerless, bullied or oppressed, and only people who are privileged and/or insensitive would appear likely to protest against protecting our most vulnerable. For all the elitist and one-sided protests from conservatives about cancel culture and being woke, it seems to me that is is better to be woke than asleep.

© 2021 Geoff Allshorn

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