Two recent events started me thinking about the concept of “freedom of speech” in Australia: the recent public persecution of Sydney radio presenter Alan Jones (Jones was investigated by the Australian Communications Media Authority for making “disparaging comments” about Prime Minister Julia Gillard, Greens Senator Bob Brown and Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore, but was thankfully let off the hook) and the wonderful new ABC documentary “Drunk, Dumb and Racist” (a show where Daily Telegraph reporter Joe Hildebrand challenges the Indian perception of Australians as dumb, drunk and bigoted by bringing four Indians to Australia to expose them to a wider sample). Now, “Drunk, Dumb and Racist” is an admirable and fascinating endeavour to test and change Indian public perception, however, the first episode was unfortunately marred by an Australian who was very confused, very loud, and very anti Muslim. This led to an on air debate: Hildebrand and his guests discussed whether people should be allowed to be so vocal and so inflammatory, especially when a minority (read: religious) group is concerned. The four Indians came down on the side of censorship of such inflammatory speech, and, unfortunately, as with the Alan Jones situation a few weeks ago, many Australians appear to agree. In both cases the Twitter and the Blogosphere came alive with people outraged that someone could “get away” with such vile, intransigent, hateful, and otherwise disapproved of speech. But, I think people are missing the point. This is exactly the kind of speech that needs to be protected.
For example, if I stood on the street corner telling everyone I met how much I appreciated them and their contributions to society; then sat down and wrote congenial reviews of every ideology, politician, political party, government agency, government project, business, business person, political party, activist group, religious group, and even religion itself; and completed my day lavishing praise and appreciation on everyone and everything, it is unlikely the targets of my words would take umbrage. They would not complain. They would not seek to silence me. They would not seek legislation or policy to ensure that I stopped or that others do not follow my example. Frankly, this kind of speech needs absolutely no protection Why? Because the targets of my speech would agree with me. They would like what I have to say. But, this is not an honest discussion. This is not an honest representation of reality. The simple fact is, many (if not most) of these examples deserve criticism and must be publicly scrutinised. But how can that scrutiny take place if people fear retribution or are otherwise unable to/are prohibited from, broaching the issue? If the subject of conversation, the manner of conversation, and the target of conversation can be used as angles for censorship or prohibition, how can honest, open discussion not be impinged?
But there is another problem. When the government starts to regulate speech because it hurts an ethnic, religious, political or other minority group, where does it end? Virtually any scrutiny, criticism or rebuke hurts someone. And this goes double for politicians. How would giving the politicians the ability to curb speech impact the vital relationship between politics, the media and democracy? The moment politicians have control over speech, they will naturally have yet more leverage over what they perceive to be a hostile media. The vital watchdog that does so much for our democracy will become a toothless, spineless old cur. This is precisely why many countries enshrined the freedom of speech to begin with.
Now, I don’t agree with either the words Alan Jones used or the sentiment behind them. In fact, I rarely agree or like anything he says. But, I do not “wish” him off the air, nor do I campaign to get him sanitized. In fact, I have a simple fix for Alan Jones: I simply don’t listen to him. Likewise, I do not agree with the loud and obnoxious Australian on “Drunk, Dumb and Racist”, and I appreciate neither his words, his sentiment, or his actions. But, again, I have a simple fix: I don’t hang out with people like that, and, when one is making a ridiculous tirade on TV, I change the channel or mute the sound. I neither agree nor like much of what these two men say (or even what they stand for), but, I could not endure living in a country in which they are not free to express themselves, a country in which their side of the debate (however unpleasant it may be), is censored or otherwise restricted. I think the American comedian Bill Maher put it best a few months ago when he famously asked in a New York Times op-ed; “when did we get it in our heads that we have the right to never hear anything we don’t like?” The answer is there is no right not to be offended. If we want to live in a free society, a prosperous society, a democracy, we must have free debate and free inquiry. This is discordant with the idea of censoring speech, the idea of subjecting discourse to the possibility of hurt feelings. We must protect speech. And, since no one would ever consider censoring “nice” speech, it is exactly “vile” speech that must be protected.