Who is really stifling free speech?

It is striking how many opinion pieces have been written in the past few years to defend our so threatened freedom of speech. Many politicians like John Howard fought throughout the 1990s to ‘lift the pall of censorship’ placed on ordinary Australians. He believed it was high time for people to be able to express themselves without being called ‘bigots’ or ‘racists’. Conversely, criticism of Howard was no longer understood as putting politicians under scrutiny; now it was ‘offensive’. As Andrew Markus noted in 1997, Howard willingly confused ‘censorship’ with the ‘lack of respect accorded to certain ideas’. To this day, traces of his vocabulary war remain within the Australian media.

What is interesting in today’s so-called battle for freedom of speech is that it does not come from minorities who are oppressed. It comes from white (mostly male) ‘radical’ conservatives. The question is: why has the conservative right so suddenly decided to defend freedom of speech? Of course, these writers and politicians would tell us, as Howard did, that it is because the left has imposed a political censorship and stifled debate. Indeed, everybody knows that the 70% of Australian newspapers owned by Rupert Murdoch has been unashamedly left-wing over the past decades, leaving little space to debate without an outright socialist bias. Clearly, a country in which part of the Labor Party has become proud to tag itself ‘right-wing’ is dominated by a left-wing censorious hegemony.

In fact, if the loudest defenders of freedom of speech today are mostly well-off white conservatives, it is precisely because being well-off white conservatives, their freedom of speech is guaranteed; and that should be enough to put a dent in their passionate defence of universal freedoms. Of course, this is not to say that conservatives cannot defend progressive ideas. However, it would be extremely naive to think that those who invoke their right to free speech to demonise minorities (Muslims, asylum seekers, Aborigines and so on) would allow the same minorities to have their voices heard. Does anyone really think that people have equal access to the news? Don’t editorial line, education, connections and populism and many other factors play an important part in what will be published in the mainstream press? Are such subjective elements not a more serious limit on freedom of speech and opinion? Of the opinion pieces vilifying minorities in the mainstream news devoid of facts, how many are actually written by those who are being directly attacked? The argument given by these defenders of free speech could hold if they did not have easy access to the news, something that their opponents or those they attack certainly do not. If asylum seekers, Muslims or Aborigines in all their variety had the same access to the news as these offended conservatives, the plea would be valid. But let’s be honest: it is striking that neo-racist opinion pieces find an easy way into mainstream news, while their debunking remains extremely hard to publish. And this is despite the abundance of facts showing clearly that there is no risk that Australia will be placed under Sharia law or that asylum seekers are the vanguard of an imminent invasion.

Access to the news in Australia and in most western countries remains extremely unequal and minorities still suffer from constant and harmful representations and generalisations. While a white man can be whatever he wants without being judged on his ethnic background, an Aboriginal person in the mainstream news is usually limited to the roles of football player, addict, powerless welfare recipient or worse. While a white Australian victim of abuse will be given great sympathy, an asylum seeker’s imprisonment and deportation will be portrayed as common sense and inevitable. If there was an ounce of honesty in the freedom of speech fighters, they would call for better representation of minorities in the news. Clearly, that is not their point.

In The Australian on 14 September, Canadian political commentator Mark Steyn lamented that freedom of speech was in jeopardy and that he had been put on trial for ‘flagrant Islamophobia’ following his extremely generalising and clearly neo-racist article published in Macleans. For Steyn, not only was our right to free speech threatened, but all our other rights could eventually be taken away. In fact, the Muslim ‘invasion’ would lead to what was akin to the genocide of the west. What sustains Steyn’s argument is that neo-racism has been central to the push for an exclusionary agenda since the 1980s. As opposed to crude biological racism, widely discarded after the Second World War and whose use remains political suicide, neo-racism is a lot harder to outright condemn, yet it is no less damaging to society, democracy and … freedom of speech. Neo-racism does not rely on biological superiority or inferiority, or even any form of hierarchy. Instead, it states the incompatibility of cultures and the necessity to keep such cultures apart. Cultures are equal in their inability to cohabitate; therefore the neo-racist can even appear tolerant. Of course, the use of neo-racism, like the use of common racism, is always to the benefit of the powerful.

Therefore, Steyn’s defence of freedom of speech is ludicrous. In his generalisations and stereotyped attacks, Steyn withdraws from the vastly moderate Muslim community exactly what he would like to save for himself: a voice.

First published on the Drum

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