Monday, November 18, 2013

The business of free speech

Rape apologists do nothing to inform and educate the public so I applaud the stand made by many to get those mouths metaphorically taped. Besides, they’ve all had their damaging turns for far too long. And we need to do more taping of mouths.

(Marama Davidson)

For a start, Voltaire never actually said ‘I do not agree with what you have to say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it.’ It was an English writer at the beginning of the last century, presuming to capture the thought of that 150 years-dead philosopher. What’s also lost to the people who abuse the phrase, is that it’s supposed to have referred – had he actually said it, that is – to an act of violent censorship, namely the state-ordered burning of a treatise on natural science by one of Voltaire’s contemporaries.

The Voltaire non-quote has been thrown at me quite a bit this past week, by people who seem about as unlikely to self-immolate as he was. And the notion of free speech, in its liberal, post-Enlightenment understanding, has been brought up by a number of commentators to lament the fate suffered by Willie Jackson and John Tamihere following their disgraceful treatment of a young female guest who dared to challenge the conduct of rapists. Bryce Edwards gave these great prominence on his Friday round-up of the ‘30 things to read for the week’, possibly feeling that it wasn’t up to him – a mere political scientist – to critique the claims of the likes of Chris Trotter, Mark Blackham and Karl du Fresne concerning what freedom of speech actually means.

And so it’s up to me – an English graduate – to state the bloody obvious.

Freedom of speech isn’t freedom from the consequences of speech. Freedom of speech is not a protection against people telling you that your views are hateful. Freedom of speech doesn’t oblige other people or organizations to support you in your privileged position as a broadcaster, or journalist, or blogger. Freedom of speech isn’t a guarantee of permanent employment when the thing you are selling is your opinion (well put, Keith), nor does freedom of speech compel the public to buy said opinion from you.

Freedom of speech is the right not to be persecuted for your beliefs: not to suffer state harassment or censorship, or be fired from a position with which your beliefs do not interfere.

Oh, and another thing, Karl du Fresne: mobs actually lynch people. They don’t force them to take an early Christmas break on full pay.

Karl du Fresne thinks that rape culture is due to our society being ‘drenched with sex’, because in spite of being – if I had to guess from his writings – roughly one thousand years old, he appears convinced that rape didn’t happen, or happened less, in the old days.

Trotter’s first argument, in an astonishing (for him) foray into cultural relativism, features the deeply offensive suggestion that Jackson and Tamihere are culturally predisposed to hold retrograde views concerning sex and consent. Then, challenged by Martyn Bradbury (the debates between these two always have a curious Escherian quality, whereby each is somehow wronger than the other), he launches into a turgid 1,000-worder, a veritable tower of bullshit mobilising the Cathars, Arnald-Amalric, the fire-bombing of Dresden and Stalin’s purges to prove that we were too darn mean to his radio host friends.

The more prosaic truth is that sponsor boycotts, far from leading directly to gulags and the mass murder of heretics, are a very limited tool that is available to us in the circumstances – likely to be most rare – when events call for it, and most specifically when the issue that is being campaigned around relates to the consumption of hate speech. One of the key aspects that made the Amy interview stand out to the extent that it did is that it was packaged as a podcast, so that the people who didn’t listen to the show would be able to access it, and was even included that evening in promos for the show scheduled for the next day (on this point, and the blame that pertains to RadioLive, see Matt McCarten’s column). So, far from being something that just happened in the natural course of strong opinions being voiced, and that the station regretted, the segment immediately became a product for sale. It is only at that point that it made sense to attempt to disrupt the commercial side of the arrangement, even if it meant enlisting the help of a bunch of PR departments.

There is a broader issue, here, which also happens to be the flip-side of the freedom of speech argument: namely, that the chain of events that led to the Willie & JT show coming off the air highlighted the mechanisms whereby such shows – and the dispiritingly narrow range of views that they promote – get on the air in the first place. Our information industry is shaped by New Right ideas that are anathema to public service broadcasting. Everyone but Maori Television and Radio New Zealand exists to make a profit, and even the kinds of shows that public funding body NZ On Air was set up to help create often cannot be shown simply because commercial broadcasters – both state and private – refuse to screen them, on the grounds that they are not profitable enough.

This is the waste land that neoliberalism built. And it’s in this waste land that free-speech enthusiasts like Karl du Fresne fulminate every other day against left-wing bias on RNZ. Not content with having destroyed the very possibility of critical perspectives in the vast majority of our media, the free market’s little helpers go after the very few spaces that maintain a (very limited) degree of independence from its imperatives.

Chris Trotter, for his part, is worried about the precedent. What if the Right is going to use these methods against progressive left-wing commentators? Except Danyl is right: there are none of those. Instead, ‘we're doomed to be hectored and talked down to by droves of reactionary bewildered old men’. This is what strict competition in the marketplace of ideas has got us. And this is the state of mainstream free speech in New Zealand: under the near-total control of private corporate interest. But if just once you dare interfere with this mechanism for the delivery of conservative opinion, expect a backlash in the name of liberty and the souls of those slain Cathar children.

All the pictures are from Wellington pavements the day after Saturday's march against rape culture.


so you tell me said...

utter brilliance, clear, precise, weighty with a full round tone I'd like to practice myself. Thank you.

Ben Wilson said...

Danyl must have been tapped out by the time it got to the long thread on his own blog about this. I got pretty tired of it in the end, and it's good to hear "we're doomed to be hectored and talked down to by droves of reactionary bewildered old men" is now 2 days old. Great expression.

And good summary Gio. I'd say more but I'm over this topic. Just like to note that when you commented that there was a mark on the sea wall showing how high the surge against rape apologism got, so there is always going to be the low water mark soon after, the barnacle encrusted slimy pools that lie below.

goodgravey said...

Gio, I seriously wish I had any words to express my gratitude and admiration for this post.

One thing I find really weird is that people talk about "free speech" and yet expect US to remain silent. They think freedom only applies when it suits them.

In an online argument (probably also about rape culture - it was quite a few years ago so I don't recall) I was actually told (all I remember is the non-blah bits) "You can't censor me blah blah blah freedom of speech blah blah so you should just shut up and go away". Dude, you're missing something fairly obvious there. And funny how often these "free speech" proponents are men, doncha think?

Thank you again.

kidd Whanau said...

Awesome. The chaps at mediawatch on National radio should have a read.

Edward said...

Excellent post Gio! You've summed it up perfectly. The warped logic that free speech equals zero consequences for hate speech further victimises the victims. The left commentators you mention abandon female victims of sexual abuse to the alter of their ideals, while the conservatives do as they always do: excuse it or call on a golden age uncorrupted by social progress.

Peter Bradburn said...

Thank you, also for those who are not here, yet remembered.

Giovanni Tiso said...

I'm using structural irony and deleting comments that are too lazy and/or dense to advance the cause of civilisation. Meanwhile, thank you, everyone who isn't Ross.

Giovanni Tiso said...

"Thank you, also for those who are not here, yet remembered."

Oh, Peter. Thank you so much.

George D said...

Thank you.

Rape apology is hate speech. It attacks those in less powerful positions, denies the violence enacted against them, and when it does acknowledge that violence it declares that its victims are the ones to blame.

Speech - including posting to the walls of Facebook - is an act, as you have said elsewhere. And acts have consequences. It is those consequences which are being discussed, and that makes some quite uncomfortable.

Brett Davidson said...

Terrific post, as so many have said - and good quote from Danyl. Looking at the thumbnails of the columnists in T' Herald, I thought I was looking at the inmates of a rather specialised retirement village for white men who wear unconvincing wigs.

Hell may be other people, and it has many circles. In one of them, Bradbury and Trotter run endlessly, cheered on by Karl du Fresne. The ennui must be terrible.

I can imagine a new line of woe too: "Oh God, won't someone think of the Cathar children?!"

Sarah Jane Barnett said...

Wonderful. Loved your use of 'turgid.'

Rob Stowell said...

Great post, Gio.
I'm still astonished those who wail about 'censorship' and the way public discourse has been impoverished by WJ and JT's removal from the airways manage to completely ignore the many fresh new voices that have been raised to discuss this hard topic- and the bloody rich and (fingers crossed) fruitful national conversation we may just start about rape culture in NZ and how to change it.
I guess it's much easier to complain about censorship. But it seems lazy and cowardly.

deepred said...

Whenever the Shock Doctrine elite sense they're cornered, they'll usually play the 'collapse of the West' card and retreat into their razor-wired comfort blankets. It was just the same with all the dirty laundry leaked by Julian Assange and Ed Snowden et al.

Wolfboy said...

This is a really good post.

My one gripe is that you've marked out commercial media vs. state/Maori media as the only possible game in town. As someone who works for Access Radio, I find that a bit irritating. We obviously don't have the market share of the giant media monoliths, but actually we get up to around 10% (possibly more in some areas) and provide a voice for a huge range of groups and views outside of mainstream media, and there are 12 of us around the country.

You can find out more at

Giovanni Tiso said...

Good point. You could say the same of blogs, which, absent reliable figures, I'm going to guess might account for a similar share of attention. The problem is that mainstream still makes up the remaining 90%.

Wolfboy said...

Yeah - that's true. And equally irritating, just on the basis of the sheer direness of much of the content they provide...

Lisa said...

Quite right. Willy and JT were free, are still free, in fact, to say what they want. Listeners have been free to state how appalled they were at their comments. Advertisers have been equally free to decide they don't want to pay to sponsor that speech. I don't see where the complained about lack of freedom is.

Lensern said...

Oh come off it, 'consequences' is what a liberal mewls to cast their endorsement of repressive structures as some sort of passive-voice force of nature.

Frank Jackson said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
David Hall said...

I just thought it fairly obvious that freedom of speech is a principle that regulates the rights of citizens vis-a-vis the state. The state has no place telling people what not to say (except for those notorious exceptions like shouting-fire-in-crowded-theatre and highly egregious instances of hate speech). And part of the justification for minimal state regulation is that society can, should, and hopefully will solve its own problems, through counter-argument, social sanctions, behavioural preferences, or whatever. This is surely the best (the most democratic, the most enduring) of all possible responses.

It seems obvious that this could have played out in all sorts of ways. There was a negative public reaction, but the specifics of the fallout were largely determined by those under scrutiny. Them's politics in our (imperfect) democracy and they played those politics poorly. They played and they lost.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Sorry, Frank, I really cannot have that link posted here without knowing the full story. This is not the right forum in which to make such accusations whilst also naming the accused and in the presence of a court order. I am not able to verify your story.