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.