Freedom of speech is spoken about so freely and often, I sometimes daydream of a West in which many, myself included, were afflicted with laryngitis. If we just shut up about our freedom of expression for a minute, then we might be able to think about the nature of freedom itself. Perhaps we’d have something truly free to say. We might think beyond the recent reflex in The Guardian of Richard Flanagan, who rose to defend the entitlement of authors who speak often to speak once more. We might think beyond the invitations that racists receive to freely speak on TV, and think about racism, a denial of freedom, itself.
But, even this sort of thinking about freedom of speech presumes not only that is attainable by all comers, but that enough truly free speech will set all things to rights. If only we were free to speak, so many of us imagine, we would be truly free. This is the Flanagan view. This is also, say, the view of Tim Wilson, who calls the fight for free expression a “forgotten freedom”, even as he’s freely uttering it in speeches, in parliament and newspapers. At the root of this urging is the stubborn belief that speech cannot only be free, but can make us free.
If you think about it for a bit, it’s not dissimilar to the argument that “you can make it if you try”. The only thing getting in the way of your aspirations is you! Want a load of money? Well, you work hard. No matter that there are very few in the billionaire, or even millionaire, class who did not labour their way to wealth. No matter that the thing that creates wealth is wealth, which Thomas Piketty calls “capital”.
Were writers’ festivals and similar falsely intellectual celebrations of a middle-brow aesthetic ever a challenge to anyone but the poor publishers who had to sit through them and look interested in their authors?
But this faith, I reckon, is not just that of your Flanagan or your Wilson. It is one we share. Even those opposed to such views. Even those of us who can see the hypocrisy of those political conservatives who recast themselves as rebels fighting for the freedom to speak in a Stalinist prison led by humourless feminists etc believe that freedom of speech is a desirable, attainable and powerful thing.
And, of course, it is desirable. That it is attainable or potentially powerful in the world as it is currently organised is another matter entirely.
Freedom of speech is famously upheld in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Then again, freedom from hunger, torture and slavery are also in there, and very few use their freedom of speech to talk about those things at all. I guess we come over all Matthew 26: 11 when we lose 18 million of our fellows each year to poverty; we shrug and accept that there are those who will, you know, die from lack of water or an oversupply of Lockheed Martin’s best.
Still. We will fight to the death of all reason here in the West for our speech. We consider this if not liberalism’s finest achievement, then certainly the solution to most things.
I am invited to such events—well, I was before I started crapping on them as bourgeois reinforcement factories whose primary work is to flatter a knowledge class into believing its own hype.
The progressive gets a little further along in their understanding of freedom than, say, Flanagan. While Flanagan says that it is reprehensible to shut down debate at a writers’ festival—as though debate was ever genuinely desired at such events at all—a progressive will say that there are real, material constraints on the speech of certain identity groups. This is true. The progressive will also say that an active attempt to seek speakers from those identity groups is needed, and that this might mean the exclusion of voices that represent an older order.
Let’s not even begin with the topic of the Brisbane Writers’ Festival, an institution which engaged the authors Germaine Greer and Bob Carr before publicly “disinviting” them. As though it were a surprise that Greer’s book On Rape would cover the topic of rape or that Carr’s book on foreign and domestic policy would make some foreign and domestic policy prescriptions and critiques. And, let’s not even get into Flanagan, who seems to believe that writers’ festivals and similar falsely intellectual celebrations of a middle-brow aesthetic were ever a true challenge to anyone but the poor publishers who had to sit through them and look interested in their authors.
Let’s ask instead what a perfectly diverse writers’ festival could possibly achieve.
My guess is somewhere slightly north of fuck all.
This does not mean, goodness no, that I support the declaration of offensive, predictable or sour ideas. This does not mean that I oppose opposition to Greer—who does, perhaps, enjoy a little bit of a sales boost with every widely reported “no platform” action she receives. I acknowledge that Greer’s purported free speech may be freely met with protest. Same for every overpriced alt-right nutjob who pops over to Australia, a la Milo, when their audiences in North America dwindle.
It just means that I have begun to lose interest in this “who has the right to speak?” debate when it continues to presume by both its progressive and Wilson turns that eventually, new things can be said.
New people can say things to a large audience. New things, however, cannot be said. And they will not be said when there’s a conservative group arguing that the progressives are oppressing them with all their correct-line united front PC offend-no one language and progressives answer that what is needed is a privileging of certain voices.
To believe that a black or brown person is “free” when they are invited to writers’ festival is to overlook the things spoken about at these events. A black or a brown person is most often invited to talk about their oppression.
I mean, jeez. Yes. Of COURSE black and brown people are shut out of, ahem, “reputable” debate. But, when they are welcomed into these reputable and progressive places—say, like a Brisbane Writers Festival—they’d better do what’s expected of them by compassionate white arts administrators.
To believe that a black or brown person is “free” when they are invited to a middle-brow writers’ festival is to overlook the sorts of things spoken about at these events. The range of subjects upon which one may speak is vanishingly narrow in any case, but a black or a brown person is most often invited to talk about their oppression. Your white bloke gets to speak objectively about world systems for all he is worth. Your brown woman, like my comrade Yasmin Nair, is often charged with the responsibility of speaking only about herself, or the need for others “like” her to speak.
I am invited to such events—well, I was before I started crapping on them as bourgeois reinforcement factories whose primary work is to flatter a knowledge class into believing its own hype—and I am struck by the uniform and wholesome whiteness of their thinking. These days, directors do make noble efforts of inclusion for the sake of “progress”, but one so rarely hears anyone at all say anything shocking. This is just as true at so called alt-right or “classical liberal” events as it is in progressive institutions. Jordan Peterson may lay professional claim to be an “intellectual”, but his ideas are those that have been uttered for centuries, made more apparently complex and irrefutable by a bunch of neuroscience-lite and some evo-biology with a bit of psychology that stinks like Carl Jung’s dead bum crack.
If “inclusion” and a happy-clappy embrace by the purportedly intellectual community of arts administrators did not serve as a way to control populations, then Peter Dutton’s department of Home Affairs would not commission its use.
The idea about free speech we hear embedded in events like “Antidote” at Sydney Opera House is, although progressive, similarly old hat. For a true rejection of eurocentrism to occur, we must also throw off those Enlightenment principles that liberal order can simply be tweaked by ongoing acts of inclusion. Never have the people of the world seen such violence and enslavement—of course Jordan Peterson would not agree. Those 18 million who die each year of poverty are overwhelmingly black and brown.
In this era of progressive inclusion—which happens to coincide with neoliberal rule; a time of re-Enlightenment and a statement of faith in the very old European forms of liberal organisation—we see more poverty, more violence and more enslavement.
And, yes, racism of the old kind reconstitutes and justifies this vile way of things. But, perhaps, we could begin to consider that the impulses of our progressive intellectual events do the same.
If “inclusion” and a happy-clappy embrace by the purportedly intellectual community of arts administrators did not serve as a way to control populations, then Peter Dutton’s department of Home Affairs would not commission its use. Yes, Peter Dutton. A politician who, with one hand gives the finger to the “politically correct” and, with the other, hands money to an apparently progressive communications group like Breakthrough Media, to create “acceptable” voices, of the sort we go to writers’ festivals to hear.
If we want to change our speech, we must change our social conditions. Not just those at a writers’ festival.
An organisation founded in the UK to promote apparently independent views on social media is now in Australia. Its local Creative Director is a sunny and progressive presence on Twitter and its work, as reported in The Saturday Paper by Shakira Hussein and on SBS News, is to control the online speech of “influencer” Muslims. And, yes, I am aware that this sounds like some Cold War fantasy of a communist-themed sex fetishist, but, it’s not. Yassmin Abdel-Magied was among the many “influencers” mentioned in Hussein’s article who spoke publicly and, she believed, freely. In fact, her words were used by an organisation, Breakthrough Media, contracted by the Australian Department of Home Affairs to create propaganda suited to the state agenda.
The amusing, progressive and compassionate Gosford rector Rod Bower also had his “free speech” used by this—what do you call it—PR black ops business, and he wasn’t happy about it. Who would be? If freedom of speech is a right, then, surely, enslavement of one’s speech by a private or state institution without full or adequate disclosure is something Dutton ought to disavow. Even if we accept that “making good Muslims” isn’t such bad work—and I ruddy don’t accept that for a second—we, surely, cannot accept that these good Australian Muslims have no volition in the matter of their goodness, and not just be plastered up, without their consent, in the interests of a majority white and Christian sensibility.
Speech is not free. If it were, then the speech that we commonly hear would not just be of two primary sorts: progressives who just think we should all be nicer and conservatives who all think we’re being too jolly nice. If it were free, then there would not be such an obvious divide between those who support Flanagan’s argument about the right of those who already have rights and those who think they shouldn’t have them anymore.
Between these apparently opposite but ultimately unified views, there would be more than the pendulum of negation. There would be, perhaps, an understanding that all of us—all of us—have our speech shaped by our conditions, if we are permitted to speak at all.
If we want to change our speech, we must change our social conditions. Not just those at a writers’ festival or some onanistic event at the Opera House with the arrogance to believe that all the world needs is solutions, not diagnosis. The rights of everyone. Not those of us paid, enjoined or coerced into the provision of certain kinds of speech.
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