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Don’t go looking for free speech at a writers’ festival

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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19 responses to “Don’t go looking for free speech at a writers’ festival

  1. I don’t have the great education, intellect or reading background of most of you, but the way I understand Helen’s piece, is that the CARING minority is shifting towards the centre – The UNCARING majority want to be SEEN as closer to the centre (whilst continuing to be evil) and debate – well, that’s all it will ever amount to – Hollow Words – modified, constricted and washed-out by the Powerful. If that’s correct (as I read it) Helen paints a scary picture. Hard to run anywhere – and fight for anything – on slippery ground ! Don Moxham, Sippy Downs, QLD.

  2. I got you point precisely, Helen. Writers’ Festivals serve but two purposes: Publicity for various writers’ latest works, coupled with a heavy dose of pseudo-intellectual clap-trap from their publishers. Fair enough. I suppose, but the clinchers for me is the audience rationale – they’re simply “star fucking”,

    James Gillard
    At Lausanne, Switzerland

  3. Sorry, while I almost always appreciate a good rant, I’m not really sure what the point of this one was … other than as a put-down of writers’ festivals … and I’ve only been tempted to attend just the one of those and primarily as a marketing platform … as places where supposedly PC people espouse marginally non-PC views.

    That may be true, but underlining this view does bother me as there are already lots of half-brained talking heads like Milo or jargon-ridden sophists like Jordan Peterson travelling on that bandwagon. Of course, I may have misunderstood and excuse myself for that, given sentences such as : ..”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. ” Perhaps my confusion comes from a typo (a dropped “n”). But I tend to lose the drift of the argument when I’m trying to work out what sentences actually mean.

    Indeed, I agree that there is a well-known link between language and social conditions and it is probably worth mentioning. However, I was hoping for something a little more specific or a solution or plan of action.

    So let me perhaps suggest one – and it may not be much of a plan, but it’s something. Perhaps the progressives could focus on what the far right has been exploiting to foster hate and division for the last few decades, that is, its supposed “think tanks” etc.. But instead, why not develop progressive-leaning ” think tanks” that also exploit all the tools of neuro-marketing and opinion-influencing but to foster more progressive ideas and beliefs in society, and overturn the rabid hatred and distrust of “greens” and “bleeding hearts liberals” that seems to have become a big part of modern society. It might work. What’s the alternative.

  4. I read all the comments about your piece expecting them to be mostly positive, only to find that they’re (so far) uniformly negative.

    If I were to comment on the content of the piece, I would actually be quite positive, despite having never attended one myself because of my very strong belief that they’re a wank-fest for a certain type of person with whom I have little in common, which I think is not far off what you are saying.

    But I will take this opportunity to ask a favour. Would it be possible for you, just once, to write about something you like? I can’t remember you ever writing any such thing, but even assuming you have done so once or twice in your writing career, I think we, your readers, who by and large would like to like you, are due another. I don’t care what it’s about, whether deep-fried Mars bars or Tristan and Isolde at Bayreuth or the day Milo Y slipped on a banana skin and bruised his coccyx. But something you really like, not just say you like in a bitterly ironic tone. Just so we can see another side,

    It might be fun.

  5. Taking power out of men’s hands wouldn’t change anything about the world. The idea is to destroy that notion of power – Simone de Beauvoir

  6. What rubbish Helen!
    If you were at the Byron Writers Festival last weekend you would have seen that the poet, Lemn Sissay, was one of the headliners and his impassioned reading of his poetry (along with his views on child protection) brought the crowd to their feet.

    Add to this sessions with Warren Mundine, Sunil Badami, Anita Heiss, Delta Kay, Allan Clarke, Future D Fidel and New Zealand writers like Selina Tusitala Marsh and you would have witnessed plenty of diversity and the willingness to listen to many varied views.
    Perhaps you need to get out more.

  7. Hey, Helen, how’s about you organise an event along the lines you advocate? You’ve got the knowledge. You’ve got the contacts. I’m not being facetious. We need an antidote to what’s going on. Maybe you can make it happen?

    1. Josephine, this idea has possibilities.

      Helen could invite all the writers she regards as cultural or economic ‘class enemies’, give them a day or two to expound their stories in a blossoming of a hundred flowers; then on the third day have them all detained and herded into the Crikey re-education camp for intensive self-criticism and organic herb growing (behind Razerwire of course).

  8. What a load of over generalising tosh.

    I did enjoy the swipes you took at the “knowledge”/’ pretentious artiste class (i.e hipsters)- but then again I’ve always taken you for a member of said group.

    Writers festivals should be about writing and writers. Simple as that. Why does everything vaguely artistic need to be a platform for some ideology or another? Politics and social commentary has its place in the arts – but frankly and this might come as a shock to you, they (yourself included) are by and large, not very good at it. This tends to be overlooked by the very rare individuals are have been.

    Bonus points: Not going off into a tangent about the IPA and big banks.

    Minus Points:
    – Conflating the alt-right and classical liberalism (they’re practically philosophical opposites, something you might have been aware of had you even read the Wikipedia articles on either),
    – saying that we should ditch Enlightenment principles (wut?),
    – not having a viable framework but talking about free speech in terms of quantity (http://press-files.anu.edu.au/downloads/press/n2264/pdf/analysis01.pdf is worth a read, if only so you won’t clumsily grapple with describing it)
    – festishizing complexion – people are more than the product of the colour of their skin.
    – being completely unaware that as a young white stoner columnist, who rages about the social issues of the day is about as bourgeois middlecrat as it gets

    I recommend reading some textbooks on economics, not making hasty generalisations; and if you’re going to take a stab at some nebulous political Other, at least Googling them first.

    1. “something you might have been aware of had you even read the Wikipedia articles on either”.
      Adorable.
      I prefer primary texts. For the idiocy of the alt-right, or the classical liberal. I’m presuming you suggest I read the liberal equilibrium of Ricardo, or are you a Hayek guy?
      Either way, we’re all confident that you wouldn’t know fictitious capital if it flew up ya.
      Little thing.

      1. I’m more into Mills and Bastiat, personally.

        Ricardo’s considered a classical economist – and an ardent advocate of free-trade as opposed to an actual “classical liberal”. This stands diametrically opposed to the protectionism of the alt-right and Trumpistas. I have the e-books of the two you mentioned, but like most of us, have a ‘to-read’ list as long my arm in 10 point font. Hayek’s not even especially high on that list because Austrians ruin everything for everyone.

        But if you had read the work of classical economists or liberals – why do you insist on making this fallacious comparison to the alt-right? Is it just because bashing (both literally and figuratively) the alt-right popular amongst your target audience, or the DR analytics guy said you get more pagehits when you shoehorn these tangential references into yoru work? OR are you just be deceitful? If you’d digested the texts as you said, ignorance is excluded as a motive, which leaves either expediency or deception. Which is it Ms. Razor?

        RE: Ficitious Capital: Only high schoolers, Jeremy Corbyn and arts first years take Marx seriously. That’s why I ditched him before 20.

        Also:”Either way, we’re all confident that you wouldn’t know fictitious capital if it flew up ya.” – this should read “Either way, I’m confident…*”, unless you’re using the royal ‘we’, you should be using the singular first person pronoun, not the plural. It’s a common internet trick to imply that one has the general or total consensus of the forum in question. I also think it’s a bit rich to accuse me of ignorance of fictitious capital when you conflate wealth and capital. It’s true my knowledge of Marx has faded over the decades but I don’t pretend to be an expert.

        However, Bastiat had already previously debunked this Marxian view of capital. I mean gold-standards? How quaint.

        Also given Marx what Marx describes as fictitious capital are intangibles (financial instruments, interest etc.) I don’t doubt that I would fail notice if it “flew up” me.

        But as amusing as this Razor-esque tangent has been, the type of liberalism you’ve been describing hasn’t necessarily been the economic one – but the social philosophy. I’m not sure why you decided to divert the topic from free speech to economics, but I suppose when you have a Marxian hammer…

      2. OMG Helen, you’re a ‘white young stoner columnist’ – as the kids would say these days, ‘dying’!

        I must admit to my embarrassment (or pride, now) as a trainee psychiatrist I wasn’t entirely familiar with Jordan B Petersen. Your article made me look him up on wikipedia but also his source material and publications, including his 12 most cited, which include the ‘study’ you refer to above.

        Oh. My. God. If I had not already written my critique of crap research for my Masters, Petersen would be front and centre. Thank you for alerting me to his presence, so that next time I have someone saying they’re depressed and ‘why can’t I fix myself’ I can give them a hearty serve on why they shouldn’t be reading that kind of crap.

        I must also admit I am tired of the constant cries of ‘free speech’ from people who have almost unfettered access to any platform to decry their lack of ‘free speech’. And great nuance in showing that access to a space does not equate to freedom of expression (or speech). I was not aware of the ‘good Muslim’ / Breakthrough Media existence (I’ve stopped reading the Saturday Paper because its had some questionable runs of late) and I find it absolutely scary. This needs to be focused on, not Sky bloody News.

    2. Well said Anaryl….note that Helen’s response is revealingly intemperate…..it seems in her world there are only colours and political stereotypes .

  9. “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.”

    Well Helen, that’s because writers like Aayan Hirsi Ali are not invited to said writer’s festivals, because they might say something ‘shocking’, or require ‘expensive’ security from the useful idiots inspired by their oppressors.

    Is the beautiful Aayan, either too beautiful or not brown enough?; or is it that her lived experience of FGM and religious fanaticism poses just too much truth for the soft (and a few hard) Left ‘writers’ festival audience??

    1. She’s feted around the world. Or, was. Until she kept writing the same book over and again. If you think Heretic contained any new ideas or that an avowed fan of Samuel Huntington has new things to say or you think she has never been given a platform in Australia, then you have a marvellous capacity to forget.
      Incidentally. What does the author’s beauty have to do with anything?

      1. Oh. Right! I get it.
        I’m a lady and am therefore not admiring of other women, buy simply jealous of their beauty.
        Silly me.
        Di us all a favour and piss back off to News Corp where your old timey fantasies will be fulfilled by others like you who think they “understand” women.
        No one here has the time for a tedious, sexist bore. Particularly not one who regards AHA as a new thinker.

        1. A revealing and disturbing comment on your own comment Helen. The personal attack is not seemly, but it does indicate that I have hit a tender spot on the Razer carapace. How could a white man possibly describe a brown woman as beautiful? What a sexist old News Corp dog I am!!

          It seems that being a ‘new thinker’ is all important in the world where ‘new’ and ‘old’ are measured in a few months or years.

          The age of a thinker’s ideas seems as important in Razerworld as the colour of the thinker’s skin.

          AHA is a hero of our time, someone that a Razer could only ever imprison in the re-education camp of her febrile mind.

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