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Je Suis Mark Latham: Razer on Charlie Hebdo, free speech and former Labor leaders

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Of all the low western intellectual moments passed in the last decade, it’s hard to choose a particular stinker. But, the stolid pong of “freedom” that described Charlie Hebdo one year ago really takes some beating. In the days that followed the brutal slaughter by the Kouachi brothers of several of the magazine’s cartoonists, reason itself was ended. In its place was a false defence of a false idea as the western world congratulated itself for its liberty.
What we saw in Paris and around the western world following this vile murder was not a spontaneous endorsement of free expression, but an idiot’s jubilee. Behind the banner of “Freedom and Democracy”, world leaders with a very particular revulsion for press freedom marched for press freedom. Saudi Arabia, a nation that flogs dissenting bloggers, was among the nations officially represented at this assembly for “freedom”. Israel found the time to pop along as well.
France itself lost little time in cracking down on free speech. There were prison sentences for those who criticised Charlie Hebdo. “Free speech” came to mean a very narrow kind of speech: we were “free” only to pillory Islam and tolerant only of the most extreme hypocrisy.
To be gracelessly clear: it was atrocity that unfolded in the offices of Charlie Hebdo. But, the new and specious definition of free speech that followed these actions was its own kind of barbarism. Of course we must seek to create a society that can brook extreme speech — even that which takes a dead Syrian toddler, as Charlie Hebdo recently did, and refigures him as a child molester. But what we cannot continue to do is to valorise some forms of speech as free even as we say that others are an assault on our liberty.
In France, it is legal, and acceptable, for Charlie Hebdo to depict the failure of the Quran to stop bullets from penetrating the chest of a cleric. It is now criminal for a French teenager on Facebook to depict the same fate for the producers of Charlie Hebdo. In Australia, as in all the liberal democracies of the world, we said Je Suis Charlie and upheld the right to laugh at a dying Muslim. Few upheld the right to laugh at a dying cartoonist.
There can be no rational argument for elevating the rights of one speaker and withholding the rights of another. People have tried, of course, and they will say that the French teenager’s cartoon constitutes a threat to national security, whereas the Hebdoiste’s work upholds the best principles of French liberty.
Oh, bollocks. There is not a freer kind of free speech for us to utter. If we are free only to express ideas acceptable to me, the French government or radical Islamists, then we are not free to speak. We are free only to speak our way to broad acceptability.
It feels undignified to repeat that (quite French) old idea, but it bears repeating: the defence of free speech invariably means a defence of disagreeable speech. Unfortunately, this might mean tolerating the right of Reclaim Australia to behave like tits tomorrow. We either countenance free speech or we don’t. No matter how you church it up, the idea of free speech remains that tediously simple.
Of course, the world is not tediously simple and freedom itself is quite unevenly felt, despite its nominal guarantee. Some citizens, even in Australia, are far freer to have their free speech amplified than others and particular ideas and particular speakers are coerced into very particular forums. It is quite true that truly free speech can be reliably purchased only from our nation’s most expensive schools.
It is also true that we will not secure free speech by regulating its expression. We might eventually secure it by, say, ending our absurd attachment to posh schools. But, we don’t make speech free by identifying some of it as less than acceptably free.
In recent years in Australia and around the western world, a means to assess the freedom of speech has emerged. If speech, so the test goes, is un-free in either its development or its intent, then it is not truly free and should not be freely spoken.
We can see this in the many opeds which decry satire that does not “punch up”. Setting aside the difficulty of deciding whether one is punching up or down — and who could reliably say what the Egyptian satirist Bassem Youssef is doing when he pillories Islam — we must ask: what the actual shit? A satire governed by rules is, surely, no longer satire. It’s certainly not “free” but a process which is expected to move toward a particular outcome.
This is not, for a minute, to suggest that persons should not object to the things they find objectionable — knock yourself out with the important work of improving the culture. But, there is a great difference between decrying or boycotting something because you don’t like it and saying, as is now so often the case, that it should be removed from the public sphere because it is not “free”.
And, this is the criticism levelled in recent days at former ALP leader Mark Latham. In a range of news media, a range of critics have all been careful to use the Ingsoc logic of post-Hebdo France. It’s not that we want to stop Latham talking. It’s just that we believe that his speech is dangerous and dangerously unfree.
The SMH warns of the “damage” Latham is doing. The Hun calls him dangerous. Pedestrian charges the radio station that has broadcast Latham with actively hindering an end to family violence and a editorial calls Latham a “dangerous person targeting a vulnerable section of the community”.
If you care to listen to the amateurish, and surprisingly mild, podcast, you can do so here. If you care to place your trust in your (probably un-free) correspondent, this is the dangerous thing that Latham said: we can hold forces other than misogyny to account for incidence of family violence.
To be clear, this is no defence of Latham. Latham, in my view, is a tool. Latham is a swinish thinker and communicator whose revulsion for “uppity” middle-class women has mutated very badly since his time in the Labor right. This former scholar of the elitist Third Way must not be permitted his working man’s posture and anyone who has spent that much time reading Anthony Giddens doesn’t get to pretend that his primary text has always been a steak in a western Sydney pub. This is no defence of Latham, whose cultural significance peaked with an observation about a “congaline of suckholes”. This is no defence of Latham, who has begun to call anything that he does not like, including Malcolm Turnbull, the “left”. This is a defence of the very basic idea of free expression.
You just can’t go about calling for an end to everything that may be “dangerous”. Yes, shouting “fire” in a crowded cinema is clearly a criminal act, but Latham’s recent presentation was nothing of the sort. He proposed, although not nearly as well or as sincerely as Martin McKenzie-Murray did in the Saturday Paper or as my colleague Guy Rundle did in Crikey, that the current view that violence flows from a lack of respect may be flawed thinking.
A serious problem deserves serious consideration and if we are to solve the social problem of family violence, we need to know how it starts. While it is entirely possible that Latham has far less heartfelt interest in determining the origins of family violence than he does in telling the “left” why they are wrong about it, the fact is, he stumbled on an important line of inquiry. The idea that violence, which has a greater prevalence in lower income communities, comes from a lack of “respect” is a pretty shaky one. It’s also one, as McKenzie-Murray details in his fine piece, that may not produce effective policy outcomes. Respect may be no more a prophylactic against violence than the pages of Charlie Hebdo. If there are other factors that produce violence, and there is evidence that a culture of purported respect does not diminish violence, then surely, it is more dangerous not to talk about it than to broach the topic as Latham, however fumblingly and meanly, has done.
But, what we have said these past days instead is that Latham is dangerous and must be silenced. BY being un-free, he has foregone his freedom of speech.
For mine, this logic is no less absurd than that of the French government. We don’t hope to advance the cause of freedom by controlling its expression. We can, of course, boycott and protest and rail at Triple M, which has not enjoyed quite so much publicity since the last pair of acid wash jeans rolled out of a textile factory. But we must not delude ourselves that our revulsion for certain kinds of speech is freedom.
[box]Featured image: Mark Latham on Channel Nine’s The Verdict[/box]

44 responses to “Je Suis Mark Latham: Razer on Charlie Hebdo, free speech and former Labor leaders

  1. It’s such a huge relief to finally see a sane and logical response to this Latham podcast issue. It feels like the rest of the media has mindlessly gone down the strawman and silencing route. Thank you.

    1. The real issues here are the Hebdo stuff and developing genuinely effective approaches to domestic violence. Isn’t Latham’s engagement simply more of hgis self serving controversialism? By far the least important of the three strands raised in this piece, I reckon!

    Sanctimony of the simpletons
    Braying of the braggarts
    Pronouncements of the pompous
    The hysterical joining
    Of the empty looking
    For a filling
    Of heads
    For hats
    Marching millions strong
    Ah, the solidarity
    Of emotional excess
    Unity is strength
    Because we feel
    Must be real
    The high ground
    Never felt so good
    Or will again
    Martyrs, martyrs, martyrs
    It’s that simple
    Must be
    So many of us
    Can’t be wrong
    We have seen the enemy
    And for once
    It isn’t us
    So we’re told
    By the Kings
    And the Queens
    And the Presidents
    And the other bringers
    Of wisdom and
    Photo ops
    For a day
    And that’s such
    A nice time out
    From warring
    And whoring
    And killing
    And stealing
    And lying
    And being
    Our leaders
    And meanwhile
    The haters
    And debaters
    The simplifiers
    And just
    Plain liars
    Point their fingers
    And pronounce
    On a multitude
    In blanket
    And hate filled
    Of complicity
    For the actions
    Of three thugs.

  3. Points well made in this article. Unfortunately the people that need to be convinced have adopted “ban it” as their sole strategy to create their utopia on earth. If it displeases, well, it must be outlawed. With the full force of the state, and at someone else’s cost, of course. This is the mentality we are dealing with. As Jerry Brown said, “Not every human problem deserves a law.”

  4. The Hebdo cartoon of Alan Kurdi grown up does not depict him as a child molester. It makes a comment about the recent NYE sexual assaults in Germany. Sloppy.

      1. Helen – Charlie Hebdo was making the point that public sentiment went from extreme sympathy for Alan Kurdi as a child refugee to revulsion for refugees as adults. It was mocking the public, not him. Charlie are left wing satirists.

        1. Is that why there was a mass walk-out of Charlie Hebdo contributors when Philippe Val became editor in 2004 over his anti-Arab and Islamaphobic views?

  5. Interesting piece. I agree completely re Hebdo. Afraid I always found the Charlie Hedbo approach repugnant. Not as repugnant as the killing of Charlie Hedbo people, but repugnant enough to be danged sure I could personally never identify as “Charlie Hebdo” during the period of subsequent hysteria.
    I also agree that reducing domestic violence issues to simply “respect” is naive and probably highly counterproductive (as many – including most recently Latham – have said). There needs to be a far more serious, intelligent, genuine approach , trendy as the “R.E.S.P.E.C.T. uber ales” message may be in some quarters. (Hey its cheap, easy and fits in a Twitter message with space to spare! – what more could a pollie or a psuedo activist want!).
    I wonder, though, about the value of risking truly important arguments about such things by dragging in the “Je Suis Latham” guff. The earlier components of this piece stand on their own. Yes, one can see a reason for putting up a mild defence of Latham somewhere (despite his “form”) for this particular set of comments , but doing so pales into insignificance compared to the far bigger issues raised earlier in the piece.
    Yes, Latham perhaps provides one of any number of good “hooks” to get things like the rest of this piece more widely read in the Aus community. But doesn’t using him in this way simply reduce you to playing the same game he uses himself, just trading on his own self serving controversialism?
    I don’t think you needed a “Latham hook” for this piece (though I’m sure he’ll be glad you did). The real content speaks for itself!

    1. Is it possible that since you had not heard of the magazine before you know very little about it. Charlie Hebdo are French, left-wing, satirists beloved by the French people. They mock all power – politicians, ALL religions. Could I respectfully suggest you give it a bit more thought and read more about them before falling for the propaganda that blasphemy is now punishable by death in a secular nation.

  6. Thanks for this insightful piece, Helen.
    I read and thought highly of Martin McKenzie-Murray’s piece when it was published. Unfortunately, I don’t think Latham does the issue much service when he lashes out the way he usually does. He’s a nasty person who insults others. But he’s got a right to do it, and apparently there’s an audience for it.

  7. At long last a voice of reason, logic and sanity. The whole concept of freedom of speech is under attack in a most worrying manner. Everyone welcomes freedom of speech as long as it is consistent with their own views and opinions. They try to curb it when it does not agree with their views.
    The domestic violence debate has been debased and derailed and is in danger of becoming a tool of the fanatical feminist. We must be prepared to debate the issue of domestic violence from all aspects and not simply as a cudgel for beating a perceived patriarchy into submission.

  8. (written as an individual not representing an organisation)
    Finally an article that gets beyond vague-meaning/double-meaning/meaningless and emotive 2 word trends like “individual freedom” and “politically correct.”
    Finally an article that points out the double standards with which these buzzwords are applied (re power).
    Finally an article that at least implies that with freedom comes responsibility.
    Thank you.

    1. Another vague-meaning/double-meaning/meaningless word trend is ‘respect’ since the idea of respect is ambiguous at the best of times.
      Also it’s becoming too easy for people to socially shame people and shut down views they disagree with by telling someone they’re being disrespectful.

    2. Another good writer is Nick Cohen who has written books called ‘What’s Left?’ and ‘You Can’t Read This Book’ about the regressive left banning and shaming anything they don’t agree with while forming a strange alliance with the far right of theocracy.

  9. I just wanted to join the others and say thanks for the extremely articulate and well written piece Helen. A lone voice of sanity in a maelstrom of madness.

  10. Great piece. It’s a shame that so often we have to defend freedom of expression by defending those who contribute little positive to society. The mentioned Charlie Hebdo vignette was neither intelligent nor funny, just repugnant.

  11. Theres an audience for everything now, and it can be sold to and advertised at and data mined later as it consumes its own dogma. Not a question of freedom but more of profit I feel. At least I feel that way about our main media outlets.
    It’s hard though, I kind of felt that Latham was being reasonable and was surprised at the blow back. Glad to read this article, I was starting to worry about myself agreeing with Latham like that.

  12. The attack on Charlie Hebdo was an attack on freedom of speech and was rightly condemned. The irony being that it isn’t available in Australia as they regularly breech section 18c of the racial discriminations act. That number of people who came out in support of Charlie Hebdo but rallied in opposition to any change to 18c was as humorous as it was confusing.

  13. Great article Helen. Reminds me of a recent piece in Overland:
    Progressives need to check their emotions before they unwittingly set a tone of indulging in arbitrary use of power. The line becomes easily blurred and slopes toward fascism. Your argument is a healthy example of keeping check on the vital importance of free speech. We must be vigilant lest juvenile impulse rules left and right at the cost of humanity and civility.

  14. as thoughtful as ever, ms razer. much of the hebdo stuff i agree with, but not sure i take it to the conclusion that all speech must be accepted. i think it IS possible to identify speech which has the sole function of hurt, hate and damage, and to sanction that. if we were a grown-up society with grown-up politicians this would be eminently possible (and i think our racial vilification laws were a pretty good crack at it, and the Bolter’s opposition to them was a good indication of that). and actually, i think Latham’s pretty smart. he knows (like Keating) how to stir the pot, and everyone jumps on cue. i might disagree with half of what comes out of his mouth, but he says what he thinks and raises the right issues.

  15. I often wonder who has the most freedom of speech or press:someone who can say or print anything that comes to mind but nobody pays attention…or someone who can say or print half as much but where the listener or reader hangs on every word

  16. Great article so clearly articulates what – freedom of speech actually means. Do hope it reaches those who have a warped, self serving sense of it.
    Thankyou Helen.

  17. Everyone is in furious agreement – probably because they agree with Helen Razer’s misrepresentation of the Mark Latham diatribes and her simplistic views about whether misogyny is merely a lack of respect.
    Of course misogyny is far more than that, as are the roots of family violence. Power is the issue – but this aspect is neatly avoided. Mark Latham is given power because he was once someone and now he enrages people to get back some semblance of power; unlike almost every domestic violence victim ever except Rosie Batty who he has spoken of despicably.
    Men who lack power in their lives will fight to the death of their partner to maintain power over her with the ultimate being the power of life and death. Mark Latham has his own issues around violence to assert power as shown to the nation when he pumped John Howard’s hand so aggressively he lost an election.
    Why Mark Latham has any kind of platform is a mystery for any reasonable person. Helen Razer shows yet again that she has some partial understanding of free speech – but none at all about topics of life and death.

  18. Accurate & articulate as ever, Helen. “You don’t agree with my point of view? You must be racist / misogynist / (insert your favourite ‘-ist’ here)”. We can’t pick & choose to whom we confer the right of ‘free speech’. Indeed, if the only rebuttal of unpopular opinion is a shrill response insistent on expurgation, then the argument is already lost. Don’t dumb down the discourse – encourage it…
    Evelyn Beatrice Hall expressed it best: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it…”

  19. Really good, Helen.
    I’m glad you write stuff.
    If we reduce family violence to a “lack of respect”, we are toast.

  20. Nice paraphrase of Eric Blair, “all speech is free but some is freer than others”.
    Or more expensive?
    I didn’t grok the reference to posh schools – could you elucidate?

  21. Why is Latham given a pulpit to bully from? Who decides?
    It’s one thing to defend his rights etc etc and another to ask what the utter fuck is going on, that any publisher thinks the wanker deserves the time of day?
    Let him run his own mysoginistic blog. Let him wear the cost of shouting. I’ll stop caring. But as long as somebody pays him there is an issue here. He is a dipshit taking oxygen from a serious topic with specious look at moi arguments.

  22. Nice piece Helen; thank goodness someone else has bucked the trend.
    I read the transcript to Latham’s MMM bit about domestic violence and agreed with much of it. But the bloke has turned himself into a vaudevilian styled baddy who is routinely booed the moment he walks onto the stage.
    In contrast to Latham’s baddies role we have Rosie Batty who has become wholly untouchable. For example, in her valedictory speech delivered on January 25th, Batty stated that,
    “The statistics show those affected by family violence tragically increased during the time I have been Australian of the Year. In my opening speech I spoke about one woman a week being murdered and now I speak of two”
    This claim is of course complete nonsense. To claim 104 domestic violence related deaths in a year in which 79 women were murdered in total (approx 75% of them being family or domestic violence related – ie about 60) is pushing anyone’s credibility to the limit. And yet not one mainstream journalist has been game enough to stick their head above the PC turret and question Batty’s assertions.
    That it takes a kamikaze styled cartoon character like Latham to give the alternative view reflects poorly on the courage and/or diversity of contemporary Aussie journalism. Thankfully Helen Razor (in a far more measured and intelligent way) has also stepped away from the unchallenged and parroted orthodoxy of the day.

  23. “there is a great difference between decrying or boycotting something because you don’t like it and saying, as is now so often the case, that it should be removed from the public sphere because it is not “free”.”
    – true!
    – the crux of this argument lies in the difference between negative rights and positive rights. Demanding that something should be removed from the public sphere through the state (i.e through force) would be the “positive right” not to be subjected to disagreeable content.
    The negative right is the right to not be silenced. If you believe you own your own body, that is, you are not a slave, then you have the right to do with that body as you please. This includes how you wish to express yourself. It excludes the right to agress however. Yelling “fire!” in a cinema is an act of fraud.
    Positive rights are a fiction and used by the tyrannical minded.

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