Is Don Brash really different from those Canadians?

Amidst the free speech debate of recent weeks, there seemed to be some interesting flip-flops by those critical of Molyneux and Southern, but defensive of Brash. So what gives?


While most normal people remained blissfully unaware, the free-speech wars have raged across the New Zealand internet like wildfire. 

The most recent chapter saw Don Brash diinvited from a speaking gig at Massey University. Officially, it was a heckler’s veto, with security concerns given as the grounds for cancellation. Some however have seen that as a pretext and, in any event, the resulting discussions have tended to centre on whether or not Brash should be de-platformed as a matter of principle.

But before that came Stefan Molyneux and Lauren Southern. The principle was much the same, but the reaction quite different. With Brash, Massey suffered a backlash that caught it off-guard. I must say, I was caught out too.

Between 9am-10am last Tuesday the debate was tranformed. It was quite remarkable.

Before the Brash announcement, the issue was filtered through the lens of two foreign speakers. Concerns about free speech were often met with derision and mockery. But after the announcement, many of the same people were earnestly declaring their desire to defend to the death Brash’s right to a platform to say racist and stupid things.

So what gives? Well, there have been a number of explanations given for why the cases were different. Let's examine some of them.

Rationalisation One: Don Brash is a New Zealander

Since Southern and Molynuex are foreigners de-platforming them is not really a matter of civil liberties in this country. Brash, on the other hand, was born in Whanganui. So he has a birth right to a place in the public square. So the argument goes, anyway.

But civil rights are not typically contingent on citizenship or nationality. The Human Rights Act 1993, for example, prohibits discrimination on the basis of "ethnic or national origins, which includes nationality or citizenship." There are no citizenship qualifiers for freedom of speech under the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 (though such qualifications attach to some of the protected rights).

Rationalisation Two: Don Brash was going to speak at a university, not a council venue

It's hard to see how this is a meaningful distinction. Local authorities are carrying out a public function. Their facilities are more obviously public accommodations than universities are. This is probably the weakest of the rationalisations.

Rationalisation Three: Don Brash isn't as bad as those Canadian Nazis

This is an interesting one, because it is just so at odds with the kind of thing we were hearing immediately before Brash was disinvited. In those days, we were told that supporting the Canadian’s rights to speak was tantamount to tacit support for what they could be expected to say. And more than a few people imputed their views to Brash anyway.

It is true that Don Brash is not a National Socialist. But are Southern and Molyneux? They may be fascists under Orwell's definition (“something not desirable”). Their views and statements are repellent, after all. But are they literal Nazis?

RationalWiki, a snarky but often quite perspicacious resource, is scathing of Southern and her views. But it says she is neither a white nationalist nor a neo-Nazi. So it at least seems debatable whether or not she is literally a Nazi.

Molyneux appears to be some kind of crank libertarian. That's quite far away from the "all within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state" attitude of fascism. White supremacy is not unknown on the fringes of libertarianism, of course. And there seems to be a pretty good case for calling out Molyneux’s views as being very offensive to the ideal of equal human dignity.

But do you know who else is routinely labelled a white supremacist or a racist? Don Brash. Almost every other day.

Rationalisation four: Don Brash is sincere, he doesn't do it for money

This view was put forward by "Micky Savage", a Labour-aligned commentator. You can read that there. It doesn’t really stack up.

Michael Moore has a new movie coming out. What if, say, peace activists wanted to screen it in a Council owned theatre that was available to the public for rent? Would the fact that Michael Moore makes a lot of money from his documentaries - and he has become quite wealthy through them - have any impact on the civil liberties dimension of the question?


Rationalisation five: Don Brash wasn't going to incite riots

This sub-view is embedded in Micky Savage's post. It's hard to see how it works together with his primary argument and it may be that it was just a tangential thought. The idea is that Brash has evil views, but he wants to implement them through constitutional means instead of trying "to get people to riot for the sake of interesting Youtube clips."

But did Southern and Molyneux come here with that purpose in mind? If so, their intent was certainly illegal (and ought to have been suppressed). It's just very hard to assume that intent because of the total lack of evidence for it.

What does all this mean?

There is a good word for the above: jesuitical. But while it is interesting to see how fine the hairs can be split, there is a strong post hoc accent to it all. Which is not really that surprising. Reason usually plays less of a factor in our opinions than we generally like to admit.

Stepping back, this is what it looks like.

First, the Canadians were really little more than avatars against which free speech restrictionists could define themselves. I'd never heard of them, and I'm guessing you hadn't either. All we knew about them is that they were bad. It looks like they are very bad. But they were also, for the most part, abstractions.

This means that, in thinking about how to deal with them, it was easy to put the downstream consequences out of our minds. But when Massey University (probably emboldened by the Southern and Molyneux affair) took the next, logical step, things got real. It seemed to freak some people out.

Because Don Brash is not an abstraction. He is, to the consternation of many, very real. At least one of your grandparents probably voted for him to be the Prime Minister of our country. (Ed's note: Grandparents? It was only 2005! And National got 39.1%, only a feather's width behind Labour on 41.1%, so it may have been several family members).

Which would explain abrupt and instantaneous-looking change in direction from many in the flock.

Liberals ought not to complain too much about this. When somebody comes over to your side, you should encourage them. Scolding is counter-productive.

Nevertheless, the rationalising on display has been quite something.