The national debate over free speech is in many ways a sucker punch - "Squirrel!" - that has drawn our view away from the equally important job of winning the argument against the racist and ignorant views being expressed by the alt-right commentators
Now I'm up for a free speech stoush as much as the next person, however I can't help but see the debate that has arisen in the past week about the now-abandoned show in New Zealand by a pair of far-right activists as a missed opportunity.
Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux have this week lost the chance to speak in New Zealand, yet sadly they have won a PR battle of sorts by becoming martyrs to free speech and drawing their critics into a debate over their right to express their racist and often cruel and erroneous views in this country. In many ways, those critics have played into their hands, missing the opportunity handed to them on a plate.
So who are these fringe folk who have ruffled so many feathers? Southern and Molyneux are quite the pair. Southern is a Youtube commentator/ranter who likes to share her "unfiltered" views with tens of thousands of followers. What sort of views? Well, she was arrested in Italy last year illegally trying to stop NGO rescue boats from plucking refugees and migrants from the ocean and bringing them ashore in Europe. In a modern twist on the 'better dead than red' ideology, Southern seems to think it's more important to keep non-whites out of Europe than it is to save them from drowning. She's also done an interview with Molyneux in which they bemoan the good ol' days of apartheid South Africa when law and order made the country just a super place.
As for Molyneux, the podcaster does a nasty line in pseudeo-scientific racial superiority, arguing that the on average higher IQs of whites over blacks is a sign whites are just, well smarter. It's "heartbreaking," he says. But hey, he doesn't pick and choose the facts.
Except of course, that's exactly what he does.
The thing is, you might have read, heard or seen any number of stories in New Zealand over recent days and missed the details of the pair's repugnant beliefs. That's because once they've been described as 'alt right', 'far right' and 'controversial', most of the coverage has been about questions of free speech. Aren't we the suckers?
What Molyneux and Southern really offered was a wonderfulk teachable moment about just how dumb their ideas are. Most political operatives love to go up against extremists like this. They are a gift from the political gods, because they poison anyone even remotely associated with their line of bizarre thinking. This was a pair of straw men walking, waiting to be exposed as the shallow, deluded numpties they are. Yet instead we opted for a free speech debate.
Some might argue that pivoting to a free speech to-do is a useful way of ignoring their hate-filled ideas. That we shouldn't indulge them and give them the oxygen. Sadly, I don't think we have that luxury. Probably never, but certainly not now.
In the age of Trump and fake news, we have a duty to not assume that the progressive development of liberal democracies and inclusive ideas are a given. Too often in my life I've heard 'End of History'-type arguments that say the momentum is unstoppable and with the social agenda, the progressive arguments have won. The arc of evolving human rights has seen us argue long and hard about race, religion, gender and sexual identity and again and again concluded that discrimination and prejudice on those grounds are unacceptable. Kindness is King and the cultural wars have been won.
So our eternal vigilence was a little less eternal and a little less vigilent. And our democracy has paid the price. For any number of economic, political and ultimately very human reasons, we have seen some of those gains put in jeopardy. As it always does, the social pendulum has swung.
No, we don't have the luxury of not engaging in those debates. The fight is not over. We live a world now where political leaders are more willing than they have been in a long time to give credence to such views and where such ignorance can be expressed openly 'in polite company' without the person spouting the words being argued down. This is a fight we need to confront head on, just as much as free speech rights.
So we need to make the case, say, of a multi-cultral Europe, refugee rights and for our common humanity. At the heart of that, we need to demand compassion for the thousands of refugees who have run from wars, many of which, in the short of long term, have involved elements of 'great game' playing and interference by Western nations. How that compassion is shown is open to debate and may involve more attention to the problems in the home countries than open borders. But the solutions we find must start with a respect for our common humanity and refugee rights.
I can't imagine many New Zealanders really wanting to rally behind a woman who wanted to stop ships from sailing out to pick up drowning men, women and children. Let's just call that out for the heartless position that it is.
But let's also demolish the idiocy of Molyneux's idea that IQ tests mean we can make sweeping generalisations about whole ethnic groups. Molyneux likes to quote accurate IQ data showing whites over time and on average having higher IQs than whites. Inanely, he puts that down to ethnicity alone. Some races are smarter than others.
Yet right here in New Zealand we have the wonderful Prof James Flynn, one of the world leaders on IQ. Let me quote from a 2016 Guardian feature on Flynn and his writings:
He showed that, across the world, average IQs had risen by roughly three percentage points every decade since at least 1930, and probably much longer.
Since evolution doesn’t work fast enough to produce genetic upgrading on that scale, it seemed that environment must be the dominant influence. According to Flynn, rising IQs went hand-in-hand with modernisation, which involves more years of education and more jobs that require analytic abilities and abstract thinking. The belief that better schooling, and positive discrimination in favour of disadvantaged children, could make a difference was seemingly vindicated.
The view, put forward by a number of British and American academics at that time, that black people’s IQs were genetically inferior to those of whites and Asians was finally discredited. So was the idea that African countries were poor because their inhabitants were stupid. IQs in developing countries also rise as they modernise and will eventually catch up those in developed countries. Best of all, rising IQs led to better moral reasoning, putting racism and sexism on the defensive.
Flynn points out that in recent decades, Black IQs have been catching up with Whites', rather undermining Molyneux's nonsense.
It's not that Flynn's research doesn't raise some challenging questions. In the same piece, he points to nurture over nature but still argues that the African-American sub-culture - and particularly poor parenting in that group - is part of the reason for those lower IQ levels. But he can still help us easily wipe away the bitter gruel of racial superiority that Molyneux wanted to come and serve to New Zealanders.
Research also suggests literacy rates have a strong correlation with rising IQs, which further undermines the idea its your racial DNA determining your smarts.
For me, when faced with these dark views of humanity we shouldn't dismiss them, ban them or be lured into an argument over their right to speak their drivel. We should confront them head on and win the argument. Exposing and ridiculing them is a much more effective way of defeating their worldview than martyring them.
Let them throw their words into the wind; our power to defeat them comes not from silencing them but rather from showing that they are wrong. We stop them in their tracks by patiently picking apart their claims and showing the would-be emperor has no clothes. The best response is not suppression, but winning the argument over and over again.