Debating the rights and wrongs of rights starts with the acknowledgement there is no right and wrong... so where do you draw the line?
I argued in my previous post that a free speech debate played into the hands of the numpties - Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux - who wanted to come to New Zealand to make their case for racial superiority and prejudice. I said it was better to defeat them than ban or martyr them, but I also can't resist dipping my toe in the free speech ripples.
In short, a debate over free speech and 'hate speech' is what we've got, so (belatedly) here are my two cents. In part I'm drawn to lay out some thoughts on this because I've written a chapter for a Penguin book due out soon that deals with precisely some of these issues.
It's always a difficult debate to have, because it cuts deep into people's identities and core beliefs. There is no easy answer to such debates, and neither should their be. The issue of free speech demands constant vigilence and discussion because there is a line where that freedom can be abused and the rights of people's safety, for example, trump free speech rights. The old 'shouting "fire" in a crowded theatre' scenario is a prime example.
The problem is always that we each draw the line in different places. That is our right, but it ensures this debate can never to tied up in a bow and resolved once and for all. I do not believe there is a wrong or right as to where that line should be drawn and in any discussion we need to retain our respect for people who may draw it in a different place to us. We also need to be incredibly careful around the language we use, specifically those two powerful words 'hate speech'.
My concern is the people who have slipped into talking about 'hate speech' as views that "insult' others. In social media comments and news stories, I was concerned to see comments from people on all sides of the political debate equating 'insult' and 'offense' with 'hate'. Even Phil Goff fell into that one.
That is a terribly dangerous and unwise stance, in my opinion. We have every right to insult each other. Indeed, I struggle to think of positive social change that hasn't involved offending and insulting some. Sure, punching down should be resisted and the most vulnerable defended. But we do not defend victims of prejudice by banning the expression of certain opinions. Rather, as I argued in my other post on this topic, we defend them by winning the argument and exposing the flaws in the prejudice.
Sure, I understand the 'that's easy for you to say' argument, but for all our sakes we need to ask the victims of prejudice to be robust enough to withstand the insults. We ask them to pay a price for freedom, a price that only some have to pay but that we all profit from. The gain comes in the sweep of history and geography where shoes do move to the other foot. In other places and times, the victims can be the perpetrators. Yet the principle remains the same; we won't always agree and won't always be kind, so we'd better figure out how to make room for those we disagree with.
In fact trading insults is core to being human. It is OK - it is part of human life - to feel the sting of unkind words. We have all felt them and, let's be honest, we have all hurled them at some stage. Life is difficult and involves pain. It is no life at all if we try to remove all such damage.
I was concerned to see the New Zealand Federation of Islam Association president quoted as saying, "I don't think insulting Muslims comes under free speech, that's an abuse of freedom of speech".
Being able to insult people is in fact at the heart of free speech. As we know, some Muslim views are insulting to others. Yet part of success as a society is our ability to live alongside people who we disagree with and make room for a wide range of views. The truth is, any religious (or atheistic) practice may be insulting to others... and may be wrong and insulting and uncomfortable for some. But we make space. Up to a point. Where that point is remain debateable. But hiring a hall and arguing a case is well below any line I would draw.
While I respect people's rights to have different views, I still have an opinion, and while it moves around from case to case, it's that any threshold for banning free speech should be at the highest possible level.
We always have to remember that this debate sees us choosing between two evils. Either path involves some harm. Arguing to suppress views is not simply taking the side of safety and kindness.
It may seem a simple act of decency to silence views that give licence to demonise a minority group already vulnerable to misunderstanding and bullying. No view, no harm, right? However the suppression of views can also harm. It stops the valve of debate, which can build pressure and increase the chance of violence. Banning something does damage to those who want to express themselves in a certain way. It drives certain views underground and can turn words into violence. It also, of course, narrows the human imagination and limits the ideas we can engage with and discuss. And we always come back to the question of who then gets to decide what is banned or insulting or acceptable and what isn't? Who holds that terrible power? And if first they silence Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux, who will they silence next?
But the other damage often forgotten in this debate, is that it stops people thinking about the issues raised and coming to their own conclusions. It stops people from deciding for themselves what nasty and destructive nonsense these people are spouting. It stops us having and winning the argument about whatever issue is being presented. That was at the heart of my previous post.
But what about the argument that if they have the right to speak, others have the right to ban them? Oscar Kightley has made that argument. Sorry, I don't think those are equivalent rights. You have the right to ignore the arguments as beneath contempt. You have the right to disagree and to argue back. But you do not have the right to stop someone expressing their view. If you want to make that argument, at the very least you have to then be willing to have others ban you from expressing your view if they decide it is beyond the pale.
It's funny, we often hear praise these days for people 'speaking their truth' and 'telling their story'. Yet it seems we feel the need to decide whose truths and whose stories are valid and whose are not.
At the heart of this debate is humility and the question: Who are we to take on that mantle and make ourselves judge, jury and silencer?
One final thought... on Phil Goff's decision not to allow Southern and Molyneux to speak at an Auckland Council venue. I'm not sure I would have made his decision and I think the Council was on stronger ground with its official concerns about health and safety than when Goff went onto say he wanted to protect people from insults and offense. Goff has taken decisions in office, for example around New Zealand's role in Afghanistan, that have deeply offended people. So he's throwing stones at glasshouses with that argument.
Having said that, I think he and the Council probably have the right to stop the pair speaking in Auckland Council buildings. You can tell me I'm wrong... and I may be. But it seems me the right to speech and a certain organisations obligation to provide you with a platform to speak are not the same thing.
Not every organisation has to make room for every view. I spent many years being criticised for all the people who didn't appear on Q+A and The Nation in the years I was producing them. But the fact is that choices have to be made and lines drawn. Everyone deserves a voice, but not on every platform or in every building at any time. If the Canadian pair can find someone to host them, fine. If they cannot, perhaps that tells them something about the New Zealand appetite for their views. Either way, dosn't the Council have discretion to reflect its values?
So having earlier argued that a free speech debate only gives the stirrers what they want, I've now had my go. Not because I care about these two in particular, but because I think encouraging debate and making space for those we disagree with is a value and skill that we're losing in these polarising times. The greater good - and the hardest challenge - is to find our common humanity rather than focus on the insults and prejudice.
Oh, and because I've got a book to plug. It's called 'The Big Questions' and is out in August.