Lyndon Hood - Whatever I Say I Am, Lower Hutt

Tuesday, August 03, 2004

Stick and Stones May Break My Bones But Apart From That I Should Just Harden Up

When arguing in favour of freedom of expression, one faces a couple of unique problems. One is that it's difficult to win outright, seeing as how you can at no point demand that your opponent just shut up. The other is that the poster children for free speech tend to be arrogant wankers who are often being deliberately offensive. Recidivist flag burners* who, having gotten their media attention, do a poor job of making their case. David Irving, who is apparently not inclined to sue for peace with his opponents ("At least I will not be travelling on a quadriplegic's stolen passport and wearing a balaclava and dark glasses").

Incidentally, National Radio didn't seem to be prepared to draw conculsions on Irving. It said he was "described as 'the holocaust denier'" and didn't say why he was deported from Canada. Fair enough. It would take a braver man than me to fight through the bald assertions on this one.

But ultimately the problem is that most people, legislators inculded, prefer not being offended to having a really open debate. But the reason we have laws supporting freedom of speech is precisely so that people can say offensive things. We wouldn't need the laws otherwise; nobody ever tries to ban inoffensive speech. This is one of those priciples that people are happier with in general terms than when it gets down to cases.

I can understand why senior public servants need to agree to keep quiet on principle - they must be able to work with the government of the day. But more than one government department instructed all its employees not to join the Hikoi (that's why so many people happened to be taking 'coffee breaks' on balconies along the Terrace). Surely there's a limit.

I happen to think that society as a whole can't progress unless people are free to question and argue, even if it's questioning the obvious and arguing the unthinkable. And as with any human right, freedom of expression is an incitement to radicalism. Just what constitutes "Shouting 'Fire!' in a crowded theatre" anyway? And is even that really so bad? If it is such a problem, then surely that's more of a health and safety issue?

Sure, people can say some really whacked-out stuff. But the great thing is, rather than muffling these ideas because they're so terrible, you can just make it clear how wrong they are. Or even better, how silly they are. My parents have oddly fond memories of Patricia Bartlett: it seems the Society for the Preservation of Community Standards was a lot less threatening when the ex-nun was telling the TV about how the media was corrupting us and we could all laugh at her.

Of course that is just by way of wishing that my enemies would confine themsaelves to open, informed public debate rather than doing what achieves their goals (although SPCS's recent appeal court submissions do have some excellent gag lines). There is a kind of obligation that comes as a corollary to freedom of expression. The government and the media, and most of all the people, in allowing "open" debate, need to foster the "informed" part. One of several memorable moments in Control Room charmingly showed Al-Jazeera broadcasting Donald Rumsfeld saying that Al-Jazeera made stuff up (he thought it was sad when people lie but they get found out eventually).

It seems what I'm saying is that the dominant paradigm, if it's got any validity, actually gets stronger for allowing questions. So what's everyone worried about?

This isn't supposed to be the whole case for free speech. It's just some stuff I've been thinking. Naturally, you are free to disagree with me. And I'm free to ignore you.

* One thing the debate on flag-burning has shown up is ACT's odd habit of demanding rights and freedom except where this conflicts with conservative social values. Property yes, drugs no. And burning flags "isn't speech".

Personally I wouldn't burn a flag - I have yet to find an issue or a flag important enough - but it's been noted that the Hopkinson judgement left open the question of what exactly would constitute showing disrespect for the flag. Having nothing better to do, I'll gladly make myself the subject of a new test case. In that spirit, I declare that the flag's rhymes are whack and its mother is a ho.