Sometimes even well-meaning and seemingly dispassionate analysis can fall victim to its own ingenuity. Ms. Miranda Devine’s article ‘Free speech stoned to death’ of 24 February in Sunday Telegraph appeared fittingly under the Agenda section of the tabloid, and the metaphor she utilized in the heading immediately gives us a sense of what is on offer and nature of its agenda.
However, in defending the indefensible under the nebulous Western conception of ‘free speech’, her assessment of the perceived victimization of one of the most hated men, may have left her rather vulnerable. Since she invites feedback, let me ventilate her key concerns further for they should present some difficulties to the more discerning readers, regardless of their nationality or religious orientation.
First, control of some 10% vote does not make Geert Wilders a ‘mainstream politician’ and if Netherlands was ‘one of the most tolerant liberal democracies in the world’ then the problems of human interaction he is so keen to disseminate among Australians would not exist there. The organizers’ inability to secure venues was consistent with the perception of the man as a ‘pariah’ who was not wholly ‘welcome to [the] country’ but Australia, ‘the most repressive’ democracy (?), still gave him a visa and recognized his rights, including the right to be heard – something he and his ilk wish to deny the objects of their hate speech and derision. He does not get it: hate speech and vacuous diatribe against other people and their cultures are illegal. If you traduce peoples’ religion, you traduce their entire culture and all that is sacrosanct to them. Sure, no one should have to live under the constant fear of an assassin but what sort of treatment does he expect from the masses he necessarily offends or from the governments who try their darnedest to promote tolerance, assimilation, equality and respect for diversity?
Second, his disdain for ‘cultural relativism’ is misguided; it shows his naiveté and only a rudimentary understanding of the complexities of how cultures evolve and their hybrid and fluid nature. There is a fine line between claims to cultural superiority and those of racial superiority. It is a safer route for ‘racism without race’ or the ‘culturalist racism’ which seek to bypass the focus on race only to furtively highlight their traditional race-centric obsessions which fragment and divide people. For some peculiar reason, such claims have historically emanated from his more enlightened ‘Judeo-Christian humanist culture’ and rarely from other ‘barbaric’ cultures; the presumed superiority and linguistic violence adopted by the former have always needed an ‘other’ and the atrocities committed under fascism and a litany of other ‘isms’ originating from that culture are well documented. For the purposes of our discussion, we are far better off without any reminders but being a European he should know at least his own history.
Third, he decries Islam as a ‘dangerous ideology’ incompatible with freedom because societies founded in its teachings lack freedom and tolerance; and, he suggests that it is a ‘totalitarian ideology striving for world dominance’. Perhaps, he needs reminding that for the last five hundred years the world has been dominated and subjugated by militarism, colonialism, slavery and various forms of religious and economic ideologies, largely promoted by the triumphant western civilization. But some positions he adopts appear contradictory: ‘But there is no such thing as moderate Islam’ yet he feels the majority of the Muslims are not extremists. He holds them responsible for the ghettoisation of European cities and forewarns about the implied consequences of the creeping Islamisation of Europe. A generous spirit, he feels compelled to pass on the dire warnings of these disturbing phenomena to the Australian people. He points to the unacceptability of Islamic cultural practices, in particular, genital mutilation; their propensity to violence; and their covert support for Sharia Law. One wonders if he deliberately sets out to offend cultural sensitivities without considering the deeper implications of his message in a society like ours.
Fourth, in examining his utterances more critically it is hard not to call him an extremist. His views fall to the far right and can only be construed as quite extreme, even if he does not regard himself as a far right politician. His support for Jews and gays does not in itself absolve his indiscretions nor does it exonerate the implications of the linguistic violence and hatred inherent in his messages. Violence in thought is just as visceral as it is in action; violence will always beget violence regardless of its complexion. It is one repugnant and undesirable consequence of the ongoing controversies arising from his many undisciplined declarations.
Barely seventy years ago, another group was held responsible for all sorts of ills that had befallen Europe, and the far-right vigilantes with small powerbases, not unlike his Party, who went on to assume political power exposed the barbaric underbelly of civilized Europe by wrecking havoc in the lives of millions (and inevitably involved the whole world in the conflict).
Since the 1980s, the impact of globalization, economic neoliberalism, and the greed of global capitalists gave us GFC and a series of other economic and fiscal crises. The resulting mayhem in the wake of profound global changes were felt acutely in some European countries and far right parties have acquired solid support in many countries, even those endowed with robust democracies. It is the same freedom they wish to deny others that enabled them to organize into groups and articulate their morbid fixations. It would be a tragedy if that freedom is again extended or allowed to be applied selectively; the danger is that humans do not always learn from their past and history has a way of repeating itself.
For those that care, therein lies the genesis of a larger problem pertaining to the ideas promoted by the Wilders of this world. As the Q Society suggests in its webpage, sure, freedom of speech is our basic right which entitles us ‘to freely criticise, write satire, to mock and poke fun at the King and his merry men’ and it may well be ‘as Australian as koalas and kangaroos’. It is equally true that if this liberty is stretched too far, then the fallback is the demand for a retraction of false information or to sue for defamation, but beyond that it retreats from its own logic and fails to fully appreciate the dangers of extremism.
Despite the ubiquitous clichés we do not live in totally free society; we do not have a totally free press and our freedom of speech is constrained by social conventions (even fast vanishing common decency or good manners in a time of self-deception), and the unspoken rules of acceptability, over and above what is prescribed as permissible under our laws. Freedom of speech carries with it an implied but onerous responsibility not to offend those whom one may not like, whose social mores may not accord with one’s own or who may not agree with one’s point of view.
Notwithstanding any imperfections of our system, Australia is a mature and tolerant democracy which valorizes multiculturalism and its egalitarian ethos. It does not need to be reminded of the rancor, distrust and other cross-cultural challenges prevalent in Europe. They will never be solved by veiled neoracist practices, hate speeches or contempt for the ‘other’ which masquerade as some misbegotten rights, often utilized to defend one’s right to free speech. Clearly, one should forfeit such rights given the specious logic of its defense that always ends up violating the rights of others not to be treated with disrespect.
Free speech was not ‘stoned to death’; it was invigorated by the resistance to ideas or practices that were perceived as violating individual freedom and rights of others. In a post-enlightened, post-Christian, overly-civilized Western world, the main stone throwers are the linguistic violence of its elitist discourse, its implied privileges and its claim to exceptionalism.
Dr. Gopal Nair is an independent commentator and writer based in Sydney. The opinions expressed herein are his and do not in any way represent the views of the publisher(s). Sydney, 27 February 2013