Friday, September 29, 2006

Free speech is truth's best hope

Left-wing political parties need to rediscover a sense of humour and jettison the reflexive fear of offending sacred cows. There's a certain irony, not to mention black humour, when various people and groups say "we're going to kill you for calling us violent and warlike". The irony and black humour increase an order or two of magnitude when the threat is actually carried out. This thought raises the whole question of freedom of speech and the effects of various sorts of responses to offensive, insulting, hurtful comments and communications.

Take two imaginary societies at opposite ends of the "how to respond" spectrum. In one society the offensive, insulting speech is protected. Anything short of inciting physical violence or directly causing physical harm by, say, walking into a cinema and yelling "fire" is completely protected. That means those who are on the receiving end of the distressing, insulting, offensive speech just have to bear it. They can respond in kind, of course, with speech of their own. Indeed, they can be just as offensive in their replies. But in this society the government will not silence the original speakers. Nor will it countenance a violent response. Citizens simply have to have - or quickly learn to develop - a thick skin.

And notice just how thick a skin is expected of the citizens of this first society. If neo-Nazis wish to march down the streets of a town largely inhabited by Jewish Holocaust survivors, that is allowed and protected. If anti-abortion protesters wish to indicate to women entering abortion clinics that they believe abortion is murder, and to show these young women graphic pictures of what will happen to the fetuses, they can. Indeed, if citizens of this society wish to burn their own flag in protest, and to do so in front of military veterans who have seen friends and comrades killed defending that flag, they again can. In this first society, then, freedom of speech is no hollow catchphrase or phony mantra. It comes with a price attached, one that can be quite steep at times. People will be offended, they will be insulted, they will have to listen to what they consider to be false imputations and malicious lies. In Kipling's famous phrase, they will have to "bear to hear the truth (they've) spoken twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools".

In our other imagined society, insulting, offensive speech is simply not allowed. The government will prevent it, if necessary by throwing its perpetrators in jail for lengthy periods or by turning a blind eye to retaliatory beatings or killings of the speakers. No thick skins are needed here.

Two questions immediately arise about these two societies. First, many will wonder what the justification for the first society's forbearance might be. Why allow people to speak words and draw pictures and convey thoughts that others find deeply offensive? John Stuart Mill's answer was that truth had a better chance of emerging where virtually all speech, even words perceived to be offensive, insulting and, yes, false, was allowed.

It is not just that constraints on speech can be manipulated by those in power to protect their own privileged positions, though they clearly can be and regularly are. We all know that there is nothing handier to those in power than to forbid all criticisms of oneself. But the point is wider than that. As the great US Supreme Court judge O.W. Holmes more or less put it: "We don't really know what the true position is. Whatever it is, though, it has a better chance of emerging in the marketplace of competing ideas where everything is open to criticism, even offensive criticism." In other words, the short-term costs of forcing people to have a thick skin will carry with them long-term benefits that are huge. People will have their ideas and beliefs and prejudices exposed to potential attack from all sides. Those who can withstand such widespread attack are more likely to approximate truth.

The second question that arises from envisaging our two societies is whether real societies that more closely resemble our first imagined model do, in fact, deliver the claimed benefits. Are they more likely to achieve scientific advances, medical breakthroughs, containment of epidemics, higher levels of wealth, more responsive political leaders: in short, societies that are attractive to would-be immigrants around the world?

It seems to me that the answer to all these is an obvious and resounding "yes". The connection between upholding free speech and demanding thick skins, on the one hand, and all sorts of attendant, long-term benefits, on the other, is clear. The implications of this realisation are many and wide-ranging.

For instance, many Western governments in the past decade or so have enacted hate-speech provisions that deliver short-term benefits. But their long-term effects are much less obviously good. These all need rethinking, including here in Australia. There is also an implication as regards political correctness.

Left-wing political parties need to rediscover humour (which at present seems to me to be almost exclusively the preserve of the Right). They need to jettison the reflexive fear of offending sacred cows (could they even say that?) and impinging upon shibboleths. They need to demand thicker skins of their supporters.

Here's one final implication to finish. The power of free speech to advance long-term human wellbeing on so many fronts shows the poverty of the cultural relativist mind-set. These people simply have not read their Hume, the great 18th century Scottish sceptical philosopher and the man who demanded we distinguish between facts and values, ises and oughts.

Whether any particular culture is seen by some individual or other as good or valuable does indeed have a subjective or relative element to it. But what the effects of a culture will be in empirical terms is not in the eye of the beholder. So one culture might place a huge emphasis on education while another frowns on it and glamorises, say, lounging on the beach.

In one sense there is no right answer as to which culture is to be preferred from any individual's point of view, with his or her proclivities and tastes. But there most assuredly is a right answer as to which culture will produce more prosperity, more scientific advances, more longevity for its citizens. And those who prefer the other culture must do so in the full knowledge of what comes with that preference. The facts are not relative.



This bizarre ruckus over the words of a medieval monarch has turned into a revealing picture of the modern world. A world in which nobody, not even the leader of a major faith, is allowed to express a strong opinion without risking condemnation and demands for an apology. A world dominated by a victim mentality, in which groups with hyper-sensitive `outrage antennae' are always on the lookout for the chance to claim that they have been offended, insulted or oppressed by the words of others. And a world where striking moral poses takes precedence over serious debate, so that a minor issue of a few cartoons in a Danish newspaper or a paragraph in an obscure Papal address can be blown up into a phoney image war staged for the benefit of the global media.

The reaction of outraged Muslim groups to the Pope's remarks typifies the contemporary search for offence that can legitimise a victim identity. As has been argued elsewhere on spiked, however, this outlook is a product more of Western multicultural identity politics than of Islam (see The price of multiculturalism, by Michael Fitzpatrick).

Just as the reaction to the Danish cartoons featuring Mohammad began in the West and was broadcast to the Muslim world, so it seems a safe bet that the Pope's remarks in Germany were first picked up on somebody's outrage antenna in Europe (see Those cartoons: a caricatured argument, by Mick Hume). These protests are then exported to the Islamic world, complete with pre-edited script, where they are turned into angry demonstrations for the benefit of the media over here. Note the slogans on those protests in Palestine or Pakistan, mostly written in poor English - not the protesters' language, nor the Pope's, but that of the internet and the US/global media.

(Muslim groups are often the most militant expression of the outraged victim identity today, but it is not all one-way traffic. Thus gay and human rights groups in Britain were recently up in arms over remarks made by Iqbal Sacranie of the Muslim Council of Britain, condemning homosexuality as an abomination in the eyes of Allah. This was simply a statement of the conventional Islamic attitude, yet there were immediately calls for an apology and even a prosecution. Leading British Muslims responded with a letter to The Times (London), asserting their religion's right to freedom of speech. Their one-eyed victim identity prevented them from seeing any contradiction in that, but the irony was not lost on others.)

The row over the Pope's remarks also highlights another fact of contemporary political culture. These manufactured protests by outraged marginal groups - often, as in this case, relatively small to start with - draw their strength from the uncertain, defensive reaction of those accused of using offensive words. Almost before there had been any protests, the Catholic hierarchy in England had issued a statement distancing itself from the Pope's speech. Before long the Pope himself was apologising for any offence he had caused. This all seems a long way from the historical notion of papal infallibility. The result, of course, was not only to legitimise the outrage of the protesters, but also to prompt demands for more fulsome apologies. There is no way to appease a self-styled victim's demands for redress.

The uncertain, defensive reaction of the Roman Catholic Church to Islamic protests is a result of its own crisis of authority, which has called into question many traditional Catholic stands - a retreat which some saw as symbolised by the decision to abandon the Pope's title of Patriarch of the West earlier this year. The speech that the Pope was making in Germany, apparently arguing for the compatibility of Christianity with reason and rationality, could be interpreted as another sign of the church's retreat from its anti-Enlightenment traditional ground.

The church's crisis of authority in turn is a reflection of the wider loss of confidence in Western society and culture. One symptom of this crisis on which we have often commented is the increasing fear of free speech and the moves to outlaw ideas or opinions that are deemed offensive or inflammatory.

It was striking that Oriana Fallaci, the famously provocative Italian journalist who died this week, was awaiting trial in Italy charged with vilifying a religion recognised by the state, because of her anti-Muslim rants about the war on terror. The British authorities, too, have pushed to make incitement to religious hatred a crime.

It is against this background that the Pope's use of a medieval quote about Mohammad has become politicised and blown up into a major issue on both sides. While at least one Muslim statesman sought to compare Pope Benedict to Hitler, some liberal commentators in Britain and the West worried that the Pope's words would give the green light to a wave of nascent Islamophobia, as if there were mobs waiting to launch a religious pogrom at the drop of the pontiff's hat. On the other side, some commentators rushed to defend the Pope as the champion of Western freedom and rationalism against militant Islam - not qualities many of us would normally associate with the Catholic Church or the Vatican State.

Enough of this phoney war about the meaning of a few old words quoted by a Pope. Let us take a stand for something really worth defending - freedom of speech, the right to offend, and the expression of firm beliefs.

Those of faith should be free to criticise other faiths as they see fit - just as those of us who have no religion must be free to criticise or ridicule them all. If the Pope had meant to condemn Islam, it might not have been diplomatically wise, but it would be perfectly legitimate - or even obligatory - for the leader of a worldwide Christian church. However distasteful others might find it, it should also be accepted that Muslims or Christians can express the belief that homosexuality is a sin (violence is, of course, another matter entirely).

Indeed it is far better for all of us if these things can be stated and debated out in the open. It is when people's beliefs are suppressed that they can find other outlets. Thus, the you-can't-say-that culture has not countered the growth of the fundamentalist fringe in our societies. On the contrary, it has given fringe groups legitimacy. With the Pope under fire for being a Catholic, for example, where is there left for true believers to go? To join Mel Gibson and the cranks?

And this is not just, or even primarily, about religion. The notions that strong beliefs are a problem, that free speech must be curtailed in the name of tolerance, and that causing offence is the worst offence of all, have become powerful conventions across Western society. These secular conventions have shaped the debate about Christianity and Islam, rather than the other way around. Here, the unconditional defence of free speech is even more important, as the only way for us to have the issues out, clarify differences, and argue the way ahead for our society.

Contrary to what has been suggested, freedom and civilisation are not at risk from a few over-publicised Islamic protests against the Pope. They could, however, be at risk from a culture that refuses to stand up for its own basic beliefs, such as freedom of speech and genuine tolerance - which involves tolerating (while arguing against) the expression of views you violently disagree with, not trying to silence them as `intolerant' or offensive.

Let us have less victim politics, and more expressions of political conviction. Less striking of moral postures and demands for apologies or bans, and more taking a stand for what you believe and fighting your corner. Let the Pope be a Catholic, let Mohammad be a Muslim, and let bears do their business where they will. The rest of us surely have other things to protest and argue about.


Australia: A need for INtolerance

In the Cape York town of Hopevale, where Noel Pearson grew up, there is every kind of gambling except one - cards. There is a social taboo against card gambling that lingers from the days when the Lutherans ran Hopevale mission, back when Aboriginal children like Pearson's father and grandfather were taught to read the Bible back to front and to write beautifully. "They never do card gambling at Hopevale," Pearson said on Friday. "They gamble on pokies, drink, fornicate, everything else, but there is a remnant social norm about card gambling."

Pearson, 41, the director of the Cape York Institute, likes the card gambling example because it "just illustrates the strength of social norms", the often invisible glue that creates social order and civility and protects the vulnerable. "That's why advantaged middle-class people don't have to worry about things like school attendance and school readiness," he says. By school "readiness", Pearson does not mean whether a child can recite the alphabet, tie shoelaces and cut along a straight line. He means the basic daily readiness of being fed, washed and well slept before coming to school.

Pearson aims to rebuild social norms that have disappeared over the past two generations from Cape communities. It is part of his plan to dramatically reform the way welfare is delivered, and tie it to behavioural benchmarks such as school attendance and responsible parenting. The Federal Government has contributed $3 million for a pilot project and he has just returned from a trip around Cape York to ensure the voluntary participation of the four communities of Aurukun, Hopevale, Coen and Mossman Gorge.

Pearson laments the situation in which the sacred bond of love between mother and child has been broken by substance abuse and the collapse of social norms. He openly declares he wants to reintroduce "intolerance" into his communities: intolerance of drugs, intolerance of alcohol, intolerance of sexual abuse, intolerance of domestic violence, intolerance of not sending your children to school every day.

Pearson's critics - mostly middle-class, progressive-left and social-justice romantics - say his plans to tie welfare payments to behavioural benchmarks are draconian. But they don't understand what it is like to live in a community without social norms, he says. He is determined that his welfare reform project will address the horrific abuse of indigenous children which has been reported this year with sickening regularity.

If parents are drug users, for instance, he asks why authorities hand back a child into such a known dangerous environment. He wants instead to take control of welfare payments as the tool to force irresponsible parents to clean up their act, to say: "If you don't agree to regular drug testing for two years and satisfy other benchmarks [such as school attendance] you will be on income management and you will not have the freedom of spending your money as you want." Instead, welfare payments will be managed for the parent and used to pay for rent, food, school supplies and other necessities. "It is a carrot and stick approach," Pearson says.

The welfare reform project complements the institute's work on education. Pearson outlined some of those achievements at an advisory group meeting on Friday in Cairns for the Every Child is Special project. It includes a successful pilot project at Coen primary school, in which the 15 least proficient readers were given intensive, systematic instruction in phonics for a year by specialist teachers from Macquarie University's MULTILIT (Making Up Lost Time In Literacy) program. The results, unveiled on Friday, were encouraging; the children, whose reading ability was three to four years behind the Australian average, gained an average 21.4 months in reading accuracy. The Higher Expectations program identifies the brightest primary school children and "works aggressively" to send them to elite boarding schools, Pearson says. The first candidate is at Brisbane Grammar this year, "and he's survived and done well". Another program supports indigenous students at university. This year there were 10 candidates, and next year another dozen. Pearson is proud that both programs are "completely privately funded".

Ann Creek, a Coen elder and mother of five who has been a driving force in improving literacy at Coen school, said at the meeting on Friday: "Kids absorb knowledge; they want to be part of it, they want to learn more. If given the chance they'll grasp it . We all want our kids to achieve so they can go on to further education. They want to make a name for their family, for their clan group and for their community."

Pearson's "Cape York Agenda" of economic and social development aims to build the "capabilities" of indigenous people, freeing them from the yoke of welfare passivity, empowering them with proper education so they have at least the same knowledge of Western culture and proficiency in English as their peers in the rest of Australia. He says he hopes to transform communities within a generation. But first he must re-establish social order, and that requires a "hard bottom line". "Enforcement of the Education Act, [taking control of the] family benefit payment is the draconian bottom line we think is part of the process. We have an escalation in place that means we hopefully never have to get to the bottom line. But without the bottom line there is not much hope of re-establishing social norms." And as Bernadette Denigan, the director of the Every Child is Special project, reminded the group: "The ultimate draconian bottom line is the removal of children by government and that does happen."


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