Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Freedom from speech

It was Voltaire who said (paraphrased): "I disapprove of what you say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it" in his defence of the importance of freedom of expression. However, he did not go on to say "I'll defend to the death your right to not be criticised when you say something stupid" which appears to be the instant reaction that comes from the right-wing commentariat every time they are subjected any criticism of their views. Often this criticism is framed as somehow interfering with their right to free speech (although they are very happy to dole out criticism of other's views).

In Australia, this attitude was hardened during the Howard years, particularly during the rise of One Nation. Comments criticising the idiotic statements by Hanson were countered by the phrase "political correctness" (see previous blog post). In fact, it was Howard himself that lent credence to this position by commenting that the expression of these views showed that a "pall of political correctness" had been lifted from Australia.

Since then, the right has become emboldened to expect that their commentary will go unchallenged as the mere mention of "political correctness" along with other right-wing favourites such as accusations of "left-wing bias", "chattering classes" and "chardonnay-sipping lefties" can defeat even the most structured and compelling of arguments.

In fact, any criticism at all is construed as the inherent left-wing bias of the media that in some way is out to gag those poor commentators of the right - who, of course, don't get any coverage for their views.

The recent offensive comments by Jim Wallace of the Australian Christian Lobby have added a new excuse to the lexicon of right-wing commentary: "the vitriol of twitter". Indeed, according to Jim the offensive comments should have been allowed to pass uncritically as they were just a reflection of his views and those of "older diggers" who had come to not recognise the Australia in which they lived. Wallace accused [video] a small cabal of "twitter activists" who sought to "manipulate the media" of taking his offensive comments out of context. So it appears that "twitter activists" can be added to "chardonnay-sippers, "inner-city latte drinkers" "political correctness" and "chattering classes" as pejorative terms that the right can use to defeat any argument or criticism.

Free-speech is a nebulous thing to the right-wing commentariat. It is something that they should enjoy without criticism or having to defend their comments in any way. It only extends to things they agree with and things that they don't should be censored.

So although we may take Voltaire's words to heart and attempt to defeat stupid comments with reasoned argument (or reasonable criticism), the right (and in particular the Christian right), continue to use pejorative accusations to howl down anything with which they don't agree.

In the end, maybe it is Voltaire's famous prayer that ultimately explains the right's continual making of indefensible, idiotic comments and their outrage at the criticism that follows:

"I always made one prayer to God, a very short one. Here it is: "O Lord, make our enemies quite ridiculous!" God granted it."