Politics Opinion

Responsible 'free speech' key to a fair, harmonious Australia

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Stan Grant on the ABC's Q&A (image via YouTube)

Right-wing provocateurs have encouraged uncivil "freedom of speech," which targets minority groups and has no place in an open and compassionate Australia, writes Frances Letters

*This article was the May prize winner in the IA Writing Competition Most Compelling Article category.

MANY YEARS AGO, during the heady, hippie, revolutionary days of the early 1970s, I developed what must have been a most irritating habit. I couldn’t keep my new radical opinions to myself. With evangelical zeal I pounced on every example of racism, pub-talk prejudice or talkback-radio whingeing and harangued my relatives about them. No one in the family was safe from the jeremiad of my convictions.

Things finally got so bad that one of my sisters took me aside and told me point blank that I was an outright bolshie proselytiser and a bit of a bore! In my shock at the rebuke, I gulped in shame and stopped dead.

I kept up that restraint for years, painfully careful not to rock the family boat. So though I still burned with zeal for the old causes, to my nearest and dearest I said little. And the less I said, the less I could say. People who might once have warily minded their Ps and Qs around me gradually felt comfortable blurting out any old thing that popped into their heads.

But at a big family gathering one day, I could take it no more. At the time, Pauline Hanson was big news. A few minor grumbles around the table – Aboriginal claims over our back yards; Asian migrants swamping Australia – were arrows in my heart. To my own amazement, I exploded in a fit of screaming and swearing and door-slamming that left everyone stunned and gaping.

"Why on earth didn’t you say something all this time?" they demanded when I crept back hours later, shamefaced and red-eyed. "We knew you used to have strong views about things, but we thought they’d faded away years ago!"

Now, in a cowardly way, I’m glad if family and friends speak cautiously around me. But is this right? What of the need for honest, brawny, no-holds-barred debate on such vital "woke" matters as race, Aboriginal reconciliation, refugees, white supremacy, religion and feminism?  And these days, urgently, on the Indigenous Voice. AUKUS. Australia's humble tugging the forelock as we bow sweetly to the U.S. and poke out nasty, provocative tongues at China, our number one trading partner.

Surely our very way of life in a democracy depends on the right to speak our minds. And on a free media. But on the other hand, what right do we have to stomp on the sensibilities of others?  Should we grit our teeth in silence even when we believe we have something valuable – if controversial – to offer?  

Is there no middle way? Some winding bush path where, instead of snarling, opponents might pass one another with a wave, a good-humoured shrug of acknowledgement and a grin? Even flop down together under a gum tree for a cuppa and a respectful exchange of opinions, however passionately held? Maybe even learn a thing or two.

So the conundrum nags on. Complete freedom to spew out your bile, or a total taboo against it? It’s a diabolical knot that in the present uneasy climate we have to pull apart; a dilemma we must thrash out.

I’d like to throw an idea into the melting pot. It comes from an unexpected, quite unrelated source: Stanley Milgram’s famous obedience experiment at Yale in 1961.

Milgram assigned to each volunteer the role of teacher. Whenever the "pupil", an actor hidden behind a wall, apparently made a mistake, the "teacher" was ordered to administer what he believed to be an electric shock. After each supposed mistake, the "teacher" was commanded to up the voltage.

Milgram was curious to know at what point each volunteer would defy the scientist authoritatively giving the orders and refuse to continue. To his amazement, most of the normal, everyday participants obediently went on beefing up the voltage no matter how loud the screams became. 65 per cent even went beyond an indicator that clearly read "DANGER: SEVERE SHOCK".

The experiment hit public awareness like a bomb. Only 15 years before, the star defence at the Nuremberg trials had been "but I was only obeying orders!" So it seemed that Nazis hadn’t been unique after all. Under certain conditions, when commanded with sufficient authority, apparently, most nice ordinary people could be persuaded to act like monsters.

But note the vital words: under certain conditions. The experiment had been rigorously controlled. The volunteer "teachers" had been led onward, step by step, without any offer of an exit. No one asked them, "Do you think the poor guy has had enough?" Quite the contrary. If they wavered, the scientist controller calmly and confidently ordered them to continue stepping up the voltage. There were only two options: obedience or outright defiance.

Now everything in the experiment had been deliberately stacked against defiance. The volunteer "teachers", like the whole community at the time, had had a deep, unquestioning respect for science and for authority. Naturally, they were eager to cooperate, to please the grave, white-coated authority figures. Who would dare to question such powerful, respected beings? The whole setup had made obedience not only the easiest option, but almost predictable.

Yet clearly a different piling up of circumstances would have had a very different outcome.

The principle of least action is as fundamental in daily life as in physics. Each morning, circumstances –piled up into an unseen heap by the weather, history, chance, genetics, fashion, family mores, past decisions we've made – unroll the day’s path out before us. Usually, it’s the most natural thing in the world to follow it. One little push and we’re off, down the path of least resistance.

Reflecting on this natural tendency of life might help us crack the perennially hard nut of whether to censor when the insults start to fly, or to let opinion soar free.

Among other arguments, the free speech side of the debate has it that stamping on prejudice only drives it underground. Vicious words grow in strength when muttered behind hands, the reasoning goes. Better keep them out in the open, where they can be challenged or ridiculed. Besides, freedom of speech is the root of all our other freedoms. Curb it and it’s the thin edge of the wedge: you risk giving the powers-that-be free rein to curb anything else that displeases them.

But on the other hand, letting it all hang out can truly do harm: trigger bitterness, fury at rejection, and real misery. More dangerously, it can change the outward face of the whole society – sometimes subtly, sometimes brutally – by seeming to sanction the unacceptable.

"I’m only saying what most people think privately!" protest social media lords and populist politicians the world over. Isn't the genie already simmering away in his bottle? Uncorking it doesn’t create trouble: trouble already exists! We’re just airing the truth!

Most of us would feel at least some hesitation if forced to choose between extremes of censorship and free speech. My personal instinct would be to jump in feet first for freedom, our primary barricade against tyranny.

But the obedience experiment opens a subtle new chink for us to peer through at the alternative. The volunteers obeyed because they were led inexorably on, step by step. Conditions had been set up to guide them along a given path, much as movable fences are deployed to funnel sheep down ever-narrowing passageways into an enclosure. The goal had been built into the very structure of the experiment.

But crucially, they might just as easily have been led in another direction altogether. Different conditions would presumably have triggered different reactions.

Now if this is the case, then amiable tolerance, too, might be consciously shaped in a society. Even creating an insincere, superficial veneer of open-mindedness might lead to its authentic flowering. Imagine a community where it’s thought so utterly unacceptable to sneer at Muslims, Jews, Indigenous people, refugees and LGBTQ+ persons that, in public, nobody does it. Surely children growing up there would assume this state of affairs to be the norm.

Even if a few parents gave vent to their own secret spleen in private, their children would wince, knowing how unacceptably iffy it was; how embarrassing and out of step with the national mood.

So should there be anti-vilification laws against speaking your mind if your words are thought insulting, hurtful or damaging? Laws usually do end up making a difference in shaping public opinion (though there are notable exceptions, like the recreational drug laws, which millions merrily flout).

Think how views on punishing children have changed over the years. The schoolroom strap that I remember whirling through the air to thwack down savagely on little hands and legs was once deemed a stern, moral necessity. Now that it’s outlawed, everyone sees it as barbaric. And countless older people who’d once thought it positively responsible to belt their own kids might now flinch to see a parent whaling into a toddler in the supermarket.

The background climate shifted: and as naturally as water trickles down a hill, law and behaviour followed. This prompted yet more background changes and so on. Step by step, a feedback loop spurred on an evolutionary spiral.

The obedience experiment shows how naturally we humans can be led along the path of least resistance. If Australians really think of ourselves as an easygoing, tolerant bunch, won’t most of us be moved to behave accordingly? This, in turn, should theoretically up the ante another notch: good-humoured, even-tempered words and behaviour reinforcing the belief that tolerance and friendliness are the norms. And so on in a virtuous circle. Thoughtfully arranged conditions around us would have acted as a passageway to funnel us into a wider, sunnier field.

This, surely, is how we’ve been managing the slow climb, rung by wary rung, out of the deepest pit of race prejudice that was the White Australia I grew up in.

Certainly, the flipside is true. Within days of Pauline Hanson’s maiden speech in Federal Parliament about Australia being "swamped by Asians", we began to hear of hoons spitting at Muslim women in the street, and Asian students warned to get back where they came from. Two young white thugs knocked on the door of a respected Aboriginal woman near where I live in Armidale, and snarled, "We don’t want you in this street. Get back to the dump where you belong or else!"

Why hadn’t this bullying been erupting before? What made such venom suddenly boil to the surface?

The fact that someone in a position of power had seen discontent with change simmering under the surface of many lives and had put words to it. Had zeroed in on the old scapegoats: foreigners who’ve come to snatch our jobs or bum it on the dole; Aboriginal persons who whinge about injustice but grab far more handouts than whites.

Someone had stood up in the nation’s forum and confronted political correctness: made it okay to say out loud what the aggrieved had wanted to say all along but were ashamed to. Not surprisingly, some people had felt so liberated they’d gone out into the streets and put their thrilling new freedoms to work. 

As kids we used to answer taunts with a defiant chant: "Sticks and stones will break my bones. But words will never hurt me!"

It’s not true. Words can coax us into each other’s arms or send us bellowing off to war. Or onto a beach brandishing flags, with fists flailing. Words can now cook up gratifyingly spicy troll food.

Luckily, one folksy old Aussie motto, these days often quoted with rolled eyes and an amused sigh of regret, should still be strong enough to resist the worst of that ugly tribal pull. "A fair go". For all.

Let's remember that phrase with conviction. Otherwise, racist and bigoted jeering might easily become entrenched, reinforcing the idea that bloody-mindedness is the norm. This might then funnel us ever deeper into a corral of malice and spite.

Who knows where that conditioning might end? Stan Grant's sorrowful, exhausted despair as he withdrew from the ABC's Q&A is only one example of its effect. We’ve seen enough of the madness that lies down that road to be very nervous of following it.

So let’s give a hopeful cheer for friendly acceptance of difference and for that wider, sunnier field!

Frances Letters is a writer, journalist, meditation teacher and activist.

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