News & Comment
The free speech debate is about more than just censuring the censors.
In yesterday’s Sydney Morning Herald leading, openly-gay journalist and author, David Marr, eloquently defended free speech from those who would impinge on it.
His main target were the usual conservative moralists who want this or that censored.
Then, perhaps to re-inforce his point that umbrage is a national failing, or simply so as not to appear culturally biased, Marr added yours truly to his list of those who “want something done” when they are offended.
To Marr’s credit, he cites my reasoning even if he disagrees with it, i.e. that derogatory words can have a terrible impact on people already subject to systemic prejudice and discrimination.
But good manners don’t excuse the inconsistencies in Marr’s case.
Firstly, I’m not sure the example of my advocacy Marr cited puts me in the same league as people who wanted Bill Henson’s head on a pike. When Jerry Lewis said cricket is “a fags’ game”, I called for him to apologise, not be locked up.
More importantly, I can’t help but wonder how Marr would have responded if Jerry Lewis had referred, say, to basketball as "a niggers' game".
I doubt he would have expected Africans or Aborigines to “cop it” in the same he expects his gay peers to cop Lewis’s fag “joke”.
In a similar vein, I recall that in the email conversation I had with Marr about the Lewis slur, he confirmed his support for Martine Delaney’s anti-vilification cases against those members of the Exclusive Brethren who authorised Tasmanian election ads declaring transgender human rights would “ruin families and society”.
"I’m not backing away from Martine’s action. That’s the sort of thing we need to concentrate on – and gather wide community support to pursue."
(FTR, DM gave me his permission to quote this, as I gave him permission to quote my contribution to the same e-conversation).
Perhaps the election ads were more offensive than what Lewis said. Perhaps they weren't. Regardless, DM seems to be happy for us to cop some insults but not others.
The reason for identifying these inconsistencies is not to catch David Marr out for the sake of it (like the Australian takes too much pleasure doing).
It is to highlight the fact that freedom of speech is not and has never been an absolute.
Society constantly redefines what kind of language is acceptable and how we should collectively respond to unacceptable language.
We accept satire but not defamation, religious advocacy but not hate speech, and wherever the boundaries between these things overlap some of most heated cultural contests occur.
David Marr is right to correct us when public debate is dragged down by two very real (in my view prison-yard-origin) national weakness, whinging like there’s nothing we can do to fix things, and expecting the government to fix things instead.
But that is only the very beginning of a much bigger debate about where and why we draw the cultural and legal lines around offensive, demeaning and hateful speech.
In other news,
The Logie for best free publicity for a prime time drama goes to..…Channel 7 for placating the conservative Christians by removing a lusty lesbian pash from Home and Away, placating the homosexuals by retaining an intimate kiss, and emerging squeaky clean by justifying it all (quite convincingly, I have to say) in the name of art.
Cuba confirms my “rubber-band” theory of social change by bouncing from worst to best like so many island communities before it (Jamaica may take a little longer).
The latest breakthrough on Tassie devil facial tumours reminds us that the closer we come to a cure the more money we’ll need to save devils from extinction.
I’m still waiting for Warner Bros to channel a fraction of the millions it’s made from the animal into saving it from oblivion, and, no, a truck load of fluffy toys doesn’t cut it.
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Hang on, this post raises a whole bunch of questions. A few months ago you were upset that a Brisbane art gallery *may* have removed a work that *may* have been offensive to Christians. How do you reconcile your objections to "censorship" then with your calls for circumspection now?
Is it ok just for art to be offensive? In which case, would you be ok with a homophobic exhibition?
In a supposedly free society, how do you intend to draw the line at what is and isn't offensive? Do we leave it up to activists and bureaucrats to decide for everyone else? And since when did "offence" become against the law, to be decided by some networked insiders trying to manipulate a social agenda?
Finally, who appointed you a representative of the "LGBT community"? I didn't vote for you, and I oppose many of the positions you take. You really represent the opinion of no one but yourself and a coterie of fellow activists. To be fair, I'd appreciate if in future you would qualify that point in whatever announcements or representations you make 'on behalf of the LGBT community' (however that's supposed to be defined).
I agree with Rodney regarding the limits to free speech.
I do not believe that the so-called "right to freedom of speech" (which doesn't even exist in Australia) applies without limit; discriminatory and hate speech should be condemned. No-one has a "right" to discriminate against others, no matter how "free" a society is.
We need to draw a distinction between "offensive speech" and "discriminatory or hateful speech". I agree that speech should not be censored or criminalised merely because it is offensive; a swear word may be merely offensive, for example. However, discriminatory speech is of a different sort, in that it vilifies a particular group and can cause psychological harm.
Restrictions against discriminatory speech should apply on all grounds, including religion. I would be equally critical of an atheist saying a derogatory word to a Christian or Muslim or demeaning their religion as I would of someone calling another a "fag" or a "nigger".
My point was that there's nothing absolute about this issue. For example, people don't have to visit an art gallery if they don't like what's on show. That's very different to a famous comic who has society-wide exposure.
As for representation, in 20 years I have never once claimed to represent the entire LGBT community. Mostly, I speak on behalf of particular organisations with particular policies. On this blog I speak as an individual. If you hear this as speaking for everyone, that's your interpretation for which I am not responsible.
PS: I don't recall commenting on art in Brisbane. Can you remind me? And apart from the freedom-of-speech thing, what don't you agree with? Surely not devils.
I agree with Rodney regarding the limits to free speech.
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