Written By: - Date published: 7:00 am, April 15th, 2019 - 119 comments
Categories: censorship, culture, Deep stuff, democracy under attack, democratic participation, education, Ethics, human rights, identity, internet, law, leadership, political education, Politics, suppression orders, terrorism, uncategorized, vision - Tags: freedom of speech, hate speech, prefigurative politics, public discourse
8+ minutes to read
The boundaries between political and public debate are fuzzy at the best of times. They both take place in MSM and social media and to a lesser degree in Parliament (that includes Select Committees). One could call it participatory democracy but it is not democracy as we know it.
Strong (i.e. clear and with integrity) moral leaders are near absent and this void is filled with click-baiters and ego-trippers. Moral leaders are not the ones who moralise but those who can facilitate and mediate debates on complex moral issues. Moral issues are complex by default and they change over time.
The so-called ‘debates’ are often polarising partisan point-scoring competitive bouts and rarely aimed at finding common ground and increased understanding that has a genuine sustained positive impact. Generally, people do not listen; they are only interested in getting their own point across.
New Zealand has some extremely difficult conversations ahead and, like so many things, the standard is set from the top. Our politicians all carry blame for, at various points, stoking intolerance and capitalising on pockets of latent xenophobia for votes.
To change views and attitudes is hard and takes a (very) long time; they are embedded in our identity and thus any attempts to change are met with strong resistance. It won’t happen in one conversation or debate. I know this by looking at myself. I don’t change my views overnight – I quite like my own views and I’m quite attached to them; they’re my ‘babies’ – but over my life time I have changed and I’m now more aware of this inner process – some call this “aging” or “mellowing”. The best one can hope for though is conceding minor facts and even the odd apology. Don’t expect a fundamental change of PoV, and certainly no public admission of any such ‘epiphany’.
Ironically, in this environment, political rhetoric is condemned and radical opposing views by non-politicians is strongly resisted and banned when possible. Against this backdrop, it is clear that a genuine debate about freedom of speech is an exercise in futility and flawed from the outset.
What does freedom actually mean? To do and say as you please? That seems rather pointless to me. To express yourself and your inner life? More like it. However, freedom of speech without an audience or a recipient is nothing – in space, nobody can hear you scream. Here is the thing though; you cannot always pick and choose your audience. Freedom of speech is not absolute and ought to be guided by two considerations: purpose and impact (AKA consequence).
It is natural to turn away from noise that we do not like. It is also natural to defend ourselves against harmful forces. Sometimes we have no choice but to confront a threat but how can we do this effectively if we do not know its shape, form, smell, or name? How can we fight effectively without previous experience and practice? An immune system that is not exposed to pathogens is weak and useless yet we obsessively clean and sterilise, overuse antibiotics, and go nuts against vaccinations. If we do the same with opinions and ideas that we vehemently object to (outrageous!) or judge as outright dangerous we set ourselves up for future life-threatening ‘illnesses’.
I believe we are already well down this track – the symptoms are hiding in plain view. We must not tolerate the intolerant, says Popper, if they refuse rational debate and cannot be kept in check by public opinion. This seems to ignore the fact that public opinion is shaped by rational debate or at least ought to be (but see below). As an aside, it requires a stretch of the imagination to label debates in the debating chamber of New Zealand’s House of Representatives as rational. Public trust in politicians and the political process are such that public opinion does not seem to matter much let alone keep parties in check. That said, politicians seem to be sensitive to opinion polls and do pay lip service to voters (which is not quite the same as public opinion) closer to election time.
When free speech incites hatred or violence, it must be curbed. However, such speech does not appear out of nowhere (nothing comes from nothing) and thus it has to dealt with pre-emptively by curbing speech that might be on the trajectory to objectionable speech, which according to some leads to violence and genocide. Controls, regulations, laws, and special state agencies with special powers must make sure that nobody goes down (or up rather) the slippery slope and that nobody is exposed to it.
This is shaped by prevailing thinking, against the backdrop of growing intolerance, and it is as deterministic as it is reductionist. If, however, we were to choose a different approach in which we would not automatically assume the worst case scenario and in which we would engage with those members of our society who clearly feel displaced, alienated, disenfranchised and disengaged from the rest of society, it might open the door for a constructive dialogue instead of driving them further away into the cracks of society where they can simmer away till they find their way to the surface again with all dire consequences.
Such dialogue is a waste of time, some say. It has been tried and failed. It will lead to more atrocities and you will have blood on your hands. Really? How many attempts have been made with a truly open mind that all bitterly failed? I note that people with a self-confessed closed mind usually make such counter-claims – I have made up my mind and do not need or want to reconsider.
This is classical catch-22. The current focus on (free) speech, e.g. in social media, and calls to regulate it are ignoring the source of origin. It is like putting a little plaster on a huge bulging tumour. Even when you cut out the primary source, another one will pop up and on and on it goes.
What does it take to break this cycle? For starters, it takes faith in humanity. We need to learn to trust each other. It takes leaders who lead by example. However, most of all it takes faith in ourselves and opening up our minds to other possibilities than we could ever have imagined. In other words, we need to embrace uncertainty, doubt, and fear and learn to see in and into the darkness. Use it wisely and it will sustain us; use it unwisely and it will destroy us.
We all draw a line somewhere but our collective line is not necessarily the same as our own personal individual line and it should not be unless we want a highly conforming montonous citizenry in a highly regulated society. The problem with regulation is that arbitrary lines determine what is tolerated and what is not, what is acceptable and what is not (AKA the Overton window for public discourse). These lines may or may not be tested in Court and individual and collective Rights may or may not be curbed unnecessarily. Moral issues cannot and must not be prescribed through regulation or Law first and foremost because this removes the integral conscious aspect of morality – it is not ok to commit a crime just because the Law says so and you might get caught and punished. The “pretty legal” ‘excuse’ would fall in this category.
The key to all this is education. An evolved and enlightened society will deal with complex moral issues and paradoxes without jumping straight to enforceable or mandatory regulation. Moral leadership will avoid binary traps and guide public debate to derive better outcomes for all.
It’s imperative that politicians and the media guide those [three big conversations on the horizon: the trial of person of the Mosque shootings; gun laws; spying and mass surveillance] responsibly, but every New Zealander should pause and think a little longer about whether what they’re contributing is not only not breeding extremism, but not giving it space to breath.
In order to be able to recognise hate speech, for example, and know how to respond to it, it is not enough to take somebody else’s word for it. To develop critical and independent thinking requires being able to trust your own judgement and you do not learn this from taking somebody else’s word for it or reading about it on the internet. For example, people portray Don Brash or Jordan Peterson as some kind of right-wing evil protagonists. I could take their word for it but I would not know on what basis they have come to this verdict. I have no way to test their judgement. Unless I can and do check for myself.
All things being equal, tolerating the intolerant is a sure recipe for disaster. Because our tolerance is as thin as veneer and our intolerance is always ready to pounce from its hiding spot to attack intolerant and intolerant alike. Indeed, no distinction is made as to what or who has to be fought because intolerance is based on emotion and irrational thought. This is why a calm rational debate with intolerant people is impossible and an exercise in futility – it will always fail. The only way to ‘win’ them over is to avoid the urge to win them over by reason alone, to preach or plead. The best way IMO is to not shut them out or ban them but leave the door of engagement ajar and be the change you want to see and show integrity, empathy, and patience. It sounds very counter-intuitive but in the long run this may be the only viable way.
At the end of my last Post on Political Leadership, I politely asked to refrain from personal attacks and propaganda. Disappointingly, this was largely ignored, wilfully or accidentally (because of a severe lack of imagination and bold vision?), from the first comment onwards. However, I do take some responsibility for that as the Author of the Post and I should have done a better job. However, I ask again, please debate the topic and do not make pointless personal attacks against other commenters or existing people. Thank you in advance.