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The world is on a dangerous path to stifling free speech

We live in a time when the merely contradicted are claiming persecution so successfully that any debate deemed controversial is immediately shut down.

Whether or not the Government decides we need to strengthen our hate-speech law, the world is already on a dangerous hair-trigger path towards vigilante censorship of free speech.

We’re already past the point Ralph Waldo Emerson once warned about when he cautioned himself against “falling into the vulgar mistake of dreaming that I am persecuted whenever I am contradicted”.

Here, the merely contradicted have asserted persecution so successfully that Treaty of Waitangi sceptic Don Brash, overseas alt-right speakers and a feminist conference have all been “no-platformed”.

University of Otago emeritus professor Jim Flynn – a long-paid-up member of the woke left – had his latest book rejected by his British publisher, not because the publisher thought the book incited hatred or violence, but because Britain’s hate-speech laws have been applied so unevenly publishers were simply gun-shy.

Read more: Where should we draw the line between free speech and hate speech? | In defence of free speech

Increasingly, universities, publishers and public agencies are refusing to facilitate any controversial voices because they’re no longer sure where “controversial” ends and illegal offensiveness begins. This means instead of frankly debating issues, we suppress strong opinions.

It’s salutary to think how effective the minorities who decades ago wanted to ban The Last Temptation of Christ and Life of Brian, and to execute author Salman Rushdie, would have been if they’d had the skills and determination of today’s woke cabals of suppression.

The sheer idiocy of authorities’ overreaction to these issues has the useful effect of bringing any foolish, overbearing law into disrepute. It was generally thought ludicrous when police investigated a British shop keeper for advertising British food with a sign in his window saying “None of your French rubbish”. Another person was threatened with prosecution for a teasing reference to the number of consonants and syllables in Welsh place names.

Clearly this is badly framed legislation, which we should avoid here at all costs. But with or without tougher legislation, the danger to free speech is already occurring through what academics call the chilling effect.

For Flynn’s publisher, the headline excuse was an understandable wish to avoid costly litigation. But underlying all these “no-platform” episodes is a more insidious fear of getting on the wrong side of a group that, though a minority, wields superior bullying power. Thus, a minority group of transgender activists was able to browbeat Massey University out of hosting a conference in which feminists wanted to debate transgender issues.

Overseas, transgender activists have persuaded a tampon manufacturer to remove the symbol for Venus from its advertising on the grounds that it discriminated against transgender users of the product.

In Britain, schools are reporting that some girl students have started to wag, and develop urinary and kidney problems, because they’re scared to go to the toilets, which they now have to share with transgender pupils who identify as girls.

To some, this might sound trivial, but the women’s loos are a kind of refuge, psychologically and physically. For instance, at a pub or nightclub – also tending more towards gender-neutral facilities – they’re a place where a woman who’s being harassed can seek help.

In effect, the tampon-maker has accepted that the right of women to be addressed as women is inferior to transgender people’s rights not to feel left out. Some British schoolgirls’ rights to feel safe in their ablutions blocks are subordinate to transgender students’ rights to inclusion. Right or wrong, this is, or should be, the stuff of vigorous societal debate. Instead, those who seek to debate it are seen off to roars of “fascism!” – with spooked and cowed universities and public agencies in pacifying retreat.

As to fascism, consider this message from protesters who wished to stop a screening of a documentary on controversial psychologist Jordan Peterson: “We cannot allow fascism to continue to rise and will not tolerate its presence in our city … As much as we joke about it, we really don’t want to have to bring out the guillotine to fix society.”

“We cannot allow …”? Any “we” that needs to “bring out the guillotine” to assert its views against others’ is surely the real fascist menace.

This editorial was first published in the November 2, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.