Why are we afraid of free speech and protest? NZ has a proud tradition of it

by The Listener / 09 August, 2018
Don Brash in 2011. Photo/Getty Images

Don Brash in 2011. Photo/Getty Images

RelatedArticlesModule - Don Brash free speech nz

In gagging Don Brash, Massey University seems to have learnt nothing from the example set by David Lange: debate, reason, protest – and mockery – are the best rebuttals for views deemed obnoxious.

If there’s a “bright line” in the test for a country’s tolerance of freedom of speech, New Zealand has just breached it.

Learning nothing from the deplorable part Auckland Mayor Phil Goff played in supporting the barring of two controversial Canadian speakers from council venues, Massey University has blatantly “unplatformed” Don Brash.

Almost as sinister as this trend towards blocking controversial speakers is the excuse often given – including by Massey vice-chancellor Jan Thomas – of the threat to public safety.

In the protest language of the 70s: “Bullshit”.

Thomas made it clear she deplores Brash’s views on race equality. Her excuse of a potential safety risk is surely a matter of convenience. Yet it’s just as offensive to our democracy to use public safety as an excuse to stave off protests as it is to openly suppress free speech. What people such as Thomas – now known as the “Vice Cancellor” – and Goff are, perhaps inadvertently, implying is that protests are undesirable. If protests, including vigorous, noisy ones that sometimes necessitate an element of policing and private security, are now considered an unmanageable “threat to safety”, then we have a problem.

If someone has threatened violence, or physically restricts another’s freedom, that’s a criminal matter. It’s no more grounds to cancel a legitimate event than it would be to close the campus cafe in case someone eats too many chips. For a university, of all institutions, to say, “We mustn’t have this difficult discussion because people might react badly” would be risible if it wasn’t so ethically perilous.

As absurdly, Thomas says health and safety is her No 1 priority. Actually, students’ education is her No 1 priority. And denying them the chance to hear and debate views that are confronting, or even plain silly, impedes an essential part of the educative process.

Protest is one of the healthiest signs a democracy can exhibit. New Zealand has a proud tradition of it, yet veteran protesters such as Goff can appear to forget its very ethos, free speech, when someone challenges their liberal views. When New Zealanders protested against our hosting nuclear-powered warships, they weren’t trying to silence those who believed the nuclear deterrent was necessary. They were simply disagreeing with their viewpoint.

Indeed, for many, a high-point in our sense of nationhood was watching David Lange debate anti-nuclear policy with US preacher Jerry Falwell – who today would be branded “alt-right” – at the Oxford Union. This was a university society debate and Lange dazzled with facts, passion and wit.

Today, there are many who would try to unplatform Falwell. Yet Lange showed us the best approach to people with unpleasant, ridiculous or even offensive views is debate and reason. And if that fails, a mercilessly funny mocking.

It’s unfair of Massey to tar Brash as a “hate-speaker”. The former National leader holds sincere political beliefs about public policies targeting racial groups. As obnoxious and tiresome as many find his views, he is out to debate, not deliberately incite and offend. Thankfully, the University of Auckland, which will still host his talk to students, can tell the difference.

And, yes, sometimes it does take courage to support free speech. But not as much as it takes any number of students around the world who daily risk their lives simply turning up to university or to school.

Even for speakers who do seem to wish to incite hatred, it’s a stealthy form of oppression to say we should not tolerate them here. We should tolerate all speech except that intended to incite acts of hate and violence. In this free democracy, we can exercise the cherished right to publicly oppose others’ views, including those of the most powerful. We misuse that freedom when we use it to bully others, particularly those with minority views, into silence. Even those whose unorthodox views can cause harm, like anti-vaccination campaigners, are better met with facts than with bans and gags.

There’s also the perversity that banning speakers disproportionately glamorises and weaponises them.

Now that social media is such a powerful enforcer of certain orthodoxies, big chunks of the population can feel howled down. Studies of those who support US President Donald Trump and Britain’s decision to leave the European Union show a high sense of grievance that their concerns about immigration, trade and other issues were marginalised.

Let’s not risk that happening here.

This editorial was first published in the August 18, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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