Two religious communities have shown us the cross roads for free speech at which we have arrived.
The Grand Mufti of Australia, leader of the Muslim faith in this country, called for section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act to be expanded to make it unlawful for a person to (among other things) offend or insult a person on the basis of his or her religion. In effect, he called for a prohibition on blasphemy; an end to any comment that is reasonably likely to offend or insult a person’s religious beliefs.
In contrast, an Elder from the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints, also known as the Mormon community, wrote in The Age a response to what he saw as the mockery, misinformation, crudity and blasphemy that is part of the comedy musical Book of Mormon, which recently opened in Melbourne. Elder Robert Dudfield welcomed the show, because even though it was, to his mind, utterly wrong, it opened an interest in his faith and an opportunity to discuss it.
The Grand Mufti’s approach is draconian, oppressive and stifling of the fundamental value of free speech that, along with the protection of private property rights, underpins the strength of western civilisation and democracy. It’s another opportunity for the intellectual class who have appointed themselves arbiters of right and wrong to throw the book at anyone who dare question the dogma of a particular religion, however objectionable their beliefs or actions may be. It also means that atheists, who often like a joke at the expense of those who are religious, could be lawbreakers for having a laugh.
The Mormon approach is mature and sophisticated. Elder Dudfield disagreed with almost all of that which makes up Book of Mormon, but seized upon it as the springboard for a more positive, informative and welcoming discussion of that faith. The Elder was unafraid to enter the public sphere and openly discuss, defend and advocate for his point of view.
How very refreshing. Those feminists who tried to drive out of business cinemas that dared to screen the controversial movie The Red Pill could learn a thing or two from the maturity of the Mormon approach. It didn’t seem to occur to those who demanded that Palace Cinemas refuse to screen the film that it might just be an opportunity to have a grown-up discussion about the strengths of their point of view.
What happened to the days of agreeing to disagree? When good friends could see the world very differently, and share a meal while jovially discussing those differences? If you’re the kind of person who needs the federal government to stop a person saying something which offends you, then I suggest it not the words that are the problem. You need a cup of concrete – harden up.
Under the approach suggested by the Grand Mufti, the articles written this week by Caroline Overington in The Australian, in which she threw a spotlight on the brutal practice of female genital mutilation in this country by members of the Islamic community (and the hypocrisy of feminists who tolerate it), would be unlawful. For daring to criticise a practice common in that community but utterly barbaric for each girl subjected to it, Ms Overington would be dragged through the Australian Human Rights Commission and probably the Courts. Even if she were to be entitled to the defence in section 18D of the Act, the cost and inconvenience of that process, as well as the slur of being an accused bigot, would be such a punishment that few would be brave enough to risk it.
More disturbingly, expanding section 18C to encompass religion would prioritise the right of adults not to be insulted or offended over being able to question aspects of a religion which, for example, include child marriage and genital mutilation.
If we reduce the scope of that which we allow ourselves to say, it is not much further before we reduce the scope of what we are willing to think.
All men (and women) were created equal. All ideas are not. It is essential to a healthy democracy that all are entitled to debate them freely, so that those which pass the test of common sense can rise to the top.
Without freedom of speech, democracy dies. No amount of “offence” is worth trading it away.
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