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Silence isn't golden when it comes to free speech

By Natasha Moore - posted Thursday, 14 May 2015

In a laughably provocative recent article, entitled "It's time to put an end to anti-choice speech", a self-proclaimed Australian human rights activist made a long, repetitive case for legislating against "oppressive speech".

What counts as "oppressive" started out as any opposition to abortion, but by the conclusion of the article the category had gotten considerably out of hand:

Not only should anti-choice speech be banned, but so should all speech that voices approval of reactionary, hateful, bigoted, or anti-human rights ideologies. This includes pro-gun speech, speech that voices approval of Israeli apartheid in Palestine, speech that voices approval of the inhumane treatment of asylum seekers, speech advocating oppressive economic systems, anti-feminist speech, anti-environmental speech, anti-healthcare speech, anti-immigration speech, climate change denial, and any other ideologies which are harmful, hateful, and/or dangerous.


To wit: disagreement with my personal moral and political persuasions (and those, presumably, of most people I know) should be illegal. No debate to see here, folks; all other viewpoints have been defined off the cliff-edge as bigoted, small-minded, and dangerous.

To be fair, the article was published on Thought Catalog, a website that's been pegged as the natural home of "angst-laden screeds" and has been repeatedly in hot water for its lack of editorial oversight: it will publish literally anybody.

It does, however, have a monthly reach of 20 million people. And however amateurish the article, it's not difficult to find echoes of its arguments, its outrage, and the militancy of its calls to stop people saying things that make us angry hiding in plain sight, in much more "respectable" journalistic contexts.

A couple of months ago Time magazine was trying to shame Mark Zuckerberg for failing to ban anti-vaxxers from Facebook; just this week, Clementine Ford has suggested that the views held by people of Christian or any faith should be excluded from Australian political life. Ideas about family or gender that differ from her own are not be engaged with and refuted, but simply taken off the table.

Within an increasingly polarised intellectual and political culture, there is a signal lack on all sides of something that might traditionally have been called humility: a self-awareness that can involve holding serious convictions, passionately, and yet at the same time acknowledging that none of us is right about everything, or even (most likely) completely right about anything. No matter how sound our ideas themselves might be, our emphasis, our policy conclusions, or our understanding of the full implications of those ideas will always be more or less flawed.

It has been said that John Stuart Mill's classic work, On Liberty, should be compulsory reading for everyone who wants to participate actively and honourably in a democratic society. Its logic is compelling. "All silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility," Mill insists. He notes that, while most of us will happily admit to not being infallible, we are less capable of acting as though we aren't:


Few think it necessary to take any precautions against their own fallibility, or admit the supposition that any opinion, of which they feel very certain, may be one of the examples of the error to which they acknowledge themselves to be liable.

Not only are we unable definitively to judge which opinions are absolutely true or false, but to kill off discussion of even the most widely-accepted and deeply-held verity, Mill argues, is only to weaken it. If our convictions are not to be tested and contested, held up to the most thorough scrutiny, pitted against the strongest of contrary convictions, how can they become properly robust?

"He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that," he suggests. And in reality, in any conflict between two opinions, it's far more likely that they "share the truth between them" than that one is wholly false and the other wholly true. This means that to silence those who disagree with us is, ultimately, to weaken our own understanding of an issue. Multiplying restrictions on freedom of speech disadvantage all of us.

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This article was first published on The Drum.

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About the Author

Dr Natasha Moore is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity. She has a PhD in English Literature from the University of Cambridge.

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