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article imageOp-Ed: Free speech and the recent 'Aborignal memes' debacle

By Joseph Power     Aug 21, 2012 in Politics
Brisbane - Given the very recent 'Aboriginal memes' controversy, should free speech be subject to censorship, if the subjects of humour happen find the matter offensive?
While sitting in a University tutorial the other week, nursing a slight hangover, the topic of free speech and its limitations was brought up. Now, the class agreed unequivocally to the idea of free speech, but the discussion grew somewhat tricky when the idea of boundaries were introduced.
In John Stuart Mill’s groundbreaking 1869 essay “On Liberty”, Mill introduced one such boundary. He used a hypothetical situation, involving a corn farmer.
Now, in this scenario, the corn farmer was exploiting his workers in an Industrial Revolution-esque manner, exploiting the workers’ efforts in exchange for maximum profit, or wage exploitation. Now, a local journalist publishing an exposé in the local paper is not harmful in itself. However, this same journalist, standing atop an overturned milk crate, inciting a mob of angry proletarians clutching torches and pitchforks, outside the farmer's home, is a totally different matter.
To summarise, liberty (in this case, free speech) should only be curtailed when it threatens to encroach on the liberties of others. The journalist inciting the mob should be silenced, in other words, because his actions are most likely going to lead to the farmer being lynched from the nearest lamppost.
So what then, would we make of a proposition for David Irving, famed British Holocaust denier, to present a guest lecture at my humble University of Queensland? Surely, at least the Jewish contingent of our student populace would be fantastically offended by his claims? Wouldn’t his anti-Semitic rambling be filed under Australian hate speech laws?
Now, any Western school student knows that the Holocaust happened. Mountains of evidence exists to back up claims (the Nazis were depressingly thorough in their administration). So, why should we subject some of Queensland’s best and brightest to the ramblings and distorted truths of David Irving?
To do my brave best to summarise John Milton’s Areopagitica and John Stuart Mill in one go; when you deny a person the right to talk, you deny yourself of the opportunity of hearing what they have to say.
Even such anti-Semitic ramblings that the David Irvings of our world have to offer, may contain at least a grain of historical truth. Perhaps there is evidence that figures from one concentration camp were distorted; meaning our historical record can be corrected. But, even if the evidence presented is absolutely ludicrous, it does one no harm to hear it.
In other words, it prevents us from becoming comfortable in our views via proxy. You know the Holocaust happened, but what would you do if confronted in 30 years by somebody who challenged you on it? Would you be able to state a claim? For an unimaginable amount of time, us humans believed the Earth to be round. If you happened to bump into a member of the Flat Earth Society, would you be able to state any case as to why the Earth is round? Scepticism is a perfectly healthy part of the rational, intellectual mind. It prevents us from becoming lost in the safety of consensus.
Take, for example, the debacle in Copenhagen regarding the cartoons published in the Jyllands-Posten newspaper, depicting images of the Prophet Mohammed, and the resulting backlash against the aforementioned newspaper that published them, and the Danish embassy in Pakistan being bombed, as well as Danish embassys in Iran, Syria and Lebanon set alight in protest. Why should the depiction of a 7th century pedophile prophet be subject to censorship, despite the offense it may be cause? To quote the great Stephen Fry:
It's now very common to hear people say 'I'm rather offended by that.' As if that gives them certain rights; it's actually nothing's simply a whine. 'I find that offensive,' it has no meaning, it has no purpose, it has no reason to be respected as a phrase. 'I'm offended by that,' well so fucking what?
Now, to travel from Persia to my own fair land of Australia. There is no American-style constitutional right in this nation for free speech, but most of my brothers and sisters assume that we indeed have such rights. Very recently, a page on social networking site Facebook – featuring the depiction of Indigenous Australians in a stereotypical and somewhat ironic light – was subject to much controversy in the media, and after repeated calls citing that the page was a form of hate speech, the page was removed by Facebook.
Nobody was calling for an Aboriginal pogrom. The page made use of Aboriginal stereotypes as subject for humour, admittedly, the jokes were often dark humour (no pun intended) and would of most certainly been offensive, but your humble narrator would put forward the motion that this page certainly displayed both an historical and current truth. There is very little doubt that the Aboriginal population of Australia are subject to actual discrimination at a societal level, as well as an institutional level. Surely this should be the subject of Australia’s attention, and not a humour page dedicated toward making light of stereotypes, however offensive or distasteful people may find it?
And indeed, where will such censorship end? Are my criticisms of fundamentalist religion going to become subject for hate speech? I am most certainly not an apologist for racism or bigotry, but people calling for the removal of a page based on offense ultimately amounts to a child sticking their fingers into the ears and shouting ‘LA LA LA’, closing their eyes, and wishing the problem away. Get to the root of the problem and tear it out, I say.
It’s very much like people demanding the head of Ricky Gervais for a (hilarious) joke in his stand-up routine about taking an autistic child to the casino, in an attempt to mimic 'Rain man'. Offense be damned.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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