We need to get something out of the way: Australia is not Syria.
I know. You’re probably shocked at this revelation. You were probably sitting at work in your office, going slightly grey under the fluorescent lights, contemplating going for another coffee, and thinking: ‘Shit, I can’t work it out. Am I in Australia or am I in Syria? They’re so alike.’
No. Australia is not Syria. Australia is not even close to being Syria. No policy implementation exists which could increase the risk of Australia being Syria. Australia is not Syria.
Now that we’ve got that controversial point out of the way, we can talk about freedom of speech.
The language we use to describe our rights often reveals our biases and assumptions. ‘Freedom of speech’. It sounds so noble but it hides a lot of implications. ‘Freedom of speech, even if that means offending.’ ‘Freedom of speech, even if that means a group of people don’t feel welcome in society.’ ‘Freedom of speech, even if that means putting people in danger.’
For example, when Adam Brereton writes:
Make no mistake, Wilders has nothing new or interesting to say on the topic of Islam. But in an ideal world we would welcome him to Australia with open arms so he can be torn to shreds in the arena of public debate.
What he’s really saying is that tearing Wilders to shreds in the parry and thrust of public debate is more important than the right of Australian Muslims to go about their lives here in Australia unmolested by racist cranks. A lot of our debate about freedom of speech is really about normalising or silencing the problem of externalisation: somebody else pays the price of our pursuit of particular rights. As I said in a recent post, nobody can say anything — short of making absurd death threats or shocking me with praise of Osama bin Laden — which will upset me in the same way I can upset somebody who’s religious, or homosexual, or an ethnic minority, or any other marginalised group.
Most people accept that defamation is a legitimate restriction on the freedom of speech. You can’t use your freedom to damage the reputation of somebody else. If ever there were a self-serving case of special pleading, I’ve yet to come across it. ‘Oh, protecting the interests of wealthy people who can afford to use the legal system is a legitimate restriction of free expression… but protecting the interest of marginalised people who are excluded from easy access to the legal system? No. That’s making us much more like Syria.’
Despite being an atheist, it’s no secret that I’m pro-Islam. I think it’s a great religion, as far as religions go. It preserved the works of Aristotle, after all. I’m also a staunch pluralist (rather than secularist) and think it’s extremely important for the promotion of conservative values to make Australia as inclusive as possible.
But perhaps you don’t share my enthusiasm for inclusiveness. Perhaps you’re really attached to the idea that freedom of speech is not just an adolescent whinge.
I still think you should support anti-blasphemy laws.
On the one hand, you have the indignation and outrage of a large group of people who feel marginalised and excluded from mainstream public conversation. They are repeatedly told: ‘No, you don’t belong here. Your anger is illegitimate. Your outrage shows how uncivilised and backwards you are.’ In response, they look to the organs of state to protect them. They want some legislated protection from the excesses of ‘freedom of speech’. They want anti-blasphemy laws.
To define something is to limit it. So an anti-blasphemy law not only restricts freedom of speech in some way, it also restricts the informed conversation about blasphemy. It draws a circle around it.
Imagine if we had a law which said: ‘It is unlawful to perform an act in public which would, in the view of a reasonable person, insult, offend, ridicule, or humiliate a person or a group of people based on their religious beliefs (including atheism as a religious belief because it totally is)… except where the act is a good faith engagement in a scientific debate, or artistic production, or public debate, &c., &c.’
In one swift move, you have protected the most important aspects of freedom of speech — the right to have an open, honest, frank, and fearless debate — from the increasingly persuasive case of various minorities that they’re victimised in society by the assumptive pursuit of freedom of speech.
Thus, everybody should be in support of anti-blasphemy laws. They make a more inclusive society and they uphold the importance of free speech.