Down by the river by the boats where everybody goes to be alone… Left with no rights

There is some troubling rhetoric passing as self-evident wisdom about rights, and I thought I’d leave a short comment.

The problem begins with a terrible article written by the ABC’s Chris Uhlmann about the nature of freedom of speech.  He claims that freedom of speech is under attack by cultural Marxists who are infected by an ‘intellectual virus’ that escaped Europe and corrupted the United States.  Speech is a direct expression of thought, and both his prose and his thoughts are ugly.  It is not an article worth reading.  If anything, it should serve as a reminder that, despite the many talented young writers from diverse backgrounds, the media still rewards the mediocrity of white Baby Boomer males.

Enough of this sledging for the moment.  We have bigger fish to fry.

The article intimated that freedom of speech was under threat from the harsh criticism of the politically correct.  The overwhelming response from Twitter was that freedom of speech does not (and ought not) entail that you should be free from criticism when you exercise your right.

Both claims are false, and it’s important to see why.

I don’t believe in goblins, fairies, unicorns, or human rights.  It’s woo-woo superstition and everybody who claims otherwise should be ashamed of themselves.  The modern human rights discourse is pseudo-religion for the feeble minded and intellectually sloppy.

But we can still use the concept of human rights in a broadly sensible way when we focus on virtues, dignities, and outcomes.  We want to be a society that is based broadly upon reason, argument, and dialogue.  We want to be a society where people feel valued and capable of pursuing their version of the good.  We want to be a society that facilitates dissent and individuality within a stable, safe framework.  In order to give effect to this, we imagine a ‘freedom of expression’ (which is shorthand for a complex array of virtues, dignities, and outcomes, but which isn’t an actual, substantial thing in itself).

It therefore follows that if this ‘freedom of expression’ exists, we need a society around it in order to give effect to that freedom of expression.  This is pretty easy to demonstrate.  If you have the freedom of expression but your house is taken away from you when you express a view, or you’re made to feel unwelcome when you’re buying groceries when you express a view, of you’re at risk of losing your job when you express a view, then you don’t actually have this freedom of expression.

That’s a blunt way of putting it.  There are going to be, of course, situations where your expression naturally results in particular consequences.  You’re not free to advocate crimes, for example.  You’re not free to advocate hate.  You might also be in a job where particular expression is incompatible with that job.

But we can keep with the blunt version.  If your boss threatens to sack anybody who votes a particular way, then you don’t really have political freedoms.  If your family threatens to kick you out on the street if you express a particular sexuality, then you don’t really have sexual freedoms.  And if you’re going to be subjected to relentless, unhinged abuse if you express particular opinions, then you don’t really have freedom of expression.

This is why laws like sections 18C and 18D of the Racial Discrimination Act are so important.  They protect other people’s virtues, dignities, and outcomes — freedoms.

So what should the response to Uhlmann’s argument have been?  The answer is that he is correct that relentless unhinged criticism is a threat to expression, but society as a whole has more to fear from the relentless unhinged criticism of white male Baby Boomers in the media than anybody else.  If Uhlmann was really worried about freedoms, he’d call for people like Andrew Bolt, Piers Ackerman, and Lyle Shelton to be excluded from public debate.  As a society, we are a lot less free with people like that actively making Australians feel unwelcome to exercise their rights.

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