It’s a Free/Unfree Thing

March 12th, 2012 at 4:00 pm by David Farrar

A further article from the CIS paper – You Can’t Say That! Freedom of Speech and the Invisible Muzzle.

This one is by Janet Albrechtsen, a columnist with the Australian.

Sometimes I wonder whether the world is run by smart people who are putting us on or by imbeciles who really mean it.

— Mark Twain

It’s tempting to assume that the PC-crowd is having us on. How else can we explain the Seattle school’s decision last year to rename Easter eggs as ‘Spring spheres,’ worrying that a chocolate egg might remind, or even worse, offend kids by alluding to the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Sesame Street has been sanitised too: episodes made between 1969 and 1974 are screened with an adults-only warning. Enid Blyton has not been spared either. To appease the ‘don’t smack children’ lobby, Dame Slap is now Dame Snap. Feminists have been accommodated: Julian and Dick are now required to share household chores with the female characters. The gay lobby has not been forgotten either: the word ‘gay’ has been replaced with ‘happy.’ Bessie has been renamed Beth to avoid any connotations to slavery. Blyton’s golliwogs have been banished. And The Lion King has been decreed full of racist and homophobic messages. According to Carolyn Newberger of Harvard University, those good-for-nothing hyenas are urban blacks who speak in gay clichés.

Surely, they’re having us on with this PC stuff.

But, of course, we know they are not having us on. And they are not imbeciles. They are smart people who really mean it. Smart because the PC virus has infected so much of what we do, what we read, how we live, how we think.

It’s the thinking part that should trouble us the most.

Earlier this year, Alan Gribben, an English professor at Auburn University in Alabama, published a new edition of Mark Twain’s classics, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The word ‘nigger,’ which appears more than 200 times in the book, has been replaced with ‘slave.’ The professor worried that the word would offend too many students and turn them off from reading the book.

What the good professor doesn’t seem to know is that The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn satirises Southern prejudices of the time. It is an anti-racist book. If you mess with the power of Twain’s words, you mess with the power of Twain’s message. If school children are to really think about American history and the Deep South, they need to read about ‘niggers.’ The history and the language are confronting.

Great literature unsettles us. It forces us to think about our reactions. If we’re offended, we think about why we’re offended.

By denying us the ability to think, political correctness is a heresy for those who are truly committed to liberalism. Political correctness tells people what to think. And it seeps into society, so often without us even paying attention to the subliminal message.

Because the purveyors of PC are not imbeciles but smart people armed with clever tricks, we need to pay attention.

The Left in Australia are claiming that those who raise questions about multiculturalism, immigration and the relationship between Islam and modernity have blood on our hands. I say ‘our hands’ because I have been named as someone who bears some responsibility for what happened in Oslo. Others complicit in the mass murder include Keith Windschuttle, Andrew Bolt, and Geoffrey Blainey.

Here, murder is used as a muzzle to close down free speech. And this is just the latest addition to what is a growing list of tactics to curb free speech, and even worse, to stifle genuine enquiry and independent thinking.

Here are some of their tricks.

The emotional hoax

The Left are armed with a range of emotionally charged tools to immediately close down discussion about immigration or border control. Call your opponents racists and point to xenophobia in the community. Opponents are not just wrong, they’re evil. Their views should not be aired in a civilised society.

John Howard copped this for years. When the Prime Minister Gillard called for an open debate about these issues last year, she was accused of whipping up the racists within Australia.

But remember this: the stifling political correctness that rejected an open debate about immigration in the early 1990s fuelled the emergence and popularity of Pauline Hanson.

 The victim game

The victim game has been fuelled by two recent developments. We now live in an age when ‘feelings’ are treated as a measurement of moral values, so you measure your feelings against the feelings of others to determine morality. Hence, we live in what author Monica Ali calls ‘the marketplace of outrage,’ where groups vie for victimhood status, each claiming their feelings have been hurt more than others.

Secondly, the focus on vulnerability is used to justify curbing Enlightenment values such as freedom of expression. The minority simply have to utter the word ‘phobia’ to silence all debate.

Over the last few years, we have witnessed a familiar opera of Muslim oppression.

Act I starts with something simple. Perhaps it’s a book called The Satanic Verses. Or a silly Danish cartoon. Or a film called Submission. Or a cheeky episode of South Park stating that Mohammad is the only guy free from ridicule.

Then the libretto comes: Muslims scream about hurt feelings. The drama builds in Act II: death threats are issued, flags and effigies are burnt, maybe even a few boycotts are imposed, and then we hear that great aria of all accusations—Islamophobia.

Act III is the most depressing. The West capitulates, preferring the path of least resistance to launching a staunch defence of freedom of expression.

Hence then US President George H. Bush declared both Salman Rushdie’s book and the fatwa against Rushdie as equally offensive.

Hence, 20 years later, newspapers across the globe chose not to publish the Danish cartoons and Western politicians muttered about protecting hurt feelings.

Hence, last year, Comedy Central, the channel that broadcasts South Park, inserted audio bleeps and large blocks of black that read CENSORED at the very mention or image of Mohammad to prevent more hurt feelings.

And as the clever guys at South Park lamented, ‘like, we lost.’

And we, too, may lose. If we don’t even recognise the tactics, let alone the consequences, we are left with a new norm of anticipatory surrender and self-censorship.

The legal route

The victim game works so well because it is augmented by laws: the apparatus of the state is used to censor free speech.

The prosecutions are mounting: politician Geert Wilders in Holland, writers Mark Steyn and Ezra Levant in Canada. And in Australia, Herald Sun columnist Andrew Bolt is defending a claim by a group of Aborigines that he ‘offended, insulted and humiliated’ them in breach of the Racial Discrimination Act.

The PC crowd is clever and they’re not having us on. They know that there are no useful legal tests about hurt feelings and inciting hate. They enact nice-sounding laws, build bureaucracies, and wait for them to blossom and bludgeon free speech. They have effectively co-opted Islamic style oppression to prohibit debate, be it about Islam or anything else they wish to fence off from free speech.

Death by silence

The other trick is to quietly exclude certain people from the national discourse. It is best summed up by the German word totschweigtaktik.

To be ‘totsched’ is to be subjected to death by silence—books, ideas, people that challenge the status quo are simply ignored.

Shelly Gare wrote about it in Quadrant last year. Those who are totsched find ‘their efforts left to expire soundlessly like a butterfly in a jar.’

It happened to Orwell when he wrote his 1938 classic Homage to Catalonia, which addressed Stalinist Russia’s involvement in the Spanish Civil War. The left-wing literati simply ignored it. By the time Orwell died in 1950, barely 1,500 copies had been sold.

The same death by silence was used to ignore Australian writers such as Chris Kenny, who challenged the secret women’s business behind the Hindmarsh Island affair. It was used when author Kate Jennings aimed her fire at the sisterhood, post-modernism, and women’s studies.

It’s used by those who tell us that climate change will destroy us all if we do not act immediately. The sceptics are being totsched. Opposing views? What opposing views?

 The bipartisanship racket

Governments have their own tactics. In recent times in Australia, those with poor ideas and even worse policies have resorted to what is best described as the bipartisanship racket to fence themselves off from criticism on a range of topics.

The former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd called for bipartisanship on Indigenous policies. It soon became clear that what he meant was supine obedience to his agenda. There could be no disagreement with the roll-back of the NT intervention. If you dared to disagree, you were immediately charged with politicising the issue. Imagine if these kinds of calls from those defending the status quo had managed to shut out the ideas of people like Noel Pearson.

The Rudd government tried the bipartisanship scam again with climate change and immigration. Each time the aim was the same: to place limits on free debate, to get opponents to rubber-stamp rather than question government policy.

No, the very last thing we want is bipartisanship when it is used so blatantly to stifle dissent and vest moral authority in one voice.

Consensus con

Another trick emerged from Canberra last year from the cloistered offices of the federal Treasury. Treasury boss Ken Henry demanded a supporting consensus from academic economists on major policy issues such as the emissions trading system and the equally ill-fated super profits tax on mining companies.

In one breath, Henry said that he supported the ‘contest of ideas’ and that there were ‘occasions on which economists might, at least for a period, put down their weapons and join a consensus.’

It sends shudders up your spine. A senior bureaucrat—who crafts a policy that, according to many, threatened to undermine Australia’s economy—demands obedience from economists. Henry lost that debate. And that’s the point of free debate. Ideas are not finessed through consensus or bipartisanship. Debate is the single most effective mechanism for disposing of bad ideas.

 Why vigilance?

The aim of political correctness is to tell people what to think and stop them from thinking for themselves. If we are serious about defending free speech, vigilance demands that we look out for the tricks and test the trickery against first principles. The alternative means more moral disorientation and a death wish for the West.

The principles are clear enough: free speech is not a Left/Right thing, as Mark Steyn said. It’s a free/unfree thing. You don’t get to cry in favour of free speech just to defend those with whom you agree. And free speech must include the right to offend. If we prosecute offensive opinions, we encourage ever more ridiculous claims to protection. We fuel that marketplace of outrage. And we end up shutting down the true genius of modern Western civilisation—the contest of ideas.

But, of course, free speech and the real value of debate depend on one more important principle: people genuinely listening to each other.

There are two more articles to come.

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