The growing threat to free speech

I don’t normally blog on columns by Rachel Stewart as she has the habit of threatening to break my legs when I do. However her column on free speech and hate speech is too important to not respond to. The views she expresses are I am sure not unique to her, but many on the left would share them – which concerns me.

Stewart wrote:

Of late, and for some unknown reason, there’s been a noticeable surge in openly expressed opinions held by racists, sexists and homophobes. …

Last week a column appeared in the Otago Daily Times by one Dave Witherow. In it, he expressed his contempt for te reo Māori being spoken in everyday discourse, and on Radio New Zealand. He called supporters of te reo Māori “boring bigots” and argued that “inflicting te reo on the entire population is contemptuous”. That’s the brief version of an extremely ugly rant.

Regarding the column, wrote on Facebook that “I found myself in strong agreement. I’m utterly sick of people talking in Maori on RNZ in what are primarily English-language broadcasts.”

The response to the Witherow column has been so over the top it is not funny. He has been declared a racist (along with Brash) for wanting less te reo on National Radio. The reaction on Twitter has been as if this is the greatest threat to civilisation since the industrial revolution.

Now before I also get declared a racist my personal view is it is a good thing to include some conversational te reo in broadcast media. You can overdo it, but it is a nice way to have more people acquainted with the language. When picking an early childhood centre for our son, one of features we liked in the one we chose with they had a strong commitment to biculturalism and te reo.

But just because you don’t agree with National Radio including more te reo in its broadcasts, that in no way makes you a racist. Here’s what I regard as a racist:

  • Someone who says they would never hire someone of a particular race
  • Someone who says they don’t want to associate with someone of a particular race
  • Someone who says that all members of a particular race are stupid/violent etc
  • Someone who doesn’t want to live with someone of a particular race

Basically racists are those who treat the group characteristic of a race as more important than the individual.

Now yes there is also structural racism, but that is different to personal racism. And what we see on the left is a growing tendency for anyone who disagrees with a left policy to improve a racial to be deemed a racist. So basically they are saying if you disagree with anything we put forward as worthy, then you are racist. It is an attempt to close down honest debate.

said we don’t need more te reo on National Radio as taxpayers fund around 17 Maori language radio stations already plus Maori TV. That is a point one can debate. You can accept the Crown has a duty to promote the Maori language, but disagree that National Radio is the right vehicle for it. And there is a sliding scale between the occasional kia ora and say half of the broadcast being in te reo (which would lose many listeners as so few understand it). Again this is an issue that should be debatable without the pitchforks.

But Stewart goes further. She says:

Am I overstating it to call it hate speech? Hate speech is language that attacks a person or group on the basis of attributes such as race, religion, ethnic origin, sexual orientation, disability, or gender. I think it fits the bill.

No hate speech is not saying you think there is too much te reo on National Radio. Hate speech is saying:

  • Kill all the Jews
  • Wipe out the Hutus
  • Bash up the fags
  • Lynch the n*****s

If you want an example of what gets close to or meets the definition of hate speech read this article on the trolls sent by the Daily Stormer to a Jewish women:

  • “You have no idea what you are doing, six million are only the beginning.”
  • “Death to Tanya” was repeated more than 30 times followed by: “This message came from ‘Satan Your King.’ “
  • One photoshopped an image of her young son to make it appear as if he was being “crushed by Nazi trucks,” and sent the image to him.
  • “There are only 6000 Jews in the entire state of Montana, yet they’re 100 per cent of the people trying to silence Richard Spencer by harassing his mother. So Then – Let’s Hit Em Up.

Now even that stuff may not meet the very high threshold to be hate speech. It is hateful but that is different. But to call a column saying there should be less te reo on National Radio as akin to hate speech is worrisome.

Surely there’s got to be a limit to the principle of free speech when what’s being expressed is harmful to certain groups. Or does the principle of free speech – hate-filled or not – trump all?

All speech can be deemed harmful to certain groups? Attacking a politician can be harmful to members of the political party that support him. Denigrating columnists as old white can be harmful to old white men.

Yes free speech should trump except in the very limited cases of advocating violence (something Stewart herself has actually done!)

Well, as an opinion writer myself, I’m firmly of the view that free speech is a cornerstone of democracy. Absolutely. But I struggle with what basically amounts to gratuitous hate speech passed off as worthy discourse. It isn’t.

Which is saying free speech but …

Maybe, if your media platform is consistently seen to be enabling hate speech, it’s nothing short of complicity? Sure, the platform is not actually saying the offending words, but they’re handing over the microphone, that they plugged in, to the very people who do say the words. 

So let’s not just censor the columnists who say things we don’t like, let’s go after the publishers also.

Hate speech in New Zealand remains largely unenforced. It is prohibited under the Human Rights Act 1993, and Dame this year called for politicians and others to address the problem, saying: “We need people at the very top to take some leadership on this.”

And I agree. I also know it’s fraught and complicated, and some academics at universities worry about robust debate being curtailed; believing freedom of expression to be sacrosanct.

But surely New Zealanders have the intellectual heft to solve it? Columns like Witherow’s will continue to appear with monotonous regularity, and hurt whole sectors of society in the process. It is deeply divisive rhetoric, and the media knows it. But divisive sells.

Again advocating less te reo on National Radio is not hate speech. It is insulting to true hate speech.

This mindset is part of how Trump got elected. A spectrum of society starts to say that your views are racist/sexist/homophobic and you must not be allowed to state your opinion in public. And then they even suggest your views are so terrible that they must be labelled hate speech and you potentially face criminal sanctions for daring to disagree with the liberal orthodoxy.

And the backlash to this is what fuels people like Trump. He may have many many flaws, but at least he is standing up to the speech bullies. People see US universities becoming places to denounce speech, not support it.

And I’m not suggesting that Witherow (and his ilk) be locked up for his hate speech. But I am suggesting that – and maybe I’m being naive, given the financial constraints on journalism these days – any editor worth their ethical salt would have rejected it.

Some small mercy that Stewart doesn’t think you should go to jail for advocating less te reo on National Radio. Maybe just a fine?

Now while these views are shared by many on the left, it is not universal. Was pleased to see Gordon McLauchlan do a robust response.

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