If there was any doubt that Australia has a growing hostility towards free speech, the forced cancellation of Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s tour of Australia and New Zealand surely lays those doubts to rest.
Hirsi Ali, a prominent critic of Islam, has spoken in Australia on multiple occasions. But she was reportedly forced to cancel her latest tour — including appearances on Q&A, and multiple other media engagements — due to “security concerns.”
Hirsi Ali is accustomed to threats of violence, having lived with around-the-clock protection since 2006, when a note naming her as a target was pinned to the body of her murdered Dutch colleague, Theo van Gogh. So we can safely assume that she wouldn’t cancel her tour unless there were credible threats to her safety or the safety of the organisers and attendees of her talks.
Few people will publically support such threats. But they don’t arise in a vacuum. They are the inevitable result of a growing cultural hostility towards free speech in Australia, and throughout the west.
This hostility was on open display in reports of the cancellation. Hana Assafiri, a Melbourne activist who had campaigned against Hirsi Ali’s tour, told The Guardian Australia that Hirsi Ali was being held accountable for her “divisive discourse”. Assafiri had participated in a video in which a group of young Muslim women denounced Hirsi Ali as a profiteer who uses “the language of white supremacy.”
To be clear, neither Assafiri nor the video she appeared in openly supported threats of violence. But their anti-free speech message, and their ridiculously over the top language, are examples of the growing intolerance that’s undermining free speech in Australia and around the world.
This hostility towards free speech has dominated much of Australia’s political debate over the past year.
On multiple issues, politicians and media commentators from across the political spectrum have continuously downplayed the importance of free speech and systematically undermined the distinction between speech and actions.
By far the biggest flash point for this anti-free speech attitude is the proposed reform of section 18c of the racial discrimination act.
In a shameful abandonment of enlightenment values, opponents of reform have repeatedly claimed that replacing the words “offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate” with the more objective “harass or intimidate” is an unacceptable risk that will unleash a torrent of racism across Australia.
Opposition leader Bill Shorten greeted the proposal by declaring it was “a green light for racist hate speech.” Greens senator Nick McKim argued it would “harm the health and well-being of members of the multicultural spectrum in this country,” while his colleague Sarah Hansen-Young claimed the reforms were an attempt to “take away people’s right to feel safe and secure in their own communities.”
Members of so-called “human rights” bodies also joined in on the act. The Northern Territory’s anti-discrimination commissioner opposed the reforms on that grounds that racism causes physical harm, while Amnesty International’s Roxanne Moore claimed the changes “could potentially lead to more violence.” Australia’s race discrimination commissioner, Tim Soutphommasane, argued that merely debating section 18c “causes immense anxiety for many.”
None of these critics showed concern about the use of the 18c against university students or prominent cartoonists. To them, the threat to freedom of speech was far less important than preventing the harm of distasteful speech. This is because they deny the fundamental distinction between speech and action — a distinction at the heart of western liberalism.
Section 18c isn’t the only issue where this hostility to free speech has been on display. Gay marriage activists vigorously opposed the government’s plebiscite proposal — despite polls almost guaranteeing they would win the vote — because they claimed the debate would harm young people struggling with their sexuality. Bill Shorten even claimed it would lead to gay teens committing suicide.
By denying the distinction between speech and actions, these opponents of free speech provide cover for the people willing to use violence to silence speech. Their constant anti-free speech rhetoric progressively undermines the cultural acceptance of controversial debate, leading to a less tolerant society that equates speech with violence. In such a culture, threats of violence will routinely be used to silence speech. After all, if speech is akin to violence, then some people will inevitably use violence, or threats of violence, to shut down supposedly “violent” speech. They’ll simply view it as self-defence.
This isn’t just a problem in Australia. Enlightenment values like free speech are being systematically undermined across the western world. Nowhere more so than on college campuses.
Just last month author and social scientist Charles Murray was hounded by protesters at Middlebury College. Murray was scheduled to give a lecture on the growing class divide in American society — the topic of his 2014 book, Coming Apart. He was prevented from speaking by enraged protesters who mistakenly thought he was there to promote eugenics and white supremacy. Some protesters even attacked the organiser of the talk, Professor Alison Stanger, forcing her to be treated for concussion and wear a neck brace.
If you’re wondering where on earth these kids got their information, you’re not alone. Anyone who has read his work knows that Murray is no eugenics promoting white supremacist. But the Middlebury protesters are hardly an anomaly. They are just another example of the inevitable consequence of an intellectual climate that considers offensive speech to be harmful. The protesters who assaulted Professor Stanger were merely the most committed to preventing Murray’s “harmful” speech.
This connection between violent and non-violent opponents of free speech was highlighted in February, following another violent protest, ironically at the birthplace of the 1960s free speech movement, U.C. Berkeley.
In response to a planned speech by troll and provocateur, Milo Yiannopoulos, thousands of protesters in black-hooded uniforms started fires and assaulted attendees in order to get the speech cancelled. When protest organiser Yvette Felarca was interviewed in the days that followed, she refused to denounce any violence that took place. “This isn’t a question of violent versus peaceful protests,” Felarca said. “Everyone was there to shut him down. Whatever it was going to take to do that, we were all there with a united cause. And we were stunningly successful.”
When explaining why Milo needed to be silenced, Felarca resorted to the same language used against Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Charles Murray. She claimed Milo is a fascist and a white supremacist. And as if to highlight that she thinks speech equals violence, she claimed he was at Berkeley “to recruit more fascists and to wage attacks on Muslim students, immigrant students, women, and trans students.”
Many free speech advocates claim that only governments can infringe on free speech. But this view ignores the tolerance and cultural acceptance of debate that free speech requires. Both the college campus hysteria and Hirsi Ali’s cancelled tour are examples of what happens when this cultural respect for free speech is eroded, and the distinction between speech and actions disappears.
Patrick Hannaford is an Australian writer. Follow him @PatHannaford
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