When Scott Morrison was acting as Prime Minister last week he told us: “I’m not here to offer a running commentary on what should be happening in the United States”. Of course, like many fly-in/fly-out workers, he wasn’t at work this week, so it becomes time for a commentary on all things American, such as Twitter’s decision to suspend Donald Trump’s account because that inhibits his free speech. After all, there’s no other way for the POTUS to get his message out to his followers.
The trouble with the current debate has pretty much been laid bare by the Acting Prime Minister, Michael McWhatshisname when he said, “Facts are sometimes contentious and what you might think is right – somebody else might think is completely untrue – that is part of living in a democratic country,” Facts are not “contentious” just because they don’t fit a preferred political narrative. Facts are well, factual, and if they’re not factual, then they’re what one might call an opinion and there’s a difference between a fact that people generally accept and an opinion. This is certainly something that should be taught to several people that consider themselves journalists, although I’m sure they’d argue that it’s a fact that they’re a journalist and as such are just presenting the facts as they see them which includes the fact that if they don’t give Morrison a positive spin then they’ll lose access to his “scoops”.
Anyway, there a whole range of things that people argue are true when they’re just opinions and there’s a whole range of things that we consider facts that we’ll one day discover that we were wrong about. Where the trouble lies is when we slide around and don’t actually treat things consistently, treating some opinions as though they are so self-evident that they should be taken as facts, while some verifiable events are treated as though they’re still something that needs a lot of debate.
Let’s take two simple events and put them side-by-side: A couple of years ago, Coalition senators voted for a motion saying that it was ok to be white. Yes, they did back down and say that they were confused, but some of them still tried to argue that there was nothing intrinsically racist about the motion because all it was saying was that there was nothing wrong with being white and it wasn’t suggesting that there was something wrong with not being the same colour as those sheets that the Ku Klux Klan like wearing.
For a moment, let’s leave everything that’s wrong with that opinion and just leave it sitting there like some sort of legal precedent. What we’re left with is the idea that just because we say one thing about white people, then nobody should infer that we mean that other people are excluded by the statement. It’s just a simple affirmation.
Now with that precedent in mind, let’s look at the “Black Lives Matter” response. No, no say some, you can’t say Black Lives Matter because all lives matter and saying that implies that other lives aren’t important.
I’m not suggesting that we try to unpack all the inherent racism in the two positions; I’m just suggesting that when one puts them together like that, there’s a certain inconsistency that exposes where people are actually coming from. Saying that being white is ok, doesn’t mean that not being white isn’t but saying Black Lives Matter is leaving out all the other lives that matter just as much…Like the lives of the police unless they happen to be guarding Capitol Hill in which case it’s apparently fine to beat them to death with a fire extinguisher.
And, as I pointed out before, context is everything. While the BLM protests were in response to particular incidents, the glib “all lives matter” is merely a way of undercutting the racism that the protests were trying to highlight. Nobody jumps up in the middle of a funeral and interrupts the person giving the eulogy to say, “All lives matter so can you please stop just talking about Henry?”
It’s the slippery appeals to notions of things like freedom and free speech that actually prevent any meaningful discussion of areas where there is a difference of opinion. Rather than looking at the content, we end up talking about those things which we pretend are self-evident but in other contexts are hotly contested. (Yassmin and ANZAC day tweet anyone? Or Scott McIntyre.)
When asked if he was prepared to condemn conspiracy theories being espoused by members of his own government, Morrison asserted the rather general: “You know, Australia is a free country. There’s such a thing as freedom of speech in this country and that will continue. OK, well thank you all very much.” Nobody asked for the PM to send them to a re-education camp; he was merely asked if he was prepared to call out their rather strange ideas.
Compare Morrison’s mealy-mouthed assertion about George Christensen being allowed to say what he likes because of freedom of speech with the way he’d respond if Labor or Green politicians said anything that was controversial. I don’t remember him saying that he wouldn’t be commenting on the desire for a zero-emissions target by 2050 because it’s a free country and people have the right to say what they like.
So it’s all very simple. We have a strong belief in the rights of certain people and these rights are indisputable but we don’t need a bill of rights protecting these because then everybody would be able to claim the right to say whatever and big tech companies would have the right to impose conditions and implement their terms of service.
Is the decision of the editor not to publish my letter substantially different from Twitter’s decision to cease the publication of Trump’s opinions? If the answer is that he has the right to be published because he’s President, then you’ve already decided that, when it comes to freedom of speech, it’s no longer a right but a privilege granted to the important few and the rest of us just have to accept that it’s conditional for the many.
If you need to ask permission, it’s no longer a right.
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