St Kilda shows us the importance of free speech

For some, the recent rally at St Kilda beach provides evidence of far-right bigotry in Australia. Those who hold racist, anti-immigrant views must be shut down in an effort to ensure that there are “no Nazis, never again”, as the counter-protestors’ chant went.

These counter-protestors are anti-hate speech and actively tried to stifle the views of the so-called ‘far-right’ individuals who are criticising Australia’s immigration policy. While the counter-protestors have the moral high ground in opposing racism, they fail to realise that their previous actions have given weight to the ‘far-right’.

This is due to insistence by those same types that public debate be politically correct and free speech be limited for those who have differing opinions. Such restrictions on speech are proving to be dangerous, leading to polarisations uncharacteristic of Australian political debate.

As Noam Chomsky said: “Goebbels was in favor of free speech for views he liked. So was Stalin. If you’re really in favor of free speech, then you’re in favor of freedom of speech for precisely the views you despise. Otherwise, you’re not in favor of free speech.”

It is important to keep Chomsky’s words in mind when considering the limits of free speech, which is often drawn at “hate speech”. What this is exactly is unclear, but generally falls along the lines of racism, misogyny, homophobia and the like. While these are noble and morally superior intentions, they can have unintended consequences.

Such consequences were on display at St Kilda. As noted in an article about the rally, ‘far-right’ groups “attract a broad range of sympathisers, from Australians concerned about immigration, crime and national security, through to more fringe members with neo-Nazi and criminal links”.

Surely the ‘far-right’ is a very specific group? How, then, does it attract this broad range of sympathisers?

The answer lies in limits on free speech and political correctness.

When it becomes unacceptable to voice opinions about immigration, or highlight over-representations in crime statistics of particular ethnic groups, those who express such things are cut out of public debate and pushed to sympathise with those who hold genuinely racist views.

The safest way to avoid people ending up with these fringe views is to allow them to voice their initial opinions so that they can be dealt with in a reasonable debate. In the words of Thomas Jefferson, it is best for people to voice their “error of opinion … where reason is left free to combat it”.

The best way to protest rallies such as the one held in St Kilda is to ensure they don’t have widespread support in the first place. Paradoxically for some, this can only occur when those with an error of opinion, as abhorrent as it may seem, are left to speak freely.

Cian Hussey

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1 Comment on "St Kilda shows us the importance of free speech"

  1. Free speech advocacy has become problematic because the debate never seems to go beyond calls for free speech! The emphasis is always on the right to speech and never on the ideas expressed. Those on the left focus primarily on the speech. They recognise the power of speech to effect change and promote ideology. They fear the words being spoken and have a legitimate basis for this. It is the far right who are actually doing harm to free speech because free speech advocacy has now become code for the promotion of far right political mobilisation and which appears at odds with a liberal democratic Australia.

    Rather than look at the protest as an issue of free speech, let’s analyse its objectives. Senator Frazer Anning has stated that he wants a ban on Muslim and Sudanese migrants. Putting aside whether or not it’s a racist statement, it isn’t a policy, in my opinion, that would help to produce a more cohesive society. The best way forward and which has always been Australia’s policy towards immigration is to help with integration and to create a sense of belonging through citizenship rights and responsibilities. All new waves of migrants have had teething problems in the early days of migration. All have integrated over time and have contributed to the wonderful country that we have today.

    Let’s use our free speech right productively to promote that which unites us rather than that which divides us.

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