Fringe health and well-being guru David ‘Avocado’ Wolfe is coming to Australia and surprise, surprise there are two separate Change.org petitions going around calling for him to be banned. One of the petitions is addressed to the Hon. Peter Dutton and claims that Wolfe ‘represents a danger to the Australian community, and the health of children and adults alike, due to his extreme views…we request his visa be revoked on theses [sic] grounds under Public Interest Criteria 4001’. The other petition is addressed to the Rendezvous Hotel in Perth who are hosting a conference at which Wolfe is scheduled to appear, in an attempt to get the venue to cancel the event.
Of course the petitioners are well within their rights to circulate a petition and some argue that this sort of action is evidence of people exercising their own free speech in calling for Wolfe to be banned, but I argue that this is not the case. The spirit of free speech is that of open enquiry, a free market of ideas, wherein everyone gets their say. Bad ideas can be ridiculed and contested, and good ideas honed by argument and free thought. What is tragic is that people who are members of a society that is the product of enlightenment philosophy, are only too willing to try and ban people from speaking. You often hear these types say ‘I believe in free speech, except for this instance…’, trouble is you either believe in free speech, which includes speech by people you hate or disagree with, or you don’t.
When people try to come in between a person’s free expression and their intended audience by way of petitions calling for speakers to be banned from venues or even from countries, they are acting in a way that is the antithesis of an open spirit of enquiry. John Stuart Mill, a philosopher of liberty, spoke against this sort of censorious behaviour when he described the actions of people who believe they know best which opinions should be expressed in public. He derided ‘the assumption to decide that question for others, without allowing them to hear what can be said on the contrary side.’
In other words people who try and stop others hearing a certain speaker are speech censors, and anti-free speech. It’s one thing to disagree with David Wolfe, but quite another to decide on behalf of the broader community that nobody should have a chance to listen to him for themselves.
Critics of Wolfe say that his health and wellness claims are not backed up by scientific evidence, and he has been known to be outspoken against vaccinations as well as touting ‘alternative’ cancer treatments. It’s understandable that many people are against the idea of him speaking publicly, and personally I think he’s a bit of a quack. But even if Wolfe is the worst person on earth, what could be a better way of counteracting what he has to say than holding your own Wolfe debunking event, writing a letter to the editor of your local newspaper, or making use of any other form of public platform to express your disagreement with his ideas?
If you are that worried about people being taken in by his alternative views, then why not stand outside his event and hand out flyers to attendees of his conference or stick up some posters? These means of countering Wolfe’s views are respectful of free speech and the free market of ideas, rather than patronising the general public with the belief that they must be protected from ‘dangerous’ ideas.
Not only is censorious behaviour anti-free speech, it is also counterproductive. In the age of the internet, banning a speaker has little effect on curtailing the spread of their ideas. The petition against Wolfe that is doing the rounds will only serve to give him more publicity, and it won’t stop anyone from easily accessing his work online. As the man himself has said “sane and rational people understand that censorship leads to tyranny and this is a free country and freedom shall prevail.”
Defending free speech means supporting the right of everyone to express themselves, even those you totally disagree with. It’s one thing to disagree with Wolfe’s beliefs or his health advice, but quite another to decide for other people that they should too. Freedom means being able to reject mainstream medical advice if you want to, or believe the earth is flat if that tickles your fancy. Why must it be decided by any other human authority that certain beliefs or attitudes are verboten?
Banning of speakers may seem reasonable when it happens to somebody you abhor, and you may well go along with the idea by signing a petition designed to shut them up. But when this kind of censoriousness becomes normalised, then what’s to stop a group of people campaigning and succeeding having a speaker banned that you support and admire? Currently both petitions to have David Wolfe banned have less than 600 signatures combined. Let’s hope it stays that way.
This article was also published by The Spectator Australia March 8, 2017.