Brendan O'Neill on the Racial Discrimination Act and freedom of speech - The Centre for Independent Studies
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Brendan O’Neill on the Racial Discrimination Act and freedom of speech

When I tell people I think Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act should be scrapped – not reformed, but ripped up – I always get the same response: ‘How can you defend the rights of racists?’

Many seem to believe that if you oppose legal restrictions on the uttering or publication of potentially hurtful racist speech, then you are either being soft on racists, or worse, you’re standing up for them. ‘Why would you lobby on behalf of such unpleasant people?’, comes the query.

But the reason I want Section 18C to be thrown into the shredding machine of history is not because I am committed to the right of racists to spout nonsense about minorities, but rather because I care for the rights of all Australians to know that such prejudices exist and to pass judgement on them.

Freedom of speech, you see, is only partly about the freedom of the speaker; it is also about the freedom of the audience, the reader, the man in the street, who should have access to all ideas and the liberty to make up his mind about which of these ideas has moral worth and which does not.

There are two freedoms in freedom of speech. There is the liberty of people and groups to publish their thoughts, however offensive others might find them. And there is the just-as-important liberty of the public to decide, through independent thinking and open debate, whether those thoughts are true, false, good or rotten.

Section 18C doesn’t only limit the rights of racists to pump hatred into the public arena. More menacingly, it limits the right of the public to be the guardian of the public arena, and instead allows officialdom to decide on our behalf what we may hear and in essence what we should think. It reduces the public to the level of children, who must be guarded from certain ideas, presumably on the basis that we are incapable of working out for ourselves which ideas deserve serious attention and which should just be ridiculed into oblivion.

Throughout history, acts of censorship have always been motivated as much by disdain for the public as by animus towards a particular writer, artist or agitator whose ideas have rattled the rulers of society. Censorship might ostensibly involve burning a particular author’s book or censoring a certain magazine, but the real target of these acts is the potential audience to such material, who are judged by officialdom to be so suggestible or volatile, so lacking in the mental and moral capacity to judge good from bad, that they must have their eyes and ears blocked to certain ideas.

This was recognised by the great 18th century firebrand, Thomas Paine. When, in 1792, a court in England sentenced him to death in absentia for the crime of writing The Rights of Man, a fiery pro-democracy pamphlet, Paine said the verdict was a ‘sentence on the public, instead of the author’, because the public was being told ‘they shall not think, they shall not read’. The censorship was a ‘prohibition on reading’, said Paine, which did not only undermine his own right to write but also the right of the public ‘to reason and to reflect’.

The growth of the ideal of freedom of speech during the years of the Enlightenment was motored, not by any relativistic notion that all ideas are equally valid, but rather by a profound trust in the ability of the public to use reason to determine which ideas had validity and which didn’t.

This represented a radical break with the pre-Enlightenment era, when religious men got to decide what ‘truths’ should be revealed to the public and in what manner and language they should be revealed. The promoters of a new era of Enlightenment argued, very radically, that it was only the public itself, through its exercise of moral autonomy, which could determine what was true and what was untrue.

So John Locke, in one of the earliest documents of the Enlightenment, his 1689 Letter Concerning Toleration, argued that truth should be allowed to ‘shift for herself’. Truth never receives ‘much assistance from the power of great men’, Locke said, and instead should be left alone to ‘make her way into the understanding by her own light’. In short, we should allow the truth to be decided in the public forum, rather than by ‘great men’. It is hard for us today to understand what a stirring idea this was in the 1680s: Locke was saying that the authority of certain ideas and claims should be tested and decided through the free flow of debate—that is, by us—rather than by the deliberations of small cliques of powerful men.

Baruch Spinoza, the great Dutch philosopher, likewise argued that the worthiness of ideas should be determined by the public’s free exercise of reason. In his essay Freedom of Thought and Speech, he made it clear in the very first paragraph that he was defending individuals’ ‘natural right of free reason and judgment’. That is, it wasn’t a particular group’s speech per se he was standing up for, but rather the right of the public to think about that speech and pass judgement on it. Yes, said Spinoza, there are many ‘falsehoods’ that are published with ‘unworthy motives’, but ‘reason should nevertheless remain unshackled’, and individuals should be trusted to use that reason to separate truth from falsehood.

Later Enlightenment thinkers kept pushing this profoundly humanistic idea that the public should be the final arbiters of what is right and wrong. Indeed, British liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill argued in 1859 that free debate is the only way to discover the truth. ‘Complete liberty of contradicting and disproving our opinion is the very condition which justifies us in assuming its truth,’ he said. In other words, it is only by submitting your ideas to the rigours of reasoned and testy public discussion that you can be sure they are correct. Public deliberation—the public itself—will be the final arbiter of your rightness.

What all these historic defences of freedom of speech share in common is not any kind of flag-waving for the dodgy speech itself—whether it was blasphemers in Locke’s day or medical quacks in Mill’s era—but rather a conviction that the public could be trusted, and should be trusted, to hear or read that speech and judge its value.

Freedom of speech, in short, is as much about the freedom of the listener as it is about the freedom of the speaker. As Mill said, it allows us to use our ‘mental and moral powers’ to separate good ideas from terrible ones. He and Locke were not defending the spreaders of falsehoods, per se, but rather the idea that the public arena, made up of unshackled minds, is the only place in which those falsehoods might be properly challenged and properly put to rest.

The alternative to this, Enlightenment thinkers pointed out, was to allow ‘great men’ to determine the right way of thinking, and there are two massive problems with that. First, it allows officialdom to control the free flow of ideas, giving it the power to set the agenda and to project its own prejudices, unchallenged, into the public forum. Secondly, it reduces the public from ‘rational beings into beasts or puppets’, said Spinoza, whose only role in life is to ‘ape’ the morality of their betters, said Mill.

That is, restrictions on speech both empower the government to push a particular, usually self-interested moral and political agenda, and they decommission the critical faculties of the rest of us, reducing us to the level of wide-eyed recipients of the allegedly correct way of thinking.

These Enlightenment thinkers possessed something that is sadly in short supply today: a trust in the public.

Today, the call for censorship is driven by a view of the public as fickle, easily led, susceptible to hatred and stupidity—in short, by a pre-Enlightenment view of the little people as creatures who must be fed a preordained truth because they are incapable of working out the truth for themselves. That is what underpins the cries to keep Section 18C on the books: a fear that if the public were to hear racist ideas, those modern-day falsehoods, then they would be warped by them and potentially made violent. And so a new caste of ‘great men’ must protect us from evil thought and twisted ideologies.

We urgently need to recover a faith in the mental and moral powers of the public, in the central values of the Enlightenment. I support unfettered freedom of speech, not because I think all speech is valuable, but because I think the public is the only trustworthy judge of whether or not it is valuable. I want Section 18C torn up not because I like racists, but because I trust Australians, and all human beings, to use their unshackled reason to separate good ideas from wicked ones.

Brendan O'Neill is editor of spiked and coordinator of the Free Speech Now! campaign. He is currently in Australia as scholar-in-residence for The Centre for Independent Studies.