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Defending Free Speech.
What about Hate Speech and Fake Speech?
Many people are concerned by the growing level of misinformation, or outright disinformation, being spread in our society. A problem exacerbated by social media platforms, and the people who own them.
Others are concerned about transparency, and holding those in power to account. Be it the government, business interests, or wealthy individuals whose money provides them with a position whereby their views hold greater weight than those of others.
Add into the mix societal change that means groups who were previously barely acknowledged are now highly visible and have expectations of being shown respect, and their rights honoured.
Conversely a number of “traditional” points of view, or even words, are no longer deemed acceptable. Often to the frustration of those who’ve used them, or held them, throughout their lives without it being an issue. For them. So we end up with claims of people being shut down and not being allowed to say what they think any more.
We’re bombarded with messages that the more discerning might easily detect as false, but which to many others confirms a worldview they are open to.
Most importantly we also see who can, and who cannot, speak truth to power. Who actually has the privilege of free speech, and who doesn’t.
We can say whatever we want, but there are consequences to what we say. Becoming a social pariah for sharing views once held by many. Or perhaps losing our job for standing up and speaking the truth to those who don’t want to hear it.
There are those who demand equal time, an equal platform, for their ideas. Even though they might run contrary to what is regarded by many as decent and right, and are only shared by a few.
Our society is going through a transition. Despite the efforts of some we continue to become more liberal and the old ‘isms aren’t received as favourably as they once were. However where people used to just bite their tongue and perhaps move away, today they will confront hatred and prejudice in a way that can be surprising to those on the receiving end. Especially if that person comes from a position of great power.
Like Elon Musk. Where some use niche platforms to say hateful and dishonest things under the guise of free speech, Elon has been a great advocate for returning those views to the mainstream. Welcoming people like Trump and Steve Bannon back to Twitter to spread their lies. Not only that but he’ll stop people from blocking the army of bots and trolls spreading hate and disinformation.
But don’t imagine for a moment that Elon is actually a proponent of free speech. His skin is as thin as the orange one when it comes to criticism, and his desire to crush commercial competitors far stronger than his support of speaking rights.
Even over something as minor as Substack, the platform this newsletter uses, launching a “notes” feature similar to the short messages supported by Twitter.
Over Easter this year, any tweet containing a Substack link was algorithmically deprioritised, blocked from being liked or retweeted, and hidden in search. Searches for the term “substack” itself were automatically replaced with searches for the word “newsletter”.
And many users who did manage to find and click on a link to a Substack site reported being warned by Twitter that the service was “unsafe or malicious”.
So Elon gets to say who has free speech (yay - Nazis) and who doesn’t (boo - Writers). But there are consequence to free speech even if you own the platform. As Musk found out this week when a series of major US companies, including Warner Brothers, Paramount, and Disney, cancelled their advertising over concerns of anti semitism on the platform.
In response Musk has threatened to file a “thermonuclear lawsuit” against the media watchdog who pointed out that the advertising was being shown alongside anti-semitic content.
Given his own views, and those of the people he welcomes, you’d think he’d be hard pushed to mount a defence. For example just last week Musk agreed with a tweet that falsely claimed Jewish people were stoking hatred against white people, saying the user, who referenced the “great replacement” conspiracy theory, was speaking “the actual truth”.
US President, Joe Biden, issued a statement calling Musk’s response an “abhorrent promotion of anti semitic and racist hate that runs against our core values as Americans”. Hey Joe, how about the deliberate, systematic, murder of Palestinian civilians? Does that run counter to those core values?
We have the same issues here, although as is often the case when it’s your own backyard we don’t treat it as seriously as what we might see over the fence.
So we have a country where John Key, the chairman of ANZ, was free to criticise the Labour government until the cows came home but someone like Rob Campbell, the chair of Te Whatu Ora - Health New Zealand, was sacked for refusing to back down on criticisms of the National Party.
One was defending the interests of Kiwis in the health sector, the other representing a foreign corporation that extracts billions of dollars of wealth from New Zealand every year. The latter free to speak his mind in the interests of those he represents, the former losing his job for speaking out.
What we often see in these discussions is an impassioned defence from the right of their own free speech, but little regard for that of others. The rights of those proclaiming hateful things, be it Elon Musk or Don Brash, are sacrosanct, whereas the rights of others to call out their garbage is an affront to their liberties.
Give me a break.
Why is it so often that those defending free speech are not protecting people with brave or positive things to say, who are challenging injustice or privilege. But those with abhorrent views who demand people listen to what they think? Take for example local advocacy group the Free Speech Union (FSU).
The FSU are governed, according to their website, by “a group of New Zealanders from across the political spectrum who believe that free speech is a value worth defending.” So let’s meet the governing team.
Dr. David Cumin – Academic
Dr. Melissa Derby – Academic
Stephen Franks – Lawyer
Ani O’Brien – Writer and Political Commentator
Chris Trotter – Political Commentator
Jordan Williams – Lawyer
Dr. Roderick Mulgan – Barrister and GP
Steve O'Hagan – Information Management Specialist
David Cumin’s pinned tweet is an article he wrote for the Herald claiming that Hate Speech laws helped Hitler rise to power.
Following protests here against the current brutality in Gaza, David tweeted that “Chloe's comments are odious and stoking hate”. Apparently speaking in support of Palestinians is not the sort of free speech David likes. He prefers the odious, hate stoking comments of people like fellow FSU governing council member, Ani O’Brien:
That isn’t free speech, those are outright lies. The rallies happening around the country in support of the Palestinian people are not “pro-Hamas”, and the Green Party is most certainly not “calling for the eradication of Israel”. David and Ani are telling, or reposting, lies - and there is no impediment to them freely doing so.
Melissa Derby at the time of the Posie Parker protest in Albert Park liked a tweet calling for Shaneel Lal to be “locked up” and retweeted a message saying the “trans movement” cannot be tolerated in civil society.
A movement cannot be tolerated. It’s not exactly up there with “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”, in terms of free speech advocacy.
Here’s Melissa providing a guide for idiots on thinking right. If you watch it please bear in mind that the person you’re listening to is an AUT lecturer:
There you go kiddies, don’t worry about equality, it’s impossible and we certainly shouldn’t blame racism for unequal outcomes. Thanks Melissa, this right thinking is easy, it’s like regular thinking, but without, well, you know.
Stephen Franks is a former ACT MP. When Israel Folau posted saying all drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists and idolaters would go to hell Stephen defended his right to do so. How noble.
Franks said it was interesting that because Folau isn't “brandishing a spear and a grass skirt”, people felt they could “dump on him”. Like a number of his colleagues Stephen does not seem keen on Māori people being shown respect.
If you’re really old you might remember when Chris Trotter was left wing. He now writes behind the paywall for the ZB audience and openly loathes the left even more than Josie Pagani - if you can imagine that!
Ani O’Brien, whose tweet was above, is the former Press Secretary of Judith Collins and now the head of Digital at Sean Plunket’s Platform, New Zealand’s answer to Infowars.
Next up is Jordan Williams, head of libertarian lobby group the Taxpayer’s Union - the poster child for the use of money to subvert our political process.
I’d mention Jordan’s Dirty Politics discussions with his old friend Cameron Slater, and their views on women, but he tends to be a bit sensitive about it and sends emails insisting that things he has said not be published.
Clearly not the sort of free speech Jordan favours. To be fair if I held views like Jordan’s, I wouldn’t want them publicised either.
Roderick Mulgan has a relatively low profile on social media. If you’re really interested you can hear him here speaking with Michael Laws, on the Platform.
He talks about the FSU beginning as a spinoff of the Taxpayer’s Union, his support of anti-mandaters rights, and how he was inspired to get involved by the controversy over Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux visiting NZ to spread their far right views.
You can see Lauren and Stefan below mocking the Māori carving visitors pass through when entering Aotearoa.
I’m not quite sure how the FSU came to claim that their council members were from “across the political spectrum”, they sure as heck don’t look like it to me.
Rather than defending free speech it seems the FSU mostly wants to defend people who are anti trans rights, or happy with racism, and are opposed to those voicing criticisms of Israel or taking proactive steps to provide fairer outcomes for Māori.
The FSU are clear though that they don’t support Nazis - because according to them they don’t exist! The text below is from the FAQ on their website as to whether Nazi’s should have free speech:
“Any Nazis living in New Zealand would be at least 91 years old as Nazis are people who were a member of the National Socialist German Workers' Party between 1920 and 1945.
Anyone else is not a Nazi. But it is not uncommon for some people to label someone whose speech they dislike as a Nazi, as a way to avoid debating what they actually say.”
Apparently Kyle Chapman is a lot older than he looks! Joking aside, that’s the argument of an annoying fourteen year old boy. Nazis don’t exist anymore - be nice if it were true.
Humanity went through thousands of years of oppression before gaining free speech, and it is not my intention to make light of it. But let’s not use it as a cloak to defend bigotry and dishonesty.
Free speech is incredibly important, but so too are issues like misinformation. There isn’t just a question of whether hate speech should be protected as free speech, but also whether blatantly false, or fake, speech should be afforded protections. I’m sure those who have suffered through history for speaking the truth did not do so in order that we could use the privilege to tell lies to each other.
Free speech must be treasured, but are hate and bigotry without restriction, or falsehoods without consequences, really worth defending?
What do you think?
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