30 October 2011

Assange and Bolt, false and unsound

Julian Assange wrote an article about free speech which was wrong on a few key assumptions, particularly this:
Opinions must be shared in "a free and open encounter" because it is the competition between ideas that produces the truth. As Fredrick Siebert explained: "The true and sound will survive. The false and unsound will be vanquished. Government should keep out of the battle and not weigh the odds in favor of one side or the other."
The idea that Aborigines are an inferior people, unfit for or incapable of participating fully in Australian society, puts the lie to Siebert's wish. This is one of the most prevalent ideas in Australia. It is also false and unsound. No amount of patient engagement and disproving, nor frequent and exuberant demonstration of excellence by Aborigines, can eradicate this lantana-like idea.

I'm a liberal too, but confrontation with this reality made me change my mind. First you've got to go with the fact and work the principle around it. I might have to lose the 'liberal' tag, but that's OK, it isn't all about me. Doing the reverse, like Assange does, simply does not work.
Hate speech laws in Australia are a form of censorship, backed by sanction and justified by the perceived need to protect historically persecuted minorities and maintain racial harmony.
Persecuted minorities don't need to be protected, they need to participate in Australian society. For that to happen you need to stop excluding them from it. Lazy bullshit that implies racial classifications trump common humanity excludes Aborigines from Australian society. A few paragraphs later Assange tries to assert that free speech is more of a unifying force than measures such as these, but the proof exists only in theory.
In the US, the First Amendment guarantees the right of the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis to march through the streets. The law sanctions speech only if it incites violence. Rather than flourishing, the Klan and neo-Nazis have been withered by the robust criticism that such protections afford their critics.
For the first hundred years or so, the Klan and the Nazis had a pretty clear run, and the First Amendment was in effect the whole time. Giving effect to their core beliefs involve excluding people from society and killing them. They underwent robust criticism to be sure, but a lot of people died in order that they might speak freely, and only when legal sanctions and force were applied against them did their positions become unsustainable.
People get squeamish when arguing against censorship laws that protect historically persecuted groups.
People get squeamish all the time. The question is, why do they get squeamish, what are the consequences of that squeamishness and do people have a right to go around making other people squeamish in order to boost their media profile?

The basis of the whole Bolt case is that some people from a historically and systematically persecuted minority have been able to embrace their identity, now that the legal aspects of social inclusion have been uninstalled, and that some jobs have been created which are only open to people of that minority. Along comes Andrew Bolt, claiming that the historically persecuted minority are actually privileged (and that the disadvantages that come from historic persecution are over, hooray and forget it ever happened). Bolt believed that his classification as to who was Aboriginal and who wasn't, based on a bit of Googling, was superior to the classification applied to and by Aborigines themselves.

The law which Bolt transgressed acknowledges both the prevalence and the falsehood of racial profiling in Australia. From my understanding it says that if you're going to comment on people's race you have to be careful. The judge found that Bolt hadn't been careful, and I note that no appeal has been lodged. Assange, and Bolt, believe that Bolt's right to toss off a comment trumps the slow but considerable efforts the historically persecuted minority are making to overcome historical persecution and participate freely and fully in Australian society.
Censorship is fine, they think, as long as it is designed to protect gays and indigenous people.
The law under which Andrew Bolt was convicted protects us all. It enables Siebert's wish that sloppy ideas go down to become reality.
In much of Europe and Australia, it is unlawful to deny that the Holocaust took place - this is "acceptable" censorship.
Quite so. It makes it easier to stop that sort of thing having the catastrophic effect it did on individuals and society. It forces people to face up to reality, which is no bad thing.
But in Turkey it is a crime to assert that the Armenians were subjected to genocide. Imagine if Australia introduced a law prohibiting use of the word "genocide" in respect of the treatment of indigenous Australians?
Can't see it happening myself, no point in protecting anyone against non-threats. A bit like Andrew Bolt complaining that he's barred from applying for some $25k part-time short-term dead-end job which is only open to Aborigines.

There are threats to the balance between our liberties and our social cohesion all the time. What won't and can't help protect us from imbalance and injustice are lazy postulations, including that hidey-hole of the intellectual poser who hasn't thought carefully about whatever they claim to be particularly concerned about: the "slippery slope". Assange loves a slippery slope.
Many debate whether the term should be used or not but it would cause outrage if our government stymied that debate by making it unlawful.
It isn't just a bit of chat, it's a debate of real significance. Have the debate, but face up to the facts and do your research like Bolt didn't. The idea that the Australian government would follow Turkey in that regard is just sloppy, straw man work.
So what subjects are off limits? What societal "goods" are worthy of protection through censorship?

Science says climate change is happening ... United Nations Security Council ... Why don't we just introduce a climate change-denial law prohibiting Barnaby Joyce from rubbishing climate change ... may sound ridiculous ... parliamentary privilege ... but therein lies the danger of allowing the state to regulate what political speech is acceptable.
More "slippery slope" work, showing how an extreme example obscures rather than illustrates the point at hand. Barnaby Joyce isn't a threat to anything and you can participate fully in Australian society - including the shaping of climate change policy - regardless of your attitude toward climate change.
The law, whether civil or criminal, is a serious business. At its end is the deployment of armed police to imprison people or seize their assets by force. It should never be used to regulate disfavoured views.
It is always used to regulate disfavoured views. People who assert a right to commit armed robbery are not only expressing a disfavoured view, they are limiting the abilities of others to participate fully in society.
Free speech must protect all speech, however offensive. Debates that offend the "ordinary" or "typical" Australian are precisely the debates we need. It is precisely when the majority shares a view that it needs to be challenged, because if it is wrong, then we are all imperiled.
If you're going to have a debate on issues that entrench disadvantage against those who are historically and systematically persecuted, you'd better be careful to have your facts together. This improves debate all round, rather than just being some sort of lotus-eating talkshop which makes no difference other than selling newspapers. Racist conjecture is not a debate and nor is it a challenge. It's oral spam and makes it harder rather than easier to take ideas of free speech seriously.

I'm appalled at the idea that Andrew Bolt might redefine who my father was or arbitrarily make my job more difficult (if not impossible) based on his lack of skill at using a search engine. Mind you, I'm appalled at the idea that Josh Frydenberg didn't cop the sort of treatment currently being meted out to Bradley Manning for passing information to Andrew Bolt that was accurate and important, but which Bolt toyed with rather than expose as Assange did. Bolt vilified a truth-teller and made his job impossible, and he had no right to do so. I keep waiting for the Great Boomerang to whack him and his mate Frydenberg on their silly scones for that one.

Now Assange wants to stand up for Bolt's right to misrepresent people and keep them at a disadvantage. If the bastard hasn't got his facts right then he can shut his cakehole. That is both ridgey as well as didge, dinky and di at the same time; not only that but it elevates the debate to a level where historical and systematic (dis)advantages play a less of a role than they otherwise might. Rather than being imperiled, it's a challenge to lift your contribution to debate to a level where racism and other dead ideas can't compete.

Bolt is an experienced communicator and has participated in public debate for decades. His claims about being 'silenced' buzzed around the Australian media like so many blowflies in a public toilet, until they lost all meaning and credibility. To agree with Bolt that he is being silenced - and to agree with his fatuous extension that others are being silenced too, and denied some asserted right to tag and bag Aborigines - is not to be a truth-teller but a willing accomplice in a deception.


  1. Oh yes, very well said, indeed.

  2. +1

    Always well put, Andrew

  3. "Now Assange wants to stand up for Bolt's right to misrepresent people and keep them at a disadvantage."

    From the article:
    "Bolt was not the subject of defamation proceedings, although he was essentially found guilty of telling untruths."

    Essentially, Assange is arguing that Bolt should have gone down for defamation. It would have improved your article if you didn't skirt around that.

  4. Mark, Michael, Teddy & Lee: thank you.

    Anon: I'm not qualified on legal issues and won't speculate on a legal case which was not brought. I don't have to chase Assange down every rabbit-hole.

  5. First you've got to go with the fact and work the principle around it. . . . Doing the reverse, like Assange does, simply does not work

    So your principles are flexible Andrew depending on the situation?

    And you attack Assange because he holds strongly to his.

    Urgh. Your article is the most disgusting piece of reverse engineering I've seen in years. You don't want anyone to interrupt the warm glow you feel as a result of Bolt's conviction - and even Assange cops it for trying to diminish your schaudenfreud.


  6. My principles are not judged against my warm inner glow, but against observable reality.

    I'd love to think that everyone has an unfettered right to free speech, and that one person's free speech doesn't limit another's - but this isn't true and no amount of "sticking to my principles" will make it so.

    Assange and Bolt have been lazy in demanding to be taken on their convictions and ignoring the impact the exercise of those convictions has on others and on society at large. You think complex social issues can be limited to binary understandings or projections of your primitive and poorly understood emotions?


  7. Can you please link to something related to the Frydenberg/Bolt comment? It went right over my head!

  8. Wowza... I followed a link on Pure Poison, and stumbled upon this gem of a blog. Some great posts here Andrew. I can relate all too well to being 'politically homeless'.

  9. paul of albury31/10/11 9:22 pm

    Anonymous, to quote Keynes 'When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?' As someone said elsewhere to not do so makes you an ideologue.
    Perhaps Bolt should also be sued for defamation. If so there might be a little more actual punishment than just a requirement for a correction. It's not as if he's really being punished, just his newspaper being forced to give readers some minimal opportunity to discover the truthiness of the facts supporting his narrative.
    Anyway thanks Andrew for yet another great article.

  10. Re Assange - he is a Libertarian, they sometimes see themselves as beyond left & right. He is no friend of the "left". I think his left wing supporters have seen him as against the USA, so therefore as one of them, without delving into his beliefs.

    Re Bolt - Telling lies about someone’s racial past & job to make a hostile point regarding a race issue, does not count as “free speech”, if that means freedom from being being taken to court by that individual and getting a slap on the wrist for it. If Assange thinks the principal of free speech is somehow under threat because of that, or that it should be open slather to say whatever regardless of the truth, it proves the shallowness of the Libertarian concept.

  11. Question for the Anonymous at 11:17am: If the action had been brought in defamation (and subject to a similar test) and Bolt had lost (which he would have), why would that be any less of an abridgement of free speech than the action under the RDA?

  12. You have neatly skewered the problem (as I see it) with a "rights" based system of regulation, as in the US and as advocated by Assange (as I understand him). The idea that the general good favoured by free speech is a right tends to argue that it is an absolute right which may not be interfered with for any purpose whatsoever.

    Just as much as the "slippery slope" argument, the idea of the absolute right can be poked by all sorts of straw men - as the saying goes, you do not have the unfettered right to yell "fire" in a crowded cinema. You are free to do so, but there are consequences that are imposed.

    To name a rough example, Derryn Hinch in his campaigns regarding the naming of abusers of children is exercising his "right" to free speech. He doesn't suppose that the laws which render him open to prosecution are invalid or a sign of an undemocratic government - indeed he has availed himself of his every right of challenge to those laws and in doing so has drawn a great deal of attention to the issue which he seeks to ventilate. He does so knowing, however, that his own exercise of his "rights" must come with a willingness to bear the consequences of exercising those rights.

    It is one thing to say, as Hinch does, that the law should not regulate speech in this area. It is quite another to say that society, through its government and its law is not entitled ever to regulate the speech of a particular individual. Why speech? What is so magic about the right to spout bullshit (because if commentary is valid and constructive, nobody would object in any event) that demands that it cannot be curbed in any way by a validly-operating government?