This is the winner of the 2017 Spectator Australia Thawley Essay Prize, the theme of which was ‘The great Australian speech that never was.’
Today, I address the hall concerning a matter of utmost importance. It is not a matter that one thinks about from day to day. It may not even be something you care about at all. But I am here to tell you that it is a matter of significance, whether you know it or not.
I have heard my contemporary allies cite my name ad nauseam. ‘John Stuart Mill’, they say, and I just thought, you know what, screw it. I’ve been rolling in my grave for too many years now not to say anything, so here I am to put this thing to rest.
It seems apparent to me that Australia, a country built on the values of the Enlightenment, has somewhat lost its way. I cannot help but be pleased with the egalitarianism of this great nation, it is a model union in many ways, but I’m bewildered by this movement that seeks to undermine the very notion that gave rise to its progress in the first place. I’m talking, of course, about the unfettered ability of the individual to express their opinion without fear of violence or intimidation, otherwise known as free speech. In my estimation, the freedom to speaks one’s mind seems to be in a dire state, and I am here to tell you that it is a duty to resist those that seek its demise, or risk a perilous future.
Best we start with some elementary propositions in ‘unpacking’ this matter. I propose this as an open question to those that demand speech codes: who is to decide who is to be the censor, and of whom would you delegate this task? Who is to determine the harmful speaker, and what is their criteria for casting this charge? Quo warranto, the oldest question in the book, asks by what right do you have to decide what I can and cannot hear?
I submit that there is only one plausible answer to these questions if you have any serious concern for human liberty and freedom. The motives of the individual attempting to monopolise the power of the censor must be thoroughly questioned, as it is not only a violation of others’ right to hear potentially uncomfortable speech, but a violation of that person’s own right to hear different opinions, too. You make yourself a hostage to ignorance and dogma when you deny your own right to hear other opinions, and you certainly have no right determining in advance what others can and cannot hear. No man or woman has the right to be the arbiter of good taste in public discourse, and if you think you do, you join the authoritarian tradition which this civilisation has so proudly resisted.
When Socrates stood atop the Areopagus, the great hill of free inquiry in ancient Athens and challenged the gods of the city, was it not he who proffered the expression of a free conscience, broken from the traditions of Athenian society? Albeit, we no longer pay with our lives for our heretical positions as Socrates did. Or do we? I’ve been told as of late we do, when criticising one monotheism in particular. Is it really true that we have in our midst people who will murder others for committing no crime other than that of thought and drawing? A de facto Islamic blasphemy law is already in place – everyone knows full well what the consequences of caricaturing ‘the prophet’ are.’ The Rushdie affair, the Danish cartoons, Charlie Hebdo. You had your own protests in this fine city of Sydney a few years back, which saw young Muslims carrying signs saying ‘behead all those who insult the prophet.’ If you had told me, before I read up on these problems, that people were being killed in Western nations for caricaturing a prophet, I would have asked ‘when did the Inquisition return?’ These sickly developments are a threat not only to free speech, but to everything we can sensibly call civilisation, and must be met head on.
But what are we to do when we try to open dialogue on such matters and are instantly scolded as Islamophobes and racists, cast into the realm of uncivilised philistines? Those that throw around these accusations are so primed to shout it at anyone who appears to show the slightest hint of resistance that we are stripped of the agency to even have the conversation in the first place. This is a sure way to creating genuine racists, as I’m sure there are many people who have no problem parading their hatred for the other, given the excuse to do so. And this odd alliance between the Left and Islamists is perhaps even more disturbing! The two have found common cause in their contempt for the society in which they cohabit, creating a maelstrom of regressive social and political attitudes that have no purpose other than to destroy the current system and rebuild it along their phony utopian visions.
Just before my time, the United States experienced a similar clash of interests with the Islamic world. It was Thomas Jefferson and John Adams that travelled to London in 1786 to demand a cessation to the capture and enslavement of American naval personnel at the hands of the pirates of Tripoli. The Ottoman ambassador told the two men that his Koran gave him the right to enslave those that fell outside the dar-al-Islam, and thus the trade in American and European sailors would continue. Jefferson and Adams knew full well how to resolve the crisis, and the Barbary Wars followed, initiating the end of a two-hundred-and-fifty-year practice that saw the enslavement of up to one and a half million Europeans. Determining who the good guys and bad guys are in the current age seems trivially difficult, a problem at which Jefferson and Adams would have laughed. Regrettably, you have the luxury of blinding yourselves to real problems in this modern age of affluence and comfort, to which your forebears did not.
My observations on the decay of Australian society are further informed by the invocation of identity politics in protecting the supposedly deprived and downtrodden. The true consequences of this phenomenon are scary, not in the least because they divide people along facile lines of race, gender and sexual orientation, but that they demand a conformity to these arbitrary faculties and deny the flourishment of human complexity. It pained me to read about the attempted prohibition of the Catholic Union at Balliol College, Oxford, in my dear home country of England. This specific targeting of Christians has become an all too common theme on university campuses, as we saw a few months back with the harassment of students on this campus, the University of Sydney, over their opposition to same-sex marriage. It is critical that such incidents not be dismissed lightly as actions of an overzealous militant fringe. They represent the pointy end of a ‘progressive’ culture that has swept through the institutions of Australian society over the past decade or so, which seeks to make redundant the history of this nation and reshape it along their revisionist ideology of guilt, shame and self-flagellation. I will no doubt seem ‘alarmist’ to some, and perhaps I am, a tad, but I believe it to be a small price to pay for pre-emptively warning against the destructive potential of identity politics and an entrenched culture of masochism. Once we charge identity politics with an immutable veto power, we reach a conversational impasse. Ideas are, first and foremost, what matter. And the solution to bad ideas is good ideas. History affords a narrative that vouches for this axiom. Australia is proof of the triumph of ideas; this must be stressed. But it’s important not to emphasise this notion with shallow hysterics or blind adulations. It merely be a modest acceptance of their high value, and a steadfast resolve against those that wish it harm.
One would be cruel not to forgive you for being pessimistic about the claustrophobic atmosphere pervading Australian public discourse at the present moment. But there is no time to feel sorry for your bound psyche, so, what to do about it? I offer this challenge as a pragmatic way forward. We return to first principles in understanding the necessity of free speech. The three essential texts are: Thomas Paine’s Introduction to the Age of Reason, John Milton’s Areopagitica, and, not to appear too self-indulgent, my own essay On Liberty. If you really, really cannot stand old white men, then I suggest The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg, who most eloquently wrote ‘freedom is always and exclusively freedom for the one who thinks differently.’ From this position, we must inculcate a culture that understands the significance of free speech, and its place as the bedrock for which all other freedoms lie upon. We must work to engineer a collective conscience committed not only to defending it, but actively protecting it in the face of any attempt at negation. We must also insist that the agency of the individual be empowered, because it is only the independent mind that can take our discourse beyond tribal identities and collectivist precincts. My contemporary, Oscar Wilde, perhaps put it best when he said, ‘he who does not think for himself does not think at all.’ High time we re-energised this idea, and rediscovered what made Australia the great nation it is.
Subscribe to The Spectator Australia today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Subscribe – Try a month free