Would freedom be a world where public policy repressed debate on officially taboo subjects?
Freedom of speech has been an established, fundamental human right championed internationally, even by the United Nations. In New Zealand, freedom of expression has been valued and defended for generations. So how could it be that in 2019, some propose this right should be limited?
What’s changed? “Hate-speech.” It might be racist or about religion. Usually, it is controversial or polarising. The notion is that laws must be passed to ban this hate-speech; some topics would be illegal. The motive is to protect from harm and that’s good, but is there no other way of looking at this difficulty?
Regrettably, the use of the word “hate” is unhelpful. It is too broad a term and is emotionally charged. Accusations of hate-speech have at times been used as weapons to silence discussion when points of argument are depleted. Labels of hate upset some speakers who then claim misinterpretation. Hate-speech categorisation seems to inflame rather than calm debate. Rather than crying, “Hate!” it might be better to think of harm. The term “harmful speech” is less judgemental and more precise.
Historically, the privileges of free expression cultivated creativity and progress. For instance, The Dark Ages and the infamous Inquisition were both times of imprisoned ideas. Impure thoughts and words could be curtailed by strict religious orders threatening excommunication or torture. In contrast, the Renaissance brought freedom of expression, science and commerce. In modern times, free expression has legalised abortion, erased state- condemnation around sexual orientation issues and delivered racial equality. Free speech is necessary for democracy, protest and progress. We need the rights to be able to say who we are, what we stand for and what we believe.
Yet even though we value absolute freedom of expression, we are responsible for our words and their consequences. Laws govern the behaviour of speakers and writers to adhere to truth, respect the reputation and property of others and not cause harm. There are penalties for transgressions. Take, for example, perjury, defamation, misleading advertising, conspiracy, fake emergency call-outs and breaches of good faith. Further, in NZ there are responsibilities to not incite harm such as racial disharmony or vigilante justice. And here’s a good one – you can’t talk candidate or party politics in and around electoral booths on Polling Day!It seems more that the words alone are not the problem; it is conduct or behaviour that becomes the issue. Context and motive should be considered. After all, can words alone hate?
There is a danger in placing limits on free speech, free expression and, ultimately, freedom of thought. Some propose that expression be controlled in some subjects around race, religion, gender and even vaccination. Incredible that, already, Stuff NZ prohibits discussion about some aspects of climate change. Such control is catastrophic as it prohibits opportunity to question. Limiting enquiry hobbles evolving thought. Progressive, open debate or stagnant, closed minds?Questions of bigotry arise. Are speakers and audiences becoming intolerant? Not everyone is prepared to be liberal or open-minded. But should the vital right to free speech be sacrificed in order to improve the good manners of those in debate?
Take the case of Australian rugby star, Israel Folau, who in 2019 broadcast disapproving views about sexual orientation. Tagged as hate-speech, his words resulted in hearings and widespread dispute. Before jumping in to limit discussion around the ethics of sexual orientation we should enquire whether Mr Folau was aiming to harm the LGBTQ community or was he trying to express his own beliefs or creed, regardless of popularity? If he stated that such people would burn in hell, was he “coming out” with his Faith? On the other hand, if he was urging their burning, might it be argued that his words were inciting harm? Yet either way, Mr Folau’s conduct can be judged and remedied without limiting society’s freedom of expression. And as for harm, we should always remember that in our mature, free society the audience can always close the book or turn off the radio at any time they personally find words disagreeable.