Free speech isn’t something I thought about much before Andrew Bolt gave me a reason to. If I did, it was usually in reference to America, as we don’t really have Free Speech in Australia.
It is a pretty fascinating concept. It’s nothing that I can say I really care much about, but that’s only because the reality of what we have is a very long way from the virtuous concept of what it is meant to be. I could say the same of my general disinterest in the democratic process. On paper it looks great, but in practice it’s just a mockery of what it is meant to be.
Another reason I think the ‘Hooray for free speech’ crowd has failed to sway me is that the debate around free speech in Australia was clearly having the broader social impact of making free speech synonymous with racism. During this time it was very common to meet racist trolls who, when called out on their racism, would say. ‘But I have free speech!’
The general consensus amongst those who mindlessly absorb and attempt to regurgitate whatever media they consume seemed to be that to say racist things was a form of free speech, but to reply contrary to those opinions was an attempt to deny them their free speech. ‘But I have free speech’ became the new ‘But I have a right to an opinion’, which is a more accurate, but still often untrue statement. (It’s not an opinion if it’s definitely wrong. Things exist as facts or opinions, if we can prove if something is true or not then it is no longer a matter of opinion. So all of those opinions that Aboriginal people are all drunks and blah blah blah isn’t an opinion. It’s factually inaccurate. End of story.)
Brandis, for some unknown reason, decided to jump a shark over that line by saying people had a right to be bigots, and effectively destroyed any hope of watering down the Racial Discrimination Act. Thankfully, because without, I daresay that right now there would be no RDA, and bigots would be even more bold than they are already.
It wasn’t surprising to see an overwhelming majority of white journalists come out in support of Bolt. Free Speech is basically like their Jedi oath, and racism isn’t something I’ve ever really expected them to know very much about.
Though, they seemed to know plenty about racism when they all jumped on the bandwagon to demonise Aboriginal communities in the NT after the release of the Little Children Are Sacred report.
It is worth noting, that this report didn’t actually call for anything resembling, in any way shape or form, the NTER, otherwise known as the NT Intervention. It similarly didn’t call for media to participate in the creation and dissemination of active propaganda designed specifically to demonize Aboriginal communities. Read this if you don’t know what I’m talking about. No time to go into that now, I’m afraid, but it’s pretty huge.
So, Free Speech is meant to be awesome because it lets complex and controversial issues be discussed and debated. Offensive views, they argue, must be allowed to be aired freely, no matter how racist, inflammatory, defamatory, or factually inaccurate they may be.
This allows for false beliefs and inappropriate opinions to be corrected and shouted down, which is of course what would happen in a rational and ‘civilised’ society driven by facts and logic. It was very common to hear Tim Wilson or George Brandis or various other IPA shills say that they just ‘had more faith’ in the Australia public than we did. This, of course, was a political ploy designed to rally support amongst the ignorant white ‘us’ against the evil freedom hating non-white ‘they’.
Sadly though, we are not Vulcans, and the spaces in which these national conversations are played out, are not democratic, are not freely accessible to all, and in fact, are controlled by a very small number of people with some serious corporate, political, and ideological agendas. These people actively decide which voices we will hear and read in mainstream media, and just as importantly, which voices will be ignored or misrepresented in national discussions.
This is why media entities that are economically nonviable *cough* manage to stay in print. Not because there’s enough people to sustain it as a business model, but because there’s a few people with enough money to ensure this crap keeps getting rammed down people’s throats on every possible media platform imaginable whether we like it or not. This what happens at the intersection of free speech and free markets. Monopolies controlled by the few for the benefit of the few at the expense of everyone else, and at the expense of the truth.
So where does that leave hope for issues to be debated if it must be debated exclusively by those who are chosen to have access to a voice in the media?
Where does that leave people, like the authors of the Little Children Are Sacred report, who work tirelessly to create opportunity for change only to see all of their hard work, and people’s hope for change, derailed by government and media to perpetuate racist hatred, impose racist laws, and have no positive impact whatsoever on the issues the report was created to address?
How can we have national discussions on racism when it will be racists who are paid to shoot down the debate in conrol of the conversation?
What hope is there to have a national discussion on crucial issues like DV and child abuse if the government will use these issues as an opportunity to demonise Aboriginal people, pass Draconian laws, and grab more land?
The sad truth is that there are not many media spaces that exist to educate, or that create opportunity for meaningful debate.
How can we hope to allow ‘free speech’ to do its job in the media when the media is just so painfully white? Even the non-white mainstream media usually answer to white directors, editors, producers, casting agents, and media conglomerate owners.Even the supportive white media don't have any Indigenous staff members.
Where does that leave us?
It leaves us lost, scared, paranoid, and without hope that we can work WITH government and media to achieve the best outcomes for Australia.
It leaves us with an understanding that we are better to try and do good works off the radar of government and media, because they only bring negative attention, disharmony and destruction with them.
It leaves us petrified that the causes we fight for might make the news, instead of living in hope that it might finally make the news.
It leaves us, as always, as the other.
As Dr Perkins said many, many years ago:
"We pray eternally that the White authority structure will not turn on us and impede what little progress we have made"
"We live off the crumbs that fall off the White Australian tables and are told to be grateful."
“They [Aboriginal youth] learn and receive messages from society of low worth and expectations of mediocrity and failure. I challenge these messages and dream for young Aboriginal Australians and I encourage them to believe in themselves. “
Where do we go from here? Have we even gone anywhere from when Dr Perkins said this stuff decades ago?
I honestly don’t know.