I don’t have much in common with Israel Folau, Australia’s best rugby union player. We even disagree which football code is played in Heaven. Regardless, we have a duty to put ourselves in Folau’s shoes—if not football boots—when considering his paraphrasing of his holy book, the Christian Bible. Folau informed gays and many other sinners, as defined in his Holy Book, they will go to Hell unless they repent. For this, he was sacked.
We need to recognise this was because powerful people put pressure on the managers of rugby. They took it upon themselves to believe Folau, the person, was condemning gays. They shot the messenger. The claim it was an industrial relations matter is a furphy. Let us speak honestly and freely!
Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me
As an atheist, another category of people doomed to Hell, I took no offence with Folau’s message. I knew heathens were destined for Hell. This is Christian, Jewish and Muslim teaching. Yet, they argue about what one should eat, wear and numerous other things. Fair enough, but to kill each other—for God’s sake, fellow humans! If you are of any of these faiths, my intention is not to offend. You can disagree with me; and, if like me, you believe in the ethics and utility of free speech you will not take offence. The moral case for free speech should need no justification. We tend to overlook its practical value.
Free speech underpins the fantastic advances in medical treatment, labour-saving technology, television, the internet and great literature. Rejection of myths and religious dogma, and telling people about the scientific breakthroughs in the Age of Reason—the Earth circled the Sun, not vice versa—were necessary initial steps for humankind to make progress. Many brilliant people, and unlucky people such as so-called witches, were killed in barbaric ways by those who rejected science and the progress it brought. Heroic people spoke out so that one day—that day has come—their future offspring could live longer and better. Who could be against free speech!
Something perplexing has occurred recently. There is an assertion the left is against free speech, through the hecklers’ veto, where a speaker is drowned out by a mob, or a university head cancels a speech because the mob has threatened serious disruption. And there is the trigger warning: I do not want to harm you, so in my lecture on Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice I won’t mention the behaviour of Shylock. I understand that if you are Jewish, then you could feel psychologically harmed.
The left is also blamed for the spread of identity politics. This I shall dismiss immediately by reference to a most eminent historian whose personal left credentials cannot be questioned, the late Eric Hobsbawm. He writes:
The political project of the Left is universalist, it is for all human beings. It is not liberty for shareholders or blacks, but for everybody. It isn’t equality… (only) for the handicapped, but for everybody. It is not fraternity only for Etonians and gays, but for everybody. And identity politics is essentially not for everybody but for members of a specific group only… The left cannot ‘base’ itself on identity politics.
That can’t be any clearer! Identity politics is a distraction benefitting those opposed to liberal and left societal initiatives. Free speech has been, and remains, one of the key philosophical principles of those on the left, whether they be social democrats, left- liberals, civil libertarians or progressives. A little history helps.
Not many readers will recall Mario Savio, who became the voice of the Free Speech Movement when it commenced in the 1960s. He was a left-leaning student at Berkley when he made an impassioned speech demanding free speech. “Freedom of speech is the thing that marks us as just below the angels,” Savio said. A nice touch.
The movement drew support from famous civil libertarians. For example, folk singer Joan Baez went to Berkeley to perform We Shall Overcome. The movement had much in common with the Civil Rights Movement, the anti-Vietnam war protests, the feminist movement and the environment movement. All needed their messages to be heard—hence, free speech. When, in 1971, we protested and spoke against the South African all-white Springboks rugby team playing in Brisbane, we were motivated by Martin Luther King Jr and the call for equality regardless of colour. We learned in biology classes there are no such things as human races, we are a single species. The Queensland government declared a state of emergency and brought the toughest police from the Outback to Brisbane to shut us up. If only the media, our politicians and community leaders would speak the truth about race, we would make significant progress in eliminating dislike of the other!
Digression over, back to free speech. We cannot overlook there are limits. John Stuart Mill drew the line on free speech at the prospect of harm: one does not shout ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theatre, rather one takes control and manages as best one can an orderly exit. A serious matter today, is that a foolish—or a well-meaning person lacking foresight—can shout ‘Fire!’ on social media.
What public pronouncements fit Mill’s harm category? How serious has the likely harm to be? My generation survived nasty schoolyard words with the retort: Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me. I started school in Australia after spending time in Norway, speaking Norwegian and attending school there. Note, I was born in Australia. With my foreign name and sing-song Norwegian-English, I was “a wog”. I sorted that out, as school kids can do without any help, or lasting harm.
Later in life, in my university student days, at the start of environmentalism, my friends and I were regularly attacked by then Queensland Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen. We were branded “dirty, long-haired hippies”. I showered twice a day, I objected to dirty. Still, like a duck, water off my back! It got nastier. We were called “communists who should go home to where we came from”. That was objectionable: we came from Australia and cared dearly for our country.
This was the same Bjelke-Petersen who was delighted to host a visit from Stalinist dictator of Romania, Nicolae Ceaușescu , who was put up in the visitor’s suite at Government House. Bjelke-Petersen lost his position soon after in a corruption scandal; and Ceaușescu and his wife lost their lives to a firing squad.
Resisting name-calling is simply a matter of exercising civility and should not be beyond decent humans. No need for government intervention, one would think. However, where serious harm is a strong possibility, a wise government has to exercise power; that is, there are issues and times when for the common good free speech has to be curtailed, such as during, say, an enemy invasion.
But what if those governing your country are the ones doing harm? They won’t allow you to speak out. Think Hitler and Stalin— too many others to name, but you get the gist. These powerful leaders killed millions, because their propaganda could not be challenged. Speak out and you were dead. Hitler was free to talk utter nonsense about Jewish-communist conspiracies. He baffled the people and burnt the books that challenged his ideology. There are lessons here.
As a youngster, working in outback shearing sheds, I was given a pamphlet called The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. This sort of reading material circulates in the bush— even today. I ask myself, would I ban it? The answer is “No”—if I knew that readers would read books countering the lies in The Protocols (a notorious forgery). On the other hand, the answer has to be “Yes”—if I had prior knowledge of the Holocaust and the slaughter of millions due to its lies. Considerable wisdom is called for in assessing potential harm.
The concept of hate speech has resulted in considerable confusion.. I assume no one objects to saying “I hate Hitler” or “I hate Stalin” for what they did. Yet the context matters greatly. We did not hate Stalin when the Red Army was fighting with us against Hitler. We hate evil things and evil people, but are not united on what is evil. I don’t expect objections to someone proclaiming “I hate the treatment of poor blacks in America”. But there would be loud objections if someone said “I hate the way the Jews treat the Palestinians”. The latter could be confused to mean “I hate Jews”.
Now I shift my focus to the ‘free’ in free speech. Free speech has much in common with free markets. Humans have known from the day the first trade between a hunter and a gatherer took place that exchange advantages both parties. And as societies grew and the division of labour took hold, markets replaced one-to-one exchanges. All benefitted.
Play the ball—in this case the religious argument— not the man
However, we came to recognise markets only benefitted all when no one producer or one consumer had so much market power that he or she influenced prices or quantities produced (I am referring to monopolies and cartels). Adam Smith warned us of the tendency by producers to agree to act against the consumer. Hence, governments are required to break up monopolies and cartels for the common good. The same needs to apply to the marketplace of ideas. If there is a monopoly or oligopoly in expressing ideas and reporting news, all but the powerful have the ability to speak to the people. We don’t need Hitler’s censorship— it can happen without dictatorial intent in a democracy as a result of market power.
These days it is easy to communicate with a handful of family members and friends via the internet, but this does not put us on a level- playing field of free speech. We don’t live in ancient Greece with its small population where we could gather in the marketplace, the agora, and engage in edifying Socratic dialogue.
The call for free speech is hollow if not accompanied by facilitating the equality of opportunity to be heard. The challenge is how to do this. Returning to the assertion that an anti-free speech campaign is a left- wing attempt to change society. I am not going to argue that some of those shouting down opponents do not self-identify with the left. There are those whom none other than Lenin would say (if he was alive today) suffered from an “infantile disorder of leftism”. Lenin was so concerned with what he termed ‘dilettante–anarchism’ that he wrote in 1920 a whole book titled “Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder.
Then there are those on the left who succumb to goading by the other side. The latter are controversial figures who deliberately gain publicity—and money—by stirring protestors. The protestors fall for it. There are unconfirmed, but in my experience feasible, rumours that Milo Yiannopoulos hires agent provocateurs to lead a mob to attack him. Take note, would-be protestors.
Israel Folau believes there is a Hell. Folau finds in Corinthians a long list of sinners: atheists, idolaters, fornicators, homosexuals, adulterers, thieves, drunks and liars. One can scrutinise the Biblical text in the search for precise definitions of these sins without much success. Take being a drunk. I like a drop of good wine. At a wedding ceremony when the wine ran out—as it has a tendency to do— rather than the guests go home unsatisfied, Jesus was very accommodating, using his very first miracle to turn water into wine. He was a good man. My complete lack of concern with what Israel Folau says is because I do not believe in Hell.
If you are in the group of so-called sinners and you believe Hell exists, you have four choices. One is to do your own reading of the Bible—maybe Folau got it wrong. The second, if you take Folau at his word, is to change your behaviour. The third option is to change your religion. Find one that suits your values, or create a new one. The last has been the strategy throughout recorded history, and continues to the present. Most mainstream Christians, and the same could be said of mainstream Jews and Muslims, have at least in a de facto sense created new versions of their religions/sects by discarding much of the really barbaric stuff. There is a fourth option: simply forget the whole business of supernatural powers and get on with your life, take responsibility for your behaviour, and therefore what Folau says is of no relevance to you.
But importantly, you don’t judge or condemn him, although you have every right to expect of him reciprocal behaviour: he is not to judge you. Play the ball—in this case the religious argument—not the man. Israel would have been taught that.
Tor Hundloe AM FEIANZ is Emeritus Professor at the University of Queensland.
He was President of the Queensland Conservation Council, Councillor of the Australian Conservation Foundation and Chair of Keep Australia Beautiful. In the 1970s he was a radical environmentalist and in the 1974 election he ran for the Senate on a left-wing green platform.
From a dairy-farming family, he spent his young years in outback shearing sheds, eventually becoming a wool classer. He was an Australian Tax Office official, Commissioner of the Industry Commission, and since then a university researcher and lecturer. Tor welcomes comments at [email protected]