Free Speech in the Age of No-Platforming

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I’m sorry to say, it has been a sad week for freedom of speech.

Silicon Valley has maintained its trend of hostility towards opinions that challenge the narrative of the mainstream, as evidenced by media giant Infowars’ unceremonious ejection by Apple, Spotify, and everybody’s favourite censor, the Socialist Republic of Facebook.

It seems big tech companies aren’t even trying to hide their biases against alternative opinion anymore, as evidenced by all 3 of the banning events occurring within 12 hours of each other. Surely that couldn’t suggest collusion by these companies against dissenting voices… could it?

Nothing to worry about – it’s just a coincidence… right?

But although that sort of nonsense is becoming dangerously routine, far more shocking to your humble author was the vitriolic denunciation and eventual no-platforming of Canadian speakers Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux.

For many of you, they will need no introduction, but in a nutshell, these two are philosophical thinkers and critiques of the status quo – unafraid to discuss controversial subjects that others are too cowardly to confront.

You know, outlandish ideas like supporting scientific biological evidence about there being differences between the sexes and how these can manifest different characteristics, or suggesting it is perfectly acceptable and healthy for grown adults to cut ties with family members who are or were abusive towards them.

Crazy notions, I suppose, if you are unable to think about any new ideas that challenge your current worldview without sprinting for a safe space – or, as I suspect is the case with many of their detractors, if you are unable to think objectively at all.

And so, both Lauren and Stefan are met with a lot of opposition from uninformed, rabid mobs of simpletons wherever they go, and last week was no different. Again, I would have thought of it as just another day in the increasingly intellectually restrictive society that we seem to be gravitating towards in the West… except for one detail.

This didn’t happen in Europe or some liberal US college campus far, far away.

They were in New Zealand – the country that I have called home for my entire life.

Far from the tolerant, easy-going society that we oh-so-fervently love to boast to the rest of the world that we have, I saw a new side to my country. From elected officials to quinoa-munching Twitter mobs, we showed what we, or at least a significant portion of us, have truly become – a bunch of sanctimonious, intolerant assholes who can’t even listen to people who think outside the paradigm of popular opinion.

That is, if anyone who opposed them was actually familiar with any of the topics in question, beyond the hyperbolic headlines that our pathetic mainstream media pushed, because I didn’t see a single cognisant argument in rebuttal of their ideas – just a lot of shrieking, name-calling, and even a bomb threat, called against the venue that was supposed to host them, by some deranged lunatic.

Now, to be fair, there was also a lot of support on Twitter for them. Unfortunately, as is often the case with self-righteous mobs, they can sound like 80%, while actually just being a very vocal minority. So while it is impossible to tell exactly what the population split looks like, it is clear that the line has been drawn in the sand between those who believe in freedom of speech, and those who only believe in it when they agree with the speaker.

To top it off, as if the portrait of how far we have fallen wasn’t horrific enough, our Trudeau-esque prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, decided to weigh in on the issue. Not to defend the individual’s right to free speech while in New Zealand, of course, but to state that their views are not welcome here. But I guess you can’t really expect any real tolerance or defence of individual liberty from the former President of the International Union of Socialist Youth, can you?

“Once a government is committed to the principle of silencing the voice of opposition, it has only one way to go, and that is down the path of increasingly repressive measures, until it becomes a source of terror to all its citizens and creates a country where everyone lives in fear.” ― Harry Truman

Free speech or hate speech? *groan*

One argument (or at least, a factually-anaemic attempt at one) that was repeatedly raised by opponents of the event going ahead was that their opinions were beyond the pale of freedom of speech, and violated legislation that curtails “offensive speech”. Although, I’m not sure what value free speech has if it does not include the right to say things that may be upsetting to some, especially when the “offensive speech” is objectively true.

Another challenge when defining the parameters of acceptable speech is who gets to write the rules. This leads into the main problem with modern “hate speech” laws – they are trying to solve the unsolvable problem of people getting hurt feelings about things that others say.

But is that really a defensible position? If I drive a red sports car, and you say that you hate red sports cars, and anyone who drives one has a micropenis, has a hate crime been committed? Is it only a crime if I take offense rather than laughing, and if so, how do you know if I’m going to take offense before you say it?

It’s impossible to set clear parameters, because offense is something that is taken, not something that is given. What you find offensive might be totally different to what I find offensive.

So, if the entire concept of hate speech is far too subjective, and those who write the laws will inevitably favour those who ideologically agree with them, what should the parameters, if any, be?

Personally, I draw the line at threatening or inciting others to physical harm, because you are then infringing on another person’s well-being or life. That’s a very different thing to telling a distasteful joke or revealing an uncomfortable truth. But there are existing laws in place protecting people from these sorts of threats, so any other “hate speech” law is superfluous to requirement, and is therefore about preventing hurt feelings, not preventing real harm.

As for actually hateful speakers, of course I also want them to have a platform. If their hatred is in the open, people can see it for what it is. If it is driven underground, people will seek out the forbidden fruit to see why it was forbidden, and no open, critical discussion will take place.

[RELATED: Censorship is ****ing ****]

Then there is the more complex issue of private businesses and their obligations to freedom of speech. In short, there are not really any. Private businesses can basically enforce whatever code of free speech that they like. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and the best response to businesses who do not support your free speech is to vote with your feet. It might take a while, but eventually businesses are going to wake up to the damage that they are doing to their bottom line by becoming overly ideological, and of course, businesses are always about their bottom line.

The silver lining

If it isn’t clear from this opinion piece already, I was fully in support of the event going ahead, but there is a case that more good has been done for free speech in New Zealand as a result of Lauren and Stefan’s no-platforming than if the event had actually gone ahead.

There’s a phenomenon known as the Streisand effect, named after Barbra Streisand who tried to suppress photos of her Malibu house, which had the effect of drawing far more attention to it than if she had not attempted to suppress the photos at all.

It is the same with this event. If it had proceeded unopposed, a roomful of people, most of whom already agree with the fundamental right to free speech, would have had an enjoyable event and the rest of the country would have been none the wiser.

Perhaps a greater outcome, however, is that free speech is now a topic that is being debated actively across New Zealand, where no one really discussed it before since there was previously no significant evidence that it was under threat.

If that isn’t the textbook definition of an own-goal on the part of the censors, I’m not sure what is.

Instead of Lauren and Stefan inspiring a few hundred people to debate what values we value in our country, there are now five million.

“If freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.”
― George Washington

How can we defend our right to free speech?

It sounds like an overly simplistic cure, but the best form of resistance towards those who would seek to take away individual liberties is to exercise those rights. It’s high time for New Zealanders (and everyone) to say what they think, even though they might be afraid of what others will think of them.

Because the reality is that for most people, they are more concerned about what their friends and family will think of them if they speak their mind, than they are of definitionally-bereft hate speech laws. That’s part of the social conditioning – to make it socially unacceptable to speak your mind so that once the laws come into effect to nullify those rights, there is little to no opposition.

Opponents to free speech ironically have no problem finding their voice, so more than ever, the time is now to speak your mind if you want to prevent freedom of speech from being consigned to the list of things that we nostalgically tell our grandchildren about.

That is, if we are allowed to tell them.


If you want to find out more about Lauren or Stefan, links to their Twitter profiles and Youtube channels are below:

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