11 January 2011

Here we go again...

Hope that you’re all having a great new year, folks.

Like a festering wound, this one has been annoying me for a bit, but I thought I’d put this out there and see who bites. With Wikileaks now relegated to the pages in the middle of the newspaper (at least where it doesn't relate to Julian Assange's extradition problems), I thought I’d come back to a subject that I really don’t understand at all: Freedom of Speech.

Yes folks, Freedom of Speech.

One of the things that I find interesting about this topic is the sheer unmitigated drivel that people utter whenever this topic comes up. Me included. But I live in the forlorn hope that someone will find something to correct me on this. So far, it has been a stretch.

Wikileaks has been quite interesting on this matter. It has been said by a number of people that those attacking Wikileaks are attacking free speech, but I want to look a little further into this. Granted, I do love the leaking of top secret communications – especially when it makes people look like idiots – and I especially love it that government and media in the US who attack Wikileaks are traditionally proponents of this particular concept to an insane degree and thus look grossly hypocritical at the moment. But I also love the hypocrisy of those who defend Wikileaks on freedom of speech grounds.

Ask any American which freedoms they prize above all others, and I think that you’ll probably find that they rather like the bit in their constitution that deals with freedom of speech. This is rather good, I agree.

Here in Australia, we have no constitutional right to freedom of speech. We do, apparently have some ‘implied rights’ buried within our constitution that allows us to comment on matters political, but by and large, there is no explicit right to free speech.

But what is ‘free speech’?

I take the view that free speech is, gulp, ‘free’. That is, it should come unencumbered and unrestricted, with no penalties, legal or otherwise, on one’s usage. That is all.

At this point, someone usually will point out to me that, ‘Well no, Dikkii. With freedom of speech comes responsibilities.’

Unfortunately, this now places tacit restrictions on ‘free speech’. In a world where words should frankly mean what they ought to mean, this statement is, unfortunately, 24 carat bullshit. If we wanted speech to come with one or more restrictions (which responsibilities are), then we would call it ‘restricted speech’, not ‘free speech’.

It also begs the questions, where is this list of ‘responsibilities’, and who in the name of Frigga is the person who came up with this list? If it even exists at all?

How do I get on the panel that gets to change or amend this list of 'responsibilities'?

Is the English language the poorer for people stuffing around with it like this?

There are other bits of special pleading that people will come out with which effectively says, ‘Dikkii, it isn’t really ‘free’. We just use the term to sell a particular package of speech guidelines that we like and use of the word ‘restricted’ is not clever marketing.’

Well, no one will use those exact words, but you get the idea.

My favourite item of special pleading also comes from the States and involves that old chestnut, ‘Free speech doesn’t mean that you can yell fire in a crowded theatre!’

Well, yes it does, actually. Placing yet another restriction on freedom of speech, we gradually move further and further away from the dictionary definition of what ‘free’ means. In its purest form, and I’m using the Oxford here, the adjective ‘free’ means:
“...able to act or be done as one wishes; not under the control of another.”

I’m sorry, but a restriction, whether it be crowded theatres or anything else, has been imposed by someone, and therefore not only can one not act (in this case, speak) as one wishes, someone has imposed a control. And the English language is indeed the poorer for this.

It gets worse, too.

Some of my old school buddies are fond of getting nice and condescending with the lovely old cliché, ‘I may not agree with what you’re saying, but I’ll fight for your right to say it.’

It’s nice in theory to say that you’ll fight for someone’s right to say anything they like, but frankly, I think they’re lying out of their arses, because here are some things that they will never fight for. Not only that, but these are just some reasons why freedom of speech is completely unachievable, either in my lifetime or anyone else’s:

  • Contracts. Where you go to get something enforced on a contract of sale, and the person who sold you something said, ‘Nah, I was just saying stuff’, is it possible that anyone would fight for this? Doubtful.
  • The news. The meedja are awfully fond of attempting the free speech line, although they would never in a million years try the line that, ‘No, the Prime Minister didn’t really have sex on a crowded bus in front of kiddies. We made that up because it was tremendously funny, and you believed us like the gullible twats you are!’
  • Peer group pressure and cultural taboos. When was the last time in any jurisdiction did anyone try to sue a group for imposing their groupthink on them? It’s unthinkable. There are certain things that you cannot say because you will be ostracised – freedom of speech means that nothing is off the table, even jokes about terrorists of particular ethnic persuasions rooting kiddies. This has a different flavour to it - although we don't think of social punishments the same way that we think of legal or illegal punishments (such as physical ones), social taboos (restrictions) and ostracism (punishment and deterrent) is still a major barrier to free speech.
  • Section 52 of the Trade Practices Act. This is my personal favourite. Anyone who would fight for this to be repealed (“A corporation shall not, in trade or commerce, engage in conduct that is misleading or deceptive or is likely to mislead or deceive.” At subsection (1)) is not fit to walk the earth.

Just once, I’d love to have a conversation that started with, ‘Dikkii, you know that I may not agree with what you’re saying, but I’ll fight for your right to say it,’ and finished with, ‘Well, at risk of calling you a liar, Dikkii, I was out in front of Parliament House the other day, protesting for, not just section 52, but the entire Trade Practices Act to be repealed.’

At least this prick would be being truthful.

And you know, having seen the damage that verbal bullying and harassment causes, I don’t think that there would be many takers for having these particular laws done away with, either.

If we go to jurisdictions where that highly marketable term ‘free speech’ is enshrined in law, we can see that the restrictions start to mount up. Which makes the term highly loaded at best, and downright dishonest at worst.

In the UK, for instance, the British Chiropractic Association's infamous libel lawsuit against Simon Singh was a disgraceful attempt to stifle free speech. However, in Britain - which is a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights and thus has freedom of expression, apparently - the case went through two courts and not one judge (there were three on the bench for the appeal) saw fit to throw the case out on those grounds. We can add libel laws to the list.

I should be reasonably obvious by now that free speech is completely unachievable.

And don't get me wrong, I object wholeheartedly to someone resorting to the courts to silence someone. It doesn't seem to occur to anyone though, that the Singh libel case might have been a symptom of a far more further reaching problem, although it's outside the scope of this post to address it.

The fact is though, that whether the issue is alleged libel/slander, bullying, breaching contractual terms, publishing government secrets or a decision that dinner with friends is the perfect time to let them all know about that taste that you have built up for the kind of santorum that only their mothers can produce, you cannot call speech 'free' unless you allow the whole lot.

I have been watching the US news with interest at the moment. The assassination attempt on a US Congresswoman on the weekend brought this theme back. Sarah Palin has been roundly criticised for drawing rifle crosshairs on a map and using trigger happy metaphors when her lunatic Tea Party supporters are frankly incapable of differentiating between fact and fiction.

Palin has also called for Julian Assange's assassination, too. By rights she should have been charged with incitement to murder over this, but...

I never thought that I’d ever defend the lamentable Palin, but if the USA was totally serious about freedom of speech, she wouldn’t have a case to answer. And I wonder about how many in the media are now certifiable hypocrites on this matter?

Having said that, criticising critics of Palin runs into the same problem, but under free speech - such criticism is fine. So is criticising those who criticise critics of Palin.

Why can't people just be honest and say that what they'd really like is restricted speech?


Ross Floate said...

We need to sit down and discuss/argue the difference between natural rights and legal rights. Beers soon?

Dikkii said...

Very true, and as you correctly say, "soon". And

Ponder if you will, in the meantime, the question, is a delineation between the two sorts of rights necessary from a syntactic viewpoint? I am well aware of the need for a difference from a pragmatic viewpoint.