Reclaim the fight for free speech

By Roj Amedi
Victoria Pickering/flickr

Freedom of speech, as a concept, is most potent when people speak truth to power. When this occurs, society is forced to question the unspoken and unscrutinised norms that protect structures of oppression, such as assumptions about who deserves certain liberties and the notion of respectability in public discourse. When these expressions of free speech truly hit a nerve, the response from those in positions of power is often swift and violent.

Nearly all civil rights movements have relied on the disenfranchised speaking out and demanding justice outside of established systems and language. Most of these expressions of free speech must occur on alternative platforms because of a lack of access to “legitimate” or mainstream channels. Despite this constant agitation and resistance, public policy is more often than not written to prioritise order over justice.

Having fled a dictatorship in Iraq, I appreciate that upholding freedom of speech is integral to the health of a society. And yet I simultaneously acknowledge when a misappropriated conception of this freedom is wielded to silence and victimise those who experience systematic oppression.

What we have witnessed for quite some time is a pantomime of debate, where those with institutional and structural power maintain a false victimhood because they fear the erosion of the structures that uphold their privilege. This is just a continuation of the way that our society systematically legitimises particular privileged voices whilst portraying the voices of perceived “others” as threatening.

Criticism aimed at Bill Leak (who consistently dehumanised Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people under an established national masthead) or Roger Franklin (the editor of Quadrant, a conservative journal, who wished the same violence that recently occurred in Manchester on the ABC’s Ultimo TV studio) have been interpreted as attacks on freedom of speech, whereas attacks on people like Yassmin Abdel-Magied (who questioned the validity of destroying lives in modern day warfare in a social media post and then apologised within the hour), is seen as justified and warranted.

Neither Leak nor Franklin have experienced blowback similar in volume or violence to that of Magied, who has for weeks made headlines, with commenters and even members of the government calling for her to be sacked.

Simply silencing such bigotry won’t eradicate the causes of said bigotry, and interrogation on the merits of their facts and cogency can be a legitimate tool for progress. But not all ideas are created equal in a society that normalises and enforces structural power imbalances. This is especially true when statements made on established platforms aim to diminish the human rights of an already disenfranchised group of people, as Leak did.

To directly engage in a constant cycle of defence can inadvertently reinforce the language and frameworks that work to silence minoritised people. This can often feel futile when you know that once one particular argument is finished, another lies in wait around the next corner.

Minoritised people often get pushed past the point of a respectful exchange, not only because the discourse is so repetitive, but because these discussions call into question their very worth as humans. Any consequent expressions of rage and discomfort in the face of such violence are inevitable and entirely justified. Yet such expressions are unfairly read as incoherent and shrill, further entrenching the prejudiced ideas that led to disenfranchisement in the first place.

I refuse to humour and pander to this misappropriation of freedom of speech in our current public discourse. You cannot teach someone who so willingly dehumanises you to acknowledge your personhood.

I want to reclaim the fight for free speech from dog whistling politics and the growing trend of misinformation by proposing three initial steps in combatting this misappropriation:

  1. Understand that dog whistling and dead cat tactics such as the constant questioning of the Racial Discrimination Act are red herrings and a distraction from the very real destruction of freedom of speech in legislation including the National Security Legislation Amendment Act, the Counter-Terrorism Legislation Amendment Act, and the Border Force Act.
  1. Unpack the stakeholders and those with vested interests that promulgate constant outrage against those who are advocating for human rights and civil rights. Understand who owns our media, who writes our policies and who has unprecedented discretionary powers, and how all of these are interconnected. And understand why recent attacks on public broadcasters by policy makers are an autocratic attempt to usurp one of the few bastions for diverse voices and criticism.
  1. Identify how those who express racism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, misogyny and classism often use abusive tactics to derail public debate. When public platforms create false equivalences between people acting in bigotry and those who are advocating for civil rights, it lends itself to centring tactics including gaslighting, tone policing, victim blaming and stone walling. What should be healthy dialogue quickly turns into acts of emotional abuse used to subvert and derail.