Freedom of Speech (3): a focus on Fair Speech

[transcript of podcast created 11 September 2019]

Hello, I’m Betty McLellan for Radical Feminist Reflections.

     This is Part 3 of my three-part series on Freedom of Speech. It’s been some time since I presented Parts 1 and 2, and so much has happened since that time that I barely know where to start.

     Suffice it to say that the precious principle of Freedom of Speech has been reinvented, reinterpreted, co-opted to such an extent that it now must surely come under the category of “bizarre”. Those who deliberately use it for their own purposes, now blatantly use it to mean:

. Freedom to say and do whatever I please, regardless of how my freedom impinges on the freedom of others.

It even seems to be interpreted by some to mean:

. Freedom to abuse.

. Freedom to discriminate.

. Freedom to spread hate by whatever means one chooses.

….with no thought at all for fairness, none of the concern for others that the Democratic principle of Freedom of Speech in its original form represented.


 This is Freedom of Speech, Part 3 – A Focus on Fair Speech.

     Lately, I find myself saying to anyone who cares to listen: “The world seems to have been turned upside down!” And many I speak with agree with me. There’s a cruel kind of ultra-conservatism growing like a cancer in the Western World and threatening to consume us all. It’s difficult to comprehend such inhumanity, such fear and hatred of the ‘other’. The need of many in predominately white Christian countries to discriminate against and destroy anyone who is different from the patriarchal standard of white, male and Christian is difficult for many of us to take in.  It seems as if white supremacist hatred is all around us, intent on destroying anyone who comes outside the very narrow view of the world that white supremacy represents.

     Targets of their violent outbursts are many: Muslims, Jews, migrants, refugees, feminists… Muslims and Jews because they’re not Christian; migrants and refugees because they’re “invading” our territory; and feminists because we’ve encouraged women to think for themselves, make decisions for themselves, refuse to live with men who are violent and abusive, refuse to keep on having babies just to satisfy some strange need conservatives have to keep apace with the birthrate in other cultures and religions.

     This fear and resentment of the other, the need to protect ourselves from others – is all around us now. To me, it’s unfathomable that so many United States’ citizens voted for Donald Trump and his “make America great again” theme, and will likely do the same at the next election. “Make America Great” is, of course, code for “let’s exclude  everyone who isn’t like us”: Mexicans, Chinese, North Koreans, Iranians, immigrants, asylum-seekers, human rights activists, climate scientists, climate activists… And let’s ignore feminists who insist on pointing out that a President who openly boasts about using and abusing women is not fit to occupy the office of President.

     And then there’s the UK. Boris Johnson. Can you believe that a large majority of his Tory party colleagues voted for him to be Prime Minister, just days after the police had to be called because of his violence and abuse of his partner? And let’s not forget that the mess that is the UK over the last few years comes out of resentment and fear – resentment of the European Union and European countries, fear of migrants and asylum-seekers, and so on. The Western World has rapidly developed into a place that is hardly recognisable.

     And in Australia, my own country. Such support for an incompetent conservative party, based on its record of punishment of asylum-seekers, keeping them stranded in off-shore detention centres for years with no hope of ever being able to settle in Australia, its vilification of climate activists, trade unionists, the unemployed, feminists who won’t stop talking about the abuse of women by men in conservative political parties, and about the ever-increasing statistics of men’s violence against women in the home.

     Indifference to Indigenous people, Australia’s first people, who dared to ask for recognition in the Constitution. Their Statement from the Heart (as it’s called), which was years in the drafting, was not even given the respect by conservative politicians of reading it before rejecting it out of hand.

     So many citizens voted at the election earlier this year to keep this government in power. Why? Two main reasons, as I see it: one, because of its theme of exclusion (keep Australia for ourselves and for people like us). And two, because of its determination to scoff at the science on global warming and continue to exploit the earth in the name of creating jobs.

Another worrying example of the co-opting of the principle of Freedom of Speech by many on the right in Australia is that of the substantial support given to star football player, Israel Falau, after he posted on Instagram that “drunks, homosexuals, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists and adulterers” will go to hell unless they repent. To their credit, Rugby Australia acted quickly to cancel Falau’s contract, but he is now suing the organisation for $10 million claiming he was unfairly dismissed for expressing his religious beliefs. His case against Rugby Australia will be argued on the basis of Freedom of Religion and Freedom of Speech and supported, I might add, by the Australian Christian Lobby who are coughing up several million dollars to pay Falau’s legal bills.

     It doesn’t make sense. The main point of the democratic principle of Freedom of Speech, devised for the purpose of giving all citizens an equal voice, equal respect, equal freedom to speak, is ignored in favour of one man’s right to say what he likes, to insult, degrade, humiliate and condemn others in the name of his religion. To spread hate, you might say, in the name of his religion.

     Now, even though Israel Falau is not caucasian, his is the kind of hate speech that adds fuel to the agenda of white supremacists. His hate speech and that of the Australian Christian Lobby who support him, comes out of their misreading of the Christian message. It is not a message of hate but, rather, a message of community, where Christians are exhorted to love others and welcome those who are different from themselves.

This is surely a time to be afraid for democracy, when the principle of Freedom of Religion is brought into conflict with the principle of Freedom of Speech for all – when one man claims that it’s his right to use his speech to silence the speech of so many others. If they “repent” (to use his word) and become like him, then and only then will they be acceptable to him. These are strange times, indeed.

You know, I began preparing this podcast early in the year, focusing on extremism, white supremacy and so on – even asking if we, radical feminists, could be classed as extremist because of our refusal to be swayed in relation to the issues we fight for in the name of justice for women. Extremism was going to be my focus…

     But then came the massacre of 51 Muslims at prayer in two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. Like most New Zealanders and many Australians, I was in shock; then, for me, came grief; then anger. And of course, admiration for the strength of New Zealand’s feminist Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who comforted her citizens, and brought her nation through this darkest of days.

     After that, I began preparing my podcast again, this time with a slightly different focus. Then followed more massacres by white supremacists –in El Paso, Texas, where the tally of the dead was something like 31, and in Dayton, Ohio, where 7 people were killed. Then, two weeks later, another shooting in Texas – 7 killed and 22 injured.

     I’m left feeling: when will it ever end? And, as a feminist, I can’t help pondering on the question: what are radical feminists saying and doing – what are we saying and doing – about the ever increasing hatred, violence, abuse, the too frequent massacres at the hands of white male supremacists?

     What are we doing? Well, not much really. We’re as stunned as everyone else who cares about human rights, stunned at the ultra-conservative turn politics has taken, stunned that there are Presidents and Prime Ministers who are leading their citizens on the theme of intolerance and bigotry. And that so many people are going along for the ride and, it would seem, actually enjoying it.

     Is this a feminist issue? Well, of course it is… because of the issues it raises for individual women but, also, because of the effect such undermining of democracy has on women as a whole, and on men, on community, and on relationships between nations. It is a feminist issue.

     The rise of such ultra-conservatism is catastrophic! And we feminists need to be in there with something to say!

     Of course, few will listen to us when we do speak, but that’s never stopped us before. It’s imperative that we not just sit on our hands and wait for men whose work we trust, to come up with answers. We must struggle to formulate a feminist response, to be included with the responses of others – a response to the growing influence of conservative attitudes and ideas, and to the growing frenzy of hatred and resentment. Our response must begin with serious analysis of the current situation (not the quick thought bubbles we see on Twitter and Facebook where we count the number of “likes” and feel satisfied that we’ve actually made a contribution) – serious, in-depth analysis. That’s where we start. And then we must move into a feminist take on the concept of Fair Speech. Not, in my view, to take the place of the concept of Free Speech (because Freedom of Speech in its true form has such a long and proud history), but to spell out the need for Free Speech to be Fair Speech.

     After all, when you think about it, that’s what feminists have always done. On every issue radical feminists have ever fought for, our aim has been to bring about fairness, equality of respect, fair speech.

     Look at our issues: Our ongoing campaign against men’s violence against women. We fight for fairness. Our endless railing against pornography in the face of the pornography industry’s howls about the free speech rights of men and women who want to view images of women being objectified, exploited, violated. From the perspective of fairness, we feminists say: “What’s fair about men getting off on images of the abuse of women?” The same with our ongoing campaign against prostitution. Supporters of prostitution whinge and whine about any restriction to men’s so-called free speech right to use women. We say: “What’s fair about women being reduced to their body parts and sold on the market for total strangers to use and abuse them?”

     Also, our more recent campaign against the so-called right of trans women to occupy all of our spaces. The transgender lobby insist that it’s the free speech right of any man who changes his gender and becomes a woman, to occupy any and all spaces previously inhabited by women who were born and raised as women. We say: “By all means, change genders if you want to. That’s your own private matter. But what’s fair about the imperative that women give up all of our private spaces and admit people who have absolutely no experience of the everyday oppressions of growing up female?” “What’s fair about our having to give up our hard fought and hard won private spaces to people whose experience of oppression is so very different from our own?” We don’t deny that trans people suffer oppression but it’s a very different kind of oppression to that which we face.

So, whatever issue it is that radical feminists have fought for throughout history, and continue to fight for –

. the right to safety from men’s violence

. the right to freedom from sexual exploitation

. better health services for women

. the right to our own private spaces

. the right to make our own decisions,

the bottom line is: radical feminists fight for fairness, FAIR SPEECH, speech that is not impinged upon by the selfish interpretation of free speech that allows an individual to do and say whatever he or she wants – and everyone else be damned.

     And our current response to the rise of radical conservatism and the resurgence of white male dominance is no different. We feminists need to be in there, together with all women and men who value human rights, fighting against hate speech, supporting inclusion, community, solidarity – we need to be in there fighting for fairness.

     It is my firm belief that this current battle against the ideas and actions of ultra conservatism is one that we, living as we do at this time in history, must engage in. We must push back against it – in the name of fairness.

     Free speech, if it is to be free for all, must be fair speech.

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