Enough.. is.. Enough


OPINION PIECE: Published in the Townsville Bulletin under the heading "Testing Fair Speech" on 25 May 2012.

by Dr Betty McLellan


I’ve been thinking a lot lately about all the violent things that have been said about Julia Gillard. While there’s a lull in the abuse at the moment because she’s out of the country, I thought this might be a good time to put pen to paper and give my opinion.

As I see it, Prime Minister Julia Gillard is a victim of free speech that fails the fairness test. In fact, some of the violent comments made against her in recent times are more like comments one hears in domestic violence situations than in social and political commentary. What is going on? Is it that violence against women has become so commonplace that now anything goes? Even against a woman who holds the highest office in the land?

Much is made in this country of the principle of Freedom of Speech. I agree that it is one of the great privileges of living in a democracy and I, for one, would not want to live anywhere else.

This privilege, however, prompts the perennial question: Is the principle of free speech meant to be absolute? Does it mean that we are free to say and do anything, regardless of the effect our words and actions may have on other people? John Stuart Mill, 19th Century philosopher, political economist. civil servant and one of the best-known proponents of the individual’s right to free speech, didn’t think so. Mill is regularly quoted by absolutists for his very liberal attitude toward free speech, but they omit to mention the caveat he placed on his support. He clearly adds that the only legitimate reason for curtailing free speech ought to be “to prevent harm to others”. In other words, free speech must be fair speech.

Those who have suggested publicly that our Prime Minister should have a ‘target on her head’, or should be ‘put in a bag and drowned at sea’, or should be ‘kicked to death’; those who were happy to carry placards at a Carbon Tax Rally saying ‘burn the witch’; and those who regularly call her a bitch – would all, no doubt, use the defence of “freedom of speech”. But, in John Stuart Mill’s terms, their violent remarks do not pass the Fair Speech test and would, therefore, be disallowed.

Surely it is time that all of us, men and women alike, re-evaluated our attitude toward violence against women and came to the conclusion that violent speech and violent actions are unacceptable in a society whose rhetoric boasts equality and justice for all.

In this present situation, the issue of equality is an interesting one. Again, the parallel between the violent speech used against Julia Gillard and the violence perpetrated by men against women in the home is obvious. Domestic Violence research continues to show that it is overwhelmingly men who are the perpetrators and women the victims, but Men’s Rights activists insist that it is a situation of equality. Men cop just as much violence and abuse in the home as women, they argue. Not so, says the research.

Similarly, when feminists and others have objected to the ongoing violence perpetrated against Julia Gillard, many respond by pointing to the insults levelled at Tony Abbott and insist that there is a kind of equality operating. But that is clearly not the case. As with domestic violence, the level and severity of the verbal abuse against Mr Abbott pales into insignificance alongside the violent, vitriolic speech used against Prime Minister Gillard.

The difference is stark. Even a cursory analysis reveals that the speech used against Tony Abbott is designed to insult and ridicule and embarrass him, while that used against Julia Gillard is actual hate speech. It is aggressive, hostile and vicious. No holds barred.

This kind of violent speech against a Prime Minister is something we have not witnessed before in Australia and we are right to ask: What is going on? Indeed, it is urgent that we focus on that question. We must also ask: Where is the respect for the office of Prime Minister? Why are we as citizens of this great country tolerating this level of hate speech against a Prime Minister?

I am inclined to agree with those women and men who have concluded that it is clearly a gender issue. This kind of violent speech would not be used against a Prime Minister who is male and, if it were, there would be uproar all across the country. When the Prime Minister is female, however, there is barely a whimper.

Violence against women in Australian society has become commonplace: in the home, on the streets and, now, expressed against the woman who holds the office of Prime Minister. And even though it is out there for everyone to see, the violence goes virtually unchallenged. It is urgent that we as a society stop burying our heads in the sand, stop supporting the so-called ‘right’ of everyone to do and say as they please regardless of the harm that may be caused, stop depending on a one-eyed view of the principle of Freedom of Speech, and begin to insist on a speech that passes the fairness test.