So, this is uncomfortable. I don’t often agree with Pauline Hanson. Indeed, I can’t recall another instance. But on this, she is right. Freedom to dissent is the core of civilised democracy.
We learned this week that the Morrison government proposes a trade with our favourite Senator for White Victimhood. She’ll support the new university funding bill if the government enshrines within it academics’ freedom of speech.
This is bizarre. What interest does Hanson have in academic freedom? It’s bizarre that she, of all people, should be its champion. It’s more bizarre that universities should oppose it, as if this were some corporate industrial relations issue.
The whole idea of the university, after all, and of tenure, was to protect dissent. After centuries of church stranglehold – now known as the Dark Ages – scientists and intellectuals needed to be able to question orthodoxy. They needed immunity from prosecution or persecution for statements or questions that the establishment saw as heresy. It was necessary for them, but also for us. We had to make Galileos possible.
It’s more bizarre still that freedom, once the progressives’ catchcry, is now the preserve of the far right – so that, far from being welcomed, this move to free speech was immediately seen as an enabler of racism and sexism.
True, liberty has come to seem libertarian, lifting individual rights over the common good. Well-meaning people worry that climate deniers, holocaust deniers and deniers of basic equalities will influence young minds and change the future. And COVID has exacerbated this sense of threat, so that the word “freedom” causes an almost allergic reaction, as if the very idea implies refusing the mask, taking up arms and infecting the herd.
This allergy is especially prevalent among left-leaning academics and intellectuals. This is my demographic. These are my people. So to them I make my plea: Do not let your commitment to tolerance lead you into a paradoxical totalitarianism every bit as dangerous as the one you oppose. Do not shut it down.
Why? Because freedom is specifically not about content. It’s not right wing or left wing. It must apply to all.
Three years ago, Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Bret Stephens gave a brilliant speech to the Lowy Institute. Yes, yes. Conservative journo, establishment think tank. Still, the speech is brilliant.
The words “I disagree”, Stephens argued, “define our individuality, give us our freedom, enjoin our tolerance, enlarge our perspectives, seize our attention, energise our progress, make our democracies real, and give hope and courage to oppressed people everywhere.”
Disagreement is necessary. It allows heroic whistleblowers like Frances Kelsey, the Canadian-born physician who, alone against the establishment, doggedly refused to give FDA approval to thalidomide in the 1960s. But disagreement is essential to thought. The history of progress is the history of spectacular, respectful disagreement.
After my recent column on Sydney Olympic Park a Twitterer took exception. “Get out from your overcapitalised Paddington worker housing and come have a look.” When I queried why he chose to insult me not defend the park he replied, huffily, “well I thought your Saturday piece was very insulting. Not a single positive thought.”
It’s hardly the most extreme example of trolling. But it’s interesting because of the rafted fallacies on which it, and the entire shut-it-down phenomenon, stands. There are six of them.
One, disagreement is insult. Two, words are deeds. Three, silencing a thought disempowers it. Four ideas come in bundles. Five, emotional comfort is your right. Six, in an ideal world everyone agrees.
The last three are self-evidently wrong. Ideas are not bundled. You can dislike Homebush without living in Paddo: you can support freedom without wanting to bear arms. The world made you no promises of emotional comfort. And a world of universal agreement is one of intellectual stagnation and wrist-slitting dullness.
The first three, more insidious, deserve closer scrutiny. Disagreement is not insult. If anything, it’s a compliment since, notes Stephens, to disagree well you must read deeply, listen carefully and allow the possibility that your opponent is right.
To take disagreement as insult, further, is to dissolve all distinction between the personal realm (where emotions are useful) and the public, civic domain (where emotions should be kept in check) – thus rendering politics impossible.
But also, words are not deeds. Stephens notes that 44 per cent of US college students “do not believe the First Amendment to the US Constitution protects so-called 'hate speech', when of course it absolutely does”. Saying something is not doing it. To permit racist talk, however repugnant, is not to permit racist acts. And silencing a thought, far from disempowering it, may have the opposite effect.
As UC Berkeley chancellor Carol Christ said after the Charlottesville massacre: “Call toxic speech out for what it is, don’t shout it down, for in shouting it down you collude in the narrative … respond to hate speech with more speech."
If we refuse this call, even with fine intent, we’re headed straight for another Dark Age.
The key is not just to disagree. We do plenty of that. The key is to disagree well. This is an art which must be taught and learned. This happens best through what US philosopher Allan Bloom called The Great Books, starting with Homer. Which is why the Morrison government, rather than making the humanities unaffordable, should drop another clause into its universities bill; making an undergraduate arts degree universal, mandatory and free.
Elizabeth Farrelly is a Sydney-based columnist and author who holds a PhD in architecture and several international writing awards. She is a former editor and Sydney City Councilor. Her books include 'Glenn Murcutt: Three Houses’, 'Blubberland; the dangers of happiness’ and ‘Caro Was Here’, crime fiction for children (2014).