At times it seems as if we live amidst people who appear profoundly ignorant of our history. They also apparently have no idea of historical human rights. These folk tell us with all seriousness and gravitas that free speech must be curtailed if and when anyone takes offence at what is said. This is a bizarre notion. It cannot stand a moment's serious scrutiny. But nonetheless it is an idea now celebrated by the Chattering Classes, the Commentariat, and many media operatives. It serves to illustrate that many of our "betters" are woefully ignorant of fundamental human freedoms.
The latest illustration comes from Her Highness, Dame Susan Devoy, who is New Zealand's Human Rights Commissioner. Now it seems reasonable to expect that a Human Rights Commissioner would have at least some basic understanding of human rights. But apparently not. The reality that the practice of human rights comes at a cost seems not to have resonated deeply with the present Commissioner. If the law, and society in general hold to human rights, it necessarily costs everyone. We have to tolerate others: their opinions, views, and practices, no matter how much we may disagree or reject their thoughts, words, and deeds.
But Devoy thinks we should be not extend freedom of speech to something she called "hate speech".
This is a huge carve out, and one not heard of a decade or so ago. Our parents used to tell us that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. It's a wonderful, tolerant aphorism. But it turns out that "hate speech" is in the ears of the hearer. That is neither wonderful nor tolerant. It is the exact opposite.
If some mad-hatter were to stand up and declaim all felines, saying he thought cats were a white man's perverse infliction on the human race, some cat lovers would doubtless take offence. In offending them, the mad-hatter would be performing a hateful act. He would be guilty of hate speech. His hate speech would consequently be proscribed. He would be fined. Hey presto, hate speech becomes an act of saying things which result in someone taking offence. And you will be punished for offending someone. Your free speech rights are trashed.
While we are on aphorisms, remember the polite parentheses that could once be heard in popular speech: "No offence intended". The retort was often, "None taken". The point is that whether offence were intended or not, it is a deliberate volitional act for offence to be taken. Nowadays, these important human freedoms are being tossed under a bus, faster than you can say, "Dame Susan Devoy". Nowadays, if offence is taken, what has been said now constitutes "hate speech" which must be curtailed and muzzled.
Fortunately a leading NZ historian, Dr Paul Moon has stood up against this nonsense. He writes:
. . . recent events at home and overseas are endangering freedom of speech at our universities.
Threats against minority communities in New Zealand, and in other Western countries, and terrorist attacks in Europe are having a chilling effect. A recent study of 115 British universities found only seven had not experienced some sort of censorship, ban or intervention which curbed free speech.
The right to free speech is so ingrained in New Zealand's ethos that today a diverse group of 27 high-profile New Zealanders has released an open letter warning of "the forceful silencing of dissenting or unpopular views" on our university campuses. Its signatories include not only academics, and business and community leaders, but some of our most outspoken commentators, including Sir Bob Jones, Dr Don Brash, Sir Geoffrey Palmer and Dame Turiana Turia.
Of course, with rights come with responsibilities. Freedom of speech must have some constraints; that's why it is a crime to incite hatred and violence. And damaging someone's reputation – outside the privileged protection provided at universities and Parliament – can end in a defamation suit. Just as the courts and the media must always jealously guard freedom of speech from state controls, so must our universities.
The pretext of avoiding offence is regularly hauled out as the basis for curtailing free speech on campuses. If a group is offended by an idea or argument, it is increasingly – and misguidedly – believed it is better to ban or "disinvite" the causers rather than ruffle sensitivities or risk the speaker being drowned out by vigorous protest. This patronising sanctimony continues to gain ground along with an absurd notion that universities should provide intellectual "safe-spaces".
There is no inalienable right not to be offended. It is paradoxical that those who clamour for such "safe spaces" often seem untroubled by the intimidation being used to shut down unpopular speech.
It is precisely these intellectually dangerous or subversive spaces that academics and students must enter and explore. Political dissent, artistic deviance and intellectual rebellion are at the heart of a healthy and progressive society, and universities have traditionally played a leading role in challenging conventions and ushering in new ways of thinking and doing.
The forced closure of a student club at Auckland University recently – and threats to their members' safety – is a slippery slope we should all be wary of. Kneejerk calls from Police and the Human Rights Commission to introduce hate-speech laws after recent abuse against ethnic communities will have the unintended consequence of suppressing free speech. . . .
A vibrant society permits heretic views to be expressed. A country where the state – or universities for that matter – determines what is a permissible thought and what isn't is a dictatorships, not a modern democracy. History shows that it is fear and intolerance that drives suppression of free speech, rather than free speech causing fear and intolerance. Those who attempt to suppress free speech, tend to do so out of fear and intolerance. Censorship is a crude tool used to replace healthy counter-argument.