What Stefan Molyneux and Lauren Southern actually say and do is more important than an ideological argument about freedom of expression, argues Graham Cameron.
There are three aspects of the Free Speech Coalition – currently taking legal action against Auckland Council – that stand out. One, they didn’t Google before they made up their name, or they’d known that the Free Speech Coalition is actually the name of the largest US trade association for pornography. Two, their political diversity is less telling than their overall gender and ethnic homogeneity. Three, they seem more interested in what they think the law should say rather than what it actually says.
The Free Speech Coalition are seeking to overturn Auckland Live’s decision to cancel Stefan Molyneux and Lauren Southern speaking at the Bruce Mason Centre. That decision on health and safety grounds came after Mayor Phil Goff made it clear they shouldn’t be speaking at council venues.
The Free Speech Coalition are saying that we have a right to freedom of speech in Aotearoa and that they wish to defend that right no matter how objectionable the person’s view, providing they don’t (directly) incite violence.
The problem with their action is that none of them seem particularly conversant with the actual views of the people they are supporting. They also seem to support some kind of free speech absolutism, as though they have confused Aotearoa’s right to freedom of expression with the First Amendment of the US Constitution.
The majority of the coalition are Pākehā men (Rachel Poulain and Melissa Derby excepted). Their confusion derives from their cultural experience. Pākehā males are not comfortable with any restrictions on themselves. They come from a cultural background here in Aotearoa of being the oppressors, of being the powerful observers who stand in judgement of others, of freely using their individual and communal power for their own benefit at no cost to themselves.
So they bridle at the idea of being restricted. Of having to think before they speak. They’ve never experienced the effects of discriminatory speech, the sense of powerlessness, the implicit threat to one’s safety that keeps you awake at night.
Chris Trotter claimed that “free speech denialism… [is] born of fear.” No, Chris. Having boundaries on what can be said where, is not about fear; it is about whakawhanaungatanga. A recognition that I do not exist independent of health and functional communities. So I need to engage my brain to protect the relationships that bind us together. It’s called a social contract.
Stefan Molyneux and Lauren Southern promote views that incite people to tear that social contract apart.
Southern holds the view that women are “not psychologically developed to hold leadership positions” and denies the existence of any kind of rape culture in our societies.
Moylneux blames violence, including family violence, on women. He claims that women are responsible for dysfunctional childhoods:
“If we could just get people to be nice to their babies for five years straight, that would be it for war, drug abuse, addiction, promiscuity, sexually transmitted diseases, … Almost all would be completely eliminated, because they all arise from dysfunctional early childhood experiences, which are all run by women.”
Southern and Molyneux are both proponents of the White Genocide Conspiracy. This conspiracy claims that there is a worldwide meta-strategy to murder and/or breed out ‘white culture.’ Molyneux has recently commented that he doesn’t “want to scare the whites in the west with what happens when whites become a minority in a highly aggressive and tribalised world.” Spoiler alert: he does actually want to scare “the whites in the west.” In the same vein, Southern produced a documentary called Farmlands about post-Apartheid farm violence in South Africa with the tagline, “Crisis. Oppression. Genocide?”
Southern was part of a group in the in the Mediterranean Sea who attempted to block a medical ship reaching ship-wrecked migrants near North Africa. They deliberately endangered the lives of men, women and children fleeing violence and poverty. Southern said, “If the politicians won’t stop the boats, we’ll stop the boats.”
In February this year, Southern and two others distributed flyers in the English town of Luton that said, “Allah is a Gay God”, resulting in a lifetime ban from the UK by the Home Office.
I have written this in quite a bit of detail because who they are and what they say is more important than a conceptual argument about freedom of expression. Much of our media has danced around specific descriptions of their views.
These two are darlings of the alt-right. Alt-right is a euphemism for Nazis. More specifically, white supremacists, neo-Nazis, Holocaust deniers and hate groups like Incels. In case you think that is hyperbole, they are actual Nazis – they subscribe to the same views that were foundation for the National Socialist German Workers Party in Germany in the 1930s: pseudo-scientific racism; militant nationalism; promotion of eugenics; identifying particular groups as responsible for the failure of their nation.
I’m not playing the Free Speech Coalition’s smoke and mirrors game. Defending the rights of these people to say whatever they want is implicitly defending their ‘right’ to damage our communities and our relationships. It’s a foolish, poorly thought-through act.
I’m no lawyer, but I’ve some hope that this action will fail in the courts. We do indeed, under Section 14 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990, have the right to freedom of expression – that is to say “the freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and opinions of any kind in any form.”
But we also have the right, under Section 19, to freedom from discrimination. Under the Human Rights Act 1993, discrimination is prohibited on the basis of sex, marital status, religious belief, ethical belief, colour, race, ethnic or national origin, disability, age, political opinion, employment status, family status, and sexual orientation.
Furthermore, Auckland Live seem to stand on pretty safe grounds, given Section 61 and 63 of the Human Rights Act make it unlawful to provide facilities to people who use words that promote racial disharmony or could be considered racial harassment.
Strengthening the case for Auckland Live is the case of Simpson v Attorney-General (1994) which said that our Bill of Rights had to be interpreted in relation to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Article 20 of which states that “Any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law.”
So the Free Speech Coalition may well be putting good money after bad. But when it is all done, will they look around the room and wonder why they couldn’t get a broader representation of a multicultural Aotearoa to join them in their action?
If it really was about freedom of expression, then surely those traditionally excluded from their views being heard would be lining up at the gate. But it’s not about that. It’s about the right to offend without consequence.
But in real life, words have consequences. I cannot build healthy relationships with people who are different to me whilst deliberately provoking and insulting them. There has to be some limits to freedom of expression that are stronger than avoiding immediate incitement.
So Southern and Molyneux exclude themselves from using public facilities because they wish to pull apart our social contract with each other. They can still come to Aotearoa. They can probably even speak. But if there’s any sense in our law and in our courts, they’ll be speaking in some white supremacist’s garage to five of his mates, not on a stage we paid for.