Phil Goff’s decision to ban two right wing Canadian provocateurs from Auckland council venues has a lot of us re-examining our views on hate speech, free speech and censorship. Danyl Mclauchlan sat down with Danyl Mclauchlan and Danyl Mclauchlan to debate the issue.
Liberal Danyl: Okay, let’s try and think our way through the whole Phil Goff vs Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux free speech issue.
Left-wing Danyl: What’s even to think about? A couple of awful people wanted to come to our country and stir up hatred against members of vulnerable minority groups, and now they aren’t. Good outcome.
Conservative Danyl: I agree. It is a good outcome. And I wonder about the wisdom of dragging this issue out. It feels like some people in New Zealand are looking at the US, which is tearing itself apart over these very divisive culture-war debates, identifying it as a way to get attention for themselves and saying ‘Hey, let’s do that over here!’ Let’s not.
Liberal Danyl: I’m just worried about the implications of Phil Goff making captain’s calls about who can and cannot speak in public. It sets a precedent.
Left-wing Danyl: The precedent that Nazis aren’t welcome here seems fine.
Liberal Danyl: Let’s start with that. For seventy years the left have called anyone to the right of Rosa Luxemburg a Nazi, so when I hear you support banning Nazis and punching Nazis, it sounds suspiciously like a pretext to ban and beat up anyone who disagrees with your own very marginal views. Are these people Nazis? What even is a Nazi? Who decides? Isn’t it just an insult at this point?
Conservative Danyl: Southern supports White Nationalist groups in North America and Europe-
Left-wing Danyl: ie the Nazis.
Conservative Danyl: She identifies as a libertarian, while Molyneaux identifies as an anarcho-capitalist. He’s been referred to as a leader of the alt-right but rejects the label.
Left-wing Danyl: Southern was detained by the Italian Coastguard for blocking a search and rescue mission for refugees drowning in the Mediterranean. Is debating whether it’s polite to refer to someone like that as a Nazi really the hill you want to die on here?
Liberal Danyl: I think these distinctions are important, because it’s not hard to imagine a future in which, I dunno, Judith Collins becomes Mayor of Auckland and announces that she’s going to prohibit groups and speakers on the left from renting council venues because look at the history of Communist totalitarianism, they’ve even worse than Nazis, yada yada yada. And justifying it by citing this as a precedent. Or maybe muslims won’t be allowed to speak because terrorism. People on the left operate in this frame where it’s your team who are the good guys versus the bad guys who are all nazis, so this is a win for the good guys. But we’re a society of laws and norms, and when politicians override those norms because it’s publically popular then it’s actually a loss for everyone with views outside the mainstream.
Conservative Danyl: I highly doubt a hypothetical Mayor Collins would do any of that. But you’ve gotten ahead of what free speech even is. Free speech means you can say what you like and the government won’t arrest you. That’s it. There’s no free speech obligation for the council to rent you a venue so you can advocate for white supremacy. That’s ridiculous. People can still watch Southern and Molyneux’s videos online. If they do come here – which it looks like they won’t – then they can try and hire other venues. They still have total freedom of speech.
Liberal Danyl: That definition of free speech worked very well back in the 19th Century, not so well today when the state is much larger and more powerful. If the government decided they were going to ban, say, Greenpeace from having any representation on Radio New Zealand and TVNZ, both owned by the state, wouldn’t that be an attack on their freedom of speech? Would you say ‘Well, the government isn’t arresting them so they still have total freedom of speech?’ Can the state fire lecturers or teachers who say things they don’t like? Feels to me like that would be a breach of freedom of speech.
Left-wing Danyl: Wouldn’t you have to ask why they were being banned or fired? Because there’s no absolute right to free speech, on or off state-owned media. You can’t threaten to kill someone because that’s a form of speech that is not allowed. You can’t repeat defamatory statements. You can’t breach suppression orders. Lecturers can’t violate their students privacy. Freedom of speech is compromised in all kinds of ways for pragmatic, totally uncontroversial reasons which no one ever challenges until a couple of white supremacists come along and you’re all suddenly like ‘Oh no! We have to let them speak because we have to have total freedom of speech!’ No we don’t. This comes under a category of offensive speech which is not protected because the social harm it can cause outweighs the public good of free speech.
Liberal Danyl: Who decides what speech is so offensive it can be banned? We’ve all seen the paradox of tolerance cartoon, but who decides what views are so intolerant they meet the criteria for censorship? Because anyone can point at an ideological adversary and say ‘Those ideas are dangerous’, or ‘I’m so offended by those arguments that no one should be allowed to express them’. Isn’t free speech about supporting the right of people to say things you don’t like, and don’t agree with? If these ideas are so terrible why not just debate them? Why doesn’t the left show everyone how bad these arguments are by refuting them instead of running and hiding behind de-platforming and performative outrage?
Left-wing Danyl: That is a complete straw man. I hear ideas and arguments that are offensive to me all the time and I debate them all the time. No one is saying ‘Offensive speech should be banned.’ The argument here is that some speech is harmful. That there are vulnerable groups in society who are subject to persecution and violence, and that people like Southern and Molyneaux help cause and perpetuate that violence. Their speech has real and tragic real-world repercussions. It’s all very well for you to say ‘Hey, let’s debate them because we should have total freedom of speech,’ when you don’t actually suffer the consequences of harmful speech that demonises minority groups. This is a much more difficult argument for champions of free speech to address, because it puts the right to free speech up against even more fundamental rights, like the right to life. That’s why we get this faux indignation and outrage about the intolerant left being afraid of offensive speech. It’s easier to divert the debate than accept that some speech is harmful and needs to be restricted.
Liberal Danyl: But that brings us back to my earlier question. Who decides what speech is harmful and how that harm is weighed against the wider public good of the right to free speech? Take the artistic censorship debates of the 20th Century. Back when Gore Vidal published The City and the Pillar there was a widespread belief among psychologists and psychiatrists that homosexuality was a form of mental illness. Not only was a book that advocated for gay relationships seen as deeply offensive, it was also a book that experts could describe as harmful to the public. Should they have adopted your standards and banned it because society needs to be protected from harmful speech?
Left-wing Danyl: That is classic victim inversion. Gay people were the victims of prejudice, and still are, and Nazis are the oppressors.
Liberal Danyl: You’re still locked into this mentality in which there are good guys and bad guys-
Left-wing Danyl: That’s because there are groups that are oppressed and groups that want to oppress them and I side with the oppressed!
Liberal Danyl: But that’s the exact same way Southern and Molyneaux see the world! They see themselves as victims of state oppression.
Conservative Danyl: That’s a key point. Southern and Molyneaux didn’t want to come to New Zealand. They wanted to get banned. They cancelled the instant Goff denied them a venue because they want to present themselves as the victims of censorship and oppression. That’s their PR strategy. When Milo goes to campuses in the US and announces that ‘feminism is cancer’, that doesn’t mean anything: there’s no message there, there’s no argument; it’s purely designed to trigger the libs and provoke the exact response that you’re delivering and make him a martyr of ‘free speech’. You’re part of their business model. None of this works without you responding the exact way they want you to. If you really want to minimise the social harm they’re causing why are you playing their game? Aren’t we all better off ignoring them?
Left-wing Danyl: Easy for you to say when they’re no threat to you. What if ignoring the Nazis is what allows them to seize power?
Conservative Danyl: And what if a toxic media ecosystem that empowers both the radical right and the radical left but precludes the sane 99.9% of the population is what empowers them?
Liberal Danyl: If only there was a pre-existing institution separate from that ecosystem that protected minorities from populist politicians while balancing conflicts between individual rights.
Left-wing Danyl: You’re talking about the legal system? You think free speech issues should be resolved through the courts?
Liberal Danyl: Duh.
Left-wing Danyl: The legal system is expensive. It privileges the wealthy and powerful over the poor and marginalised.
Liberal Danyl: It found in favour of the aged care workers just last year.
Left-wing Danyl: Because a progressive organisation spent enormous time and effort fighting an extensive legal battle.
Liberal Danyl: Isn’t that how it should work if you want to take away someone’s rights? If someone’s speech is so harmful it can bring about loss of life, shouldn’t that be quite easy for you to demonstrate in court? Wouldn’t you welcome that opportunity, if you’re so confident that this harm is real? Maybe white nationalist ideas can be shown to be so dangerous that they should be banned. Or maybe there is no danger, the speech should be allowed and you could do something more constructive with your time?
Conservative Danyl: And, if Southern and Molyneaux really feel their message is important they can defend their right to be heard. Which, because they’re almost certainly just scam artists and grifters, they’d be unlikely to do. Conversely, if someone wanted to take away your own right to speech because they’d decided you were offensive and harmful, wouldn’t you want a more robust system protecting your rights than whatever Phil Goff thought would play well in the media? Or do you not actually care about these issues and just want to rant about them on the internet for clicks and likes?
Left-wing Danyl: So you guys are advocating some kind of expansion of the legal system that could make blanket decisions about what speech is and isn’t permissible.
Conservative Danyl: Seems like that’s where we’ve ended up.
Liberal Danyl: Pretty much.
Left-wing Danyl: Did you ever notice how conservatives and liberals often start out by advocating for individual freedom and end up endorsing the expansion and intrusion of the state into the public sphere? Goddamn Nazis.
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