Trolls, Donkeys and Bigots: Is Freedom of Speech Over-rated?

As an opinionated lady who shares those opinions for a living, writer and broadcaster Clementine Ford is no stranger to debates about freedom of speech. She explains why freedom of speech is often misread to mean a licence to spread bigotry – and why true freedom of speech can never be over-rated.

Clementine Ford

Clementine Ford

Regular readers of online opinion columns will no doubt be familiar with the staggeringly putrid depths to which humans cloaked in the veil of anonymity can sink. The brutal coliseum of comments that accompany such pieces can, over time, cause the average person’s brain to achieve such dangerously high pressure levels that one requires the metaphorical equivalent of a hemicranieactomy (ie. a stiff drink or ten) to simply make it through the night.

Although generally composed of illegible honks and rabid drooling, there are a handful of certainties that one can expect to find in this collection of head-scratching nonsense puzzles. After you’ve sifted through the pop science and invocations of Godwin’s Law, you’ll stumble upon several barking donkeys braying about the apparent death of freedom of speech.

Let’s assume the following example. Bettina Arndt writes something ridiculous about women and their failure to reward ‘beta’ males with sex and marriage. Another writer responds, suggesting that Arndt’s views are archaic, unconscionable and completely dismissive of women. This piece receives a level of support (namely because the only person who would disagree with it is a fool). A fool then turns up and proceeds to disagree with it, invariably managing to work in this zinger somewhere along the way:

Whatever happened to FREEDOM OF SPEECH?!?! So now the PC POLICE won’t let anyone say anything? THIS IS WHY AUSTRALIA IS LOSING.

While it never becomes evident what competition Australia is being forced to lose due to its obsession with codified politeness, this typical comment demonstrates something pretty key about a vocal majority’s understanding of freedom of speech. Namely, that they don’t seem to know what it actually means.

The problem with defending freedom of speech in a hyperconnected, sound-bite driven world is that people rarely need any encouragement to say whatever pops into their head at any given moment. Usually, it’s all harmless fluff – you could argue that the greatest offence against a society that champions freedom of speech is that of mind-numbing stupidity.

But occasionally, people are driven to nastiness. The cloak of anonymity easily donned by online commenters means ‘freedom of speech’ is now held up as a shield against the natural consequences of spreading racist, homophobic, sexist and just plain offensive sentiments. When Andrew Bolt was forced to pay damages to a collection of plaintiffs after being found guilty of violating the Racial Discrimination Act in a column questioning the authenticity of light-skinned Aboriginals, he embarked on a tedious quest in defense of freedom of speech.

But in much the same way that political correctness is willfully misunderstood to mean ‘giant big pantywaisted whoopsies spoiling everybody’s fun’, so too has ‘freedom of speech’ been co-opted to defend people’s ‘right’ to spread the kind of viciously ignorant sentiments that do little to add to debate and much to diminish us a society.

The person squawking about freedom of speech in regards to, say, being allowed to vilify refugees or asylum seekers doesn’t actually believe in freedom of speech at all. If they did, they’d understand that the flipside of ideological freedom is that others are free to openly disagree with their views.

Instead, what they’re actually arguing for is ideological domination and the right to spread their bigotry, unchallenged.

This is the central problem in a society where the greatest punishment for speaking as freely as you please is a monetary one. Ideologically, the fight to ensure free speech in societies that mete out punishment with the sword, not the poison pen, is something we should all be striving for and supporting. But once that’s been achieved – once we are indeed free to say exactly what we feel without fear of violent or penal reprisals – what we are left with is a privilege whose precariousness is rarely honoured. What does it mean to fight for the freedom to express ourselves without fear if we abuse that privilege by oppressing others with bigotry and cruelty?

I believe that the right to speak freely is inalienable, and that the suppression of that right leads to dictatorial systems of governance, the oppression of the people. Adhering to a system in which The People’s thoughts are policed can only result in a society complicit in its own intellectual shackling.

But I also believe that an evolved society is one that cares for its citizens; that legislates socially, not politically, to protect its people from oppression. I believe in a society that strives for intellectual evolution, and understands the great responsibility that comes with the privilege of that existence. There is no honour in using an ideological privilege to deny the freedom of equality to others.

The privilege to speak freely is not, nor can it ever be, ‘overrated’. It is essential to a society for which intellectual growth and civilised behaviour are constant goals. Unfortunately, it appears that not all of us value those goals.

For many, the idea of free speech is simply an invitation to foist undeveloped, nonsensical forms of bigotry upon the world. In that sense, I’d say freedom of speech is highly overrated, because it relies on the overestimation of people’s ability to contribute anything productive to a cultural debate.

I mean, let’s be honest – when you have Australia’s most-read commentator appearing on the cover of Australia’s most-read newspaper under the enormous headline ‘I WAS SILENCED’ while he subtly encourages his countless followers to harass anyone who speaks out against him, it seems freedom of speech is not the blind spot we’re battling.

It’s irony.