Opening a Can of Eels: The Far-Right and Freedom of Speech [New Zealand Politics]

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Oh god. It’s still going: the media furore over Auckland Council and a couple of far-right Canadian Youtube figures. It was something I was honestly hoping would go away, but it hasn’t. If anything, it’s gone from being a mere can of worms to a veritable can of eels – it has brought out the worst in a certain brand of well-meaning idiot, while allowing some very slimy people to claim the moral high-ground. As such, I might as well toss in my few cents’ worth, safe in the knowledge that I’m not going to prolong this nonsense beyond its natural life – other people have already done (and are doing) that. Insofar as any good has come out of this sorry mess, it has held a mirror up to the current state of the New Zealand Left – and as a Leftist myself, I do not like what I see.

The background, together with the current state of play, is here. Basically, a couple of far-right Canadians were booked for a speaking engagement at a council venue up in Auckland. A council agency subsequently decided to cancel the booking on security grounds, and Auckland mayor, Phil Goff, then got in on the act on Twitter, stating that “venues shouldn’t be used to stir up ethnic or religious tensions.” The New Zealand Federation of Islam Associations is trying to get Wellington to block one of the figures from entering New Zealand, while a Free Speech Coalition is trying to get the courts to rule on the legitimacy of the cancellation. The matter is still on-going.

Now there are two dimensions to this: legal and moral. Legally, the question is whether the council decision followed correct process. Suffice to say, if it’d had just been left at “security concerns”, none of this would have blown up. It was Goff’s ill-advised tweet that makes it look like the cancellation was politically motivated, specifically that it was based off the pair’s expressed opinions – which is problematic, since New Zealand law places a quite high priority on freedom of expression. Public decision-makers are, of course, bound by the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 – and Goff is just such a decision-maker (ironically, he was part of the Government that passed the Act, nearly three decades ago).

But the legal dimension is being worked out. Today, I am more interested in the moral dimension, and how New Zealand has been reacting to the affair.

Please note – I am not a fan of either figure. “Slimeballs” would be too nice a term for them, and having actually suffered through some of their Youtube videos, I can call them slimeballs with a degree of authority. I also do not believe that they have any inherent right to provision of a platform. But I am uncomfortable with the notion that one can be prevented from commercially booking a venue on the basis of one’s opinions (however repugnant those opinions might be), and I am sure as hell uncomfortable with the notion that such a council decision is in any way progressive, either in intent or in effect.

In short, I believe Freedom of Speech applies to pond scum as much as it does anyone else.

Now, Freedom of Speech is obviously not absolute. Fire in a crowded theatre, and all that. I find the idea of tobacco advertising outside schools pretty repugnant too. The question is whether these speakers are crossing the line… and I cannot see it here. Maybe if they were also orchestrating some parade of blackshirted thugs, a la Oswald Mosley. But they’re not. They’re not forcing anyone to listen to them (thank goodness). It’s a speaking engagement, and if some nitwits want to pay to listen to them, that is the nitwits’ business, not mine.

So that’s my opinion on the central issue (we’ll get to the question of how to combat such people later). But what are others saying…

Well, as a taster, here’s an opinion piece written today. It makes me cringe. It really does – all the more so, since this is a self-identified journalist. For instance:

This is the key to free speech: when you feel the urge to scream your thoughts to the world, you should really think, “Is this helping anyone?”

Sometimes people say unhelpful things. Sometimes people say stupid things. Sometimes people say cruel and vicious things. It’s not nice. Sometimes it’s horrible. But here’s the thing: if you go round screaming at ignorant old bigots to shut up (rather than counter-acting them with your own speech), what’s to stop them screaming right back at you, on the same basis? You don’t think they’re helping. Fair enough. But they think much the same about you… and some of us are familiar enough with history to know where that leads, even in New Zealand.

Then, a week ago, there was this. Note that The Standard is one of the most prominent left-leaning New Zealand political sites – if not the most prominent. One obviously encounters a variety of different commentators, but it is abundantly clear we are not dealing with a fringe view.

The particular piece I cite is directed against Chris Trotter – a major figure of the New Zealand online Left who has actually joined the aforementioned Free Speech Coalition. Now I don’t agree with everything Trotter says on this subject (we’ll get to that), but I agree with the broad thrust of what he’s saying. What does The Standard piece offer by way of reply?

It shouldn’t be a surprise that the far right in NZ would want to press the flesh of the two Canadian ubermensches, however, it’s shameful and ignorant for the old white man Chris Trotter to fall for this blackshirted bollocks.

I really hate it when one’s age, skin colour, and gender is somehow treated as a salient point when considering the merits of one’s opinions.

There never has been free speech. Even its artsy fartsy cousin, freedom of expression, is a mirage. Real freedom is not what you say, it’s how you live. And we do not live free lives. The world is not free from poverty, is not free from climate change, is not free from fear. Most importantly, we are not free of capitalism, which profits handsomely from our enslavement.

And how the hell does the commentator think we are going to change anything without the right of individuals to speak their minds? Again, the most terrifying restrictions on Freedom of Speech ever seen in this country – Sid Holland’s waterfront regulations in 1951 – were put in place explicitly to crush a working class movement. This issue cuts both ways, mate.

Yeah, nah.  There is always consequence. Chat shit, get banged, as the footballing philosopher Jamie Vardy put it.

Lets be clear; fascism is not an intellectual exercise. It’s the epitome of evil, a cancer on humanity. My grandparents didn’t debate Nazis, they shot them.

My grandfather fought them too. But here’s the thing – he didn’t go through six years of hell, just so western society would end up adopting the underlying principles of fascism – the idea that violence against the evil other is the only way of settling things. Has our commentator ever heard of Nietzsche’s old line about fighting monsters?

OK. Perhaps this is low-hanging fruit. Sometimes people just want to rant, without any consideration of deeper issues. Fair enough. That was why I even started talking about politics on this blog – not because I had any interest in persuading anyone (far from it. Your opinion is none of my business), but because sometimes a bit of yelling at the screen after a long day can be therapeutic. But let’s look at someone who really should know better, another Standard post, this time by frequent commentator, MickySavage.

There is another aspect to what was happening, do we allow Ms Southern to even come into the country.  I believe that our government is under no obligation to do so.  But using I/S’s formulation of the test, are we obliged to allow Ms Southern to speak to us?

I wrote in an earlier post about the divide between legality and morality, and the mistakes one makes when one tries to judge legality by morality. Well, MickySavage is doing the opposite. He’s trying to prop up moral arguments by appeals to legality – he starts off quoting Idiot/Savant (who is actually correct on this matter, incidentally), and then discusses whether these Far-Right figures would actually need to incite a riot in order to be banned from the country. Reading between the lines, it’s quite clear MickySavage has decided he wants to stop these two on political grounds, so is hunting around for a legal figleaf to justify what he already wants to do.

Also, note the above quote: MickySavage is framing it in terms of coercion – the idea that a government has to be under some formal obligation in order to respect one’s Freedom of Speech. I would have thought that the onus would go the other way – namely that someone can say what they like, and come to New Zealand if they like, except when there is good reason to curtail those rights. And, frankly, MickySavage does not provide a good reason. No-one is tying him up, sitting him in a chair, and forcing him to watch them speak, a la Alex in A Clockwork Orange.

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Meanwhile, despite MickySavage’s claims, Southern is not about to incite disorder to the level required in Brooker v. Police, her business interests are irrelevant, and he is forgetting that the Human Rights Act 1993 is interpreted through the lens of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990. “Exciting hostility” is a very high bar to jump here.

Thus far, I have devoted a fair bit of space to disagreeing with people on a matter of principle. I could, if I wanted, further note that the entire basis of New Zealand’s archaic Blasphemy Law (the one that everyone wants to repeal, especially the Left) is to prevent public disorder. Blasphemous Libel as it has stood for over a hundred years is not about protecting God – it’s actually a Hate Speech Law, 1890s-style – and there is something genuinely perverse about repealing something like this, only to bring it back via the back door. There is no right to not be offended. But enough of that. Quite apart from principles, I also happen to believe that my colleagues on the Left are making a massive tactical error here.

With the Left focused on banning the enemy, rather than combating them, these far-right slimeballs are able to shift the goalposts. Rather than discussing how idiotic the far-right’s views actually are, the framing of the debate becomes about whether people have the right to hold idiotic views. The extra abstraction obscures the toxicity – it is the difference between arguing with someone who believes the Moon is made of green cheese (which everyone finds laughable), and arguing whether someone has the right to believe that the Moon is made of green cheese (which makes people start thinking about lovely woolly ‘rights’, and that famous Voltaire quote). Never mind that you’re still left arguing with… someone who believes the Moon is made of green cheese.

Moreover, by acting in this manner, the Left allows the Far-Right to paint it as being unable to argue. That its arguments are so weak, it has no choice but to shout, and scream, and talk about banning people, or about silencing them. It’s a propaganda tool, and, well, certain slimeballs just got a whole heap of ammunition as a result of this sorry episode. No prizes for guessing what they’re going to do with that ammunition, and so the cycle continues.

This, indeed, is the point Chris Trotter has made all along. That if New Zealand is indeed a tolerant, free society, the best way to combat this pair of nutters is to let them come, and then defeat them. Actually get them out of their intellectual depth, out of their comfort zone, confront them with people whose knowledge and expertise is greater than theirs. By abandoning the fight, we lose something of our own Enlightenment values.

It’s a nice idea in theory, but I would add one caveat – Trotter is kidding himself if he thinks these two would ever subject themselves to an honest debate. The free marketplace of ideas has always hinged on the power of rhetoric, far more than the power of facts (not least because something can be a fact and yet utterly irrelevant to any wider point, except as a sort of vague dog-whistle). You are already dealing with people who will gladly move the intellectual goalposts to distract from the inherent weakness of their own position – expecting anything other than smoke and mirrors is a futile endeavour. If one is going the Trotter route, one therefore needs people who know the rhetorical game-plan in advance, not some poor hapless academic-types, who will spend all their time countering falsehoods, rather than making arguments of their own.

So if banning is a bad idea, both in terms of principle and in terms of practice, and engaging such people in an honest debate is to cast pearls before swine, what does one do? Well, there is always the peaceful protest option – especially because the protesters would significantly outnumber the audience. There is also the route of satire – one does not need to actually debate someone to make them look incredibly silly. As coincidence would have it, I re-watched Mel Brooks’ film The Producers (1967) the other day. It seemed strangely topical, and indeed it was.

Recall that the plot of the film revolves around our protagonists putting on a deliberately bad Broadway show – which accidentally turns into a runaway success because people find Springtime for Hitler funny, rather than offensive. Well, there is a particularly powerful moment when the Nazi who wrote the original play tries to interrupt proceedings by arguing that the production is horrible and unrealistic, and a betrayal of his true intent – whereupon the audience laugh at him too, because they think he is “just part of the show”. It doesn’t matter that he’s up on stage, ranting about his beloved Reich – no-one takes him remotely seriously, and his words have zero effect. It’s the Far-Right defeated by being made to look ridiculous – and fifty years on, it’s a lesson I wish the Left would re-learn.

***

That turned out longer than I expected. As I mentioned at the start, this entire topic is something I wish would just go away – we’ve got more important things to worry about than these two slimeballs, and I, for one, have better things to do on a Thursday evening than defending the freedom of speech of racist arseholes. It’s just thoroughly frustrating to read the local discourse, all the more so because it has inadvertently revealed something dark about so many people who should know better. There is no easy way to deal with the Far-Right once they reach a critical mass of media coverage, but New Zealand as a society sure as hell needs to pick up its game.

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