The fundamental bedrock non-negotiable principle of the way we live

Look at the video below and answer the following question: which of the people shown should be prosecuted:

  1. The speaker
  2. The man who left the meeting
  3. Both
  4. Neither
  5. I don’t understand the question

Which leads me to the column today in The Australian by Professor Gillian Triggs, the president of the Australian Human Rights Commission. She is concerned about this:

Many of these commentators have been particularly concerned with the 1995 law making racial vilification an offence under the Racial Discrimination Act. The offence applies to conduct likely to ‘offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate’ a person on the grounds of race.

I have my doubts about whether there are very many concerned about this at all although there may be some doubts about judicial interpretation of the Act. As I wrote at Quadrant Online:

Free speech is about open debate about every single political issue. I agree that personal statements, individual to individual, can be a danger to social cohesion and may therefore in certain circumstances be unacceptable. There may well be a need to have limits on such personal remarks where they are made merely to wound someone else. These kinds of limitations should be very carefully identified and the social utility of limiting this kind of free speech should be broadly discussed and consensus of some kind reached. It should only be personal statements, those directed at individuals, and there should be no ambiguity about what is illegal since the law should be very precise about such matters. I am not fully convinced of this but there is certainly a case to be made.

Abusing individuals for any of those matters found in the international covenants she has discussed is wrong and there need to be protections against such forms of abuse. But that needs to be distinguished from this, which is also part of that same Quadrant Online article:

But [abusing individuals] is not what we are talking about. We are here talking about the right to discuss politically charged issues in a public space, issues that often are part of our parliamentary debates, and these should be as open to free a discussion as it is possible to have. That is what freedom of speech means and absolutely nothing else will do.

The example Professor Triggs gives is about someone who had denied the holocaust. Put it out there, I say, have people say it in public if that’s what they think. Since we live in a post-modernist world where every form of idiocy is believed by someone, the only form of protection we have – and I stress this, it is the only form of protection we have – is allowing such views to be stated in public so that others can put their contrary views in public as well. She doesn’t say what the outcome of the case was when the HRC came across this particular Holocaust denier – although it does seem clear that this chap was convicted of something – but if they prosecuted and worse, if they won the case, freedom of speech in Australia suffered a major setback. I wonder if Professor Triggs can understand why that is.

And to repeat, it’s not that I think free speech is a guarantor of truth. Nothing is, and when I hear some of the ideas spoken of today, it terrifies me to think which of these might become mainstream over the next 50 to 100 years. You never really do know. But the only hope we have of keeping the open society we have is by maintaining an open society, and to maintain an open society as the fundamental bedrock non-negotiable principle of the way we live.

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