Censorship, free speech and Christchurch: how good people become totalitarians

As with the old truism which states that the most reliable way to identify a deviant is to look for someone who aggressively enforces taboos against perversion, it can be revealing to look at the points of consensus where people eagerly announce unconditional support. Often, these proud declarations of approval cloak a dark underbelly of insecurity and rejection.

Everyone intuitively understands, for example, that the enthusiasm with which America declared itself a post-racial society following the election of Barack Obama was only possible with an explicit appreciation for the racism bubbling beneath of the surface of every facet of American politics. Indeed, these naïve declarations were soon followed by the stunning resurgence of race-based politics embodied by the Black Lives Matter movement, associated race riots, and eventually the Alt-Right and catastrophic moments for race relations such as Charlottesville.

In the same oxymoronic manner, many other clichés which underpin civil dialogue double as shameful confessions of our shortcomings. We are eager to exalt ourselves for our shared values of democracy, liberty, justice and unity precisely because we realise that under the surface these are extremely fragile norms. This is to say that virtues are rarely as widely shared as we hope and claim.

Thoughts about this tendency for false displays of illusory virtues infect my brain anew whenever issues of freedom of speech and expression stand to be debated. ‘I believe in freedom of speech,’ cultural elites always begin. But not a moment later they utter its immediate negation in the form of something to the effect of ‘some things are just not acceptable to say.’ I think we all recognise this kind of rhetoric. And I think it is becoming increasingly necessary to call it out for what it is.

If you only believe in some particular parts of the notion of freedom of speech, you do not believe in freedom of speech at all. The philosophy is in a sense a package deal—an all or nothing arrangement. Partial belief in it is not merely a watered down formulation of the same central idea: It bears more resemblance to its antithesis; the people who only support some degree of freedom of speech, even quite liberal amounts, believe in the philosophy of speech control. It is time to own it.

In fact, most people believe in a surprising degree of speech control. Just like most people don’t particularly believe in the presumption of innocence, or the right to privacy, or a great deal many other assumed civil liberties. This is precisely why it is necessary that society is eager to say that we support them so loudly and openly. There is an involuntary recognition of the gap between their words and actions.

This gap is not recognised explicitly by most people. This in effect means that they believe that the speech control that they practice is in fact freedom of speech. This necessitates a discussion of definitions in order to identify the disconnect.

The simplest method to define the philosophy of freedom of speech is to reduce it to its minimum essential propositions and then explain why each feature is absolutely necessary.

  1. Citizens have the right to the freedom of mind and thought.
  2. Citizens have the right to express these thoughts.
  3. True free thought necessitates the right to access ideas.

The necessity of each proposition becomes self-evident once you clarify how each right infers and interlinks with each other.

Freedom of thought is fundamental human right. And it ceases to mean anything if citizens lack the right to discuss these thoughts openly. In this manner the first proposition necessitates the second.

The right to free expression naturally confers the right to express your free thoughts. But the choice whether to exercise this right is under the dominion of each individual. It is for this reason that you also have the right to refuse to express ideas. The freedom to say what you think implies the right to refuse to say anything you choose.

Ideas which exist as unchallenged orthodoxy are merely ideology. For this reason, freedom of thought and expression require the right to engage in dialogue. This confers the right to receive the free expression of others. Meaning that we all have the right to listen as well as speak.

Now, if your feathers are not ruffled enough already, a cyclone is about to pass through an aviary. We need to talk about New Zealand.

The tragedy of the Christchurch shooting is perhaps unprecedented for the modern age. I resolutely believe we are yet to fully grasp just how severe and consequential an event it is. Terrorism and mass murder are not new phenomena. However, Brendan Tarrant (the Christchurch shooter) is vastly different to the mass murderers we have become conventionally used to.

Past mass murderers. no matter their professed motives, almost always had clear symptoms of mental illness which partially explained their behaviour. Their actions lacked the discipline and clarity of mind which would allow us to fully believe that they were committing their atrocities. Even the closest analogue to the Christchurch incident in the form of organised Islamic political terror relies on drug addicts and other outcasts to commit their assaults. There is a tangible sense that these criminals were somehow lost rather than just ideologues.

Brendan Tarrant, on the other hand, seems to have known exactly what he was doing. His manifesto is poorly written, but essentially coherent within the framework of his deluded beliefs. He relies on a heterodox, but very real political ideology to put forth his beliefs. He explicitly states his intention to be taken alive, and to only kill Muslims. This rules out the suicidality which often signals that even political martyrs are mentally unwell. And he followed through on his intention to narrowly target Islam. All of his eventual victims were Muslim. He lacked the propensity for collateral damage or indiscriminately escalating violence that is common in these attacks (and is indicative of a mental breakdown).

The ability to clearly discriminate between victims, contextualise his actions and express his motive separates Brendan Tarrant into the rare category of a truly politically motivated criminal. He shares this rare designation with Anders Behring Breivik, who is a close parallel in terms of ideology.

Currently, the focus of policy action in response to the shooting is in the form of gun control. But as the shared zeitgeist increasingly recognises the ideological grounding of the incident, attention will turn more and more toward the ideas of Tarrant rather than his methods. And this is when the shooting will truly have consequences which are atypical of mass shootings.

Though we are yet to see the real backlash, there has been enough action that we can get a brief preview of the future. And it is becoming clear that the principle most at risk is free speech and expression. Hence, the focus of the prior paragraphs.

Cloaked by the illusion of maintaining the public morals or rejecting the will of the murderer, the state is already undertaking active censorship in response. A teenager has already been charged for the crime of sharing a video of the shooting. A video which various members of the media have openly admitted to watching themselves. A video which was partially shown on television with no repercussions in the hours following the attack.

This is on its face an abridgement of free speech. It violates each and every proposition and principle of the concept at their core. His charges involve “inciting extreme violence” for anti-Muslim rhetoric created and shared prior to the shooting. Watch the trick carefully ladies and gentlemen. The violence of the shooter and the shooters’ open display of anti-Muslim ideas are being used post hoc to justify defining anti-Muslim ideology itself as violence. This is a terminological definition by the state that its citizens are not permitted to hold and believe certain ideas, even when those citizens never take up or threaten to take up a weapon.

A public uproar is currently underway to have Senator Fraser Anning banned from Australia’s parliament after he blamed the New Zealand shooting on Muslim immigration. Although his comments are examples of bland and ignorant victim blaming, let us soberly examine the censorious attitude motivating this outrage.

Senator Fraser Anning is a legally elected member of Australia’s Senate. He was elected based on votes for the openly nationalist One Nation party. A party, by the way, that is refusing to support a planned censure motion against Senator Anning. This is not a case of a rogue politician refusing to represent his constituents.

I think we should think carefully about what the rest of the country really wants if they wish to forcibly remove an elected representative from government for expressing an opinion. They are expressly saying that certain beliefs are not allowed to be held in democratic institutions, even if a candidate is supported by constituents and legally elected.

(To head off a likely comment: Certainly, there were quirks involved in how Senator Anning was elected. This is because Australia uses a preferential voting system. But any suggestion that he was not rightfully elected is a misunderstanding of how elections in Australia work. First preference votes are not indicative of how many votes and supporters a candidate receives.)

The sheer popularity of these kinds of movements is proof a dark reality: The general public do not actually support the right of their fellow citizens to think and believe whatever they want. And don’t be fooled into believing this is a partisan phenomenon. The likes of Fraser Anning and his ilk are just as eager to deny Muslims the right to think and believe whatever they want.

Let us talk about an issue where the government actually acted on these totalitarian instincts. Following the shooting, the government banned Milo Yannopoulos from the country and cancelled his speaking tour. Their stated reasons were an obvious pretext. They expressed worry that a right-wing, anti-Islam speaker risked radicalising another shooter.

Brendan Tarrant was Australian, so perhaps it was an unavoidable response in order to avoid controversy. But this is not the first time they’ve banned Milo for this same tour. They had previously banned him before there was any terrorist risk, but backed down after pressure from free speech advocates. And their stated reasons are revelatory when examining the censorious undertones of this whole discussion.

Watch the government defend their original position, with all the tropes of classic free speech violation:

What they are suggesting is plain to anyone that listens. Free speech is, according to the government, only meant to be for protecting safe opinions. You are free to express any view you choose, so long as the state does not determine it is a threat to “national security” or “order” (which are suitably vague criteria). Despite their protests, the shooting has done little to change the situation. Milo is not being banned because it is really believed that there will be another shooting if he is allowed to speak. It is because there is now the necessary support to punish opposition to Islam under the pretext that anti-Islam views are inherently violent.

This is why it is so essential to escape the illusion that free speech is something we all agree on. The instinct of partisans, ideologues and the tyranny of governments is not to allow expression of the views they disagree with. Human history is not filled with an instinct toward liberty and freedom. Instead, power is often exercised with the goal of accumulating more power. People do not simply believe that people should stop thinking ‘evil’ thoughts on their own, they are more than happy for them to be made to.

These tendencies are not compatible with free speech. And without free speech, free thought does not exist. They have already started banning the websites frequented by the shooter in Australia and New Zealand. And they are banning any websites which host videos of the shooting. As with so many cases of popular energy, the reaction reveals the reason. They do not merely believe that this shooting should be made to never happen again. They believe that people should be forced to stop believing that which they find distasteful, and they will happily control the right of you and I and everyone else to read and write in order to do it.

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