The limit

There’s been a few things in the public forum in the last week that have roused comment and controversy. As always I’m a keen observer of these disputes, even if it makes me feel a bit sick at times. These two issues relate to free speech. This time I need to add my voice to the fray.

The first relates to quite a stupid and clumsy promotion by Cooper’s Brewing. They were releasing a special edition beer to celebrate the centenary of some religious group they had an affiliation to. To mark the occasion a couple of federal ministers were brought together over a beer to discuss the merits of same sex marriage.

This is always going to be a fraught topic, and this is not the forum for it. It was all very amicable with one minister for and the other against, debated with a beer in hand. It was pretty silly and given that the sponsoring body – The Bible Society – is anti-same-sex marriage, is easily viewed as a political piece. Naturally it drew outrage.

All of a sudden social media was lit up with commentary, most of it condemning the piece, and a lot of it pretty violent. Within moments there was a movement to boycott Coopers products, which in the way of our times quickly gained momentum. Everyone wanted to be in on the act.

But not me. I reflected on this deeply, but my instinct right from the start was to recoil from such drastic action.

There’s no anger management on social media. Just about everyone goes hard, and much harder than they would dare face to face. There’s a red hot need to express outrage and support. One way or another commentary heads for the extreme. It’s the signs we live in, a binary age where one is either for or against, a snowflake or a RWNJ, where is little subtlety or sophistication in discourse, and only rarely any real insight.

This is why I can’t support a boycott. It’s a purely reactive, knee-jerk reaction to the situation, and as such is mindless. Never mind free speech or the right to have an opinion, the prevailing mode of discourse is to punish anyone who disagrees with what we believe.

Whenever I begin making statements like this I feel obliged to affirm my position in general. I hate having to do it as I consider myself first and foremost as a thinking individual, but lest I’m accused of being bias let me lay it out. I have a very strong liberal bent who believes in the rights of the individual – be they man, woman, black, white, gay or heterosexual – or even if they journey here by boat from far away. I’m for equality in general and a strong supporter of marriage equality.

I disagree strongly with the sentiments of The Bible Society, but I must defend their right to have them. We are a democracy. Free speech is a cornerstone of that. In fact, debate and discussion is a good thing – though rare these days as inevitably it degenerates into rabid name-calling. As a thinking man, I can’t support a response which is mindless reaction, which is why I’ll continue to enjoy a Coopers every now and then. It happens also to be a very good beer.

The next thing is the premature and unexpected death of cartoonist Bill Leak. In recent years Leak had become a very controversial and provocative figure. A great artist and at his best a very funny cartoonist, something had gone off in him sometime in the last 10 years. Many of cartoons, though clever, became offensive to different cultural groups, and often engaged in gross racial stereotyping. The sort of stuff we as a society had long moved past, and which, in my opinion, should never have been published by The Australian.

Quite naturally Leak became a champion of the right wing bigots who hide behind the skirt of free speech. This is the thing – free speech cuts both ways, but it also has limits on what is acceptable. This has been the great debate behind 18C, which Leak had become an unwitting champion of (he had been charged under its auspices). The argument was that Leak in publishing his cartoons was exercising his right to free speech. The debate was whether his cartoons crossed the line. Naturally this was another violently argued issue.

He died last week at the age of 61. On Monday night at a live broadcast of Q&A a bunch of audience members stood up and shouted that they were glad Leak was dead. This has been a common sentiment on social media. I may be old fashioned but I reckon that’s ugly and unnecessary.

Not surprisingly that sparked a reaction, this time from the conservative side of the political spectrum. Among other things they demanded the ABC – the broadcaster – should be censured for the uncouth actions of their audience. Oh, the irony.

The principle tenets of free speech are frequently overlooked by champions of it when it is turned against them. They cannot claim that Bill Leak was expressing his right to free speech and then turn around and demand punishment when others exercise that same right in opposition to them. I think the people who so bravely stood up to celebrate Bill Leak’s death are low lives, but so be it. They broke a social convention, but no laws – and that’s as it should be.


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