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The Racial Hatred Act: The Australian, Free speech comes at a price

In his piece for The Australian, Hugh
Mackay contributes to the freedom of speech debate by advocating the balance
which must be struck between freedom of speech and "restraint and
regard for the common good".

The Australian Newspaper Logo

Free speech comes at a price

Hugh Mackay,22nd June 1996

Hardly anyone is against freedom of speech. Neither do many people think
that the straitjacket of political correctness is a sensible or desirable
way of educating a community to adopt more civilised attitudes. But freedom
of speech isn't always the simple and straightforward ideal it seems to
be.

As a society, for example, we have repeatedly refused permission for
historian David Irving to come and lecture us on his beliefs about the
holocaust. Out of respect for the sensitivities of the Jewish community
in our midst, we have apparently decided that the consequences of freedom
of speech, in that particular case, would be unacceptably divisive and
offensive.

Moral strictures, similarly, forced the use of certain words on radio
and television on the ground that they might give offence to some listeners
and viewers. So we're not absolutely committed to freedom of speech: we
set limits, from time to time, where matters of public taste or public
morality are involved.

We do that, presumably, because we think that there is such a thing
as the common good; because we believe that individual freedoms should
not interfere with communal freedoms. The freedom to say whatever you think
is limited, in any decent society, by the right of others to be protected
from exposure to material they find offensive. (Hence, obscene language
used in a public place is an abuse of freedom.)

The concept of freedom of speech is just another example of the constant
tension between my wanting to be free to do whatever I like, and your wanting
to be free to do the same. This is precisely the tension which gives birth
to the thing called morality. As soon as our competing desires for personal
freedom come into collision, we have to work out a way of accommodating
one another.

What we usually do is strike a compromise which involves some restriction
on each of us. We agree to abide by some rules which will allow us enough
freedom to satisfy us, but not enough to cause us to tread on each other's
toes.

On the roads, we might agree to keep to the left. At home, we might
agree to keep off each other's property. We might agree to let each other
own certain firearms, but we might want to restrict the types that cam
be owned, in order to minimise the risk to the security of the whole community.

The essence of belonging to a community is that we respect other people's
desire for freedom, but we impose limits on it when it seems to threaten
out own. Correspondingly, we assert our own right to freedom, but we agree
to limit it when it threatens other people's. (That doesn't sound very
complicated, does it?)

But freedom of speech is a particularly tricky example of the general
principle. Even though we now realise that "names" can hurt at
least as much as sticks and stones, we are strongly wedded to the idea
that people should be free to say whatever they like. Any hint of suppression
of that freedom immediately raises the spectre of the thought police. .
. as it has in response to the excesses of PC.

But if Australians ever felt an inhibition about expressing themselves
freely the brakes seem to have come off quite noticeably since the change
of government. John Howard himself takes pride in the fact that Australians
can, as he puts it, "breath again on certain subjects", and he
believes that this is a welcome reaction to "too much social censorship".

Some of my own research certainly confirms the Howard assessment that
people are loosening up. Try this response to a recent survey: "Three-quarters
of the murders in this country are done by Asians and other foreigners."

Or this: "send the boat people back where they came from, or blow
them out of the water before they even get here."

These are not mainstream views, but they are far from being isolated
opinions. The question they raise is this: if we are to enjoy freedom of
speech, will we be prepared to accept responsibility for the consequences
of what we say... just as the price of all other freedoms is that we must
face the consequences of our actions. The alternative is anarchy.

The mark of an open society is that all its members are free to speak
their minds, even when their minds are diseased by hate, prejudice or bigotry.
The mark of a civilised individual, on the other hand, is that out of respect
for the well-being of others, you sometimes choose not to say what you
are free to say. Restraint and regard for the common good are unfashionable
virtues, but they are virtues nonetheless.


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