Wrapped in Flags and Bolt on ‘Free Speech’

Although this is simple another example of the same type of hypocrisy that seems forever in the news, I wish to comment on two events I’ve been made aware of recently (in both cases, I’ve not seen the direct source, but only read the subsequent media).

Firstly, there has been a wave of complaints over the use of the Australian flag as bedding (or simply that the flag was placed on the ground) in the new series “At Home with Julia” [1]. At the same time, Andrew Bolt has begun to bark “free speech” over the courts ruling in relation to his singling out of a small group of fair-skinned Aboriginal Australians or, as he called them, “political aborigines” [2].

How is it that a satirical piece can be taken so seriously and cause such offence on one hand whilst Bolt’s coining “White fellas in the black” is supposed to be fair game?

Personally, I find Bolt’s writing repugnant and devoid of genuine intellect. After reading and responding to the post regarding the Golden Sun Moth [3], I made a personal vow never to read his rubbish again.

But so what? Who cares what I do and don’t do. That is my own choice. We all have that same choice.

I do agree with Greg Barns, in that free speech isn’t an absolute right [4] and especially with the following excerpt;

Commentators like Bolt and Mark Steyn, a Canadian commentator who has used freedom of speech arguments to attack elements of Islam over the years, love to dress up their political agenda with the claim that they are simply exercising freedom of speech, and therefore how could anyone possibly object to such a fundamental tenet of democratic life.

But as Justice Bromberg rightly found that this ‘defence’ falls away when you get things wrong as he found Bolt did in his characterisation of how a small group of ‘fair-skinned’ Aboriginal Australians conducted themselves, and when you attack a person’s use of their racial identity because “people should be free to fully identify with their race without fear of public disdain or loss of esteem for so identifying”.

However, free speech comes back to choice. If, as the courts decided on the case of Bolt’s articles, he had used “errors in fact, distortions of the truth and inflammatory and provocative language” in relation to a persons  racial identification, well that should be addressed. If Bolt was man enough, he’d own up to pushing unsubstantiated claims too far and unfairly characterising a group of people. He could go one better and then possibly apologise for it before moving on. If history has taught us anything, it’s that this is unlikely to occur.

More importantly (and why I bring it up for the third time), we much remember that free speech comes back to our choice to hear it. Greta Christina says it best [5];

[T]he right to the free expression of political ideas, is one of most crucial cornerstones of our democracy. Without it, democracy collapses. Without the freedom to express political opinions, we can’t participate fully in the political process. Without the freedom to hear political opinions, we can’t make informed decisions about what we think. And without the freedom to hear and express opinions that dissent from the mainstream, there is no way that mainstream opinion can change. The right to free speech is an essential part of democracy. And it is, in and of itself, a basic human right, a value that is worth treasuring and protecting for its own sake.

So our default assumption should always, always, always be that speech should be free, unless there is a tremendously compelling reason to limit it…

…I’m saying that, as a society, we can’t move forward and accept new ideas if we don’t let people express ideas that we find shocking and upsetting. And I’m saying that, as a purely practical matter, if we want the right to express our opinions when most people find them revolting, we need to protect other peoples right to express their own revolting opinions.

Bolt makes a living off of a game of Hathos, there’s simply no doubt about that [6]. That said, except for when  he, or others like him, actually break the law, he should be allowed to say whatever he wishes, regardless of how vile you or I may find it. The same should be said of other media – including the use of the flag as a sheet in “At Home with Julia”.

If you have a problem with them, rather than applying Hathos, simply don’t expose yourself to such opinions. Don’t read Bolt’s work and don’t tune into the show (or, alternatively, you could reply to it as I have done in the past to Bolt [3]).

We need to protect the right of free speech (where the law hasn’t been broken) to protect democracy and we also don’t want people like Bolt playing the trump card of being suppressed, thereby inflating his ego further. So don’t be fooled by his retort to losing the court case. He, just as with the rest of us, still has the right to free speech, but, rightly not to make racist remarks, targeted at certain individuals.

If you agree with me, don’t read his work. If you disagree with me, then continue to read his work and stop reading mine. It’s that simple.

[1] At Home with Julia’s sex scene in Australian flag a ratings flop for ABC show

[2] Andrew Bolt says free speech lost as court finds he breached racial discrimination act

[3] Boltus ineptus leaps out from the office desk to pounce on the dodo

[4] Even Bolt’s freedom of speech isn’t an absolute right

[5] The Fred Phelps Supreme Court Decision and Why We Shouldn’t Look for Loopholes in the First Amendment

[6] Hathos: Fuel for the Climate Debate and Bolt’s Pay Cheque?

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