Speaking up against muzzling freedom of speech

The stabbing of author Salman Rushdie again highlights the importance of defending the right to voice opinions, writes Morry Bailes.

Hadi Matar has pleaded not guilty to a charge of attempted murder after a stabbing attack on author Salman Rushdie. Photo: AP/Gene J. Puskar

Hadi Matar has pleaded not guilty to a charge of attempted murder after a stabbing attack on author Salman Rushdie. Photo: AP/Gene J. Puskar

The attack on novelist Salman Rushdie as he walked onto stage at a literary conference to speak about the importance of freedom of expression has all the hallmarks of an attack on free speech itself.

Whilst the facts and motive are not yet fully understood, it seems more than coincidental that in 1989 the spiritual leader of Iran the Ayatollah Khomeini handed down the fatwa, the edict that sent Rushdie into hiding for a decade at pain of death.

Iran has denied involvement in his attempted murder on the weekend past, but that is hardly the point: Iran wished Rushdie dead, even if that was recanted in more recent times. And his crime? Publishing a novel that was perceived as blasphemous, when most reading it saw nothing of the sort. It was similar to the reaction of some Christians finding blasphemy in The Last Temptation of Christ, directed by Martin Scorcese, when what we were actually watching was a cinematic interpretation of what may have been historic events. And similar too, to the brutal murder of the Charlie Hebdo satirists. Killing people for engaging in humorous expression. It was a dark day indeed.

Fast forward to now and we learn that J K Rowling, also a novelist, is threatened online with the words ‘don’t worry, you will be next’. Of what supposed offence she is accused of remains a mystery. Could it be her views that transgender people should not be involved in female sport, and that in her view the role of women in society is being diminished? Or was it that she dared to sympathise with Salman Rushdie, thereby endorsing his entitlement to express himself freely particularly in the area of literature and the arts?

Those considerations aside, there is a palpable sense in our current public discourse that even although it may be lawful to say things and to express one’s views, we are being actively discouraged in expressing opinions that may be perceived by some as being antithetical, controversial or likely to ruffle feathers, even though the view may be a shared view of a majority in the community.

Particularly prevalent on social media platforms, and in our educational institutions, the inclination to silence whoever we choose to disagree with is alive and well, and has become the latest and most insidious form of crushing freedom of expression, public debate and disagreement in the community.

Disagreement is the stuff that breeds success. Business leaders know it. Contrarian views are wonderful in a business setting, as they should be in life. But what we have presently is a concerted attempt to paint the world and our very thoughts beige.

It is important in these circumstances to turn to and understand the law, for so long as we engage in lawful language and lawful discourse, we can say whatever we want, and indeed we should, and should be exhorted to.

The right to freedom of opinion and expression is found in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Australia is a signatory, and is a bedrock of democracy and successful modern society. There exist other international instruments that protect our privilege, thus our freedom of opinion and expression whilst not absolute certainly allows Salman Rushdie to publish The Satanic Verses, for J K Rowling to hold and express her views about the erosion of the role of women in society, and for Charlie Hebdo to satirise the Prophet.

For Tehran to blame Rushdie for the violence perpetrated upon him, or for critics to seek to cancel J K Rowling by excluding her from events and seeking to silence her views, is none other than a poor attempt to deny that the right to freedom of opinion of expression exists in law. It is wrong for many reasons but primarily because it is a deliberate ploy to silence a publicly expressed opinion with which someone else disagrees. It strikes at the heart of what has made us great, and that is difference of opinion.

Still in the best sellers list, 1984, by George Orwell, is a perennial reminder of what society will become if we insist on every person holding the same opinion and the same values. Not only do we become a community of dills, we lose our greatest asset: independent and creative thought, after which we lose our democracy, for we will have successively knocked over the pillars of our democratic freedoms.

After the spiritual leader of Iran called for Rushdie’s death, the author said in a public address, ‘Free speech is the whole thing, the whole ball game. Free speech is life itself.’

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We ought not need the law to tell us that, but we have it all the same, because from the fall of Nazi Germany and the creation of the United Nations, the right to freedom of thought, opinion, and public expression was regarded as so fundamental as to require it to be enshrined in one of the founding international covenants of our time.

It is wholly wrong therefore to seek to silence any voice in our society. It is wrong to cancel or block views. It is wrong to think that our public dialogue should be filled with a harmonious oneness, and it is wrong to fail to understand what the power in the diversity of thought, and expressed opinion offers to a community. In short, we ought to disagree, and be pleased that we have the freedom to do so.

The only agreement we need is about the right to disagree. May there be more of it in every area of life for the betterment of us all. As General  Patton said, ‘if everybody is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking’. Our opinions should be as diverse as there are people in community.

It must be clearly understood that the right to freedom of expression is not absolute, and there are provisions in Australian law that makes certain public language unlawful. The courts have laid out the rules for us, and whilst some might disagree around the edges, there is little we can say that is unlawful in this country. So the right to freedom of opinion and expression is protected by our law and no person should be cowered into thinking differently. Nor should we. Using Rushdie’s word again he said:

“Both John F. Kennedy and Nelson Mandela use the same three-word phrase which in my mind says it all, which is, ‘Freedom is Indivisible…You can’t slice it up, otherwise it ceases to be freedom. You can dislike Charlie Hebdo. … But the fact that you dislike them has nothing to do with their right to speak.”

Which brings to mind the words attributed to Voltaire by his biographer: ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it’.

There is no more important time than now to remind ourselves of those sentiments. To condemn in absolute terms the attack on Salman Rushdie and to see it for it is, an attack on the right to freedom of expression. To fight for our right to be heard whether our opinion be popular or unpopular. To allow us to criticise and to be able to tolerate being offended, understanding that we are not weakened but strengthened by those abilities.

A society containing trigger warnings for school students about the fact that Romeo and Juliet contains a suicide but has no similar warning about its homicide, a society that wishes for diversity in every avenue but not diversity of thought and opinion, and a society that respects the rule of law but which pretends that the causing of offence should be punished as if it were a crime, is a society that is tipping towards emasculating our legacy of greatness in literature, art and our cultural heritage, is one seeking to silence opinions contrary to those perceived as acceptable by our self appointed thought police, and in making the taking of offence an art form, is eroding our lawful and enshrined freedom to think and say what we want within the boundaries of law.

In fact it is the rule of law that allows our freedoms, which we must ferociously guard and defend, including the right to freedom of expression, at this time of change and world fragility.

The fight to maintain our right to freedom of expression has cost people their freedom as it has their lives, and continues to do so in countries like Myanmar, China, Russia and North Korea. So while we watch those courageous people imprisoned and led to the gallows for exercising their right to freedom of speech, no person in Australia should idly stand by whilst we lose those very same freedoms by stealth.

Law is nothing without the support of society, and so in joining with other voices wishing Salman Rushdie a swift and hoped for successful recovery, it is an opportunity to continue his message, that no one in our world should be cancelled, silenced, or intimidated for expressing an opinion and exercising what we have won through conflict, blood, sweat and tears, the right to express our thoughts.

Morry Bailes is Senior Lawyer and Business Advisor to Tindall Gask Bentley Lawyers, past president of the Law Council of Australia and a past president of the Law Society of South Australia.

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