Some would claim that the slow trajectory towards modern liberal democracy began with a very limited, faltering step which was Magna Carta, the charter agreed to by King John of England at Runnymede, near Windsor, on 15 June 1215. Although it gave little solace to the average citizen, it began the slow erosion of the power of the monarchy by acknowledging the rights of the nobility.
It took another seven hundred years before democracy attempted to give all citizens a voice in Western countries. It is no coincidence that these countries are also those with the highest standards of living and least evidence of oppression and tyranny. Fortunately those Western ideals are now being embraced by growing numbers of other nations to their benefit. But tragically there are still many who for historic reasons, often religious, still languish in impoverished communities where ordinary people can have little influence.
Two of the major enablers of modern democracy included the declining influence of monarchs and the separation of church and state.
In European countries it was always difficult to separate church and state because monarchs claimed they had a divine right to rule.
The first major effort to force a division between church and state was initiated in the Reformation by Martin Luther. Luther articulated a doctrine of two kingdoms – a secular one and a religious one. In England the concept was promoted by the writing of the philosopher John Locke, among others.
The first country to put this concept into practice was the United States of America. One of America’s founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson wrote,
“I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.”
The principal of separation of church and state was subsequently embodied in the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.
Whereas originally only male property owners were allowed to vote, eventually universal suffrage was achieved in Western democracies. With respect to women’s suffrage Australia was a pioneer with women being granted the right to vote in Federal elections and to be elected to Federal Parliament in 1902.
Without going into the complexities, after the formation of the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901, very few indigenous people had the right to vote.
In March 1962 the Commonwealth Electoral Act was amended to provide that Indigenous people could enrol to vote in federal elections if they wished. Unlike other Australians it was not compulsory for them to enrol. It was also an offence for anyone to use undue influence or pressure to induce them to enrol. Once they enrolled, however, voting was compulsory.
In 1983, the last hurdle in the achievement of equal voting rights was crossed when a Commonwealth Parliamentary Committee recommended that compulsory enrolment should apply to all Australians. ‘Aboriginal natives’ were no longer referred to in Commonwealth electoral legislation as a separate category of the population.
Along with the separation of church and state and universal suffrage, the third major pillar of liberal democratic societies is freedom of speech. There is, of course, some interdependencies here. The separation of church and state allows people to be critical of religious dogma without being punished for blasphemy. This stands in sharp contrast to the various Islamic Theocracies around the world.
In its purest form, freedom of speech allows citizens to comment or debate on any issue they choose. There are caveats of course and the law prevents wanton libel and defamation. But we are reliant on this free exchange of information, commentary and debate to inform our democracy. In recent years various forces have been conspiring to shut down our freedom of speech, to the detriment of our democracy.
It has taken many centuries involving revolutions and often great sacrifices to enable us to enjoy the fruits of such democracies. Surely we should vigorously guard against any weakening of the basic pillars on which they have been built.
The principal mechanism eroding our freedom of speech, and therefore jeopardising our liberal democracy, is political correctness (PC). Most forms of PC, in trying to protect the rights and sensibilities of minorities, tend to erode away the freedoms of the majority. As a result, according to Trevor Phillips, former chairman of Britain’s Equality and Human Rights Commission, PC has corroded the very basis of moral accountability. This has stimulated the rise of populism in the West. “It was a clear statement that some groups can play by their own rules,” he observed.
As British journalist and public commentator, Melanie Phillips, wrote recently in The Times:
Those PC rules derive from secular ideologies such as anti-capitalism, anti-imperialism, feminism, multiculturalism, moral relativism and environmentalism. All these and more are based on the idea that the white male-dominated Judeo-Christian West is the embodiment of oppressive global power – the political source of original sin.
So white Western men or Christians can never be offended or hurt because they are themselves innately offensive and powerful, while “powerless” women and minorities can only ever be their victims. In other words such victim groups are given a free pass for their own questionable behaviour.
In the next week or so, a parliamentary joint committee of inquiry into section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act is due to hand down its report to parliament. Now some might think this is a matter of little importance, just the obsession of a few right wing disgruntled reactionaries. With the possibility of being tarred with that label, (which is the typical tactic of PC activists in trying to silence dissent) I would suggest this is a matter of great importance to our democracy.
Section 18C has come to prominence because of two recent attempts to apply it, which on both occasions sought, with little justification, to limit free speech. You will, no doubt be aware of the cases so I won’t describe them again in detail, but provide a bare summary.
The first occurred at QUT when a number of non-indigenous students were asked to leave a space that had been set up specifically for indigenous students. The space had not been provided with signage to indicate it was for the exclusive use of indigenous students. The offending students duly moved on but made remarks on social media questioning the need for such a place.
The second occurred when Bill Leak, a cartoonist at The Australian depicted a situation where an indigenous policeman approached an indigenous male with a can of beer in his hand suggesting he should take more care of his son. The father responded, “Righto, what’s his name then?”
The effect of this legislation in these cases was largely to shut down discussion on important issues.
Surely we need to discuss whether indigenous people (or indeed other minorities) should be provided with such so-called “safe spaces”.
Surely we need to face up to the appalling conditions and social dysfunction in remote indigenous communities.
To allow our voices to be silenced by confected offense and hurt is to cowardly relinquish our most cherished freedom and resile from confronting issues of real consequence to our society.
Garton Ash, in his book Free Speech argues that a precondition for free speech is “robust civility”. This seems quite obvious. If we are to come to a considered position we need to carefully listen to the arguments from both sides. Cunningly however, the protagonists of PC have stymied this concept by claiming that ideas contrary to their own are “offensive” and as a consequence lie outside the bounds of civility. Opposing views are thus silenced.
This is a marvellously effective device because it means that opposing viewpoints are just put aside without any requirement to counter them.
Unfortunately, people are now perceived (and often perceive themselves) as vulnerable, capable of being either harmed or incited to harm others by words alone.
In his book Trigger Warning, Mick Hume complains:
The view of humanity as vulnerable, thin-skinned and ultra-sensitive makes free speech appear more dangerous today. In the twenty-first century you can draw moral authority from your status not only as an old-fashioned warrior or leader, but more often from claiming public recognition as a victim. The elevation of vulnerability into a virtue has clear implications for attitudes towards the liberty of others to indulge in offensive speech.
Our society has prospered because we have been able to accommodate diversity. The ability to take the best from diverse ideas and meld them into some acceptable construct has progressed our society time and again. Avoiding the discomfiture of having to consider viewpoints different from our own will inevitably lead to a poorer society.
In the development of Western civilisation our universities have provided forums for the exploration of controversial ideas which compelled students to get outside their comfort zones and contemplate ideas considerably different from their own. Now universities provide ‘safe spaces’ so that minorities can cloister themselves away from exposure to confronting ideas. They ban guest speakers whose pedigree offends PC. They treat adult students as though they were delicate flowers that might wilt in the face of controversy. The only controversies they allow are at the margins of left wing thought.
Unfortunately for these sensitive souls who contrive to avoid having their points of view challenged, freedom of speech might actually lead to offence being taken. That is not to say that there is any valid reason for them to take offence. They have learned to take offence to avoid questioning. Any robust person who was secure in their beliefs, or who was genuinely interested in ensuring their point of view was well-informed, has no reason whatsoever to confect offence when confronted with an intellectual challenge. I believe it is my right to offend such people – not that I want to, but I do have a right to put my point of view and if they choose to take offence at that I don’t see how that is my problem at all!
The uncomfortable thing about free speech is that it needs to be extended to everyone. Our so-called “progressive” thinkers believe that free speech is only the prerogative of people who think like them. Attorney General, George Brandis, was correct when he said, “People have a right to be bigots” (although, of course, he was vilified by the left for having made such a comment). The contest of ideas should always be in the open and exposed to public scrutiny.
We thought we had just about won the battle for free speech but unfortunately it is being eroded away under our feet and it would not take much more for one of the basic platforms of our hard-fought-for democracy to become fatally undermined.
Let us try to rebuild that “robust civility” that Garton Ash identified as necessary for free speech. This will require us to look over those mean little walls that we manufacture to make us feel secure in pursuit of our particular chosen identity.
Kenan Malik, the Indian-born English writer, lecturer and broadcaster wrote:
Any form of progressive politics requires us to overcome, rather than embrace, the barriers of identity. Free speech is an essential tool with which to breach the barriers of identity. At the same time, only by breaching those barriers, reconnecting that which we have disconnected, will we be able to nurture free speech in its fullness.
In the face of all this let us hope that the parliamentary joint committee of inquiry into section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act helps the parliament to act to reduce its impact on free speech. But even if we get a good result from this let us not relax our vigilance. The erosion of our democracy by impairing our ability to indulge in free speech is proceeding on many fronts. We ignore this at our peril.