Who can and cannot express their truth is defined by the people who have always held power, and patrolled in the digital age by online shock troops.
A classic strategy in fascist politics is to define a national identity around which the authoritarian can gather his people. This welcome citizen is positioned against the outsiders who, history shows, face ever-increasing threat. “Free speech” is being used as the most important tool in this new iteration of the struggle.
For Australians, without a charter of rights, free speech is only ever an implied right. Our over-eager defamation laws make it much less protected than we might wish.
Conservative politicians and commercial bodies are deploying threats to media organisations and social media-using citizens with abandon, to create a chilling effect on investigative journalism or mere criticism. Peter Dutton has asked for taxpayer funds to escalate this attack on transparency and accountability.
We have seen, however, over the pandemic that a group of Australians gathers its talking points from American (and European) groups. Ideas around the First Amendment and other American laws figure largely in their thinking. Pity the Covid marshal greeting customers at Bunnings.
The thought leader warriors for free speech are largely centred around News Corp in Australia. They too borrow their culture war battles from the Trumpist right in America. At the heart of this is the creation of a unified Western identity; it is white, Christian, patriarchal and conservative. Other supporters of this identity are tolerated. Challenge is not.
The culture war — fomented by conservative politicians and strategists to encourage voters likely to be harmed by their policies to vote for them regardless has been in construction for decades. It is the catch-cry rather than the meat of the moral panic that changes. Geoffrey Blainey’s History Wars in the 1990s continue into Alan Tudge’s battle with history teachers today.
Tim Watts described how former PM John Howard saw the Australian identity as having been “carved in stone by Sir Henry Parkes and passed down to us via Charles Bean and Don Bradman.” His view of what it is to be Australian erased First Nations people’s existence and allowed no scope for the others who arrived alongside European settlement.
“Identity politics”, “cancel culture”, “wokeness,”, and “critical race theory” are all culture war battles that aim to define an acceptable identity. Just like “political correctness” before them, they are all battles setting out who has free speech and what can be said.
The ultimate identity is conservative white Christian man. This figure can say more or less whatever he likes. So can his acolytes. The idea that other people spend their lives suffering from his insults and the repercussions is irrelevant to him, and any objection makes the sufferer — or her friends — a “snowflake.”
Among these “free speech” warriors, usually white men, are the iconic figures of Silicon Valley. They saw their social media platforms as an extension of the “marketplace of ideas”. What they are only just beginning to acknowledge is that the marketplace is a toxic pool hall, not a dignified grove of olive trees where toga’d men debate their philosophies.
This free social media speech has a terrible impact. In Myanmar, hate speech has assisted genocide. In India the platforms enable the whipping up of lynchings and before long, it is feared, ethnic cleansing. The undermining of public health measures in the right wing media network echoing out into social media is continuing to lead to Covid deaths at a much higher rate in Republican districts.
Daily harm is done on social media too. It is a brave Other who speaks their own truth on those platforms. Death and rape threats follow in a barrage. The dehumanising of out groups that underlie every human atrocity is developing there apace. For Americans, this has resulted in a number of murderous attacks on synagogues, black churches and Hispanic gathering places.
Yassmin Abdel-Magied experienced the full force of the conservative policing of free speech when she tweeted her Anzac Day message “LEST. WE. FORGET. (Manus, Nauru, Syria, Palestine…),” The pack that hounded her included conservative politicians phoning her at home to tell her to keep her place. The flood of threats and hate speech ultimately drove her out of Australia. Her tweet was literally a challenge to reframe our thinking. No violence or hate or threat was conveyed. Her speech, however, was inadmissible.
Abdel-Magied’s identity made her act of speech intolerable. As a woman of colour she had no right to say anything but the most tepid questioning of the status quo. Mariam Veiszadeh and Senator Mehreen Faruqi have similar stories.
“Identity politics” only become an issue when people of the wrong identity speak out to request — or demand — that their own experience be considered in the civic debate, or our laws and structures. This challenge to the traditional identity that governed our societies is not tolerated and is defined as an act of “identity politics,” as if the default identity isn’t one at all.
“Cancel culture” is the condemnation of the progressive factions’ effort to use speech to demand the repercussions that the powerful have avoided. These acts of speech too are intolerable.
The “War on Woke” is now the particular conservative British articulation of the effort to silence those who wish to offer different perspectives in the civic discourse.
“Critical Race Theory” (CRT) is a canard. It is primarily an American law school study that has never had a place in schools. The label has been deployed through Fox News and echoed through social media to silence the voices that want history taught somewhat more accurately. The American (and Australian, since News Corp voices import these foreign battles to our shores) identity must remain proud of its white Christian Western heritage, with the merest nod to the atrocities that bestrew our colonial histories.
All these aspects are faces of the culture war campaign that aims to spruik Western chauvinism. This is, not accidentally, the name of one of the channels on Telegram that fires up the Trumpist cohorts to attack school board meetings. There they demand the end to mask mandates and the end of CRT (which was never in schools). They also demand the end of access to books (that students can requisition from central libraries) which tell stories other than the accepted white Christian American narratives.
Out of these Telegram channels come the rumours that Jewish pedophiles are promoting CRT and LGBTQI destruction of the American identity. Demands for the jailing of school officials for pedophile behaviour in allowing students to requisition such books is feared to be only the start of the violence threatened. Proud Boys and similar militia figures attend these school board meetings to intimidate any but the Trumpist figures from remaining on school boards.
In a Texas school recently, teachers intimidated by these incursions were told that they would need material with “opposing” views even on the Holocaust, to pacify the rage-filled communities demanding history be taught the sanitised way.
The libertarian thinkers that proudly trumpet free speech are often the same people who most loudly disparage outsiders criticising the status quo. Speaking back is considered “snowflake” weakness or hubris that must be punished. And the punishment is vile and terrifying.
The main culture war is divided into frequent “idiot ball” distractions to keep the base enraged against progressives. Last week, Ted Cruz wasted his time berating Sesame Street’s Big Bird for announcing that — as a perennial six-year-old — he had just been vaccinated. Another time it might be a response to a single opinion column or a company’s decision that it no longer wants to, say, publish a Dr Seuss book. A firm favourite is pronouns. These fabricated outrages are funnelled through people like Fox’s Tucker Carlson to have their elderly white Christian audience frothing at the mouth over a confabulated tenet of the demonic left.
Not all the attempts of women, LGBTQI or BIPOC people (or combinations of those identities) to speak our truths are expressed with wisdom. Not all of the ideas to create an inclusive society are sensible. Management does not yet always handle these temporary storms wisely. Condemning all efforts to incorporate new voices and views into our society as a result though is truly an abandonment of the free speech proponent’s “marketplace of ideas”.
This policing of speech means that the “conservative” identity can say most of what it likes no matter the risk to others or society. Objection is condemned as “identity politics” or wokeness, ridiculous and hateful, whining and weak.
The maintaining of the acceptable Western chauvinist identity and his freedom of speech is, increasingly, drawing a line between who is to be included in civic discourse and who must remain silent. It works in parallel with those driving our countries towards greater authoritarianism and their fear of difference is activating violence.
Those who consume News Corp media in Australia need to be particularly cautious about the danger of being swept up to carry the week’s idiot ball. It is, ultimately, part of a dangerous authoritarian trajectory.