Everyone Pays When Speech Isn’t Free

Published: Tue 21 May 2024 09:55 AM
While students here and abroad exercised their freedom to speak and protest publicly, some at Victoria University stifled a panel debate on that very topic. Ironically, one of the student magazine’s editors considered the participation of Jonathan Ayling, head of the Free Speech Union, the most problematic element. Ayling hadn’t said anything cancel-worthy; his belief that others with “hateful” opinions shouldn’t be cancelled disqualified him. In response, the university postponed and reimagined the event.
Although these protests are at institutions of higher learning,they avoid engaging in any exchange of ideas; lopsided sloganeering has generated lots of heat but no light. A recent Rasmussen Report suggests that this noisier-than-thou approach can backfire. Even in—or especially in—a world of soundbites, we desire evidence and reason. Remove these elements of good debate, and people are doomed to talk past one another.
Take, for instance, the outrage following J.K. Rowling’s gender-critical tweets. For two decades, Rowling was celebrated by youth and in LGBTQ circles for creating protagonists who had been marginalised by society. Then in 2020, she disagreed with transgender activists who believethat no spaces—including locker rooms and female sports teams—should be preserved for biological females. Rather than investigate why an ally had reached a different conclusion, many in her community leapt to attack and even threaten her.
One disillusioned fan, interviewed on the podcast “The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling,” lamented that Rowling wouldn’t “just listen to us.” Interviews with her, however, reveal she had listened thoroughly before commenting. She remains sympathetic to those she offended. Her perspectives, shaped by experts in the field and by personal experiences of violence, raise important questions that her detractors ignore.
Rather than listen and respond, they insist that Rowling has—inexplicably—transitioned into a hateful bigot.
Former Green Party co-leader James Shaw lamented in his farewell speech that such attitudes infect public life. He spoke of “real negative personality based politics, where people try and undermine each other as people, rather than … focus on the policy positions and argue about how we want to be as a country.”
How do we avoid creating intellectual wastelands inhabited by frustrated souls? Writer Tish Harrison Warren described the antidote when she eulogised author and theologian Tim Keller. She recalled his graciousness in a public debate wherehis opponent became tongue-tied:
“Keller could have chosen to go in for the kill rhetorically and make his opponent look foolish. Instead, he paused and asked, ‘Is this what you mean?’ Keller then restated the secular argument in a clearer, better way, arguing against his own point of view. The other speaker agreed that was what he had meant, and Keller continued, countering the (now much stronger) point.”
She said that Keller “was in pursuit of truth and kindness, not point scoring.”
If we stifle debate, then mudslinging and power-grabbing areall our divided society has left. But if we do the hard, uncomfortable work of testing competing arguments—treating both people and their ideas with respect—we may find both truth and harmony.
By Maryanne Spurdle, Researcher, Maxim Institute.

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