Saturday, June 22

Is the no debate strategy working?

I was recently filming a scene for the Free Speech Union production ‘Last Words’ at the mosque in Kilbirnie when a female congregant approached me. 

The woman was pro-hate speech laws with respect to religious communities but confessed to being fearful of gender identity being included as a protected class. She was very eager to discuss her concerns with me. 

The woman told me that she believed the gender identity movement to be inherently misogynistic as only women were being asked to give up their rights, including the word woman itself. She said a lot of Muslim women were concerned about this and were anxious as to where it all may lead.  

Funnily enough, I didn’t for a moment believe I was in the presence of a Nazi sympathizer. Neither do I believe that the Christians who share this woman’s concerns – along with the countless parents of myriad ethnicities, members of the LGB community, and even many transpeople themselves – are secretly willing on a fascist uprising. The gender identity movement is having a pervasive impact on speech and policy, and people – from many walks of life – want to discuss it. 

So why are we being told that the only people interested in this topic are far-Right?  

In order to deny the debate. 

The identitarian politics popular on today’s neo-Left have only been able to sustain themselves through the avoidance of debate and engagement. At a level the whole project has become a type of defamation campaign, discrediting opponents to justify dismissing their concerns. “Play the (cis)-man, not the ball” stuff. 

Volunteering for the Free Speech Union, it was near impossible to book a meeting with any of the organized opposition on hate speech laws. Multiple justice ministers didn’t want a bar of us. The Disinformation Project said that meeting with us would put them in existential danger. The Human Rights Commission, led by Paul Hunt, likewise refused to meet, at one point calling us an ‘uninterested party’, despite our having two Jews, a lesbian and wahine Māori on the council, not to mention a supporter base representative of all groups. 

Avoiding the discussion is a miserable tactic for state-aligned organisations in a democracy. The benefit of our system is we should expect policy to be chewed over ad nauseum. A refusal to engage on a topic as important as state censorship is unacceptable. 

But has it worked for those in power? Can political parties, activists, and government-affiliated organisations ever truly avoid the debate? 

The promise of censorship is that difficult words can be magically disappeared forcing the difficult topics behind the words to disappear along with them.  

And yet if a citizen is passionate, or feels directly impacted by a policy, silencing critics, or avoiding discussion only heightens anxiety levels and gives their mission more urgency. 

This approach also tarnishes the state and affiliated organisations by releasing a scent of corruption into the air: people intuitively know that censorship is used to cover for bad ideas: organized religion has taught us this over millennia. People also know that someone able to defend a policy would leap at the chance. The tactic of silence, therefore, signals weakness. It is blood in the water to activists and erodes institutional trust. 

At the Free Speech Union, we had to strategise around this silence, this refusal to engage. We did so by crafting and publishing argument after argument, bringing down compelling international speakers, producing podcasts with a diverse range of guests, writing thought pieces, and organising public gatherings. Our supporters, and Kiwis everywhere, were craving the debate and weren’t getting it, so we happily and successfully filled this vacuum. 

The irony is that an embracing Human Rights Commission, that quickly and warmly brought us around the table, may have convinced us to compromise. 

When you are at the table, there is a tendency to soften in the spirit of collaboration. Our stance may be close to absolute, but there would have been an outside chance we may have been convinced to help usher in a softer form of hate speech law, especially if we had thought such laws inevitable. Thankfully there was no embrace. Their silence worked to our, and wider New Zealand’s advantage in the end.

Which brings me back to the Muslim woman at the mosque and groups like ‘Speak Up for Women’ who are right now celebrating the good news that immigration will not be denying UK women’s rights campaigner Kellie-Jay Keen-Minshull a visa. 

If she had been refused the neo-Left would have called this a victory, not realizing it would have been another nail in their own coffin. The thought that, in an open democracy, you can censor your way to the elimination of sex-based rights is astoundingly… well… thick. And painting our mothers, sisters, and daughters as far-Right in order to deny this debate, is never going to work either. A compromise can and will eventually be found. Quit the shenanigans and get down to it, I say. 

Our new prime minister Chris Hipkins is on the ascendancy after binning multiple illiberal policies, so had a lot to lose had immigration chosen to ban Kellie-Jay. He can breathe easily for now as he continues to absorb the tough lesson that a politician’s most lethal enemies can often be their own supporters.