Tuesday, May 21

Review of FSU Debate: #nodebate Some discussions will only cause harm

Last night I attended the final debate in the Free Speech Union’s pre-election series. I will disclose here that I am a member of the FSU’s council. Nonetheless, I can confidently say that my assessment of the success of the night is not due to any bias on my behalf.

The moot was: #nodebate some discussions will only cause harm.

A challenging topic to articulate even if one has a strong opinion, it requires a reasoned definition of “harm” and then an analysis of whether it outweighs any good that could come from discussion. Of course, in this debate the word “only” is key as it suggests that the affirmative must argue that some discussions have no merit to them at all.

NZ Herald columnist, and former editor of several publications, Simon Wilson kicked off proceedings, asserting his free speech by calling everyone “fuckwits”. This earned him chuckles from the audience. His opening speech was engaging and interesting, but did not address the affirmative position he was supposed to be taking regarding the moot.

In his characteristic chardonnay socialist manner, Simon spoke of (and for) marginalised groups and the harm he perceives they experience due to free speech. His handwringing ignored the role that free speech has played in the social justice movements of marginalised groups, for example, the civil rights movement in the US, suffragettes, homosexual law reform, same-sex marriage, and anti-war protests of the 20th century.

He strayed into party politics, slamming National’s plans to reverse the speed limit decreases Labour enacted and initially I rolled my eyes and thought ‘Here we go’. However, it led to his point that the opinions of those supporting speed decreases are morally superior as they prevent death. He argued that by allowing discussion and for people to raise objections to slowing speed limits, we endanger people who will lose their lives in speeding crashes.

While I don’t accept the assumptions he has had to make for this point, it at least took us into the territory of examining what harm might look like and what the consequences would be.

Simon shared an example from when he was the editor of Consumer Magazine and he “shut down” a man who was selling baby mattresses that he claimed prevented cot death. This was, according to him, an example of shutting down harmful debate. I would argue that Simon actually engaged with productive free speech in a commercial environment. His team investigated and disproved the claims the man was making and he could have in turn challenged them but clearly he didn’t have a leg to stand on. Consequently, media stopped reporting on him as he was discredited by Simon’s team. This is a healthy exchange of information and a debate that was won by Consumer magazine.

Dr Holly Lawford-Smith, an Associate Professor at the University of Melbourne, spoke next. She laid out a methodical foundation for the negative argument by delving into what harm is and who decides this. She focused on the word “only” and argued that most, if not all, of the time a discussion cannot be said to have zero positive outcomes.

Holly displayed her academic rigor, rejecting emotive arguments in favour of arguing to reason and logic. She reminded Simon that his point that there are much bigger matters to worry about was irrelevant to the debate over whether discussions can be only harmful.

Then she went full TERF and served a searing counter to the affirmative teams suggestions that trans people are harmed by discussion about women’s rights. She pointed out that because we haven’t been able to discuss and debate matters of sex/gender and identity, women have been harmed. Women in prison have been harmed by the males that are put in their cells. Women who have missed sporting opportunities and scholarships were harmed by the males who identified into the women’s catergory. She listed several more.

Holly’s terfery earned her lots of applause from the women in the audience who came along specifically to see her speak, but she also was heckled for being a terf. Which at this point is hardly an insult. In fact, many of us have adopted the term in a kind of reclaiming.

Next up Damian Sycamore, the TOP candidate for Auckland Central, gave a funny and entertaining speech that did not address the moot in the slightest. His approach was one that reflected what seems to be core belief of The Opportunities Party; that the populace are ultimately too stupid to understand nuance or be trusted to make decisions.

In a feat of extraordinary irony, Damian quoted Jonathan Haidt and used his metaphor of ‘the elephant and the rider’. Haidt is an American psychologist who co-wrote a book with Greg Lukianoff, the President of Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression in the US. Their book, The Coddling of the American Mind, is practically a treatise on the benefits of free speech and a caution against what coddling is doing to younger generations.

Put simply, any argument for suppression that quotes Haidt, Lukianoff, and their books is way off course.

His story about the Facebook post about a dog on Waiheke was hilarious but made no coherent argument as to some discussion having no value at all and causing only harm.

Over all, I was struck by Damien’s repeated suggestion that humans are too emotional and stupid to be trusted to discuss controversial issues. Presumably, he believes that people like him are wise enough to decide which topics are okay and which are not. It is an interesting approach to campaigning for an election. I suspect most voters won’t take kindly to being told they don’t have the brain capacity to process nuanced arguments.

I was sufficiently irritated by Damien that I had the thought that I want to make sure that voters in Auckland Central know how poorly he thinks of the public. Then I realised that at the exact same time as the debate, just down the road, the Taxpayers’ Union was holding an Auckland Central candidates debate and Damien did not poll high enough to be included.

His arrogance tripped him up more than once. Particularly his assertion that debate that “denies someone their existence” (whatever the f*** that means) should not be allowed and that no one on the stage can speak to that experience. He invoked rainbow communities making the whopping big (and entirely wrong) assumption that no one on the stage was “rainbow”.

Simon also fell into this trap when he asserted his privilege and made the assumption that Dr. David Bromell (Adjunct Senior Research Fellow at Victoria University) had the same privileges. The truth of it is that the two people on that stage pushing the privilege and marginalised people narratives were – by their own metrics – the most privileged of them all. They were arguing for censorship and suppression from their positions of privilege, patronising the poor helpless marginalised folks. Alas, Holly and David forgot to wear their ‘I AM GAY’ signs.

David’s contribution was fantastic. His understated opening remarks were blown out of the water by his closing 5-minute speech. Laying out his arguments in a measured and logical fashion as Holly did, he too demonstrated why he is such a highly-regarded academic.

However, it was his personal comments about his experience as a gay clergyman that really resonated. He quite literally has been exposed to the rhetoric that Simon and Damien want to protect, for example, trans people, from. He spoke of the resilience he developed and that he never expected anyone to be silenced to protect his feelings. He pointed out that Homosexual Law Reform and Same-Sex Marriage legislation would not have been possible without free speech.

The topic of the Christchurch terrorist’s manifesto came up and this is always a highly emotive and challenging one to discuss. Personally, this case puts my principles to the test. Not only my free speech principles, but my stance opposing capital punishment. However, if I return to core principles I would agree with David who said that he wouldn’t ban the manifesto. This is because I believe that sunlight is the best disinfectant. His views should be publicly available for ridicule and derision. The small number of revolting human beings who share his views, already have access to them in the darker corners of the internet. Pushing these things underground allows them to fester in these communities of actual deplorables without challenge from decent thinkers.

Tarrant flew under the radar and that is how he was able to commit his atrocities. If his writings had been more public, perhaps he would’ve been flagged as an extremist and thwarted.

It is my opinion that the video that the terrorist captured of the murders is rightly suppressed. Setting aside the level of violence, there are privacy and dignity considerations to be had regarding the victims and their families.

Holly and David were the worthy winners in the end. They actually addressed the moot and were methodical. Simon and Damian were entertaining and enjoyable to listen to, but they failed in arguing the affirmative.

Columnist and political commentator Josie Pagani was an excellent mediator, dragging everyone back into line when it got a bit raucous and contributing her own remarks.

This was an excellent series of debates and I hope we can do something similar again in the future. A huge well done to the FSU team who work so hard to advance and protect all of our rights.