Saturday, June 22

The opiate of the ‘rational classes’?

The civil disobedience counter-protest to the free speech right to speak of Posie Parker has raised a maelstrom of accusations and counter-accusations across all forms of media. Both sides of the debate have veered very close to apocalyptic language and sentiments. You could be forgiven for thinking this is the end of the word as we know it – and no-one feels fine! Yet culture war is nothing new for this country. 

Anyone who has felt Aotearoa-New Zealand has not had various forms of culture war occur across its history has really not been paying attention. We could argue that culture war is inherent to living on these islands since colonization. Culture war is at the heart of the colonial impact and intrusion, often taking the ‘hot war’ physical conflict expression, at other times taking versions of the cold war type of dispersed and negotiated contained conflict and most often occurring in ‘warm war’ actions of all sides in daily life, schooling, government legislation and action – and the push back on this, within education, in the underfunding of Māori health, the ongoing housing shambles etc etc… the list is ever expanding. Culture war takes many varied forms and we are selectively and wilfully blind to its expression and instances when it suits us to do so. 

The current ‘culture war’ hysteria is actually a reminder of what it is like to live within politics, in a context when politics and ideas – and lived embodied lives – actually matter. It’s also a helpful reminder that calls for restraint, civility and reasonable discussion are idealistic and utopian, not appreciative of realities of living in disputative culture war diversity. 

The French philosopher, anthropologist and sociologist (in other words, a proper intellectual) Bruno Latour argued that society has never been the equivalent of nation state, arguing that the choice is “between cosmopolitanism and cosmopolitics”. Drawing on the work of Isabelle Stengers, Latour argues for a cosmopolitics wherein both compounds – cosmos and politics – act at their strongest against the premature closure of each other, becoming, ‘a cure for’ what Stengers calls “the malady of tolerance.” 

As Latour pithily observed in critique of the cool, civilized rationality of communicative discourse endorsed by German philosopher Jurgen Habermas:

“when men of good will assemble with their cigars in the Habermas club to discuss an armistice for this or that conflict and they leave their gods on their hooks in the cloakroom, I suspect that what is underway is not a peace conference at all. There are Versailles that beget Munichs that beget apocalypse.”

For as he further notes, “a freight of gods, attachments, and unruly cosmos make it hard to get through the door into any common space.” 

So what does this mean in practice? For me this is the recognition of the linking of free speech with the right for civil disobedience because the public square is never cool and rational and only ‘discursive’ – except when constrained and imposed to be so by the privileging and power of ‘the rational’. 

At the age of 14, as a representative rugby player the year before and as a current country team rep player, I marched with my family in Timaru vs the 1981 Springbok tour and supported the actions of the protestors to engage in civil disobedience. 1981 was the culmination of a series of ongoing culture wars in this country and these wars continue in hot, cold and warm ways into today. If we say that free speech in itself is the limit of permissible or acceptable protests and disputes then we allow ourselves to be constrained by those determining ‘acceptable’ action. We must ensure that ‘free speech’ does not become the opiate of the ‘rational classes’.

I fully supported the right of Posie Parker to come to Aoteoroa-New Zealand to talk, even though I disagree with many of her statements and views. I have trans friends and none of them act in the ways she claims they do. However, as a believer in free speech I believe she has the right to be able to make her statement. However, the other side of free speech for me is the right to protest and, if necessary, engage in acts of civil disobedience.

For me, free speech is the right to attempt to make your views heard but it is balanced by the right to civil disobedience by those who oppose those views.

I realise that this may put me at odds with the Free Speech Union on this point.

My other significant concern is that I believe free speech is first and foremost the right of citizens of a nation; Posie Parker is not a citizen and came to New Zealand to deliberately incite reaction. Is it the role of the police to support the rights of the non-citizen provocateur over the rights of the citizens to protest? In many ways Posie Parker could be viewed as a non-state actor and for the police to align themselves around her and to have positioned themselves between Posie Parker and the protestors, in a public space, as many have called upon them to do, would have been the state in the form of the police aligning with the non-citizen provocateur against the protesting citizens.

The right to undertake civil disobedience cannot be separated from the right for free speech; for to do so is to reduce society to a ‘well-mannered’ debating club. What we saw was Latour’s ‘unruly cosmos’ in action. But then I would say a central principle of Free Speech is that it is ‘unruly’ and will often provoke ‘unruly’ reactions.

[All Latour quotes are from Bruno Latour, “Whose Cosmos, Which Cosmopolotics? Comments on the Peace Terms of Ulrich Beck”, Common Knowledge 10/3 (2004). This can be accessed: http://www.bruno-latour.fr/node/209.html]

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