Tuesday, May 21

The rich, the marginalised, and the right to dissent

When I imagine the exercise of free speech, speaking truth to power and “sticking it to the man”, I don’t think of back-room discussions or big-money lobbying. No, one simply needs to run a google image search of “free speech” to see the symbols of protest: the crowds holding up their placards, the fist raised in dissent. Free speech is not the tool of the elite but the marginalised, who have not money nor power to set the agenda, but simply their voice. Now, a recent study coming out of Victoria University, looking at who appears to value free speech the most and who actually benefits the most, has found just that.

Interestingly, the study found that the right to free speech was valued most by the wealthy, those who otherwise have the means to have their opinions raised alongside the protections that their social status affords. A picture of this can be found in the great ‘cancel-culture martyr’ J.K Rowling, the author whose apparent cancelling has been enough to warrant an entire podcast series worth of exploration. And yet, with 14 million followers on twitter and hefty cheques continuing to come in from the exploitation of the Harry Potter franchise, I struggle to see Rowling as someone who can’t make their voice heard while complaining about censorship.

Contrast that with what a lack of free speech protections can seriously look like: the dissident journalists facing arrests in an increasingly authoritarian Turkey, or the arbitrary arrests of republican protestors at the Coronation of King Charles. New Zealand is no stranger to such unjust quelling of dissent either; the infamous battle of Molesworth Street, where police used short batons against a crowd of peaceful anti-Springbok-Tour protestors, comes to mind. So too does the 1951 Waterfront Strike where mass-censorship was implemented in efforts to crush industrial action, even making it an offence to give food to the strikers and their children

In none of these cases were the victims of such oppression those who would be considered the “elite” of society.

I am grateful that New Zealand enjoys much stronger protections for speech rights today, but such protections remain most important for the marginalised and the dissenting. The forms of censorship that seem to be most en vogue, that which combats alleged hate speech and misinformation, are sold as being for the protection of minority groups (certainly, a noble goal). And yet what we see where such laws exist overseas is that it is the marginalised communities themselves who bear the brunt of state censorship. 

The University of Melbourne recently adopted a definition of “antisemitism” that included criticism of the state of Israel, putting on-campus advocacy for Palestine at risk. In the UK a Muslim Teenager was convicted for posting a “grossly offensive” message opposing British involvement in Afghanistan.  The afore-mentioned press censorship in Turkey tends to target the nation’s Kurdish minority.

Closer to home, the Federation of the Islamic Associations of New Zealand recently sent a letter to their membership advising them to push back against pride week in schools. Naturally, it was decried as homophobic by members of the rainbow community. While contention between our Islamic and Rainbow communities so far has been less visible than overseas, had hate speech legislation been passed here one could imagine the Government or the Judiciary being forced into the unenviable position of having to decide which minority groups get protections over others.

All this is to say that the study that came out Victoria University has done a great job of academically showing what is already intuitive: that the rights and protections of free speech are not necessary for the majority and those in power, but for the minority and those without. From the trade unionists of old to activists today, the right to speak up remains the great democratiser, a levelling force in political discourse.

Though the protections of free speech include protection for the speech that we hate, we must not give it up and surrender to the philosophy of “might makes right”. Power dynamics change and we can never be confident that we will always be the ones holding the club of censorship. What must remain consistent is that no matter what views or philosophies are en vogue, dissent and intense disagreement must be tolerated for the sake of our democratic ideals. 

The rights of those least powerful in our society depend on it.