Andrew Hastie on freedom of speech and freedom of conscience


An important article appeared in last week’s The Sunday Times. It was written by Andrew Hastie, the Liberal member of parliament for Canning in Western Australia. Andrew is an IPA member, as is Senator Dean Smith who Andrew mentions in the article.

Andrew’s piece is a forceful defence of freedom of speech and freedom of conscience. His key argument is about the importance of civility in public discussion. This is a vital point. And it’s particularly relevant to Australia at a time where we are engaged in some very significant public policy debates. Key debates include the proposed referendum to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Australian Constitution, the upcoming plebiscite on same sex marriage and, most recently, legitimate questions raised about the Safe Schools program. In the context of these important discussions, it’s essential to have respect for those who hold a different point of view.

There is a risk of Australia developing a culture where debates are won, not by argument, and reason, and evidence, but by those who are most effective at silencing their opponents. I worry for America, where such a culture is already taking hold, particularly on college campuses. We must push back against this culture, and defend the importance of robust and open debate – as Andrew has done.

Here are my favourite parts of Andrew’s article:

At the heart of bullying is the exercise of power for the purpose of hurting, excluding and degrading others. We all know that bullying for race, sexual preference, religious belief, gender, creed or disability is unacceptable and morally wrong.

Unfortunately this misuse of power is not confined to the schoolyard. Over the past decade, we have seen the rise of bullying in our public discourse. Social media attacks, name-calling, and aggressive gestures are commonplace from all sides of the political divide. We Australians think of ourselves as accepting, tolerant and democratic, yet our spirit of liberty seems to be waning.

You only need to think of UWA’s flip-flop on appointing climate scientist Bjorn Lomborg after a ‘strong and emotional reaction’ by university staff and students who disagreed with his academic position.

Lomborg’s crime was to be the author of the ‘The Skeptical Environmentalist’ in which he challenges the prevailing academic wisdom that the global environment is getting progressively worse. Never mind that his study is rigorously footnoted and transparent in source work.

Abraham Lincoln famously said, “Let the people be aware of the facts and the country will be calm”. It is little wonder calmness is such a rarity these days when experts are being silenced by bullish mobs.

Freedom of speech must be nonnegotiable. Benjamin Franklin once said that “whoever would overthrow the liberty of a nation must begin by subduing the freeness of speech”. Today this freedom is under threat from bullies who would silence those who disagree with them.

Much of today’s toxic discourse flows from our instinct to disbelieve any view opposed to our own, reflexively ruling out perspectives without reason. This belief devastates the possibility of intelligent, rational discussion and entrenches opposing sides of the political spectrum, leaving little room for dialogue.

… George Orwell foresaw where the abandonment of reason can lead society: to a world devoid of compassion and empathy for those who disagree with us. All that is left is raw power.

As Orwell wrote, without reason and charity in our public debate there will be nothing left but “the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever.”

… We must debate this [the Safe Schools program] and all issues rigorously with civility, tender hearts and a commitment to respect each other and the final outcome.

Read the full piece here.



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