Australia

The contest of ideas has become a pitched battle

Today's forums are not for the faint-hearted. Whether the topic be race, gender, politics or popular culture; whether your views be progressive, conservative or libertarian; whether the platform be social media, talkback or old-style media – the contest of ideas should more accurately be characterised today as a pitched battle.

The use of "cancel culture" to attack someone’s platform, fame, business, company, job or popularity because of what is deemed by a collective to be "unforgivable behaviour" is now commonplace. While it has rightfully brought down some powerful people who have spoken or acted in unpalatable ways, it has also become a rigid means of regulating "acceptable" language and views. And now the backlash is on.

An open letter in Harper's Magazine from 150 public intellectuals, including Salman Rushdie and New York Times columnist David Brooks, has condemned attacks on free expression, arguing that there is a growing "intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty".

In Australia, a similar letter was published after a Sydney Film Festival prize-winning drama about a schoolgirl binge-eating food online – a popular trend in South Korean – was accused of being culturally insensitive and reflecting a "white supremacist" tendency in the Australian film industry. The letter, with 27 signatories including Indigenous filmmakers Warwick Thornton, Rachel Perkins and Darren Dale, argued that "the current focus on public shaming and 'burning down' the industry is misguided and ahistorical".

As you would expect, the backlash to the backlash was swift. The Harper's letter was roundly criticised for being backed by mostly white cultural elites who are about protecting their patch.

In the fog of this war of words, there may be few absolute rights and wrongs, but there are some first principles.

The most fundamental is free speech. Ingrained in most democratic countries, it is a right that is not always fully appreciated until under threat, as Hongkongers are finding. While in Australia it's not explicitly stated in the constitution – in contrast to its First Amendment status in the US – it still stands as a beacon of our free society.

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But such freedoms do not go without limitations. As the social media giant Facebook is learning the hard way, advertisers are deserting it after chief executive Mark Zuckerberg allowed hate speech and false information to flourish on his platform.

Free speech should not be equated with a free-for-all. Speech that incites hate or violence against individuals or groups, speech that spreads falsities, speech that is demeaning and derogatory should not be tolerated, no matter what the platform or person's political persuasion.

But this is the sticking point. Many who partake in the cancel culture believe they have the right to determine what limitations should be enforced on free speech. When someone crosses the line, punishment is quick to follow. That is a problem. That is mob justice with no official adjudicator.

We need to get back to debating ideas rather deleting ideas. Everyone has the right to criticise the work and opinion of others – even harshly – as we all have the freedom to accept or reject feedback. But we need to pull back from this punitive purge of everything we don't like; it's malice to seek to have people sacked, to have their work banned, to demand history be erased, especially when those under attack are acting in good faith.

It only leads to a greater fracturing of civil society into warring cliques, when there is much that people who differ can work on productively.

Note from the Editor

The Herald editor Lisa Davies writes a weekly newsletter exclusively for subscribers. To have it delivered to your inbox, please sign up here.

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