Threats and insults are not free speech

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

I’d always thought French writer and philosopher Voltaire (his real name François-Marie Arouet) said that. He didn’t. It was written by his biographer, Englishwomen Evelyn Beatrice Hall, summarising Voltaire’s way of approaching a debate.

But IF Voltaire had lived in our age and had said that, what would have happened?

He would have been incinerated by a thermo-nuclear blast of social media trolling.

“Merde! You French bottom! You self-serving son of a baguette. Eat fromage and die, cochon!

“I disapprove of what you say and will digitally bully you to an early death.”

Voltaire would be shocked by what passes for public debate in this world.

Now, disagreeing with someone else’s publicly stated view is followed by Olympic swimming pools of bile, vomit, insult and bullying – surprisingly often from people who would take a stand of outrage and venom against bullying.

On Australia Day, 2018, we have such an issue. Should Australia celebrate its successful nationhood on January 26, or is it an insult to First Australians? Perhaps non-Indigenous Australians should demand a change as this commemorates the beginnings of inhumane transportation, torture and oppression of tens of thousands of Britain’s poor. There, too, was a stolen generation.

 (Personal disclosure: It doesn’t bother me either way, except I tend to lean towards one way of looking at it – if it upsets a significant part of our population and if the national day has been hijacked to become a source of constant upset, then let’s work together towards a suitable alternative. I felt the same way when the City of Greater Bendigo voted to fly the Aboriginal and Tiwi flags over the town hall. It didn’t diminish anyone and meant a great deal to some. It was a nice thing to do.)

But now, if anyone puts their opinions above the parapet they attract instant and withering fire. 

Mention was made this week of death threats and violent threats against an Indigenous MP who supported a date change. He week before there were similar threats against an Alice Springs councillor, an Indigenous woman, who said we should keep January 26. Hatred and knee-jerk kicks in the groin are not unique to either side. The same has happened with the awful issue of sexual abuse in the entertainment industry. Instead of having opinions which we fling at each other based on not much more than social media, why don’t we simply apply the law? It is illegal to assault people. THAT is where society expresses its values, not on a smart phone at 3am.

We don’t even both to wait for any criminal investigations.

I’ve been shocked at some of the previously loved entertainers who’ve been involved in this area, but sometimes some have been found guilty in courts of law. Rolf Harris was found guilty of serial molestation. Sad, but just. Geoffrey Rush, on the other hand, hasn’t even been investigated for anything as far as I know, yet look at the sentence which is already being imposed on him, perhaps the greatest actor of our age.

Voltaire was wrong. He would not have defended this decay in debate and social cohesion. Or perhaps he would have amended his philosophy: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it … after it has gone through reasonable assessment, checks and balances.”