Rob Buckingham's Blog

Do We Really Agree with Freedom of Speech?

We’ve heard a lot about freedom of speech this year. The topic was brought to the fore after the terrorist attacks on Charlie Hebdo in which much of the Western world stood and proudly proclaimed “Je Suis Charlie.” But did we really endorse the crude cartoons showing a naked Mohammed with a star coming out of his bottom, captioned: “A star is born”? Or a picture of the Pope, scantily clad as a Rio prostitute, saying: “Ready for anything to win some clients?” Or a cartoon showing Jesus masturbating, or the Virgin Mary engaging in sexual acts?

“Do we really uphold freedom of speech in Australia? Or do we just want freedom of agreement?” That’s a question I posted on Facebook a couple of days ago in response to SBS banning a commercial that was scheduled for TV on the weekend. The commercial was put together by the Australian Marriage Forum (Australian Christian Lobby) and titled, “Marriage Equality? What about equality for kids?” The problem? It was scheduled on the weekend of the Sydney gay and lesbian Mardi Gras. It was also aired on Channels 7 & 9, but SBS refused to show it. If you haven’t seen the commercial click here:

As usual my Facebook thread was hijacked by those who wanted to turn the question into arguments for and against same-sex marriage, and I had to constantly try and bring it back on track – I’m not sure that I succeeded! The question was simple: “Do we really uphold freedom of speech in Australia? Or do we just want freedom of agreement?”

We upheld the right for Charlie Hebdo to print offensive cartoons. Yes, they offended me. I do not agree with the terrorists who killed the twelve people at Charlie Hebdo, but if you’re going to move into territory that inflames religious extremists there most likely will be a price to pay.

It seems we are happy to uphold the right to freedom of speech as long as it agrees with us: “you can have any opinion you want as long as it’s the same as mine!” What we really want is the freedom to demand that you agree with me or stay silent! The idea of saying “you shouldn’t be allowed to say that because it offends me” is just nonsense.

Sometimes things are better off ignored rather than protested against. Consider Charlie Hebdo. The magazine was going bankrupt and probably would have closed by now. The Australian Marriage Forum commercial would have come and gone but they must be thrilled by the almost half a million views on Youtube; money can’t buy that sort of response in a few days. SBS did them a huge favour – as did the almost 13,000 people who signed a petition asking for the commercial’s removal.

What we do – and do not tolerate – in Australia has neither rhyme nor reason. Consider a speech given last year by Ismail al-Wahwah after a public rally in Sydney against Israel’s bombing of the Gaza Strip. Mr al-Wahwah called for jihad against Jews to a large gathering in Lakemba, saying in Arabic: “The entire world suffers from the children of Israel today and complains about them. Who will set the world free from the children of Israel so that the world will be able to say that it has rid itself of that hidden evil?”

No one seemed to bat an eyelid at this anti-Semitism – no protest from SBS – but put an ad on TV that espouses a traditional view of marriage and family and all hell breaks loose. Why can’t we have respectful debate on this and other issues without trying to silence one another with words that end in “Phobic?” Most of us are not Islamophobic, or homophobic, but we would like the freedom to talk about and uphold our views and concerns without being silenced by those who disagree. And, in return, those who disagree with us have as much right as we do to promote and discuss their views in the public forum.

Free speech comes with a great responsibility not to offend unnecessarily. This is enshrined in our laws and values as a society…

And maybe that’s the issue here. Was it really necessary to schedule “that” commercial during the gay and lesbian Mardi Gras? Although we have freedom of speech, was it a loving, caring act by the Australian Marriage Forum to air their commercial during a time when they knew a lot of LGBT people would be watching? I was also concerned by the impact the commercial might have on single-parent families who do their best for their kids even though one parent is missing.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t respectfully present views that differ from those held by others. Our society needs to once again learn the art of respectful and robust debate rather than trying to win arguments by making personal slurs or trying to silence our opponent.

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