Tim Black explains how Brendan O’Neill got up the noses of “right-thinking” Australians this time:
On Q&A, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s flagship political panel show, spiked editor Brendan O’Neill once again prompted the right-thinking first to tweet their spleen, and then to fire off snarky op-eds. And the reason for the riling? Was it O’Neill’s criticism of the Australian state’s incarceration of migrants on the micro-island of Nauru, ‘a kind of purgatory, a limbo where aspiring migrants are stuck between a place they don’t want to be and a place they want to be’, as he described it? Or was it perhaps his criticism of pro-refugee campaigners, whom, as The Australian reports, O’Neill accused of ‘infantilising’ migrants, treating them as weak, helpless, other?
Nope, none of the above. What got up the nose of the unthinkingly politically correct was O’Neill’s attack on Section 18C of Australia’s Racial Discrimination Act, which prohibits speech ‘reasonably likely… to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person or a group of people’ because of their ‘race, colour or national or ethnic origin’. Or, to put it another way: Brendan O’Neill defended free speech. And, it was this, this defence of one of the cornerstones of radical, liberal, enlightened thought, that outraged the nominally liberal and leftist.
Here’s what O’Neill said: ‘I love hearing hate speech because it reminds me I live in a free society.’ Got that? O’Neill loves hearing hate speech, not in itself, not because he just loves vitriol, as some of his detractors really seem to believe. No, he loves hearing it because of what hearing it means: namely, that we live in a society that is confident enough in itself, in its liberal values, that it can tolerate dissenting and hateful views. O’Neill then went on to explain why freedom of speech is precisely the mechanism through which we can challenge racism: ‘The real problem with Section 18C is it actually disempowers anti-racists by denying us the right to see racism, to know it, to understand it and to confront it in public. Instead it entrusts the authorities to hide it away on our behalf so we never have a reckoning with it.’
For anyone faintly familiar with a liberal and radical tradition of thought, from Voltaire to Frederick Douglass to Karl Marx, O’Neill’s argument shouldn’t be controversial: it is only through the airing of prejudice that it can be reckoned with. And it certainly shouldn’t be difficult to understand. But sadly it seems that, for too many, it is. To these, the liberal-ish and the right-on, it is an anathema, thought from another planet.