Free Speech in Private and Public worlds
A veritable avalanche of words has recently been penned in defence of the supposed sacrosanct place free speech holds at the heart of democratic life. But should that place be so sacrosanct?
Many, perhaps most of us, live almost all our lives in a private world where our opinions and actions are largely, but not exclusively, a matter of our own choice.
The public world is the world of facts upon which every intelligent person can be expected to agree – or be capable of being persuaded. The private world is the world where we are free to follow our own preferences – a world in which there is no right or wrong in lifestyle.
The private world is a world in which good is largely understood as being that which serves our personal interest. The public world is a world in which good is understood as that which benefits the whole, good that is common.
Those familiar with the Christian gospel could reasonably assume the Church would be first and foremost concerned about good that is common. However, the response of the Christian Church post the enlightenment has been to retreat into the private world. It has secured for itself a continuing place at the cost of surrendering the crucial field. The angst president Biden is experiencing from leadership in his Church, the Catholic Church, relates to what is considered morally acceptable in this private world. The Church has apparently nothing to say about the president’s major leadership burden which he must exercise in the public world. This retreat occurred before the explosion of social media, but having thus retreated, the Church now appears powerless to counter the effect of this medium’s ubiquitous presence which in the last two decades has not simply blurred the edges of these worlds but has seemingly made the distinction void.
The ethical consequences are considerable. The loss of an overarching ethical magisterium post the reformation and following the Enlightenment has led western liberal democracies to replace commitment to common good with a view that the role of the State is to protect individual human rights. A transformation has occurred from a substantive morality for the good to a formal morality of rights. This constitutes the central change in Western ethics over the past half millennium in terms of theory, practice, laws, and institutions.
If evidence of this move is required, just look at the official response from government in relation to Craig Kelly and his outrageous statements on social media. The Prime Minister has defended his ‘right’ to speak and express his own views, at least until those views were appearing to hurt the Liberal Party. While on Thursday night’s Q and A, Alexander Downer defended Craig Kelly, deriding those who dared question this right. He said Kelly had become a victim of ‘cancel culture’. Cancel culture is a pejorative term used in defence of everyone’s right to express their views in the public arena, no matter how extreme, and infers those who beg to differ are socialistic moral crusaders.
It is ironic that we appear to need a disaster to restore proper balance. The Covid pandemic has forced political and civic policy making to return to ‘good that is common’, even if it has meant overriding what would otherwise be considered basic human rights. There have of course been objectors, most thoroughly predictable, but on the whole Australians have complied with that which has delivered the best possible community outcome. This has not been the case in the US where the culture of ‘rights’ appears so deeply engrained in their DNA that its protection has appeared more important than life itself.
Perhaps there is time to prevent Australia sliding inexorably down a similar slippery slope, but only if those who hold public office can regain an ethical understanding of the consequences that flow from holding public office. No one is forced to hold public office, but if we do, there must be obligations associated with that privilege which have precedence over private opinions.
To put it quite simply, a person who holds public or representative office is not free to put forward views that are demonstrably false. Craig Kelly is the main culprit, but not the only parliamentary purveyor of falsehood. George Christenson also dabbles in untruth, as does Matt Canavan in relation to climate change. For some time there has been no wriggle room which might permit scepticism about overwhelming, and sadly worsening, scientific advice.
Craig Kelly has been the purveyor of mistruth in relation to Covid 19, Climate change, and the results of the US election. As a public figure he is simply not free to do that.
Following the establishment of a much-needed federal ICAC, one of its duties should be the capacity to sanction a politician who consistently presents material in the public domain which is demonstrably false.
Craig Kelly and his fellow parliamentarians have chosen to live and work in the public world, a world in which they are called to work tirelessly for good that is common. This truth seems to have totally bi-passed many, including Barnaby Joyce. When recently asked his view about the desirability of 2050 emissions targets, he shrugged his shoulders saying that by then he will be so old that any target will be irrelevant.
In the western world free speech is a privilege to be cherished, a privilege about which residents of totalitarian states can only dream. However, nothing in life is cost free. Those in the public world who use this privilege to peddle that which is demonstrably untrue are potentially creating a cost in confusion and division which the wider community must bear.