Sticks and Stones

Here’s something I wrote for AusOpinion today

So Wicked Campers have raised their reprobate heads again, which has caused Tim Wilson to do the same, defending to the death their right to spraypaint slogans about kidnapping and abusing women all over their cut-price rent-a-vans.

Both Wilson and Wicked are major beneficiaries of this latest spat, as are the Greens who can sink their teeth into the red meat of outrage and looking to silence them. Everybody gets some free publicity and nothing of substance changes.

5593226-3x2-340x227But there is something problematic about the debate around free speech, and I frankly don’t know how or whether it can be resolved.

Wilson’s (and indeed, many people’s) argument, that free speech should not be curtailed except in cases where it leads directly to violence, is a long-standing tenet of advocating free speech, and it is a powerful one. It is a clear demarcation in an area often lacking them, and it is quite reasonable.

But there are two corollaries to this that are not so easily accepted. The first, which is really impossible to pin down or properly critique, is the fact that almost everyone who advocates this position lives in a world where they can happily ignore words aimed at them.

Tim Wilson, and indeed the vast majority of public advocates for near-open slather on free speech, are in positions of power, wealth, privilege, or all three. Wilson’s acceptance of people’s rights to gay slurs is admirable, but he is also a prominent, educated, male community leader who can take a slur because he’s sitting on a job pulling $300k-odd and lives in a world that happily accepts him. The words cause him no harm at all.

But a Muslim woman living in Braybrook, or Redfern, for whom regular verbal abuse may be a simple part of life, the implicit power imbalance of a larger, stronger, whiter man shouting abuse entirely changes the context of any verbal abuse being hurled.

Which leads to the second corollary. We are increasingly aware of the importance of mental health in the community. When traditional notions of the importance of free speech were developed, mental illness was literally not a concept. You were sane, or you were crazy. There was no spectrum on which to exist.

wide-7623035-620x349Put another way, I grew up in a world when, as a child facing verbal bullying at school, I was told by my mother the classic: “sticks and stones may break your bones but words cannot hurt you.” As an adult today, I find that adage nothing short of laughable. Indeed, the scars from most physical violence from school fade faster and more completely than the psychological damage from constant verbal intimidation. Cyber bullying is being treated as a serious problem for young Australians – as well it should – and it is characterised by remoteness, the absence of violence.

So, the question is, if we are increasingly treating mental health with the same seriousness as physical health, and we know that some forms of speech are clearly damaging for the mental health of people – particularly those who are disenfranchised or disempowered – does this mean that we need to consider moving the goal posts around what is and isn’t considered permissible speech?

To be frank, I don’t know the answer to that question. But it seems that it is a question that no one else is asking.

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