Politics

No, We Don’t Have To Give “Equal Time” To Shitty Opinions

There's no "debate" about white supremacy and homophobia.

What constitutes free speech, and who should be allowed a platform to exercise it? It’s a debate that’s dominated the public consciousness for the past few years, growing in intensity – and absurdity – as its drivers inhale the fuel of myriad controversial movements and events.

In all the debates of our contemporary commentator culture, this is one of the most illusory. First off, free speech is quite a complicated thing in Australia. It’s not, as it is in the US, a declaratively enshrined right. In official terms, it’s not even a basic structural tenet of our society.

Also, it seems to me that the only people clamouring for their “right” to free speech in Australia are precisely those people who: a) already have considerable freedom as well as a vast platform, and b) seem intent on restricting the freedom of expression and representation for those who actually desperately need it.

This free speech debate never tends be about the right to speak freely, but the right to force people to observe you doing so. In our haste to ensure we don’t temper the declarations of every punter with a point-of-view, we’ve forgotten one very important truth: perhaps everyone is entitled to their opinion, but not every opinion needs a platform.

Over the weekend a group of neo-Nazis and white nationalists donned swastikas, grabbed fiery torches and marched through the University of Virginia campus. It was a horrifying yet unsurprising scene. Last night, on triple j’s Hack program, host Tom Tilley invited an”alt-right” voice (read: known white separatist) onto the program to defend the people who attended the “Unite The Night” rally, where many anti-fascism counter-protestors were injured and one was killed.

Last week, Australians trudged into the first days of the campaign for the upcoming postal survey on marriage equality. While a vast portion of the “yes” campaigners called for a level-headed approach to campaigning, in order to protect the mental health of the already at-risk LGBTIQ+ community, the “no” complainers railed against a perceived media bias blocking their campaign. The swiftness with which the debate has devolved on the side of the “no” campaigners is horrifying but unsurprising.

Like our ongoing debate over very obvious things like climate change and gender equality, the rights of people of colour and LGBTIQ+ people have turned from a campaign to eradicate injustice into a “debate” with two even sides. Except, they aren’t: white supremacy and homophobia are not valid opinions that deserve platforms.

In our clamour to give all opinions a platform, we have once again widened the floodgates of violence and oppression that we’ve spent decades trying to close.

Hack’s “False Equivalence”

Yes, you read it right. In discussing the weekend’s events at UVA, where a group of armed white supremacists from all over the US arrived on campus to rally against the tearing down of a Confederate statue, Hack decided it was a good idea to get the perspective of said white supremacists.

Tom Tilley, Hack’s host and noted controversy courter, invited US white separatist and “rally organiser” Eli Mosley on the program to defend the side of the neo-Nazis rioting in UVA. The very same neo-Nazis who attacked several peaceful counter-protestors and allegedly killed a 32-year-old woman by running her down with a car. Understandably, listeners were a little bit upset.

This isn’t the first time Hack’s “non-partisan” approach has been publicly criticised. Just a couple of months ago, I wrote about Tilley’s on-air discussion with a self-identified “stealther” (read: a sexual predator) who frequently removes his condom during sex without informing his female partners or seeking their consent. Back then, I wrote of Tilley and Hack‘s approach: “by giving a predator space to state his belief that what he is doing is ‘fair’, we are stripping away the tools that victims need to speak out against this vile behaviour. We are damning them with our ambivalence.”

I feel much the same way about triple j’s decision to give a racist white nationalist (words that are now shockingly not-shocking to read in the daily news) space to state his belief that rioting against the existence of people of colour in the US is ok: we are giving his vile fringe racism credit. We’re giving white supremacy equal ground for debate against the movement for civil rights in America. That is insane.

If you really, really wanted to, you could argue that everyone has the right to their opinion, even terribly racist ones. Sure, ok. But do we need to put these people on the radio, or on our televisions, or in our newspapers? Do we need to offer them a chance to “make their case” for white supremacy? Should we devote airtime and column inches to pretending that there is a valid and equal debate between peaceful anti-racism and violent, vile white nationalism?

No, we don’t. Of course we don’t. The fact that we are even having this conversation, “should Nazis be allowed a platform to explain themselves?”… the mind just boggles.

If triple j wants to cover Charlottesville with a truly non-partisan approach, it could simply report on the facts: white nationalists armed themselves and rioted at UVA. Several counter-protestors who attempted to stem the flow of hate, and protect at-risk people of colour, were injured. A peacefully protesting woman was run down by a self-identified white supremacist. He has now been charged with murder. The rioters were armed with torches, guns and some wore swastikas. Some of them self-identified as Nazis.

This is the non-partisan approach to covering this news — not asking a white nationalist how he feels about being a white nationalist on the national broadcaster. Nazis, white supremacists, and fascists do not deserve a platform to spew their dangerous hatred. And the perceived “opposing” opinion — that black lives matter and deserve to be protected — is not “reverse racist” or “anti-white”. It’s not even the “opposing” opinion to Nazism. One is a belief in basic human rights for everyone on the planet; the other is violent, morbidly perilous racism. And, right now, we are drowning in the latter.

Saying “No” To The “No” Campaign

Well, it’s happening: the battle for marriage equality in Australia has kicked irretrievably into high gear.

Last week it was confirmed that a postal survey on marriage equality will likely be held later this year. Almost immediately, the two sides — the “yes” and “no” campaigns — rallied, organised and marched into battle. “Yes” campaigners called for Australians to check and update their enrolment to ensure they are able to vote in the survey. Activists set up support and assistance lifelines for the LGBTIQ+ community, who are likely to be put through the ringer as the country decides on whether or not they are allowed equal rights. And “no” campaigners rallied as well, gathering like-minded organisations together to… play the victims.

No sooner had the campaign begun than the “no” side hit the streets demanding equal airtime, column inches, government money and support for their campaign to stop marriage equality. The national broadcaster, the ABC, sent a stern gag order to its journalists, ordering them not to publicise their personal opinions on same-sex marriage. Statewide and national broadsheets like The Sydney Morning Herald ran anti-SSM op-eds, most of which bemoaned how the “no” campaigners were underdogs in this race for marriage equality.

And, yes, in terms of polling numbers, it certainly appears as though the “no” campaign has far fewer supporters. But they are by no means underdogs. They are arguing to uphold the status quo, one that oppresses hundreds of thousands of Australians. They are arguing against progress, against equality, against justice.

As above, one could argue (if one truly wished to, *sigh*) that everyone is entitled to their opinion — even fundamentalist busybodies who seem to care a whole lot about what personal things other people do with their lives and their loves. Sure, ok. But do we need to provide a national platform to the opinion that some Australians should have less rights than others? Should we allow anti-SSM campaigners to oppress and harm the LGBTIQ+ community on the public stage for the sake of an “equal debate”?

We absolutely should not. Australian media is a spectrum: running the gamut from deep conservatism to hearty leftism. Let the “no” campaigners mobilise in their own spaces, as the “yes” campaigners will occupy theirs. And, since it appears the support for marriage equality is between 60 and 70 percent in Australia, naturally the “yes” campaign will garner more airtime. Sorry about it.

Marriage equality is not a mere hypothesis in a debating competition, it’s a serious issue affecting the lives of oppressed Australians (and, arguably, no one else). If the “no” campaigners lose, some homophobic Australians will be uncomfortable about how other people are allowed to live and love. If the “yes” campaign loses, hundreds of thousands of Australians will be living in oppression, their rights restricted, their mental health and safety deteriorating. Personally, I don’t see any logical reason to give the former a chance to make the case for the latter.

At the end of the day, if giving an opinion — for example the fringe opposition to marriage equality in Australia — an equal platform to a fight for justice means that LGBTQI+ people will be at risk, it’s just not right. And we shouldn’t do it.

This Is Our Fault

If we’re trudging through the mud of anti-progressivism and hatred, we have dragged ourselves here. This is our fault. By elevating fringe racism and dated homophobia to a valid contemporary opinion, we have legitimised white supremacy, prejudicial violence, virulent homophobia and just old-fashioned fascism. This is what our “free speech” debate has done: provided a platform for hatred.

The world will always be full of people who think horrible things about each other. There will always be those who would prefer to be the ones in power — who wish to restrict the rights of those they hate. But these people unequivocally do not need opinion columns in our broadsheet newspapers, or airtime on our current affairs panels, or public money to campaign for hatred and the restriction of basic human rights.

Australia is currently one of the last English-speaking democracies in the world where same-sex marriage is still unlawful; we have one of the worst human rights records of all developed countries in the world; and racism runs rampant on our streets and in our media. The more we give credence to uninformed, hateful and just plain wrong ideas and movements — the movements against feminism, climate change and marriage equality, for example — the further back we will roll our progress.

Australians need to start sorting the facts from the fiction, the debates from the whinging, the right from the wrong. We need to shut down the bullies and stand up for what’s right.

Matilda Dixon-Smith is a Junkee Staff Writer. She tweets at @mdixonsmith.