Why the ‘free speech’ right sook like babies

Object to the bigotry of a right wing politician or commentator and the cry will inevitably ring out: “My free speech! Oh, unbearable persecution!” It’s the political equivalent of Cristiano Ronaldo hitting the grass clutching his ankle because someone ran between him and the goal.

In this way and no other, Tasmanian Senator Eric Abetz is the Ronaldo of Australian politics. In a recent Spectator article he complained about the “self-appointed PC police” and “self-professed Twitterati elite” who “shout down and destroy anyone with whom they disagree” and “bully and harass hardworking and decent people and businesses”.

But before any penalties are awarded to Abetz and his business friends, closer inspection is warranted. It’s certainly a peculiar kind of persecution they seem to be experiencing. The kind where rather than being put in jail for your ideological convictions, you have them enshrined in laws and public policy. Instead of being repressed, you have access to countless media outlets to both promote your ideas and cry persecution in the event that someone takes issue with them. The kind where despite terrible bullying and harassment, you are still running the country.

This sophistry is the first line of defence for modern bigotry: disinclined to argue openly for their ideas, the right instead relies on creating the impression that defenders of “common sense” mainstream values are a beleaguered minority under threat from an out of touch elite concerned only with their right to sip lattes. This is the preferred terrain on which Abetz and his ilk aim to build support: their right to simply hold conservative views rather than the substantive virtues of bigotry and discrimination.

This reflects their general outlook. In particular, it reflects their longing for a time when bigotry didn’t have to be argued for on its merits, but was accepted as the natural order of things. A time when Australia was understood without question to be a white, Christian country in which women tended to children and everyone knew their place, where it needn’t be explained why refugees or migrants were undesirable; they simply were assumed to be. That this is challenged, whether through demands for marriage equality or rights for migrants or refugees, is in itself an affront to the right’s sense of decency and order. The very act of challenge must therefore be denigrated.

Hence Abetz’s long whinge on Miranda Devine’s radio program on Sydney’s 2GB, in which he attacked the supposed “reverse bullying” of Wear It Purple day, an innocuous initiative aimed at encouraging “young people everywhere to know that they have the right to be proud of who they are” and that “sex, sexuality or gender identity does not change this”. He also took issue with the Department of Defence failing to prevent its officers from wearing rainbow pins, which Abetz conjectured were intended to promote the “highly divisive and obnoxious” Mardi Gras. Never mind that homophobic discrimination is affirmed in the law – we are supposed to believe that Abetz and his homophobic cronies are victimised by “rainbow fascists”, as a fellow Spectator columnist put it.

This is the context in which the right is campaigning to weaken Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. Their concern is not free speech – they have had no problem passing laws to silence staff in Australia’s offshore detention camps, nor outlawing construction workers displaying union material or speaking publicly about union issues. And they are unbothered by gag clauses that prohibit organisations which receive public funding from criticising the government.

Nor do they let their commitment to free speech get in the way of Liberal ministers demanding the resignation of Human Rights Commissioner Gillian Triggs for having the impudence to speak out against Australia’s treatment of refugees. Nor has a single Liberal Party voice so far been raised in defence of Stephen Campbell, a dock worker of 30 years’ standing sacked for describing his boss as a “pig” on his personal Facebook page.

Free speech may be their rallying cry, but their real agenda is to make bigotry and discrimination an acceptable part of mainstream discourse. And as the rise of the populist right demonstrates, apologists for modern capitalism have little to offer the mass of people other than this very thing: racism, walls and hysterical nationalism.