A penny for your opinions

Self-expression is the new entertainment, says Arianna Huffington. I would add that self-expression as entertainment is replacing information as the content most retailed on air and web.  Witness the comically misnamed Fox News, which is an expensive but effective way for Rupert Murdoch to express himself. Witness Alan Jones, whose part-ownership of 2GB makes him the equivalent of a self-publishing novelist. Witness, most recently, the regrettable Kyle Sandilands, who seems to take perverse delight in demonstrating that his value as a radio host is in inverse proportion to his contribution as a human being. (The exodus of his sponsors seems to indicate a downgrading of his currency, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he doesn’t ever, ever go away.)

For these self-expressers, the least charge of misinformation yields the disclaimer ‘opinion,’ which in turn is sustained on the grounds of entertainment. Opinion doesn’t have to be truthful or civil, particularly when neither sells as well as violations of both. In fact to seek these qualities seems to spark wild declamations about freedom of speech.  The defenders of offenders like Bolt, Sandilands, Hadley and Jones seem to feel that censorship and tyranny are poised to choke our long-cherished freedom, and only await opportunity to leap from the shadows and silence the chorus of our democracy. Yet those arguing for freedom of speech as an absolute and without limits have radically undervalued the other values by which we manage to live democratically. It seems to me that we are most protective of those goods we are least in danger of losing. We are afraid of silencing diversity when we are most in danger of cacophony. We are afraid of losing our liberty when our more likely loss is liberality. And we are afraid of losing opinion when what’s ebbing away is truth.

The right to silence

Of all the freedoms, speech is the one most often misused, most often claimed as an amnesty for all kinds of rank abuse.

Andrew Bolt emerged from a courtroom in which a judge found that he had published factual errors and ‘inflammatory and provocative' sentiments in breach of the Racial Discrimination Act, and claimed that it was a blow against free speech.

Tony Abbott agreed with Bolt, as he often does, saying free speech means “the right of people to say what you don't like, not just the right of people to say what you do like.”

Free speech means people can say what they please. It doesn't mean that what they say will be true, or reasonable or sensible or good. It does not mean that what they say won't be held to some standard of common accountability. And it does not mean that a judge won't find that that freedom has been abused.

Free at last

In the month since Gabby Giffords was shot in the head, and six others were shot dead around her, much has been said about speech: the power of it, the civility of it, the freedom of it. How strong is the thread between words and deeds? Can a culture of incivility really breed a spree of killing? Can a rhetoric of arms and insurrection really take no responsibility for violent deaths?

The conversation this event provoked was as heated and noisy as the one that preceded it, yielding an even more aggressive defense of the first amendment (the right to free speech) and the second (the right to bear arms), a defense that seemed at times to confuse the two. One Republican said that “those bearing firearms at Congressional town hall meetings and Obama events were no different from anti-Bush demonstrators ‘waving placards.’” Surely the difference is the same one America prizes between its own polity and that of, say, Iran. (I might also add, placards don't kill people, guns kill people.)

That story is told in this article on the Constitution, which points out among other things a discrepancy between a surge in interest and a plunge in knowledge about this fraying parchment. ‘Originalists’ insist, as one imagines Ben Franklin or James Madison would not, on an undeviating and literal interpretation of this founding document, while at the same time surveys reveal many of Americans’ most cherished Constitutional phrases don’t occur in the document at all.

When this new zeal for the Constitution led to a reading of ‘the whole thing’ at the opening of the 112th Congress in January, several of the Constitutional nasties – like the disenfranchisement of women, and the dehumanising of black people – were left out, silently expunged from the record, without exciting as much commentary as the replacement, in a new edition of Huckleberry Finn, of the word ‘nigger’ with the word ‘slave.’

For all kinds of reasons, these elisions and incisions in the written records are dangerous. On the surface they may seem both correct and caring. Yet changing the past to suit the present is (historically anyway) a diabolical thing to do. Is this what President Obama meant when, in his inaugural address, he urged Americans to ‘choose our better history’?

I don’t think so. I think he wanted Americans to choose the best examples to follow, to fulfill the best promises of the founders, of the fighters, of the freed. I think he wanted America, as he said in his speech at Tucson last month, to be as good as they imagined it.

Unfortunately, Obama’s words are often drowned. Torrential, irrational, mendacious rhetoric floods the thousand channels of communication in contemporary America; swelling when any moderate voice attempts to curb it. After all, “what king so strong / Can tie the gall up in the slanderous tongue?” We might say of Obama, as Measure for Measure’s Duke says in soliloquy:

…millions of false eyes
Are stuck upon thee: volumes of report
Run with these false and most contrarious quests
Upon thy doings: thousand escapes of wit
Make thee the father of their idle dreams
And rack thee in their fancies.

This is what freedom of speech, and its armed defence, have come to mean. Speech free from obligation, free from restraint, free from liability. In the land of free speech, the double-tongued man is king.