“I may disagree with what you say, but I’ll defend to my death your right to say it.” This noble-sounding quote, arguably attributable to Voltaire, is frequently used to tell people how we feel about their views.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve been very vocal about banning books, movies and thoughts to the extent of giving up our freedom of speech with barely a whimper.
Now comes the crunch. Am I as willing to defend views I find indefensible?
Point in question – feminist writer Germaine Greer and former Premier of New South Wales Bob Carr will not be at the Brisbane Writers Festival (BWF) in September, because they are considered “too controversial” and are likely to “overshadow” other authors.
Whichever report you believe as to why Greer and Carr are not making appearances at the BWF the point remains that neither will speak at a festival supposedly designed for the exchange of thoughts, ideas and concepts.
I’ve attended a number of BWF events over the years and have found some of them very disturbing, highly controversial and designed to make me think about and /or question my own opinions.
Is this a bad thing?
If I have the open mind I claim, shouldn’t I listen to differing opinions, filter them through my own belief and ethics system, then decide if I want to accept or reject what they propose? If I claim free speech for myself, how can I deny it to others?
As you might expect, neither Greer nor Carr have been silent on their expulsion. Both writers spoke to The Australian: “The Brisbane Writers Festival is very hard work,’’ said Greer, who landed in hot water at the same festival in 2012 when she noted low literacy rates in Queensland … . “So, to be uninvited to what is possibly the dreariest literary festival in the world, with zero hospitality and no fun at all, is a great relief.”
In the same article, Bob Carr said he thought literary festivals were supposed to encourage ideas and debate, and even controversy. “This is political orthodoxy gone mad,” he said. “The (festival organisers) have turned themselves into vestal virgins and told us we are not welcome. Well, I feel honoured to be thrown out the door in the company of someone like Germaine Greer.”
To me the prepublication comments by Ms Greer about her book On Rape are abhorrent, so I am unlikely to attend her session. But, that is my decision to make. Am I such a delicate flower and so weak minded that along with other Brisbanites I must be protected from Germaine Greer?
I’m not a big fan of either writer, but for the BWF acting chief executive Ann McLean, to advise Melbourne University Press that “there is also consideration for the brand alignment of several sponsors we are securing for the festival” tells me freedom of speech is not as precious as the sponsors’ dollars.
What will be achieved by silencing Ms Greer or Mr Carr? I see the withdrawal of the invitations producing larger sales and more discussion, as we try to find out why they were shunned. I wonder how many people will show their support by attending the alternative event the “salon de refuses’’, at a Brisbane cinema on September 7, hosted by Phillip Adams?
Freedom of speech is precious and must be preserved. Banning the freedom of another person’s speech, however much I disagree with them, will not preserve it. Instead, it will be its death knell.