How PC politicians give cover to violent mobs

Internationally renowned author Ayaan Hirsi Ali has cancelled her tour of Australia and New Zealand due to ‘security concerns’. The shock announcement was made on the same day she was scheduled to appear on the popular ABC panel show, Q&A.

A prominent critic of Islam, Hirsi Ali was the target of a social-media campaign by a group of Muslim women who denounced her ‘divisive discourse’ and use of ‘the language of white supremacy’. But the cancellation was almost certainly due to more serious opposition from people prepared to use violence to silence her views.

Though she lives under constant protection, Hirsi Ali has spoken in Australia on multiple occasions. This cancellation, however, should come as no surprise to observers of Australian politics. It is the predictable consequence of a growing hostility towards free speech, which has been fed by members of the political and media class. 

On multiple occasions in the past few months, prominent politicians and commentators have derided the importance of free speech on the grounds that offensive speech is harmful.

Following the last election, gay-marriage activists vigorously campaigned against a referendum on the issue. This wasn’t because they feared losing – all the polls showed they’d win by a landslide. Rather, they feared that a free and open debate, in which anti-gay-marriage views would be aired, would be harmful to gay people. Opposition leader Bill Shorten even claimed it could lead to gay teens committing suicide.

This same censorious attitude has been rampant over the past few weeks in the lead up to the Senate’s rejection of modest reforms to Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act – the illiberal law that was used to target the late cartoonist, Bill Leak

Instead of addressing the merits of the reforms – which would have tightened the definition of racial discrimination from ‘offend, insult, humiliate, or intimidate’ to ‘harass or intimidate’ – opponents of free speech resorted to fearmongering, warning that the changes would unleash a torrent of racist abuse across Australia. These politicians, and their allies in the media, cited the concern that had built up among ethnic-minority communities as justification for opposing reform. 

One Labor MP, Anne Aly, even called for Section 18C to be broadened to cover speech that is offensive or insulting to Muslims – a move that would create a de facto blasphemy law, which would no doubt be used to target speakers like Hirsi Ali.

So what has all this got to do with the ‘security concerns’ that led to the cancellation of Hirsi Ali’s tour?

Well, violent opposition to speech doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Free speech depends on a culture that tolerates the expression of controversial views. It depends on a culture that sharply distinguishes speech from actions. Undermining such a culture inevitably gives cover to the people willing to use violence to silence speech. After all, if offensive speech is equated with violence, then why wouldn’t people use violence to prevent it?

The end result of all this is that we are deprived of the ability to discuss, much less resolve, difficult and controversial issues facing our society. The cancellation of Hirsi Ali’s tour is a blow not just to her and her admirers, but to all of us.

Patrick Hannaford is a writer based in Melbourne, Australia. Follow him on Twitter: @PatHannaford

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