Free speech is only for the far right

October 30, 2018

Green Left Weekly hosted a free speech forum in Melbourne on October 25, featuring Jeff Sparrow, journalist and author of a new book Trigger Warnings: Political Correctness and the Rise of the Right, and Sally Goldner, media liaison for Transgender Victoria.

Sparrow discussed the evolution of “political correctness” and the appropriation of the term by the far right to stifle expressions of concern about issues minorities and the oppressed face.

The term is often bandied about, but many who use it cannot actually define what they mean by political correctness.

He went on to speak about old-school comedians who no longer perform at universities as their decades-old routines are now deemed misogynist and racist. One such comedian, Jerry Seinfeld, believes the world has gone “PC crazy”.

Sparrow said: “This is what it looks like when those who have had a privileged platform now have to deal with previously silenced minority groups voicing their concerns.”

Goldner spoke about the effect of free speech on the queer and transgender communities. She said the voices of transgender people are rarely heard in mainstream media, even when transgender issues are being discussed.

Mainstream media is more likely to give a platform to Christian groups or far-right spokespeople lobbying against transgender rights and demonising them, as was shown in the debate on trans women and which toilets they could use.

Sparrow and Goldner agreed mainstream media is not a balanced platform where all voices are heard equally or even heard at all, and there is a distinct imbalance favouring far right, right and centrist ideas and values. In this way “free speech” is an issue, as left voices are shut out of the dialogue.

Sparrow asked how often a far-right commentator, such as Steve Bannon or Milo Yiannopoulos, receive air time as opposed to a far-left spokesperson. The mainstream media’s aims are not to provide a balanced platform for free speech, but to garner views through divisive issues and not to question those in power or the system they oversee.

Both speakers had views on the way to obtain free speech, but acknowledged it would be a long and difficult journey towards that objective.

Sparrow pointed out that trying to reason with far-right agitators who want to stifle the left’s voices is not a good use of energy and that the focus should be on the working class who form the majority of people and are more likely to be convinced on progressive issues.

Goldner said the majority of people she speaks with in her work with Transgender Victoria are reasonable people who understand the concept of allowing others to pursue their own lives. When she is able to have a free and open discussion with people about transgender issues they are sympathetic.

If mainstream media truly is a platform for free speech then more trans voices would be heard and perhaps more understanding would exist in the community, Goldner said.

After the presentation there was vigorous discussion of the issue, with questions posed such as where the line between free speech and hate speech is drawn, the ramifications of free speech for minorities and the oppressed and what could be done to amplify the voices of those who are not readily given a platform to voice their issues.

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