Sunday, 2 October 2011

Freedom of speech, Andrew Bolt, trolls and the internet

There are those who defend a more or less unfettered right to free speech. 

I am not one of them.

There is no right to teach error

In particular, I don't see it as particularly compatible with Catholicism.

Catholicism has traditionally stood for the right to speak the truth, and to explore its implications - but also upheld the right to prohibit the spread of error.

Unfortunately, though, Catholics are increasingly having to defend the right to free speech as the only way of maintaining their own right and duty to speak the truth in the face of a relentlessly aggressive politically correct secularist mentality.

The Bolt Case

The last week has seen a lot of debate in Australia about the freedom of speech, following a Federal Court finding against News Limited columnist Andrew Bolt on a charge of racial vilification for an article about a number of Aboriginals. A good summation of the issues can be found, in my opinion, over at the Punch.

Bolt is not a columnist I read - his stuff is right wing (and I'm not a conservative politically), inflammatory, and though he occasionally makes a useful point, mostly off the mark in my view.

In the two articles in question, Bolt made a number of allegations about nine Aboriginals to the effect that they were 'professional Aboriginals', using their aboriginality to advance their own careers in circumstances where, due to their appearance they could reasonably pass as white (no 'visible minority' case for discrimination here to use North American terminology).

His argument perhaps had an air of plausibility about it to many Australians, not least because one of the persons he wrote about was Professor Larissa Behrendt, author of a particularly outrageous and offensive tweat earlier this year attacking an Aboriginal elder for the crime of supporting the Northern Territory Intervention.

The main issue with the court's finding is that the court apparently found against him in large part because of factual errors and failure to carry out appropriate research rather than because what he said was necessarily racist (had it only been correct). But was the intention of the Racial Discrimination Act really to provide a way to prosecute poor journalism? Or was it rather, as Bolt claims, an attempt to suppress any real discussion of Indigenous policy and multiculturalism?   Because if the facts were wrong, why wasn't defamation the more appropriate course of action for the plaintiffs to take?

Accordingly, the real question the case raises, it seems to me, is what are the appropriate limits to free speech.

What are the proper limits?

The problem with the Bolt case, as with so many cases run against Christians around the world under the banner of protecting "rights" but in fact attempt to make it a crime to say what their faith teaches on issues such as homosexuality, is that they give the impression of being an attempt to suppress discussion on a legitimate topic of debate.  Instead of having the debate on the facts and traditional moral values, they attempt to prevent any challenge to the prevailing political heterodoxy altogether.

Yet sometimes restrictions on 'free speech' are warranted and sensible. 

Nor does free speech mean saying what you want everywhere you want at any time. 

It is all a matter of getting the balance right.

I don't for example, see why a blog devoted to Catholic teaching should allow comments that insult the Pope and that teaching. 

In a similar vein, someone wrote a comment to me this week (which I haven't published and won't) to the effect that if I express an opinion, then I ought to allow an unfettered right of reply, no matter how aggressively, nasty or misleading that response, or allow no comments at all on this blog.

Well sorry, but I think that is a particularly silly line.  Trolls who run around searching out every blog that posts on a particular topic they happen to feel strongly about in order to attempt to counter the views of others need to get a life - or write on their own blogs and find like-minded persons to weep for the world with. 

Running an editorial line - the case of Cath News

Some blogs, internet sites and newspapers deliberately allow all and any comers, in the hope perhaps of converting through debate.  These days though, it is increasingly being recognised that at least some shared concepts and assumptions are necessary for most sensible conversations to take place.

Cath News for example regularly reflects a liberal perspective (albeit with occasional token gestures to other views).  In the last week, for example, Cath blog posts have advocated a view that membership of the Church as such is not something we should aspire to.  That actually believing what the Catholic Church teaches is optional, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church is an obstacle not an aid.  Unsurprisingly, therefore, not too many comments from conservatives or traditionalists make it past the moderator over there.  Indeed, Ms Hogan proudly proclaimed recently that she had banned a priest (!) for a week for the crime of criticising religious sisters for not wearing a habit (as is in fact mandated by canon law) because she personally thinks all women religious are great.

I don't disapprove of and criticise Cath News for taking an editorial line when it comes to the selection of posts and articles to highlight, and comments (though I do criticise the way that enforcement is done). 

Rather, I disapprove of them for taking an editorial line that I for one find difficult to reconcile with the Catholic faith as taught by the Magisterium. 

My view is that they ought to censor and select - and do so in a way that makes them agents for the New Evangelization rather than continued subverters of it. 

Cath News' policy though presumably simply reflects the views of the majority of our current bishops.

I can live in the hope that the combination of some robust instruction from the Pope and Curia during the upcoming ad limina visit, and the many new appointments to be made over the next year or too will see some change in the near future. 

But in the meantime, I accept that the only way of keeping the conversation on the discussion boards civil is restricting it too likeminded persons (even if they don't all exactly agree on everything), which is (just) one of the reasons I don't bother making comments over there any more.

My blog...

Similarly I'm happy to allow disagreement with my views on this blog - provided it is expressed politely; engages with the actual arguments I've made (rather than attacks me or others personally); and/ or adds some actual new information.  If I write criticising a blog post or article published elsewhere I'm happy for the author and others to respond here for example - provided the conversation remains civil.

But just as newspapers and websites everywhere decide which comments to accept and reject, I too reserve the right to run an editorial line! This is my place, you can knock on the door, but whether I let you in or not is my decision.

In the end, in my view, free speech (for what it is worth) doesn't mean you can say anything you like anywhere you want.  It means you have the right to set up and write on your own blog, or join up with a group of like-minded persons and discuss your particular view over at acatholica or wherever to your heart's content.

Most blogs, including this one, are attempts to create communities of likeminded individuals who can work or pray together to effect change in the direction they agree on.  For example, that certain truths may once again seem self-evident to the majority of society!

That doesn't mean we have to agree on everything - sometimes we need to be challenged, stimulated and have debate.  But it doesn't mean every view has a right to be heard here or anywhere else either.


PM said...

If factual accuracy were a ground for legal action against one's critics, Catholics could tie up the court for years. Imagine suing every Fairfax groupie who says I beleive the earth is flat!

Ambrose said...

I agree that you need some control over what is posted as otherwise it can quickly descend in to a slanging match and take away the enjoyment one gains from reading something from a like minded person. And yes, have patience with Cath News etc as the reform of the church is happening right now and that is why the liberals are bucking and kicking as they know the glory days of the "The Spirit of Vatican 2" are gradually coming to a close. Hang in there Kate and keep doing what you do best.

PM said...

If I can have a second bite, it is pleasing to notice that some commentators are trying to rebut Mark Johnson's pretentious silliness on Cathnews. I don't have the time or, frankly, the patience.

R J said...

Nice to see this blog up and running again. I missed it.

And yes, the spectacle of Andrew Bolt being taken up as a sort of crew-cut Che Guevara de nos jours is pretty repellent, especially when (as anyone ever insulted by him will know) he can't even make the most fundamental attempt at fact-checking.

Joshua said...

Thanks for this; I had such a troll wish to leave an impertinent comment on my blog, and then abuse me for indicating that I had no intention whatever to ever admit a comment of his.