Freedom of speech, debate, having the right to be a bigot: A conversation

Greg (in US)

I know of no place where it rules absolute, regardless of language. Exceptions! Many exceptions…

Me (in Australia)

Exactly. Even where it’s legislated, it’s not usually the bottom line. Cannot be, for good reason. However, the public conversation discusses it as if it were the bottom line. It’s as if people are trying to erect an ethic, a morality, on this tiny platform.


Hard to debate with people who don’t sweat details!


Debate. Another spurious concept. “We have to debate in order to arrive at the truth.” Yeh, right. Debate=fastest way to move further away from the truth.


Really? What’s your sure path to truth?


A path to truth is real conversation, ie, deep listening and compassionate speaking. Debate is predicated on scoring points, winning, being right (and when we’re being right, someone else is being made wrong).

We are fully stocked with debate and then some. Debate is not what’s missing. What’s missing is deep listening and compassionate speaking.

“The most thought-provoking thing in our thought-provoking time is that we are still not thinking.” ~ Martin Heidegger


Ah. I have a broader notion of debate, I suppose. Real interactions are certainly best, and the best sort of argument involves just that: conversation, and listening.

Mrs D (in Canada)

I guess the danger comes when individuals can be beaten up, jailed, sent to concentration camps or even killed for making even the mildest criticism of those in authority. I hear what you’re saying about deep listening and compassionate speaking, but on another level I am deeply concerned about the loss of civil and human rights brought about by the “war on terror”.


I get your concern about the loss of civil and human rights. Our concern and fear can only grow while ever we fail to generate solid ground on which to stand.

Mr B (in US)

There are generally three recognized limits to free speech – and their respective slippery slopes, at least here in the US:

1) Public Safety – you cannot yell ‘fire’ in a crowded theater and call it free speech. The slippery slope can lead to not-quite-so-direct matters of affecting public safety, but this is the first category.

2) Slander / Libel – you cannot make untrue statements that discredit a person’s character. Public figures seem to be somewhat exempted from this, but not entirely.

3) Obscenity – not covered by free speech. Again, like the other two categories, the interpretation of what this is – is up for debate and court rulings.


Thanks for outlining the situation in the US. Have they ever discussed adding an exception for something like “inciting hatred”? Just curious. Or maybe that would come under the “obscenity” ground?

Australian lawmakers have tried (maybe even succeeded?) from time to time in “reading in” to the Constitution a prohibition on inciting hatred (or similar).

My concern at present is that the US conversation for freedom of speech is being imported wholesale into Australia without close thought or attention to detail or context. It concerns me because, looking in from the outside, it seems the conversation doesn’t always serve the US. I get my view is limited and you may have a different view.

A few months ago, the Aust Attorney General proposed changing the constitution with some “free speech” clause. He proudly stated that everyone “should be entitled to be a bigot.” This is the depth to which our parliament has sunk. This nonsense was entertained for some months.

Me (later)

There’s been discussion in Australia in the last day about whether the Charlie Hebdo cartoons would have been able to be published here. Various legal experts have said “no” or “highly unlikely” based on section 18(c) of the Racial Discrimination Act (not the Constitution as I implied) which states:

“It is unlawful for a person to do an act, otherwise than in private, if:
(a) the act is reasonably likely, in all the circumstances, to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person or a group of people; and
(b) the act is done because of the race, colour or national or ethnic origin of the other person or of some or all of the people in the group.”

It is this section which the Australian Attorney General was previously trying to water down in light of the proposition that people “had the right to be a bigot”. Incredibly, since the Paris massacre, one or two members of the Government have revived their calls to water down the clause. They see the massacre as a reason to loosen limits on free speech. This shocks me.



17 thoughts on “Freedom of speech, debate, having the right to be a bigot: A conversation

  1. I keep thinking about the children’s chant, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” Of course, this is something usually said by a child who has just been hurt by words.


    • Well said, the mechanism so similar to the public conversation following the Paris massacre. The eggshell-thin bravado and defiance, papering over immense, disabling fear.

      Fear which is ungotten as fear is killing us. Roosevelt saw the danger, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” It’s not the emotion itself that generates the danger; it’s the failure to acknowledge the fear, the failure to be with the fear. Papering over is where the danger lies. When we allow ourselves to get present to our fear as fear, immediately its power diminishes.

      Thich Nhat Hanh is funny and brilliant on fear. He speaks about embracing our fear, talking to it and soothing it as if it were a little child, saying things to ourselves like “Hello, my fear. Hello, my anger. Hello, my sadness. I know you are there. I’m going to take good care of you” and “Darling, I know you’re suffering. That’s why I am here for you.”


  2. Beautiful piece of writing, your last comment: “eggshell-thin bravado”. And “papering over” is a perfect description for what happens.

    “I know you are there. . . Darling, I know you’re suffering”. Wow!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. terrorism: the world has always had present in it those who wish to force their opinion , viewpoint or belief by whatever means . when they claim they represent a faith we should judge their actions by the book they claim to follow rather than judge the book by their intellectual reasoning can blame the bible for the actions of a paedophile or the quran for the actions of a terrorist especially when he takes even 1 life,even his own (this is totally contradictory to the book , which makes his representation false and rejected by the laws of the book)

    freedom of speech: we live in world where we have to share the resources that it has to offer,in doing so we have to show compassion , tolerance, generosity and understanding. one of the resources that we share is space, when our actions and behaviours are performed in a space shared by others we must consider other people as they have a right to a quality of life where they have the right to be treated with respect and dignity as much as we disrespect, mock and degrade somebody else’s way of life, especially in media where only the author has a platform to be heard and defend it by their right to freedom of speech is not a highlight of any kind of intellect nor is it a progressive debate . if this kind of freedom of speech is necessary for academics who want to advance their knowledge by exploring in this manner , we have universities where they can invite like minded academics from the group they wish to offend and get a reaction from and have a live debate and witness the fruits of their labour.

    both the above repulse, 1 uses blatant violence the other uses cowardice by hiding behind a legal curtain to fire bullets to hurt mentally and emotionally. the majority of the world consists of law abiding citizens who just want to go to work, pay their taxes and raise the next generation to respect the right to live peacefully of all others as much as themselves without being disrespected, mocked or degraded for their choices.


    • Well said. You articulate these points with such clarity and succinctness. Thank you. It’s helped clarify my confusion. I particularly admire your points about not judging the book by a person’s actions and that the cowardice of “hiding behind a legal curtain to fire bullets to hurt mentally and emotionally” is another violence. Best wishes to you.


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