By Dane Giraud
Allow me to explain… Along with being a passionate free speech supporter (and former council member of the Free Speech Union), I am a member of New Zealand’s Jewish community.
You will be aware of the savage attacks in Israel by Hamas that occurred on Saturday. This was the deadliest pogrom since the Holocaust. As I write, over 1,200 Israelis have been killed. The scenes have been harrowing, to the point where, perhaps like you, I now cannot bring myself to watch any of the clips.
The massacres have left the global Jewish, and indeed the wider community, reeling. 260 young people were mowed down at a music festival. Hamas fighters traveled house to house, butchering entire families, including children. IDF soldiers have found the bodies of decapitated Jewish babies. About 150 Israelis were taken back into Gaza, including children. Words cannot capture the barbarity we all witnessed.
I was in a state of absolute shock over the weekend, picking up information on the tragedy as it rolled in, when I saw on Twitter a repost from Massey University Dean’s Chair of Communications, Mohan Dutta. In the Tweet, Dutta endorsed the idea that Hamas had every right to ‘retake the land’. The Tweet struck me as particularly callous as events were still unfolding, so I reposted myself, voicing my disapproval.
The following day, I saw Dutta had seen my repost and was inspired enough by it to write a blog about it. In a close to impenetrable diatribe, Dutta attacked my tweet as 'racist', but what really got my blood boiling was this passage:
“I was therefore not surprised to wake up today in the backdrop of what would be described as a powerful exemplar of decolonising resistance and my expression of solidarity to it to angry and racist tweets by Giraud.”
His words, not mine: this man was calling mass murder a powerful model for decolonizing resistance and was expressing his support for it. Remember, this is a state-funded academic writing this, paid for by you and me, expressing full-throated support, and glee, for brutal antisemitic violence, in a very public blog.
Enraged, I took to Twitter and tagged his employer, Massey University, asking them how it could possibly be that such an individual could be working for them and why we – the taxpayers – were paying for him. I was clearly trying to cancel this man. When some Tweeters called out the hypocrisy of my having been a free speech activist who was now trying to cancel a man for speech I didn’t like, I denied this, and even managed to cook up a fair defense of my position. But it was all phony baloney.
Cancelling this man was exactly what I was trying to do - and I was wrong.
Pretty soon, I was feeling ashamed and mad at myself that this man had made me compromise my values. A phone call with a friend and Council Member of the Free Speech Union helped me reflect on this even more: My instinct to cancel Dutta had been natural. This is why hate speech laws and censorship make sense to many people. This man hurt me deeply by expressing joy at the brutal mass murder of my people, and my instinct was to hurt him back, to punish him, to take something off him.
If you think back hard enough, you may have felt this instinct too. I would say we all have. But, after cooling down, I understood that silencing Dutta wouldn’t make the Jewish people safer. It wouldn’t be protecting us.
In fact, it would likely make us far less safe.
An analogy came to me: whenever we take a child to a doctor, we say to them, “Remember to tell the doctor exactly where you feel sick!”. Why? Because medical professional or not, these people aren’t mind-readers, so can’t always see, say, an ache in your arm. If they don’t know about it, they can't fix it. Free speech exists to fulfil a similar function in our society.
Dutta feels empowered to speak due to our liberal democratic system, and because he does speak, we can properly diagnose his worldview and start to address it. Dutta spreads his antisemitism under the banner of ‘decolonisation’, a vogue term in progressive academia, but few, if any of us, know what it really means. Well, for Dutta, it seems to mean the murdering of Jews.
How many academics agree with Dutta’s interpretation of decolonisation? Is this position the norm, now? Or is he a complete outlier?
How would we ever know if we silence such academics and make them share their thoughts at a whisper level; spoken only in sealed-off ideological bubbles? How could people develop powerful counterarguments to his and other views without exposure to them, fortified by debate and direct engagement?
What I needed to do was amplify his claims, not try to silence them, so that we can collectively wrestle with the totality of his worldview, to fully understand them, and to produce counterarguments that can be readily available to any of the young learners Dutta may be seeking to influence.
The re-emergence of Holocaust denial, though distressing, can in turn demand stronger Holocaust education to counter it, while laws against Holocaust denial can remove an urgency to keep this past alive in hearts and minds. We are naive if we think we can create a society without offensive, and at times even dangerous, ideas which we will have to counter. This is how we grow intellectually and morally.
I believe Dutta to be a deeply unpleasant person, generally (some of you may have followed other recent exposure he's had to public scrutiny). And as a Jew, I have even less reason to view him with any generosity. But I’m back baby!
After feeling the very human impulse to cancel someone and working through it, I would defend Mohan Dutta’s right to free speech; indeed, it is vital, because sunlight will always be the best disinfectant for troubling ideas, while bacteria grows in society’s moist, dark corners.
To censor is a very human impulse, but it doesn't make us safer. If there are bigots, or extremists, or even terrorists out there, we need to know. Don't make the mistake I did and give them legitimacy or validation by trying to suppress them.
Speak out, instead. Our voices are more powerful than we often believe.
Do you like this post?
You might also like: