Words are violence, but intifada’s fine?

Words can cause harm.

I'm sure we all know someone who's been hurt by words. Yesterday, at a public meeting, we spoke with a grandmother about the impact of bullying on her grandchildren. It was undeniably heartbreaking. 

While it runs off the tongue well, I’ve never accepted that ‘sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.’

As a free speech advocate, I believe words have incredible power, not that they’re impotent!

That's one of the key reasons I oppose censorship. Groups without demographic or political power need their powerful words to argue their case. The power to shut down others' voices is a huge temptation; one that won't just attract those with noble intentions, but the very worst in our society, if they are in a position to do so.

We see this to be true almost every day. Those who are empowered to ‘protect us’ from ‘harmful’ ideas do so inconsistently, some hypocritically, and too often, they are the worst perpetrators of 'hate speech' themselves.

Recently, adverts from an unnamed “pro-Palestinian” group have appeared publicly. As always, our job isn’t to tell you what to think about this issue. But it has caused some supporters to ask us if this poster should be considered legitimate speech. 

Intifada is an Arabic word which literally means ‘shaking off’. It is a term that is used to describe periods of violence in which hundreds were murdered in Israel. 

Of course, as with all significant terms, it is debated.

Some claim intifada doesn’t necessarily have to be violent; just like “jihad” may not include violence. For many, though, it is a term weighted with incredible violence and death.

So should the poster be permitted? 

To me (and I accept, you may see it differently), the term intifada is inseparable from violent uprising and terrorism; it is an extreme term. Personally, I find the posters repugnant and promulgating a despicable sentiment. 

BUT! I think it is, and should be, legal. 

At the Free Speech Union, we have always been very clear: incitement to violence is not protected by free speech. In fact, we have only ever insisted that violence is the antithesis of free speech, because free speech is about reason and dialogue, the opposite of us imposing ourselves on each other. The legal test is ‘imminent lawless action’, where a speaker is imminent and likely to take violent action.

These billboards don’t reach that threshold; but it flirts with violence being the answer to this issue.

It’s not in spite of that fact that I think these billboards should be allowed; it’s because of that.

If there are people around us who think a violent ‘shaking off’ is a solution, I would rather know, so that I can continue my work to build dialogue, respect, and peace. 

The billboard company are right not to turn this advert away. But think about all the other ideas that are construed as ‘too hateful’ and ‘violent’.

It makes it very clear that these are not people we want ‘picking and choosing’ what can and cannot be said. 

We’ve contacted you many times in the past as media companies have selectively chosen which ‘provocative’ perspectives they’ll allow, and which they want to shut out.

One Example of Inconsistency:

You may recall during COVID-19, Voices For Freedom were also expressing concerns about the plight of free speech. They paid for a billboard campaign with the claim ‘Free Speech Is Like Air. You’ll Notice When It’s Gone.’ Another said, Your voice is the first thing they take. Your freedom goes next.

It seems VFF only got these billboards up by accident. 

A spokesperson for Lumo Digital Outdoor said the advertisements were pulled as soon the company learned of Voices For Freedom, and that they would “review and enhance” its internal processes to avoid this situation happening again.

“Once we were made aware of the nature of the Voices For Freedom group, we immediately made the decision to discontinue its advertising and will not be accepting adverts in the future from this group.”

Another Example of Inconsistency:

Last year, Bob McCoskrie of Family First launched a campaign called ‘What is a woman?’ and wanted to advertise in The Herald, Stuff, and the Otago Daily Times.

After having confirmation that the ads were set to run, Family First was then told at 8.30 on the night before the scheduled print that the ad had been pulled from the New Zealand Herald – pending “reconsideration”.

The following day – the day the ad was supposed to appear – Stuff baldly stated that the ad wouldn’t be published in The Post or The Press either. The reason given was that “the campaign doesn’t align with the values of Stuff due to the sensitive nature of the content”.
The ODT advised Family First – again, on the day the ad was supposed to run – that its chief executive had decided to follow the lead of the two big media companies.

How bout a third example of inconsistency:

Likewise, just a few weeks ago, we were alerted to a friends of Israel group who wanted to run an ad celebrating the country’s birthday. The ad was rejected, with Stuff invoking the ‘health and safety’ of staff. 

Several weeks later, they decided they would run the add. To our knowledge, it seems that no ones ‘heath and safety’ was undermined. 

Time and time again, our censors have shown themselves to be the last people we should trust. 

There were also the Speak Up For Women billboards that were taken down in Wellington because Go Media thought the dictionary definition of a woman would be a breach of the Advertising Standards Authority code.

These examples highlight the bias, inconsistency, and hypocrisy we have to deal with if we invite others to regulate the crucial freedoms of free speech and access to information. 

There is a strong case to be made for the damage words can do; I fully accept that. But who do we trust to decide which opinions are the ones we should shut down?

Something like incitement to violence and imminent lawlessness are bright, clear standards. Other than that, I’m convinced that choosing to deal with the harm of words through censorship is a cure worse than the disease.

I hope all the groups and individuals who were championing “hate speech” laws speak in clear condemnatory terms against the message of violence being spread by the current posters (here’s looking at you, Human Rights Commission).

Counter-speech must be the answer to harmful words. 

If they don’t speak out (though not trying to silence them) then add them to the list of hypocrites and continue to be extra-weary of them pushing for the legislation.

As free speech advocates, we have to stand up for the right of others to say things we despise.

It’s counter-intuitive, but I’m certain in the long run we are all ‘safer’ for it.  

Dr David Cumin

David sig
Dr David Cumin
Council Member
Free Speech Union

Jonathan and the team are travelling around the country right now with Toby Young, the Director of the FSU UK. Based in Hamilton, Wellington, or Queenstown? We’d love to buy you a drink! Check out the event details here.

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  • Nadia Braddon-Parsons
    published this page in Blog 2024-06-18 09:59:32 +1200

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