Julian Assange, a little late to the party, penned an op/ed for Fairfax last week defending Andrew Bolt’s ‘right to free speech’.
It’s an odd piece of writing.
Assange asserts, all John Stuart Mill-like, that:
The best policy decisions result from robust and uninhibited debate.
Oh, really? It’s intriguing that Assange does not see fit to provide any concrete examples of parliamentary wisdom emerging through robust challenges to majoritarian opinion. If this sort of nineteenth century bourgeois liberalism is his credo, it’s signally interesting that, after defending parliamentary privilege (and wishing that totally privileged speech be extended to the rest of us), the sole actually existing Parliamentarian he names, unfavourably, is Barnaby Joyce.
Democracy depends on the free flow of information and ideas. Opinions must be shared in ”a free and open encounter” because it is the competition between ideas that produces the truth. As Fredrick Siebert explained: ”The true and sound will survive. The false and unsound will be vanquished. Government should keep out of the battle and not weigh the odds in favor of one side or the other.”
He goes on to conclude:
Free speech must protect all speech, however offensive. Debates that offend the ”ordinary” or ”typical” Australian are precisely the debates we need. It is precisely when the majority shares a view that it needs to be challenged, because if it is wrong, then we are all imperiled.
But there’s been an elision here. Referring to the judgement in Eatock v. Bolt, Assange distorts the test of offensive and hateful speech Justice Mordecai Bromberg applied to Bolt’s columns. As I’ve previously pointed out, excerpting Bromberg J’s judgement, the judge considered the material effect on the self-identification, social inclusion, confidence and rights of Indigenous Australians likely to be harmed by Bolt’s discourse on “light-skinned Aborigines”.
It’s actually Andrew Bolt who wants to enforce a certain representation of the “ordinary” or “typical” Australian - one which is normatively White, unmarked by racial difference and concealing that racial difference in the name of “unity”.
In a very neat critique of Assange’s piece, Andrew Elder points out:
The idea that Aborigines are an inferior people, unfit for or incapable of participating fully in Australian society, puts the lie to Siebert’s wish. This is one of the most prevalent ideas in Australia. It is also false and unsound. No amount of patient engagement and disproving, nor frequent and exuberant demonstration of excellence by Aborigines, can eradicate this lantana-like idea.
What Assange is really defending is privilege, and not just parliamentary privilege. He’s defending the right of Andrew Bolt to disseminate a wish that Indigenous people disappear. This may or may not be the view of the “typical” or “ordinary” Australian (and I hope it is not), but it’s a majoritarian view in that it typifies, it is the ordinary form of how racial privilege and Indigenous dispossession manifest themselves in Australian public culture. And in Australian public policy, where lamentable things like the ‘Intervention’ hardly emerged from an interchange of robust and truthful debate, but rather from a frame where Indigenous people are re-colonised again and again, and dispossessed of their right to speak unless they echo the views of the “typical” or “ordinary Australian”.
All of Elder’s post rewards reading. It’s an acute and devastating critique of Julian Assange’s sloppy reasoning, and of the falsehood thatEatock v. Bolt was ever about ‘free speech’.
If Frederick Siebert can express a “wish”, I’d like to make one too: that people who have found themselves caught up in a cult of political celebrity around Julian Assange reflect on his actual speech, and its positioning.
In parsing an excerpt from Julian Assange’s memoir, Anna North at Jezebel reflects on Assange’s self-justification over the allegations made against him in Sweden. The crux of the matter is quickly reached:
Assange implies that his only crime was a failure to understand women’s complicated feelings. He was deluged with offers of sex yet confused by women’s expectations for a relationship - any man, since they’re all autistic, would make the same mistake.
…we know what he thinks happened emotionally: chicks got weird on him. And his assertion that he and all other men are simply incapable of understanding feelings neatly absolves him of any responsibility for this. Assange’s memoir doesn’t shed any light on the actual allegations made against him by A. and W. What it does do is further popularize the idea that women cry rape when their strange, unpredictable little hearts get broken. In so doing, it does everyone a great disservice.
Think back to the febrile defences of Assange when he was first confronted by these allegations. We were told that it was some weird Swedish thing, crazy feminist law which would never be countenanced in a “typical” and “ordinary” country like Australia. The “typical” and “ordinary” Australian rushed to absolve Assange of any responsibility to answer the allegations - it was all a CIA conspiracy, after all.
At the same time, with disturbing celerity, names were thrown around, all manner of accusations laid at the feet of or implied about the women who dared to speak back to Julian.
Julian Assange claims to be an apostle of free speech. But his speech acts, the discourse of the “normal” or “typical” or even the “offended”, are blind to the voice of the atypical - and in his world, that’s women. And Indigenous people. Famed for speaking truth to power, he actually speaks power rather than truth. It is, it would seem, his privilege.
And just like Andrew Bolt, his speech carries, even as he shuts his ears. It’s everywhere, precisely because it’s “normal” or “typical”.