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Opinion: Posie Parker and the nature of free speech

I’ve been thinking a lot about Posie Parker’s visit to New Zealand and the issues it has raised about free speech.

Initially I kind of ignored the story. I mean why bother? She’s someone with odd views on how we humans should live our lives but who cares? Ignore her and she’ll go away having spoken to a few dozen people.

Sadly of course, someone as divisive as her is perfect for the media. She gets people talking far wider than the number of people who attend her speeches. So what she says matters and when what she says is racist or transphobic there are indeed consequences, and it needs to be challenged. 

Both her rhetoric and the protests against it have raised that perennial issue – the right to free speech. 

In reality, the concept of free speech is academic, because there are definite limits to it and there are always consequences of speaking freely.

Most of us, at least those of us who have been socialised well, moderate what we say all the time. I’m pretty sure we are more candid with close friends or family, but not so with bosses or work colleagues.

Privately we may discuss or express views that publicly we wouldn’t. We all know that saying something unflattering about what a friend is wearing may get you removed from their guest list to future soirees.

In my own life, I moderate what I say depending on who I’m with. For example there are things I might say to my best mate Ken that I wouldn’t say to my mother!

Let’s face it, humans lie, and if they say they don’t ever lie – they are lying! Despite this, society recognises that while free speech is important, that propensity to lie is not something we tolerate in law.

Witnesses in trials swear to tell ‘the whole truth’ even if they don’t do it in practice. We also have defamation laws which mean you can sue someone who lies about you in public.

So all up, free speech can cause arguments, get you fired, and even get you sued. 

Yet we cling to the idea that it is important to be able to speak freely and give our opinions, and yes, we should cling to that, but in doing so we also need to understand that doing so comes with responsibility.

Our history is littered with the tales of dictators and megalomaniacs who have called untold misery by using ‘free speech’ to demonise others in their quest for power. Interestingly it doesn’t take long for them to ban free speech when they do gain office. 

While Posie Parker and many like her may not seem as bad as a dictator, unchallenged lies or hate speech have the ability to slowly erode the rights and freedoms we enjoy today. 

What is interesting about many of the most vocal ‘free speech advocates is that when they demand their right to speak, they don’t like to be challenged and moan like hell when they are when people complain.

But this is again one of the contradictions of free speech that people forget – others have the right to respond. 

So I applaud the protests against her, and apart from throwing tomato sauce at her, the protest tactics against her were legitimate. Whenever someone speaks up for hate or marginalising others, we have the right to challenge them. 

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