In good faith

Australia has been in the same tail-chasing debate for nearly a decade now about whether people known for saying racist things, or peddling forms of bigotry, ought to be lent a microphone or the page.

The arguments for letting them have their say tend to rest on absolutist notions of free speech — decoupled from reality or consequence — as well as the liberal-left conceit that deploying logic or argument would show up charlatans for what they are. Let people decide for themselves (apparently). They sure did in 2016.

This Australian winter saw: a far-right nationalist appear on a cable news show; a columnist refer to a ‘tidal wave of immigrants’; a federal senator invoke a ‘European-Christian’ society in an an anti-immigrant/anti-Muslim speech; a pair of D-grade ethno-nationalist Canadians sell to huge crowds; and the then-Prime Minister of Australia and assorted members of cabinet insist there is an ‘African’ gang crisis in Victoria.

None of them were bereft of platforms. None of them passed without vehement remark or challenge. Still none of them relented or retracted, and I imagine none of their followers changed their mind either, once the lies, half-truths and opportunism were exposed. Sunlight is the best disinf- whatever.

It is spring now. The national broadcaster ran a considerable interview with alt-right high priest Stephen Bannon. Nigel Farage is in the country. Ann Coulter and Milo Yiannopoulos are expected to ‘tour’ later this year. That is to say, along with other things that Bannon was imprecise about in his ABC Four Corners interview, racialised populism has always been here, making a profit, and generating some sort of relevance for certain media companies.

So the thing that I’ll likely be whipping out ’til kingdom come:

Free speech was never absolute; it was conceived in democratic context as the means by which the governed could hold government to account. Even in lateral sense, it is more properly wielded by those without power — the ones without social access, money, property or cultural capital.

Critique against people like Bannon and Bolt must be seen in this light, as the authentic and fuller exercise of free speech. Though the question remains: why must people be made to work so hard and constantly to shut this shit down?

Free speech should not be held as the standard in public discourse. It is the lowest bar, over which many egregious things have sailed. The line between speech and violence can be short. This is not debatable. It is not academic. Nor a game where there are ‘good days and bad days’.

The higher, more rigorous standard in debate is good faith. It is precisely the element that is missed when figures of dubious character are interviewed for the sake of ‘interrogating’ their ideas for the common good. They hardly enter into it in good faith. They are there to perform.

Here are some aspects of good faith in dialogue: honesty and sincerity, a mutually shared inclination to truth, an allowance (no matter how remote) for the prospect of being wrong, vulnerability or an openness to being transformed, and most of all, respect not just for the person and what they say, but where they come from.

For black/ Indigenous/ POC, these aren’t the terms of the debate. Often the starting point is that they justify who they are and the space they occupy. They must first establish they are not a criminal class or an invading horde or the source of inequality. They must first validate their anger and despair to the object of their anger and despair. Then they are made to fight for the dignity of reply.

No, free speech and (more broadly) media production are not neutral processes. Non-white people experience it as another layer of oppression. Making people have to work when they’d rather be left the hell alone is oppressive. Just because they do not retreat does not mean that it all shakes out, that is is how it is meant to work. Anyone who thinks so is blinded by complicity.

Engaging with ethno-nationalist provocateurs and alt-right nihilists does not make for the sophisticated ‘debate’ that liberal journalists and free-speech warriors think it is. They may set up theatres of interrogation, but they are not interrogators. They are participants.

It is worth reckoning with. What is the worst that can happen if supremacists do not appear onscreen versus if they do? I suspect that the answer reveals most of what needs to be known about whose standards prevail in public debate, why they do, and how it is that we are relegated to the muck.