This is not the article I set out to write this week but I believe it is the one that must be written.
Here I will put to you the argument against censorship while I am still able to make it in all its uncomfortable, contentious and truthful self. You can decide at the end if there is a case worth considering or a moment’s pause to be had before we gleefully unravel the fabric of our society to the cheers of the political class.
We are a week out from another of humanity’s tragedies, this time perpetrated on the shores of our Pacific neighbour. The city of Christchurch which is settled on New Zealand’s volcanic South Island, has had a run of misfortune. First, an earthquake in 2011 killed 185 people and liquefied the ground beneath portions of the CBD rendering them worthless. This was a social and economic disaster from which the city was only just recovering when in March 2019 a lone gunman besieged the Al Noor Mosque and Linwood Islamic Centre murdering 50 people in broad daylight livestreamed over Facebook.
This horrific slaughter of innocent people is not the first mass killing of the year – nor even the month. Terrorist events have been on a steep rise since the 70’s across the world and have, until recently, reached for an endless ceiling of violence. There are different political and religious motivations behind these actions but taking Wikipedia’s figures between 1970 and 2017 there have been 182,437 separate terror events resulting in 414,533 deaths and 529,476 injuries – that we know of. I stress this point because the majority of terror is perpetrated in countries with poor reporting and so we can assume the numbers are even worse than those quoted. Probably much worse.
There is no question that at this point in history, the largest recorded cause of terror and death in the world belongs to the Islamic Caliphate and its affiliates – lone wolves or recognised groups – operating in a wide range of countries. They are an organised, well funded movement of mixed religious and political motivation both seeking conquest and subjugation of foreign States while its members engage privately in unspeakable crimes against humanity. Inside its loose organisation wage several civil wars and a separate Islamic faith conflict that has been going on for over a thousand years. This terrifying force is backed by powerful countries who either allow terror to exist or openly fund their efforts for various reasons. According to the Global Terrorism Index 2016, 74% of all terror could be attributed to ISIL, Boko Haram, the Taliban and al-Qa’lda.
Add to this other forms of extremists who have committed acts of terror in recent memory: Sikh Extremism (Ireland), Christian Extremism (Indonesia), Separatism (Angola, Chechen, Romania), Communism (Bulgaria, India, Malaysia), 19th of April Movement (Columbia), Palestinian Nationalism (UAE), White Nationalism (NZ) state-sponsored violence and whatever it is that China, Russia and Venezuela put their people through.
Then we must note the unaffiliated – the random acts more commonly referred to as, ‘mass murder’ because they have no specific ideology apart from their own wickedness.
Enough with the statistics. You take my point. Terror is not a single event, it is a complex sequence of violence transcending race, religion, culture and law. Skip a hundred or a thousand years backwards in time and the names will change but not the pattern of violence.
There are a few additional remarks required before I make my point.
Terror is overwhelmingly conducted in poor countries run by dictators, religious law or entirely failed states. These countries almost exclusively survive with serious government or cultural impediments to freedom, education and prosperity. Terror groups promising the world are able to take root among the youth using money and power as a primary drive. The dynamic is different in wealthy Western countries where terror tends to be run like an arm of a warring state against the native population who, unlike historic terror in these countries, are very unlikely to incubate the terror from within the population. There is an ongoing debate about whether the Islamic branch of this violence is actually a resurrection of ‘Holy War’ – self identified by those who wage it, bragged about by the leaders of countries who support it but uncomfortable for Western nations to hear who have left religion out of their politics for a long time.
The abhorrent Australian mass murderer in Christchurch went to the trouble of writing a detailed manifesto which he intended to be found to explain his actions. This has been censored from the public arena with astounding fines and threats against anyone who not only disseminates the text but reads it.
This is a mistake. Let me tell you why.
Western Civilisation, particularly those with historical English roots, came to the conclusion after thousands of years of bloodshed that the key to peace is freedom. This is remarkable. A revelation – if you will.
At first it is not entirely obvious why this holds true.
Freedom of speech, association and expression has not been the norm of our species. Not today, not yesterday. We are predominately a tribal group ruled over by kings, dictators or rigid political and religious systems that keep a strangle hold of the collective through strict coercion and violence. Freedom has long been seen as the enemy of those at the top of these hierarchies. Because they gain their power by force these civilisations must exert an enormous amount of energy to strengthen the bars to maintain it. They have to do this diligently because, like the second law of thermodynamics, all things tend toward chaos. This includes human civilisation.
The tighter you try to hold human beings, the more they fight. The system wants to break. It is the reason populations overthrow their leaders in violent revolution. It is the cause of war the world over. With every layer of censorship and every onerous punishment, the probability of revolution grows. Of course this is deceptive. Before the catastrophic conclusion, these tyrannical entities can appear stable and uniform – much more so than an open democracy. There’s no dissent. No outrage. No deviation. This is kept in the shadows, festering resentment and hatred. Take North Korea as your example of stable hell brewing a future conflict.
What started in the forums of ancient Greece and Rome and finished off by Europe is the concept of democracy – a population who chooses their leaders, not on a one-off bloody coup but in a stable cycle that continuously dethrones those who would rule. This was not bestowed upon the people as a gift, it was the product of a very complex historical struggle between successive monarchs, religious authorities and the people working out how best to survive free of slaughter.
Contrary to all logic, it turns out that the best way to keep the peace is to have the incontrovertible freedom to insult each other.
This doesn’t apply simply between individuals, it is replicated to religious institutions, government leaders and the monarchy itself. Ideas were given value and debate birthed as the mechanism to test them. What we might call the second revelation is the well known reality that bad ideas die in the light.
The wonderful thing about a society constructed this way is that it self regulates. Insult is a necessary path to truth for how often are horrific ideas kept safe by the fragile feelings of monsters? How many millions have died while causing offence to right an immoral idea protected by the powerful?
It works the other way as well. Consider that only one person has a good idea – let us say, a scientific observation that flies in the face of all accepted culture and understanding. Even if enormous financial institutions stand at risk from this idea and even if the very moral underpinning society could be torn apart by its uttering – the idea is allowed to survive. In the end, society is the better for the upheaval, however painful. Take Charles Darwin’s work in evolutionary biology. There could not have been a more unimaginable crime of thought – even to himself, a devout man and yet without the veil of tears and screams set through the world we would not have discovered even a fragment or our medical industry.
The truth is that no one is qualified to know if ideas have worth before they are voiced. That is the purpose of the system but it only works without chains. If you start giving freedom of speech handicaps by roping off corners with ‘handle with care’ tape it will stop working – and quite quickly.
Fair enough, you may say, when we speak of ideas of science but this is a matter of hate.
There is no difference.
Hate speech is an idea unfit for those of moral standing. It is a sinister creation that originates in an infinite myriad of thought and circumstance. You can no sooner chase it with duct tape than prevent it from arising via AI algorithms. Like every bad idea before it, the fastest way to tear it to shreds is to submit it to the sunlight and allow the ruthless crowd to have-at the filth. This is what we should have done in the years after WWII instead of allowing the creep of ‘hate speech’ laws to muddy a well functioning system. It is worth noting here that Holocaust Denial laws did absolutely nothing to quash the movement but almost certainly made it worse by giving perceived victimhood credit to a fringe idea that would have withered away into obscurity. Bring them out onto the stage, I say and publicly drown them under the weight of visual evidence. You may never convert the tiny few zealots but you will thin the herd of conspiracy.
Today these hate speech laws are ever expanding beyond their solitary purpose to now infringe upon common offence and soon, terrifyingly, branch back into blasphemy law – the most heinous and bloody stain on our past that should never be given a foothold again. The threat they cause to our future is far greater than the offence they claim to protect against.
The next time a sympathetic leader or news reporter makes the argument for protecting religion from offence, make sure you remember those who are tortured and killed every day for defying the state-sponsored gods and consider what might happen to you…
Here I will come to my point.
The only way to mediate hate is to understand it. If its cause remains a mystery, so too will the solution. It is not good enough for a self-appointed government censor to wave a hashtag over an unseen idea. No person has the qualification to read for another and decide what they may hear. Even on its own that action solves nothing but more disturbingly there is a good deal of evidence to show that the manifesto of this particular tragedy is being misreported not just by the New Zealand government but also political parties at home and abroad. The motivational inaccuracies of the killer are then being used as an excuse to proliferate mass censorship in an unprecedented fashion against the rest of society – who had nothing to do with it…
If you were listening, you’ll know what my concern is regarding the spread of censorship through Western democracy.
To that end, I feel that it is safer for the public to be allowed the opportunity to make up their own minds about the document instead of diverting to manipulative, second hand reporting currently being used to sway debate. From the little we have been able to see of the source material – before reading was turned into a crime – it was looking more and more like the document in question was a deliberate mess created to start unrest. There was no committed single thought but rather a name-drop nightmare perfect if given to a government already chomping at the bit to silence perfectly legitimate and entirely unrelated unrest.
Indeed, the most dangerous hands to place this manifesto in are those who can use it without scrutiny.
I am aware of the counter argument. Should a document designed to create chaos be allowed to circulate? On face value you might say no and I understand that position but make sure you ask the follow up – how…? How does the killer imagine that his manifesto will do as he claims? If the purpose is to divide society and create civil unrest, the circulating of a cumbersome, nonsensical piece of garbage will not achieve it. For one humans are lazy and the grand majority won’t read more than a few pages before losing interest. Secondly, of those that do it is highly unlikely that they’ll be swayed by ideas that lack coherency. Third, like-minded individuals are already across the mantra and so the document neither changes their position nor makes them any more dangerous. Lastly, when enough people have read the drivel society will be able to dismiss it as worthless.
If we come to the conclusion collectively that this person is a maniac who tried to use a false political document – society holds onto its freedom and an evil man spends his life in jail. By all means the gun laws that he exploited should be addressed but in truth, that should have been done long ago by a neglectful government now embarrassed and trying to deflect their very real policy culpability by clinging to smoke and mirrors.
Remember, anyone can purchase and read Mein Kampf. You can do it in broad daylight sitting in a café. The detailed manifesto of Communism and Socialism’s heroes are only a Google search away even though combined they slaughtered more people than any other ideology. Religious texts sit in our schools, churches, libraries and airports despite their blood-stained history and present. Or perhaps you want to delve into the true crime genre and immerse yourself in criminology. Forget about us writers – our search histories will land us in jail one day.
Why then do we allow this? To learn from our mistakes.
…and the practical reality that if we banned everything used as justification for murder we’d be living in an empty cave real quick.
There are larger questions. How do we stop the next Hitler if, as a society, we never understood the first? Reading his work is common place in academia and yet we don’t have a tide of devout followers walking the hallways of our universities. It is patently false to say that reading a bad idea propagates it. Leaving it unchallenged has that honour. Would any world leader suggest that we should censor the events leading up to WWI and WWII because the ideas are simply too dangerous to risk circulating in general knowledge?
Worse, do we allow acts of violence by a deluded individual to unpick our laws? What would be the response if a killer named dropped Climate Change before a crime – do you throw a towel over the entire industry? Does that even seem logical… If we know one thing for certain it is that the murderer claimed himself an eco-fascist. (He claimed many competing affiliations, including a love of China’s Communism).
Look to the rise of Socialism among our youth. This generation doesn’t warm to Socialism because they understand it. They gravitate into the darkness because we have not done our due diligence as a civilisation and dragged the failed ideology through the fire for our children to fairly judge it. I’ve not met a single ‘Socialist’ who could define their own movement or even one that knew a grain of its history. We censored it from our culture and allowed its ghost to go unchallenged.
This is exactly what New Zealand has done with the killer’s manifesto. Authorities are turning it into a thing of rumour to be re-written and quoted without any mechanism to fact check. From this any claim can be made about its content and from those claims any law can be justified.
You definitely have not read closely enough.
If a manifesto of ideas is going to be used to trigger a global love affair with censorial doctrine in the West the very least we are owed is the opportunity to decide for ourselves if such an action is justified.
We are not being asked if we wish to cede our freedom – world leaders are competing deliriously with each other to do something they’ve always wanted but never dared. While we are vulnerable in grief we must not let the rare and precious birthright our ancestors purchased be bargained away without so much as a sound.
The Nanny-state doctrine of censorship politics will stir violence in our society. Tearing apart the only true mechanism for freedom – the internet – will create a wave of anger from people who never before felt the need to express it.
I understand the temptation to exert control on the world is strong and that leaders who wish to distance themselves from blame are looking for life rafts in the storm but do not come for freedom. It is not yours to take.
As for Facebook and its livestreaming – it doesn’t take a genius to build a special function that can be activated by any user on pain of punishment if misused to alert a social media company of serious incident. We already have versions of these on other platforms to deal with cases of self-harm or active crime. What we are witnessing is a reaction of convenience, capitalising on tragedy – and I reject it.