Apocryphally, in 1770, the French writer and provocateur François-Marie Arouet (Voltaire) wrote to a French priest, “Monsieur l’abbé, I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write.” Actually, he said no such thing. Biographer Evelyn Beatrice Hall, trying to capture the libertarian essence of his attitude to the burning of a book whose content he disapproved of, came up with: “I disapprove of what you say but will defend to the death your right to say it.” The saying, formulated that way, has been attributed to Voltaire ever since.
The great campaigner for freedom of speech, imprisoned and exiled more than once for his own utterances, could easily have said it. The times, moreover, were moving his way. The First Amendment to the United States Constitution, adapted in 1791, declared:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Fast-forward a couple of centuries. New Zealand passes a Bill of Rights. Article 13 says:
Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion, and belief, including the right to adopt and to hold opinions without interference.
Article 14 says:
Everyone has the right to freedom of expression, including the freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and opinions of any kind in any form.
Article 15 says:
Every person has the right to manifest that person’s religion or belief, in worship, observance, practice, or teaching, either individually or in community with others, and either in public or in private.
All of this captures the spirit of Voltaire.
Race Relations Commissar Dame Susan Devoy wants to overturn Voltaire. Dame Susan wants to implement, “I disagree with what you say and will send you to jail for it.”
Compare “I disapprove of what you say but will defend to the death your right to say it” with the following, from Dame Susan’s recent World Holocaust Day speech:
So last year when I opened a copy of a local newspaper and saw a New Zealander wearing a Neo Nazi uniform staring back at me I was shocked. And disgusted.
The story was about how he and others like him were going to take part in a march against child abuse.
When we got in touch with the newspaper they asked us why we opposed anyone taking part in a march against child abuse?
I told them that it is not OK for New Zealanders to wear Neo Nazi uniforms full stop – let alone to wear them at a march against child abuse.
Because people wearing Nazi uniforms murdered 1.5 million children in World War II.
They did it on purpose and they would have kept murdering children if they had not been stopped. …
We need to not let ourselves normalise hatred.
Where do we start when it comes to challenging hatred and racism?
I believe online hatred is something we can get better at calling out.
I believe we need better restrictions when it comes to the online forums, comments sections on some media outlet websites as well as their social media accounts.
I am keen to see our Police begin to gather hate crime statistics – at the present time this is not something they collate when responding to call outs.
Free speech is one thing.
Hate speech is another. [Bold mine]
Those things do not belong in my country.
Not in New Zealand.
I went public in our media to call out that man and his friends who wanted to wear their Neo Nazi uniforms on the child abuse march.
We wanted to let them know that we would not stand by quietly and allow them to parade down the street.
In the end he decided not to march that day.
He said he felt intimidated by my article.
And my response to him feeling intimidated is:
Good. That was the point. We do not want you to feel comfortable, we do not want you to feel welcome wearing your Neo Nazi uniform.
Some say we should ignore these kinds of extremists but as our survivors will tell you: Hate starts small.
Ignoring the hatred and normalising it is how it starts.
I’m sure there’s no need for me to explain the sinister incompatibility of these remarks with the spirit of Voltaire. See in particular the parts in bold.
Some say we should ignore this kind of totalitarian, but I will tell you: Tyranny starts small. Ignoring the censorship and normalising it is how it starts.
And actually, “Race Relations Commissioner” isn’t exactly “small.”
Neither is Article 61 of our Orwellianly mis-named Human Rights Act:
(1) It shall be unlawful for any person—
(a) to publish or distribute written matter which is threatening, abusive, or insulting, or to broadcast by means of radio or television or other electronic communication words which are threatening, abusive, or insulting; or
(b) to use in any public place as defined in section 2(1) of the Summary Offences Act 1981, or within the hearing of persons in any such public place, or at any meeting to which the public are invited or have access, words which are threatening, abusive, or insulting; or
(c) to use in any place words which are threatening, abusive, or insulting if the person using the words knew or ought to have known that the words were reasonably likely to be published in a newspaper, magazine, or periodical or broadcast by means of radio or television,—
being matter or words likely to excite hostility against or bring into contempt any group of persons in or who may be coming to New Zealand on the ground of the colour, race, or ethnic or national origins of that group of persons. …
Nor is Article 131 “small”:
Inciting racial disharmony
(1) Every person commits an offence and is liable on conviction to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 3 months or to a fine not exceeding $7,000 who, with intent to excite hostility or ill-will against, or bring into contempt or ridicule, any group of persons in New Zealand on the ground of the colour, race, or ethnic or national origins of that group of persons,—
(a) publishes or distributes written matter which is threatening, abusive, or insulting, or broadcasts by means of radio or television words which are threatening, abusive, or insulting; or
(b) uses in any public place (as defined in section 2(1) of the Summary Offences Act 1981), or within the hearing of persons in any such public place, or at any meeting to which the public are invited or have access, words which are threatening, abusive, or insulting,—
being matter or words likely to excite hostility or ill-will against, or bring into contempt or ridicule, any such group of persons in New Zealand on the ground of the colour, race, or ethnic or national origins of that group of persons. …
But what about the Bill of Rights articles already cited? Don’t they make it plain that one is free to say anything?
They do, but they don’t matter. Article 4 in the self-same Bill of Rights says:
Other enactments not affected
No court shall, in relation to any enactment (whether passed or made before or after the commencement of this Bill of Rights),—
(a) hold any provision of the enactment to be impliedly repealed or revoked, or to be in any way invalid or ineffective; or
(b) decline to apply any provision of the enactment—
by reason only that the provision is inconsistent with any provision of this Bill of Rights.
In other words, the Bill of Rights is useless. Any other legislation inconsistent with it, in violation of it, trumps it.
So the legislative means by which Susan Devoy can don a Nazi uniform and shut down free speech, as she is clearly intent on doing, is already in place.
In conversation with me prior to my appearance with her at Auckland University last year, Dame Susan described something (I forget what) as “stale, male and white.” I was stunned at this revelation of Devoy’s mindset. Poor Mad Butcher didn’t stand a chance when some Maaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaadi snowflake complained about his joke that Waiheke is a “white man’s island now.” Sure enough, in weighed Devoy with scolding nanny-statism that would make even Helen Clark blush:
Many of us have said or done things that are hurtful to others without really realising what we were saying is offensive: but that’s not the end of the story. The important thing is being able to recognise when we’ve offended someone, to work to resolve it with mana and to make sure we never do it again.
Sir Peter, alas, capitulated and apologised for the “offence” he had caused. It won’t be long before Devoy seeks imprisonment for similar transgressors.
If we are to reinstate and retain freedom of speech in the face of Devoy’s upcoming onslaught, here’s what must happen:
1) Salman Rushdie’s famous dictum, “There is no such thing as a right not to be offended” must be emblazoned in the sky.
2) So too must “I disapprove of what you say but will defend to the death your right to say it.” The counter to bad ideas is good ideas, and the free exchange thereof.
3) Dame Susan must be abolished—i.e., the office of Race Relations Commissar must be disestablished.
4) Article 4 of the Bill of Rights, rendering it a sham, must be repealed.
5) The Human Rights Act must be repealed.
In her former life, Susan Devoy was a champion exponent of a noble sport. From the ignoble project in which she is now engaged, freedom-lovers must ensure that Voltaire emerges the winner.