It’s been an interesting couple of weeks for freedom of expression.
Last week Australia’s Attorney General George Brandis came under fire for his assertion while proposing amendments to the anti-discrimination legislation that Australian citizens have a right to be bigots – that essentially it is part of freedom of expression.
Australians on both side of politics have since been debating the extent to which we have the right to hold opinions that many would find objectionable.
Providing opportunistic would-be commentators like me a convenient case study, this week Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich had resigned over concerns that his donations to anti-gay marriage groups brought the company into disrepute.
Let me state from the outset – I am opposed to bigotry and I couldn’t care less who you want to marry. This is not an article about either of those issues. This is about freedom of expression; moreover, about your freedom to hold an opinion different to mine.
To use myself, rather than anyone, else as an example, let’s imagine for a moment that you have a deep-seated and passionate dislike for Gen-Y middle class anglo-Australian men. Let’s imagine that, based solely on my age, race and socio-economic status, you assume I’m an arrogant, self-entitled ignorant privileged bigot.
You might not be far wrong.
Nevertheless, it would be extremely hurtful to me if you assumed all that based solely on racial, gender and generational stereotypes. I would feel wronged. I’m actually a really nice guy once you get to know me.
Well… sort of.
Here’s the point: If that’s the way you feel about me, then you’re allowed to. I might not like it, and I might do everything in my power to convince you that I’m a decent guy, but what I can’t do is tell you that your opinion of me is not allowed. If I call for your opinion to be banned, censored or silenced, then I’m just as bigoted as you are. You could give as much money as you wanted to the “Foundation for the Promotion of the Idea That All White Men Are Stupid,” and, as much as it might annoy me, I’d certainly have no right to tell you that it should be banned.
I might well complain publicly that your opinion of me is based on prejudice and bigotry. I’d have a good point there. But I’d have absolutely no right to demand that you change the way you think. I’d have the anti-discrimination laws on my side if you tried to deny me employment or access to services based solely on that opinion, but I would have absolutely no recourse available to forcibly change your thoughts about me.
Nor should I.
You’re entitled to your opinion, even if it is a bigoted one.
Sorry if that seems overly confrontational.
I’m sure you’re really nice too.
This is where the criticism of Senator Brandis, and a case like that of Brendan Eich, really rubs me the wrong way. Eich gave a donation to a political cause. There is absolutely no law against this; on the contrary, in America there are laws protecting his freedom to do this. However strongly opposed I or anyone else might be to that political cause, there is absolutely no justification available for expecting a man to resign over his political or philosophical beliefs, at least as far as they have no bearing on his ability to effectively do his job – in this case to manage a software company. The paradoxical statement from Mozilla on the change in leadership only reinforces the double standard at play here:
We have employees with a wide diversity of views. Our culture of openness extends to encouraging staff and community to share their beliefs and opinions in public. This is meant to distinguish Mozilla from most organizations and hold us to a higher standard. But this time we failed to listen, to engage, and to be guided by our community.
It seems to me that a failure to listen could well be at the centre of the whole debate – on both sides.
I’m not going to bother with misquoting Voltaire in this article, but I will say this: It’s fine if you disagree with me. Your right to do so is as inalienable as mine is to hold the opinion in the first place.
It is bigotry to suggest otherwise.