When I was at university I worked, on a voluntary basis, as a writing tutor for first-year students. Many students got rather shirty when they realized that their personal opinions and experiences were not welcome in their assignments; their job, as undergraduates, was to consider the viewpoints of others according to academic criteria – not according to their own personal experiences and ideologies. The temperature in the tutorial room was raised even higher when I suggested that, to maximize their marks, students might consider framing their arguments in favour of their marker’s particular bias. Some were outraged.
“I didn’t come to university to be told what to think!” was a frequent complaint.
I explained that students were not being told what to think – they were being taught how to think. Students could indeed argue against their professor’s particular bias and take, for instance, an anti-feminist or anti-socialist stance. Theoretically, if their essay was good, it shouldn’t effect their mark. But, human nature being what it is, they would need to make a much more cogent argument to ‘cut through’ the personal bias of the marker. It takes a very accomplished undergraduate to do that. As a student, I never saw this strategy as compromising my ethics. I saw it as an intellectual exercise in, sometimes, arguing for a side of a debate I didn’t necessarily agree with. In many instances, this changed my stance, or, at least, gave me a more sympathetic view of an argument I had previously dismissed out of hand.
To the rejoinder, “I should be able to write whatever I want!”, I replied, “You can – but you will have to accept the consequences of that decision.”
I went on to explain that, if my students wanted to write whatever they wanted, they should resign themselves to a future of writing only for their own entertainment.
“No-one,” I reminded them, “gets to write exactly what they want.”
Authors who wish to be successful, have to write with their readers’ tastes in mind. They also have to write with a publisher in mind. If you’re writing for advertising or public relations, you have to write for your clients – not yourself. If you’re in business, you answer to your boss and your customers. If you’re a journalist, you answer to your editor and the owner of the newspaper. Blogging was in its infancy in those days but, even here, I’d argue, if you wish to be successful you have to write for your audience – and not just blurt out every stray thought you might have.
“In that way,” I said, “university is an apprenticeship. You learn to write for an audience. Here, your audience is the person who marks your paper. To maximize your marks, you need to understand your audience; their biases, their likes and dislikes. If you want to challenge your audience’s existing ideas and sympathies, you can do it, but you have to do it in a way that is so convincing you don’t alienate them. So, yes, you have the freedom to write anything you like – but the consequences of that choice will be reflected in your marks.”
Which brings me to the quandary I found myself in this week when I became embroiled in a free speech fiasco.
I have been writing for Online Opinion for a few months now. I greatly appreciate the opportunity it provides to get my message out to a much wider audience. I enjoy writing for my blog, and I love my readers and subscribers but, ultimately, in my own little corner of the blogosphere, I’m preaching to the converted. Graham Young, the founder and editor of Online Opinion has been very generous in publishing my work, even though he disagrees, personally, with many of my arguments. That has not influenced his decision to give me a voice on his forum.
So, when I heard that Graham was being persecuted for publishing an anti-gay marriage article by Catholic conservative, Bill Muehlenberg, I was outraged. I disagree with everything Muehlenberg said in the article, but, in the cause of free speech, I supported his right to put his point of view, and Graham’s right to publish it. Muehlenberg’s article is highly selective, makes some ridiculously broad assumptions and is clearly biased. On the other hand, it is reasonably well written and, while being critical of what he sees as homosexuals’ proclivity for infidelity, he doesn’t (in my view) directly vilify GLBTI people, either as individuals or as a group.
The story I heard, initially, was that someone had taken offence at the article, complained to some of the advertisers on the site (specifically IBM and ANZ) and that these companies had removed their ads – at significant financial cost to Online Opinion.
Impulsively, I contacted Graham and offered my support. I also did a quick survey of articles about same-sex marriage on Online Opinion and found that pro-gay articles far outnumbered anti-gay articles. There was no question of anti-gay bias.
Graham then made me aware of an article about the incident on the gay online journal, SX. The story suggested the problem was not so much Muehlenberg’s article, as Graham’s failure to remove an offensive comment, by ‘Shintaro’ on another article which suggested that gays should either stay in the closet or be murdered. Graham protested that he hadn’t removed the comment because it had been taken out of context. He provided me with the link and I satisfied myself that the person who posted it was not advocating violence at all; he was pro-gay and anti-violence and the comment was intended to show where the anti-gay rhetoric in the discussion could lead.
Now, in high dudgeon at the injustice of it all, I posted a comment on SX defending Graham and Online Opinion and I wrote an email to a number of influential bloggers and columnists suggesting that they join me by writing in Graham’s defence.
Graham emailed back saying, in effect, “Nice email, but the facts are wrong.”
It seems that in my rush to play the part of Crusader Rabbit, I hadn’t done my homework on the issue thoroughly enough, and Graham had (quite rightly) assumed that I had. The advertising, it seems, wasn’t lost because of the comment mentioned on SX, it was withdrawn because of another comment altogether. This comment read:
“It’s interesting that so many people are offended by the truth. The fact is that homosexual activity is anything but healthy and natural. Certain lgbt’s want their perversion to be called “normal” and “healthy” and they’ve decided the best way to do this is have their “marriages” formally recognised. But even if the law is changed, these “marriages” are anything but healthy and natural. It is, in fact, impossible for these people to be married, despite what any state or federal law may say.”
Posted by MrAnderson, Thursday, 25 November 2010 10:09:39 AM
A gay reader brought the comment to Graham’s attention and asked for the reference to the ‘perversion’ of LGBT people to be removed. Although Graham did not agree with the remark, he felt that it was a view which was commonly expressed among a minority of Australians, which did not incite violence, and which would have been acceptable (if widely condemned) in a parliamentary debate. Given his commitment to free speech, Graham refused to delete it.
Having been rebuffed by Graham, the reader then decided to complain to the site’s advertisers. Someone within IBM (it is not clear whether it was the same person) also complained to their management. As a result, IBM and the ANZ decided to withdraw their advertising from Online Opinion and a number of other advertisers followed. Sadly, as Online Opinion is part of an advertising co-operative, this meant that other bloggers also lost a substantial amount of their income, despite having nothing to do with Graham’s editorial decisions.
Now I was in a quandary. In fact, I felt like I’d been hit with a ton of bricks. All day I’d been sending supportive emails to Graham and shouting loudly from my ‘freedom of speech’ soap-box. He thought I was an ally. I thought I was an ally! Now I realized I’d gone off half-cocked and, with this new information to hand, I felt I couldn’t defend Graham’s actions. I felt sick, conflicted and embarrassed. OK, I felt stupid. I’d emailed all these people and said ‘stand up for freedom of speech!’ Now, if I was to be true to my own moral compass, I was going to have to write back to them and say, “Given new information to hand, I’m no longer standing up for free speech.” I wished that a large black hole would just open up and consume me right then and there.
When I told Graham that I could no longer speak out publicly in his defence, he said I didn’t understand what free speech means. Perhaps he was right. I support free speech within limits, but not untrammeled free speech. Perhaps that’s a terrible cop-out. Perhaps it is ideologically unsound. All I know is that every ethical atom of my being was screaming at me that I couldn’t defend the right of anyone to call a gay person perverted. Nor could I support the decision not to delete a comment which was not only highly offensive, but, given the weight of expert medical and sociological opinion, patently untrue.
In a submission on Freedom of Religion and Belief, prepared for the Human Rights Commission in 2008, I wrote about the impact of these kinds of derogatory comments on GLBTI people – particularly adolescents.
I researched the high incidence of suicide in the gay community. I quoted from the diary of young Bobby Griffith, who, at 20 years old, threw himself from an overpass into the path of a semi-trailer. Before his suicide, Bobby wrote:
I can’t ever let anyone find out that I’m not straight. It would be so humiliating. My friends would hate me. They might even want to beat me up. And my family? I’ve overheard them….They’ve said they hate gays, and even God hates gays, too. Gays are bad, and God sends bad people to hell. It really scares me when they talk that way because now they are talking about me.
Bobby had been made to believe he was a pervert – and he just couldn’t live with that.
The experience of being gay in Australia is movingly expressed in the following internet post from Australian, Phill Herbert:
From twink to date I have continually endured the expressed condemnation by the dominant voices in organized religion. I have seen young Gay people being tortured by their religious backgrounds, their alienation from family and significant others, their drop in esteem, their self harm at both emotional and physical levels. Indeed I have known young people to tragically take their own lives as a result of this alienation and resultant self perception. … History and the dominant contemporary voice of organized religion has maintained a line of ill informed and ultimately damaging shit that has persisted not only over decades, but millenniums …How many people have died, had their careers destroyed, had their health and self perception compromised by the utterances of those like Ratzinger/Pell/Jenkins … I maintain my right to rage …
In similar vein, Peter Taylor, a gay member of the Atheist Foundation of Australia, reminded me that it is not only young gay, lesbian and transgender people who suffer the effects of discrimination. In an email to our submission team, Taylor wrote:
… It is good that you are writing about youth suicides, but don’t forget adult suicides. Single gay men, especially the elderly are killing themselves by drinking too much to dull the pain. There are no statistics, of course, because it’s not called suicide, it’s called liver and kidney malfunction.
Words are weapons. The word ‘perversion’ in one comment on one article on one online journal may seem infinitesimal in the barrage of hate to which homosexuals are subjected throughout their lives. But the word is still a bullet in the assault on gays and, while, on the battle-field that is a gay person’s life, there may also be cannon-fire and bombs exploding and a million trillion bullets being fired simultaneously, that doesn’t make that one, lone bullet any less lethal.
It is no longer acceptable to call black people ‘niggers’. If that word had been used in a comment on Online Opinion I expect it would have been deleted. I wonder whether Graham would have permitted a comment which referred to women (generically) as sluts. If neither of these are admissible, why should it be OK to refer to homosexuality as a perversion? Perhaps there is a rationale for this – but I can’t think of one.
It seems that, while Graham is admirably committed to maximising free speech on the site, he also (reluctantly) accepts that he can’t allow open slather or chaos would reign. Comments are moderated, so, clearly, some speech is not allowed. This equivocation seems, to me, to result in a lack of firm and clear guidelines which make it appear to his critics that Graham’s moderation is ad hoc and inconsistent. This leaves Graham open to accusations of bias (of which I am genuinely sure he is not guilty). Other forums are prepared to compromise on untrammeled free speech and make it clear that personal attacks, sexist, racist or homophobic remarks will not be published. Online Opinion’s rules of engagement are much less clearly defined. This makes the moderation decisions confusing for those who are participating.
This is not an attack on Graham. I believe he edits Online Opinion and moderates the forum with a good heart and with a firm commitment to free speech and freedom of the press. What I wish to suggest is that, while pure ideology is all well and good in theory, it cannot exist in its pure state when exposed to the murky waters of human nature and free enterprise.
As other bloggers have pointed out, Graham’s freedom to publish what he wants and moderate his forum as he wishes have not been quashed. He has not had his internet rights revoked. He hasn’t been thrown in jail. He is not being threatened by a mob of gay activists outside his house waving flaming torches and brandishing pitchforks. No legislation has been put in place to prevent him from seeking advertising to support the site. What has happened is that his admirable commitment to the principle of free speech has alienated at least some of his readership. In turn, some advertisers bowed to pressure from those offended readers and withdrew their support for the site. It may be an over-reaction. It may be short-sighted. It may, perversely, hurt the very customers they are trying to appease. But, ultimately, it is an advertiser’s right to place their money where they see fit. Online Opinion needs them – they don’t need it.
The fact is that, just like my first-year university students, Graham made a choice to run his site his way and he found that choice has consequences. To an extent, he placed ideology above an, apparently, large and influential segment of his audience and above the concerns of the advertisers who supplied his income. In business terms, I’d say he lost touch with an important segment of his market. By refusing to compromise his commitment to free speech, Graham suffered the consequences of that choice. To my mind, while principles are important – and there should be a point beyond which you will not compromise those principles – you simply can’t run a business without also considering the wants and needs of your ‘customers’ and financiers. Regrettably, those wants and needs may not always be as pure as yours. This is the ‘deal with the devil’ you do when you cease to write, or publish, for your own entertainment and undertake it as a business enterprise. You don’t get to call all the shots any more and, if you ignore the views of those who make your business prosper, you’re likely to pay the price.
The pity is, this doesn’t just effect Graham Young. Online Opinion is not just a blog. It’s a business (whether profitable or not). It’s also an important resource for people, like me, who want to have our voices heard. Perversely, it’s also important for me to be able to hear opinions like Muehlenberg’s so I know what we’re up against. I understand that Online Opinion is also seen as a valuable source of information for the public service. My friend, Chris, writes policy for a government minister and is required to read Online Opinion as part of her job. Her department sees it as an important tool for keeping in touch with grass-roots public opinion.
If Online Opinion folds through lack of funds, Graham Young is not the only person who will suffer the loss. It will be a loss to the whole Australian community. Is it really worth losing such a valuable resource in order to protect the freedom of a minority of uninformed bigots to spout their hatred in public?
As one contact wrote to me today:
I used to subscribe to OLO but discovered I’m not emotionally strong enough to read strident, vitriolic idiocy about everything from climate change to population, chaplains to mining. I know that having a place for people to let off steam is healthy, but this reacquaintance with OLO has confirmed my aversion.
While the articles on Online Opinion are of a consistently high quality (Muehlenberg’s may be a notable exception!) the tone of its discussion forum has been noted by some online commentators (and some of my own contacts) as a deterrent to visiting the site. To some, it seems to have been hijacked by a small group of regular posters. To me, they seem like a particularly virulent version of the Muppet’s Waldorf and Statler, howling abuse at the article writers (and each other) from the dress circle. After my second Online Opinion article I felt like I’d been thrown into a pit of ravenous lions. I’d never thought of writing as a blood sport! When I complained, Graham responded, “You think that’s bad? You should see what they do to me!”
I am not saying that Graham’s decision in this matter was wrong. How can you condemn anyone for sticking to their principles, even when under siege? No, I am simply saying that I hold a different view. This matter is too complex to be argued in terms of right or wrong, black or white.
It is, however, my personal view that, while, in theory, untramelled free speech is admirable, when the act of maintaining the purity of that ideal leads to a toxic atmosphere in the forum, alienates your readers, discourages good writers, frightens off your advertisers and threatens your whole enterprise, I think it’s time to reconsider whether sticking steadfastly to ideology is worth the cost. And, when words are used as weapons against a vulnerable minority, I think it’s time to consider whether free speech is more important than people’s lives and human dignity.
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You want our ads? Keep your opinions to yourself by Graham Young on ABC’s The Drum
Oversensitivity can only compromise debate by Christopher Pearson, The Australian
Controversy in the Australian Blogosphere by Peter Black
Of secondary boycotts, free speech … and revenue by Skeptic Lawyer
Free speech and corporate interests by Mitch Sullivan