My Free Speech Fiasco

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.

Chrys Stevenson

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19 thoughts on “My Free Speech Fiasco

  1. Doug Steley

    While supporting free speech I do not support the right of anyone to yell “Fire” in a crowded theater.

    There are always limits to what can be said in any society.

    If the comments are likely to cause harm to people then they should be very well considered before being uttered.

    You have the right to free speech but you must also be responsible and accept the consequences of what you say.

    Reply
  2. AndrewFinden

    I have always understood rights to be balanced with responsibilities. Further, the right to free speech must depend upon the forum – the tricky thing about the internet is that the line between ‘public’ and ‘private’ ownership seems to be very much blurred, at least in the minds of many commenters. Just because a person has the right to say what they like doesn’t mean another is required to publish it.

    Reply
  3. zane

    I think I have an idea where you are coming from regarding freedom of speech. I will say that after reading and following the things that have come from this and I have read the responses from IBM and ANZ. I am not convinced it is even about Freedom of Speech or values. I currently work in online advertising and reality they do not care as long as they get the clicks. I am not saying there has not been any complaints what I am saying is the companies were already going to remove their money already. This would be due to no one actually clicking on their links or not enough to validate online advertising. The market or in this case the blog would not have been right for them. IBM and ANZ do not have a moral compass but they would say they did as then people will go wow I will support them. There is no conspiracy behind any of this some articles I have read appear to hint at even the one by Graham Young himself, I am shocked he does not know better or maybe he does. This is not even a decision due to the pressure of equal rights groups. It is plain and simple a easy way for corporations to remove advertising. The ads were removed due to plain and simple that is all there is. Also I am aware that in Australia we have limited freedom of speech, thing is the issue needs to be with Bill as he is a bigot. Graham has allowed people to see this more so. Since freedom of speech is limited and Graham has just offered a place for people to write and have pieces publish. People need to take this up with Bill himself and take this further, not the one who delivered the message. Wikileaks anyone.

    Reply
  4. zane

    Sorry I meant to add this is known as behavioral targeting advertising. Online advertising can be targeted based on a user’s past click stream. Or it is possible since they are large corporations they also use semantic advertising, which is where they just analyze the blog and you get ads that pop up with key words used on the page. Example your blog post on homeopathy has generated places to go and study this, which is ironic considering the article you have write.

    Reply
  5. clovissangrail

    Good post and well written as always, Chrys. It’s true that:”…if my students wanted to write whatever they wanted, they should resign themselves to a future of writing only for their own entertainment.” and it applies to everything intended for the public domain, of course, not just writing. It explains why a PM who labels herself atheist gives ever more money to religious organisations and supports the construction of more and more socially divisive religious schools… Like the advertisers, she has no moral compass, just an overwhelming desire to get as many ‘clicks’ as possible on the voting forms next election.

    Reply
    1. zane

      Julia Gillard who is a atheist can not afford to allow her personal view to affect the politics of the party she represents. Gillard does not have a say in many things she is relegated to the head spokesman for the Labor Party. Go for the most votes, it is all about getting in and staying in.

      Reply
  6. AndrewFinden

    I suggested that, to maximize their marks, students might consider framing their arguments in favour of their marker’s particular bias.

    Chrys, you might find it amusing / interesting to know that the only time I ever wrote an essay arguing for a position going against a lecturer was when I took a Soteriology unit externally at a theological college – and I got a good mark and the comment that I’d put forward a very good argument, but that he remained unconvinced of it.😉

    Reply
  7. Lucas Randall (Codenix)

    Chrys, whilst I too value free speech highly, I don’t see moderation to ‘keep it constructive and above the belt’ as any threat to free speech, or in any way akin to censorship. As you mentioned, this is precisely why most of us have clear rules of engagement, often with the simple canard “don’t be a dick”. 

    Without some rules, discourse descends into abuse, and that is never constructive.

    I have enormous respect for your integrity – the manner in which you both threw yourself into standing up for what you felt was right, and the manner in which you swiftly notified us of your error and what it meant. The fact that you obviously felt so distraught after modifying your position is even more a credit to you.

    OLO and their audience are lucky to have featured your work.

    Reply
  8. DanDare

    The freedom of speech requires that you do not try to distinguish between what is offensive and what is not. That would mean creating prior-constraint on the ability to make public utterances.

    Consider if the comment had not been a slur on LGBT folks but a similar slur on priests or a blasphemy according to some religious law. Allowing people to set up “no go zones” based on their own sensibilities must inevitably lead to a closing down of free speech entirely.

    I have been called perverse and worse things because of my stand on secularism and for being a member of the Greens. I don’t like it. So what?

    Reply
    1. Gladly, the Cross-Eyed Bear: Assorted Rants on Religion, Science, Politics and Philosophy from a bear of very little brain Post author

      Danny, I reject any kind of dogma, be it religious or secular. My concern is for human beings, not theoretical philosophies. When one becomes dogmatic about freedom of speech, one rejects the human aspect, the psychological damage, the despair and the actions that can flow from malicious and hateful speech.

      It is all very well for you, a white, Western, well-off, well-educated, middle-aged, straight man to say, “Well, people call me names sometimes, so what?” You have not been persecuted and called names all your life. You haven’t lived in fear of letting people know who you really are in case you are killed, beaten up, denied a job, rejected, or ridiculed.

      You haven’t had your right to marry the person you love questioned and had people who have no connection with you whatsoever speculating upon and commenting upon the propriety of what you and your wife do in bed. Can you imagine how de-humanizing that must be?

      I support free specch – to a point. I think you should definitely be able to call someone a liar – if you have the evidence to prove it. But if you don’t, I think that should be censored. I think you should be able to attack ideas and institutions as much as you like. I don’t think people should be immune from criticism or even personal attacks, but not without the evidence to support the accusations.

      Danny, gay teenagers look at the bigotry that pervades our society and, too often, decide they simply can’t bear to face a life-time under that kind of personal attack. An elderly gay friend and his partner found the hateful verbal harassment they experienced while living in a local seaside resort so frightening they moved to the country where they now live in almost total seclusion – they don’t even plug in their telephone.

      No-one should be driven to suicide or have to opt out of society because we defend the right of bigots to strip them of their dignity, self-worth, sense of safety and will to live.

      No. I will not stand up for free speech that drives children to suicide. I will not put a philosophical position above a human life. No philosophy should be defended at any cost.

      By the way, I spoke on the phone to a gay man who was offended by the ‘perversion’ remark on OLO. His voice trembled as he told me that he was fed up with having his relationship questioned, his sexuality made a topic for public ridicule and the rights of the bigots who made his life hell sanctimoniously defended while his right not to be attacked with untruthful slurs about a sexual orientation he neither chose nor can change was trivialised.

      And this is the crucial point. Homosexuality and homosexual sex are not perversions. The overwhelming consensus of psychologists, neurologists and other medical experts is that homosexuality is a natural part of the human spectrum of sexuality. Further, homosexuality is not uncommon in other species. Calling it a perversion is not only cruel and bigoted, it is plainly untrue.

      That said, I do understand the commitment of many of my friends to free speech and I concede that there are a variety of valid views on this issue. I am not suggesting that people should never be criticized. Nor am I suggesting that we should never say anything that might upset someone. If someone gets upset because I attack their religion, so be it. But, if I attack them personally, I believe I must have the evidence to support my accusations. There is a huge difference between a statement of truth and a vicious slur. There is also a huge difference between throwing out the odd nasty remark at someone like you, or me, who have the good fortune to be at the top of the social pecking order and someone from a minority group who has borne the brunt of such comments every day of their lives.

      In general, my view is firmly that the welfare, happiness and dignity of human beings always comes first – and if that gets in the way of a philosophical commitment, well, so be it.

      I will no more bow to a dogmatic secularism that causes distress to innocent people than I will be silent in the face of the religious dogma that does the same.

      Reply
      1. AndrewFinden

        You haven’t had your right to marry the person you love questioned

        Do you support that right for polygamy and incestual relationships? (A serious question, please don’t read any sarcasm or hidden meaning into it, I simply want to know if you follow the reasoning all the way – neither of these are strawmen either, as they are issues that are inevitably starting to arise.)

      2. Doug Steley

        @ Andrew Please correct me if I am wrong but weren’t polygamy and incest practiced by at least some of the great figures of the bible ?

        If it was ok for these supposedly great men why do you object to it ?

      3. AndrewFinden

        @Doug

        Andrew Please correct me if I am wrong but weren’t polygamy and incest practiced by at least some of the great figures of the bible ?

        If it was ok for these supposedly great men why do you object to it ?

        Who says it was ok for them? Just because a narrative is included in the bible does not mean it’s mean it’s an example of moral approval – take Noah: no Hebrew reading that would come away thinking ‘ah, must be ok’. And from what I can, most of the examples who took more than one wife ended up worse off for it – Jacob, David, Solomon..
        Polygamy, like divorce, was tolerated in the Hebrew and early Christian communities, but not condoned.

        But what made you think my argument has/had anything to do with the bible? (just to be clear – I am NOT in favour of legislating Christian or any other morality except in the case of protecting other people from violence e.g. murder, theft etc.)

  9. Gladly, the Cross-Eyed Bear: Assorted Rants on Religion, Science, Politics and Philosophy from a bear of very little brain Post author

    @Andrew:

    Oh dear, Andrew, not that old tired canard of the Christian right’s. Muehlenberg’s ‘slippery slope’ argument, eh? I thought better of you, but, nevertheless, I will answer. My answer, however, will be lengthy because of the inherent danger that unscrupulous Christians tend to pick up on these things and say “Aha! I told you! Same-sex marriage is just a Trojan horse so these godless atheists can legalise bestiality, incest, child-rape, legalize drugs and turn the world into a pornographic cess-pit.” We’ve heard it all before, and it would be laughable if it wasn’t so damn sickening.

    Let’s establish some basic premises here. Atheists and homosexuals have the same concerns for the health, welfare, freedom and basic human dignity of our fellow human beings as anyone else. That means we do not endorse sexual unions where consent has not or cannot be given, or where the ability of one of the participants to give full and informed consent is somehow impaired. That also applies to animals. Bestiality is out because a dog, horse, sheep or gerbil are clearly unable to give informed consent.

    What we call for is for government decisions not to be based on subjective religious ideas of what is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ but upon real-world evidence of the likelihood that the relationships to be recognized legally are more likely than not to be consensual and not more likely to be abusive or damaging to children than heterosexual marriages.

    I believe we can confidently say that same-sex marriages are every bit as likely to be consensual as heterosexual couplings and at least no more likely to be abusive. While the children of same-sex couples may well have to suffer the abuse of homophobic religious bigots, it seems to me that this should result in sanctions against the bigots, not against homosexual couples.

    Let’s consider that ‘slippery slope’ argument. Allowing two persons of the same sex to marry in no way compels a government to ‘open the floodgates’ to allow polygamous, incestuous, paedophilic, inter-species or any of the other weird and wonderful sexual possibilities that you Christians seem so voyeuristically pre-occupied with. There is no cause-and-effect relationship between allowing same-sex marriage and other unconventional partnerships. It is perfectly feasible and legal for a government to legalise same-sex marriage but deny polygamy – or vice versa. One does not inevitably lead to the other – as much as Christians like to harp on this.

    Now, let’s consider your two cases in point. There are good reasons why our society frowns upon incestuous relationships. There is, of course, the much higher risk of congenital deformities in the offspring of closely related people. There is also, in my view, a higher level of concern about the possibility of coercion in such a relationship (especially between a father and a daughter). If a daughter has been sexually abused by her father as a child (or before she has reached psychological maturity) then the question must be raised whether, even as an adult, she has the capacity to give full and informed consent to the relationship. For those reasons, I think that the decision to maintain sanctions against incestuous marriages is quite sound. However, I am willing to concede that there may be some exceptions of genuine non-platonic love between close relatives which are non-coercive and not borne of previous sexual abuse.
    I imagine (admittedly with a fair degree of ‘ickiness’) a hypothetical situation in which my cousin, Doug and I, might decide we wish to marry. (Doug has just left his computer to throw up in the sink!) We have no ‘history’ having not met until we were both in our 40s so there is no possibility that our ‘decision’ arises from an abusive relationship when either of us was a minor. If we put aside the fact that Doug is happily married and the thought of bonking my cousin is gives me the heebie-geebies), I could, hypothetically, see that some people (although not us) might find a physical attraction and fall in love. Indeed, our close genetic relationship makes us extremely compatible – we are more like identical twins than cousins. In our case, there being no possibility of children (I’m past reproductive age) and there being no question of former psychological abuse or coercion and given that both of us are fully capable of giving informed consent, I can see no reason why we shouldn’t, technically, be afforded the same rights as anyone else. Our legal union would harm no-one.

    Personally (and I stress that this is my personal view only), with the proviso that such couples are responsible about genetic testing prior to reproducing, I don’t think allowing such couples the benefit of a state-sanctioned union would hurt anyone. But, the problem here is that, as far as incestuous relationships go, such psychologically sound couplings would be in the extreme minority. So, it would be very wrong of you to take my sympathy for the exceptions to the rule to suggest this supports your ‘slippery slope’ argument. It doesn’t.

    While this is my personal view, governments tend to look at the ‘big picture’, and this is clearly that while, technically, there may be ‘consent’ between two closely related people, the likelihood that the consent is free of coercion or the result of previous abuse is simply too high to justify giving such relationships free rein.

    To clarify, this issue of consent or coercion, so dominant within incestuous relationships, does not commonly arise between two unrelated adults of the same sex – at least not any more that it might arise between heterosexual couples.

    Now, to polygamy. Again, the justifiable concerns here are consent and the unequal power relationships which tend to proliferate within such domestic arrangements. In closed polygamous communities, the question must arise as to whether children are given exposure to non-polygamous marriages so they can legitimately give informed consent to a polygamous marriage. As with religion, there’s no freedom if you don’t know there are other options.

    Personally, I have no ethical or moral problem with polygamy among consenting, fully-informed adults, providing there is no psychological, physical or financial abuse involved. But, taking the governmental ‘big picture’ view, there is such a prevalence of abuse within such relationships and also concerns about the abuse of government welfare, that I think the likelihood of same-sex marriage leading to the legalisation of polygamous marriage is nil.

    To reiterate, the major concerns about incestuous and polygamous marriages are the heightened possibility that the participants are not psychologically equipped or sufficiently exposed to a full range of options to meaningfully provide full and informed consent. There are also reasonable concerns about abuse within these relationships and an appropriate concern for the health and welfare of the children involved.

    On the other hand, same sex marriages between consenting adults are no more likely to be abusive or coercive than those between heterosexuals. The overwhelming consensus of psychological, neurological and medical experts is that homosexuality is not a psychological disorder – so they are no more likely to be psychologically impaired than the rest of us.

    Further, the only danger to the children of these relationships seems to be from the bigots who hurl derogatory abuse from the sidelines and then sanctimoniously wring their hands and say, “Oh, but what about the poor children who are hurt by having to live as social outcasts?” It makes me sick. These are the very same arguments that were made against inter-racial marriage, and look how pathetic and despicable those good Christians who opposed miscegenation (based on their deep devotion to scripture) look now. In both cases, the very people who cause the problem are the ones talking about how much they worry about the children! If they’d just shut the fuck up the children wouldn’t have to put up with the abuse.

    If you’re about to argue that every child has a right to a mother and a father, then get out and campaign to remove the children of heterosexual single parents and put them with foster parents, then I’ll take you seriously.

    In a civil society (in which people, even the religious, act civilly) there should be no reason to worry about whether your child is straight or gay. However, to anticipate an argument, the children of same-sex couples are no more likely to become homosexual than the children of heterosexual couples. Homosexuality isn’t something you can ‘catch’! One survey showed that the only significant difference between the children of same-sex parents and heterosexual parents is that the former tended to be more accepting of diversity – a bit like Jesus, actually.

    Homosexuality is NOT synonymous with pedophilia, so the children of same-sex couples are no more at risk of sexual abuse than those of heterosexuals – and, some surveys suggest, considerably less. In fact, surveys show that there is virtually no sexual abuse recorded within lesbian households. (There are some papers which suggest the opposite, but scratch the surface and you’re bound to find a religious bias and a reference to the deeply discredited NARTH in the footnotes).

    If you are going to deny people the right to marry because children might be sexually abused, then you had best campaign to make heterosexual marriage illegal because this is where most of the abuse is going on. If you’re going to make marriage illegal because of the high possibility that offspring might be gay, then you’d better outlaw heterosexual marriages because only heterosexual couplings result in gay children.

    In conclusion, I think the responsibility of our government should be to base their decisions, not on concepts of morality, but on issues of informed consent and the psychological and physical welfare of the parties to the relationship and the children involved.

    On this basis, I can see no reason whatsoever not to legalise gay marriage – although there may be good reason to protect the children of such unions from the hateful and inaccurate characterisations of their parents from religious bigots.

    Reply
    1. AndrewFinden

      Oh dear Chrys. Oh dear.

      No, not the trojan horse you seem to have assumed – there was a very good reason I asked that you not make such an assumption. Excuse me a moment while I dust off some of the rubble of what was my windmill…

      You did manage to basically answer my question in there, amongst the barrage of false assumptions.

      I’m disappointed that you jumped to such assumptions, especially when, if I recall correctly, I’ve made it clear to you in the past that I do not object to the government redefining marriage to include homosexual couples.

      So before you start accusing me of “deny[ing] people the right to marry” please get your facts straight.

      As most of what you wrote does not apply to my position, I see no need to actually respond to it.

      Reply
  10. Mitch S

    I think I may be in the minority when it comes to this issue. I am fairly certain that everything about the OLO case played out exactly as it should have done. In this case, comments were made about the nature of homosexuality – they offended some people. Those people took their concerns to the sponsors, who withdrew their advertising from the site. The message to me seems to be that you can have as much freedom of speech as you like, but nobody is obliged to pay for it. This is inarguable. If I don’t like your opinion, I don’t have to donate money to you. That principle works in every situation sans Government, which is why governments are bound by free speech laws. Or at least give the impression that they are.

    The principles of Freedom of speech do assert that you have to take the good speech with the bad. Offense, bigotry and hate … unfortunately, these things are allowed in a society where free speech is valued. But in this case, there was no infringement of free speech and this principle does not apply. If the sponsors don’t like it, they don’t have to keep giving the site money. That simple. A commenter on OLO exercised his free speech right to bigotry. A reader exercised his free speech right to protest to the sponsors. The sponsors exercised their right to withdraw their ads from any website they deem unfit to carry them. From ‘Post Comment’ to now, everything has been entirely above board, legal and perfectly acceptable.

    DanDare, nobody set up a ‘no-go zone’ here. Anyone can still say whatever they want about homosexuality. The ANZ bank and IBM don’t have to pay them to do it, is all. These two corporate entities may just – shock and horror – share Chrys’s point of view that compassion and humanity are fundamental to the happiness of everyday Australians, not to mention important aspects of their brand.

    The accusation of a secondary boycott here are vacuous and I can’t quite believe that they were entertained by so many people for so long. IBM and ANZ are customers. They purchased screen real estate from a website. Withdrawing their money because they are no longer happy with the service being provided them can no more be considered a boycott than if I chose to drink pepsi instead of coke tomorrow.

    In short, I think the whole OLO debacle was remarkable only in the sense that what actually happened was so misconstrued. The ‘freedom of speech’ label didn’t really apply at any stage. What I admire about Chrys’s stand on this issue was the way she was willing to thoroughly look in to the matter and confident enough in herself to follow her conscience where it led. I can do nothing but aspire to that. Well done, Chrys. Like I said, I think everyone and everything did the right thing on this one.

    Reply

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