Freedom of Speech: Rights and Responsibilities

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We have to carry on until Islam is rendered as banal as Catholicism

Stéphane Charbonnier

Thoughts and notes from the Centre for Theology and Public Issues’ forum on Freedom of Speech, an event from the perspective of the Charlie Hebdo killings.  Lots of thoughts, no definite answers.

There is an ethical obligation against gratuitous offence that allows the right to do wrong in an ethical society, a society that tolerates different moral points of view.  There is no absolute freedom of speech.  “I” want to be censor, we want what should be censored from our perspective, what I say goes (or doesn’t go, it gets stopped).  Taking offense is not a legitimate reason to curtail freedom of expression.  Offense is subjective.  We have no right not to be offended.  Don’t seek out moral outrage.  Encourage civility and respect the other.  Legislation creates an uncivil society.

The law is culturally biased.  In New Zealand it has a heritage in a Christian-dominant society.  Blasphemy in New Zealand was last prosecuted in the 1920s.  We have a hate speech law.  It needs the approval of the Attorney General to prosecute and proof of the intent to incite wider hostility against race.  Especially advantageous to Jews, Gypsies and Arabs.

Christianity has spent the last few centuries being acclimatised into the secular society.  Islam has become used to being an invaded society.  We need to be aware of other world religions.  Question the unquestionable: the sacred practice, the symbols and the doctrines.  Question who has privilege and who has power.

New Zealand Literature 1910

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Barbara RyanAnother open lecture from the Centre of the Book.  I didn’t look closely at the synopsis and thought it might be an overview of what New Zealanders were reading in the decade on the eve of World War One.  I called that one wrongly.  Instead Professor Barbara Ryan of the University of Singapore, a migrant American, talked about looking for quotes from the forgotten American humourist David Harum.

David Harum was the pseudonym for Edward Westscott.  He wrote one book about working in the horse trade, but died before it was published and then became so popular that everyone was quoting it.  Its appeal was that it recorded a broad vernacular language without being offensive or provocative.  Being recognised posthumously probably didn’t harm his reputation either.  New Zealanders picked up on this popularity as well.  References to him appear in the newspapers of the website Papers Past for New Zealand.  Ryan cited the quote (I’m paraphrasing here): “A dog needs a requisite number of fleas.  It keeps him from thinking about the status of being a dog”.David Harum O

The Manawatu Times picked up on Harum as an example of story-telling for New Zealanders to emulate in an editorial of 1909.  Professor Ryan argues that what the Manawatu Times was advocating was the emergent of a New Zealand voice and accent, the demos from the natio, to use her language, the people from the nation.  When I spoke to her afterwards I suggested that this was interesting because the newspapers at the time were reporting annual elocution competitions like national events.  We see two conflicting impulses, the emergence of national dialect alongside the prestige language of empire.

I find myself returning to Arnold Wall’s 1938 preface to New Zealand English, his guide to correct pronunciation:

On a previous occasion, when commenting on the pronunciation of English in New Zealand, the author said: “I would not have it thought that I lay too much stress on this detail of ‘good speech’ as a part of the make-up of the New Zealander. I am fully aware of its comparative unimportance. I remember how, at the outbreak of the war in 1914, seeing that young students whose speech left much to be desired yet died gloriously on Gallipoli, I told myself that I must never criticize New Zealand speech unkindly, and in making the above statement I have borne this resolution in mind.”

Jane Kelsey and Josh Freeman at Burns Hall

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This takes priority over other stuff to write: a report on a conversation about the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement held in Dunedin at the Burns Hall of the First Church of Otago.  The talk was presented by Pr Jane Kelsey and Dr Josh Freeman.  Jane Kelsey is a leading voice among TPPA watchers.  There is a good chance I won’t get to the March against the TPPA this weekend and I’m posting this report.

Imagine the big corporations making a wish list.  Their agenda is how to make government work for them. Imagine they are given the right to make the rules to suit themselves, to impose disciplines on government.

There are few barriers in the trade of commodities in New Zealand.  We export resources, most of our manufacture has moved offshore.  The big players are interested in our domestic policies that hinder the movement of data, money, ideas and people.  They want to remove those barriers, to have a say in what kind of rules and policies a government can make, on social issues, job creation, environment, business, to know who gets a say, who gets to ask the questions, and what questions.

Twelve countries are involved in the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement, an arc of countries around the Pacific Rim: Canada, United States, Mexico, Peru, Chile, Australia, New Zealand, Brunei, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Japan.

America’s involvement  in the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement is two-fold. It wants to maintain its military presence in the Pacific Rim, especially to contain China, one of New Zealand’s biggest trading partners; and America wants to maintain its economic interests.

New Zealand is interested in cementing relations in the strategic alliance.  It wants to be seen as a good player.

Outside the negotiations no one has seen the background documents to these talks.  What’s more all background documents will remain secret until four years after the agreement has been signed, cementing a done deal and nobody’s political career gets hurt.  They have their pensions to think about.  What looks to be in place is that:

  1. Banks remain on steroids
  2. Intervention in government procurement (creating local jobs)
  3. Restriction on state-owned enterprises in public functions other than commercial
  4. Intervention in copyright and medicine policy
  5. Protection for foreign investors: ‘fair and equitable treatment’ so government will not change rules on foreign investors

Indigenous rights, such as the Treaty of Waitangi, will not be applied in relation to these issues.  Free trade arguments take priority.

Trade issues will affect our health.  Drug companies do not like Pharmac where it is being effective in making available medicines to New Zealanders at low cost, and would be quite happy to undermime its authority.  They would be happy with inequalities in health, that medicines would be costed out of the reach of some patients, and other medicines would be rationed.  Nor is it convenient that governments can legislate in relation to smoking, sugary foods, or the environment in relation to health.  Already governments move cautiously in response to the litigation of corporations.  This is enough to make New Zealand doctors unhappy.  When Dr Freeman put the hat around for funding for an advertisement against the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement on health his fellow doctors trumped up the cost within five days.

Time is against this agreement.  The Obama administration would like to pass it before June 2015, before the American political system girds its loins to enter the electoral phase of its cycle.  After that period it could fall off the table like the Multilateral Agreement on Investment before it.  We don’t need to give more power to citizens of big states, like the United States and the European Union, to sue us.