OPINION: The recent decision to ban Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux from council venues in Auckland has highlighted a disturbing trend in the way that some New Zealanders are willing to take action to suppress free speech and robust debate.
I'm talking, of course, about the harassment of Marama Davidson.
- Green Party co-leader Marama Davidson receives death threats
- Explainer: What do far-right Canadian speakers Stefan Molyneux and Lauren Southern believe?
- Far-right speaker Lauren Southern says she's 'proud to be white'
The Green co-leader had no role in the decision beyond posting support of it, using that whole free speech thing we keep hearing so much about. She was then treated to the standard quality of debate that you'd expect strangers to offer Māori women on the internet, by which I mean threats of violence.
Davidson is more than capable of defending herself, and has written her own thoughts refocusing on what she sees as the important issues at hand. But while she's probably correct that this treatment is "an indication that [she's] speaking out exactly as [she] should be," the fact that violent threats are such an expected part of having an opinion in public (at least online) still deserves a closer look, especially when so much attention has been given to free speech recently.
Threats and harassment are a free speech issue because they serve, often intentionally, to drive people off platforms and stop them expressing their views. Targeted threats, hate speech, and harassment have been used for everything from pushing women out of politics to driving Star Warsactresses away from social media, effectively silencing them.
Before anyone starts flipping out about snowflakes and safe spaces, let's take a moment to remind ourselves that the Canadians were not and are not banned from entering New Zealand or speaking in general. They were denied access to a specific local government venue. Their views, and views like theirs, are all around the internet and easy to access if anyone really wants to go out and valiantly attempt to engage the far right in reasoned debate.
- Far-right Canadian speakers granted visas to visit New Zealand
- Free speech group says 'dangerous precedent' will be set if they lose lawsuit
If the rallying point for free speech in this instance is whether extremist speakers are given access to Auckland Council venues, then it's less about whether they are simply allowed to speak and more about whether government bodies have a duty to facilitate their doing so. If we are going to consider the active ways free expression should be supported, then we should probably take a broader look into it instead of just boosting the most controversial speakers we can find onto a platform, quoting some misplaced Orwell at them, and calling it a functioning democracy.
For a start, let's take a look at the relationship between the far right and freedom of expression. Southern and Molyneux are just a couple of the latest players on the far right's growing list of activists, advocates, and professional trolls that cast themselves as folk heroes in a glorious struggle for free speech. Other recent entries include Tommy Robinson and Ann Coulter, who demonstrated last year in the US that giving a self-styled free speech martyr the platform they're ostensibly wanting back doesn't mean they won't just reject it to keep that sweet, sweet outrage coming. Beneath the snowflake jokes and the racism, it's pretty clear that the far right really likes playing the victim.
"Far right" is admittedly a pretty general term for the collection of seemingly disparate groups on the extreme right of the political spectrum that build their identities around different alt-s, -isms, -phobias, and the emulation of Nazis to varying degrees of professed irony. It's true the far right aren't a single group with a single ideology, but they're not completely separate either: a 2017 report by extremism think tank the Institute of Strategic Dialogue found that far right groups were converging online around shared goals and grievances, actively collaborating to swap tips and attempt to manipulate elections.
Fringe groups they observed actively played on free speech grievances and anti-immigration sentiment in an attempt to radicalise more mainstream 'normies.' A different report by Data & Society documented campaigns of media manipulation and "gamified harassment" that aimed to distort, stifle, and control public debate.
So there's a purpose behind the martyrdom narrative. Even when they're not being seen as folk heroes pushing the bounds of political correctness, far right personalities tend to get treated like racist canaries who need to be kept chirping at all costs, lest we all perish. This is despite fairly clear instrumentality when it comes to freedom of expression: the alt-right's Richard Spencer straight up admitted to using free speech as a tool while not actually supporting it (that co-host Gregory Conte needed to ask "are we even pro free speech?" is equally telling).
Obviously not every bigoted or aggressive comment is part of a far right conspiracy, and the extreme right doesn't have a monopoly on harassment - that shit is everywhere. We don't currently have many studies on far-right groups in New Zealand, but Kirsty Johnson's 2017 investigation didn't find anything as big or dangerous-looking as the far right in the US or Europe. Dank memes are probably not going to turn your kids into Nazis.
But the far right does engage in harassment and manipulation with a purpose, and we probably shouldn't ignore that. Nor should we ignore that even in garden-variety internet mudslinging - like in this analysis of the Guardian's comment section - a much bigger share of vitriol tends to be directed at those who aren't white men, even in places where white men are the largest proportion of those doing the talking.
Abuse online may not always come from the far right, but a lot of it serves their purposes, making it that much harder for members of historically disenfranchised groups to speak up or exist in public without harassment or fear. Social scientist Barbara Perry argues that hate crimes are used to control those who "have stepped outside the boxes" they're expected to stay in, and online harassment appears to play a similar role.
In not facilitating a platform for far right speakers, Auckland Live was refusing to legitimise a political movement that has not much at all to do with free speech, and a lot to do with silencing its opponents. Clearly, not everyone believes that this was a good decision, but even those who don't aren't benefiting from letting a couple of fringe extremists make the discussion around free expression all about them.
Free speech isn't just an issue that becomes relevant every time someone throws a stink about how hard it is to be racist these days. It's of daily importance for anyone that wants those without historical privilege and adamantine skin to have an equal part in public life, online and offline. As Whitney Phillips writes, the far right is casting itself as the hero in a story it doesn't even believe in, and we need to stop playing along.
Philippa McLoughlin is currently studying for a Masters of Conflict and Terrorism Studies at the University of Auckland.