Tonight Michael and I attended a debate run by the Wheeler Centre, held at the magnificent Melbourne Town Hall. The topic was “Freedom of Speech is over-rated”, and was part of their IQ² Debate series.
On the For side were Marcia Langton, Catherine Deveny and Michael Gawenda, and Against Arnold Zable, Gretel Killeen and Julian Burnside.
There seemed to be no doubt from those on the stage that the notion of free speech is something that is valued, but as Deveny suggested, it’s really an illusion in Australia. There were some really great points made, afterwards some great audience questions. The cast spoke with passion and clear thoughts about free speech.
I’m all for free speech, I value it. That means at times I have to agree that some people can say things that aren’t particularly pleasant and with which I disagree. It also means that sometimes I get offended at the words that pour out of someone else’s mouth. I’m fine with that, I understand that taking offence is my responsibility, and as much as I want them to shut up, I accept that they have a right to express their thoughts, opinions and ideas.
I think that there is a distinction between free speech and hate speech. It’s not ok to make derogatory remarks in regards to race, sex, sexual identity or disability. So we put limits on our right to say what we think, and with just cause. Treating people with contempt just because they are different to you is not ok.
We were preparing young English boys
Then he paused, the audience broke into laughter, Pell’s facial expression went from “What? Oh! Not what I meant” followed by a look of “Why don’t you lot grow up”, he sort of snarled and finished the sentence with:
for Holy Communion
So the full sentence, just so we’re clear on this:
Were preparing young english boys…. for Holy Communion
Of course, Twitter immediately lit up with those words and it bounded around very quickly, finally ending up as a graphic with Pell’s head and those words but without the holy communion bit.
Pell and the Catholic Church, the same church that is at odds with victims of child abuse perpetrated by their own priests, in Victoria and indeed around the world, then started legal proceedings by demanding that Twitter remove the offending tweets and the graphic image from its servers.
The letter from the law firm, Corrs, Chambers, Westgarth, to Twitter says in part:
By intentionally and maliciously failing to include the words “for holy communion”, the publication (the tweet) ridicules Cardinal Pell and conveys to Australian readers the false and seriously defamatory imputation that Cardinal Pell is associated with the sexual abuse of young boys.
Yes, that’s exactly right. The head of the church in Australia is held in ridicule.
Is this a step too far? Yes, it is. To suggest that someone is guilty of sexual abuse as a joke isn’t really funny. I understand that priests and sex abuse sort of go together in plenty of comedic situations, but of course, those that abuse are few, those that don’t are no doubt in the majority.
I think that Pell and the church’s response, however, is over the top. Sure, Pell can defend his reputation, he’s allowed. I think the threat of legal action against Twitter and Deveny was unwarranted.
I can’t help but draw a comparison between the hatred and bigotry that is thrown out by the church with regards to gay people. Over the years I’ve had to stand back and watch the friendships of my children ebb and flow as people found out about my sexuality. Sometimes the kids knew the reason why a friend from the catholic primary school they attended suddenly stopped being a friend, sometimes they didn’t know why that friend couldn’t sleep over or come to their birthday party. The reason is that some people equate being gay with being a pedophile. That isn’t the slightest bit true, but that doesn’t stop people from thinking it.
But many others have demonstrated, I have been told recently, that there is a relationship between homosexuality and pedophilia. That is true. That is the problem.
Do you have any idea how offensive I find such remarks?
This from a church that still describes gay people as intrinsically disordered, and contrary to the natural order.1
It’s fine for Pell to defend his reputation and to take action against those who he perceives as trying to destroy it. Quite frankly I think he’s got bigger problems than being offended by some public chatter.
In all fairness though, who’s holding the church accountable for the defamation that we gay people have been subjected to for the last two thousand years? Where is our justice, where is our right to keep our reputations in tact? The words of the church have no doubt contributed to the premature death of many young people over the years. Kids that haven’t been able to find the right way to freely express what’s happening to them. Riddled with doubt because the faith they belong to considers them against the natural order.
Free speech is indeed a wonderful thing, but only when we all have the right and the access to easily address and redress the imbalance. We can’t all launch legal action against comedians and international corporations when we feel hurt.