Everyone who’s taken a first-year Political Science unit (POLS1101 with Mark Beeson eat your heart out) is made acutely aware of Liberalism. That much-vaunted political philosophy upon the shoulder of which Western society lay. “Give me liberty, or give me death!” cried Patrick Henry in 1775. “You should stop shagging men!” cried David Leyonhjelm in 2018. Compare the pair. One spoke boldly and eloquently in defiance of oppression, while the other is a hypocritical bigot, using liberalism as a cudgel to browbeat those who do not align with his own narrow view. Leyonhjelm’s comments against Sarah Hanson-Young in the Senate chamber this week are merely the most recent in a long run of despicable quotes. His consistent “free speech” defence is bullshit, cowardly, and hypocritical.
This political shit-storm began when David Leyonhjelm was “offended” by a comment that Sarah Hanson-Young made that not only can he not recall, it was not aimed directly at him, or anybody at all. Leyonhjlem responded that she should “stop shagging men” and in later interviews on Sky, made reference to “rumours” about Hanson-Young’s sexual activity. In any other workplace, this would constitute sexual harassment and defamation, but because he’s a Senator, and a Liberal Democrat Senator at that, it’s free speech. This man slut-shamed a female Senator, and as a result laid bare his views on women. How can one advocate freedom of speech under the banner of liberalism, yet deny a female the free use of her own body? In an interview with 3AW’s Neil Mitchell in the midst of the Banarby Joyce affair, he articulated that a person’s sex life had nothing to do with their performance in Parliament. What I’m sure he meant to say was that it has nothing to do with a man’s performance in Parliament. This example is indicative of the hypocrisy that lies at the very heart of liberalism.
The problem with just taking POLS1101 is that it gives many (and I am talking mostly of the privileged classes here) the idea that they have the right to think, say and do whatever they please, so long as it does not ‘harm’ others (thanks, JSM). Where this all starts to go awry is when it is learned without empathy, and hence phrases like “I wouldn’t be offended if they said that about me” start to rear their ugly head. Ah yes of course, wealthy white man in power, you don’t see why it might harm an individual or community, so you should be free to say it. You don’t see the harm it causes because you don’t experience life through their eyes. This is Leyonhjlem’s issue.
Since the European Age of Enlightenment, liberalism has been used by those in power to entrench their power structures in a more palatable way, to pacify resistance. It has also been marked by hypocrisy. The Founding Fathers of the United States were primarily slave-owners. “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” did not apply to the African-Americans who were worked to the bone, or the Native Americans whose land they stole. Australia’s equivalent hypocrisy was the now-defunct s.127 of the Australian Constitution, discounting Indigenous Australians from the census, in addition to our dark history of ‘blackbirding’ and north-west pearl divers.
Unfortunately, the American view and conception of liberalism and freedom of speech too-often creeps into the Australian context. And why not? We have a shared language, culture, and similar political and legal systems and institutions – why should liberalism be any different? Well, like many differences between American and Australian spelling (jail vs. gaol, anyone?), it is bound to confound and frustrate. The differences between our systems and culture run far deeper, to the roots of our individual political systems. The USA has a Bill of Rights which entrenches, among other things, American citizens’ right to freedom of speech. Australia’s constitution does not make any explicit reference to the protection of freedom of speech, leaving it rather ambiguous. Rather, the High Court has upheld in several cases that the constitution merely implies freedom of speech. As a result, Australians’ right to freedom of speech is largely outlined through precedents in Australia’s common law, meaning that it can evolve over time with the nation.
David Leyonhjelm’s retreat to “Nah it’s free speech bro” is a reflection of this hypocrisy. His belief system informs his use of liberalism, when it should be the other way around. It’s like the annoying kid who would say “barlies” during a game of chasey, intent that his interpretation of what constituted “barlies” was the only correct one – even though it constantly shifted depending on what they were next to at the time. Shifting goalposts is an age-old strategy in argumentation, from Plato’s struggle against the Sophists, through to the demagogic commentators on Fox and Sky News today. That’s the problem with trying to attack a philosophy, especially one as broad and open to interpretation as liberalism. However, the fruitlessness of such attacks does not make using it as a shield against criticism, as Leyonhjelm has, any less pathetic. Leyonhjelm himself has quite a history of being unaccountably offended by the words and actions of others when they actually affect him.
The type of liberalism commonly espoused by Leyonhjelm (and cretins like Mark Latham and Alan Jones) is one that places ultimate value on the “freedom of speech”. The problem is that unfettered speech can and does harm individuals and communities. It can incite hatred and, in the case of Leyonhjlem’s comments against Hanson-Young, use sexuality as a weapon against someone because of their gender. Leyonhjlem’s hypocritical view of liberalism leaves us to beg the question: at what point will the cognitive dissonance swirling around in Leyonhjelm’s peanut brain simply become too much, break free of its confines, and explode all over the Senate chamber? He’s not a liberal at all. He doesn’t fight for equality. He only wants the right to say whatever he wants, and to not be criticised for it.
The great thing about Australia’s brand of freedom of speech is that when someone is acting like a dickhead, we have a right to call him out on it.
Brad Griffin | @Knifey-spoony
Brad is a Political Theory enthusiast, Pelican tragic.