Free Speech and Honest Speech
By Professor Graham Maddox They called him ‘honest Abe’. Could this really be a politician they were speaking about? Yet Abraham Lincoln is honoured throughout the world for creating one of the biggest social upheavals in any country: the emancipation of American slaves. He paid for it with his life, falling to the assassin’s bullet, but also with the lives of many thousands of young men who fought out the civil war that Lincoln’s bold policy provoked. Great reforms are seldom achieved without fierce opposition.
The thing about Lincoln, who gave us the best succinct statement of democratic government — government of the people, by the people, for the people — was that he unveiled his thoughts in an open and honest way. His was supremely the art of persuasion, bringing stern opponents around to his reasoned thinking. He himself was always steadfastly opposed to racial discrimination and the enslavement of human beings, but he initiated the war in defence of the Union of the United States, and in defence of democracy. The country had been irreconcilably divided between defenders and opponents of slavery, and Lincoln, quoting scripture, said that a house divided against itself cannot stand. There was the skilful politician. The emancipation of slaves came as a necessary consequence of the defence of democracy.
We live in different times from Lincoln. People rarely give up time to listen to long and detailed speeches. It is the world of the doorstep grab, the pithy (excuse the lisp) one-liner, the slick headline and the endless prattle of tweets. These abbreviated statements mostly give half the truth, or often enough, completely distort the truth. This is damaging to the political life of our community.
Our communities are built on conversation. The freedom to speak as one wishes is the foundation of all freedoms, and the lifeblood of the democratic community. In political life a high standard of honesty is necessary to maintain stability. In the first recorded democracy, ancient Athens, all male citizens were required to govern the country in the assembly. They were required to swear oaths that they would vote in accordance with the law, and not to destabilize the place by seditious action. It was their form of constitutional restraint.
Keeping the language honest was essential to forming agreements and understandings that produced stable government. In a very famous passage of the history of Thucydides, the chronicler of the deadly war between Sparta and Athens and their respective allies, political language became entirely corrupted. Following the civil war in one of the allied states, Corcyra, there was a wave of uprisings throughout Greece, accompanied by a complete break-down of civic life. ‘Words had to change their meanings…’ wrote Thucydides (3.10). Reckless, rash action was called ‘courage’; careful consideration before action was called ‘cowardice’; to act in moderation was called ‘unmanliness’; ruthless violence was called ‘manliness’.
We have plenty of our own changed words. Shooting your own troops is called ‘friendly fire’; bombing women and children is called ‘collateral damage’; killing the enemy is called ‘wasting’ them; torture is called ‘extraordinary rendition’ or ‘enhanced interrogation’; global warming is softened into ‘climate change’; a price on carbon production is called a ‘toxic tax’ when all the toxicity comes from the carbon burning; and now a budget repairing tax is called a ‘levy’; immigration policy is called ‘border protection’ and, best of all, asylum seekers, committing no crime and breaking no law, are called ‘illegals’ by official government instruction. They are called ‘queue jumpers’ when there is no queue. Given that our governments, on both sides of politics, systematically denigrate and humiliate destitute and persecuted asylum seekers, it is little wonder that surveys of the public show that around sixty per cent of our population want harsher treatment for asylum seekers.
Oh for an Australian Lincoln, who would tell the truth, and aspire to lead the country into a more just stand, where human dignity is respected wherever it is found. Instead, we are led by fear — fear of losing office — and so our politicians on all sides rush down the short cut of appealing to the lowest instincts of the populace, when Australians, being generally decent, are capable of much better. It is worse than that. For some reason, our ‘leaders’ are leading the people into selfish, xenophobic and racist attitudes, although under the regime of ‘Newspeak’, of course such would never be admitted. The lesson is that leadership can work, but at present it works in quite the wrong direction.
Our universities have a time-honoured commission to help create a more enlightened public. Yet universities are by no means immune to the corrosion of corrupted language. That language is not in itself sinister, but it represents the infusion of business practices which are distracting from the main purpose of higher education: to enlighten students, prepare them for professions with high ethical standards, and to conduct original research which, besides expanding the world’s knowledge base, will inform public debate, draw attention to public and private injustice, and assist in technological progress. A moment’s reflection will remind us that the purpose of business is to make profits, and that is by no means the same thing as seeking truth wherever it may lead.
In the halcyon days of quality assurance we were told emphatically that, ‘whether you like it or not, the university is a business’. Of course universities must manage large funds in an efficient manner, but there the resemblance to business should end. We were then urged to start talking in terms of clients, customers and stakeholders. The public good ran a distant second. We had management plans, core business, (necessary) marketing campaigns, ‘smarter’ rather than ‘harder’ work, Presidents and CEOs, had to meet deadlines by ‘close of business’, while teachers had to produce key result areas (KRAs) and key performance indicators (KPIs). Communities of scholars quickly became subject to ‘management’, with increasing powers of control over academic life. None of this was conducive to free speech.
The federal minister of education, Christopher Pyne, has recently been reported as wanting our universities to become more like American ones. There are many very distinguished universities in America, but a quick riffle through American newspaper sites will reveal many headlines like ‘what is wrong with the university system?’ or even ‘universities are dying’. Almost all except the famous, massively endowed universities are in deep financial trouble, while students pile up huge debts for inordinately high tuition fees. Moreover, there has allegedly been a concerted effort to reduce public funding to state universities, and one wonders whether that is what Mr Pyne has his eyes on. An American professor of English, Christopher Newfield, has produced a startling book called Unmaking the Public University. He argues that powerful financial elites have worked hard to reduce public funding of universities because they have been places which produce an articulate, politically aware and active middle class, and which themselves have been sites of vigorous political protest. The universities had seen their role as promoting informed and articulate free speech, but contrary forces have been determined to limit freedom of expression and the practice of communal democracy.
If Australia is destined to succumb to similar pressures, we are living in dangerous times indeed.