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Pens and Swords

Freedoms of speech, expression and association are historically very rare and precious rights. They are markers of liberty. They are the bane of the powerful and a reproach to the fanatic. They have been hard won and are still under constant threat. Here in Tasmania the “Liberal” government is doing its damnedest to deny freedom of expression to people who object to the excesses of corporate greed and government malfeasance.

Such freedoms are also open to interpretation, and this is where we enter a minefield. Liberty isn’t license. Justice demands we don’t simply to do as we will at others’ expense. The rights of all have to be recognised. Neither are the freedoms of speech and expression absolute.

This is no simple matter. It can’t be reduced to slogans. The whole ghastly Charlie episode should make us think more deeply about the multi-layered implications of the two models of pen and sword. Then we reveal more questions than answers. Its complex and its difficult.

It behoves us to remember that the pen, like any other tool can be wielded by all manner of people in an almost infinite variety of ways. In the wrong, arrogant or careless hands it can be more harmful than the sword. It can be a lethal weapon. And it has many edges.

Reasonable people might agree that if these rights are used to bully, hurt, or harm others, or to inspire violence against them, they are being abused. In Australia the law rightly has a say in this, as in section 18c of the Racial Discrimination Act of 1975.

Where do we draw the line? What on Earth is “political correctness’? Isn’t it just a really a stupidly clumsy synonym for “politeness”, “consideration”, or “good manners?

But satire is not polite so where should we stand? For instance: satire used to mock, defy expose or discomfit bullies, bigots and the over-mighty is surely justified. Satire simply used to bully other people surely isn’t.

Is satire justifiable when it offends people’s world views or belief systems? Yes, probably, as satire is always going to offend someone, so why should ideologues or the religious be spared?

If fear of retribution stifles satire or any other form of justifiable criticism then our whole notion of liberty is threatened.

Can we expect people to risk their children’s lives to make a pointed joke. There is no doubting the bravery of the satirists and cartoonists who set out to mock sacred cows, gods, the Pope, or Muhammad, but their wisdom could be open to question. Should sleeping sacred cows be left to lie? Is the game worth the candle? If it isn’t are we giving in to pre-enlightenment extremism and cultural imperialism?

The reasons for sparing the lash of tongue or pen have to do with consideration of the pain likely to be inflicted on the innocent or defenceless.  It becomes a matter of sensibilities rather than just enjoying clever, hairy-chested mockery.

I don’t know the answers to any of these questions but I think they have to be asked. Ultimately the arguments boil down to questions of intent, effect, affect, justice, fairness, consequences and judgement.

I do know that if we wish to defend our liberties we have to be prepared to defend those who push the boundaries, provided they comply with our equally important notions of fairness.

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