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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019) and AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021).

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Saturday self-promotion - Celebrating the demise of Gawker

With Gawker having finally been destroyed this week, here is a link to my ABC Religion and Ethics Portal article on the subject of Hulk Hogan's lawsuit. Published back in June, the piece is entitled "Threat to Free Speech? Why I Don't Stand with Gawker."

A large sample:
Governments can restrict the exchange of opinions and ideas, and they frequently strive to do so. Agencies of the State wield frightening powers, including the power to imprison and sometimes even the power to kill, and this should make us especially anxious to keep them under control through public sentiment, constitutional restrictions, and whatever other effective means we can find. We should be very wary of government censorship.

In fact, I go further in opposing campaigns to suppress opinion and discussion through the use of "merely" social power. Boycotts, public shamings, the practice no-platforming speakers and campaigns to have individuals fired for their opinions can all be used to disrupt even quite powerful opponents. Worse, they can intimidate less-powerful opponents into silence.

Perhaps these tactics cannot be prohibited by law: we may run into unwanted paradoxes if we try to ban certain kinds of speech - such as calls for boycotts - because they are used to punish other kinds of speech. All the same, we should criticise the contemporary tactics of suppression and punishment, and we can resist the temptation to indulge in them ourselves.

All in all, there are good reasons to support the free exchange of opinions and ideas, and to resist state censorship. But does this entail that we must defend all speech, no matter how extreme, that invades the privacy of individuals? Must we view Hogan's lawsuit against Gawker, with its initial courtroom verdict in his favour, as an unacceptable kind of state censorship?

When we're thinking about such issues, it can be helpful to wonder what the great liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill, author of On Liberty (1859), might have thought. Mill was not an infallible seer, but his work remains useful for debates about individual liberty and freedom of speech.

Mill was concerned with what he called a "liberty of thought and discussion" about topics of general importance. As he well understood, the absence of state censorship of opinions is one requirement to achieve a society with this kind of liberty. Thus, he opposed governmental censorship, but he would also have opposed social actions aimed at suppressing disliked opinions, such as organised boycotting of people for their social, moral, religious, or political views.

At the same time, it's clear enough from Mill's body of work that he did not expect us to put up with damaging lies about individual citizens. Almost certainly, he would not have supported Gawker-style violations of personal privacy.

In my own case, I advocate the legal right and practical ability of artists, authors and ordinary people to express themselves frankly and fearlessly. I worry whenever I see ideas, opinions, and cultural productions (such as literary and artistic works) interpreted unfairly or censoriously. This distorts and hinders, rather than assists, the search for truth.

Whenever I can, I'm happy to be charitable, but I can't find much to say in Gawker's favour. Gawker Media and its chic defenders cannot seriously claim that gutter-level journalism, such as publication of the Hogan sex tape, needs protection to enable liberty of thought and discussion. No intellectual or cultural purpose was advanced by publishing the tape. Instead, Gawker engaged in a hurtful, damaging, contemptuous, and unjustified attack on an individual. Even free speech advocates can support narrowly framed laws to protect us from the worst such attacks.

Legal solutions frequently have problems: laws that restrict speech are often plagued by vagueness, scope creep and expansive interpretations. But even when the law is not a good solution - which remains to be seen with cases like Hogan's - we can repudiate organisations that engage in serious kinds of defamation or brutal invasions of personal privacy. Our liberty of thought and discussion does not require these smears and invasions, and it may even be hindered by them.
And as a bonus, in case you missed it - my piece at The Conversation, republished on this blog - about an earlier Gawker disaster.

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