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Hysterical Freedom, by Simon Cooper

Free speech today is not ‘free’ but a commodity. Our interaction with ‘ubiquitous’ media via screen technologies is a key driver of contemporary capitalism.

At the time of writing the government is still trying to find Bjørn Lomborg a home. The $4 million for his climate-consensus institute remains in the federal budget, while funding to universities and research is cut further. If the endeavour to foist the discredited Lomborg onto Australian universities reveals the desperate attempt by the Abbot government to legitimate its stance on climate change, the repositioning of the Lomborg affair by certain elements into a debate about academic freedom, freedom of expression and the like reveals how easily the ideals of liberalism are co-opted into a politics that undermines the (already fragile) tenets of liberal democracy. The Australian’s response to the rejection of Lomborg by the University of Western Australia with nothing less than an editorial and four op-ed pieces reveals a now familiar approach. From Andrew Bolt and ‘the right to be a bigot’ under section 18C to the infatuation with Charlie Hebdo there has been a push to elevate freedom of expression as the principle underpinning democratic life. That this has been swallowed uncritically by liberal-minded commentators—witness Roger Pielke in The Guardian urging academics not to ‘shut down debate’ and Brian McNair in The Conversation championing Lomborg as a ‘secular heretic’ who risks being ‘burnt at the stake’—reveals not only a blind spot concerning power at the core of contemporary liberalism but an inability to think about the wider conditions under which debate and expression take place within contemporary capitalism. To claim that inserting Lomborg into Australia’s tertiary sector simply adds another ingredient to the mix ignores how the current championing of liberal freedom works to erode the institutions that have traditionally enabled them. The commentators in The Australian did not merely use Lomborg as a champion of climate inaction; they were equally keen to attack contemporary universities—as centres of biased ‘groupthink’ that kill the spirit of free inquiry—thus enabling talk of deregulation, privatisation and cuts to gain new footing.

Many proponents of freedom remain oblivious to the dismantling of the forms that enable an open society, while selectively fetishising examples of ‘offensive’ or ‘contrarian’ expression. In the wake of Charlie Hebdo, new laws passed by the French state allowing phone and email surveillance without a warrant, the blocking of websites and the unprecedented policing of expression have gone unremarked by champions of free speech. The decision by PEN America to name Charlie Hebdo for its ‘freedom of expression courage award’ reveals much about the link between liberal freedom and coercive power. When Salman Rushdie called the writers who protested and withdrew from the award ceremony ‘pussies’ and ‘fellow travellers’ in ‘fanatical Islam’, thus managing to combine a misogynist slur with the language of the McCarthy era, he signalled the direction in which human rights organisations such as PEN have been moving for some time. Suzanne Nossel, the current director of PEN America, worked as Undersecretary of State for Hillary Clinton. She was a strong advocate of bombing Afghanistan to further a human rights agenda. Nossal coined the phrase ‘smart power’—a means to establish US legitimacy elsewhere by combining cultural hegemony and military force. Her appointment to PEN led journalist Chris Hedges to resign from the organisation, citing her ‘relentless championing of pre-emptive war [as well as]…her refusal to denounce the use of torture and extra-judicial killings’. So when some asked if Chelsea Manning or Edward Snowden might be more appropriate recipients of the award, given they really had battled for freedom of expression, the answer was not difficult to find. The championing by PEN of the late Charlie Hebdo writers simply reinforced the ideology of militarised humanism that led to the bombing of Iraq and Afghanistan, creating the conditions for the terror of the Hebdo massacre—completing a circle more vicious than usual.

While the advocacy of free expression is often unwittingly joined to the projection of state power, the state is also increasingly willing to overtly curb dissenting expression. The damaging cuts to the ABC are well documented; the government is now paying attention to the SBS. The sacking of SBS journalist Scott McIntyre for his Anzac tweets, thanks in part to the intervention of the communications minister, works to remind others of the limits of professional free speech. The remaking of the multicultural broadcaster goes beyond this particular case. We have seen the dumbing down of current affairs and news, while Myriam Robin reports in Crikey of the recent rejection of a documentary on radical poet Christopher Barnett by the SBS because (according to the station’s program-assessment manager) the SBS ‘as a broad general channel only acquire[s] documentaries with broad, general appeal’. Such reasoning is symptomatic of a deliberate culture change whereby the broadcaster orients itself to the mainstream, perhaps with an eye to future privatisation.

Elsewhere we see a similar pattern, with the federal budget redirecting arts funding from the Australia Council to a new body: the ‘National Programme for Excellence in the Arts’ presided over by the arts minister. Perhaps remembering that George Brandis threatened to cut funding to any artist who refused corporate sponsorship after the Sydney Biennale Transfield affair, there has been little protest by artists at this blatant act of political control, which already suggests the policy’s effectiveness in curbing free expression.

The use of free speech to serve political ends is perhaps nothing new, even if it is forgotten by many of its recent advocates. However, what is new is the environment though which expression and communication circulates. Any consideration of free speech must include an assessment of the difference between how free speech as a (contradictory) principle of liberalism within classical capitalism has transformed into something else: in other words, how speech today is reconstituted within communicative or informational capitalism.

Free speech today is not ‘free’ but a commodity. Our interaction with ‘ubiquitous’ media via screen technologies is a key driver of contemporary capitalism. It’s no coincidence that many of the multinational corporations that Joe Hockey vainly hopes to persuade into paying tax are moguls of informational capitalism—Google, Apple and the like. Digital technology is big business, but profits are now made around keeping users connected, selling their data for marketing and advertising. This marks a profound change in how we communicate and express ourselves. One only has to board a train or enter a classroom or any public space to see entire populations engaged with their screens.

This digital reshaping of how we are ‘social’ reveals an excess and a lack at the same time. Along with the freedom to continuously express ourselves online comes a corresponding fragmentation of public life. This is evident not merely in the reversal of face-to-face versus virtual modes of ‘togetherness’ but also in the way our relation to the ‘public’ can be so easily customised—with ‘irrelevant’ or unwelcome experiences blocked out through headphones, screens, Google Glass and the like—and information filtered according to individual preferences. It’s impossible to fully know the consequences of this, but the contemporary subject—continually making and unmaking themselves in the flow of information—is often less open to difference. The digitised public sphere that fosters a plethora of expression also enables an environment in which the other can be kept safely at a distance. This filtering of otherness can be aggressively projected—the extreme polarisation of positions within the public sphere, the rise of hate groups—or passively incorporated, as in the case of ‘trigger warnings’ that protect the subject from unwelcome cultural content. In either case the sheer volume of commodified speech within digital environments changes any easy equation between expression and liberty. The fantasy of expansive (and aggressive) freedom found within digital environments is unlikely to allow us to live more sustainably in the world. Neither is the retreat from anything that challenges us.

Is freedom of speech more than the right to join the ceaseless flow of information within the digital sphere? What forms of political expression are possible? Expression within this environment often manifests through the generation of floating affect that passionately latches onto events such as mass shootings, terrorist attacks or natural disasters via social media and creates secular shrines, public gatherings and hashtag campaigns that disappear as quickly as they arrive, leaving everything unchanged. These ephemeral passionate attachments merely simulate an idea of public engagement or expression. Meanwhile the practices and institutions though which freedoms are sustained are dismantled through neoliberal policy, often in the name of the freedoms they claim to represent, the inflammation of Islamophobic sentiment to legitimate a surveillance state being merely one example.

If we accept that much of contemporary life is simply unsustainable—whether environmentally (climate change is merely one of numerous ecological crises that must be faced) or politically (the hollowing out of democratic forms, the increase in coercive powers, growing militarised aggression)—then free speech needs to be more than accelerated exchanges that feed communicative capitalism. Such exchanges merely enable the slow death of the world. If free speech is to mean anything at all, it must challenge the consensus view that ‘there is no alternative’. It would need to cultivate forms of expression that function outside the social and cultural parameters set by a communicative capitalism that desires their hysterical production, but equally it would defend the forms and practices housed in public institutions that allow for more deliberative and considered debate to take place. These forms—universities, public broadcasting, journalism and the like—are antithetical to neoliberalism, hence the current attempt to deregulate or privatise them or drive them toward the mainstream. That their functions can be superficially replaced by digital alternatives—the university by MOOCs, journalism and public broadcasting by social media—means that any attempt to collapse one into the other must be vigorously contested.

The significance of recent changes to the leadership of the Greens poses a similar question to that of free speech and its ability to transcend the norms of the market framework that houses it. To what extent can the consensus be challenged? Certainly the media have generally welcomed the Greens’ new leadership as a move toward the mainstream. The Age editorialised that if the Greens can ‘ditch the party’s wackier policies’ it may become a significant force. At no time is it considered that such policies may present a means to attenuate the slow death of the world. The Greens has always had to balance the need to achieve ‘real-world’ outcomes (that invariably involve compromise) with maintaining a set of principles that stand outside the increasingly narrow mainstream. One only hopes that in cultivating the image of a more pragmatic and realistic party, it does not upset this balance.

Simon Cooper is an Arena Publications editor.

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