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Bill Leak and the Ethics of Free Speech

Women were burned at the stake for being witches.

Homosexuals didn’t get a stake. They were thrown on with the rest of the faggots. Hence the slur.

I went to a single-sex Catholic school that promised to create ‘gentlemen’.  Even though I was in the closet, kids called me faggot. Yes, other children laughed, and yes, staff let it pass. Eventually the fear that word inspired curated a desire to be straight so acute that I managed to convince myself, fleetingly, that I was.

This is not to frame my life as being traumatic. My immediate family is accepting of my sexuality, although it took them some time. I am also white and comfortably positioned in the upper echelons of the middle class. I have a good life. But even though I live with my partner (and our Chihuahua Spooky-Sue) I still struggle with my own internalised homophobia to this day. I’m in the closet at work. I’m afraid of my extended family. I check my surroundings each time I reach out to touch my partner in public. I’m constantly engaged in an act of self-policing: adjusting my presentation in a proverbial mirror, occasionally tugging at the hems of my personality to drag it straight (often unsuccessfully) so that I can pass through my day unremarkably. Occasionally amongst friends I drag my own sexuality, wearing clothing which defies the typical masculine presentation. This is a behaviour we are all engaged in: a moderation of our personalities to make ourselves part of society. Increasingly I am finding these acts of moderation in regards to my queerness an increasing annoyance. Why is it that I should have to moderate myself? Cartoons like Bill Leak’s—which depict marching queer people as Nazi’s—are why.

I should declare that I’m not really for marriage. It’s just not for me. I find the idea of belonging to somebody, of engaging in a ritual that has for centuries been a way of commodifying women to be problematic. I am not in the majority with this opinion and I’m okay with that. The meaning of marriage is changing alongside feminism and that’s a good thing. Love and how it is measured and moderated means different things for alternate members of the community. Conversations around these divisions and the meaning of marriage should be able to be discussed respectfully within the community. This is true of the marriage equality debate, the details of which I will not reiterate here, except with the caveat that I am unreservedly for changing the law to make it possible without the unnecessary emotional and fiscal expenditure of a plebiscite.

Bill Leak’s cartoon (The Australian, September 21st, 2016) which equates homosexuals or those for same-sex marriage as being a militant arm of the Nazi party is an example of two things: a complete failure to contribute to a reasoned debate and an erasure of the histories I have just explored.

bill-leak

Cartoon by Bill Leak, The Australian, 21 September 2016.

To equate homosexuals with a militant arm of the Nazi party is unthinkably offensive, especially given that queer people were targeted and murdered during the Holocaust. Flipping the dynamic is a gross perversion of the truth—queer parties aren’t seeking out straight cis people in their homes, abducting them, forcing them into labour and then exterminating them. While I am aware that Nazism has come to mean fascist in a contemporary context, the fact that this cartoon made it through an editorial team that didn’t consider this particular element of the joke is a gross failure on The Australian’s behalf.

When speaking to a broader historical context, I think a far more insidious aspect of this cartoon slips into focus. I opened with the horrific history of the term ‘faggot’ because I think it illustrates the dehumanisation of queer people with a shocking potency. And taking this into account, the loudness and demand to be heard that Leak equates to Nazism becomes something different: it is a demand—a desperate need to reclaim equal recognition as a human being in society. When one acknowledges the trajectory of queer people in their quest for equal recognition of this, the vitriol, the need to call out homophobia and those who practice it casually gains an urgency that is erased by Leak’s cartoon.

There will be those who come out, as Jennifer Oriel (The Australian, 2016) amongst others did, arguing that Leak’s opinion is part of the debate and an important illustration of free speech. Do not let this delusion fool you. Even if the Australian Press Council finds your factually incorrect and offensive work about a minority, it does not technically qualify for the legal requirements of hate speech. It does not work to diminish its hateful potential. Oriel makes the claim that the left is waging a war on free speech. If by free speech she means the espousal of factually incorrect and offensive comments then yes, she’s right. I’m at war. Cartoons and editorials like the one under discussion here don’t start important conversations—they only work to trivialise or demean already oppressed groups of people. There will be some who will point to the positive outcomes of Leak’s last controversial cartoon which features an Indigenous father who didn’t know the name of his own child. Yes, the fact that the cartoon was condemned widely was great and the #IndigenousDads campaign was truly beautiful. But conversely, I’d argue that the conversation even occurred is offensive. The fact that Indigenous Fathers had to defend themselves in counter to such an unfounded and racist proclamation exceeds comprehension.

Should Bill Leak be prosecuted or fined for saying these things? Well, he can’t be. But The Australian doesn’t have to publish his work. In what is sure to be a long and bitter campaign leading up to the plebiscite, they have the rare potential to not only shape the nature of the conversation, but the outcome itself. As a right wing media organisation the chances of them endorsing a ‘yes’ campaign is dubious. Bill Leak will probably defend his work as he has historically, labelling criticism like mine as a “tantrum” (Alex Bruce-Smith, 2016). The Press Council will probably once again dismiss complaints lodged against this cartoon as being in line with a legal free speech as they did last time (Meade, 2016). To campaign against free speech is a dangerous platform. I acknowledge this. I am lucky to live in a curious pocket of time in which I can live a homosexual lifestyle comfortably and without fear, because there were those who were able to speak before me. Free speech is vital to engendering intelligent political discourse. But within this lies an ethical dilemma, one in which writers and publishers should be asking: is the power of free speech being used to side-step truth in order to preach hate?

Words by Jack Francis.

References:

Bruce-Smith, A 2016, ‘Bill Leak Now Reckons You’re All Dummies For Not ‘Getting’ His Racist BS’, Pedestrian, August 5, 2016, retrieved 21 September 2016: https://www.pedestrian.tv/news/arts-and-culture/bill-leak-now-reckons-youre-all-dummies-for-not-ge/97439ea1-718e-488c-8d80-af9523af4ea1.htm

Meade, A 2016, ‘Press Council Declines to Sanction the Australian for Bill Leak Cartoon’, The Guardian, 6 September 2016, retrieved September 21 2016: https://www.theguardian.com/media/2016/sep/06/press-council-declines-to-sanction-the-australian-for-bill-leak-cartoon

Oriel, J 2016, ‘21st Century Left Waging War on Free Speech’, The Australian, August 15 2016, retrieved September 21 2016: http://www.theaustralian.com.au/opinion/21stcentury-left-waging-new-war-on-free-speech/news-story/66bcfca976659f0429bc81b2cafa558f

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