Auckland Mayor Phil Goff was recently involved controversy around the cancellation of an event booked at the Bruce Mason Centre involving the Canadian far-right speakers, Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux. He tweeted:
Elsewhere he elaborated, “I’m not going to aid and abet people who spout racist nonsense by providing them with a venue.” And, “I find it offensive that they attack people on the basis of their faith and ethnicity and they set out deliberately to provoke them.” That is, the duo’s platform tends to target vulnerable, non-white groups, in expressing such as opposition to Islam and immigration.
As Hazim Arafeh, president of the New Zealand Federation of Islam Associations, has said, “I’m talking on behalf of 50,000 to 60,000 Muslims in New Zealand who are going to face a very hard time by all the comments she is going to make.” Indeed, Arafeh’s comments are not without ground, and they should remind us of the rise in hate crimes against Muslims in the UK following Brexit. Similarly, hate crimes on the basis of race or ethnicity have risen in the US since Trump’s election. As Auckland Peace Action contends,
We must not let racist hate speech be normalised in our society, or foster an environment where the views of white supremacists are part of the mainstream discourse. In doing so, we will plant the seeds of division, hate and violence in Aotearoa, that flourish in America under Trump.
And Saziah Bashir has recalled in regard to the duo’s plans to come to NZ,
Of the handful of racist incidents my family has encountered since migrating here, one that stands out in my mind is a man approaching my mother, a visibly Muslim woman wearing hijab, and towering over her tiny 5’2 frame to say “we don’t need your kind here, go back to where you came from”.
We were in a West Auckland supermarket and this was not long after 9/11. How many incendiary YouTube videos or speeches by alt-right mouthpieces like Southern would that man have needed to watch to embolden him enough to have perhaps taken it a step further: next time maybe pull off my mother’s hijab (as is happening in parts of the US) or assault her?
Meanwhile, here it is claimed that Goff was not involved in the cancellation at all. Auckland Live provided an alternative rationale for the cancellation:
This “security concerns” are allegedly due to a statement from Auckland Peace Action: “We stand in solidarity with the Muslim community in Aotearoa who are opposing these fascists. If they come here, we will confront them on the streets. If they come, we will blockade entry to their speaking venue.” Because of the opposition, the NZ part of the duo’s tour has been cancelled, as they have been unable to book an alternative venue in time.
Who are They?
Lauren Southern is a far-right political activist who identifies as a libertarian and ran for parliament in Canada. She made news last year when she was involved with actions of Génération identitare, an anti-immigration group, in obstructing asylum seekers off the coast of Italy. Saziah Bashir puts it rightly when she says that “Southern believes – and was acting on her belief – that women and children fleeing a war should drown at sea rather than be allowed to set foot in a Western country.” Southern’s 2016 book is entitled, Barbarians: How Baby Boomers, Immigrants, and Islam Screwed My Generation. Earlier this year she was barred from entering the UK on the grounds that her presence there would not be “conducive to the public good.” Specifically, Southern claimed that her being denied entry was due to her involvement in displaying fliers in Luton, England, in February, with slogans such as “Allah is a gay god.” And while I think it’s important to hold conversations about discrimination of LGBT+ people in any community, seen in the context of Southern’s wider anti-Islam, anti-feminist, and anti-LGBT+ platform, her actions were clearly intended to stir up hate for Muslims. This is all the more clear in that Southern did not seek out working alongside Muslims who are already working for change within their communities.
Stefan Molyneux is also a far-right figure who has been involved in radio and writing. Jessica Roy recalls his 2014 statements on the relationship between women and violence:
Molyneux said that because 90% of a child’s brain is formed by the experiences it has before the age of 5, and women have “an almost universal control over childhood,” violence exists in the world because of the way women treat children.
“If we could just get people to be nice to their babies for five years straight, that would be it for war, drug abuse, addiction, promiscuity, sexually transmitted diseases,” he said. “Almost all would be completely eliminated, because they all arise from dysfunctional early childhood experiences, which are all run by women.”
According to Stuart Hayashi, Molyneux has also been subject to allegations in regard to his cult-like operations: “Despite later denials to the contrary, online videos document Molyneux telling these fans that if their parents do not support anarchy, it means that their parents do not love them and ought to be disowned completely. A number of young fans have followed this advice and joined Molyneux’s cause, pledging their lives and money to him” [links original, two dead now]. Hayashi continues, noting Molyneux’s later further descent into racist pseudoscience, where “what race you are strongly influences your IQ number, and your IQ number strongly influences how economically successful or criminally violent you are.” Molyneux proceeds to rank the “races” according to their IQs, later speaking of the “low-IQ, rapey people from north Africa.” See the rest of Hayashi’s post for the pseudoscientific nature of these claims. Not only are they pseudoscientific though, but comments like these provide an apparently rational ground for state and public hate, discrimination, and violence.
In the interests of the public good, the council rightly denied the two speaking at one of their venues. People who want to hear them will find their own way to do so anyway. As the following will demonstrate, this is hardly an issue of free speech.
Interestingly, decrying the cancellation of the duo’s speaking night in Auckland overlooks their own complicity in rejecting freedom of expression. As Brian Rudman points out,
[The] promoter, Axiomatic Media Pty Ltd “reserves the right to refuse entry to anyone.” Then to make doubly sure only like-minded groupies attend, it adds “if someone is deemed to be a risk or disturbance and is asked to leave who has already entered the event, they shall not be entitled to any refund.”
In other words, even for organiser, Australian Christian fundamentalist, Dave Pellowe, who is now calling for lovers of free speech “to stand up and fight back, before it is taken away for ever,” such rights are not absolute. Not when he’s hiring the hall for his Alt-Right circus act at any rate.
So that’s what “healthy debate” looks like.
Not long after Goff’s tweets, the Free Speech Coalition was formed by Don Brash and raised $50,000 in the space of a day in order to sue Auckland City Council. Brash states, “I think Phil Goff was entirely wrong to say taxpayer or ratepayer funded facilities cannot be used by people whose views he disagrees with.”
But Hayden Donnell has demonstrated the hypocrisy of the Free Speech Coalition, writing,
It’s hard to get people to give money to worthy causes. Climate change. Poverty. Fuel taxes. There are so many issues, and we’re all stretched thin. But this week we’ve found out there’s still one cause that can compel hordes of mostly rich, white people to enthusiastically part with large sums of cash: making sure racists can book council facilities.
Donnell points out that it was Brash, the founder of the Free Speech Coalition, who recently complained of the use of Māori on RNZ, “I’m utterly sick of people talking in Maori on RNZ in what are primarily English-language broadcasts,” Brash said late last year. As Waatea News rightly states in their headline, Māori speech bad, white speech good for Brash. Donnell also points out that in 2006, Brash opposed the publication of Nicky Hager’s The Hollow Men, an exposé of the National Party’s 2005 electoral strategies, and even obtained an injuction against it, issued by the High Court.
David Farrer, a right-wing blogger who has voiced support for the coalition, in 2012 opposed funding for the NZ band, Homebrew Crew, on the basis of the political nature of their set: “One of the Homecrew crew [sic] seems to be a bit upset that I said the taxpayer shouldn’t fund events where they get to yell obscenities at the PM. They’re entitled to call him what they want, but I’d rather not have the taxpayer fund it.”
Jordan Williams, a member of the coalition, once launched a defamation case against Conservative Party leader, Colin Craig, a case which is still in process. He also suggested that Eleanor Catton, author of The Luminaries, return grant money after criticising the government. Donnell provides other examples of the cognitive dissonance upheld by other members of the coalition, such as in opposition to flag-burning or anti-semitism in Muslim communities (again, right question, wrong approach). With these, it should be clear that the Free Speech Coalition was never about free speech per se but connected to fears that the cancellation would set a precedent for obstructing those on the right with less radical views–a slippery slope–or, worse, a general sympathy for the views expressed by the duo. It’s no surprise that in May this year the New Zealand right-wing blog Whale Oil Beef Hooked promoted the duo’s upcoming tour.
Similar sentiments to those of Donnell were expressed by Marama Davidson on Facebook, after she received death and rape threats (so much for freedom of expression) after expressing support for Goff’s decision to cancel the event:
She references Bob Jones’s defamation case against Renae Maihi and another against Leone Pihama. It seems the coalition are chiefly interested in supporting those whose values more closely resemble their own. Importantly, Davidson connects freedom of speech to “freedom to be,” that is, the rights of blacks in the US, transgender people everywhere, and Māori in NZ to be on their own terms, no longer facing state and public discrimination and oppression. In contrast to the coalition, Davidson recognises the inconsistency in supporting an abstract notion of free speech outside of a concretely free society.
Further Reading (Not cited above)
Bryce Edwards, Does freedom of speech extend to far-right voices?
Stuart Moriarty-Patten, Free speech: Rhetoric and reality.
Danyl Mclauchlan, A ferocious debate between three implacable enemies about free speech.