The year recently ended revealed that the authoritarian impulse is never very far from the surface. It may lay dormant for a time but it never goes away. Here in Australia, and indeed around the world, their response to COVID-19 revealed politicians and bureaucrats eager to grasp every opportunity to take control of other people’s lives. When presented with a range of options to manage the pandemic governments invariably chose, and continue to choose, the most draconian.
Now, in 2021, there’s (for a few days still) President Donald Trump. Whether his tweets last week intentionally, negligently or even accidentally incited the violence and tragedy of the invasion of the Capitol Building in Washington is for the moment beside the point. The nature of Trump’s presidency and its effect on America and democratic politics in other countries too is a separate topic.
What’s relevant in the context of a discussion about authoritarian impulses is the reaction that Trump has provoked. In the space of a few days we’ve gone from his initial tweets, to Trump as president of the United States for whom 74 million Americans voted being banned by social media companies, to calls in Australia for the censorship of the internet to prevent the dissemination of “dubious advice and outright lies”, to now Malcolm Turnbull demanding the Morrison government stop members of parliament from debating the benefits of wearing masks and the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines.
The speed with which this process has occurred reveals something more is at play than simply concerns, legitimate or not, that Donald Trump’s tweets might incite violence. The suggestion in recent days from some academics and commentators that “lies and misinformation” on social media can somehow be equated to incitement and should be treated as such is both disingenuous and dangerous. It’s ironic that so many of those who complain about Donald Trump’s supposedly authoritarian tendencies are so eager to suggest solutions that if ever implemented would be many times more authoritarian than anything Trump could ever have contemplated.
Freedom of speech does not require private companies to provide a platform for others to use to speak. If Twitter and YouTube want to ban Donald Trump from their sites they’re entitled to. Their decision is wrong – but they’re entitled to make it. What they’ve done might be politically partisan and reek of double standards, but if freedom of speech means anything it means allowing people to exercise that freedom to be partisan hypocrites.
On Tuesday the Australasian Virology Society said the rollout of the AstraZeneca vaccine should be paused until research proved its effect on community immunity. But, as reported in The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, “following a furious internal debate”, the president of the society contacted those newspapers to say the society “had changed its position and no longer opposed the rollout of the vaccine”. When asked why the society was changing its official position at the last moment, its president, Professor Gilda Tachedjian, said: “That’s for us to know and you to find out. One reason is we don’t want to undermine the confidence in the vaccine.” The professor might reflect on the fact that such a high-handed and contemptuous statement is exactly the wrong way to build public confidence in a vaccine.
Malcolm Turnbull shouldn’t need to be reminded of the name of Trofim Lysenko as a warning of the dangers of unquestioning allegiance to state-enforced scientific orthodoxy.
Turnbull’s remark, “I mean, you know, freedom of speech does not mean freedom from responsibility”, reveals he doesn’t have a clue what freedom of speech is.
“Responsible” freedom of speech where what’s “responsible” is adjudicated by the government isn’t freedom of speech.
His comment justifying the censorship of what he deemed reckless discussion about COVID-19 on the grounds it was “hard to think of anything more important” than the public have confidence in the vaccine is naïve. Public confidence in a vaccine might indeed be important, but you don’t build such confidence by banning people from talking about the issue.
Transparency, debate and discussion is always a better alternative.
In a free society experts saying to the public “don’t argue – just trust us” is not the way community consent is gained.