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It seems like many people are surprised that Trump has secured the Presidency. I’m surprised at how surprised people actually are. Did the elite (I’m probably one) really misjudge so badly the discontent within Western nations like the US? Were we really so blind as to not discern the extent of white supremacy? Brexit should have been an indicator of what could happen on the western side of the Atlantic.
In their frustration and rage at the falsity of the American Dream, at increasing inequality, and at losing the culture wars, many USAmericans have opted for an authoritarian. It’s easy to laugh at people who have said “Trump tells it like it is, he’s a straight talker”, but his likely victory is a sign that, regardless of how much he has lied, the value of perceived truthfulness is high, and people are sick of being lied to. Who knows how this will bode for Trump—a liar—in the long run. But saying things like, “America, what have you done?” only betrays a lack of understanding of many of the kinds of people who, against their own self-interest, voted for Trump.
It’s very easy for me to say something like, “Jesus is Lord: who becomes President does not control the outcome of history”. With everything that is within me I believe this to be true. But not everyone shares this faith and, moreover, such a declaration can leave one open to detached blindness. After all, I’m a privileged white male who lives on the other side of the world. But what happens for non-whites, including Muslims, in the US? For women who have watched misogyny embodied gain supremacy? For people in those cities around the world that a Trump-led military may attack? For poor folks, including poor whites who voted for Trump, who will suffer the various policy consequences of this regime? For millions and millions of people, this is a nightmare, and I can’t minimise that.
Not that Clinton was a good option. Truth is, the situation for the kid in the Middle East or the poor US family wouldn’t have been any better. That’s the status quo for you. But sometimes the status quo is not the worst of all options. And, frankly, the notion of progress is horse manure.
There’ll be lots of soul-searching, I’m sure. A wildly incompetent misogynistic racist authoritarian has ascended to the highest political seat in this world order so, you know, such soul-searching is necessary. But unless we find genuine pathways for the pain of so many Trump voters and Trump haters alike, we are doomed to intensify the culture wars and deepen the fissures that ravage our communities. I say this as one who does not reside in the US; such is the widespread effect of such divisions.
Despite my earlier self-directed caveat… Jesus is Lord, and I’m blessed by the grace to continue participating in and building alternative communities that reach out in love to those outside themselves, and that aren’t directed by the death-dealing politics of this world, but seek to nonviolently turn such politics upside down.
Some conservative politicians, news outlets and think tanks have, for some time, been pushing for the reform or repeal of Section 18C of the Discrimination Act. The Institute of Public Affairs, for example, haspreviously claimed that “freedom of speech in Australia is under attack” because 18C makes it unlawful to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate a person on the basis of race, colour or ethnicity.
There are a multitude of elements to this debate, well covered in various public outlets. But for me the question that takes centre stage is, “What, exactly, entails free speech?” Proponents of the repeal of 18C base their understanding of free speech entirely on negative freedom — “Nobody ought to prohibit me from saying what I wish to say.” There is, indeed, truth to this understanding of freedom. But, like most societal values, negative freedom is not a lonely island, existing as it does in relationship and tension with other values.
More importantly, we must ask ourselves what freedom actually is. Is it merely negative freedom, that is, freedom from interference or restraint? Or is freedom more than this? After all, we are not free to murder or rape. Why is that? Because deep down we understand that freedom has a positive element, namely that we are free for something. We may not agree on what precisely is the ends for which we are free, but we mostly agree that we are free for beneficial relationships with those around us, hence why the removal of the negative freedom to murder or rape is universally acknowledged in most places.
What, then, is free speech? My belief is that the understanding of free speech held by antagonists of 18C is partial at best. What is our speech free to do? What does free speech work towards? “Free speech” that offends, insults, humiliates or intimidates is not free at all because its result is incongruent with any reasonable account of positive freedom in society, the freedom for social well being.
Even in a purely economic sense, anything that is “free” ought to be without cost. But “free speech” that offends, insults etc. incurs a cost to society in the form of the emotional, relational and/or other damage caused, thus revealing such speech is not “free” at all.
None of this says anything about the lawfulness or otherwise of offensive, insulting, humiliating or intimidating speech on the basis of race, colour or ethnicity — what I have said is purely moral and philosophical. But ought law reflect morality?
Perhaps the most distressing thing for me is the volume of politicians processing Christian faith who are also proponents of 18C’s repeal. Jesus, after all, had much to say about careless and venomous words. Not that this is a reason to make such words unlawful, since the undertones of Christendom would be dissonant. But there are no signs that such a concern forms part of the motives of those Christian brothers and sisters who seek 18C’s end.
Paul’s words to the Galatians are perhaps most appropriate here, even despite the liberty I may be taking with their context:
“For freedom Christ has set us free…” (Gal 5:1a)
May we indeed live as if we have been set free for freedom, whether in our speech or whatever else.
I’ve been mistakenly called a “liberal” Christian many times (I imagine many of my readers have had this same experience, rightly or wrongly).
One particular experience stands out for me. I remember several years ago visiting a sick friend. I had just attended a conference, and I was sharing my experience, lamenting the singular focus of this particular conference on “church growth”. My friend sought to correct my frustration – “Church growth is great,” he said, “because it means less people are going to Hell.”
No doubt this reasoning is common in Western Protestantism. I responded with a polite understatement: “Well, I think it’s a bit more complex than that.”
The retort came quickly – “Oh, but you’re a liberal.” In other words I am apparently a liberal Christian.
Interesting. So easy to say – “you are a liberal!” This of course begs the question – what exactly is a liberal Christian? Read the rest of this entry