Freedom of Speech – The Cornerstone of Democracy

I can’t remember the last time I was publicly assaulted and humiliated for being ‘immodest’. I have never been to prison for speaking out against the government, or for writing essays criticizing the political and social structures within Australia. I have never been denied an education due to my gender or race and enjoy equality on all counts with my male relatives and friends.

 

This is in stark contrast to the experience of individuals – in particular women – all over the world. In countries such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, China, Russia and Sudan (for example), personal freedoms are limited, and dissenters are often brutally punished. In her book, The Wind in My Hair, journalist Masih Alinejad details her experience as a political prisoner of the Islamic Regime, interrogated and punished for the crime of producing a political newsletter, critical of the government. Alinejad, still in high school at the time, spent weeks in an Iranian prison, separated from her family who remained unaware of her fate until she was released.

 

I was born and currently live in a country where freedom is unquestioned but is also taken for granted – as a right – forgetting the blood, sweat and tears of those who fought to secure it.  Freedom of thought, of action and of speech whilst not immortalised within our constitution is considered a human right and is treated as such. Democracy has paved the way for liberty, and whilst imperfect is far superior to the alternatives. However, I believe we have become complacent in our support of liberty and her tenets, to our peril.

 

In her article on freedom of speech, published today by The Australian, Jennifer Oriel delivers a resonating statement:

 

“Human enlightenment is forged in the fire of intense intellectual debate made possible by freedom of thought and speech. It is long-form argument that lays the foundations for human progress.”

 

The article was written in response to a bout of racist slurs thrown at culturally diverse commentators such as Michelle Malkin, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Jacinta Price and Warren Mundine who dared to disagree with what Oriel describes as the ‘fashionable orthodoxy on race’. In a recent example, Paul Bongiorno a paid commentator for the national broadcaster (ABC), referred to Indigenous leader and author Warren Mundine as an ‘Uncle Tom’ for his conservative views and unwillingness to accept the victim mentality of left-wing activists. It would seem the left would stoop to discrediting and silencing Mundine rather than considering his perspectives and debating him in a logical manner.

 

The same aggressive techniques were used to silence Warlpiri/Celtic woman Jacinta Price, a former councillor for Alice Springs who dared contradict mainstream Indigenous views regarding the date of Australia Day celebrations. According to critics, Price’s views should be discredited due to her education, her conservative Christian background and her mother’s former political career. Her arguments were not debated, rather her character and personal life were pulled apart and criticized. She received threats and hate mail from the public and scathing reviews from the media simply for daring to contradict mainstream PC ideology.

 

All around our country the cracks in our democracy are starting to show. Ideas are no longer discussed, rather the politics of personality controls the debate. Those who dare to challenge the status quo are not being debated as much as they are being discredited. This frightens me as I recall a story from Masih Alinejads book, where the Islamic Republic discredited her as a prostitute, rather than respond to her protests and criticism of the compulsory hijab.

 

During the Same Sex Marriage debate, dissenters were labelled as bigoted, hateful and intolerant. Their arguments were not even considered worth listening to, and if the left could have silenced them, they would have. I’m not here to debate whether they were right or wrong, but merely that democracy demands they also have a voice, as unappealing as their views may be to the mainstream.

 

The extreme right are just as much to blame for their treatment of Yassmin Abdel-Magied. Again, my aim is not to discuss my support or dissent for Abdel-Magied’s views, but to highlight that a truly democratic society would have engaged in a more intellectual debate regarding the efficacy of her ideas as opposed to a dissemination of her personality and character.

 

Intelligent debate is the cornerstone of democracy. Our freedom and intellectual integrity depend on it, and we should defend it at all costs. I fear the day where restrictions are placed on speech because what is being said ‘offends’ the majority. William Wilberforce offended many in his push to abolish slavery. If Martin Luther King Jr had been silenced, African Americans would not experience the freedoms they have today. Let us not be complacent with our democracy. Let us enjoy the debates and discussions, giving all perspectives equal consideration and respect. This is our best protection for democracy and for personal freedom.

 

 

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The lie: Gender quotas > quality

In a recent Senate estimates hearing the Chief of Army Angus Campbell did everything he could to avoid stating the truth that the defence force uses gender targets in their recruitment process. In fact, the army recently admitted certain positions were available to men, if at six weeks from the role commencing, the female target had not been met. When questioned by Senator Fraser Anning as to whether Defence had ever commissioned a study to determine if recruiting women for combat roles would increase Defence capability, Campbell’s response was simply, “no.”

The ADF is not the only organisation trying to boost its public image by utilising gender quotas and targets. Last year the ABC reported on a campaign launched by the AFP to increase gender diversity amongst its ranks by opening-up applications for entry level positions for female recruits exclusively. The gender target for the AFP is a 50/50 representation.

As an observer, I find it hard to understand why organisations that traditionally attract higher rates of male applicants feel the need to boost gender diversity. We don’t see this drive for diversity in the beauty, fashion or nursing sectors that are female dominated. There are no programs for a 50/50 gender split at Mecca Cosmetica or Loreal.

There are several disadvantages to gender targets and quotas that are worth discussing.

An obvious disadvantage I perceive is the impact this sort of selection process will have on the psyche of the entire organisation. I have frequently been party to conversations with infantry soldiers who do not take their female colleagues seriously – the reasons intrinsically linked to the recruitment processes. Male soldiers perceive their female counterparts have not earned their position through merit, but via organisational engineering.  Women in infantry serve a minimum service period of only two years compared with four years of minimum service for their male counterparts. This will have the effect as such that when a woman enters the army it will not be perceived as her success, but as a handicap given to an under-performer. How is this beneficial to women? How do you gain respect within an organisation where your colleagues feel as if they worked twice as hard as you to arrive at the same position?

Another issue I have with targets is they often come at the expense of performance. This is witnessed in the lowering of physical standards for women in infantry. How do you take an individual seriously if they can’t pass the basic fitness assessment required for the role? The BFA is not particularly challenging for a physically conditioned woman yet standards have sadly dropped to ensure more female recruits are selected. Is lowering the quality of our soldiers the price we must pay for gender equality? In a role where your life is dependent upon the skills and competency of your team mate, do you want to be in doubt of their aptitude?

The most problematic issue with gender targeting is that it takes away that innate desire to compete, to improve, to be better. If you are confident you will obtain a role within an organisation on a purely phenotypic basis, what reason do you have to be your best? The quality of simply being a woman says nothing about who you are as a person. It speaks nothing for your drive, your competency, your motivation or your determination. In fact, what the existence of gender quotas asserts is that you, as a woman NEED assistance to obtain a role within an organisation. You’re not capable without it. You couldn’t meet the requirements.

As a woman I do not find gender targets to be useful or encouraging. I myself have never experienced discrimination in the workplace and have mostly worked in male-dominated industries. As a person I would like to think that every and all success I achieve is purely mine – a function of my hard work, persistence and intelligence. I think we need to reassess the value of gender targets, and perhaps start conducting studies to test whether these targets hold any value in effectively increasing diversity in a positive manner within the workplace.

Fact: there are no facts

“In science, there is no such thing as a fact”.

The words uttered by my second year Conservation Biology lecturer left a resounding echo in my mind which till this day, continues to linger. He went on to explain how the purpose of endeavours in science and research are to present us with questions rather than answers. How the closest we will ever come to ‘truth’ is the uncertain ‘theory’. Our grand calling as scientists he said, was to question everything, to accept nothing as infallible and to constantly push the boundaries of our understanding of the universe.

I found this philosophy as beautiful as I did terrifying. Despite the inquiring environment in which my parents raised me, my religious upbringing was still a function of certain dogmatisms and absolutes. As children our limited ability to question and extrapolate inadvertently leads to a certain unconscious system of beliefs that, unless challenged, will shape our lives as adults. So, when I heard the statement, “there is no such thing as fact”, my first instinct was to internally resist the bizarre notion. He was wrong, I told myself. The existence of God and a seven-day creation, that was a fact. He may not agree with me on that subject but surely gravitational theory and Newton’s laws of motion? Surely these were facts! Surely, we could say that science had ‘proven’ gravity! However, despite my initial response the idea had planted its seed in my mind.

I have since learned of many instances throughout human history where our science has been inaccurate if not flat out incorrect. From the concept of spontaneous generation and the flat earth theory through to our ever-evolving understanding of evolution, atomic theory and quantum mechanics.  Scientists and philosophers such as Galileo, Rhazes and Servetus were persecuted by religious contemporaries for their unorthodox perspectives. Numerous ground-breaking theories and discoveries were initially rejected by the main-stream scientific community who opted for tradition and the cognitive security blanket of current scientific ‘truths’. The ‘rejected’ theories included: Alfred Wegener’s theory of continental drift; Mendel’s genetic inheritance model; Copernicus’s heliocentric solar system; and Avogadro’s law. How different our world would be today had we not eventually allowed these theories to be accepted into our scientific understanding.

My decision to title my blog, “I am Iconoclast” was no mere catch phrase or slogan but more of a maxim. An Iconoclast can be defined as, “a person who strongly opposes generally accepted beliefs and traditions.” Synonyms include critic, skeptic and questioner. Though normally employed with negative connotation the word appealed to me as a scientist, as one who constantly seeks deeper truth. I believe an iconoclast is a person who fights for truth – who loathes the idea of ideological stagnation and dogmatism. If we do not question our world how do we progress? And that is in every sense. Scientifically, socially, politically and personally. I reject the notion that certain topics should not be discussed and that certain perspectives should not be voiced. I believe human progression is limited the moment we deem it necessary to silence conversation and debate. Through challenging the status-quo we find the questions we should be asking, the trajectory to progression.

There is no such thing as fact. Only the never-ending quest for new questions.

First world problems, first world feminism

We’ve all heard, or maybe even ourselves employed the expression, “first world problems.” It’s often thrown in at the end of a “complaint” as a clichéd reaction or ironic addendum. “Argh! I have to start work at 5:30 tomorrow morning! Oh well, first world problems I guess!”

However this expression, albeit trite, is derived from the truth that in many ways our Western lifestyle and mindset leaves us incredibly out-of-touch with the pain and suffering of those in less economically developed countries.

This detachment has not exempted the feminist movement. 2017 saw ‘women’s issues’ pushed to the front of the papers – the 2017 Women’s March, the #metoo movement and the increased push for corporate and political gender quotas to name a few. Whilst there is often a lot of noise coming from ‘social justice advocates’ the action’s they take towards improving conditions for women are not proportionate. I am yet to hear of any huge improvements or changes that occurred following the 2017 Women’s March. It seems that wearing the label “feminist” or “social justice advocate” is just another feather in the cap of the elite – and has become more of a fashion statement than a true political movement.

Yet the back pages of the paper, in the ‘World News’ section, are filled with stories of shocking affronts to human rights and importantly to feminists, women’s rights. In 2014-2015 more than 2000 Nigerian women (including girls) were abducted by Boko Haram. Many of these women were forced into marriages with members of Boko Haram, or coerced into suicide missions.

Just recently in May 2018, a 17 year-old girl in the east-Indian state of Jharkhand was set on fire following a brutal rape. This was preceded by an earlier event in the region where another teenage girl had been raped and burned alive.

In Iran, 29 women were arrested whilst protesting the enforced dress code, for appearing in public without headscarves. The bail for one of the women detained was set at more than $100,000.

These stories are not only women’s rights issues, they are human rights violations. They are the real hurdles for feminism – not the lack of female executives in the banking industry. This isn’t bitching about gender quotas, or debating whether it’s appropriate for girls to play with Barbie dolls. These are life or death – real world battles – that women are facing globally. Where are the true feminists on these topics? Where are the Clementine Ford’s, the Cathy Areu’s or the Kathy Griffin’s speaking out on women’s rights issues in Nigeria or Iran? Where are the women willing to look past themselves, to look past the fame, exposure and popularity grasps of the modern western feminist movement to advocate for the rights of women who have no voice?

Let’s clear away some of the ‘junk’ feminism from our TV screens, from our Newspapers, from our Facebook News Feed. Let’s become advocates for real and serious change in our world, and start focusing on the true inequalities and human rights issues that are still part of the struggle for a large number of women globally. Let’s stop focusing on our “First world problems.”