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Why I’m a free speech worrier

I have banged on before in this column about the importance of free speech and the government’s worrying enthusiasm for limiting what New Zealanders can say, hear, read, and write in the interests of curbing “hate speech” – even while being unable to succinctly define what hate speech actually is.

I’ve also opined more than once about the epistemological quagmire that attempts to delineate what constitutes “misinformation” inevitably devolve into, particularly when dealing with rapidly evolving situations – like, for example, the covid-19 pandemic and response to it.

The efficacy of wearing masks serves as a salutary example of how slippery the concept of misinformation is, and why attempts to ban it will have unintended authoritarian outcomes: early in 2020, then-PM Jacinda Ardern fronted an online discussion in which she told viewers that wearing masks was essentially a waste of time; some months later, official advice changed to strongly suggest wearing them; later it became mandatory; now it’s mainly left up to you whether you wear one or not.

Meanwhile, a number of meta-analyses of studies on mask use have recently been released that suggest it was of negligible benefit in preventing the catching of covid-19 and was emphatically negative for the speech development and socialisation of the toddlers who were made to wear them.

Although those studies aren’t definitive [pro-tip: “the science” rarely, if ever, is], they do deserve due consideration. And yet not so long ago, anyone suggesting such things in public was accused by the government, and much of the media and general population, of spreading misinformation or disinformation, and being an “anti-science” granny killer.

Anyway, I’ve digressed before even broaching the basic purpose of this column: explaining why I am such a free speech worrier.

It largely comes down to this. Around seven years ago, I had an exchange with an individual who has been very influential in what they’d probably describe as “the government communications space”.

The reason for our exchange was that I had interviewed Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson, who was on a world tour promoting his best-selling book 12 Rules for Life at the time, and posted the resulting article on my then-employer’s website.

Despite the fact the article was behind a paywall and they, therefore, could not read it, this influential individual and a coterie of followers demanded that I take the presumptively “harmful” article down.

I [relatively] politely declined to do so, but in the course of this interaction, the influential individual confided something I’ve been mildly obsessed about ever since.

“Jordan Peterson isn’t so bad,” they said. “The problem is that what he’s saying might be misunderstood.”

Try wrapping your head around that.

According to someone who has helped shape the government’s communication strategy for a number of years, potentially “harmful” information includes information that is in and of itself benign but could be misinterpreted.

Now, see if you can think of an example of any worthwhile idea that couldn’t be described in this way…

And that, in a nutshell, is why I believe the current attempt to limit New Zealanders’ free speech is one of the most important issues facing the country today.

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