A few years ago, I attended a rather memorable lecture as part of my post-grad studies in Development. The introductory Politics of Development course attracted mostly students from the same degree, plus a handful of students from the School of Political Science.
Student: “Are you saying all cultures are created equal?”
Lecturer: “Are you saying they are not?”
Now I cannot give you the exact phrasing of the rest of the exchange, because I was in shock. I was also busy assessing the emergency exits, as the Chilean girl next to me leapt from her seat and the audience broke out in collective uproar.
At a conservative estimate, the lecture theatre comprised 75% international students, and the audience was culturally and ethnically incredibly diverse, with many majority-world countries represented – that is, those ‘cultures’ to which the student referred. Ouch.
He went on to say that he firmly believed some cultures were simply superior to others, and that was just how the world works. That’s why some countries (read: his homeland, America) were in the position they are now (read: infallibly well-off) while others are not. He attempted to draw on the example of his downtrodden Granpappy, who through sheer perseverance had worked his way out of the Midwest and into the American middle-class.
A student colleague politely and rationally interjected that, for example, the Indigenous population in Australia may disagree – and feel they were perhaps, you know, a little unfairly treated, and that this wasn’t exactly a simple case of genetics.
Lecture concluded. Thank goodness.
Once the dust settled, I was able to reflect on why the whole exchange had been so distasteful. I’ve found that I recall this event whenever I hear the phrase “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”. That quote seems to be the trump card that’s pulled out whenever a discussion goes ‘too far’ – when a view is expressed that is so strong, so divergent, so unfathomable that it is almost indefensible, then that is the last line of defense. It is used as the final word in a discussion, because how can you argue with a quote attributed to a “goes by one name” philosopher? ( – Voltaire).
Firstly, a quick google reveals Voltaire never made such a statement (it is generally attributed to biographer Evelyn Hall, who allegedly paraphrased Voltaire in her 1905 book, “The Friends of Voltaire”. Scholars also suggest that he never even expressed such a sentiment).
However more importantly, I feel uncomfortable with the manner in which it is used. What frustrates me is when it is used to ‘defend’ the ‘right’ of a person to say something that disparages a group or individual in a way that is untrue, unfair, or downright disgusting.
To return to an issue that has frustrated me for some time now – should we “defend to the death” the “right” of our politicians to manipulate the truth and label asylum seekers “illegal”? No.
Should we defend the right of this student to disparage the majority of his colleagues by suggesting that their culture is simply one that is lesser, and that they cannot expect to experience the same economic and other successes as other better-equipped countries? No.
I recognise that my own moral and ethical viewpoint is the central guiding factor in determining whether something crosses a boundary and becomes indefensible. And I also acknowledge that sometimes our sensitivity arguably goes to far, and we enter a realm of political correctness that is difficult to navigate and ultimately probably unhelpful.
Yet I wonder – does anyone disagree? Is there a case for always defending a person’s right to say what they think?
Where is the line when it comes to freedom of speech?