Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

Racists have rights too

This apparently is the political story of the day:

A member of the Queensland Young Liberal National Party faces expulsion after he called Barack Obama a monkey on a social networking site.
Scores of party members this morning called on the party senior executive to immediately dismiss Nick Sowden, president Rod Schneider told brisbanetimes.com.au.
Sowden last night posted messages on Twitter while the United States president was being interviewed on the ABC’s 7.30 Report.
“I’m not sure why they paid kerry to fly to america, if they wanted an interview with a monkey surely a Ferry to Taronga would have sufficed,” one tweet said.
“If I wanted to see a monkey on TV id watch Wildlife Rescue,” said a second.

Snowden’s deleted his twitter account and seemingly his facebook too, and set up a lame defence (via the excellent 2UE reporter @latikambourke) “He says it was just a joke for friends which we’ve ‘unfortunately,’ taken out of context.”

But Snowden did say one sensible thing: “it’s a sad day for free speech if the Twitterverse is going to be policed Stazi-style. Says best to have a fake Twitter name.”

What’s really problematic about this is that we have our press jumping up and down over a dumb racist comment by a nobody. Why should we care if he’s a racist? Why should we care if he’s an idiot. It’s not that we have better things to do (from taxes to nukes to healthcare), but rather that he’s allowed to be a fool if he wants, and this mass peer pressure via our media onslaught is just an example of tyranny of the majority at work. Even if its for a good cause – rooting out racist in our major parties, it’s still unacceptable and base mob behaviour.

Over at Catallaxy recently was the argument coherently put (this time about emails encouraging Earth Hour) that classical liberals don’t worry about non-governmental pressure. And generally thats true (such that if your boss is announces he is going to pay you you 3c an hour, that should be nobody elses problem), but there is also in the John Stuart Mill tradition of liberalism a worry just as much that public opinion can be just as coercive as a government regulator. Indeed Mill devotes the majority of his brilliant ‘On Liberty’ to the question of public pressure, rather than legal coercion.

This of course is not to endorse either snowdens comments, nor the inferiority complex that seems to lead conservatives everywhere to claim they are a minority under attack, and whose conspiracy theories on everything from global warming to Obama’s citizenship ought to be given equal place in our debates. It’s not. But it is a reminded that as our technology to disseminate opinions grows larger & quicker, the role of peer pressure does too. Often this will be for the good, encouraging nation states and societies to stop human rights abuse & give up their inhumane weapons of mass destruction, and to support a pluralist, tolerant society. But if we find ourselves jumping up and down over every little idiot we are simply going to encourage the belief that there’s a virtue in holding minority views no matter how illogical and immoral they are, and giving significantly more attention and hence support to such views as well. In a free society, this kid has the freedom to be an idiot. We should celebrate that by freely ignoring it, and knowing that in this case, even his friends quickly called him on his “joke”. Job done.

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  1. Andrew – Well said. The only sensible commentary I have seen on this story.