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What Is "Freedom of Expression" Worth to Our Politicians?
This week we found out - in Ireland, anyway
A few weeks ago Katherine Zappone asked for and got a paid job as an Irish “Freedom of Expression” envoy at the UN, despite the fact that the job wasn’t advertised, the Taoiseach wasn’t told about it, she has a history of opposing free expression (by advocating for hate speech laws) and of indeed if opposing direct government appointment to cushy jobs (which she spoke out about when she was a Senator).
A lot of people are upset about this, and so am I, but for a different reason. The sleaziness of the appointment is par for the course in Irish life and doesn’t surprise me. But by making this appointment the government asking me to believe they give a shit about Freedom of Expression, and that I absolutely cannot tolerate.
Let’s look at the Irish government’s track record on this issue over the last week or so of July 2021.
On the 21st of July the Gardaí launched their online hate crime reporting form, which will allow for the reporting and recording of the Orwellian category “non-crime hate incidents”. On the 23rd, the Irish Times reported that sanctions for political parties or election candidates involved in “discriminatory actions or rhetoric” is among the recommendations in a draft report being considered by TDs and Senators. On the 25th, the Business Post carried an interview with Leo Varadkar in which he referred to Twitter as “a sewer”, that needs to be “cleaned up”.
This is five days! I’ve said previously - there’s half a dozen stories like this every month; the above is just a selection. In every day and in every way, our government seeks to narrow the ways that you can voice unpopular opinions and to punish you for doing so.
Contempt for Freedom of Expression is worse among our national middle managers than elsewhere, but certainly not unique to them. There is an existing UN Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, whose duties include combatting online hate speech and tackling misinformation. The hard edge of tackling these problems will always come down limiting what people can say, where they can say it, and arresting them if they persist. So when Irish politicians talk about Freedom of Expression and mean it’s literal opposite, that’s not unusual.
The candidate has a history of opposition to free speech. Her career in public life to date - whatever good she has done - has been significantly dependent on the patronage of the politicians and the state (she became a Senator because politicians gave her that job; her NGO is mostly state-funded). That is in obvious opposition to the truth that an advocate of Freedom of Expression in Ireland must be in conflict with existing political vested interests. In any case, the job (if indeed it is connected to the Rapporteur role already at the UN) centres around ways in which speech can be limited rather than facilitated. And finally she has been appointed to the role by a group of people who work daily, openly to limit Freedom of Expression and view the very concept with contempt.
In light of all of that, we have to ask - what is the significance of free expression to our politicians - what is it worth to them? What do they even think it means? Why make these kind of appointments if they don’t care about it?
One revealing comment Coveney made was that initially the job was about LBGTQ rights - and that to expand it a bit, Freedom of Expression was chucked in there. Obviously those two things are connected in a way, but they are also in tension. At this point in history most Governments, NGOs etc will look to expand what they think of as LGBTQ rights by introducing laws controlling what their citizens can say. So there is a natural alignment, but also a natural tension. Coveney doesn’t see that - to him, it’s all the same thing.
So what does Freedom of Expression mean to a politician?
It means the freedom to say the right sort of thing and have it celebrated; and more importantly freedom from hearing the wrong sort of thing. “Right” means anything aligned to the respectable and upwardly mobile ideas of the time, and “wrong” is anything opposes or undermines those ideas.
When it is repressed in the wrong sort of foreign country (a downwardly mobile and powerless one - not China), Freedom of Expression also has a symbolic, romantic value. That’s why Irish politicians can feel free to chasten countries for clamping down on protest while they do the same in Ireland, and feel no sense of cognitive dissonance.
Aside from that, the key value of civil liberties is as a practical way allowing you to climb up the ladder or boost your friends up; they’re another thing you can attend a conference to discuss, and file an expenses return about, and give money to your friend’s NGO for. But this is viewing them in a purely mechanical way - a politician has no more moral attachment to them than to any other device whose purpose is to take them somewhere else; they’re like a lift, or a taxi.
I’m not certain any of this is any different to the way it’s always been; but at least the grey authoritarians of old didn’t try to be your mates when they were banning books, smashing printing pressing and proscribing political meetings.
Oh, Zappone still has the job by the way.