IN 1942, in the middle of the Australian winter, and at a very low point in WWII, Robert Gordon Menzies, no longer Prime Minister, broadcast a series of weekly talks on the radio station 2UE, which became the first part of a book called The Forgotten People published in 1943. His thoughts then seem to be more than ever applicable as the Western World struggles with a different enemy, one from within its own ranks, which seems bent on destroying the past despite the aboriginal teaching that one’s cultural heritage must be preserved, respected and honoured. What was said in 1942 may be useful in thinking about how serious a challenge is this ‘Cancel Culture’ which surrounds and be-numbs us.
Menzies’s focus was President Roosevelt’s ‘Four Freedoms . . . of speech and expression, of worship and from want and from fear’. He thought that the first freedom, of speech and expression, implied freedom of thought, which in turn implied ‘freedom for others as well as ourselves, freedom for people who disagree with us . . . freedom for minorities as well as for majorities’.Now we have thought police who will protect us from any expressions which might upset any of us, and which could be described by any of us as ‘hate speech’. The trouble with this idea is twofold, it assumes that the thought police are infallible and that what is not defined as hate speech today will be so tomorrow.
Menzies noted that this trouble had occurred in the recent past, when ‘the worst crime of fascism and its twin brother German National Socialism, was their suppression of free thought and free speech’. One of the first actions of the Nazis was to tell the newspapers exactly what they could print and so ‘controversy came to an end’. Does that sound familiar? He said that ‘today’s truth is frequently tomorrow’s error . . . Hence, if truth is to emerge . . . the process of free debate, the untrammelled clash of opinions, must go on’.
We are now living in a world where differences of opinion are suppressed as ‘disinformation’. Surely if the disliked opinions were based on falsehoods, what better way to expose them than by letting them be heard?
Menzies’s thoughts were derived from earlier writers such as John Stuart Mill, whose essay On Liberty defines much that explains Voltaire’s adage that he might disagree with an opponent’s views but would fight to the death to preserve his right to express those opinions. Now death by cancelling is the fate of anyone who does not go along with the so-called consensus view.
Mill saw that there is a ‘limit to the legitimate interference of collective opinion with individual independence: and to find that limit, and maintain it against encroachment, is as indispensable to a good condition of human affairs, as protection against political despotism’.
This first principle reminds us that the ‘despotism of a majority may be just as bad as the despotism of one man’.
Mill’s second principle was that the sole end for which mankind is warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.
This Menzies saw as a ‘good rule, not only of common law but of social morality, that we must so use our own [liberty so] as not to injure others . . . Liberty is for all, not for some’. Herein lies a justification for the ‘keeping us safe’ campaign; whereas once only sticks and stones could cause hurt, now it is only words that hurt.
Mill’s third principle warned thatthe‘tendency of all the changes taking place in the world is to strengthen society, and diminish the power of the individual; this encroachment is not one of the evils which tend spontaneously to disappear, but, on the contrary, to grow more and more formidable’.
This explains how both Fascism and the Nazi movement’s view that‘your rights are not those you were born with, but those which of our kindness we allow you’ is becoming cancel culture’s rallying cry.
The fourth essential was that ‘complete liberty of contradicting and disproving our opinion is the very condition which justifies us in assuming its truth for purposes of action; and on no other terms can a being with human faculties have any rational assurance of being right’.
Menzies observes that ‘ít is a poorly founded and weakly held belief which cannot resist the onset of another’s critical mind’.He allows that censorship during times of war may seem necessary, but warns against the temptation to suppress disagreement, saying that we may ‘refute our critic, but must not suppress him’.
His next talk expanded on freedom of speech and expression with regards to the press, aka today as social media. When you own a media vehicle, he notes, you do not have ‘any special privilege to defame [or] to criticise beyond that enjoyed by other citizens’. He sees the media’s responsibilities as being to ‘publish enough of both sides to make its own views and criticisms intelligent and fair’. He reminds us that the tradition of journalism ‘was to report fairly and without comment and separately to criticise’, but notes ‘there is today a tendency to mingle report with comment, so that you do not know whether what you are reading is what Brown said or what young Smith, the reporter, thinks of what Brown said’.
He goes on, ‘A free press must not set itself up to be the master of the people, for in a democratic community the people should prefer the masters they themselves have chosen to those who are merely self-appointed . . . And so, let us have a free Press, and let us have free readers whose letters will be published, even though hostile . . . If our diet is to become one of half-truths and prejudice and unfounded comment . . . we shall become slaves’.
It has been said that the woke are not awake to what has been the cornerstone of the escape from earlier dictatorships and monarchies, where the ‘average man’ had only the right to live, breathe and procreate, so long as he served the wishes of the elite. Today’s woke elite have found that dreadful past order of society to be desirable – and they will fight to the death to preserve it, unless they prove to be snowflakes after all.