Overland: Scott Morrison and the Boundaries of Acceptable Speech

This comment piece was originally published by Overland online.


Scott Morrison and the Boundaries of Acceptable Speech

Last week, Scott Morrison commented that he intimately understands the persecution of LGBTIQA Australians because he, too, has been persecuted – for homophobia.

Morrison’s comments were made in response to a speech given by Penny Wong at the Lionel Murphy Memorial Lecture on Tuesday. Wong was speaking about the Liberal Party’s proposed plebiscite, which she claims will ‘license hate speech to those who need little encouragement’ and which Bill Shorten has previously likened to a ‘taxpayer-funded platform for homophobia’.

Wong pointed out that not one of the politicians pushing for the plebiscite know what it is like to be scared to show your partner affection, or to belong to a family that other people feel free to express vitriolic opinions about. Morrison’s response was that he did know ‘from personal experience’ what that was like because he has ‘been exposed to that sort of hatred and bigotry for the views [he has] taken from others who have a different view’.

In a single sentence, Morrison equated hatred for another person’s whole being – their very personhood – with hatred for another person’s opinion. It also equated vehement dissent against homophobic discourse with homophobia. It reformulated protest against hate speech as hate speech itself.

The first wave response to Morrison’s comments were quick to point out that Morrison – as a white, straight, cis man of considerable wealth and power – isn’t really in a position to be crying persecution. They also showed how far removed Morrison’s life is from one subject to the experience of homophobia.

But there’s also something else operating in Morrison’s comments. It has to do with this elision of homophobia and dissent against homophobia.

In her 1997 book Excitable Speech, philosopher Judith Butler argues that ‘it is by being interpellated within the terms of language that a certain social existence of the body first becomes possible’. That is to say, as linguistic and social beings, we only ever exist in society when discourse recognises us, our experiences, and our identities. Applying her theory of performativity to hate speech and the law, Butler demonstrates that censorship – broadly conceived – is an implement of state power that determines the boundaries and limitations of acceptable speech. In this way, hate speech only exists retrospectively; after the moment it has been used, when it is determined by the powers that be to be worthy of censorship.

Such conclusions provide insight into the means by which Morrison’s comments at once marginalise the experience of LGBTIQA Australians and excuse his – and his party’s – own behaviour.

This is the level on which Morrison’s censorship of LGBTIQA Australians operates. By reducing homophobia to a disagreement of views, Morrison’s comments at best marginalise and at worst dismiss the harm done to the LGBTIQA community. If we are all victims of violence, anger, bullying and hatred, then no one group’s suffering can be thought of as exceptional or inherently wrong. Any claims to the contrary are thus simply evidence of emotional irrationality on the part of the LGBTIQA community: think of Owen Jones’ frustration on Sky News in the aftermath of the Orlando massacre.

Similarly, by equating vehement disagreement to homophobic views with homophobia, Morrison’s comments undercut any response pointing out his prejudices. After all, such dissenting responses have now been re-termed as hate speech. In this way, the conversation is controlled. The two speech acts now balance each other out. Either we can both engage in hate speech – meaning the LGBTIQA community can voice their opinions as long as Morrison gets to still voice his – or no hate speech occurs and the concerns – and even very existence – of the LGBTIQA community is diminished. It’s lose-lose. The boundaries of acceptable speech remain unmoved. And so the platform for homophobia (the proposed plebiscite) is allowed to continue as possibility, while the recognition and labelling of homophobia itself is effectively silenced.

Now, this is not to say that Morrison acted with conscious or deliberate intention – subjugation rarely operates that clearly. It is also not to suggest that Morrison’s comments are unique. Indeed, rhetorical strategies that reinforce the power of a dominant group in any situation are well documented.

Morrison’s comments – and others’ comments like them – may well make protest more difficult. They may well control discourse and make it more difficult for our identities to be seen and respected. But by questioning the basis of censorship and state-sanctioned definitions of hate speech, these positions can be challenged. What remains, then, is to constantly question and challenge the boundaries of acceptable speech.

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