Yesterday I appeared on a panel at Sydney Uni with The Drum’s editor Jonathan Green to discuss free speech, along with Steve Cannane and Jack Marx. (And yes, it was noted that we are all white, middle-class men, a group whose access to free speech is generally pretty darn unrestricted.)
I said a lot of faintly pompous things about the value of freedom of speech, so would be remiss of me not to go into bat for that same principle 24 hours later with respect to Bob Ellis’ controversial article on The Drum this morning.
“With respect to” might be the wrong term – I mean “in reference to”, as I’ve little respect for the article. But quite a few people today have been suggesting that it should not be published in the first place. And there, my friends, I take up my cudgel of self-righteousness to defend freedom of expression.
But first, the article, whose contribution to the debate over the role of women in the defence forces and the incident at ADFA provides the last thing either situation needed – a steaming heap of freshly-laid sexism.
Ellis’ central argument is that it’s somehow hypocritical for women to wish to fight on the front lines and yet not be filmed having sex. But actually, there’s no inconsistency at all. The underlying principle is that women should get to decide what to do with their bodies, whether experiencing enemy fire, having sex or indeed choosing to perform for an audience of one’s fellow cadets on Skype, in the rather unlikely event that this in fact occurred.
The article goes on to suggest it is perfectly reasonable for any sexual encounter to be observed by others without consent, which I suspect Ellis thinks is a wonderfully libertine position, but ultimately just seems creepy. I suppose, though, that this article will stand up as permission in court if anyone cares to hide a webcam in the Ellis bedroom.
Perhaps the most problematic element of the article is Ellis’ attack on the victim’s character. He suggests a “hypothesis” that the woman agreed to be filmed, and then changed her mind. The value of this is dubious – raising that question in this fashion, he casts doubt on the question of consent, which is the key to the whole issue. Not only is this cavalier, but it misses the point. If the woman had agreed to what happened, then there’d been no scandal.
By way of analogy, let me ask this – suppose Bob Ellis had written a completely different article. What then? What then? Well, then the large number of people who attacked Ellis’ article today wouldn’t have done so. But then, we’d be inhabiting a different universe.
Furthermore, the question of what the woman agreed to in that room is a factual one for the police and ADFA inquiries, not for uninformed speculation. Nevertheless, Ellis is happy to reach his own conclusion, which is that the woman should have no future in the military:
Is the young woman, moreover, to be named, and acclaimed, and promoted, and hereafter entrusted with frontline command on some field of battle? Who would trust her in any high army position? Who would be sure she was truthful? Or sound of judgment? Or loyal? Or reliable under fire?
A more appropriate rhetorical question, though, is this: who would be so insensitive as to conclude that this woman was not fit for frontline command because of what was done to her against her will? Ellis displays the same Neanderthal attitude that’s displayed in honour killings, when rape victims are killed by their relatives for staining the family’s reputation.
By contrast, he argues the man responsible should get off scot-free because the public outcry is nothing more than a prudish overreaction to an “undergraduate prank”, which, Ellis claims, might drive him to suicide. Yes, correct – suicide is a terrible problem, Bob. But I think you’ll find it’s usually the victims of these situations who attempt to kill themselves, not the perpetrators.
Except that for Ellis, the victim in this scenario is someone else. Hint: he has a penis. Further hint: six of his mates have seen it on Skype.
I could write a great deal more about the problems I have with this article. But a more interesting question than whether Ellis is wrong is whether his article should have been published.
My answer to this is a simple one – of course, because this position should be engaged with. Is anyone naïve enough to imagine that these views are not shared by many within the defence forces and the broader community? As Jonathan Green pointed out on Twitter when initially posting the article, Ellis’ view of the ADFA affair is similar to that held by Andrew Bolt, whose opinions are so apparently popular that they warrant him getting his own TV show.
Many commenters today have suggested the ABC should not have published the article. Some who replied to me earlier today claimed that the article was not well written, or the argumentation was poor. Obviously I think his logic is flawed, since I disagree with it – but one thing that can never be said of Ellis, in my opinion, is that he writes badly. The distaste is in the argument itself, not its expression.
I’m troubled by the occasional tendency of those on the left to try to rule certain opinions out of bounds. I remember David Oldfield coming to speak at Sydney University while I was a student. Far-left activists tried to stop him from speaking at all, and shouted constantly during his speech. The behaviour made them seem as small-minded as the person they were attacking. Who wants to live in a society where nobody is allowed to dissent from the majority opinion?
Rather sitting around agreeing with one another, those of us with strong beliefs should seek out dissenting opinions, both so our own views are pressure-tested, and so we can understand what we’re up against. It’s a vaccination principle, with counterarguments as antibodies – reading an article like Ellis’ should encourage dissenters to engage with his internal logic and work out why it’s wrong, and how to disprove his arguments. The alternative, which is to not engage with the argument and simply to turn up one’s nose, will not enable us to change anyone’s mind in the long term.
Furthermore, agreement is dreadfully boring – Q&A is always at its dullest when everyone on the panel is saying the same thing. Conversations with people who share my views are lovely and affirming, of course, but they don’t get my brain working the way a good argument does.
Which brings me back to yesterday’s panel at Sydney Uni. With a few exceptions concerning court reporting, the four of us were in furious agreement on the value of free speech. It would have been far more interesting for the audience if somebody, anybody, had taken us on.
I’m glad The Drum, which let’s not forget has a taxpayer-funded obligation to present a diversity of views, published Ellis’ article. It’s an interesting change-up to see him appalling the left and pitching his tent alongside Bolt. And as a long-term fan of Ellis’ writing, I’m interested to see that his capacity for error is not limited to his election predictions.
Ultimately, the article presented arguments I hadn’t thought of and clarified what I think about the issues. And that’s what I look for when I visit an opinion website.
Or perhaps you disagree?