Free expression is a workplace issue too

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In any newspaper or news site you will read warnings about how freedom of speech and civil discussion is under attack from 'political correctness' and echo chambers. The latest instalment of this faux-debate was kicked off by author Richard Flanagan who, responding to the decision of Brisbane Writers Festival to drop Germaine Greer and Bob Carr as invited guests, wrote about the disappearing courage to listen to different ideas.

Germaine GreerEngaging in good-faith discussions with those who hold different views is important, and we need more spaces for it. Yet there is a growing idealisation of a mythical bygone era of pluralistic, open, civil debate between truly different viewpoints, that never really existed. Literary festivals and media have only ever had a narrow selection of different viewpoints because of financial incentives and their audiences. Rarely have they ventured into truly boundary pushing territory.

Though there are some instances where individuals have genuinely been silenced, it is rare. In this digital age, gatekeeping can be avoided, and many have thrived by nurturing perceived exclusion. Whereas broadcasts from public figures and journalists were once one-directional, critical responses from audiences can now be immediate and amplified through social media. Many have conflated being criticised with being silenced.

While the debate about Flanagan's contribution has continued on social media, for most Australians such debates are esoteric. Regardless of the actual reason behind the program change, whether Carr or Greer participates has no real impact on their ability to speak out and be heard. The real threat to the freedom of expression for most people comes not from programming decisions at literary festivals but rather to the public through their employers.

The shallowness of this panic about freedom of expression became obvious when news broke of Angela Williamson's sacking by Cricket Australia for tweeting about abortion in a personal capacity, despite it having nothing to do with the work she was doing. While some have framed it as being about the right to choose or discrimination based on political opinion, at its heart it is fundamentally about how employers can quash free expression.

As the noted feminist philosopher Elizabeth Anderson pointed out in her Tanner Lectures, workplaces are dictatorial, private governments. She noted that 'those dictatorships have the legal authority to regulate workers' off-hour lives as well ... Because most employers exercise this off-hours authority irregularly, arbitrarily, and without warning, most workers are unaware of how sweeping it is.' It is 'market pressures, social norms, lack of interest, and simple decency [that] keep most employers from exercising the full scope of their authority'.

We have seen these dictatorships in action over the past few years, most prominently through the use of social media policies. As social media usage has increased, with 79 per cent of Australians now using social media, there has been an increased blurring of work and the personal. Workplace policies with broad clauses such as 'organisational disrepute' have meant the regulation of private conduct on social media can occur at management's discretion.

 

"From the use of social media policies to discipline workers, to attempts to ban the Eureka flag and slogans on hardhats on construction sites, individual freedoms have been under constant attack in the workplace."

 

There was the 2015 sacking of SBS sports commentator Scott McIntyre for tweets about Anzac Day that were found to be in breach of the SBS social media policy and the SBS code of conduct. In 2017, the Australian Public Service Commission released new guidance on social media policies stating that public servants could be in breach of the APS code of conduct for liking or sharing posts on Facebook that are critical of the government.

Similarly, during the Streets Ice Cream dispute of 2017, workers risked disciplinary action if they posted angry emojis on social media in protest at Unilever's attempt to cut their pay.

These examples are only the tip of the iceberg and show that the protection of civil liberties must be considered a workplace issue as much as wages and conditions or work health and safety. From the use of social media policies to discipline workers, to attempts to ban the Eureka flag and slogans on hardhats on construction sites, to the coercive powers of the Australian Building and Construction Commission that remove the right to silence, to preventing picketing or even saying the word 'scab', individual freedoms have been under constant attack in the workplace.

These confected debates about 'political correctness' and 'freedom of expression' mistake an inability to receive criticism from others with free speech being silenced, and distract us from real and growing attacks on the individual freedoms of everyday people who do not have a megaphone in the media.

 

 

Osmond ChiuOsmond Chiu is Secretary of the NSW Fabians. He tweets @redrabbleroz

Topic tags: Osmond Chiu, Richard Flanagan, Germaine Greer, Bob Carr, Brisbane Writers Festival, freedom of speech

 

 

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Existing comments

Whereas once, when incensed about some issue, we wrote our thoughts into a private journal or posted a letter, the immediacy of social media and its seductive allure means we can be exposed to ridicule or worse in a very hasty manner. This can be catastrophic. Greer and Carr are both articulate and independent people who have other means of expression if one avenue fails. Employers can feel entitled to intercede when a viewpoint is offered that does not accord with their worldview. This is an encroachment on free speech and a devaluing of diversity. It's almost akin to disparaging someone who doesn't pronounce letters of the alphabet correctly.
Pam | 13 August 2018


Thank you Osmond Chiu. Insightful and true. Much appreciated.
Joan Daniel | 14 August 2018


In 1970, Bourgeois Misogyny's and his meek missus' bete noire Dr Germaine Greer published THE FEMALE EUNUCH. In 1972, after the satirically named feminist mag ADAM'S RIB, came the publishing house SPARE RIB, which you probably know as VIRAGO PRESS, "a commercial alternative to the male-dominated publishing industry". Its founder Carmen Callil is Germaine Greer's co-alumna of Star of the Sea Convent in Gardenvale, good Catholic girls, Melbourne-born-&-raised. The Sisters of the Presentation of the BVM have much to answer for; much to be proud of. Germaine and Carmen went on to their first degrees, B.A. in Lit and French, at the University of Melbourne, in 1959 & 1960. Postera Crescam Laude! Each has lived in the U.K. since the 1960s. Other Star of the Sea alumnae have been progressive ALP Cabinet Ministers. (How's the apoplectic fit coming along, Andrew Bolt?) Carmen matriculated from the IBVM's hotbed of independent thinkers, Loreto Mandeville Hall. John Newman S.J. contributed much to the critique of Universities' roles. I think these include a duty to help those not admitted to the pulpit of "academic freedom", to find a forum and justice.
james marchment | 14 August 2018


I thought they had not actually been 'invited' by the Festival but by their publishers. Am I mistaken? If I am not mistaken, then the Festival have every right to say "No' to their attendance.
Jennifer Raper OAM | 16 August 2018


Bl John Henry Newman (as revered by those like you and me, James Marchment, who love Eureka Street and its sponsors) ought to have been a Jesuit but was in fact an Oratorian who, unlike the Jesuits - and, indeed, Newman himself - field a membership who are more into encouraging personal piety and Tridentine liturgy than good works. And Osmond Chiu and the Fabians properly defend Bob Carr's right to speak, though I'd hardly call Greer spectacular or, for that matter, particularly articulate.
Michael Furtado | 16 August 2018


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