Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site


Free expression is a workplace issue too

  • 13 August 2018


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.

Engaging 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