The Prime Minister’s latest call to limit free speech has been widely criticised yet it has been barely reported in New Zealand.
OPINION: In the eyes of Jacinda Ardern’s substantial global fan base, she remains a beacon of hope in a dark and chaotic world — a source of inspiration and a humble force for good amongst often tawdry, self-serving politicians.
For them, her address to the United Nations late last month will undoubtedly have reinforced her appeal. There she was at the podium in New York, imploring the sprinkling of diplomats seated before her to act against “mis- and disinformation online”, which she rated as dangerous as bullets and bombs.
She implied that misguided views legitimising the Russian invasion of Ukraine were hampering efforts to end it and that climate change denialism was a problem that world leaders needed to confront head on.
As she put her case, she had the fetching air of a doleful Madonna — doing her best as Our Lady of Sorrows to lead a benighted world to a better place through her prescription for protecting the vulnerable from “hateful and dangerous rhetoric and ideology”.
What critics around the globe saw in Ardern’s speech, however, was something quite different.
They saw a self-righteous and self-regarding politician who was hypocritically claiming to be in favour of free speech even while advocating a system of global censorship.
It was noted that Ardern even cast criticism of moves to restrict free speech as representing wrongthink:
“As leaders, we are rightly concerned that even those most light-touch approaches to disinformation could be misinterpreted as being hostile to the values of free speech we value so highly.”
Critics also assessed her characterisation of free online expression as a “weapon of war” that can be used to “cause chaos” and even to “collapse the collective strength of countries who work together” as the product of a deeply authoritarian mindset.
Leftwing journalist Glenn Greenwald was direct in his assessment. In a tweet to his 1.8 million followers, he said: “This is the face of authoritarianism — even though it looks different than [what] you were taught to expect. And it’s the mindset of tyrants everywhere. This is someone so inebriated by her sense of righteousness and superiority that she views dissent as an evil too dangerous to allow.”
Brendan O’Neill, editor of UK website Spiked, tweeted to his 138.5k followers: “Ms Ardern’s UN speech exposed the iron fist of authoritarianism that lurks within the velvet glove of wokeness… Words wound, ideas kill — that’s the hot take of this globe-trotting luvvie against liberty.”
Addressing his 2.9 million Twitter followers, US political commentator Ben Shapiro focused on Ardern’s desire for censorship of contentious issues around climate change: “On the back of bad policy always comes the call to shut down free speech.”
Ardern’s desire to save the world from “chaos” and to impose “order” by increasing regulation of the world’s social media platforms is a drum she has beaten regularly to overseas audiences this year, including to Harvard students and at a technology conference in Madrid.
The fact she has failed to persuade her fellow New Zealanders to accept further restrictions on free speech has obviously not dimmed her ambitions to repeat a similar exercise on the world stage.
Presumably by promoting her censorship campaign overseas through public speeches and granting interviews only to sympathetic foreign journalists she can avoid being exposed as completely out of her depth intellectually as she was in New Zealand.
What revealed her inadequacies most clearly was her extraordinary response in 2019 to TV journalist Duncan Garner’s request to identify the “threshold” between reasonable criticism and hate speech: “When you see it you know it.”
As free-speech advocates pointed out, that is a woefully shaky definition to base a law on.
And when she was asked to give examples of speech that might render someone liable for up to three years’ jail or a fine of $50,000, she preposterously claimed it would be a matter for the courts — not politicians — to decide.
Overseas, of course, she can still pretend she is a thoughtful and far-sighted politician with a firm command of the topic — as long as no one challenges her on who exactly will decide what constitutes misinformation and disinformation, and how and where that line might be drawn.
Or how restrictions on “hateful and dangerous rhetoric and ideology” can accommodate those parts of religious teaching that some say are prime examples of exactly that.
Grandstanding at venues such as the UN means she can ignore the devil in the details in favour of stirring words.
Unsurprisingly, her UN speech was framed in terms of compassion for suffering humanity and keeping them safe — which has been a repeated theme in her overseas speeches, alongside a wish to control the free flow of information.
In fact, the Beehive press release that provided the text of her speech to an audience of 30,000 at Harvard University in May was headed: “Democracy, disinformation and kindness”.
Coincidentally or otherwise, after Ardern had warned the UN of the threat misinformation posed to mankind, psychologist Dr Jordan Peterson told Piers Morgan on his television talk show last week that the biggest threat to humanity was “narcissistic compassion”.
Morgan was pointedly disparaging of those using “Be Kind” as a slogan, and described the assault on free speech in democracies — with people expressing honestly held opinions being sacked from jobs or even imprisoned — as a form of fascism.
Peterson replied: “It’s worse than that… The fascists are more straightforward about it… They say something like, ‘Shut up or we’ll beat you’… whereas the narcissistic compassionate types say, ‘Well, we’re really trying to save the world and we’re acting in everyone’s best interests. Maybe you should regulate what you say because if you don’t you’re not a good person.’”
He said he would “take the fascist bully over the compassionate narcissist any time” — on the grounds that at least fascists don’t pretend they are telling you to keep quiet because it’s for your own good.
Ardern’s use of war imagery to depict the dangers of free speech leaves no doubt how deeply she believes controlling information is vital for everyone’s safety and well-being — and the moral responsibility falls to the world’s elites to exert that control.
After all, how can they be expected to tackle problems like climate change and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine if people are allowed to share dissenting views online?
Little wonder then that her speech has created alarm around the world.
But not in New Zealand’s mainstream media.
As David Farrar noted on Kiwiblog: “The New Zealand media often report breathlessly that the PM got some minor plaudit in a US newspaper, yet seem oblivious to the fact that millions of people are reacting with horror to her UN speech.”
As is so frequently the case on contentious topics, New Zealanders will have to look to overseas media to get an accurate gauge of the world’s reactions to the Prime Minister’s disquieting speech from the UN’s podium of truth.
Graham Adams is an Auckland-based freelance editor, journalist and columnist.