The much-quoted French philosopher Voltaire famously said that while he could not disagree more with what you say, he would defend to the death your right to say it.
That’s the reason the ABC was correct to say that Yassmin Abdel-Magied, its gaffe-prone compere, would not be fired for her controversial – no, make that tasteless and offensive – Anzac Day post on Facebook. She was expressing her own views on her own time, the national broadcaster said in a statement, so none of their concern.
But there’s another Voltaire quote that Ms Abdel-Magied would do well to bear in mind. It was the very last joke to pass the ardent atheist’s lips when, much to his chagrin, his housekeeper ushered a priest to his deathbed to ask if he would re-embrace the Catholicism of his youth and “renounce Satan”.
“Now, now my good man,” a wheezing Voltaire replied, “this is no time to be making enemies.”
On Anzac Day, Ms Abdel-Magied made a lot of enemies by adding the words “Manus, Nauru, Syria, Palestine” to the secular prayer honouring Australia’s war dead, “Lest We Forget”.
How anyone could be so tactless, so oblivious to the stormy and inevitable reaction, is astonishing, not least because Ms Abdel-Magied is self-evidently a very intelligent and articulate young woman.
A university-trained mechanical engineer and author at the age of 26, she can and does talk the leg off an iron pot whenever anyone leaves a microphone within gabbling distance. She is appointed to this-body and that-body in the name of promoting multiculturalism and, generally speaking, has done very well for herself.
So she’s a sharp one, let us agree on that, which means she should have seen the backlash coming.
She is, after all, an exponent and exemplar of multiculturalism, and Australian culture – of which the Anzac legend is an integral part.
Her supporters – Fairfax columnist Clementine Ford, to name but one – have rallied to her cause. Ms Ford has even launched a petition in her support, presumably to counter another campaign demanding the ABC show Ms Abdel-Magied the door.
“Yassmin Abdel-Magied is a deadset legend,” Ms Ford writes. “She puts herself on the line and cops a lot of crap from racist bigots and Strayan dickheads. For speaking the truth about the horrors of war, Yassmin has been hounded by the Daily Toiletgraph and hundreds of dickheads on Facebook, many of whom are calling for her to be deported, stoned, beheaded etc. You know, all in the name of freedom.”
So far, as the flap grows louder, Ms Abdel-Magied has kept her head down and left proxies to handle her defence. Their tactic, as articulated by Ms Ford, is to brand her critics as racists and bigots.
And here we get to the nub. As Voltaire noted, it is not a good policy to acquire enemies. But if you do make them, well, they have as much right to be heard as the person who provoked them.
It is called free speech and it’s a wonderful thing, the tap root which nourishes every other liberty we enjoy.
Perhaps the next time Ms Abdel-Magied feels inclined to insult and enrage many of her fellow Australians she will do a thorough job of it and linger long enough on the public stage to defend her point of view as ardently as her attackers are now presenting theirs.
Please, Ms Abdel-Magied, come out of hiding and further indulge your right to speak freely. It would be a very interesting debate, far more illuminating than having your friends dismiss your critics as rednecks and racists.