Friday, October 29, 2010

The Limits of Thought

The link at the bottom is to a radio phone-in show exchange that occurred on 20 October, 2010 between Australian trade union leader Kevin Bracken and Melbourne’s 774 ABC show presenter Jon Faine.

Australian Prime Minister Julia Guillard felt it necessary to dismiss Mr. Bracken’s beliefs, briefly outlined to Mr. Faine, as “stupid and wrong”. Shadow Attorney General Robert Clarke said Mr Bracken's comments were a direct insult to Australian soldiers serving in Afghanistan. The Australian trade union secretary, Brian Boyd, said Mr Bracken did not speak on behalf of the organization, and that "The official Trades Hall position is not to entertain that theory". MUA union national secretary Paddy Crumlin also distanced the union from Mr. Bracken’s comments.

No-one suggested that Mr. Bracken had every right to express these views, or that the behaviour of Mr. Faine, the phone-in talk show presenter, had been anything other than exemplary in attempting to first ridicule and then silence him. I am instantly reminded of the recent WikiLeaks scandal, in which Hillary Clinton was twice quoted in a BBC newscast as condemning the exposure of American government skullduggery in the “Iraq Diaries”, and never a word of condemnation of what the leaks revealed.

While all of the above-quoted reactions can themselves be defended as free speech, they share the common characteristic that they were all attempts to guide the public into channels of opinion that are considered “correct” by our political leaders. The beliefs uttered by Mr. Bracken on the public airwaves were not mainstream beliefs, should never have been heard in such a forum, and it was felt immediately necessary to inoculate the public against them.

The Australian reported that the Federal Opposition, however, went further, with Victorian MP Josh Frydenberg asking Ms Gillard in Parliament what action she would take against Mr Bracken “to send a message that such remarks are unacceptable”. This strikes me as a very small step short of banning altogether the public declaration of views such as those held by Mr. Bracken. In Europe, as you probably know, it is now illegal to declare publicly any disbelief in the Jewish Holocaust. In Muslim countries, of course, there are similar injunctions against defamation of the Prophet Mohammed, and much more besides.

And I think this brings us to the point of this little brouhaha. Mental freedom, like other kinds of freedom, has limits. We’re not generally aware of this, because it’s not, mostly, in our nature to test the limits of mental freedom. Indeed, those limits very much define who we are. Outside them lies madness, the world of crazies and lunatics, a mental cliff which consists of nothing other than disobedience to the strict limits every culture imposes on thought. Mostly, we swim apparently entirely freely in this shared stream of thought. And that very freedom gives it the feel of objective reality.

But the very real social and cultural constraints on thought – even in our so-called democracies - are every bit as absolute as those which govern our bodies. We may swim freely between the mental banks set by our cultural mainstream, but any attempt to change the course of that stream and our voice will be swiftly drowned out.

The present example of thought control is fairly typical in that it staunchly avoids any appeal to the physical evidence which one might suppose a science-based culture would feel it necessary to marshal to support censorship. In fact, it’s quite striking how little part physical evidence plays in the structure of our most cherished beliefs. On the other hand the example is remarkable because the subject matter censored does not, apparently, involve the protection of Australia’s interests. Why did first Mr. Faine, and shortly thereafter all these public figures, feel it necessary to so thoroughly silence Mr. Bracken on a matter seemingly only affecting another nation?

I offer two reasons. First, Mr. Bracken is something of a public figure himself, and so his views may (and indeed did) have wider impact than those of a mere nonentity. Second, the dam that Mr. Bracken proposes breaching will inevitably cause political waves which will spread far further than the borders of America.

The reaction of Jon Faine, the show host, is singular also in its sudden intensity. It’s almost as if Mr. Faine feels as much threatened by Mr. Bracken’s remarks as if he had declared the Holocaust a hoax (Faine is Jewish).


  1. Lets not get bogged down in the views expressed. Wouldn't the behaviourists say this is simply another case of human biology at work, the 'tribe' or 'in group' reasserting the acceptable belief system and threatening those who won't conform with expulsion?

    Sue Vokes

  2. Precisely. I deliberately made no mention of the views expressed (although as you know I copmpletely agree with Bracken). The thing is, this mechanism governs how we think, and what we think about. And it seems to me there's no escaping it. This was just a particularly egregious - or maybe, no, I merely mean 'glaring' - example! It's quite a shock to hear mental control at work on Aussie public radio.