The Pursuit of Truth

I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it. The beginning of thought is in disagreement — not only with others but also with ourselves. You’ve got to rattle your cage door. You’ve got to let them know that you’re in there, and that you want out. Make noise. Cause trouble. You may not win right away, but you’ll sure have a lot more fun. In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act. You do not become a “dissident” just because you decide one day to take up this most unusual career. You are thrown into it by your personal sense of responsibility, combined with a complex set of external circumstances. You are cast out of the existing structures and placed in a position of conflict with them. It begins as an attempt to do your work well, and ends with being branded an enemy of society. (This paragraph has been formulated using quotes from – Beatrice Hall, Hoffer, Kennedy, Orwell and Havel)

A couple of wags decided to post some satirical songs on the Australian Association of the Deaf Discussion page. Those of us in the know knew who the songs were about and found them amusing. The songs suggested that resources of the organisation which could be better used to support people who are Deaf and hearing impaired were being used for other not so important purposes. They suggested that services and staff support were not getting enough priority. An excess of travel by the CEO was cited as a large part of the reason.

One suspects that there was more than an element of truth in the statements and this was probably the major motivator for preventing them being heard and seen.

AAD have now closed the Discussion Page to the general public. To contribute individuals now have to be a financial member of AAD. Closure occurred to protect AAD’s reputation and to avoid possible legal action . Apparently challenging the practices of an individual or organisation using satire is akin to slander. Of course closing the Discussion Page does nothing to prevent satire/slander, it just makes it harder for people to comment, to question and to challenge. Making the user pay for the Discussion Page makes the more cynical among us see it as a nothing more than a clever fundraising initiative.

According to some, to dissent now means to slander. What rubbish! Dissent, if you are not aware, means disagreement with the philosophy, methods, goals, etc, of a political party or government. This is one of many meanings, but for the purpose of this article it is the most appropriate. Slander is, legally, an untruthful oral (spoken) or written statement about a person that harms the person’s reputation or standing in the community***. Certainly voicing dissent to the policies of an individual within an organisation and suggesting these policies were very wrong could harm that person’s or that organisations reputation. This is not in dispute. The question is whether the actual statements were untruthful. One suspects that there was more than an element of truth in the statements and this was probably the major motivator for preventing them being heard and seen.

Many years ago I was involved in an act of dissent as a member of the South Australian Association of the Deaf. At that time there was, we felt, misinformation going out to the public about the benefits of hearing aids. The person responsible for the misinformation was speaking at a function. SAAD organised a protest outside the function. We had support from a prominent organisation. They provided us with all the resources we needed and a mini bus to get protesters there. I vividly recall how empowered we all felt. We got outstanding radio and TV coverage. A few people were upset at this act of dissent but it was a VERY effective means to bring attention to the issue.

Surely there is a better way to deal with something like this than preventing discussion on the issue? What is wrong with explaining the policy of the organisation, challenging the views of the dissenters and having an open and honest debate? It seems debate is too hard and dissenters a pain in the neck. Caroline Wilson, The Age Footy correspondent was recently the butt of sexist jokes on The Footy Show. Her response is an excellent and dignified example of responding to controversy. (Ironically in her case slander actually occurred). Click on the link to read it. Wilson’s calm and dignified response to a sensitive topic is a lesson to us all.
Wilson’s article

Martin, ( http://www.uow.edu.au/arts/sts/bmartin/pubs/93nw.html ) writes widely on the need for Dissent. He tells the tale of engineers on the Space Shuttle, The Challenger, who tried to bring attention to design flaws in the Space Shuttle. Their superiors, for reasons known only to themselves, suppressed the views of these engineers. The engineers were eventually forced to conform and remain silent with tragic consequences, the Shuttle blew up. Martin believes that the only thing more dangerous than censoring dissent is individuals who simply conform so as to not cause trouble or to avoid trouble for themselves. He calls this self censorship.

Martin’s example of the engineers who warned of problems with the Space Shuttle and were kept quiet is a tragic example of dissent suppressed. The problems that they identified ultimately led to the Challenger Shuttle blowing up with the loss of lives. This could have been avoided simply through openly listening and debating the issues. But instead the all systems go approach and the “I know what I am doing” philosophy won over. What was the result? BOOOOOOOM!!! Sadly, in the case of the Challenger, it probably had more to do with saving money than with common sense.

The articles that sadly led to the demise of AAD Discussion Page clearly had impact. If individuals felt aggrieved by them they only needed to put forward their own views

Martin explains that a common tool for suppressing dissent is the threat of legal action through defamation. Actual defamation cases are apparently very rare. The threat of being sued for defamation is often enough to make people shut up shop and say no more. If the dissenter has a truthful and valid argument, defamation is hard to argue in the courts. However, the threat of defamation and the costs involved if the case gets to court are usually enough to prevent people speaking out. Martin believes that in most cases defamation threats are never carried out because they bring with them negative publicity that is best avoided. It is a sad fact of life that legal threats, more and more, are being used to silence dissenters in areas of the deafness sector. These threats are nothing more than a form of censorship.

It would be so easy to blame the dissenters for the closure of the AAD Discussion Page to the public. It is so easy to classify the dissenters as trouble makers. But people usually only dissent when all avenues to be heard are exhausted. To be heard they will use a variety of tactics to get attention including, but not limited to, humour, satire, anger and controversy. They do this not to cause trouble but because they are committed to the cause. One can only admire them for their desire to be heard. Free speech is the cornerstone of democracy and is what makes Australia what it is today. Why should this be any different for the Deaf and Hearing impaired?

The articles that sadly led to the demise of the AAD Discussion Page clearly had impact. If individuals felt aggrieved by them they only needed to put forward their own views. Sadly they took the easy way out – they chose censorship.

Ultimately this will achieve nothing except more frustration and more anger. As the late and great George Bernard Shaw once said “ ..All censorships exist to prevent any one from challenging current conceptions and existing institutions.” Sad but true. So much, in fact, that there is almost nothing left to say that is permissible!

If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.
Desmond Tutu

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