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Defending Voltaire to death

By Helen Pringle - posted Tuesday, 6 September 2005

Andrew Fraser is in trouble. For quite some time now the associate professor in public law at Macquarie University has been asserting what he sees as the perfectly innocent and harmless point that Africans in Australia are a crime risk because of their low IQ and high testosterone.

Fraser offered to the Australian media the following remarkable facts about sub-Saharan refugees: “Their IQ is 70 to 75 so there are differences between the cognitive ability of blacks and whites. Blacks also have significantly more testosterone floating around their system than whites.”

A further piece of evidence offered by Fraser is that crime rates rose and “things spiralled out of control” in the United States following the abolition of slavery in 1863 (The Australian July 21, 2005). Fraser set out similar views in a letter to the Parramatta Sun, published on July 6, in which he asserted that “experience practically everywhere in the world tells us that an expanding black population is a sure-fire recipe for increases in crime, violence and a wide range of other social problems”.


All appearances to the contrary, Fraser seems to consider himself a moderate, saying that most people secretly agree with him, and that he is only saying what they are thinking.

Fraser will soon be telling us that he is always being prevented from telling us what he really thinks about Africans, and that the only thing stopping him has been some political correctness floating around the system. And after all, Fraser has been relatively even-handed: he has also targeted Asians, although apparently because they have assimilated too well and are too rich and too successful.

When Fraser’s views first came to media attention, I waited patiently for his defenders to preface their remarks with something along the lines of: “As Voltaire said, ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it’.” I didn’t have to wait long. But surprisingly, first off the mark was Fraser’s chief antagonist. The Vice-Chancellor of Macquarie, Di Yerbury, sought to outflank any other potential Voltaire quoters by enlisting the 17th century philosopher on her own side.

In criticising Fraser, Yerbury noted, “I am also a passionate defender of free speech, subscribing to the saying attributed to Voltaire: ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it’.” Yerbury nattered on that free speech brings responsibilities as well as rights, and offered to buy Fraser out of his contract so that he could speak even more freely. Begin with the absurd position that free speech is an absolute, and you are going to be backpedalling like Yerbury in very short order.

Letter-writers to newspapers also invoked the dead Voltaire to defend Fraser’s right to speak. For example, Andrew Merlino, of Keilor Park, in the letters page of The Australian (August 3) called Voltaire’s sentence “the essential of democracy”.

Attacking the political correctness of which Fraser is allegedly a victim, Andrew Robb, of Marsfield, in the Northern District Times letters page (August 3), put the sentence in the mouth of a US Senator, who once apparently said, “I may not agree with what you say, sir, but I would fight to the death to uphold your right to say it.” Even the usually careful Hugh Mackay invoked the spectre of political correctness, asking his readers to defend the right to speak out, pleading, “As Voltaire was supposed to have said (though he didn’t, quite), ‘I disapprove …”


Yerbury, the letter writers and Mackay are all taking a familiar course in making their solemn oath to defend to the death the right to say what they disapprove of. The prime minister himself has also taken the solemn oath, on numerous occasions since 1995, as well as committing all true Australians to it. In May 1997, for example, Howard reacted to demonstrations against Pauline Hanson by asserting, “Any person, including Pauline Hanson, has a right to be heard. That great injunction of Voltaire was, ‘I don’t agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.’ Now that is a cornerstone of our democracy. Violent, unruly demonstrations are un-Australian.”

Again, in a February 2003 interview with Neil Mitchell, Howard defended himself against the charge that anti-war protestors were angry with him at being told they were giving comfort to Saddam Hussein: “I celebrate their right to peacefully demonstrate. I believe in Voltaire when he says I don’t agree with what they say but I defend to the death their right to say it.”

Howard savoured his own version of the sentence so much that he re-used it shortly after, in April 2003, in responding to calls to make flag-burning a criminal offence. Howard said, “I know that I’m in a minority in what I’m saying but I do hold to what might be called an old-fashioned view on something like this and all as I detest people who burn the Australian flag it does in my thinking come into the category of an expression of an opinion, not an expression I’d agree with, but I am influenced by that ancient saying of Voltaire when he said I don’t agree with what he says, but I’ll defend to the death his right to say it.”

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A shorter version was first published in the University of New South Wales Uniken, no 27 in September 2005.

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About the Author

Helen Pringle is in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of New South Wales. Her research has been widely recognised by awards from Princeton University, the Fulbright Foundation, the Australian Federation of University Women, and the Universities of Adelaide, Wollongong and NSW. Her main fields of expertise are human rights, ethics in public life, and political theory.

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