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Professor James Allan, Professor Ray Ball,
Professor Jeff Bennett, Professor Geoffrey Brennan,
Professor Lauchlan Chipman, Professor Kenneth
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Emanuel, Professor Ian Harper, Professor Wolfgang
Kasper, Professor Chandran Kukathas, Professor Tony
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Professor Steven Schwartz, Professor Judith Sloan,
Professor Peter Swan, Professor Geoffrey de Q. Walker.
Policy is a quarterly publication of The Centre for
Independent Studies in Australia and New Zealand. Views
expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect
the views of the Centre’s staff, advisers, directors, or officers.
istorian Orlando Figes once argued that the most important cultural monument
in Russia is not the Winter Palace and Hermitage in Saint Petersburg or the
Kremlin in Moscow but rather the humble kitchen, which he dubbed the ‘shrine of
Huddled around the kitchen table, safe from prying eyes, you were likely to engage
in a passionate debate about the purpose of existence or the problem of existence
in Russia and (on a lighter note) the bits of Tolstoy you prefer to Dostoevsky . . . [and
vice versa]. The discussion was likely to continue until the small hours of the morning,
long after the last vodka bottle was emptied and the tea was cold. And only sometimes
did it seem in these moments . . . that you had actually stepped into the pages of a
novel by Tolstoy or Dostoevsky. Weren’t their novels full of such scenes—perhaps in
grander settings but in spirit just the same?
Just as literature substituted for the absence of a free press and parliament in Russia for some
200 years, the kitchen table became a surrogate for the lack of civil society in the Soviet era.
There was almost no place where people could meet to talk freely and exchange ideas without
risking repression. It was hard even to have a safe private conversation at home because a
massive housing shortage meant many people lived in cramped communal apartments with a
single shared kitchen and feared being overheard and denounced by other families.
When Nikita Khrushchev came to power in the late 1950s, he ordered the construction of new
multi-storey apartment complexes to address the housing shortage. They were shoddily built
but each apartment had its own tiny kitchen and was allocated to a single family. Suddenly
people had a private gathering space to speak freely, exchange ideas and vent opinions
without fear of reprisal—‘ten square metres housing 100 guests’ as a song about Moscow
kitchens put it. Politics was debated, radios were tuned to uncensored foreign broadcasts,
banned music was played, underground poetry was recited, and forbidden art and literature
were circulated, with the latter spawning the famous samizdat movement.
Compare the vibrancy of this freedom of expression around the kitchen table with the dull
uniformity of the totalitarian regime and its censorship, propaganda and repression.
I was reminded of the critical role the kitchen table played in Soviet civic life when outgoing
Human Rights Commissioner Gillian Triggs lamented the fact that Australians are free to say
what they like around the kitchen table (see Lorraine Finlay on section 18C in this issue
Of course, Australia is not the Soviet Union. But freedom of expression—and the even
more fundamental freedom of association—are being limited here little by little without
people really noticing it. We risk taking our freedoms for granted. As Peter Mulherin
and Simon Kennedy note in discussing Tocqueville’s warning about the loss of voluntary
associations giving rise to the ‘tyranny of the majority’: ‘Talk of tyranny in most modern liberal
democracies may seem unnecessarily alarmist . . . However, when one’s idea of tyranny
shifts from violent authoritarianism to the idea of dominance by an elite in society the warning
is starker.’ In his tribute to Bill Leak Giles Auty argues that this dominance—the ‘tyranny of
our times’—and the ‘dumb fanaticism’ that led to the persecution of the late cartoonist
are leading us ‘towards a variety of forms of totalitarian thinking’.
In Western societies, the most insidious form of this thinking is the growing ‘absolutism of
identity politics’, as a recent article in The Economist put it, and the idea that people and
groups have a right not to be offended—a right that does not exist at international law. The
article continued: ‘If I have a right not to be offended, that means someone else must police
what you say about me . . . or my ethnic group, religion or even political beliefs. Since offence
is subjective, the power to police it is both vast and arbitrary’.
Banning words or arguments that one group finds offensive may give the appearance of social
harmony, but in reality bans are more likely to have the opposite effect by giving everyone an
incentive to take offence. No wonder a group of Muslim countries is now campaigning to make
insulting religion a crime under international law. As the Economist noted, they have every
reason to expect they will succeed.
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