Margaret Court, free speech and the semantics of ‘consequence free’

A spat has opened up between two tennis legends: Margaret Court and Martina Navratilova. Court is currently a pastor at Perth’s Victory Life church and has, in recent days, proffered her views on homosexuality. Needless to say, the views of an outspoken Pentecostal pastor do not accord with the cultural zeitgeist and have not been particularly well received.

The issue first arose when Court wrote an open letter to Qantas regarding their active promotion of same-sex marriage. Court argued that, although she had ‘nothing against’ homosexual people and defended their right to ‘live their life like that’, she believed that marriage was only between one man and one woman. She further argued that her country was still ‘a Judeo-Christian nation’ and thus it should protect the historical, biblical view of marriage. This led to something of an outcry in the tennis world.

Undeterred, in an interview on Vision Christian Radio, Court discussed the Safe Schools anti-bullying programme, arguing it created confusion about gender and sexuality. At one point, she opined ‘there is a whole plot in our nation and in the nations of the world today to get the minds of the children’. She similarly noted that tennis was ‘full of lesbians’ and that this was causing a top-down effect throughout the sport. Cue further outrage.

Martina Navratilova and Billie Jean King have spoken out against Court’s comments, calling for the Margaret Court Arena to be renamed in light of her views. A number of other tennis stars have been at pains to show they do not share Court’s views but have stopped short of calling for her name to be stripped from the Melbourne Park venue. Navratilova has since written an open letter to the Margaret Court Arena pressing her case.

I don’t intend to go into the rights and wrongs of Margaret Court’s views here. Nonetheless, a few things bear saying.

The call to rename the Margaret Court Arena is not a good one. Despite the claim of Navratilova, the arena was not named after Court because she held the correct views. It was so named because she was the first woman in the open era to win the singles Grand Slam and subsequently went on to win 24 titles in all thus making her the most successful female tennis player of all time. She is not being honoured for saying or thinking the right things, she is honoured purely as a successful tennis player. There is a reason it is not named the Peter Tatchell Arena, despite Tatchell subscribing to all the views that Navratilova would consider proper. The recognition is for sporting prowess; nothing more, nothing less.

Further, if we are inclined to set the precedent of renaming things because of unpalatable views, we will find ourselves mired in inconsistencies or renaming everything every few years. Social mores have a habit of changing and views that were once deemed acceptable by the majority become less palatable as the years go by. There are scores of famous historical figures who do not share modern sensibilities. Are we now to rename anything referring to Churchill because he supported eugenics? We’ve already seen the #RhodesMustFall campaign, which asks us to airbrush history because Cecil Rhodes held views that are no longer acceptable. You would be hard pressed to find almost any historical figure that didn’t hold some views that are anathema to the 21st Century mind.

Moreover, though we refuse to think this of ourselves, what are we to do if the pendulum swings in future and – for whatever reason – some of the things we now find unpalatable are reclassified as perfectly acceptable? Are future generations to go back through the annals of history and reinstate the names of those we currently deem unworthy? If we start stripping buildings of names because of views that are now unpalatable to us, we will be facing an awful lot of renaming ceremonies in the near future due to countless things named after people who held views that do not accord with the current zeitgeist.

Second, I find it troubling that people are so ready to defend the argument, as put by Navratilova, that ‘we celebrate free speech, but that doesn’t mean it is free of consequences – not punishment, but consequences’. Whilst this may sound sage, it is an affront to free speech as an overt attempt to impede it. What it says is that if you voice views we deem unacceptable, there will be consequences. I can only presume that the distinction between ‘consequences’ and ‘punishment’ refers solely to prison. Nonetheless, it is clear that views deemed acceptable are considered consequence free. So long as you say the right things, you may say them freely. If you say the wrong things, there will be consequences. We may want to differentiate between punishment and consequences if we like, but both sound extremely sinister.

Even if we buy this line, several questions follow. Who, for example, determines which views are free from ‘consequence’ and which are not? What are the boundaries of acceptable consequences for speech deemed unacceptable? At what point does a ‘consequence’ constitute ‘punishment’? How, precisely, does the threat of unpleasant consequences (for that is the clear inference) not impede free speech? In what way are we not enforcing certain views, and insisting others are unsayable, by threatening people who dare to voice them?

Navratilova argues ‘we should not be celebrating this kind of behaviour, this kind of philosophy’. Clearly we aren’t, we are recognising success in tennis. Were we celebrating this kind of philosophy, we might name the stadium after someone who has done more to propagate these views than Margaret Court (the Apostle Paul Arena, perhaps?) Alternatively, if views are the issue, we would find someone who has done the most to propagate ‘correct views’ (the Stonewall Stadium, perhaps?) But right views are clearly not in view. Likewise, I do not see how threatening ‘consequences’ for saying the wrong things can be used in the same sentence as a claim to defend free speech. Impeding what people can say – whether by using the force of law or by insisting on certain ‘consequences’ that extend beyond mere permission to respond using your own words – is not a defence of free speech. You simply cannot spin it that way.

There is a great irony here. Navratilova states:

How much blood will be on Margaret’s hands because kids will continue to get beaten for being different? This is not OK. Too many will die by suicide because of this kind of intolerance, this kind of bashing and yes, this kind of bullying. This is not OK.

She is quite right to highlight the problem of bullying, whoever it is against, and suggest it is profoundly wrong. We should rightly be against bullying in all its forms against all people.

But to argue that voicing an opinion which doesn’t endorse mainstream views on this issue amounts to bullying is, frankly, ludicrous. In fact, it is a case of using the language of intolerance and bullying to bully and shut down views you do not like. Margaret Court has voiced views that are not mainstream and, in the name of tolerance, her views are not being tolerated. In the name of anti-bullying (which I fail to see how she has bullied anybody here, even if we don’t like her views), Court is being bullied until she changes her view. In truth, even if she changed her view, tolerance still wouldn’t extend to her for there is no forgiveness in the new orthodoxy, even for those who repentant of their regressive views (see here for example).

You do not have to like Margaret Court or her views. You do not have to subscribe to everything she believes to go to the Margaret Court Arena. What we do have to do is let her say them. That involves not arguing free speech ‘is not consequence free’, for that means the speech is not free, it comes with a price tag of unpleasant consequences which, somehow, doesn’t constitute punishment (because stripping somebody’s name off a stadium in response to something they have said clearly isn’t punitive, is it?) Free speech means being permitted to say whatever one wills and it, in turn, permits others to say what they like in response. It does not mean saying the wrong things should lead to ‘appropriate consequences’. That, dear reader, is a semantic case for punitive action and, by definition, does not render speech free.