Tuesday, March 21, 2017
I’ve always believed that the people who want Section 18C of Australia’s Racial Discrimination Act repealed have never needed its protection.
I’ve experienced enough instances of racist behaviour and discrimination throughout my life to know that I am at risk of being abused every day; enough to be able to say that, although I feel as though I’ve taken enough precautions for myself and my family, there is a need for the law by the wider community.
I can’t say I’ve ever agreed with the case brought against QUT by Cindy Prior, however. I didn’t believe the conduct she complained about satisfied the requirements for being deemed discriminatory and, sure enough, after failing multiple times, she ultimately withdrew the complaint.
But that didn’t stop criticism of the Racial Discrimination Act. In fact, the case became a lightning rod for criticism of the law it invoked. The circus that surrounded her claim was, the critics claimed, proof that the law doesn’t work.
I’m not sure I understand the logic of the assertion. Maybe it’s because of the perception that the law is being used as a sword, and not as a shield.
One thing I do agree with is a comment that Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull made, which is that the language of the law has “lost its credibility”. That is, the prohibition of behaviour that can “insult” or “offend”, which many people have interpreted to amount to the deliberate infliction of hurt feelings, which sounds rather trifling.
So change the words, then. Give it the meaning that was truly intended. I’m all for it. But don’t repeal it: as implied in my opening sentence, people still need its protection.
But this, I’m told, is an assault on Australians’ freedom of speech.
This is where things get interesting, because I don’t believe Australia has ever enjoyed “freedom of speech”, legally, constitutionally, philosophically, or otherwise.
We have an implied freedom of political speech, we have qualified freedoms of speech, but never in our history have we enjoyed a plenary, legally enshrined freedom of speech.
In fact, our speech is limited daily in many areas by laws relating to sedition, incitement of criminal behaviour, defamation, matters of national security, legal privilege, the postal service… Why choose racial discrimination, of all things, as the hill to die on for freedom of speech?
I have a theory on that. I don’t think these people are fighting for freedom of speech; I think they’re fighting for freedom from consequence. They’re fighting for the right to idly flip someone off and call them a nip or a wog or a gook without hearing “well you’re a racist” in response.
Because if we really did have freedom of speech, the right to call someone a racially insensitive name is matched by the freedom to label that person a racist.
But let’s play this out in very simple, zero-sum terms, shall we? Let’s pretend we have an absolute freedom of speech in Australia, and we’re all free to say whatever we want. Even if every person from a minority background in the country were able to yell “you’re a racist” to every person from the Western majority, they’d still be vastly outnumbered.
Let’s consider now that not everyone from the Western majority is a racist. Only some of them are – and I’d suggest (from personal experience) their numbers are considerable. But will those who aren’t racist stand up and help those who are being victimised and abused?
Some might, but I don’t hold anything against the people who don’t – such unpleasantness is just not part of their reality.
So where does that leave people from minority backgrounds who feel as though they’re being racially abused? Should they just toughen up and accept it as the norm?
Surely that’s not the picture of equality. Surely that’s what the Racial Discrimination Act was designed to protect them from.
It’s going to be an interesting few weeks.