This article was published on http://www.dailytelegraph.com.au on 28 February 2017
THE Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights published its report on freedom of speech today. At 174 pages long, it is not light reading. It contains 22 recommendations, the second of which is “that leaders of the Australian community and politicians exercise their freedom of speech to identify and condemn racially hateful and discriminatory speech where it occurs in public”.
Of course very few people want racially hateful and discriminatory speech, but the problem is, opinions that some may express where race is a salient feature can very easily be interpreted as racist, when in fact they are not. And that is the problem with Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act.
18C ‘true believers’ insist on the highly questionable grounds that the words or images of others have the power to hurt. I’m not saying that people don’t sometimes experience some form of hurt after hearing some words, whether this be ‘hurt feelings’ or ‘being offended’, but I do question if it really is the case that the words directly cause the hurt? If two people of the same ethnic group hear a joke and one claims to be offended and the other claims to be tickled pink, is it really the joke that chooses to offend one and tickle another? No. People choose their responses.
Though supporters of 18C are firm in their convictions that the words of others cause them offence, conviction is not always a reliable indicator of truth. Let’s not forget that many people, including the best people of the day, were once just as confident in their convictions that the world was flat, or that two men passionately embracing was the cause of an onlooker’s offence. Consensus and conviction do not necessarily add up to truth.
Many times my views on Aboriginal matters have not been popular among some Aboriginal people, but I live in a society that allows me to express those views, and for that I’m grateful. My critics who disagree with my views on Aboriginal affairs, and regularly claim that I have offended them, have called me a ‘racist,’ a ‘sell out,’ and a ‘house n*gger.’ Is there a law that offers me protection from insults from other Aboriginal people?
Thankfully, I don’t need protection from people who are so weak that they resort to slander because they disagree with me. I respect their right to call me those names, even if they don’t respect my right to express my views. I live with my opinion of me and not their opinion of me.
When smeared by such criticisms, I have the choice of taking offence or laughing at my critics’ attempts to get under our skin. If I chose to take offence — and it is always a choice — I would be essentially saying to my critics, “Your opinion of me has more power over me than I have over myself”. I value my opinion of me more than I value their opinion of me. Endorsing Section 18C is highly disempowering in the long run as it reinforces the myth that my happiness is at the mercy of other people’s words and opinions.
Yes, there will always be people who, due to their own insecurities, will seek to gain power over others through verbal intimidation and slander. But I much prefer to believe that the majority of Australians are better than that. I would much rather my opponents be allowed to say what they want to say about me, even if its intent is to vilify me, than for them to be silenced.
Silencing others on the basis of “you’ve offended me” is disempowering to all of us.