Last month the government’s proposal to repeal Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act infamously led the Attorney-General Senator George Brandis to claim that all Australians “have a right to be bigots”. Since then this vexed proclamation has led to much confusion and anger in part because it’s not exactly clear how one should interpret it: does this mean that by abolishing 18C Australians will have a privileged right to bigotry?; is this encouraging a silenced nation to speak its racist mind?; or is this a confused defence of freedom of speech and the role of government vis-à-vis civil society?
This is by no means an exhaustive list of interpretations although what was clear from the subsequent commentary was that how the right to bigotry was interpreted reflected the stance on larger questions surrounding the abolition of 18C, free speech and the role of government. Needless to say that most of the interpretations have been unsympathetic to the government’s view, though not without good reason.
Every action has a reaction and freedom of thought and expression necessarily comes with the freedom to offend. It’s unavoidable like cake and calories. What’s vital is that we acknowledge this relationship before we start pretending that we can limit one without the other.
The problem with Senator Brandis’ statement was not that this relationship was ignored, but that it completely drew away from the positive value that free speech has within our democratic society. He threw away the cake and gave us the calories; we were pessimistically handed the bad news without any relief of the good.
Justifying policy upon negative principle is a strange exercise by any standard, for not only does it confuse people but it downright frightens them. Imagine the furore and perplexity that would arise if politicians defended the market economy by defending one of its more negative aspects such as income inequality. To give a more current example of how easily issues can become muddled when based on negative principle we only have to recall when the justification of the carbon tax moved from addressing greenhouse gas emissions and climate change to redistributing wealth and tax breaks for low income earners. The reason that the public supported the policy in the first place was lost and consequently support on taking action on climate change has not recovered since.
This decline in support on a critical issue is what is at risk here. By focusing on bigotry as some unalienable right, larger and more important questions of free speech, racism and the role of government are held subordinate.
As the old adage reads, “there’s no such thing as bad publicity”, but in our current media landscape it is naïve to think that catchy sound bites won’t attract headlines and steer the debate off course away from the issue. Senator Brandis’ comments came in response to Senator Nova Peris, Australia’s first indigenous woman elected to federal parliament, who asked if the removal of 18C would “facilitate vilification by bigots”. While it would be grossly unfair to say that Senator Brandis has solely argued for his proposed changes based on the right to bigotry, we have to ask where the blame falls here. Can we really blame our politicians for every flippant or provocative comment made in the heat of question time? Or should we blame the media for serving up irresistibly saucy headlines that we can’t help but gobble up whole without substantiating the surrounding context?
It’s easy to be fooled by a headline yet even easier to be distracted by one. The reaction to Brandis’ comments surely indicates this to be the case. While it might be logically coherent in the end to conflate the defence of free speech with defending someone’s right to be a bigot, it’s undoubtable that the latter is loaded with emotional baggage that has essentially Brandis-ed free speech supporters as advocating bigotry. We would do well to distinguish tolerance from advocacy as all it appears to be doing is distracting us from what’s truly at stake.
But politicians don’t do themselves any favours when they lose sight of the big picture and easily sacrifice substance for partisan parlance. This is especially the case when they defend their ideas in the form of juvenile ad hominems that fuel provocative headlines. As if right on cue, immediately after Senator Brandis had made his declaration he was attacking Senator Penny Wong’s for her objection, claiming she had said some “extraordinarily bigoted” things over the years. This may have earned him a few high fives in cabinet but it does little to convince voters. Again, we lose sight of what matters and down goes the conversation about the type of society we want to live in.
Freedom of speech and racial discrimination is an issue that brings everyone to the table because everyone has a vital interest trying to balance a foundational aspect of our open democracy with genuine concerns about a racist past and the hope for a more civil future. We would do well not to treat the issue so flippantly as to pretend the only answers arise from simple dichotomies: the choice between bigotry or censorship, between a racist society or one with a muzzle over it, government legislation or civil vigilance.
Hopefully now we can put bigotry to bed and restart a larger, more positive conversation.