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March 29th 2017 print

Michael Galak

The Right to Offend…and be Offended

Let's give 18C the benefit of the doubt and allow, for argument's sake, that it was conceived with the very best of intentions. OK, that's my concession, but I also expect any reasonable person on the other side of the argument to acknowledge it has become a handy weapon, often a lucrative one

18CAh, this evergreen topic of insult and  offence. What a maze to skip through, this business of not “insulting and offending” anyone! There’s such a rich and wondrous variety of reasons why people might dislike, sometimes intensely, anything you say or do that it boggles the mind. Even if you manage to avoid contentious topics — race, religion, money, politics, immigration, abortion, drugs, Section 18C, ABC, environment, elections, Trump, Hillary, women, sex, discrimination, human rights, terrorism, victims, Aborigines, carbon footprints, homosexuality, prostitution, conscription, vaccination, coal, renewables, oppressed sharks and pot-bellied parrots  — you might yet trigger a warning of some kind.

Table conversations become more and more like valedictory dinners in a minefield. Step back from the table and its thin fare of acceptable opinion and topics for discussion and one false move detonates the big kaboom! So, rather than rile the table, you wear the standard-issue solemn face as steaming servings of politically correct tripe are dished up for general consumption. Beg to differ and, well, it could be the end of a beautiful relationship. Risqué jokes? None of those, please, unless the punch line is aimed at conservatives, which is always acceptable and necessarily so. There are now so many subjects and identity groups the Left has declared off-limits, Liberals are about the only free-range prey left.

Where would we be  if anyone could tell a joke about anyone and anything? Dragged before the tax-hoovers of the Human Rights Commission, like poor Bill Leak, that’s where. An appropriate deference — indeed, a secular adoration — for the paraded virtues of the Fitzroy, Brunswick and Balmain set is required to avoid a public shunning and, once Dr Tim Soutphommasane has touted for “victims” on Facebook prepared to keep him busy and in the headlines, there will be no escaping the substantial legal costs. These morally superior, specimens struggle mightily to bring us mugs into the bright, brave future they envision for all humankind, whether the rest of us like it or not! Solemn agreement, meek acquiescence and, for those who wish to get ahead, a fawning deference that would shame Uriah Heap is what they (and their taxpayer-funded legal departments) expect and demand. They are, by their own estimation, the sole custodians of human rights’ eternal flame. Place your unfettered sense of humour before the altar of PC rectitude and surrender it as an offering to what they imagine is the greater good.

Very soon there will be no permissible topics for pointed jocularity, not unless they are the sort based on Pavlovian stimulus and response. If you have been to one of those “comedy” festivals, you will know what I mean. The stand-up guy or gal says “yada yada yadalittle Johnny Howard” and the audience roars with laughter because, well, that is what good groupthinkers are supposed to do — respond on cue. Like the screamers in 1984‘s Two Minute Hate, they know and enjoy the satisfaction of howling with the mob at those they love to hate, be it howling with derisive laughter or old-fashioned, flat-out contempt.

They say the personal political, so let me ask if Section 18C protect me? As a Jew, I am sensitive to anti-Semitic insults, and  18C is presented as protecting me from this scourge. As far as an open assault, whether physical or verbal, it is not a foolproof protection as far as my safety and my family’s is concerned. For example, consider the variety of organisations declaring themselves to be “anti-Zionist” that are, in effect, no more nor less than anti-Semitic. Did 18c inhibit the mobs of chanters and bullies who, week after week, invaded the Max Brenner chocolate shops? Watch the video below if you are groping for an answer.

Just incidentally, and by way of another example of 18C’s selective impotence, the ABC gave pride of place to a contributor who insisted it was the BDS thugs who were being victimised. See, it’s not what you say, it’s what the state says you can or cannot say about certain groups and only those certain groups.

I am left with the inescapable conclusion that 18C is not effective in stopping the “insulting and offensive” abuse it was designed to achieve. As a member of a society governed by the rule of law, I am offered protection from violence, assault and many of life’s other unpleasantries. Does the law require people to like me as a Jew? Not at all. Am I required by law to like others?  Yes, I am, by my religion, but not by common law.

Is 18C effective in stopping anti-Semitism? No, it is not. Anti-Semitism exists now as it did before. What 18C achieves, I use that word advisedly, is to push such hatred below the surface. It is still there, still seething with a loathing for Jews, it is just that it has been immodestly covered with the skimpy fig leaf of “anti-Israel activism”. Ergo, 18C is ineffective in its stated purpose.

In my understanding, so long as a plaintiff is able to demonstrate before a judge that the “offend and insult” is inspired by the plaintiff’s race, gender, religion, sexual orientation etc., then the court can intervene and punish the defendant, as in the infamous prosecution/persecution of Andrew Bolt. And if the bench is of a particular political persuasion, this article of the law can be used (and has been used) as an ideological weapon — a cudgel for which some of our judges seem to have a deep and abiding affection. Even more dangerous, 18C can be used as similar laws were used in the Soviet Union (and contemporary Russian Federation) to stifle criticism and protect those in power. Section 18c is more than an abomination in and of itself, it is the prime example of the law of unintended consequences.

There are two examples of such laws I recall from my time in the Soviet Union and they impacted millions of lives. The first was an anti-abortion law in the post-WWII USSR that prohibited the termination of pregnancies, citing a concern for the rights of the unborn. In reality, of course, this law was aimed at replenishing the horrific population losses of the World War II. It led to innumerable deaths of young women at the hands of backyard abortionists and came to be one of those rare instances in the USSR when a law came to be quietly ignored by the medical profession and authorities, but not before many had died.

Another example — not many people will know of this — was a law in the pre-war USSR that punished anti-Semitic insults and actions with an utmost severity. Harsh and unforgiving, like most Soviet laws, it saw many hapless drunks packed off to the gulag for saying offensive and insulting things about Jews. Some survived, some did not. Russian Jews were horrified by the severity of this unwanted “protection”, but were powerless to do anything about it. Not only did it produce legions of collateral victims – the wives, children and elderly parents left destitute and impoverished by the arrests of their fathers, husbands, sons and brothers — it also brought a terrible backlash. In many instances, the relatives of those prisoners seized the opportunity to avenge their pain and loss on the heads of innocent Jews during the Nazi occupation.

Those who spout, er, misinformation (the polite word) about Australia being one of the most racist plots of ground on the planet either do not know what the real deal is, or, more likely, they prefer to ignore mere facts in order to advance their agendas. I spent most of my professional life as a doctor working with and for Aboriginal patients and I feel a genuine, deep-seated  affection for our Aboriginal brothers and sisters, as do most Australians. And for the record, let me say that in all my years in Australia I have never been insulted for my religion, skin pigment or any other personal attribute. Well, that’s not quite true. There was the day I was called a mongrel by a patient I had caused pain by missing the vein when attempting to insert a needle. Small potatoes, really, and I’d be the first to admit I deserved it.

But let me give 18C the benefit of the doubt and allow, for the sake of argument, that it was conceived with the very best of intentions. OK, that’s my concession, but I would also expect any reasonable person on the other side of the argument to acknowledge that it has become a handy, often lucrative weapon. Claim you have been offended and cross your fingers for a nice little payout. Just ask those Queensland uni students who coughed up $5000 apiece to get the Human Rights Commission of their backs what they think of 18C. It is, simply put, a dagger forever pressed against the heart of what should be our fundamental right to speak freely. More than that, it enables our political elites to gag full-throated public discourse, especially when it shields the actions and customs of some officially sanctioned minority group from legitimate criticism or, G-d forbid, even mere irreverence. Bill Leak did both with his cartoon of three Aborigines and look at the price that poor man paid for straying from the narrative that Aborigines must only and always be presented as hapless, helpless victims of white racism.

Tolerating opinions different to one’s own is more than a fundamental right, it is a privilege, even when what is being said strikes the listener as rude and insensitive. That is what we must defend, the right to offend and, odd as it may sound, the right to be offended.

It is so easy to make people to keep their mouths shut. I know, I grew up in the USSR. Do not let it happen to us.

Dr Michael Galak and his family came to Australia as refugees from the Soviet Union in 1978