One solution to prevent skin cancer would be to turn off the sun. Ridiculous? It certainly is, but no more other-worldly than government logic seeking to “protect” people from hurt feelings occasioned by the thoughts and words of those with whom they disagree. While the defeat in the Senate of the proposal to change Section 18c of the Racial Discrimination Act is unfortunate, Liberal Senator James Paterson and Labor MP Linda Burney have been reported as suggesting that it does not mark the end of the debate. Thank goodness, I say.
So illogical is the stance of proponents of 18c they need to mis-label the free speech debate as a contest to promote ‘race-hate speech.’ As someone with Aboriginal ancestry, I could easily play the game of hurt feelings and claim that some cartoon, speech or opinion hurt my feelings and left me offended. But that would further disempower Aboriginal people. Any law founded on “the best way to protect your feelings is to silence others” is very disempowering.
Just as people can take measures to reduce the risk of sunburn so can the risk of hurt feelings be reduced without the need to gag others. It’s about taking personal responsibility, not making others responsible for your feelings.
If we were to lift the hood of Section 18c and strip away its legal and political baggage we would see that the engine driving it translates to ‘others have more power over my feelings than I have over them myself.’ How does that empower minority race groups? It doesn’t.
Proponents of 18c use a pathetic argument along these lines: “White and ‘privileged’ males shouldn’t be allowed to push their racist agendas.”
The correct response: “Those who are so fragile that they need to claim being offended as a way of silencing those who express ideas they don’t like should not be allowed to be society’s thought police.”
If not for freedom of speech, minority groups would be far worse off today. Consider, for example, that at one time groups like Aboriginal people, women, and LGBQTI, were seen as having far fewer rights than they enjoy today. It was only by challenging the prevailing orthodoxies — yes, through freedom of speech! — that such prejudices were dispelled. Bertrand Russell’s words ring true here: “Every great idea starts out as a blasphemy.”
I have no doubt that many people have hurt feelings after being exposed to some event, image, or opinion they deem as the cause, but is it really the case that the hurt feelings were caused by something external? A simple example makes the point. Consider two brothers who hear a joke where their race is a significant feature. One brother might laugh and the other could cry. Hurt feelings and offence are subjective responses to any given event. Maybe the choice is not conscious, but it is a choice nonetheless.
For those who claim that any modification to 18c will open the floodgates to racism, please provide evidence or, at the very least, a reasoned argument. Speaking more generally of all speech, even speech where race is not a significant factor, I am not suggesting that all speech should go without consequence. Certainly people should be held to account if their words undermine a person’s reputation or pose a threat. For example, if I am accused of committing a heinous crime, such an accusation could affect my chances of employment, and my accuser should be asked to justify those claims.
I want to see change so as to prevent people being hauled before the Human Rights Commission’s firing squad whenever someone claims their feelings have been hurt, especially on the basis of race. I also want to see change, so that members of minority racial groups are not further disempowered by a law that reinforces the myth that they are so fragile their feelings need to be wrapped in the cotton wool of legislation. I also want to see a society where people can be free to criticise and discuss contentious topics without the fear of being branded a racist.
As Frank Furedi said recently: “The institutionalisation of the policing of speech compromises the quality of public life.”