SBS’s Timid Take on Political Correctness

Current affairs programming on SBS tele­vision started 2023 with a bold step. The first show of the topical discussion program Insight tackled political correctness. For weeks leading up to February 21, television breaks carried an advertisement asking, “whether political correctness has gone too far”, with attention-catching bites from the show. Pithy debate was promised. After seeing this ad for the umpteenth time some viewers may have wondered if a mirror would be turned on SBS itself.

Come that Tuesday evening, Kumi Taguchi, the program’s host, launched discussion by asking Emil Lunasco about his Australia Day. He is among a circle of recent Filipino migrants who celebrate the day each year with a barbecue. Best wishes are also texted to friends, but some react angrily against the greetings. Lunasco is troubled by this. Aborigines may have been wronged in the past, but as a newcomer he sees so many positives to our society. Australia is an enlightened country. Can we not acknowledge this and celebrate?

This essay appears in June’s Quadrant.
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Taguchi asked the indigenous activist Nala Mansell for her opinion. Mansell called Australia Day “offensive”, saying the festivities are “cele­brating invasion, murder, rape and theft”. She wants a complete overhaul of January 26, suggesting Australia Day be reinvented as an indigenous remembrance day. Mourning on this day those thousands of Aborigines killed by “the British”, she went on, is necessary to strike a suitable balance with Anzac Day and Remembrance Day. As Mansell spoke, Lunasco watched her across the studio with a troubled expression.

Taguchi passed discussion to Sean Masters from the advertising industry. He said it would be pointless changing the date because activists will only turn the new Australia Day into another occasion for national shame. Refusing to release the “resentment and anger in their hearts”, some will not forgive and move on. He added that many countries probably have stories of native conflict with settlers, yet this does not prevent them from having national days. But activists here are determined to disturb the festival, whenever it falls.

No one pointed to the obvious: that indiscriminately blaming “the British” for the troubles visited upon Aborigines is the same as blaming all Muslims for terrorism. And as is often said, most Muslims are decent people who lead unblemished lives, only a very small few being responsible for violent incidents. However, SBS’s Insight customarily avoids indicating the faulty reasoning of Woke activists. So, as Nala Mansell finished and distractedly gazed into space, Emil Lunasco pleadingly repeated his disappointment that we cannot celebrate Australia.

Mansell’s disinterest lifted when, later in the program, Taguchi asked the independent film-maker David Black about a ban on his work. He had made a short comic-horror film, intended for children, which follows a Bogan couple (“Bazza” and “Shazza”) who, having wandered on to Aboriginal “sacred ground”, are pursued by the bunyip protecting it. Black got his film completed, but the Australian regulator imposed a stipulation before the film could be released. This was because Black himself had done the narrative voice-over. We were shown a brief clip from his film (it will not win awards). Black explained that, given the film’s indigenous-focused content, the regulatory authority demands voice-overs be re-recorded using an Aboriginal actor, although with next to no budget he cannot possibly afford to do this. So the film has never been screened in this country.

Asked her opinion, Nala Mansell went for righteous indignation. Ripping into the voice-over, she declared the entire narrative an insult to Aborigines. Mansell accused Black of “complete cultural appropriation”, then proceeded to argue that non-Aborigines should not make films on indigenous matters. “You’ve got a white man here telling an Aboriginal story,” she said, and there is too much of that. Mansell seemed to be arguing that Aborigines should hold something like intellectual property rights over subjects affecting themselves. “Tell your own story,” she said to the group, “you stick to what you know,” insisting that non-Aborigines must not talk of sacred land, Aboriginal religious beliefs or mythological beings.

This sounded like suggesting only Christians may discuss matters involving their religion, and observe events like Easter, Christmas or attend church weddings. Common sense was missing. Besides, you can hardly declare bunyips out of bounds, and not as well prohibit talk of angels, demons or djinns. But no one in the studio was debating the volatile Mansell.

When Taguchi asked Sean Masters whether, in his experience with advertising, political correctness has affected business, he laughed and said leading brands are “virtue signalling en masse”. Pointing to the travel industry, Masters explained that Qantas now runs Gay Pride flights complete with drag acts, while United Airways’ current campaign is “We diversify the skies”. As for airline customers, he added, they just want reasonably cheap tickets, enough leg room, and a safe flight, not these gimmicks.

Steven Asnicar of Diversity Australia agreed. Saying Australian firms have misread the diversity project, he pointed to Toyota delaying a national advertising campaign for eight months. Its managers had anguished over how successive test audiences responded to the material, with the entire corporation stalling itself over whether the brand ads would advance a “diverse” message. Asnicar stressed the aim of his organisation has been to teach respect at work, embracing people and eliminating workplace prejudice. It is not about counting personnel by race, ethnicity and gender. But firms struggle because they unrealistically aspire to tick every box with their staffing, and keep fretting that the company does not look sufficiently diverse.

Another perspective here was added by Mina Alberts, a young rap singer from a Middle Eastern family. He spoke of his delight at being signed by a recording company. Then came disillusion when he realised the company would only handle a number he wrote on his struggle against local prejudice. They haven’t accepted anything else he offered. Worse still, in what strikes him as tokenism, the company is now looking for other ethnic singers with similar rap numbers about being victims of Australian racism. Alberts feels used.

Momentum faltered when Sydney University’s Professor Nick Enfield was asked to define political correctness. His meandering contribution was rather nebulous. He did volunteer that certain “words can be flashpoints”, having always triggered strong feelings and emotional responses; and also there are newly emerged “contested terms” which some minorities consider offensive. But having underlined our need to take care in our choice of language, Enfield gave no instances of problem words.

Kumi Taguchi gave the discussion a focus needed in this matter when, via video link, she spoke to Laura Pettenuzzo, a young woman with cerebral palsy. Pettenuzzo talked of being taunted about her disability, describing how she was the butt of cruel jokes by classmates. If the hurtful comments weren’t bad enough, some youths mimicked how she walked. It didn’t stop there. Pettenuzzo explained how in American hip-hop music the words spaz and spastic appear in lyrics as derogatory terms. So her disability is being stigmatised in the pop music her generation listens to.

Prompted by Taguchi, Pettenuzzo then talked of using social media to contact an African-American singer who had just topped the US charts with a rap number which featured the word spastic. When Pettenuzzo outlined to the American singer just what living with cerebral palsy is like, the singer apologised and promptly changed the song’s lyrics.

Mind you, we seemed to be straying beyond the bounds of political correctness here. Not making fun of or abusing disabled people is a matter of basic courtesy and politeness. When I was a child we were taught this at home and in school. In those days there were also signs on public transport telling you to assist disabled people and the elderly. That was how things were, but community morals have slipped.

Pauline Jacobs, who called herself “Woke”, likewise talked of using social media to speak out against prejudice. She regularly trawls Facebook on the alert for discriminatory opinions. Her targets are sexist and racist thinking, especially about “First Nations” people, and offensive views on old age. Whenever Jacobs finds instances of incorrect thoughts, she sends a message to whoever wrote the text, telling them how it strikes her as bigoted. Some people respond to her, and a dialogue of sorts starts up (she called it “Facebook tennis”).

Jacobs was clearly pleased with herself in policing the conversations of strangers. She extolled Facebook for “empowering” her to be assertive as a senior citizen, declaring she will never have to passively “sit in a corner and just be quiet”. When Taguchi asked Jacobs about the reactions of other social media users to her intrusive texts, she portrayed their exchanges as pleasant and friendly. By her account no one objects or is distressed. Whether this was strictly true, viewers were not advised, Insight portraying in a positive light what Jacobs gets up to on social media.

My grandmother would have called Jacobs a “busybody”. Nowadays such people are termed “trolls”, and they are a serious problem afflicting internet usage. Trolls make a nuisance of themselves by annoying, even intentionally harassing others in social media, chatrooms and other online forums. There can be legal implications to this intrusion with some trolling activities being considered “internet stalking”.

That no one raised the issue of trolls when Jacobs spoke showed up the limitations of Insight. Weekly discussion on the program is organised so participants cannot comment upon or criticise one another. Open and spontaneous discussion, let alone animated exchanges, does not occur. Instead the group sits quietly in the studio, each person awaiting their turn to speak. So when Taguchi asked Pauline Jacobs to outline what she does on Facebook, no one was going to challenge her on camera.

Sean Masters was given another chance to provoke viewers when Taguchi asked him if being politically correct is similar to “Woke”. He answered that together they have erased the Left side of politics by doing away with those basic ideas of rich and poor which shaped social activism from St Francis to Karl Marx. Disregarding poverty and class struggle, Wokes fixate instead on racial and sexual identity. The chronically poor have been superseded by non-whites and non-heterosexuals as downtrodden and disadvantaged.

As for political correctness, Masters said what alarms him is how people cannot talk freely any more on so many issues. It has become “impossible to have conversations”, words being deliberately twisted so one runs the risk of being stigmatised as a bigot: “If you say you believe in free speech, you’re accused of supporting hate speech,” he stressed. “If you express concern that biological males in women’s sport can break girls’ limbs you’re a transphobe.”

Katherine Deves agreed with him, so Taguchi asked her what occurred when she lobbied for the introduction of “women only” categories in competitive sports. Deves told her the harassment started instantly. Besides sport, Deves had spoken against gender reassignment for pre-pubescent children. She was concerned that youngsters beset with serious social problems were being lured into thinking gender change is the solution to their depression. “They get online and are persuaded to go down that medical path.” Deves especially felt for a child who was given a bilateral radical mastectomy to prevent her developing breasts. Deves criticised this as medically unethical, calling it “surgical mutilation”.

Worn down by relentless abuse, Deves had publicly apologised, saying she did not wish to cause distress. But the harassment only became worse. Asked by Taguchi if she regretted the phrase “surgical mutilation”, Deves replied it is the legal term for what was being done to children. She realised people may find it unpleasant, and it did distress those involved, but there is no legal alternative if you are speaking against those irreversible procedures.

However, Deves had not finished her tale. When she was preselected by the Liberal Party for a seat in the 2022 federal election, her work on women’s issues was used against her by Woke activists. As well, Adam Bandt of the Greens was running a petition calling on government to have Medicare fund gender reassignment surgeries upon children. So remarks Deves made long before were now quoted out of context by them and the media, causing a political storm: “If you do not agree with the zeitgeist, they will come after you,” she warned. Reporters camped on her doorstep, things were said to her children at school, death threats came in. Deves then had to relocate her family, her political aspirations in tatters.

The producers of Insight balanced Deves’s input by including the activist Amelia Bright in the studio group. When Taguchi asked why there can be such noise surrounding LGBT+ issues, Bright answered it is necessary to “call out” those spreading disinformation. If claims are made that mislead and can stir conflict, she went on, they need to be called out: “Hateful language emboldens people into acts of hate,” she contended. She referred to a running dispute with feminists at Melbourne University over transsexual rights. Following a campus presentation by the Victorian Women’s Guild, a feminist political lobby group, leaflets objecting to transsexuals using the same facilities had been posted in female toilets across campus. Bright said it was disruptive and caused alarm. She claimed the incident has left her, as a student activist, feeling vulnerable on campus. Wondering just who was involved in the leaflet drop, she added that each semester she now arranges for background checks of female tutors and lecturers.

Taguchi asked about Bright’s efforts to get a course changed at Melbourne University. Bright said an arts unit titled “Feminism” examines among many texts a 1979 book, The Transsexual Empire, which criticises how male transsexuals portray women. Bright was scathing about this work by the pioneering feminist Janice Raymond. She likened using Raymond’s book to requiring that students learning about the Holocaust read Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Bright was also unhappy that the “Feminism” unit is delivered by an academic with a record of public speaking unfavourable to transsexuals. (This is Dr Holly Lawton-Smith, who made headlines in Melbourne by declaring that women should have a say when women-only spaces are opened up to men.)

As the Student Union’s Queer and Trans Representative, Bright complained to the university’s Academic Board. She claimed the unit was an “unsafe learning environment”, demanding content changes and that Raymond’s book come off the reading list. The Academic Board passed the matter to the Arts Faculty Board, which on investigation found no fault in the unit’s content or delivery. Bright was most displeased over this. I was waiting for someone to ask Bright if she really wants to politically suppress what universities may teach, much like the regimes of Stalin and Hitler, but of course no one did. Unfortunately no one also pointed out that it is a key purpose of university studies to question and examine values, and often this requires delving into subjects in ways that may go against some people’s beliefs—like the teaching of evolution, which is still suppressed in some countries.

Contrary to SBS’s advertising, that big question “Has political correctness gone too far?” was not addressed on the show. One knew all along—given the agendas at SBS—that Insight would stay well away from the #MeToo movement and the Brittany Higgins case. But so many major public controversies were completely avoided. Nothing was said about the cancelling of Barry Humphries, Germaine Greer and Israel Folau; or the false allegations made against Geoffrey Rush and Craig McLachlan. Efforts to revoke the civil honours awarded to Margaret Court and Bettina Arndt were not considered; nor was the pressure brought upon public libraries, both locally and overseas, to prohibit J.K. Rowling’s novels. (Woke activists continue to claim that libraries holding her books are “unsafe spaces”.)

There were moments when the television program could have confronted just where political correctness is imposed on contemporary Australia. Like when the troubling phrase “surgical mutilation” led Taguchi to ask Katherine Deves, “What is the line between free speech and hate speech?” Deves responded with her own question, “How do you define hate speech?”, saying that we need to be clear on not just which words are offensive, but in what way they actually offend. Taguchi did not press further.

Yet that was surely the point to quiz Nick Enfield on why Qantas has barred its staff from using the commonplace words mother, father, Mum and Dad when speaking to airline passengers. Or why last year Woolworths replaced the noun woman with person who menstruates (until there was a national outcry from indignant female customers). Likewise Amelia Bright should have been quizzed on why Woke activists have harried government into avoiding the titles Mr, Mrs, Miss and Ms. And why Wokes now want hospitals to ban the term maternity ward. Enfield’s platitudes on “contested terms” and Bright’s warnings against “hateful language” just did not explain what is it about these plain words that has provoked such Orwellian efforts to erase them from language altogether. But SBS was not so inclined.

Another matter which appeared repeatedly was how political correctness is tightly linked with bullying. Beginning with Lunasco’s distress over the plight of Australia Day, then moving on to Black’s film being banned, we were soon hearing how the citizens of this nation are coerced into toeing the PC line. Jacobs’s Facebook activities and Bright’s efforts to cancel university courses revealed how some individuals now police others and impose their version of correct thinking upon the community. Masters may have sounded far-fetched when he claimed this behaviour is destroying free speech, but then Deves recounted being harassed by Woke activists, culminating in death threats.

Taguchi did not venture into the paradox here: death threats from self-appointed opponents of “hate speech”. As every policeman knows, hate speech is the sine qua non of a death threat. Worse still, those threats were made against a candidate standing for a seat in a federal election, which adds weight to Sean Masters’s warning that Australian politics is being undermined by Woke activism and political correctness.

What particularly stood out when watching Insight was that no one, not even Sydney University’s Nick Enfield, referred to how psychologists and sociologists regard political correctness. It is usual for academics featured on Insight to refer to scholarly research and summarise findings. This time we heard nothing; although that is not surprising given the leading international authority on political correctness is the Canadian psychologist and academic Jordan Peterson.

Professor Peterson explains that with political correctness, as in many social movements, we should discriminate between compassion and aggression. When analysing the motivations of socialists, for instance, we can loosely distinguish those driven by a desire to help the underprivileged from others who are motivated by hatred of the rich. These inclinations affect actions. Altruists will take a co-operative, non-confrontational way, trying to get agreement and amicable understanding from all parties. But aggressors cause disruption, adopting a combative and hostile manner. They “weaponise” compassion, using a worthy goal to justify deplorable behaviour: pious ends are used to pardon immoral means.

Similarly, Peterson has found that when political correctness causes irritation or distress this is due to it being used in an aggressive manner by individuals who seek to bother others. We even find public administration has embraced political correctness because it offers opportunities to control people through what amounts to systematic bullying. The bossy manager or clerk uses political correctness to push around subordinates or customers, often inconveniencing them on purpose. And for all the administrative rhetoric about building “safe spaces”, workplaces heavily committed to political correctness soon become toxic environments with mounting stress levels among middle- and lower-rung employees.

Peterson also notes a fixation with language among people and organisations seeking to impose political correctness upon others. Much time is wasted in pointless meetings to review language, with orders periodically issued to remove inoffensive terms from use because they are felt to be racially or sexually evocative. Peterson pointed to one corporation which declared the terms blackboard and whiteboard hurtful language that could distress non-white people. Months later the same firm added master key to its banned list as this term may set people thinking of the master—or owner—of slaves.

Given major cases of word fixation here in Australia, it’s a pity Insight did not explore this issue. Like the brand name for Coon cheese. The name came from the man who invented the process for making that cheese variety, but Woke activists declared it echoed coon, a derogatory term for black Americans. So it had to go.

And last year there was the name change forced on the Moreland City Council, a major suburban municipality in Melbourne—all because an obscure slave plantation in Jamaica three centuries ago was also named “Moreland”. Calling the name “painful, uncomfortable and very wrong”, the Greens mayor of Moreland, Mark Riley, pushed ahead with change to an Aboriginal name while blocking efforts to allow a community referendum. Removing the name “Moreland” from every scrap of printed business paper and every neighbourhood street sign, is now costing the council, and local businesses, tens of millions of dollars, and has ratepayers up in arms. But the new name, Merri-bek, which the council purchased from local Aborigines, is politically correct, so all is double-plus good.

Christopher Heathcote is the author of The Compassion of Captain Cook, recently published by Connor Court. He wrote on the Australian Museum in the May issue.


8 thoughts on “SBS’s Timid Take on Political Correctness

  • STD says:

    A mate of mine who never minced his words coined the term for SBS as ‘SEX B SEX’- guess because nothing good ever comes outa something that is essentially B grade.

  • alandungey says:

    SBS programmes do show the the same general leftist/woke influence as the rest of the free-to-air broadcast media, but my general observation is that SBS producers and broadcasters at least make an effort to be fair, and to allow diversity of opinion. You cannot say that for the ABC.

  • PT says:

    Bright is a is a first class idiot, as is anyone who swallows that garbage.

    Any serious study of the Holocaust would examine Mein Kampf, as well as Der Stumer, and the minutes of the Wansee Conference, and whatever fragments we have of high ranking Nazi communiques regarding the final solution. This is a case of understanding Nazi ideology regarding the Jews, and the still open question as to whether the Final Solution was planned by Hitler even before he came to power, or whether it was really enacted when earlier options like the Madagascar Plan fell through.

    If nothing else it conveys how deep seated antisemitism was in the Nazi movement, and why there was so little objection.

  • vic of gero says:

    SBS should be sold. Not because of the program being discussed in this column but simply because evolving communications and on-line media platforms have superseded what SBS was designed to do. You want to watch soccer players writhing on the ground after a tackle that barely made contact or movies from Egypt or heavy-duty debates? You can, they’re all available on-line.

  • Geoff Sherrington says:

    In climate change, the now-discredited Mann hockey stick graph caused uproar.
    There is a hockey stick graph for the sexually confused.
    Geoff S

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