Before Gillian Triggs’ Human Rights Commission threw in the towel and closed the complaint, she was reported in The Australian as giving Bill Leak a fortnight to prove that neither he nor his cartoon depicting an Aboriginal police officer speaking with an Aboriginal man who did not know the name of his son was racist. However, an elementary rule of logic is that the burden of proof lies with the claimant. Simply put, it was up to Triggs or anyone else who believes the cartoon is racist to prove that it is. Such a proof is near impossible, given that the cartoon illustrated the well documented problem of child neglect and abuse in the Aboriginal population.
For example, a federal government report in 2014 states, “The rate of Indigenous children who were the subject of a substantiation of neglect was 12 times the rate for non-Indigenous children.” This information is not offensive. It is not racist. It is not stereotyping. It is just a fact that some choose to find inconvenient. Given that the truth contained within the cartoon may not be to the liking of some, but definitely not racist, it is far easier for Triggs and others to cast the burden of proof for racism on to Leak.
The cartoon simply highlighted the plight that too many Aboriginal children find themselves in. But let’s forget about these children for a moment, as it seems most other people have forgotten about them. Let’s continue to give our attention to those who feel entitled to claim to be offended under Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. While this part of the Act has been well discussed over the past few months, there are two aspects rarely discussed. The first is fundamental to the entire 18C debate: the unquestioned assertion that our words, ideas, and even our morning political cartoons, have the power to offend. I have written on this before. Actually, they are neutral, even if race is a salient feature of the ‘offending’ images or ideas. We as observers give the meaning to what we see and hear. Shakespeare so eloquently said it with, “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.” That is why two people can hear the same joke and one yell “I’m offended” and the other laugh hysterically. The emotional response, whether it be offence or laughter, is in the listener, and not caused by the joke. If the joke was able to cause offense then all listeners would be offended.
Interestingly, if we are to be consistent in our application of the logic that the cartoon causes people’s offence, then why haven’t people come forth to say that the image of the Aboriginal police officer in the cartoon has also caused them to feel pride and joy? Perhaps we choose to see what we want to see?
The second aspect, and perhaps most neglected in this debate, is the great harm that validating someone’s claim of being offended does to them. To endorse the belief that the words and ideas of others cause offence, is essentially to claim that others have more power over our emotions than we have over them ourselves. This is an extremely disempowering message. Can Aboriginal people afford to be any more disempowered? Does the message, “Be careful! That cartoon can make you upset!”, help them be the best that they can be? With laws like 18C we are raising a generation fragile as soap bubbles.
Now defenders of 18C may ask about those times when someone is truly setting out to verbally attack, as opposed to a well-intentioned idea (like Leak’s cartoon) which only ever depicted a truth that some found too inconvenient. The same logic described earlier applies. When faced with a verbal attack, the target does have a choice in how to respond. Because I have many critics who disagree with my views on Aboriginal affairs, I have been called a ‘sell out,’ an ‘Uncle Tom,’ a ‘coconut’ (brown on the outside but …) even a paedophile because I work for Australian Catholic University. When faced with such criticisms, I have the choice of either taking offence or laughing at my critics’ attempts to get under my skin. If I choose to take offence, I am essentially saying to my critics, “Your opinion of me is more important to me than my opinion of myself.” I would much rather my critics have the freedom to express their views than to have them silenced. I am confident in what I believe.
Now, last but not least, let’s return to what the cartoon was all about – the children. Rather than encouraging people to sue for hurt feelings, we should be focusing on helping those Aboriginal children who have hurt bodies; those who live in conditions that many of us would not let our pets endure; those who are more likely to be sexually abused and have no one to turn to. We cannot help these children if we are too afraid to talk about them for fear of being sued and labelled a racist. These Aboriginal children are Australian children and every Australian therefore should be allowed an opinion on how to help them without the fear of being sued.