Australian Attorney-General, George Brandis has created controversy by proposing changes to Sections 18C and 18D of the Racial Discrimination Act relating to race, colour or national or ethnic origins. Brandis wants to remove the words “offend, insult and humiliate”, define “intimidate” as only fear of physical harm, “vilify” as inciting a third person to hatred, and change “good faith” to “reasonable likely”, to allow the right to free speech. He proclaimed everyone has a right to be a bigot. According to media reports, this move stems from a promise made by the government to conservative commentator, Andrew Bolt, who ended up in court after writing about his views on Aboriginal people.
Debates have pitted a right to free speech against the right of people to be free of discrimination and racial hatred. In my view, no one has right to harm another person physically, psychologically or socially and we do have a responsibility (as opposed to a right) to be respectful to others even if we don’t understand their experiences. I do agree that the law does not hold all the answers and education and social expectations hold the key but two key points are missing in the debate. The first is white privilege and the second is the social construction of community norms.
White privilege, understood through Critical Race Theory and Whiteness Studies, explains how discrimination towards others and one’s own privileged position are difficult to see by those who have it. Understanding the position of others is beyond the daily experience of the privileged, and as a child I read the book Black like me. I have not read the book again, and I do understand it has attracted criticism in a contemporary context. Despite this, the profound effect this book had on me is important. What I do remember from this reading is a very clear understanding of how badly people treat other people based on difference and its legacy has probably contributed to the perspectives I hold important today. The book does show that sometimes people have to experience something themselves before they can gain just a glimpse into the experience of others.
Social attitudes are constructed. If we accept the vilification of others or assume that mere words do no harm, we are establishing and building a particular kind of society, contributing to the acceptance and promotion of division and hatred, and giving voice to the worst in society. There needs to be some sort of minimum standards about what society deems acceptable after all we do this for most other things. When one right is pitted against another, the most privileged always wins. Australia has an appalling human rights record. We don’t need to make it worse.