The Australian – July 15, 2013
AUSTRALIANS have taken a stand against racial harassment. Prompted by the abuse suffered by everyone from immigrants on buses to football stars on the field, we have come together to say that this kind of behaviour is not acceptable.
Professor James Allan nevertheless wrote in The Australian, that there is a “need, in any free society, for people to grow a thick skin and not play the victim”. He is working overseas, which might explain why he seems a little out of touch with the zeitgeist.
Professor Allan wants Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act to be scrapped entirely. The provision makes it unlawful for anyone to “offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate” a person or group of persons because of their race/ethnicity. Last September, he wrote in the Australian Spectator that instead of being dealt with by courts, hate speech “should be left for all of us to assess and dismiss with scorn and contempt”.
This is not an uncommon sentiment for anti-S18C campaigners. They consistently preface their opposition to these laws with qualifications along the lines of “of course we don’t support racism, racism should be condemned, but people have a right to be racist”.
In 21st century Australia, the proposition that free speech is important is uncontroversial. Aside from the odd self-righteous bureaucrat, you would be hard-pressed to find someone who would argue otherwise.
Likewise, almost everyone, Professor Allan included, recognises that there are exceptions to freedom of speech. You cannot defame someone, you cannot incite violence, you cannot obtain money through fraud.
In short: free speech is essential to a democratic society, but other rights are relevant and sometimes prevail when there is conflict. The question that remains is where and to what extent those limits apply.
One matter on which we can hopefully all agree is that racist abuse does infringe the rights of the abused. It reduces victims to a category and assigns them characteristics based not on individual merit, but on something over which they have no control.
There is overwhelming evidence of the negative psychological consequences of suffering ongoing racial abuse. Victims must be constantly on guard. If racist abuse is accepted, victims lose self-confidence and feel worthless, leading to stress, anxiety and depression.
Because of this, victims keep their heads down. Often, they are intimidated away from engaging in public life, effectively infringing their right to free speech.
It is very easy to watch people being harassed and say “just grow a thicker skin and take it”, but Australians are more mature than that. We have realised it is much more important to stand up for the bullied.
Professor Allan suggests that people spouting racist vitriol deserve “scorn and derision”, but what is the purpose of scorn and derision if not to tell someone to shut up?
This mechanism, however, has its limits. A prominent Aboriginal sports star can take a stand against racism and invoke public outrage against racists. For most indigenous Australians, doing so would only invite more abuse. Moreover, truly dedicated racists are generally indifferent to public scorn.
Given the very real harm that victims of racial abuse suffer, it is not appropriate to tell them to just “shut up and take it”. Not being offended may not necessarily be a right, but it is certainly not a duty. If we are serious about stamping out racism, we have to attach negative consequences to its promotion. Some of that will be done through civil society, but it also requires laws.
There may be an argument that the precise wording of S18C should be reviewed, but those who argue that there should be no laws against hate speech whatsoever should take a good hard look at whose “rights” they are really defending.
Daniel Meyerowitz-Katz is a policy analyst at the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council.