Thursday, 27 March 2014

Do people have the right to be bigots?

This question is being, rather heatedly, debated at present. The Federal Attorney-General, George Brandis, has said they do have that right. He is trying to change Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act which legislates against
Offensive behaviour because of race, colour or national or ethnic origin
             (1)  It is unlawful for a person to do an act, otherwise than in private, if:

                     (a)  the act is reasonably likely, in all the circumstances, to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person or a group of people; and

                     (b)  the act is done because of the race, colour or national or ethnic origin of the other person or of some or all of the people in the group.

      (2)  For the purposes of subsection (1), an act is taken not to be done in private if it:

                     (a)  causes words, sounds, images or writing to be communicated to the public; or

                     (b)  is done in a public place; or

                     (c)  is done in the sight or hearing of people who are in a public place.
             (3)  In this section:

"public place" includes any place to which the public have access as of right or by invitation, whether express or implied and whether or not a charge is made for admission to the place.
You don't need to be a lawyer to realise that the scope of that provision of the Act is very wide indeed - except that it isn't.
Political correctness creeps into it as well.
My personal belief is that you cannot stop people from being bigots - but the rest of us don't have to like a bigot.
Nothing is going to stop some people from being bigots. All the legislation in the world is not going to prevent that. Making it an offence may well turn some bigots into martyrs. It makes it much more difficult for people to debate the issues that bigots raise. It also makes it much more difficult to defend yourself and those who cannot defend themselves without taking legal action. Legal action inevitably publicises what the bigot has had to say - and may end up giving his or her views even wider coverage. It's a balancing act.
I think Section 18C does need review. It is the section which famously caught columnist Andrew Bolt but it does not catch other people. 
I have seen and heard far worse than anything Bolt had to say. It has come from other sections of our society. I have seen people deeply distressed by what has been said to them in very public ways. There has been nothing they can do about it. They cannot even respond because saying they find something "offensive" will lay them open to charges of racism.
And what about those who discriminate in offensive ways against the elderly, the mentally ill, those who look or are physically different, those with intellectual disabilities, or those with different beliefs? That can hurt too. It can also do lasting damage.
The present law has somehow encouraged us to go down a path which allows some groups to be "offended" but not others. That is dangerous. We need to be able to debate issues. We need to be able to tell bigots we don't like what they have to say.
We need to be able to defend ourselves and, more importantly, we need to be able to defend those who cannot defend themselves.   

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


Exactly ... we cannot stop people being bigots, but we don't have to like them, or listen to them.