On race, discrimination and white men’s privilege
Yesterday we looked at the basic argument behind the prohibition on racial vilification in section 18C of the federal Racial Discrimination Act (RDA). That prohibition is followed by section 18D, which provides for exemptions to 18C. Defenders of the RDA insist the exemptions are so broad that only the most egregious cases end up being prosecuted. That may be true, but misses the point that no exemption can make the restriction on free speech in 18C legitimate if it isn’t already so.
The exemptions in 18D are important for another reason. They exempt “anything said or done reasonably and in good faith” in the course of artistic, academic, scientific, or journalistic work (both reporting and commentary, if it’s the expression of a “genuine belief”). There’s also a catch-all “any other genuine purpose in the public interest” exemption.
I’m inclined to agree with 18C defenders that, yes, the 18D exemptions are broad — though not so broad that we were spared the sight of Andrew Bolt’s (very shoddy) journalism being scrutinised by a judge not for defamation but for offence, something that should have made any journalist shiver. But the exemptions lead us to one of the underpinnings of this debate. Despite their broadly-written nature, the exemptions are really about privilege, because aside from artists — not traditionally a profession well-known for its wealth or influence — the people most likely to benefit from 18D are in the media or politics, because they are the ones likely to be engaged in publicly discussing matters of public interest.
And privilege is a key issue that needs to be addressed by any fair-minded opponent of the 18C.
The most fascinating contribution to the RDA debate, in my view, came from an unlikely source: Ewen Jones, the Coalition member for Herbert, who recently said: “I wouldn’t have the faintest idea what it is like to experience racism.”
Jones is the same demographic as many of those who oppose 18C on free speech grounds: white and male (that’s me, too). The people who run News Corporation, which is championing the removal of 18C; the Abbott government, the Institute of Public Affairs, Andrew Bolt and much of the demographic that reads him. As whites, and particularly as white men, usually white men in positions of lesser or greater power compared to both ordinary citizens and to victims of racism, we don’t experience racism. Certainly not in Australia, and even outside Australia, our experience of bigotry of any kind is necessarily different to that of other people. We can be confident even egregious racism won’t damage our careers. We are the beneficiaries of the way our society is structured: we have the economic policies, the social hierarchies, the customs and traditions that suit us in particular, creating an environment in which we can prosper. We can use our position — as a politician, as a media commentator, as a journalist — to respond to racism or bigotry of any kind if we so desire. If we experience any kind of bigotry, we do so from a position of much greater power than most Australians.
Ewen Jones is exactly right. We wouldn’t have the faintest idea what it is like to experience racism. Certainly not the kind that most victims experience.
“The powerful, the wealthy and the influential disproportionately benefit from freedom of speech.”
Moreover, as Racial Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane has pointed out, there’s some interesting inconsistency in our approach to banning speech based on causing offence in our parliaments and on our streets:
“Where, one might ask, is the public clamour calling for the repeal of these standing orders that protect politicians and judges from mere offensive language? Why is it acceptable for parliamentarians to object to merely offensive language, but not for others to object to speech that offends, insults, humiliates or intimidates because of their race?And where is the public outrage about all the offensive language provisions that exist in the criminal summary offences legislation that exist in NSW, Queensland, Victoria, South Australia, Tasmania and the Northern Territory? If there is to be such zealous interest in freedom of expression in Australia, surely attention would be properly devoted to summary offence laws that impose fines and possible sentences of community work or imprisonment on the use of merely offensive language.”
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