The Freedom to be Wrong

by on 8 April, 2014

Recently the Attorney-General, George Brandis’ amendments to the Racial Discrimination Act have come under fire by the political elite, claiming they are in support of bigotry. In fact these laws simply take human rights out of the hands of the government and allow the free-exchange of ideas without external interference. Few people on either side of parliament are bigoted or want to make it easier for serious verbal damage to be done to our ethnic communities but the fact is that it is very difficult to legally define what constitutes ‘offensive.’

The 1995 amendments section 18 to The Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (Cth) by the Keating government made it illegal to ‘offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate’ others based on their race or ethnicity. At first glance these provisions may seem reasonable after all, for example, their is no doubt as to the humiliation that survivors of the holocaust must feel when extreme-right fringe-dwellers undermine their experiences by denying the atrocity ever happened. However it is by being able to withstand critique that the truth is all the more relevant. As John Stuart Mill said ‘If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.’ To have strength in our convictions we must be exposed to all contrary viewpoints. You cannot simply oppose something while being forbidden to know precisely what it is that you oppose.

Furthermore, with pre-existing statutory conditions on defamation and vilification there is adequate scope for the rights of individuals to be protected without imposing rigorous sanctions on the freedom of speech.

But this isn’t enough for ethnic advocates  with Jewish community leader Jeremy Jones fearing that the new legislation could open the door for holocaust deniers. Left-wing intellectuals argue that freedom of expression must be counter-balanced with the freedom to be free from verbal persecution.

I argue however, how can freedom of speech remain uncompromised if it is to be qualified by the  subjective standards of the government?

To bind free expression to the caveat of whether it conforms to the standards of the government of the day is to nullify it completely. If you believe in freedom of speech you believe in it on a sunny and a wet day, and uphold that no matter whether the speaker is Andrew Bolt or Sarah Hanson-Young, in the eyes of the law, their opinions are no more or less legitimate.

There are many that say that society is not comprised of an even playing field and that individuals like Cory Bernardi and Alan Jones are given a disproportionate  voice compared to the minorities they denounce  and that the government is required to step in as an independent arbiter. These people should be reminded that the government is in itself a class compromised of the upper echelons of society from the top-tier, sandstone universities and beset with a born to rule mentality fixated from birth. To have them as the qualifier of what is in good taste is to place severe boundaries on culture and expression.

Moreover, is there any practical outcomes to be achieved by the prohibition of free speech? History shows that when you try to put a cap on the bottle, the cap bursts off. With almost every government intervention there is a reasonable backlash which quite often strengthens the cause of the suppressed individuals. The fact remains that people aren’t cured from being a racist by governmental legislation, the process is cultural and starts from the bottom up.

To combat racism and bigotry the onus is on individuals, families, schools, work-places and media outlets to inform the people that that is not okay conduct. The suggestion that we need a centralised body to do so shows a fundamental distrust for humanity arguing that teachers, family members and colleagues are incapable of taking the initiative themselves to combat discrimination. The attitude that only government can save us from ourselves ultimately plays into the hands of the policy-making elites in allowing them to dictate the terms in which we interact and, in doing so, depriving us of our individual responsibility.

Edited by Matt Russell

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