I often find myself bemoaning the lack of reasoned debate in politics. Of course we need more rational debate. Yeah, right. This is like advocating nutritious food, or breathing in oxygen as opposed to carbon dioxide. I also soberly recommend conventional forms of transport rather than shooting oneself out of a cannon.
We all think we’re rational. But in truth we’re members of an evolved hominid species prone to a plethora of biases which colour our thinking, distort what we perceive, and misguide our choices. We’ve come a long way since we were stromatolites hugging ocean floors nearly 4 billion years ago, but the use of reason remains an evolved and learned behaviour.
But isn’t this just the sort of thing a member of a rationalist organisation would say? I’m biased. And what’s so rational about me anyway? Membership doesn’t come with a corrective for human biases.
Groups such as the Rationalist Society of Australia (RSA) exist to stimulate the use of reason and evidence in public debate. Using reason not only contrasts with faith-based beliefs, but also with partisan politics and ideologies.
The recent debate about 18C is a curious case. According to those wanting to repeal or amend Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, it’s folly to try and protect people from offence or insult. In recent debate, matching the opinion to the source rarely evokes surprise. I’m not shocked, for instance, that Guardian columnists have come down roughly 100% against Corey Bernardi’s push to water down 18C.
That’s even including an insightful piece by Gay Alcorn who not only acknowledges the problems with 18C require amendment, but titles the piece “The debate about 18C doesn’t have to be a left-right slanging match”, before proceeding to negate her own argument by refusing to endorse Corey Bernardi’s move because, it’s well, Corey Bernardi, and he’s not our friend.
It is dispiriting that we have nobody with the grace and skill to bring people together to discuss all this, to try to work it out, without demonising supporters and opponents as bigots or left-wing hand wringers.
Bernardi must be pleased with his latest attempt. He is getting lots of publicity, lots of air-time, and a platform to present himself as freedom’s saviour. But his bill is unlikely to go anywhere. Given his prosecution of it, that’s no surprise. It doesn’t deserve to.
In “The defence of free speech is limited for the anti-18C brigade”, the Guardian’s Richard Ackland lists the alleged base motives and or hypocrisy of all the supporters of amending 18C. While he makes a reasonable point that the arch-conservatives seem only concerned about their own form of free speech, the point, like the title of the article, is limited. It’s only a criticism of those particular individuals, and does nothing to undermine their argument.
The article is notable for asking the following oft repeated question:
What is it, precisely, that people are constrained from saying?
Richard gives us his answer based on an alleged incident which occurred in Bentleigh.
Go on, fuck off. You make me sick, you fucken black slut… [and more of the same]
OK. Sounds pretty bad. But no-one is actually defending morons who say such things. The question is whether they should be thrown in jail.
What for instance would Richard say if the comment was in response to?
Go fuck yourself. You make me puke, you white cunt
Could both parties prosecute each other? That’s when we’d endure the pitiful explanation that it’s OK to vilify white people because they’re on the right side of the power imbalance.
There are plenty of answers to Ackland’s apparently unanswerable question. We walk on eggshells when we discuss the problems in Aboriginal communities, especially about issues which may be the fault of aboriginals. We can’t talk freely in criticism of Islam without accusations of racism or Islamophobia. The latter is especially concerning since it displays a singular determination to make an issue of race, where it’s not in evidence.
In Waleed Aly’s column for Fairfax he wrote about 18C and unsurprisingly concluded the real agenda of its advocates is to oppress minorities. Wow, that’s a real shocker. His argument suggests, unfairly, in my opinion, that the advocates of amending 18C are completely ignorant of 18D, which exempts several types of argument from prosecution under 18C unless they are unreasonable, or not in good faith.
Well, if Waleed can read the minds of his imagined adversaries then I might have a go at reading his. He seems to be applying the evidence to suit his own viewpoint, rather than the other way around. There’s no mention of the QUT case. There’s none of the acknowledgement, present in Gay Alcorn’s article, for example, that the legal profession is hardly uniform in support of maintaining 18C. Indeed, many legal minds consider the law hopelessly subjective, unconstitutional, and in need of repealing altogether. I hazard to say, many of these have even heard of 18D.
Note, Section 18C is too broad and too vague, and should be repealed, published in The Conversation and the ABC, by law lecturers and affiliates of the Liberal party, Lorraine Finlay, Augusto Zimmerman, and Joshua Forrester:
It is no answer to say section 18D provides exemptions to 18C. 18C already creates uncertainties about how vague terms like offend, insult and humiliate will be applied in any given situation. Section 18D compounds these uncertainties.
For example, all exemptions in 18D must be done “reasonably and in good faith”. This has been held to impose a “harm-minimisation requirement”. But what does this mean? Reasonable minds may differ whether a statement was a heartfelt opinion or an insult that could have been expressed more sensitively.
The argument that 18D is the unknown saviour of 18C fails to survive even modest scrutiny. But then, I’m biased by my pre-existing view: many of our laws infringe upon free speech. Our defamation laws, our postal laws, our security provisions – they are all too cognizant of obtaining the specific outcome they intended, without necessary acknowledgement of other basic freedoms.
Still, I can’t help thinking there should be more progressive voices in favour of amending 18C. Progressive freethought groups should know that free thought means little without free speech. The point remains valid even though it’s currently the hobby-horse of a certain Coalition Senator.
I’d like someone in the Australian media to surprise me with an argument outside the partisan norm. Surprise me. Please.