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Legislating 18C Unbinds the Coalition from the SSM Plebiscite

This entry has previously been published as: Trying to Silence Unwelcome Views Only Perpetuates ThemThe Huffington Post Australia 6 September 2016
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The Coalition went to the last election promising not to put before parliament a vote on Same Sex Marriage, nor changes to Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act.

And so, if the Coalition jettisons its pre-election commitment and supports Corey Bernardi’s bill to amend section 18C then there’s nothing stopping it from similarly considering marriage equality.

The “we-went-to-the-election-with” mantra is mute.

And if it succeeds, the government could quietly cancel what some have described as a $160 million festival of homophobia. Perhaps that’s a little unfair. (The final bill will probably be much more).

Liberal Senator Corey Bernardi has apparently secured the support of up to 20 Senators for a private members bill watering down Section 18C.

The free speech issue does not command the same level of public support as marriage equality.

But it should. It’s in Australia’s best interest to legislate on both amending 18C and marriage equality.

It’s folly of the highest order to imagine we can protect everyone in the country from offence or insult.

Remarkably, most of the commentary fails to acknowledge Section 18D whatsoever.

18D exempts art work, scientific debate and fair comment on matters of public interest from 18C, as long as they are said reasonably and in good faith.

Even though 18D goes some way toward mitigating 18C, it would still require mind readers and psychoanalysts to determine what speech is “reasonable” and in “good faith”.

Whether a recent cartoon by Bill Leak is reasonable or in good faith remains the subject of much ill-tempered dispute.

There’s plenty of things I’d like to say to Corey Bernardi that would offend and insult offend a reasonable person.

And, in the meantime, several QUT university students have their reputations and career prospects in tatters, by charges which will no doubt be ultimately thrown out.

Advocates for retaining 18C in its present form bring up the tiny percentage (3-5%) of convictions as an argument for retaining it; as if the huge numbers of spurious complaints, which choke up our legal process and benefit neither party, represent a virtue.

Don’t be fooled by the super-sized red herring which asks you to reject changes to 18C because most of the free speech advocates are whale-sized bigots.

Even if some of them are, it’s not their opinions at stake. It’s about what the general public – that is, you and I – are allowed to read or hear.

Do we really wish to censor ourselves from such views?

Those with unorthodox views on race or ethnicity don’t appear to have changed their minds in the decades 18C has been in place. We even vote some of them into parliament.

Meanwhile, we’ve cultivated a culture of vilifying people who do or say the “wrong” thing.

The media feeds on and recirculates the outrage until it becomes a many-headed hydra, bigger and scarier and more hateful than the prejudice from which it was spawned. And the media-storm seems to attract more followers to the xenophobic cause than it turns away.

The phenomenon is more advanced in other western democracies, resulting in unfortunate blowback in the form of Brexit and the popularity of Donald Trump.

Give bigots their right to speak. History teaches us that trying to silence unwelcome views only ferments and perpetuates them.

Disagreeable and prejudiced views should not be answered by outrage, rather by well-formed evidence based arguments placing the spotlight on their failures, fallacies and inherent bigotry.

The same logic applies to debate on same sex marriage. While I think the parliament should simply legalise marriage equality, we have nothing to fear from debate.

Sure, it will bring unsavoury views to the surface. And certainly, those views will insult and offend many in the LGBTI community. But would we rather pretend those views did not exist?

Wouldn’t discussing and challenging those views, debating them, and ultimately defeating them, be far more satisfying than silencing them?

Notwithstanding that, SSM has been debated ad nauseam for a long time now. We don’t need a non-binding plebiscite to tell us what opinion polls already have: the majority of Australians support SSM.

Bernardi claimed in March 2016 that redefining marriage is not dinner table conversation outside of the “militant homosexual lobby” and “twitterati”.

But 18C is? It’s hard to imagine tweaking the Racial Discrimination Act is dinner table fare for anyone beyond libertarians, and hard liners.

In response to the suggestion that other priorities super cede changing 18C, Bernardi said the government should be able to “walk and chew gum at the same time”.

While this leaves us imagining Senators entangled in chewing gum while eating their dinner, there’s no reason or mixed metaphor, which would preclude the government from legislating on both important issues.

Remember the golden rule of eating gum – you must bring enough for everyone.

If Malcolm Turnbull can seize the gauntlet and use the bill on 18C to justify a free vote on marriage equality, he’d achieve the dual benefit of reasserting his own leadership and seeing the back of two distracting and divisive issues.

So, let’s offer a toast to Corey Bernardi, wishing him good luck in removing “insult” and “offend” from Section 18C, thus, bringing marriage equality to the table. Resolve these and the Turnbull regime can move forward.

Speaking Rashly About Rationalism

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.

freespeechorwell

Slurs Are A Poor Counterfeit For Reason

Slurs Are A Poor Counterfeit For Reason – The Huffington Post 25/02/16

CORY BERNARDI

(image courtesy The Huffington Post Australia)

In the current charged atmosphere fuelled by cultural issues such as same-sex marriage, it’s unsurprising to see some erecting invisible force-fields around their beliefs. Senator Cory Bernardi claimed the Safe Schools anti-bullying campaign attempted “to indoctrinate kids with Marxist cultural relativism”.

Bill Shorten branded Bernardi a homophobe. Slurs are a poor counterfeit for reason, as are conspiracy theories. As we’ll see, relativism is a charge that likes it both ways.

Bernardi described Shortens jibe as “a really sad indictment on the modern character of political debate”. Whilst true, this is not coming from the saviour of reason.“Bestiality” and “Burqas” are words inversely associated with that comparison. When he joined the Coalition front bench as a comparative young man, some feared his star had risen too soon — he’d become an anachronism before his time.

Read more

Religious Freedom Protects Same-Sex Couples Too

New Matilda December 22, 2015

Religious Freedom Protects Same-Sex Couples Too

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The sleight of hand placing religious freedom at the centre of the same-sex marriage debate disguises its real purpose. A wave of the wand, a puff of smoke, and the rights of some have disappeared. So goes the illusionist’s trick that freedom of belief applies only to the faithful.

cont…

The Trash-talking Hypocrisy of PZ Myers

As part of his effort to be crowned the Grand Poobah of Atheism, PZ Myers continues his trashing of other prominent atheists he apparently sees as rivals for the job.

Constructive criticism is certainly a good thing but there is line, which Myers illuminates by continually crossing over it, where criticism becomes trashing. As if attempting to prove the case for the narcissism of small differences, PZ Myers inevitably ends his analyses of luminaries such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris with charges of “bigotry” or “racism”.

Myers posts an article titled, Atheists should not condemn any culture, where he chides Richard Dawkins for tweeting about the “clock boy”. Referring to comments made by both Bill Maher and Richard Dawkins where they object to protecting the tenets of Islam by using the “it’s their culture” excuse, Myers concludes that “this is definitely bigotry”.

One is reminded of Myer’s own antics in threatening to urinate on the Koran, desecrating the Bible and Koran, and the iconoclasm of desecrating the stolen sacred Eucharist wafer’s of Catholics.

And what about his denunciation of Sam Harris for assuming Muslims are more likely to sympathise with jihadists. On his blog, Myer’s quotes a statement from a correspondent which contains a poor defence of Sam Harris argument. But then Myer’s sulfurifically condemns Sam Harris for the argument of the correspondent!

We don’t. QED, my correspondent and Sam Harris are full of paranoid, racist shit

Well, I couldn’t resist pointing out, in the comments, how it all seems to be conveniently aligned with prosecuting grudges. Not to mention infantile.

A mild storm of profanities and accusations of racism ensued, culminating with Myers banning me from the site. But not before giving himself the last say.

And with that bit of frothing, spittle flecked lying from Mr Hugh Harris, and all the rest of the batshit stupidity from him, he’s run his course and is out of here

Banned! Oh well. So much for the staunch defender of free speech.

But it’s not completely trivial. A Guardian article by Jeffrey Sparrow gleefully quoted Myers comment without realising it wasn’t based on anything Sam Harris actually said.

My favourite of his recent interventions includes the line: “Sam Harris [is] full of paranoid, racist shit.

I find this hysterical. Does anyone check this stuff? That Sparrow’s article garnered over 2000 comments (mostly negative), gives one the sad impression that trashing pays.

But I think the best refutation is provided by PZ Myers himself some years ago. (Ironically it was in response to earlier atheist hating article by the same Jeffrey Sparrow)

To the evil duo of Harris and Hitchens, he [Sparrow]  now adds Richard Dawkins, because he said “Islam is the greatest man-made force for evil in the world today”…which doesn’t sound racist or fascist. He’s targeting an ideology, not a people; if you asked him, he might even go on to say that Christianity is the second greatest force for evil. If we can’t even criticize ideological craziness without getting slapped with the accusation that we’re racist, we’re in trouble. Next thing you know, someone will pull up my denunciations of crazy American politicians Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann and declare that I’m clearly anti-woman and that I hate white people.

But this is 2015, and when it comes to Sam Harris, the views of Myers seem to have recalibrated themselves to the other side of the dial. In his podcast with Douglas Murray, Sam Harris observes that some percentage of Muslims are jihadists. Myers responds:

No, guy, making the assumption that being Muslim, the group most lethally targeted by ISIS, makes one more likely to sympathize with fanatical jihadists, is most definitely bigotry.

Hmmm. I’m not even sure this point is arguable, never mind bigotry, and I’m cautious of claims requiring modifiers like “most definitely”.  

Is assuming a Republican is more likely to sympathise with Donald Trump, bigotry?

What about assuming a Christian is more likely to sympathize with Christian fundamentalists: bigotry?

Or, assuming that a woman is more likely to have a baby?

But what about this? Assuming that any person who criticizes Islam is a bigot – is this bigotry?

Not all discrimination is unfair. We’re pattern seeking mammals, evolutionists point out. To demand we disavoy the obvious means adopting pretence as a virtue, and equates common sense with Orwellian thought crimes. And it results in the stifling of intellectual debate by harassment and no-platforming and, in the case of Maryam Namazie, even death threats.

Given jihadists belong exclusively and by definition to the Islamic religion, is it really so unreasonable to observe that in a group of Muslims we are more likely to find some who sympathize with jihadists? As opposed to Christians or Atheists?

Of course not. It’s just a fact. And it’s no insult to Muslims to make the observation. It is how this information is processed which makes the difference. If we assume ALL Muslims are terrorists, or seek to discriminate unfairly against Muslims, then we can start talking about bigotry. But, yelling “bigotry” for assuming a connection between Muslims and jihadism is akin to denying that jihadism exists within the Islamic tradition. Even though we know it exists, we must somehow assume it doesn’t.

We cannot be demanded not to assume what any person of common sense would assume. And we should not be prevented from discussing known facts and using common sense. But PZ Myers demands ideological blindness: closing your eyes and blocking your ears and yelling “WAAAAAAA!!!”

Hypocrisy is a handy accomplice for pursuing vendettas.