This piece originally appeared in The Australian on 19 December 2016.
A law against offending people is a stupid idea, a truth that is not being confirmed on an almost daily basis.
In recent months we have seen the farce at Queensland University of Technology and the ludicrous spectacle of the government demanding a cartoonist explain himself. But a new complaint made under section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act may be the silliest yet,
The Australia-Japan Community Network is lodging a complaint against a Uniting Church in Sydney’s Ashfield that hosts a statue erected by Sydney’s Korean community commemorating the suffering endured by women and girls at the hands of the Japanese army during World War II.
Section 18C makes it unlawful to “offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate” a person or group of persons because of their race, colour, nationality or ethnicity.
The Japanese community group argues that the statue is politically motivated and should be prohibited under the law in the name of protecting social cohesion.
This complaint is absurd on its face. By this logic, indigenous Australians would not be able to discuss the worst parts of Australia’s history, lest it offend the descendants of settlers.
Jewish Australians would also be prohibited from commemorating the Holocaust in the presence of Australians of German extraction. Given that no culture is without sin, and that the story of humanity is littered with atrocities, the entire study of history would effectively be presumed unlawful.
This should concern us all. Understanding history in all of its complexity is central to civilisation. Turning a blind eye to history’s crimes will not help us redeem them. This is why we all learn at school that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it — though even this saying is probably now problematic, despite being as true as ever — or perhaps because of it.
Section 18C is not concerned with truth. Under this law, it doesn’t matter whether what was said was true. It doesn’t even matter whether anyone was truly offended. Section 18C, intended as a shield, became a sword with which to attack the politically incorrect. And now it is to become an airbrush, erasing from history anything that someone doesn’t want to know.
Not content to censor opinion, the speech wowsers now want to select their own facts. And we are expected to believe that this wilful ignorance is for our own good.
However, section 18C is not good for social cohesion.
Section 18D gives the lie to this argument. That provision exempts artistic works and works done for academic and scientific purposes from section 18C. But it is unclear why an act done in these circumstances shouldn’t be considered as bad for social cohesion as an act done elsewhere.
As was pointed out to the Senate by the minority report on the legislation when proposed in 1994, there is no good reason to permit a racist joke told on national television but prohibit the same joke on a street corner. If the aim is to protect social cohesion by preventing offence, this is a perverse outcome.
In any event, freedom of speech is better for social cohesion than arbitrary restrictions such as section 18C.
Supporters of section 18C often claim that the law is necessary to protect the dignity of individuals by allowing them to participate in society as equals. But this definition of dignity is oddly self-defeating because it actually conflicts with social cohesion.
The dignity of individuals comes from recognition of their equal worth. As such, the law must apply to everyone in the same way.
Section 18C does the exact opposite. It starts from the premise that people belong to different groups and therefore the law owes them differing levels of respect. By providing a venue for the grievances of one group against another, section 18C necessarily divides Australians. To see this, just consider that in the present case the only identity the people involved don’t seem to care about is the one they share.
In the interest of social cohesion, the commonwealth should act only to reinforce our common Australian identity. While groups of Australians may differ, just as individual Australians differ, that is not a proper concern for the law.
As we are reminded incessantly these days, identity is complex. By contrast, the proper public policy response is simple. Repeal section 18C, and leave individuals to determine identity politics for themselves.