I find myself in a familiar turmoil over the issue of free speech, raised again most recently by the Charlie Hebdo massacres. Those lives were not lost because of the exercise of freedom of speech. They were lost because violent, brutal ideologues murdered them. The lives lost in the 9/11 attacks had nothing to do with the exercise of free speech. Thousands upon thousands upon thousands of civilian lives lost in wars waged by western powers were not lost because the victims were exercising freedom of speech.
While I abhor the dehumanising stereotyping that is at the heart of hate speech and racial vilification, murderers are responsible for murdering and those ideologues determined to murder will do so, and they will find any reason to justify their thirst for destruction. It is ludicrous to claim that offence and insult are provocation enough to incite them, and that attempting to restrict offence and insult will do anything at all to restrain their murderous impulses.
Race is a construct, used to justify ill-treatment and dehumanisation of those not in the dominant tribe. Religion is a construct, also used to justify ill-treatment and dehumanisation of those not of the dominant belief system. Race and religion are equally illusionary, that is, they are human constructs that have come to be reified as monolithic truths for which people are willing to kill and to die. Section 18c of The Racial Discrimination Act will not affect these monolithic truths, and the willingness of their adherents to murder and die for them.
The human species has not yet evolved out of its need to gather in tribes of one kind or another, and take arms against those they define as not of them. Restricting free speech does nothing to address these fundamental problems. In many situations it serves to exacerbate division, for example in defamation legislation that inevitably favours those with wealth and power over those with none.
There have always been and will always be extremists and radicals. We can no more expect to live free of the threat of terrorism than we can expect to live without the air that we breathe.
In the end, nothing will be as effective against terrorism as the freedom to speak, even if that speech is offensive and insulting. Those of us who aren’t murderous extremists must learn to deal with speech that insults and offends us because the option, a mass silencing,a mass surveillance of thought, word and deed is far too horrific to contemplate. There is no human right not to be offended. A life without insult is a sheltered life indeed. It is a serious loss to Australian society that a magazine such as Charlie Hebdo could not be published in this country. If you don’t like it, don’t read it, but to make it illegal is unacceptable.
What is wrong with us is that we do not regularly mobilise as did the French in Paris yesterday, visibly united against terrorist attacks. What is wrong with us is that we have become too precious, too willing to allow governments to take responsibility for us in legislation that is and can be little more than a band-aid. Over-protection weakens and infantilises us, and causes us to give up our power to those who would control us, whether they are elected governments or murderous extremists.
Terrorism, and political and governmental reaction to it is spectacle, and it is the same, shared spectacle. It is bad theatre. It is full of sound and fury, signifying nothing and it will not save us from death and destruction, metaphorical and literal, by those who would silence us.
Update: This is the piece on Charlie Hebdo being published in Australia, to which I attempted to link in The Australian and was initially foiled. Suck it up, Rupert.
Being Charlie — with 18c in place, Australia says ‘non’
Charlie Hebdo from October 2014.
SATIRICAL French publication Charlie Hebdo could not be printed in Australia under existing restrictions on free speech, despite its cartoons being embraced across the world as a symbol of Western liberties after the massacre at its offices.
Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson told The Australian the restrictions contained in section 18c of the Racial Discrimination Act would “ensure it would be shut down”; he was supported in this position by media law experts.
The carnage in Paris has also encouraged two Liberal MPs to publicly call for the debate about changes to section 18c to be re-opened after the government last year unceremoniously dropped its planned reforms following a fierce public backlash.
Mr Wilson, dubbed the “freedom commissioner”, has taken aim at opponents of the 18c changes who are now rhetorically embracing free speech, warning that words needed to be backed up with concrete action.
Failure to do so would be seen as hypocritical, he said.
“The Charlie Hebdo attack is a wake-up call for a lot of people who rhetorically support free speech but when it comes to the nub would choose political advantage over sensible reform,” he said.
“This is where they have an opportunity to rise to the challenge, like the leaders of Europe are now doing, rather than being held out as hypocrites.”
In The Australian today, the chairman of the parliamentary joint committee on human rights, West Australian senator Dean Smith, challenges Tony Abbott and Bill Shorten to support a private senator’s bill proposing a middle pathway forward on an 18c overhaul.
The Opposition Leader yesterday indicated he remained unmoved on 18c.
“You don’t give the green light to hate speech when in fact it’s hate which is what we’re all united against,” he said.
Mr Shorten said it was distasteful to turn the events in Paris into a domestic political issue. “It is an inappropriate stretch … to see government MPs trying to use what happened in Paris to justify divisive debates.”
The government has formally ruled out any changes to 18c, saying they are “off the table”.
While Mr Wilson argued that many of the religiously themed cartoons in Charlie Hebdo would not fall foul of the discrimination act, he said that racial stereotyping of Jews and other ethnic groups would create too many legal issues for such a publication to continue in an Australian context.
“18c only covers issues of race and ethnic origin, which would cover some of the material but not all of it,” he said. “It would cover Jews and ethnic representations, but it wouldn’t cover Muslims and other bits. In the end, the legal problems would essentially ensure it would be shut down.
“I think there are lots of different avenues for reform, but I think there are more issues than just 18c that need to be considered.”
Senator Smith threw his support behind Mr Wilson, but urged for a renewed focus on 18c. He is urging both sides of politics to back a private senator’s bill he has co-sponsored with Family First senator Bob Day, Liberal Democrat David Leyonhjelm and Liberal colleague Cory Bernardi.
Senator Smith says the bill could form a “legislative monument to the human price paid by France” and would simply remove the words “offend” and “insult” in a finetuning of 18c.
“By agreeing (to the bill) … Tony Abbott and Bill Shorten will have kept the protections against ‘humiliate’ and ‘intimidate’,” he writes. “Our leaders have read the mood with precision and Tony Abbott is right to remind us to be prepared to ‘speak up for our beliefs’ and ‘call things as we see them’. It is now time to crown our words of vigilance with a deed.”
Senator Bernardi said he absolutely supported the passage of the bill.
Simon Breheny, the director of the legal rights project at the Institute of Public Affairs, told The Australian that Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons certainly “would have been caught in Australia by section 18c of the Racial Discrimination Act”.
“Even if it wasn’t caught by section 18c, there is no doubt they would have fallen foul of restrictive state racial and religious vilification laws. This is one of the possible explanations as to why we don’t have any kind of publications in Australia quite like it, because our laws restricting freedom of speech are so severe.”
Legal experts also united to suggest that Charlie Hebdo would be unlikely to meet the existing tests enshrined in current Australian law, pointing out that satirical cartoons do not occupy the same status in Australian culture.
“You would have a complaint if those sorts of cartoons were to run here,” said Minter Ellison Partner and Fairfax media lawyer in Victoria Peter Bartlett.
“I think they would certainly, run up against 18c and we would receive complaints and we would then need to deal with those complaints.”
Mr Bartlett also warned that there was already “some evidence of self-censoring”, given the caution around the existing racial discrimination laws.
Justin Quill, a media lawyer used by The Australian, said the publication would have “serious difficulties” and would constantly need to justify its actions. “If someone took action against them — probably more than once — it ultimately would mean that it would be difficult to survive and it could mean it had to be shut down,” he said.
“I can easily say I think there would be occasions where it would lose an 18c argument.
“It’s easy for those who support 18c to say ‘I think they wouldn’t’. What is clear is that the publication would have to successfully bear the onus of proof in proving their defence.”
Charlie Hebdo cover depicting Jesus on the cross.