Unhinging the Bolt

I’m going to contradict myself on Andrew Bolt. In a previous post, I defended Bolt’s right to free speech, as have so many others, in the face of his court case. At the time, my esteemed nemesis, the Slightly Disgruntled Scientist, came to a different view. Since the judgement, I find myself changing my mind, and I feel I ought to say something.

David Marr eloquently describes just how low Bolt actually sank, and also gives this important context:

The nine [who took Bolt to court] chose not to sue. They did not want damages but a public correction and a promise not to print such stuff again. So they brought an action under the Racial Discrimination Act, which has embedded in it a strong freedom-of-speech defence: insulting or humiliating people because of their race or colour is not unlawful when it is done “reasonably and in good faith” in pursuit of a matter of public interest.

Jonathan Holmes maintains that this is nonetheless about free speech, and discusses the relevant sections from the Act: 18C and 18D. Section 18C describes the kinds of behaviours considered racially intolerant and thus unlawful. Section 18D overrides it, making allowances for (basically) anything done, as Marr quotes, “reasonably and in good faith”.

Holmes is concerned that Justice Bromberg has set the bar too high, making 18D essentially useless:

[Justice Bromberg] specifically mentions, not just the wrong facts, but “the derisive tone, the provocative and inflammatory language and the inclusion of gratuitous asides.”

In other words, if you want the protection of section 18D of the act when writing about race in a way that’s likely to offend, you need to be polite, not derisive, calm and moderate rather than provocative and inflammatory, and you must eschew ‘gratuitous asides’.

If you did all that, of course, you’d be unlikely to offend anyone in the first place. So there doesn’t seem much point in section 18D. And you’d also struggle to express your view in a way that would attract readers in a popular newspaper.

But consider Justice Bromberg’s whole sentence (in paragraph 425):

The lack of care and diligence is demonstrated by the inclusion in the Newspaper Articles of the untruthful facts and the distortion of the truth which I have identified, together with the derisive tone, the provocative and inflammatory language and the inclusion of gratuitous asides. For those reasons I am positively satisfied that Mr Bolt’s conduct lacked objective good faith.

I have underlined the parts quoted directly by Holmes, and made bold certain parts not quoted. To my untrained, unqualified eye, Holmes is misreading the judgement. From my reading, Justice Bromberg is not suggesting that offensive language in itself renders 18D inapplicable; he is talking about offensive language in the context of untruths and distortions. The combination of those two is damning in a way that neither can be by itself. To me, it seems entirely possible that the protections of 18D could apply to anyone who (a) is wrong but avoids derision, provocation, etc. or conversely (b) is right but in a derisive, provocative, etc. manner.

Thus, I have no problem imagining, hypothetically, that Sections 18C and 18D might both apply. That is, someone may be insulted, offended, humiliated or intimidated (18C) by material that is (a) wrong but politely worded, or (b) right but derisively worded (18D). (In fact, people can often be insulted and offended by things that are both correct and polite.)

I do have a great deal of respect for Holmes. Maybe I’m misreading the judgement and Holmes is correct. Even so — even if the Racial Discrimination Act is too broad and infringes genuine free speech — consider the consequences for those violating the act. As Malcolm Farnsworth points out, in an article delightfully named “Help, help, I’m being repressed“:

There is no penalty for Bolt.  Removal of two blog posts and an apology will satisfy Justice Bromberg. It’s slap on the wrist time, but the confected outrage has poured forth.

So what are we getting worked up over? Why should we fear this judgement, when the most onerous consequence of engaging in racially offensive speech is the requirement for an apology?

I think we’ve been programmed by contemporary political narratives to treat free speech as one of those places where, perversely, we stop thinking. We exhibit such conditioned deference to the term “free speech” that we consider it an absolute right. As a result, we have a tendency to focus on the most minute of infringements. It’s all-or-nothing, we assume. The pedants in all of us seek out the most trivial, technical, legalistic injustices. We then swing wildly into conspiracy theorist mode, and extrapolate this to the whole of human experience, imagining that tyrannical oppression is upon us.

Of course, free speech has never been an absolute right; not in the freest societies on Earth. We are constrained by myriad factors in what we can say, which makes worrying about technical infringements all the more ridiculous. Defamation law is the closest approximation to the Racial Discrimination Act, and we don’t blink when people are sanctioned for spreading malicious untruths to damage the reputations of others. As the Slightly Disgruntled Scientist puts it:

The difference is that defamation affects one person. Humiliation based specifically on sexuality, gender, ethnicity, or any other class of institutional marginalisation affects (a) the person targeted, and (b) any other member of such a group. Gay people still have to choose between publicly disclosing incredibly private information up front, or not running for any kind of publicly scrutinised office. Indigenous Australians now have to consider just whether their skin is dark enough to go for, say, an Aboriginal liason position, or risk being targeted by the likes of Bolt (who implicitly undermines the legitimacy of such positions, with the consequence of further marginalisation of a whole group of people).

Now, I do think that free speech is essentially about protecting our right to say things that others would prefer remained unsaid. Powerful political parties and interest groups do tend to find certain facts and opinions inconvenient, and have certain means of persuasion that need to be countered by legal protections. But it’s hard to find a justification for speech that is racially offensive and factually bogus and not in good faith. This sort of thing does not serve democracy at any level, and in fact causes real damage.

If Mr Bolt’s right to speak freely has been infringed, it is the most minor infringement imaginable. He has maliciously spread damaging untruths in publications read by millions of people, and been given a slap on the wrist.

Enforcing enlightenment

I agree wholeheartedly with Jonathan Holmes’ article (and his April 4 episode of Media Watch) on Andrew Bolt. There are probably a few essays now floating around expressing a similar sentiment on Bolt’s run-in with the Racial Discrimination Act.

Australia doesn’t have an institutionalised right to free speech (except political speech, as narrowly implied by the electoral provisions of our constitution). However, there is near universal agreement that free speech is a fundamental right. The preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states, in part:

The advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people.

Most of us do acknowledge that speech cannot be completely free. There are privacy rights to consider. There are libel and defamation laws that offer a defence against malicious untruths. There are also security, diplomatic and intellectual property issues that require a degree of secrecy.

Most of us also abhor racially-motivated hate speech. I can support laws against incitement to commit acts of violence or discrimination (e.g. Section 17 of the Racial Discrimination Act), because (though I’m not a lawyer) that offence seems fairly easy to define and has an immediate impact on the safety and opportunities of others. Not so the consequences of speech that is merely “offensive, insulting, humiliating or intimidating”, as outlawed in Section 18C. Those criteria are more than enough to publicly condemn the speaker, but not nearly enough to deserve legal proceedings.

The kinds of acts being outlawed in Section 18C might be vicious, cruel, and stupifyingly inane, but they are not defamation and not incitement, and nobody’s safety or opportunities are compromised by them. Most of us (I hope) would loosely agree that things should be legal unless there is a compelling case to make them otherwise, and I simply don’t believe that case has been made here. The law is not a scalpel we can use to extract cancerous thought – it is a blunt instrument to help prevent tangible wrongdoing.

Andrew Bolt is a true test of our commitment to free speech, because he says almost nothing of value. Any reasonable person would deride almost everything he stands for. His sneers at people of other races and cultures, at the scientific and academic establishment, at anyone else tenuously associated with “the Left”, are worthy of nothing but pity and derision. If he were to engage in defamation or incitement, throw the book at him by all means, but otherwise leave him to his deranged ramblings.

In the general case, Section 18C has clearly not been enforced with much conviction. Bolt and like-minded ideologues have so far gotten away with a great many acts that would seem to be prohibited. If enforcement ever did suddenly become an overwhelming priority, I expect the situation would rapidly descend into farce, with a million bigots mobilised and screeching obscenities into every possible medium. Their White Christmases would all come at once. It would, in other words, backfire spectacularly. The instinct to ban hate speech is motivated by a commendable desire to change minds (or at least to prevent them being perverted by hatred), but the law is exactly the wrong tool for the job.

Free speech is not about saying nice things. We have no need of laws to protect our right to talk about the weather, sports or cooking. Free speech is about protecting those who offend us, because it is precisely this group that is otherwise perpetually in danger of being shut down, or sent underground. Sometimes, the offending remark is itself more enlightened than those offended by it, and so does more good than harm, but not always. Even when the message has no redeeming value whatsoever – even when it demonises the most vulnerable – free speech is about protecting society from itself, while also providing the only useful way to fight back.

I’m not racist, because…

Following on from that racism study, the comments below SBS’s article on the subject threaten to provide some good starting material for an incarnation of internet bingo.

Again the Left shows its superficiality. If people are wary of Islam, then they are not racist because Islam is not a race. It’s a religion.

Aha! Religion, not race, therefore prejudice is impossible! I am overwhelmed by non-superficiality.

If 10% of Aussies are racist, I say most of of that 10% are of Arab, Asian background. Colonial Aussies are not really racist, they are culturally biased.

I’m not racist – it’s those other races that are racist! Get your stinking paws off me you damn racist Arabs! Learn to be “culturally biased” instead, like proper, refined white folk.

Because I am concerned about the radical elements of Islam in Australia, I am deemed to be racist.

Well, you know, the survey didn’t find that you personally were racist – you seem to have worked that out yourself.

To love the culture and race which ones heratige originates over that of others is not racism.

So, nothing wrong with “white pride” then? Just a bit of cultural fun.

This is all in stark contrast to the comments below the corresponding ABC article, which managed to avoid using the word “racism”. Commenters at the ABC seemed to be far less defensive.

I’m not latently racist, but…

It’s an interesting exercise getting people to admit to racism. The ABC reports on a nation-wide survey (or rather a collection of state-wide surveys) exploring the nature and extent of racist attitudes in Australia.

Only 1 in 8 people were prepared to explicitly admit to racial prejudice. Yet, 1 in 2 people were found to be “anti-Muslim”, 1 in 4 were “anti-Indigenous”, 1 in 4 were “anti-Asian”, 1 in 4 were anti-Semitic and 1 in 4 were “anti-black African” (approximately, in each case). Clearly there is a disconnect, but how did the researchers manage to uncover it? By asking the following question:

In your opinion how concerned would you feel if one of your close relatives were to marry a person of…?

(This question was asked once for each of five national/ethic groups – Asian, Indigenous, Italian, British and black African – and three religious affiliations – Muslim, Jewish and Christian. )

In other words, though you might not identify yourself as prejudiced, your prejudices can be revealed by having you imagine a personal association with someone different. People are evidentially very good at fooling themselves when it comes to racial prejudice; hence the expression “I’m not racist, but…”, which is almost invariably followed by something mind-bendingly racist. As a society, we’ve learnt by rote that racism is bad, but a lot of us clearly don’t understand why. Thus, we perform mental gymnastics to allow us to be racist without acknowledging it.

Of course, there are lots of ways in which racism can be worse than concern over interracial marriage in your own family. There was some relatively good news from the survey:

  • Less than 1 in 10 people felt insecure “with people of different ethic backgrounds”.
  • Less than 1 in 15 people felt that society ought not to be “made up of people from different cultures”.

Maybe this is where our “latent racism” comes in. We’re happy to work with people from different backgrounds, but we don’t truly think of them as equals. This shows up in the 41% agreement with the following statement:

Australia is weakened by people of different ethnic origins sticking to their old ways.

This is a curious form of wording. “Old ways” seems to invite respondents to fantasise about all manner of archaic, barbaric practices that might occur in Ethnicistan. The statement is not loaded per se – it is perfectly possible to give a reasonable, straight “agree” or “disagree”. However, like the marriage question, it is cleverly designed to press our buttons and draw out latent prejudice.

The responses to that original marriage question also turn the “integration” debate on its head. For years, politicians and commentators have cried out for migrants, especially Muslims, to “integrate” into Australian society. Interracial, inter-religious, inter-ethnic marriage is surely one of the best markers of successful integration. If Muslim migrants are to be truly integrated into Australian society, such marriage is an inevitable, perhaps crucial part of the process. And yet, on a personal level, it would be a cause for concern for half of all Australians. It is concerning, presumably, for many of the very same people1 who complain about the lack of integration.

Hopefully those 14 out of 15 Australians are not just paying lip service to diversity.

  1. I tend to be wary of the phrase “the same people who…”, because often it’s a device to conjure up fictional double standards for your opponents. Often there’s no evidence that the people in question are the same at all. I’ll concede that some of the people complaining of the lack of Muslim integration might not be concerned about their own relatives marrying Muslims. I’m not really worried about anyone who holds that combination of views, because race riots are not conducted by those with such nuanced opinions. I fear it’s a little too nuanced for many of us, though. []

Oops, we forgot to be racist

Give Ken Wyatt a break you idiots.

What does it say about our country that the election of the first Aboriginal member of the House of Representatives is instantly condemned by both by his own voters and people of the same ethnic background?

There is little one can say directly to anyone so blatantly racist as to send hate mail. Racism is fundamentally irrational; those who subscribe to it are not motivated by careful reasoning or consideration of the facts. Nevertheless, I think it rather fitting that such people, who clearly pay so little attention to reality, find themselves accidentally voting against their own archaic, tribal view of the world. Not that the Labor Party necessarily represents any such thing (it has its own special brand of archaic tribalism that transcends any festering racial issues), but there were certainly other choices on offer.

I can only imagine, given all the rubbish about boat people, that they must have equated the Labor Party with tolerance of other cultures, and decided they wanted none of that. Only Chris Back could have convinced racists to vote for an Aborigine. I’ll give him that one.

To those asking why Wyatt signed up to a “racist” party, I think this criticism shows a lack of vision. The Liberal Party certainly hasn’t been looked upon as the party of reconciliation (however much it likes to trumpet the merits of the NT intervention). The newly-ex Liberal member for O’Connor, Wilson “Iron Bar” Tuckey, stands as a stark testament to that.

One answer is to elect the Labor Party, which is all fine and good from a voter’s perspective, but it would be a cop out from Wyatt’s point of view. If those entering politics treat the Liberal Party as the “racist party”, then that will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Surely, if Wyatt is liberal-leaning, it would be best for him to work within the Liberal Party to help reform its culture than just throw up his arms and accept that one side of politics is inherently racist. We need both major parties to be open to reconciliation, not just one of them. Racism must be starved of oxygen, not allowed free reign in one half of the political sphere.

Of course, there is a risk that Wyatt might be used as a cover for continued intolerant attitudes in the Liberal Party and its base. I don’t expect miracles overnight.

Talking about racism

The combination of Israel’s consummate paranoia and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s pursuit of some grubby nationalistic agenda has done the world a great disservice, from what I can tell. If Ahmadinejad knew that his anti-Israel rant would turn the UN’s Durban Review into a circus – and surely we can credit him with a modicum of intelligence – he certainly didn’t care. But what can we do? He is, after all, the head of government of a UN member country (a founding member, no less). The UN is a forum for intergovernmental co-operation, so we can’t just shut him out of it.

Israel and the West are not absolved of blame, though. Israel, the US, Australia, and the other absentees could have chosen to make something of the forum, ignoring or condemning Ahmadinejad’s comments as appropriate, and even using them as evidence for the need to act against racism. Adhmadinejad may have destroyed the conference’s credibility, but only because Israel and the West let him have the stage to himself. The Secretary General Ban Ki-moon – who probably feels betrayed by just about everyone – tried to point out the futility of boycotts and walk-outs. They say a lot about the nature of the problem that the forum was intended to address. Racism and other forms of intolerance thrive on different groups setting themselves apart from one another. They continue to exist because these groups fail to communicate, and instead of developing an understanding of each other they make silly assumptions and generalisations. The solution at every level, from individuals to nations, is dialogue. (Putting conditions on dialogue is just an excuse for not having dialogue.)

To achieve meaningful dialogue, everyone needs to be just a little less sensitive. Israel needs to stop being quite so paranoid about its existence, the West needs to accept that Israel is not above criticism, and Iran and the Arab world need to be much more pragmatic. If the world’s leaders can’t bring themselves to discuss racism in a civilised fashion, what example does that set?

It’s interesting to note that the Pope did actually endorse the conference (while condemning Ahmadinejad, of course), which is something.

Blog politics

I used to think that left-vs-right was an ideological battle that consumed American thinking far more than Australian thinking. However, having indulged in glimpses of Andrew Bolt’s blog and his adversaries at Pure Poison, I’m not sure that we’re really any better. Theoretically, “left” and “right” define a spectrum of economic policy: left for socialism, right for capitalism. Somehow these have become nouns of the form “The Left” and “The Right”, which are about categorising people. If one is “from” The Left or The Right, one is expected to conform to particular stereotypes. Increasingly, these stereotypes have less to do with economic beliefs and more to do with dogmas that span the whole spectrum of political discourse, and even personality characteristics such as anger and dishonesty.

The terms are almost vacuous, and their use says more about the speaker than anything else. They’re born of the same mentality that produces xenophobia and racism. People are placed into groups so that the group can be criticised as one monolithic entity. In extreme cases, the group is made out to be a shadowy, hierarchical organisation, often an extension of a political party.

You are of course expected to take sides – to identify yourself as being a leftist/progressive or rightie/conservative. If you don’t want to label yourself, the choice will be made for you. If you’ve been called a “leftist” on occasion (as I have), you might tend to subconsciously include yourself in that group whenever someone else makes a nebulous stab at “The Left”. Thus, having taken such accusations personally, you recoil at them. You may never have deliberately chosen such a label for yourself, and the person making the criticism may not even know of your existence, and yet animosity arises. Such is the insidiousness of politics. Unlike race, there is at least the possibility of choice, but the choice between two simplistic labels brushes aside an enormous spectrum of complex issues.

Racism, however, gets us to the issue of the moment – Andrew Bolt’s apparent discovery that agents of the forces of darkness are seeking to discredit him, by attempting to post racist comments on his blog. The implicitly-accused suggest that Bolt is making the whole thing up. Bolt’s readership has almost unanimously condemned The Left for this apparent act of treachery, while over at Pure Poison the rebels were flinging it right back at The Right. Pure Poison accuses Bolt’s readership of a general tendancy towards racism, while Bolt cryptically refers to the “New Racism of the Left” (possibly trying to coin a new vacuous catchphrase).

It seems to be the height of wit and cunning to take a criticism directed at your group (e.g. racism) and send it back at the other group. There doesn’t need to be any supporting argument or evidence. It doesn’t even really matter what the criticism is. Your cohort will gleefully pat you on the back for having demonstrated the “hypocrisy” of your opponents. It’s all imaginary hypocrisy, but then truth is whatever is said by one of your own. Hypocrisy is the ultimate point-scoring system, which is why so much effort goes into inventing it. It’s really just a more sophisticated form of “I know you are, but what am I?”

I thought for a moment about making a tearful confession to Bolt, just to see what would happen, but I’d probably be drowned out in the torrent of pre-existing outrage. (Besides, Bolt seems to write a dozen or more blog entries every day, and probably doesn’t really care all that much.)

My approach to the whole thing is this: establish your own beliefs, ignore any attempts to label you, and let others express their beliefs freely without labelling them. It should be possible to debate issues related to economics, society, religion, environmentalism, etc. without resorting to vague and bizarre generalisations of The Left or The Right.