–…[In] private life we converse without diffidence of damage, while we not dare not on any account offend against the public, through the reverence we bear to the magistrates and the laws, chiefly to those enacted for redress of the injured and to those unwritten, a breach of which is thought a disgrace” – Pericles
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull might like to reacquaint himself with Pericles’ Funeral Oration. The Athenian statesman, Pericles (495–429 BCE), in his memorial to the dead of the Peloponnesian War between a liberal Athens and a militarist Sparta tried to place value on death of Athens’ citizens. He did not evoke the afterlife or a higher religious authority, but instead talked of Athenian democracy, the rule of law, the opportunity to hold office which is open to all citizens regardless of their class.
Pericles underscores the importance of free and responsible speech. Foucault in Fearless Speech stressed that ancient Greeks considered fearless speech, parrhesia, παρρησία, to be a presentation of the truth using rhetoric once permission is given to speak in the Ἀγορά, Agora, or assembly. The Greeks distinguished various forms of parrhesia, the most negative being when one is allowed to say anything, “even the most stupid and dangerous things for the city”.
Rule by the mob was Athens’ greatest enemy.
What is distressing now in Australia is the push by the right to say “stupid and dangerous things”. Parrhesia allows for truth with others’ full knowledge that the speaker is saying the truth. Not evidence based truth, but rhetorical truth. So, 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act allows for truth. Someone’s ‘truth’ may be offensive to some, but a “reasonable person” may not find that same ‘truth’ offensive.
In the distant past, when Mr Turnbull was the Opposition Leader, he gave an interview to the English edition of Greek newspaper Neos Kosmos, of which I was editor. He impressed all of us with his support of multiculturalism, his love of liberalism and his philhellenism.
On many occasions Mr Turnbull has turned to Greece to express his love of democracy, to link the west to our past. He is an urbane thinker and someone who in the past has defended cultural and artistic freedom. He was, indeed, the only major politician to defend photographer Bill Henson in 2008 from attacks by the puritans, which included then prime minster Kevin Rudd.
The Turnbull Government’s latest multicultural statement with its focus on “security, safety, shared values of democracy”, “freedom of speech” and the abeyance to the nation’s laws, cohesion and integration, coincided with the announcement of proposed changes to 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act.
The multicultural tagline “Multicultural Australia – united, strong, successful” is a statement seeking to limit the pricklier bits of pluralism. But when I hear ‘unity’ I hear the bolstering of defences against unseen enemies.
For some, these enemies are Islam, the extension of Aboriginal rights, the pursuance of same sex marriage, and other contemporary western, liberal values.
The proposed change to 18C is evidence of the Prime Minister’s yield to the right, just as he has done in regard to climate change, same sex marriage, and border security. Has he no core values as a liberal? No wonder his popularity has plummeted since he became PM.
Nowhere does the Act stop people from expressing their prejudices in private; it works against those, who as Pericles said, “offend against the public”.
I understood his predecessor Tony Abbott. As prime minister he stuck to his obscurantism, as antithetical as it was to liberalism. These proposed changes to 18C reflect how many of our leaders, (and I include Labor’s) are incapable of leading. The disgrace of our refugee policy is a prime example of the dearth of leadership in Australia.
Both major parties have been undermined by the mob; by their irrational fears and xenophobia. Rule by the mob was Athens’ greatest enemy. Leaders such as Malcolm Fraser, Jeff Kennett, Paul Keating and Bob Hawke would have shut down the fear, whereas our current crop of leaders run focus groups on how to exploit it.
So what if 48% of all Australians according to a Galaxy Poll commissioned by the right think tank the IPA, are seeking change to the Act? Pericles said, “The laws, … enacted for redress of the injured and to those unwritten, a breach of which is thought a disgrace”.
All ethnic community and Aboriginal leaders are against the proposed change; do their opinions not carry any weight?
The recent Parliamentary enquiry into the Racial Discrimination Act did point in part to the Australian Human Rights Commission’s (AHRC) ‘soliciting’ of complaints and vexatious litigation. It underscored that; “The most prominent instance of this is the complaints made against Mr Bill Leak in relation to a cartoon drawn by him. This case study is useful for illustrating the arguments for and against the AHRC’s actions in respect of ‘soliciting complaints’.”
Nowhere does the Act stop people from expressing their prejudices in private; it works against those, who as Pericles’ said, “offend against the public”.
The proposed amendment to Section 18C changes statements that are “reasonably likely, in all the circumstances, to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person or a group of people” to “harass”.
The change, while seemingly minor, can open the door to Holocaust denial or indirect vilification of any cultural group. Online posts, blogs or comments on radio about people of a certain race, which previously would be netted by the “offend” or “insult” tests, would now be acceptable. ‘Harass’, a technical legal term, is different as it can’t be a single act, it has to be persistent conduct.
I am a good wog now. I am ‘privileged’ but god forbid if there’s a financial crisis in Greece and I morph back into a corrupt one.
As a child I was called a “wog” and beaten up. My mother was abused for not speaking English when I was a teenager. My woodwork and rowing master at high school regularly sprayed our feet because we were “smelly little wogs”. My father and I were kicked off a bus for not having paid the right tariff and the driver shouted at us: “Fucking dirty wog c-nts”.
Those last two incidents events have stayed with me. In the first case, the teacher was cruel enough to humiliate teens in front of his Anglo students. In the other, a father was humiliated in front of his son in public and I could do nothing. In both cases 18C would have worked well.
But I am a good wog now. I am ‘privileged’ and a left leaning, small ‘l’ liberal. I made it through and I love being Australian as well as Greek, but god forbid if there’s a financial crisis in Greece and I morph back into a corrupt one.
I agree that some ‘PC’ narratives are ludicrous, such as the inability to critique undemocratic regimes for fear of being seen as racist, regardless of their attacks women, indigenous minorities, homosexuals, and other faiths; or the call to create new genderless pronouns. These things irritate me the way I imagine they do many across the mortgage belt.
But I still believe that the western democratic system, however imperfect, at times even dark, is the best. It seeks to harness what is best in people. It’s not always successful, but it’s much more successful than other systems.
The cause celebre for changing 18C was the court finding that columnist Andrew Bolt “implied light-skinned people who identified as Aboriginal did so for personal gain.” Federal Court Justice Mordecai Bromberg found Mr Bolt had breached 18C of the Act “because the articles were not written in good faith and contained factual errors.”
I welcomed the finding. His attack of these Aboriginal professionals was a prime example of negative parrhesia, and I think the Athenian courts during Pericles’ time would have been found Mr Bolt equally lacking in his defence of his free speech.
Andrew Bolt, Cory Bernardi and George Christensen, these soldiers of the right against 18C, are men born of migration who may at times have felt racial and religious intolerance towards them. They should know better.
I still feel the events from my adolescence. I worry that my son may be called a ‘wog’ with malice, not just as banter. I often ask him if he wants to take his mother’s surname, a Spanish one, as I feel the long Greek one may impact his future.
If I feel like this I can only imagine how Aboriginals, Africans or Muslim Australians might be feeling now. I have seen sickening racist comments immediately after Mr Turnbull’s announcement of his decision to change 18C.
No doubt these citizens now feel that their Prime Minster, once a liberal, has truly abandoned them for a vocal minority.