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Responding to intolerance

Race Discrimination

Speech given at the Herbert and Valmae Freilich Foundation's Annual Lecture in Bigotry and Intolerance, Australian National University

Debates about racism in Australia are always contentious. Today, we are regularly confronted with contests about what counts as racism and how we can best respond to it. It is timely, then, that the Freilich Foundation has convened this forum. And even more appropriate that it has returned to first principles in asking, ‘How do we define racism in modern Australia?’

Before I answer that question, I do believe it’s important to put things into perspective. Australia can be proud of its success as a multicultural society. We are a country that, for the most part, celebrates diversity as part of its modern national character. But there are sections of the community who are worried and anxious about threats to our Australian way of life and culture. Unfortunately, these concerns can be expressed in ways that undermine our racial tolerance and community harmony.

There has been much recent attention on political debates – in particular, those about immigration and Islam. Let us be clear about a few things. Our society is diminished by inflammatory rhetoric or appeals to xenophobia. We expect our political representatives to set the tone for our society, not to be targeting particular groups with hostility. We should be forthright in speaking out against political appeals to fear. And we should resist political attempts to divide Australians according to race or religion.

We are faced with some challenging times for our race relations, but there is a responsibility for all good citizens to stand up for tolerance and decency.

The meaning of racism

This responsibility begins with understanding the different forms that racism assumes. While most of us will know racism when we see it in its most extreme forms, it is important we can also identify its more banal or insidious forms.

To be sure, many people still believe that racism is strictly about a belief in doctrines of racial superiority, or about practices of discrimination against people because of their race. Many believe the word racism should be confined to describing only the most extreme expressions of racial ideas or occasions of overt discrimination.

This is a narrow definition of racism. It makes more sense to understand racism as relating to anything that has the effect of unfairly disadvantaging or benefiting someone on the basis of their racial background. This can be expressed not only through belief, but also through behaviour. It is about both institutions and individuals, about both doctrine and practice. Racism is as much about unjust discrimination, as it is about stereotypes and prejudice. 

Think of things this way. Racism occurs when someone is declined service at a shop because of their race, or when they have been physically assaulted because of their race. But racism is also there when people demean others because of their race. It is there when people vilify others because of their race. It is there when people rehearse what Martin Luther King called the soft bigotry of low expectations – when people may assume things about your ability because of your background.

There is one other aspect about the meaning of racism worth noting. Racism is often expressed in the form of hatred and motivated by malice; yet it can also be devoid of hatred and malice. It can be the product of fear, and be born of ignorance. It can result from arrogance – from people presuming too much about others, or about their ability to judge them. Racism is not simple, but comes in many forms.

The law and free speech

One of the ways we hold racism to account is through the law. This isn’t the only way we can respond to racism, but the law does play an essential role. This is because the law reflects our values as a society; it sets a standard for acceptable behaviour. If, as a society, we repudiate racism, it is only right to have laws that express that commitment.

Since 1975, the Racial Discrimination Act has been the federal legislation dealing with racial discrimination. There has been much public debate in recent years about section 18C of the Act, which concerns racial vilification. Section 18C makes it unlawful to do an act which is reasonably likely, in all the circumstances, to ‘offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate’ someone because of their race. Some argue the section should either be repealed or amended. It is my view that the Racial Discrimination Act should remain in its current form, and here I will offer some brief remarks about why.

Much of the debate concerns free speech – with advocates of repeal or amendment saying that section 18C restricts freedom of speech in covering acts that merely ‘offend’ or ‘insult’. However, this ignores how section 18C is concerned with acts that offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate because of someone’s race or ethnicity. There is a difference between someone insulting you or offending you because you support a certain football team and doing so because of your race. Racial offence and racial insult can strike at the heart of a person’s being and their dignity, the part of their identity that comes from their background and ancestry. Having a law that covers acts that offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate because of race is aimed at nipping racial hatred in the bud – at preventing it from escalating into acts that cause graver harm.

As for free speech, no right or freedom is ever absolute. Where acts impinge upon the rights and freedoms of others, it’s right that we hold it to account, as we do with racial vilification. In any case, section 18D of the Racial Discrimination Act protects any fair comment or reporting on a matter of public interest, and any sentiment expressed ‘in the course of any statement, publication, discussion or debate made or held for any genuine academic, artistic or scientific purpose’. Provided something is done reasonably and in good faith, any fair comment or public discussion will be exempt from being in breach of section 18C.

Given the broad protection of free speech in section 18D, we are entitled to ask: Why is that people want to make it acceptable to racially offend or racially insult others in ways that are not done reasonably or in good faith, in ways that have no genuine purpose in the public interest? Why is it that people want to have protection for causing gratuitous racial offence or engaging in racial insult? What is it that people want to say, which they can’t already say?

Responding to intolerance in public debate

Most of us would accept that the values of civility, respect and tolerance are central to living in a decent society. Yet public debates right now are testing those values. In the Senate last week, we heard Pauline Hanson say we are being swamped by Muslims, call for a halt to immigration, and suggest that immigrants who don’t endorse an Australian way of life ‘go back where they came from’.

Many may be asking how we should respond to such political rhetoric. Should we be engaging with those who may be intolerant of cultural diversity or racial difference? Should we accept that a significant section of the Australian community may be holding such views? Should we be killing any racial ugliness with kindness, empathy and understanding?

First, it is essential that we remain a society committed to non-discrimination and tolerance. Our values as a liberal democracy demand that we remain this way. We should be making no excuses for the advocacy of discrimination and the expression of intolerance. Acknowledging people’s concerns doesn’t mean endorsing them.

This doesn’t in any way mean stifling freedom of expression. Those sympathetic to populist political rhetoric about race, immigration and Islam are, of course, entitled to their view. But they are not entitled to engage in vilification or discrimination. They are not entitled to be coddled or be protected from criticism. All of us have a right to express our free speech and call out prejudice, racism and bigotry. If people don’t want to be called racist or bigoted, they can begin by not doing things that involve racism or bigotry.

And if we are to listen to community concerns about issues, let’s also listen to those who experience racism or bigotry. Australians have a natural sympathy with battlers. But on matters of race and free speech, the battlers aren’t political representatives or media commentators who enjoy regular, prominent public platforms to express their views. The real battlers are those whose voices are only rarely heard, or whose voices get silenced by racism.

Already since the federal election, we’ve heard Chinese, Lebanese and Muslim communities express fears about a surge in prejudice and intolerance. I understand their fears. I remember the effect on our race relations when, twenty years ago, Ms Hanson said that Australia was being swamped by Asians – I remember what it felt like to be told that you and your family weren’t welcome. Today, it is Muslim Australians who may feel unwelcome. This is the cost of the politics of division. When politicians target particular groups with their rhetoric, it hurts our communities. It can affect what children experience in the schoolyard, and what their parents experience in the workplace.

Let me conclude with the two questions I’ve yet to answer: Should we accept that a significant section of the Australian community may be holding intolerant views? And should we be killing any racial ugliness with kindness, empathy and understanding?

On the first question, let’s remember the vast majority of Australians are comfortable with multiculturalism. We shouldn’t overstate the small minority who have issues with it. Five per cent of people across the country may have voted for One Nation, but 95 per cent did not.

Moreover, we must avoid the complacency of believing that there may be nothing more Australian than intolerance – to believe that copping racism is just part of some initiation rite for any immigrant group. Some would say that just as the Irish, Italians, Greeks and Asians copped ugliness, so too will Muslims. That immigrants must show grit and forbearance, become part of the mainstream, and then be free to have a go at the next lot who arrive.

While we may never eradicate racism and bigotry, it isn’t good enough to say their targets must grin and bear it, or that there’s nothing we can do. Doing so amounts to normalising racism, to suggesting that it should be tolerated. That’s to say nothing of the perverse suggestion that the greatest aspiration for immigrants should be the power of ‘having a go at the next lot’. Most of those who have experienced racism don’t endure it thinking about they will one day get their own back by dishing it out themselves. That’s not how racism works. It’s no accident that it is our multicultural communities – the Jewish, the Chinese, the Arab, the Greek, among many others – who are most prominent in fighting racism.

Finally, the question of whether we should kill ugliness with kindness. It’s one thing to discuss matters, including on race and religion, in a civil and respectful manner. Dialogue is always welcome. No reasonable person would disagree.

Where a reasonable person might disagree is where the demand goes further – where we should call on those vulnerable to discrimination to suck it up and be nice to those dishing them out. That demand doesn’t make sense when such kindness and generosity may not be reciprocated. Too often, people can forget that the burden of racial tolerance isn’t something that weighs upon everyone evenly.

All this goes to perhaps one aspect of racism that not everyone may appreciate. Racism isn’t just about prejudice and discrimination; it’s also about power.

Dr Tim Soutphommasane, Race Discrimination Commissioner