There has been all sorts of utter stupidity uttered since the proposed amendments to the Racial Discrimination Act were outlined.
First, Australia’s Attorney General, George “Own Goal” Brandis, thundered in the Senate that people have a right to be a bigot, even as he introduced amendments that aim to improve debate.
I’ve often wondered what side George Brandis is on, but it increasingly appears that it’s not mine. Brandis is more like the bad guy from the television show The Mole than a champion of freedom. I hope that these amendments pass but if they don’t it will be largely due to Brandis’ case of foot and mouth disease.
Then Australia’s favourite Muslim, Waleed Aly, chipped in as well. Considering that he follows the example of a ‘prophet’ who arranged for the entire male population of a Jewish tribe to be beheaded, it’s not surprising that Waleed also believes in the right to bigotry.
So he let rip in the Sydney Morning Herald, opening fire with these two paragraphs:
“Perhaps the most remarkable thing about George Brandis’ now infamous comment this week that Australians “have the right to be bigots” is that it was so unremarkable. Sure, it’s a grating soundbite, but as a matter of substance it’s entirely obvious. Of course we have a right to be bigots. We always have.
That’s the point that has been buried here. Nothing in the Racial Discrimination Act as it presently stands precludes bigotry. In fact I’ll go a step further: you’re even allowed to express your bigotry. Happens all the time. Read a newspaper. Bigoted views are published there several times in an average week.”
You’ll notice that Waleed specifically states ‘we’ at the end of the first paragraph. In this case, ‘we’ means ‘he’. Waleed believes he has the right to be a bigot. Always.
And if you heeded his advice to read a newspaper and continued with his column, you’ll also realise that Waleed speaks the truth about newspapers and bigotry too. In fact, bigotry seems to be the calling card of his very own column. Going on the fact that so far there’s been a 100% bigotry hit rate in the Waleed Aly columns I’ve read of late, it’s also highly likely that he’s on the money when it comes to his belief that bigotry is a weekly affair as well.
According to Waleed’s column, the average Australian is white. That’s not the description I’d have used. Nor do I agree with his assessment that white people have no race. But mostly I take great exception to his belief that white-skinned people are not in a position to have a say on how racial discrimination laws are interpreted or implemented.
If bigotry is the hallmark of a racist and a racist is someone who makes assessments about people based on their skin-colour, then Waleed should have a good think about where he fits in the scheme of things. Also, I’d politely suggest that he has no right to be a bigot.
However, I am pleased that Waleed has begrudgingly and indirectly acknowledged the central importance that European culture and civilisation (read Christianity) plays in Australia today. It’s just unfortunate I also get the nagging feeling that Waleed wants to replace our culture with something much different.
It says a lot about the failing state of our society that a law seeking to protect the ability of Australians to publicly discuss any “political, social, cultural, religious, artistic, academic or scientific matter(s)” has brought so much condemnation. And none of it is good.
So it’s time to inject some common-sense into the debate on ‘free speech’.
First up, I don’t believe in free speech. I’ll get that little chestnut out of the way here and now.
I believe in something better: the freedom to speak the truth.
There is no such thing as the right to ‘free speech’. No one has the right to speak whatever they like.
Teachers don’t have the right to teach that two plus two is five. Politicians don’t have the right to promise one thing and do another. No one has the right to bear false witness against their neighbour.
And there is no ‘right’ to be a bigot. However, for example, that hasn’t stopped the constant, close-minded, irrational and vile stream of abuse that is hurled by the LGBT community at those they hate.
When it comes to speech, there is only the right to speak the truth. That principle is universal, regardless of what the laws of any land might say.
Furthermore, there is no absolute right to speak about certain things, even if they are true.
Doctors don’t have the right to breach patient confidentiality. Lawyers don’t have the right to reveal information about their clients. Priests must respect the seal of the confessional. It is wrong for journalists to reveal salacious scandal purely to produce sensational headlines.
The list goes on.
So it is clear that even when you might speak the truth, there are other principles that impose limits on speech.
To put it simply, speaking the truth is only just if permissible, united with good intentions, and following a prudent assessment that its effects will be beneficial.
In other words, there is also no ‘right’ to speak the truth maliciously or in the knowledge that it will cause more harm than good.
And, to be perfectly honest, I don’t think there would be many who would disagree with this general philosophical approach to speech, even though very few are prepared to couch the debate in these terms.
Of course, there is one big problem with the practical application of this principle. While the truth of any matter is absolute and objective, the reality is that humans do not always know what the truth is. We live in a world of disinformation, where the facts are obscured and often difficult to find. Who can we trust to police statements for their veracity? Even the Catholic Church, with its dogma of infallibility, does not claim the right to police truth in matters outside of its religious jurisdiction.
Furthermore, humans have been given intellect, free will and the ability to reason. These gifts are designed to help each of us sift through the information provided by our senses and arrive at the realisation of the truth. However, attempting to force the truth on an individual is an insult to those gifts and the dignity of humanity. Even God Himself refrains from forcing us to adhere to the truth, even though His gifts impose a duty to seek it.
Moreover, as all of us journey along the path to truth it is likely that we’ll stray off it at some point. Indeed, in many areas we’ll start our journey far from the light of truth. As a result, state-based laws on truth would necessarily result in the criminalisation of much of society, while achieving very little good.
The good news is that truth is more powerful than coercion. And those who genuinely seek it will naturally find their way back to the path they left unintentionally.
So the big question is this: should the government and courts have any role to play in the pursuit (or protection) of truth. Should they be able to force us back on that path to truth?
In today’s society where there is such a wide divergence of opinion on matters social, moral and religious, the answer is mostly and resoundingly no.
Courts obviously have a duty to seek the truth of the matters at hand, while governments have legislated in a limited way to protect truth via defamation laws, which punish those who damage another via false statements. But the approach of the courts and government legislation are constrained for two good reasons.
Firstly, governments do not have a monopoly on truth. The thought of a ‘Truth Police’ crack squad is enough to give any sane person a wild case of the heebie-jeebies. Furthermore, there is no power available to any legislative body or judge that can force a person to believe anything. Governments hold no power over the soul.
So governments should let the debate rage when it comes to contentious issues. In effect, allowing ‘free speech’ is the means by which ‘true speech’ is fostered. It’s like letting the cockle grow with the wheat.
This necessarily means permitting false statements, even if holding to the principle that there is no right to make them. Why? Because through debate, the truth can be proclaimed. We should all back its tremendous power to defeat error. Furthermore, everyone has a right to hear the truth, regardless of whether they want to or not. The chances are that this right will be extinguished if government bureaucrats start determining what is truthful.
Of course, the debate about the proposed changes to the Racial Discrimination Act has nothing to do with truth. It is a debate about something else entirely: whether the government should legislate to regulate the emotional impact of speech.
It goes without saying that the most stupid thing any government can do is implement laws that cater for emotions. Therefore, any law that deals with the emotional effects of speech is, by definition, straight out of the mental asylum that housed Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
And the smartest thing that any sane government can do is repeal laws that regulate emotion and then package up any leftover copies and load them into a Malaysian Airlines flight so that they can be lost, never to be found again.
There is no right not to be offended. Furthermore, any law that seeks to prevent offensive speech necessarily begins to determine a hierarchy of offense. In any debate where people’s feelings are hurt, both sides are likely to suffer. Why, then, should only one side be protected emotionally while the other is punished?
It’s an insane proposition.
A rational person will understand that deliberately offensive speech is unlikely to result in a winning debating strategy. Common sense and manners dictate that offensive speech is often not the smartest approach. However, balancing this is the realisation that truth trumps emotion and that on contentious issues, offense will be taken regardless of how one expresses their thoughts.
The homosexual marriage debate is a perfect example. Regardless of what is said, the LGBT lobby will take offense at those who oppose this radical attack on marriage. Furthermore, it does not matter how politically-correct the pro-homosexual marriage arguments are, they are offensive by their very nature.
Offense is a given in these debates. The only way to prevent it is to stop debate altogether. And that extinguishes freedom to speak the truth.
This brings me to one final point about the proposed amendments to the Racial Discrimination Act.
The law, as it currently stands, sticks out like a sore thumb. It marks off debate about racial issues as one of the few areas in society where emotion is protected. And there is no doubt that there are those who want these laws widened to cover other social and moral issues.
Already we are in the dangerous situation where political candidates with conservative views are punished for speaking their mind on moral issues, simply because the ‘Radical Left’ is offended by them. This is not good for democracy. It is not good for open debate. And it most certainly is an attack on the freedom to speak the truth.