‘The Holocaust started with words.’
Perhaps Ron Merkel, lead counsel for the nine Aborigines suing Andrew Bolt under the Racial Discrimination Act, would have been better to use a more local example. The policy that allowed the government to ‘assume full control and custody of the child of any aborigine’ (the Aborigines Protection Amending Act 1915), for example, or the Northern Territory Emergency Response Bill 2007, which aimed ‘to improve the well-being of certain communities in the Northern Territory’, but which its architect, Mal Brough, recently described as ‘yet another failed approach’. Or even the findings in the deaths-in-custody cases like that of Cameron Doomadgee – where, once again, no disciplinary charges were laid.
These actions, too, all started with words.
In 1995, the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission conducted a study that found that racist violence against Aboriginal people was ‘endemic’ and ‘widespread’. In the years following the study, aborigines lodged complaints with the Human Rights Commission about the increase in violence coinciding with the rise of Pauline Hanson and the One Nation party. Hannah McGlade, of the Murdoch University Law School, writes:
In June 1998 the Perth Aboriginal Medical Service (PAMS) was subject to a serious bombing threat in which 17 kilograms of explosives were left on the doorstep of the organisation. Later that day, the service received the following facsimile, apparently from the Western Australian division of the One Nation party:
Perhaps we should have a National Sorry Day for Aboriginal people to apologize to the rest of the Australian community, for all the muggings, robberies, home invasions, car thefts, murders, child-rapes done by Aborigines over the years. Apologize for Paris Way and all other trashed state housing. Apologize for millions of taxpayers money poured down the drain in booze etc. Apologize for terrorizing the trains and train station and making the train unusable at night. When we come to power you people will have something to be ‘sorry’ about if you don’t learn how to behave decently.
To deny that speech has consequences is fallacious: you can’t partition language and acts, and pretend that there is no relationship between the two. Speech can be dangerous.
In 2005, Alan Jones led the raucous charge against Middle Eastern Australians, encouraging listeners to attend a ‘community show of force’, resulting in what we now know as the Cronulla riots.
Language can – as it did in that case – legitimise violence.
There is a link, also, between the racist speech of the Victoria Police and their racist behaviours, stemming from what has been described as ‘a culture of discrimination within the Victoria Police’, just as there is most definitely a link between the rhetoric of the ‘war on terror’ and the discrimination and violence against Muslims in America since 2001.
The fact that we live in a country where racist political parties are given a platform, that Aborigines are first blamed for what ails society and then stripped of their agency, is precisely because we’ve had decades of people like Bolt publishing their tirades.
Fundamentally, this issue is about how speech is constructed in Australia, where ‘free speech’ is camouflage for selling racist policies. Bolt’s comments are ‘no more than offensive’, like Bernard Keane suggested – but only if you removed the context, overlooking more than 200 years of dispossession, deaths in custody, stolen generations, stolen land, stolen wealth, and so on.
The notion of free speech, a relic of an Enlightenment that envisions a world shaped entirely by civil, rational discourse, implies that we live in a free society where all citizens are equal. It’s easy for the likes of Rupert Murdoch, the media baron who owns Bolt’s paper and Fox News, among many others, and Alan Jones and Bernard Keane to champion free speech – white men are rarely on the end of sexism, racism or homophobia, so ‘free speech’ works in their favour.
But free speech fails to acknowledge that not everyone is equal and free; we live in a society where ‘privilege’ means that some are given access to a television network or microphone or column, while others are subject to the daily humiliation of life under the NT Intervention, to which there is no right of reply.
Indeed, speech isn’t free because those who control the organs of public discourse control the public discourse itself. As Media Watch illustrated last week: no-one is clamouring to publish scientists who believe climate change is a fact; rather, reportage of climate change denialism is much more common. Meanwhile, Murdoch’s station Fox is running a war on Muslims, and all his 175 papers supported the Iraq War. How’s that for free speech?
To quote Ward Churchill in a speech on US foreign policy: ‘We’ll use law only when it’s convenient to us … we’re not constrained by it. We’ll set our own course. The law be damned!’
Yet, despite all of that, if I’m not enthusiastic about defences of Andrew Bolt’s free speech, neither am I keen on the present prosecution. In fact, I think the plaintiffs were fundamentally mistaken to think the courts would bring them justice.
Given that society is divided between ‘those who have and those who ain’t got’, why would we leave debates about discourse and agency to the courts? Since its writing, for example, the Racial Discrimination Act has done absolutely nothing to reduce anti-Aboriginal racism.
The Right has far more access to lawyers and courts than the Left, and it’s all too likely that in the future a precedent set against Andrew Bolt will be used against people who don’t control the public discourse, as a means of quashing dissent.
The Left should not put our faith in the state to change things. History shows that it wasn’t the courts that won anyone civil rights, it was the people themselves mobilising, in most cases against the state.
So what’s the alternative?
For starters, the Left needs to say that vile, racist opinions and behaviour are unacceptable. That it’s never okay for racism, sexism and homophobia to appear in our broadsheets or on our airwaves. That neo-Nazis and Holocaust deniers aren’t entitled to peddle their hatred unopposed.
Does that mean the law should intervene and punish them? No, it means that, wherever the hatemongers speak up, the Left should mobilise to oppose their message and to show solidarity with the oppressed. A mass campaign against racism would do far more to push Bolt back than any ruling in a discrimination case.