Freedom of thought over hurt feelings

There is much mainstream and social media coverage over the proposed changes to the Racial Discrimination Act. Like many, I am, prima facie, against changing the legislation. I do accept that I am open to being persuaded by what would need to be a damn good argument.

I don’t personally experience being non-white. I do vicariously experience racism through the realities of my family. Cashiers who won’t accept money from my husband’s hand, one son being called the N word at school, the client in a hair salon who looked at me with daggers for daring to bring a black child into “her” hair salon. The nasty comments submitted to this site (thankfully few and far between) or the student doctor who clearly did not want to actually touch my son. Maybe he thought the black rubbed off.

I was involved in a debate on Twitter with a man who was adamant freedom of thought (and therefore expression, given the debate related to freedom of speech) was much more important than “hurt feelings”. His parents had left an eastern bloc country to ensure freedom of thought, he stated.

Did he actually have any experience of racial vilification, I asked?

It appears not. I don’t believe @amosz22 is necessarily racist: I DO know he is speaking of things of which he has NO personal experience. Freedom of thought/speech is one thing and I agree it is a human right. Being denied the right as @amosz22 says his parents were is not at all the same as being denied recognition as a member of the human race. Or where they?

Hitler’s desire for an Aryan Race declared ethnic Poles as sub-human. This may well have impacted @amosz22’s forebears during that period, but this was a short period in the history of mankind. Non-white people have at various times been considered sub-human and there are some today who continue to believe so.  @amosz22 may well have been being sarcastic (the “;p” perhaps) when he stated “Polish people have no experience of racial vilification” if he is from ethnic Pole stock. His forebears may be more understanding than he is, in that case, of our desire to ensure there remains adequate protections against racial vilification.

What I realised from our complete discussion was this person, who personally was not affected by any Aryan Race classifications, firmly believes freedom of thought is of greater importance to the human species than being recognised as humans. To live free of being told constantly that your hair is not normal, you have a lower IQ than “whites”, you are lazy and uneducated, unclean, not wanted in the neighbourhood or school. Day in, day out, from the time you are old enough to understand the language around you.  Such examples can be found from any readings about racism, none of it is unique. It is constant, repetitive and debilitating. It is not just being “picked on” resulting in “hurt feelings” we should all get over. The wounds are deep and real and generational. Ask my African American friend who had to fight tooth and nail to prevent her children being “bused out” of her neighbourhood to an appropriate black school. Ask the Loving family of Virginia.

Ask Waleed Aly.

That’s what struck me most about the proposed legislation. It’s just so … well, white. In fact it’s probably the whitest piece of proposed legislation I’ve encountered during my lifetime. It trades on all the assumptions about race that you’re likely to hold if, in your experience, racism is just something that other people complain about.

Read more: http://www.smh.com.au/comment/george-brandis-racial-discrimination-act-changes-create-the-whitest-piece-of-proposed-legislation-ive-encountered-20140327-zqnea.html#ixzz2xXLV4wMZ

Ask Fergal Davis.

When someone makes monkey noises directed at a football player, we all know what it means. When someone making similar offensive noises is a young girl and the subject of the abuse is Adam Goodes, the Australian of the Year, it may attract more attention. But either way, portraying people as monkeys has a history and a specific context – which is why modern day politicians can’t act as if the White Australia policy never happened and destroyed lives.

Read more: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/mar/31/i-used-to-believe-i-had-the-right-to-be-a-bigot-but-reason-prevailed

Of course Chris Berg assures us it is all OK, it is the best move ever for democracy.

Yes, the Abbott government should reform laws that constrain freedom of speech across the board. And certainly, it should not be proposing to censor social media as part of its anti-cyber bullying proposals. But that this government’s defence of free speech is less than comprehensive is no argument against reforming section 18C.

Read more: http://www.smh.com.au/comment/how-george-brandis-racehate-laws-are-good-for-democracy-20140330-zqoja.html#ixzz2xXMZf0Y0

Of course, hell will freeze over before I trust Chris Berg’s protestations of his belief in “freedom”. I learnt very clearly it is only certain freedoms that he deems worthy, not all of such international instruments as the ICCPR and the UDHR. I wanted to marry my husband, people like Chris Berg, George Brandis et al want the right to call him the N word. All, I gather, in the interests of “any political, social, cultural, religious, artistic, academic or scientific matter”.  Oh, I’m so impressed. Not.

People who have not lived it can never experience the full impact of racism. They can, like Tim Wise,  listen, learn, believe and understand. Tim’s March 13 article is interesting. We have a few right wing Christians about.

Amend the Racial Discrimination Act all you like. While you do, ensure you have a solid, workable strategy to protect those humans without lily-white skin from the horror of racism.

23 comments on “Freedom of thought over hurt feelings

  1. […] are now considering removing Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 because we so desperately need free speech, according to George Brandis. We have, he tells us, the […]


  2. Thank you for your article and your personal experiences. I was sad to read what you said about your son and husband. I am often saddened by many things in Australia at the moment and the biggest one is the racism that seems apparent to me in any public discussion about asylum seekers. I am not sure why it considered acceptable by so many people to make generalised, incorrect statements. Any type of racism frustrates me so much and must be even worse for people who bare the brunt of it.


    • Thank you for your support Sharon.

      Thankfully we don’t experience too much, but enough to be very aware that there is a problem and of course we see all the aylum seeker debate as well.

      Anything I can do to raise awareness, I do.


  3. Great article, Robyn, all the more powerful as it comes from personal experience. I feel for you and your family as they are subjected to the small minded, petty, ignorance, stupidity and thoughtless cruelty of people with no manners or intellect.

    I have never been able to understand why people are racist; it deprives us of the wonderful friends we might have, of the creativity and talent which is crushed under the weight of pointless prejudice against someone’s culture or the colour of their skin or the shape of their eyes.

    I believe in freedom of speech, but freedom of speech does NOT confer the right to belittle, lie about, harm emotionally, or incite others to harm, others.

    Sometimes, I think it wouldn’t do any harm for these smug racist fools to cop some of their own medicine.

    As for the 13yo who racially harassed Adam Goodes, cut her no slack. She is already a nasty racist who deserves to be rebuked.


    • Thank you Jane. I am sorry for the late reply, I missed this until now!

      I am inclined to agree re the girl. Clearly picked up such behaviour from somewhere and that needs to be recognised.

      Thank you for your support. 🙂


  4. Great article Robyn. Frightening to think that this government are passing off the institutionalization of racism as ‘Freedom of Thought’ and ‘Freedom of Speech’. They are not even considering repealing the Defamation Laws which also curb this so-called freedom of speech. We will have freedom of thought in this country when people actually think for themselves rather than parroting the thinly disguised personal resentments of people like Andrew Bolt.
    My friends and I have started a Tumblr page where we’re posting pictures of people of all colours who support the Anti Discrimination Laws in their current state. Please check us out on http://repealracism.tumblr.com/ and email us with your picture and message at repealracism@gmail.com #repealracism
    And thank you for speaking out… because one of the greatest challenges that all Australian face (not just people of colour) is the aggressive denial of racism in this country. It helps no one to pretend it doesn’t exist. I’ve never heard a white kid say that using the word ‘Nigger’ opened any doors for them.


    • Thank you for the information about your campaign. I am sorry I am late submitting a photo, I’ve been run off my feet this week. I hope to get something done this weekend for you.

      The Defamation Laws consideration is an interesting one indeed.


  5. Great Article, gave lots to think about thanks. Hard to believe people are still so Racists in 2014..

    Best leave 18C as it is. If it is not broken don’t fix it…We seem to be still in the 60s in Australia for Racism. Please Abbott and Coalition do not take us back to the 50s or 40s.


  6. Couple of thoughts – freedom of speech is great. I’m all in favour of it. I couldn’t do what I do on my blog ( for instance) without it. However… like it or not, it is a bourgeois human right. A rich, western human right. A luxury human right. The kind nobody worries about until they have enough to eat, a roof over their heads, and basic safety. Therefore it is not as important as those more fundamental rights.

    Even America, home of the first amendment, once understood this. The first two rights they ever asserted (in writing anyway) were to ‘Life’ and ‘ Liberty.’ Not so sure about the pursuit of happiness. That sounds a bit abstract and hard to define to me, but the other two would be top of my list too. Ahead of freedom of speech. I always thought of the RDA as an attempt to bring some order to this noisy hierarchy of rights, to set some boundaries and define some points where they overlapped.

    So whilst I have some sympathy with the view that there is no right not to be offended, changing the law to protect one of your mates, and make no mistake, that IS what is happening here, is a recipe for only one thing – bad law. I see no evidence that it has ever caused a problem for anyone other than Bolt. If those who took action against him had so desired they could have sued him for libel and taken all his money. I would have. And he’d have had a much harder time bleating about it. But these people took the view that education was a more worthy goal. They wanted to show people what was wrong with what he said. It seems to have failed in that respect, and it saddens me that so many have been so eager to jump in and defend this odious creature (good faith defence to libel, I honestly believe he is an odioodious creature Your Honour) and his right to be a bigot. Especially people who should know better. Like the Attorney General of Australia for one! No George, there exists no right to bigotry, in any country I know of.

    You can be a bigot in your head, because freedom of thought is the one right which cannot, by definition, be curtailed. But I do not support any right to inflict your bigotry on others. Because that is hate speech, and we all know where that leads. If you are going to take freedom of speech to that extent then surely you have to follow it to its logical conclusion, and allow everyone equal (me first please) ACCESS to public speech. So where’s MY newspaper column? Where’s my TV show? And if you can’t do that, then anyone who enjoys that extreme privilege can bloody well keep a civil tongue in your head.

    For anyone who is still in doubt, I will try to explain in simpler terms than any piece of legislation. You DO have the right to criticise, insult or offend me based on anything I think, say or do (including religious beliefs, which are voluntary), but not on the basis of anything I AM. Got it? Good.


    • The pièce de résistance: “You DO have the right to criticise, insult or offend me based on anything I think, say or do (including religious beliefs, which are voluntary), but not on the basis of anything I AM. Got it? Good.”

      Well said Derek. That is all I have to say. Wonderful contribution!


      • Thank you very much! I have been making an effort recently to distil concepts down to their bare essentials. This may be partly due to Twitter. 140 characters can be a strict discipline for someone like me. 😉

        Just last night I wanted to say something, and I wanted to say it by utilising a quote which I think sums it up perfectly, and very succinctly:

        “A common mistake that people make when trying to design something completely foolproof is to underestimate the ingenuity of complete fools.” – Douglas Adams (Mostly Harmless)

        Not succinct enough for Twitter though. You have to lose the quotation marks AND the attribution just to fit it in, and you can forget about a handle or a hashtag.


      • I love the Douglas Adams quote!! Brilliant and true!

        Yes, Twitter must be a challenge for you! 😛


  7. Firstly, kudos to Schtick aka @amosz22 for joining the conversation. While I don’t agree with his/her argument, it is imperative that presenting an alternative view does not result in nasty labels and generalisations. I think some of the reserve about the RDA changes arises from a concern that debate will be stifled.

    It is exceedingly important that we communicate with each other, and that we assume the best of those contributing to the debate or asking the questions. Retaining 18c will not stymie discussions, such as that between Robyn & Schtick, it will simply reinforce the need for it to remain civilised.

    I’m one of the lucky ones, the sting of labels has largely bypassed me and mine and I’m astute enough to know my own bigotry (please don’t say youse or I were) is the result of my own failings. That isn’t the case for everyone. Those who should know say that we need those laws not because they can be used as a mallet to pound the offenders but as a foundation upon which we can stand. Without it and similar legislation, would we not still be seeing shrugged shoulders & hearing “be a man” about vile comments on football fields?

    As an aside, my blood ran cold when a very famous adult called out a not very bright just turned 13 year old in such a public arena. Imagine if she’d been mentally or physically challenged or emotionally fragile. Adults, hell yes, but children …. there were better ways regardless of the greater good.


  8. Thanks Robyn..firstly I want to say how sad it was to read of what your dear family endures. Racism exists on so many levels. Individually & systemically.

    I am a great supporter of the HRC & would hate to see it go. While it might be hard to fight ever individual case of abuse, I believe on a broader systemic level the HRC have achieved some great results. The exposure of sexual abuse within the Defense Service being one. The work of the Sex Discriminationer has overseen policy & education reforms within the Defense Services on a significang scale.

    I beleive it is through law, we as a society, determine the type of society we are prepared to accept. Yes individuals have rights but those individual rights can never be deemed more important than the greater good of society. Otherwise we have anarchy. Our thoughts are own, our speech & actions arent. I might think I have a right to drink & drive but the law says I cant. I may think its OK to throw garbage into our local waterways but the laws say you cant. I may think I have a right to be a bigot but the law says you cant then act in ways to insult, humiliate or offend. The balancing act of good government is to protect individual rights but also to govern for the greater good.

    As Martin Luther King Jnr said ” It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can keep him from lynching me, and I think that’s pretty important.”

    Our laws should be there to protect the vunerable & abused not the powerful. Yes education on racism & sexism is important but developed from a sound legislative base not instead of it.

    The question I ask myself is, who has the most to gain from these changes & who has the most to lose?


    • Betty, I love the waterways example. The MLK quote is SO applicable to this discussion, thnk you so much for sharing that. I had not heard it before.

      See my reply to Paul and his comment below – it ties in with your question of who is gaining and who is losing.


  9. This is a long complicated topic that deserves an entire evening of debate, let alone the comment section of a post, let alone twitter. . I will try to not be longwinded but I will raise a few points. Before I do that I will freely admit that you have done significantly more research into the topic then I have, I work a lot and am not a journo I like to read what people like you, Dave Donovan and co write on the subject for that exact reason, you guys can accurately summarise a wealth of knowledge that it will take me a very long time to replicate.:
    1) As I watched Goodes a man I have tremendous respected for getting choked up in his interview post ape-gate I was totally gutted and embarrassed about our country and about an education system could create a 13 year old girl like this. There are a few keys to stamping out racism a) education of history of civil rights b) education of history of atrocities committed in the name of superiority c) inter working of nationalities and cultures d) preventing discrimination.
    2) Human Rights Commission are entirely ineffective in any sort of preventative action against racism (not just in Oz but everywhere), much like many arms of government it suffers from truly pathetic bang for your buck, I would not abolish specific HRC legislation, I would complete abolish the HRC entities. HRCs would be like if VicRoads for every 100,000 drivers speeding, caught only one and got them into to a million dollars of legal trouble all while costing the government millions to prosecute. Racism is prolific in Australia it occurs thousands of times a day. The HRCs on the other hand prosecute a hand full of cases every year and cost us millions to do so. We would be 100 times better off saying government will foot the bill for court fees for human right cases so that pro-bono lawyers can pursue them, the cost of the HRCs would buy thousands of free days in court. The ACLU in the US is significantly better at pursuing racially based cases, free court days would open the doors for a similar non-profit organisations to flourish in Australia.
    3) One of the most high profile HRC cases was the Bolt case, what exactly has this achieved? Bolt became an absolute pariah, he is more popular and famous then he has ever been. Instead of being able to discuss any claims he has made about stolen generation or “white” Aborigines he’s reply to everything on the topic is “sorry can’t discuss it court told me not too”, all while playing the victim. He essentially threw the first volley and the ref has called game over before anyone had any real chance to debate him. And this is healthy for our public discourse? Sorry I don’t agree.
    So in summary education is a cheaper way to fight racism, the HRCs are an expensive slap in the face to hundreds of historical figures who established the appropriate checks and balances in the existing legal process and the cases the HRCs have acted in have prematurely ended discourse that should have ended with debate and resolution, all while not preventing anyone getting abused in the street. Instead social media has been seen video taping Aussies behaving in racist fashion and the culprits are giving interviews where they claim depression and how they are sorry and that they want to put it behind them.
    So all in all a couple of 300 dollar phones, Windmars bare chest, Goodes glassy eyes and societies general backlash against racist behaviour has achieved wonders while millions of dollars and crippling free speech has achieve nothing for the HRCs.
    Look forward to hearing from you, as I understand our goal of a racist free Australia is the same so it’s just a question of what’s the best way to get there.


    • It is definitely a long complicated topic. I also agree education is the best way to fight racism HOWEVER education can take generations. Look at the USA – a lot of education goes on there, they have a non-white president, yet still racism is rampant.

      There are still too many people, as I have described above, who are covertly racist. Legislation encourages education and to some degree reduces overt racism. If there are no restrictions it is my belief racism would blossom in many places.

      If you have read my original article on this, you know I am a firm believer in free speech. Because of my personal life experiences, I am also a firm believer in addressing racism. We are not idiots, so there must be a way to manage both human rights.

      The Bolt situation is interesting. Did you read his column yesterday? Also, if you haven’t read Anita’s book, I encourage you to find the time if you can.

      Thank you so much for contributing to the conversation. I do think open discussion is the best way we have to ultimately solve the “conflict” of trying to ensure both human rights. I don’t have much time to reply more comprehensively at the moment, but I did want to acknowledge contributions today.


  10. Hi Robyn,
    Thank you for the post. I’m so frustrated the ‘free speech’ argument has been trotted out by Brandis et.al. It is as if the social fabric of Australia and its democracy is somehow weaker because of existing 18C provisions. I think some evidence existing 18C provisions have weakened the Australia democracy would be great.
    On restrictions those same free-speech champions are certainly not looking to review existing defamation laws. Laws which you have to be wealthy or be part of a big organization (to afford the lawyers), or a lawyer yourself, in-order to avail yourself of the protections offered should somebody say something which ‘defames’ you.
    It seems the libertarians are fine with free speech providing it doesn’t defame. Because, of course, if you are a bigot, but if somebody calls you one and it defames you, you can “bring out the water cannon’s” (lawyers) to borrow a phrase from an old Tim Wilson tweet.
    I think 18C provides some level of protection to those who may not have access to any reasonable recourse in the event of racial abuse. I think 18C as it currently stands provides a reasonable restriction on free speech in Australia that doesn’t weaken our democracy. In fact, knowing people who may be on the receiving end of racial abuse have some level of protection, I think existing provisions strengthen our social fabric and therefore our democracy.


    • I agree with you Paul. This does seem very much about Person A having the “freedom” to call Person B a nigger, but if Person C calls Person A a bigot, Person A sues Person B. Ridiculous.

      Also I am concerned about the frames of reference. I have seen many racist websites claiming to be “scentific” that are nothing more than mouthpieces for KKK-like organisations, out to prove non-whites are scientifically inferior. What on earth is “artistic” about racism? Yet it is one of the proposed defences.


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