‘Suck it up’ shouldn’t have to be our response to racism

“In the good old days we just sucked it up.”

This was one observation put forward in respect to racial abuse at a community forum on the Racial Discrimination Act held in Bankstown last week.

While this was certainly the minority view and a grossly misguided one it actually works to highlight why the law should remain as is – fundamentally we do not want to go back to the “good old days.”

Going into these consultations I thought I was clear about what the arguments would be, but I have been surprised by what I have learnt as the Opposition has held these forums around the community.

Our laws reflect the social and moral values which underpin our society – values that have indeed changed since the “good old days”. The Abbott Government’s push to introduce sweeping changes that effectively neutralise protections against hate speech, is an attack on fundamental values of tolerance and respect. These values are at the heart of our diverse multicultural society.

The contrarian view put forward by this gentleman ignores the fact that for many in society there is no such thing as the “good old days,” as another attendee eloquently pointed out that as an Aboriginal person his family were forced to wear dog tags, were these the “good old days”?

The exposure draft of amendments released by the Government reaffirms Attorney-General George Brandis’ desire to allow hate speech to be tolerated and bigotry accepted, despite the broad consensus in the Australian community opposing these proposals.

This is demonstrated by a recent Nielsen poll which found 88 per cent of respondents believe it should be unlawful to offend, insult or humiliate based on race, that is, maintaining the current law as it is.

This result is an emphatic statement of fundamental truths about who we are as Australians.  Our society is about inclusion, not division. It is about interaction not isolation. The findings highlight that we are a nation bound by our many cultures which value racial tolerance and social cohesion above politics or ideology.

Key elements of the proposed amendments, however, show an alarming lack of understanding and appreciation of the dynamics of Australia’s diverse society as it exists today.

Firstly, the changes would make the law only apply to those things that ”vilify” or ”intimidate” another person based on their race. Not only has “vilify” been redefined to only cover incitement of racial hatred, meaning that the law would no longer be concerned with the harm that racism inflicts on individuals, it also discards other key safeguards, which Senator Brandis has incorrectly trivialised as merely providing protection against “hurt feelings”.

Such paradigms demonstrate an indifference to the effect racial vilification has on an individual’s personal identity and to our cohesion as a multicultural society.

Racial vilification fundamentally damages the notion of an inclusive society. When society mirrors back to someone a demeaning or contemptible picture of themselves, this can inflict profound harm. It sends a message to its victims that they are not welcome in our community and, as a result, it drives members of targeted groups away from full participation in society.

Furthermore, the amendments switch the perspective for assessing racial vilification to the view of an “ordinary reasonable member of the Australian community”. Aside from being a phrase which is legally unknown, it bizarrely assumes such a person does not belong to any particular group within our society. In essence, the amendment assumes our Australian identities are uniform, not unique.

As President of the Human Rights Commission, Professor Gillian Triggs said in her recent National Press Club address, “The problem with this, rational though it might seem, is that most Australians – those of Anglo-Saxon background, anyway – have not been abused on the basis of their race, and therefore could barely conceive of the profound impact of such behaviour.”

Our nation is diverse and dynamic. It is about a collection of cultures embracing common values which enrich all Australians. Subsection three of the amended draft reduces this dynamism, the cultural diversity which is at the heart of our national identity and is intrinsic to our history and character, to nonsensical notions of community standards. There is simply no ‘ordinary’ Australian, and to not understand this indicates an apathy to the very specific experiences and histories of racial and ethnic groups in Australia.

Finally, the new proposal explicitly permits racial vilification and intimidation “in the course of participating in the public discussion”. That is, as long as one is able to link their words to a “political, social, cultural, religious, artistic, academic or scientific matter”, they can abuse someone on the basis of their ethnicity or race with impunity.

Given these wide-ranging exemptions, we are left asking under what circumstances, if any, would racial vilification or intimidation be unlawful? This is shockingly out of touch with Australia’s multicultural experiences, and the diversity that makes our nation what it is. In short it is an attempt to bring back the “good old days.”

The wide variety of groups opposing these changes: multicultural organisations, faith groups, the legal community and representatives from civil society, not to mention some of the Government’s own backbenchers, do so with the understanding that the national cohesion we seek can never be whole or complete under conditions of prejudice. They understand that a sense of belonging in our society depends upon mutual recognition and acceptance.

It would serve the Abbott Government well to realise that this can only occur when we work together to facilitate racial tolerance, not destroy it and ensure we don’t return to a time, when faced with racism, people just “sucked it up.”

This piece was first published on SBS on Monday, 28 April 2014.