Have We Replaced Debate With Asterisks?


It’s not funny, how we don’t talk anymore. Do we talk openly about racism and sexism in Australia, or just about the fortunes of rugby league teams? Has the fight for free speech been derailed if there’s such focus on the right to abuse each other? What happened to respectful representation — or are those who struggle for respectful language in cahoots with censorship advocates? A tough set of questions for the News Therapist …

Andrew Johns called Timana Tahu a "black c*nt" this week. Of course in most of the media, you won’t be able to see half of the slur for the stars. It wasn’t deemed fit to print, and in the charge of racism, it wasn’t deemed fit to mention. The message is sent in a more acceptable package, one that discourages talk about this particular combination of racism and misogyny. We don’t ask what the incident really means, not just for the NRL, but for our society in general. When we talk about racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination, have we replaced real debate with asterisks?

A long time ago in the 1980s, the importance of linguistic representation was hotly debated and defended. It was considered important to think about how we were being spoken of and how we were speaking about others. The desire to be politically accurate or correct was originally driven by the legacy of pain felt by people who had been subjected to vilification and exclusion their whole lives. What were we fighting for and what has become of the original desire to be truly representative in our discourse?

If you think we’re really talking openly about racism and sexism in this country, have a look at the comments section of almost any mainstream media article with a focus on discrimination. The main defence for the use of hate language appears currently to be the right to free speech and the valiant crusade against the tyranny of so-called "political correctness".

Since I spend a reasonable amount of time in the company of 14-year-olds, I have become re-acquainted with the word "retard". Anything at all undesirable is retarded in my house. I’m frequently retarded myself, apparently, particularly when I display misguided desires to behave like a human rather than an inanimate object. Growing up, I remember children who were referred to as retarded. I knew the word for what it meant, that they were held back in their growth and slower than me. I knew even then that it was an all-encompassing label that reduced people to objects automatically compared to an ideal of normality.

As I got older, there were different words used for people formerly called retarded. There was "disabled", "special", "differently-abled" and "living with a disability". These words were hard won. They were the result of long and difficult battles fought by and on behalf of marginalised and mis-represented groups of people. Black, Woman, Queer and Indigenous are also hard won. And now we complain about having to be careful?

It’s not about being careful. It’s about having to think about what we are saying and how we are saying it. It’s about recognising the power to name and who holds it. It’s about bearing the responsibility for our actions. Free speech is about the right to have a voice; it doesn’t absolve us of the responsibility for what we are saying.

Part of the battle to speak openly and clearly about discrimination and vilification may have been lost. Why? Because we stopped thinking. Like my mate in high school who encouraged his friends to join the Greens because the girls were "easy", we tried anything on in order to get the results we wanted. It’s not uncommon to hear people refer to "racism against Americans" or those claiming to have endured "discrimination" for being white or heterosexual.

We’ve slapped a wrapper on our hatred of difference and re-branded ourselves. We turned political sensitivity and debate into a shorthand list of rules. We started saying the right words but without real feeling or a connection to lived reality.

Watch Kevin Rudd in public and you can see this untrustworthy behaviour in action. He’s saying all the right words and avoiding the bad slurs on subjects like the arrival of boats of asylum seekers to our shores — but our whiskers are giving us different information. We don’t believe him, because we’re not sure he believes himself. He reminds me of the hippie men who hung out at my house as a child. So totally peaceful, man. And so obviously filled with anger and disappointment. This is exterior perfection, it’s gloss enamel over a damp wall. You just know it’s going to peel eventually. And if it does, we’ll just bring out the stars.

A couple of years ago, my cousin’s dog bit another dog that came onto their property. They were fined over $500. A dog bit another dog. The reponse to this outrageous display of canine protective behaviour was to issue a fine. We are certainly living in a time when even animals are meant to behave with perfect decorum. I seriously doubt dogs are walked more often or are better trained than they were in the past. Instead, we have enforced leashes, fines and euthanasia for dogs that cross the line.

In a similar fashion, we have prioritised legislation and language alerts over a genuine engagement with issues of violence and discrimination. So it is understandable in some ways that the desire to rid ourselves of such incredible personal restrictions should so easily be used to hijack the discourse of respectful representation. We have become so domesticated, that we are focusing our fight for freedom on the right to continue to abuse each other. It’s hard to face what a big deal calling someone a black c*nt really is, when it’s so often portrayed as just an example of individual bad behaviour. Why not name it without using any stars? Endemic racism and misogyny. Abusive, pervasive and common as a kelpie.

To protect ourselves and others from censorship, we do indeed need to be offensive. But we still need to ask ourselves what we want to be free to talk about, and what it is that is actually currently restricting us. Whose content is actually prohibited? Who is really voiceless here? Community ‘consultation’ anyone? Will we continue to make a virtue out of our ability to use our freedom in an attempt to silence the voices of others?

To get back to the crushing restriction of thinking about language, I don’t want to be called a bitch, slut, c*nt, ho, slag, hag (maybe "hag", there’s a certain frisson to this one), lady, wife, yummy mummy (where are my bandages?) or madam, to name just a few. To see this request as restrictive of the freedom of others, or to hide behind asterisks, is to be like a baby at Christmas — more interested in the box than the present inside. If this is how we want to be free, I think that’s really pretty retarded.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.