Free To Be Offended

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Last week the Federal Court found that Herald Sun columnist Andrew Bolt had breached the Racial Discrimination Act (RDA) in two articles published in 2009. The aftermath of the judgment has been heated debate about freedom of speech. And it hasn’t just been journalists who are speaking up about the ruling. What grabbed us so much about this particular case? Why do people care so deeply about freedom of speech? What was Bolt up to that so sharply divided our opinions about the right to offend in a public forum?

So many of us operate with a kind of adolescent idea of freedom. I gotta do what I gotta do. This is an impulse control issue, not an issue of freedom. There are lots of things I’d like to say here about Andrew Bolt — things straight from my id in particular. To write them might be fun, even cathartic, but it wouldn’t qualify as an expression of freedom.

Real freedom isn’t about acting on impulse. What has been restricted for Andrew Bolt through this imperfect legislation is not freedom but impulsivity. Having to get your facts straight is part of a genuine expression of freedom, because real freedom is always connected to actual knowledge. Without knowledge, even the freedom to speak becomes just a stab in the dark.

This of course doesn’t mean that the current RDA legislation isn’t flawed. And it doesn’t mean that racism will be curbed by its enforcement either. The facts can always be made friendly. But what raises our hackles about restricting what might cause offence? In the commentary on the decision to penalise Andrew Bolt, a lot of time has been spent on either drawing the line or refusing to accept the need for lines at all.

In the responses both to Bolt’s contested columns and to the restriction of them, we have revealed a very deep-seated obsession with transgression. We are fascinated with both his ability to say stupid and hateful things, and with whether the punishment he received will stop him and ultimately restrict us. We’re deeply concerned with how far we can go and with where the line is.

We are also obsessed with appearance here — the appearance of having the facts straight, the appearance of light and dark skin, and the appearance of freedom of speech. In fact real freedom is always accompanied by a commitment to understanding. It is never about the superficial.

To look at freedom of speech in the light of this case, we need to go beyond the superficial and analyse what it is Andrew Bolt is actually doing and how his particular style of commentary functions.

Bolt can line up at the back of a long queue of white men who have tried to define blackness for other people. Nothing new here. Attempting to pit black people against each other? Nothing new there either.

Part of the experience of being white is of not having to think about race in terms of ourselves. Race becomes about other people. But when Bolt speaks about race being irrelevant, when he refers to us as all being mere human beings, what he is really saying is that whiteness is the only valid experience.

He attempts to obliterate notions of difference, which in turn function to maintain the status quo of white supremacy. If we’re all the same, then cultural identity becomes irrelevant. And cultural identity is only irrelevant to those whose culture has enough space and airtime to seem to be synonymous with being human. This is historical and cultural theft.

Because the concept of race has no real agreed meaning, Bolt is also in safe territory for both obfuscation and fomentation. In other words, he can mess with our fears and incite our rages while talking fluff. And this really is what he does particularly well. He provokes fear and it is this fear that drives the hatred you find most baldly revealed in the comments section of his columns and blog.

I believe that much of the fear he triggers is related to trauma. Both everyday child marginalisation and neglect and the more significant traumas of abuse and discrimination that many of us have suffered. To trigger this trauma in other people is relatively simple. It requires language vague enough that we can project our own specific fears onto the material raised, and it requires language emotional enough that we feel the threat Bolt raises without having it named clearly.

What you can see in the comments section of his pieces is the bolder and clearer expression of the racist views he refers to more obliquely. This is how bullying operates too. Someone fosters fear and a sense of threat, and their followers do the dirty work. The dirty work here being specifically a kind of reintroduction of a colour caste system and the promotion of racist ideas of identity.

At his least offensive, Bolt works like a clever gossip. The oblique reference with a disclaimer — I don’t really mean to say this, but — and the damning tone and eye rolling that when freed of actual facts, manages to destroy a reputation that cannot be defended against the unclear. How do you respond to innuendo? This is crazy-making territory. Particularly for those of us who lack a strong internal sense of who we are, and rely instead on how others perceive us.

Being able to define ourselves is the key to empowerment and to being self-responsible. When someone tries to take this away from us, we have an understandable and adaptive reaction of outrage. This was part of the reason that Bolt’s writing was taken to task. Cultural identity is an internal experience; external markers cannot define it. By using skin colour as a determinant of identity, Bolt was guilty of objectification, which is at the heart of all discrimination. But when we were faced with a state determined decision on what is offensive, we became worried about freedom.

Freedom is really just a lack of restraint — it doesn’t in itself imply the ability to achieve anything. I think part of our current difficulty with the debate about freedom of the press and the defence of Andrew Bolt’s "right" to speak, is that for most of us we know all too well that media freedom is less meaningful in an environment where there is such a concentration of media ownership. In other words, when we hear the same stories over and over again, things don’t feel very free.

Anyone who has experienced marginalisation, and I would argue that this includes all of us at some point as children and certainly as children within educational and religious institutions, will know that some of our voices are heard more loudly than others. Some stories are dominant and some are hidden. Bolt’s story is not a marginal one, for all his cries that he is a lone voice in the wilderness of leftist propaganda.

So many of us are silenced and so many defined by the needs and projections of others, that it’s no wonder we turn to any tools at hand to stop the constant destructive tirade of popular racism. But we are understandably torn and uneasy about silencing even the most offensive and divisive of commentary.

Noam Chomsky’s dictum that "If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all" is hard to uphold when the despised views we speak of here are so common and so destructive. So we chew over this question of media freedom with great gusto. And so we should. There is no simple solution to the problem of the irresponsible, ahistorical and inaccurate encouragement of racial hatred.

ABOUT THERAPY FOR NEWS JUNKIES: Why does the news make the news? Why do certain stories gain such traction? Therapy For News Junkies is a regular NM column which looks at why audiences react so vehemently to particular issues. Zoe Krupka is a psychotherapist who uses her knowledge about how we react as individuals to better understand collective responses to the events of the day.  

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