Humour Isn't A Total Defence Against Bigotry

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So far it’s been largely left to lawyers, academics, media buffs, public servants and politicians to carry forward the public debate over changes to the Racial Discrimination Act. Yet those Australians who are most affected by hate speech in their day-to-day lives are barely heard above the din, listening in as it were, while the dispute rages over their heads.

The race hate law is designed for their protection and wellbeing, not to safeguard media honchos with inflated egos and flawed research skills. The power imbalance needs redressing. Time is running out. Submissions close on 30 April and it seems that community consultations will not be taking place. Organisations representing Indigenous and other minorities will have their work cut out making their voices heard.

I grew up in the days of the old White Australian Policy — we were well acquainted, you might say. The "keep Australia white" movement affected my childhood, my teenage years, shaped my identity and sharpened my tongue. Being "Mohammedan" wasn’t really a problem; Australians were indifferent to Muslims at the time. But I stood out because I was brown-skinned and, under the hot West Australian sun, a very dark-brown little girl at that. 

Over the years I grew tired of explaining where I was born (in Kalgoorlie, by the way), the details of my Pakistani ancestry and my two grandfathers who’d come out in the 1890s before the door was slammed in "our" face. We were "the Other", inferior on the basis of skin colour, a view bolstered by the Social Darwinist theory of the day that made racism seem "scientifically respectable". In the 21st century the same elite white male politicians are playing similar games, still feeding people’s fears and picking favourites.

One of my safety nets against prejudice has always been an Aussie sense of humour: sending oneself up with a touch of the larrikin. Newcomers to Australia find this trait bewildering at first but it’s a tool that has always stood me in good stead.

A few years ago, a perfectly charming woman at a "meet the author" dinner in Perth where I was speaking asked me during open question time why I appeared "whiter" than when she’d seen me years before — when my skin looked "so much darker". My publisher was shocked and tried to move the discussion along, spectators were gobsmacked, but I thought it was a hoot. My interrogator would not be diverted and persisted — she was a woman of great curiosity.

I assured her I wasn’t "doing a Michael Jackson", nor was I using make-up as camouflage, but that it might have something to do with living far away in wintry Melbourne. I even cited a Vitamin D deficiency in my defence to keep her quiet.

Did I feel insulted? No. Did I feel humiliated? No. It was hilarious, because she didn’t mean to offend or embarrass me, and it all seemed so bizarre. I still wonder why my skin colour became part of a "literary" conversation. She remained oblivious to the fact that someone else (less hardened or much younger) might have been offended or felt humiliated. Well at least she was doing it right to my face, not behind my back. To me it serves as an example of the effrontery that people of "a whiter shade of pale" display in discussing one’s skin colour as if it was something abstract.

Would I have lodged a complaint against her under the present Federal Act? No. Could I imagine that someone else might feel insulted, humiliated or even intimidated? Yes. Would lodging a complaint have been a wise move? In the circumstances, I think not. Anyway the remark may not have crossed the "insult threshold". Come what may, I’m sure it would have been conciliated swiftly and discreetly with a simple, "Sorry, I didn’t realise…"

This brings me to the current debate on the proposed amendments to the federal government’s Racial Discrimination Act. As a non-lawyer, non-academic, (dare I say non-white before my "non-basket" overflows) my opinion has little to do with legal interpretations or philosophical points of view. Others have identified the weaknesses in repealing sections 18B, 18C, 18D and 18E and how this will undermine the legislation’s intention. The draft exemptions are so broad as to be useless; everyone’s right to be prejudiced is put ahead of the person at the receiving end of hate speech.

Australia has a racist past that’s not easy to exorcise. We need only look at USA or South Africa for the long-term effects. But living in denial is not the answer. Be proud of the steps we have made towards the recognition of Australian Aborigines, and the admission of terrible wrongs done in the past, but don’t pretend that this current move to amend the law is not a setback to race relations.

I see loads of empathy on display for a well-connected journalist like Andrew Bolt who can call on the Prime Minister or the Attorney General when in need. But where is the empathy for Australians whose dignity as human beings has been treated with contempt? For those standing "on the outside looking in", the Act as it stands may not be ideal but symbolises our values and protects vulnerable citizens from the toxic prejudice of race hate. In this instance the law as it stands is not an ass, but I can’t say the same for those who trumpet asinine statements on the rights of bigots.

I’m grateful that my Muslim parents were strong and cared about the society that their children were a part of in the days of White Australia. Even as a nine-year-old I understood what my mother meant when she comforted me after I’d come home from school upset. She would tell me her Jesus story: "Even if Jesus Christ wanted to come into this country 'they' wouldn’t let him in." I remember feeling comforted that Jesus really was a brown man — no mistake about that!

Yes, there is a cost to society of using hate speech laws, but it needs to be weighed against the cost to society of remaining silent. Ignoring racism doesn’t make it disappear. A fine line separates freedom of speech from freedom of vilification, and in the end everyone may have their own litmus test — that is why we need a law to act as arbiter, so that we stop living in our own little ghettos of the mind, throwing rocks at each other.

Legally fixed ground rules may not transform attitudes but they certainly modify behaviour. This allows time for community education and changes in how we look at one another to develop in the interim, to help break the ugly cycle of hate speech. Or as Umberto Eco put it, "In order to be tolerant, one must first set the boundaries of the intolerable".

New Matilda

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