Wolf-Whistle Politics And The Conservative ‘Case’ Against 18c

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Richard King is no fan of 18c. But he’s even less impressed by the conservative assault on it.

If, like me, you’ve been following those who’ve been following the latest thrilling instalment of the free speech wars in the past few weeks, you’ll have noticed a certain consensus forming among the Canberra commentariat.

Applying its fingers to the nation’s pulse and studying the transcripts of her many summer barbeques (the barbeque being to public sentiment what the Olympic-size swimming pool is to liquid measurement), the press gallery has decided, with some justice I think, that hardly anyone outside a small group of conservatives gives a tinker’s shit about 18c, the section of the Racial Discrimination Act that makes it an offence to… well, you know what it makes it an offence to do.

Sorry James, and sorry George, but it just ain’t up there among the nation’s priorities, or, for that matter, among the priorities of most members of your own ridiculous party. Not even those of us of a left-libertarian bent feel inclined to enter into the fray, 18c having become so deeply identified with the reactionary element in Australian politics that it is almost impossible to criticise in polite company.

Rather like the EU in the Brexit debate, 18c is now something to which progressives cleave partly because of the kind of people who are against it.

Fine: we can have this conversation later, and I’ll save my criticisms of liberals and progressives who think they can engineer equality and social justice through state-approved forms of expression till then; as Jacqui Lambie pointed out the other day, there are other things to get to now.

Tasmanian independent Senator, Jacqui Lambie.
Tasmanian independent Senator, Jacqui Lambie.

But before we leave the topic of 18c, changes to the wording of which were rejected by the Senate last night, it’s worth just reflecting on the powerful light it throws on the modern Australian right and how deeply confused and mad it now is. No, 18c is not a priority. But it is an effective diagnostic.

It fell to One Nation’s Malcolm Roberts, in an interview with Patricia Karvelas last week, to give the conservative case against 18c, as well as some remarks on wolf-whistling that went down like a turd in a swimming pool.

Since offence, he said, is something taken, not given, the section is an obvious nonsense: politicians have neither the right nor the competence to decide what is offensive and to whom and by how much. Like beauty, offence is in the eye of the beholder.

“You could joke about me being short,” he told Karvelas; “you could joke about me being from Queensland, you could joke about me being anything; it’s up to me whether I take offence on that.”

Now there’s an element of truth in this: offence is indeed a two-way street on which the seriousness of any head-on collision is bound to depend on the velocity of two vehicles, and in that sense it is different from other forms of confrontation.

If I were to punch Ross Cameron in the face, I would have assaulted him, pure and simple. But if I were to call him a prick and a moron his feelings of offence would be peculiar to him, assuming they existed at all.

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Laws like 18c collapse this distinction by treating language as a (potential) weapon with the capacity to cause real harm. Whatever one thinks of that idea, one can appreciate that the law is not always very good at deciding how much psychic pain is likely to be caused by certain utterances.

But Roberts went further. Not content with suggesting that the phenomenon of offence contains an element of subjectivity, he suggested as well that offence is a choice – that people choose to take offence. As he put it, coming the old soldier slightly:

Patricia I learned a few years ago, in fact I learned it in primary school, when someone speaks about another person you learn more about the speaker than the person they’re speaking about; and one of the insidiously dangerous things with 18c is that it takes away personal responsibility. You cannot hurt me with your words. It is me who chooses to be hurt with your words.

This is a remarkable claim, but it is by no means an unusual one. Right-libertarians in particular are apt to talk of the ‘marketplace of ideas’ and to treat beliefs, accordingly, as something akin to consumer items.

This framing is an aspect of a more general worldview that treats people, not as embodied beings bound by nature and culture and context, but as rational actors making rational decisions, as they are assumed to do in the marketplace proper.

In reality, of course, this abstract subject is as absent from the economic sphere as s/he is from the non-economic one: if consumers acted rationally, advertisers would have nothing to do and most businesses would have nothing to sell.

Nor do people ‘choose’ to take offence, any more than they choose to be hungry or turned on (some of them pretend to take offence, but that’s different). One can deplore the politics of victimhood (and I do) and still reject this view of offence.

So, when David Leyonhjelm says, “If you want to take offence that’s your choice, you have a choice of choosing another feeling” he’s talking bollocks, as usual. And he’s also giving us a plonking clue as to why right-libertarians love to talk about 18c but hardly ever mention, say, libel law and its chilling effect on free speech.

new matilda, david leyonhjelm
Liberal Democrats Senator David Leyonhjelm.

The reason is ideological. An individual’s reputation is regarded as a form of property (which, like all property, should be protected by law), while one’s identification as black or gay or a Collingwood supporter is, well, a choice to be treated as a species of consumer behaviour. Again, one can accept the (in-principle) difference between untruths told in the public sphere and offensive opinions, language etc and still reject what is, in essence, this deeply bourgeois view of the world.

Which I do. But my question is why Roberts doesn’t reject it too, and why so many of his fellow conservatives are adopting essentially libertarian ideas in the furtherance of their political ends. Why is the nativist, nationalist right channelling classical liberalism?

Think about One Nation for a moment (unpleasant, I know, but make the effort). This is a party forged in indignation: a nativist insurgency that attempts, among other things, to cast genuine economic anxieties as the consequence of too much immigration, and that regards Islam as a direct threat to ‘our’ values. It does not regard Australia as consisting of atomised individuals swapping opinions like crackers at Christmas, but as a nation founded in tradition and race.

When Pauline Hanson calls Islam ‘a disease’ against which we need to vaccinate ourselves, she is merely being more candid than usual about the political ideas that motivate her. Notwithstanding that racism and liberalism have proved perfectly compatible in the past, this seems like an odd space in which to find the IPA’s intellectual consumer.

But these are odd times and what we’re seeing, here, is the weaponisation of ‘universalist’ ideas in the cause of a nativist politics.

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We see it too in the Australian Liberty Alliance, with its commitment to ‘universal human rights’ and obsessive suspicion of Muslims; in the ill-carpentered columns of Andrew Bolt, with their cloying admixture of liberal rhetoric and deeply nationalistic sentiment; and in the reaction of a coterie of conservative commentators to the recent death of Bill Leak: a reaction that, in demanding the repeal of 18c on the basis that it may have hastened Leak’s death, effectively makes the case for its retention – i.e. for the idea that speech can be harmful.

It is a politics driven by a deep resentment about the kind of society Australia has become: multicultural, cosmopolitan, broadly progressive. It’s also an ideological shemozzle and a chapter in the decline of mainstream liberalism.

I think it’s in this context that we need to regard the push for 18c’s repeal: as a sign that ‘our values’ is replacing ‘our culture’ as the weapon of choice for today’s reactionary. It’s an aspect of what we might call ‘illiberal liberalism’ – a weak version of the politics pursued by Geert Wilders in the Netherlands and Marine Le Pen in France: politicians who love to wax lyrical about freedom of speech and women’s rights but do so in a way that draws a thick black line between the non-native ‘them’ and the native ‘us’. And its motor-power is not a concern for free speech but self-pity of the ‘reverse racism’ variety: it is founded on nostalgia for a bygone Australia and bitterness that it has indeed gone by.

I’m no fan of 18c or of the lazy (social) liberalism that makes a fetish of such statist provisions. But the conservatives’ case against 18c has little, if anything, to do with free speech. It is dog-whistle politics – no, wolf-whistle politics. And yesterday’s unsuccessful Senate vote will not spell the end of it.

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Richard King

I'm a journalist and author based in Fremantle and write for various rags and mags. I'm also the author of On Offence: The Politics of Indignation (Scribe). Visit me at http://bloodycrossroads.com/

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