18C – absence is not presence.

I’ve written before on this subject and my views remain the same.  But it seems some are happy to distort matters in order to make opponents of 18C look worse than they really are.  I don’t know why, given how poorly they already present.

In a recent piece posted to the AIM Network, author John Lord states:

Why is it, in ‘the name of free speech’ that we need to enshrine, the right to abuse each other, in law?

He’s not the only one characterising things this way, but possibly the only one employing such an eccentric use of the comma.  But is it legitimate to argue this way?  I don’t think it is. Indeed, Lord’s version of things strikes me as obtuse.  It’s a type of strawman fallacy to frame any complex argument (or to deny its complexity) using the worst possible version of that argument you can think of. It flies in the face of the ‘principle of charity‘ in debate and rhetoric.

Employing that charity principle  – the argument against elements of 18C isn’t about the ability or desire to offend or insult, it’s about the potential capacity it affords people to characterise your statements that way and take action against you.  It’s about the ability granted by this portion of the RDA for people’s sensibilities to be weaponised.

I’m not sure how something can be “enshrined” into law by the removal of anything. Removing the words “offend” and “insult” from 18C doesn’t expunge anyone’s capacity to characterise a statement as offensive or insulting.  All it does is stop such a characterisation from being legally actionable.  It stops people from being able to take their sensibilities into a court room.  It does not in any way remove their ability to apply normal cultural moral forces against offenders.  I think when it comes to matters of the giving and taking of offence, this is possibly as far as it should ever go.

Are we honestly enlightened if we think we need to enshrine in legislation an emotion people already have and use, to express hatred?

Sigh. To enshrine something into legislation means having to make some sort of positive statement about it.  Removing a couple of moot words from a piece of legislation doesn’t enshrine anything.   Not every social ill has to be legislated against for it to be perceived and acted against as a social ill.  Normal cultural moral prohibitions are sufficient remedy for any number of acts and attitudes that we deem socially harmful.  Some parents of Down Syndrome children find it offensive to have their children referred to as “Mongoloid” – and fair enough, too – but ought we make it unlawful to do so?

There’s no law stopping me from calling John Lord a ‘dumb fuck’ for no particular reason, and nor should there be.  There are, however, civil and cultural conventions and attitudes that would rightly see me on the wrong end of social sanction and denunciation for doing so.  The absence of a law preventing me from saying such a thing does not enshrine in legislation my right to call someone a ‘dumb fuck’.  The idea that because there’s no specific law against something it’s ok to do it, or is somehow thereby sanctioned by the system, is beyond stupid.

People who desire for morality to be legislated – and that is quintessentially what we’re talking about here – are among the most dangerous in society.  Sometimes they’re from the religious Right, sometimes from the SJW Left. For me they’re equally scary.

What, why and how do we draw the line between what we consider to be immoral as opposed to unlawful?  Have we got that distinction right in regard to the words “offend” and “insult” in 18C?  Is the context of racial discrimination sufficient for us to apply a different level of judgement than we otherwise might with regard to that distinction? Obviously the framers of the RDA thought so.  I’m not entirely convinced but am open on the question – either way.

For me the most annoying aspect of this debate is the mainstream media’s apparent sloth with regard to asking opponents of 18C why they do not feel the exemptions and protections afforded by 18D are sufficient, because they certainly seem to be.  It’s almost as though they don’t want to inject too much sense and reason into the debate because it might undermine the whole controversy – and controversy means copy.  It is possible that the MSM is that cynical? That question may well be rhetorical.

As always, your thoughts are welcome.

About Dan Rowden

Dan Rowden is a freelance writer and philosopher who has been active in philosophical and political discourse since Malcolm Turnbull invented the Internet in Australia. For the last 15 years he has contributed to and administered Internet philosophy forums. Politics is a secondary interest, but he recognises moments of significance in Australia's political history.
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1 Response to 18C – absence is not presence.

  1. Bobo says:

    Bigotry thrives on ignorance, it’s not only offensive, there are forms of language for addressing people and situations that are not only unwelcome they are degrading for everyone involved, for society. Legislating language is obviously a bad move, but taking all restrictions seems to be the last breath of outdated forms of language desiring somehow to be aceptable again. The social harm with discriminatiory language is that it exists in the same realm as ghosts, werewolves and witches. A faggot, a nigger, doesn’t refer to someone of a different skin tone or sexual preference, it is a term used to derogatorily associate individuals to social stereotypes that are demonising and dehumanizing.

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