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“May I Speak Freely?” The Proposed Repeal of Section 18C of the Commonwealth Racial Discrimination Act 1975

Tuesday, 1 July 2014  | Peter Corney


As Christians we feel strongly about the issue of discrimination, but many of us are also conflicted. We believe strongly in the equality and dignity of all people before God, but we also know that to maintain these values in a modern democratic society requires the opportunity and ability to defend them vigorously. And that requires a degree of freedom of speech that some people and groups may find uncomfortable.  

We believe human beings are made in the image of God and therefore every person is precious and must be treated with dignity and respect. We believe in the biblical vision that one day all nations will come together in peace, harmony and unity in the Kingdom of God (Micah 4:1-4. Isaiah 2:1-5, 25:6-8. Mark 1:14-15. Luke 4:16-20. Revelation 7:9-10). We believe that the Church is to be a present example of and signpost to that future reality. We believe that believers are all one in Christ, that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female” (Galatians 3: 28). We also confess our failures in regard to these truths at times in our history, such as our past discrimination against the Jewish people and the participation of parts of the Church in racism and apartheid in South Africa. Therefore it is with humility that we oppose racial and religious discrimination.

We also know that Christians who have been shaped by Biblical faith have often led the charge for basic human rights and the fight against racism; people like William Wilberforce, Anthony Benezet, Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King, Jr, to name just a few. In fact, in the history of the development of a charter of Universal Human Rights, Christians have played a significant role. Philosopher A. C. Grayling (no friend of Christianity) makes this point very clearly in his history of the struggle for liberty and rights, Towards the Light (Bloomsbury, 2007). Many of the ‘liberal’ values of the modern democratic state have their origins not just in the ‘Enlightenment’ but in the Western Christian heritage.

We believe that to maintain the values enshrined in declarations of human rights, the right of freedom of speech is essential. Of course, freedom of speech must have limits, and vigorous debate must be conducted with respect and civility. Defamation, abuse, lies and untruths must be excluded, along with incitement to racial and religious hatred and violence.  A critical question is how we define and set the limits. This is partly what the current debate is about.

Thomas Hobbes, the seventeenth-century English Christian political philosopher, developed the very influential idea of the “social contract”. In this contract, the citizen gives up or limits certain personal rights to the state in return for the protection by the state.  This involves a tension between control and freedom, and the balance between these shifts from one cultural period to another. Currently in Western democracies, we are confused about how to manage the tension between control and freedom.[1] On the one hand, we live in a time of hyper-individualism and a preoccupation with personal freedom of choice at the expense of the common good; on the other hand, we have democratic governments passing all sorts of laws attempting to enforce morality on their citizens in the form of political correctness of various kinds by legislation. We easily forget that virtues may be protected by legislation but they cannot be created by them.

There are other cultural factors that complicate our situation, such as the significant migration of people from pre-modern, authoritarian and traditional cultures into Western, post-Enlightenment ones. People from such cultures have a different view of what may and may not be debated in the public square. For at least 300 years, Christians in Western society have had to adjust to increasingly aggressive public critique of their beliefs and frequent ridicule and mockery. We have had to accept that this is the price of living in an open society where freedom of speech and freedom of belief and religious choice is valued. We no longer enforce ‘blasphemy laws’ as we accept that they are not consistent with the modern, pluralist, democratic society. If Christians wish to have freedom of religion, they must also grant it to others. But immigrants from theocratic and authoritarian states do not always understand this.  They may use our well-intended, but sometimes badly drafted anti-discrimination and anti-vilification laws to avoid genuine critique and debate about their beliefs and practices on the grounds of offense or blasphemy or vilification. This stifles open debate and shuts down freedom of speech, because those who wish to disagree or critique others’ beliefs are constantly under the threat of expensive litigation by individuals or government commissions, and the subsequent penalties that might ensue. The irony of this position is that many of the very views and practices unintentionally being protected from scrutiny by our anti-vilification laws are inconsistent with our common, liberal, democratic principles!

We have now suffered the unhappy result of such laws in the state of Victoria. The European Union and Canada have had similar and even more extreme experiences. As a result the Canadians, who have experienced overreaching government Commissions of Human Rights and a raft of heavy fines and expensive law suits, have now repealed a similar section in their act and sought to reign in their Commissions. This is a significant lesson for Australia as the two countries have some similarities in history and culture, and both liberal democracies have quite successful multicultural experience. Alan Borovoy, one of the pioneers and champions of Canada’s human rights laws, has in recent years become a critic of the Canadian Commissions and has publicly supported the changes in their law. He argues that too much ambiguity arises from legislation that uses words like “offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate.” From the Canadian experience he says: “You wind up losing more than you’re trying to nail.”[2]

Because of the doctrine of the separation of Church and State, we do not have a ‘sacred public square’ with a state-established religion, nor do we have an entirely ‘neutral public square’ (what some people mistakenly call ‘secular’ as though secular meant neutral): we have a ‘civil public square’ in which all views and beliefs have a right to be heard.  But the right to participate in debate in the ‘civil public Square’ requires everyone to submit to the right of others to respectfully and rigorously question and critique your ideas, beliefs , values and practices, without pleading ‘offense’, ‘insult’, ‘intimidation’, or ‘blasphemy’ and resorting to litigation to escape scrutiny and transparency. The same point could be made about the debate over gender and identity politics where it is so easy to silence differing views with clichéd labels that demonise those with different views and values. The way the current law is framed makes critique and open discussion very vulnerable to legal challenge and so limits freedom of speech.

Because religion, race and culture are so often connected, the issue of ‘cultural relativism’[3] is also very important in this debate. ‘Cultural relativism’ commonly declares that no one should judge any other culture’s values and practices. This sounds reasonable and tolerant at first, but it undercuts any objectivity or universality in ethics, undermining declarations of Human Rights. It leads to the tolerance of evils such as the oppression of women, caste systems, slavery, abuse of children, exploitation of labour, and minority and religious persecution. Of course, there are no consistent cultural relativists; everyone draws the line somewhere in relation to the practices and beliefs of other cultures. There is a fog of fuzzy thinking in this area. It is important to remember that the right to believe anything does not lead to the conclusion that anything anyone believes is right!

Migration of people groups from very different cultures and worldviews into Western countries has led to the development of a degree of cultural pluralism that is new in the breadth of its diversity. The doctrine of “multiculturalism” has been developed as a way to maintain harmony and social cohesion in this context, and countries like Australia and Canada with their Christian heritage have been very successful in this experiment. It could be argued that this dream of intercultural and ethnic harmony is an echo of the ultimate Christian vision of the peace and harmony in the Kingdom of God. But this dream will only be completely achieved in the fully realised Kingdom. Till then we have to work within a fallen world of imperfect people and imperfect societies and imperfect political instruments. This is the weakness that all human political utopianism stumbles on. The task of a democratic society and the role of Christians within it is to try and realise the dream as substantially as we can within the limits of fallen human nature. One of the vital instruments to achieve this is freedom of speech and the ability to speak truth to power, whatever that power might be. That is why this debate is so important.

The virtues of respect for others and respect for truth may be protected by law, but they cannot be created in people’s hearts by legislation or fear. They can only be taught and caught by example and precept in our most fundamental institutions of families, faith communities, schools and universities - the basic foundations of a ‘civil society’.

Peter Corney is Vicar Emeritus of St. Hilary’s Anglican Church Kew/North Balwyn.



[1] See Philip Rieff, The Triumph of the Therapeutic. He put forward the view that over time societies go through a cycle of ‘release and control’. In the West the 60’s and 70’s were at time of ‘release’, we may now be moving into a cycle of control.

[2] “One voice on Free Speech”, The Australian April 9th 2014, p11.

[3] See the article on “Cultural Relativism” at www.petercorney.com


Comments

Robert Coles
July 1, 2014, 1:51PM
Congratulations to Peter Corney for his excellent article.

The names 'Jesus' and 'Christ' are used in any way people choose today. It is often offensive to Christians, but there is no penalty because freedom of speech allows this.
To speak about the leaders of other religions in the same way could land you in court.

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