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Beware of cover for making censorship respectable

By Laurence Maher - posted Wednesday, 10 December 2014


In a recent Sydney Morning Heraldop-ed piece, under the heading "Beware of cover for making bigotry respectable", the Commonwealth Race Discrimination Commissioner, Dr Tim Soutphommasane, declared:

Let's be clear about a few things. In a liberal democracy we should be free to have robust debates about culture, religion and belief.

However, the sombre "Let's be clear" announcement and the ostensible praise heaped on "robust debates" were accompanied by an objection to speech which conveys "abuse" or "vilification", and by the admonitions, "We may disagree, but we should do so with civility" and that we should not resort to "militant hostility" in speech about religion – whatever those various opaque qualifiers might mean. There then followed an unambiguous "tut-tut" mention of speech which is "scornful of" religious belief.

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Not for the first time, the Commissioner has expressed a view about the role of free speech in Australia which:

  • Conflates race and religious ideas, beliefs and practices;
  • Rejects any categorical distinction between, on the one hand, controversial speech directed solely at religious beliefs and practices, and, on the other hand, speech which may be simultaneously directed at the relevant believers;
  • Reveals a lack of appreciation of the secular nature of the Australian polity and ignores the nation's history.
  • Contrary to his lofty declaration, the Commissioner's case is a transparent cover for suppressing "robust debates" about religious ideas, beliefs and practices.

A preliminary definitional question warrants a passing comment. The Commissioner does not offer a definition of "religion", but it is clear from his case that he is referring to the conventional concept of a system of beliefs said to have been revealed by a deity. This avoids the need to deal with the Serbonian bog of post-modern obscurantism which awaits anyoneendeavouring to make sense of what the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), and others concerned about so-called militant secularism, define as religion.

A complex distinction?

The Commissioner asserts that the distinction between race and religion "is a complex one". In reality, it need not be. The Commissioner's resort to abstractions - "religious identity" and "religion can itself act as a racial marker" - adds nothing. In the context of debates about freedom of expression, the concept of religion (howsoever defined) is straightforward. It is no more than one category of ideas, beliefs and practices.

Unfortunately, in this earthly world of competing one, true faiths (more so, one in which theocratic forms of government survive), it is unsurprising that there is strong support for suppression of blasphemy, heresy, apostasy, sacrilege and other related forms of dissent.

Foremost among the many reasons why blasphemy and like laws,such as s 18C of theRacial Discrimination Act 1975 (Cth) have no place in a liberal democratic society, is the fact that religious beliefs are, more often than not, transmitted from one generation to the next by the drumming of dogmatic beliefs into the minds of innocent children. This is calculated to condition children not to think for themselves. As adults, they should be equipped to decide whether what is said by earthly authorities to be the revealed truth of a deity, should be accepted or rejected. The right of parents to inculcate religious beliefs in their children does not bind third parties to respect the content of such beliefs. A powerful enough logical case on the merits of "revealed" religious truth should not have to be indoctrinated.

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The gist of the Commissioner's case is that "religion"and "faith" cannot be publicly discussed or debated by Australians in terms which religious believers who, adventitiously, share a racial or ethnic connection, might regard – borrowing the language of s 18C – as "offensive, insulting, humiliating or intimidating". Nor, contends the Commissioner, can such beliefs or practices be criticised in terms which that select group of religious believers might regard as "uncivil" or "militantly hostile", or as amounting to "vilification" or "bullying" (yet another standardless abstraction).

According to the Commissioner, in contemporary Australia statements are being made about religion which are ill-disguised expressions of racial prejudice and bigotry. This is doubtless true. However, the Commissioner cannot bring himself to acknowledge that this need not be the case.

Nor, as has been customary with statements made by members of the AHRC (and its statutory predecessor in title), comparable State agencies, other statutory agencies and private institutions with multicultural responsibilities, is there any acknowledgement that a liberal democracy, by definition, tolerates dissent. Readers can test this assertion by an on-line search of the literature authored or approved by the AHRC. It reveals an uninterrupted record of paying lip service to the importance of free speech and of ignoring the integral role of individual dissent.

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About the Author

L W Maher is a Melbourne barrister with a special interest in defamation and other free speech-related disputes. He has written extensively on Australian Cold War legal history.

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