The focus of many, in relation to the proposed amendments to the Racial Discrimination Act has been on the feelings of the vilified minority.  These are valid concerns. However, with 30 years of experience in inter-cultural relations, I oppose the proposed changes on a matter that concerns the majority just as significantly: public safety.

 

One of the key functions of the state is to ensure that strangers are able to live harmoniously  and safely together.  The racial vilification act is central to this – concerned not with what we think, but what we say in the presence of strangers, and particularly in public forums.

 

There are a few simple, observable facts about human society that are central to this debate.

  1. Insult breeds anger, and anger can be contagious.   If public words of humiliation risk causing acts of revenge, it’s everyone’s business, because of the damage of this contagion. 
  2. When perceived insult is directed at people as members of a particular group, the contagious effect is dramatically – even exponentially –  multiplied. Groups might turn on groups, so that acts of revenge turn towards innocent people, rather than individuals that have caused direct insult.  Social cohesion, and public safety, can be shattered.
  3. When perceived insults are publicly broadcast, the contagion is multiplied yet again.   A comment made on radio or in print can ricochet, like never before, around social media in a way that suddenly affects millions of people.  If public figures or commentators do not understand, or care about, the potential threat to social cohesion  that their bigoted comments may cause, then legislators need to step in, in the interests of public safety. Such intervention does not attack freedom; it protects it.

Given these observable facts, the proposed changes to the legislation are a direct threat to public safety.

 

Of particular concern:

  • Section 3 (shown below) weakens the test of vilification, allowing a group to be quite acutely insulted – enraged even – in a way that ‘ordinary members’ of ‘the Australian Community’ simply won’t understand. 
  • Section 4 (shown below) specifically excludes statements from media platforms that are most likely to widen the public vilification (see point 3 above), and therefore the likelihood of consequent rage and anger focussed against the mainstream. 

To repeat: government has a foundational responsibility to keep its citizens safe.  The proposed amendments threaten the safety, and therefore the freedom, of all of us.

 

Tim Muirhead

Community Development Consultant

 

 

Cited Extracts:

(3) Whether an act is reasonably likely to have the effect specified in sub-section (1)(a) is

to be determined by the standards of an ordinary reasonable member of the Australian

community, not by the standards of any particular group within the Australian

community.

 

(4) This section does not apply to words, sounds, images or writing spoken, broadcast,

published or otherwise communicated in the course of participating in the public

discussion of any political, social, cultural, religious, artistic, academic or scientific

matter.”