Educating bigots


'Racial vilification' by Chris JohnstonThe problem with freedom of speech is that some people broadcast to a willing constituency, and others are effectively silenced. Syndicated columnists have the ear of millions. Unpopular minorities preach to the small ranks of the converted.

The ideal remedy for targets of vilification and incitement to hatred is, surely, to give them the resources, support and opportunities to counter and contradict and 'speak back' to the vilifier, in a way that validates their experience and increases their confidence, competence and conversational presence in the community.

This should counteract the disabling, silencing, marginalising and disempowering effect of vilification. It puts the objectively determined facts — not a vilifier's claimed 'fact' — into the public domain. It demonstrates a public value on refusing to tolerate or embrace discrimination. It begins a different conversation that other listeners may hear and decide is valid. It maintains the conversation.

How might it work? The key element is that the target participates in the response. A few years ago NSW academic Katharine Gelber suggested a range of approaches to reach the same audience as had been affected by the original vilification, such as a local newsletter or the workplace, if that's where it happened, or a regular TV 'talkback' such as the ABC's Media Watch.

All of these approaches would require an independent statutory office to monitor and determine the seriousness of the vilification, and invite targets to respond.

Only those who could demonstrate that they had been 'silenced' by opponents could invoke this remedy: those who could point out that their opponents were more numerous, articulate, better financed, and more easily able to use the media than they were, could claim it.

Gelber says these should be people who inhabited 'an objective world characterised by inequality, and to norms and values which enact and support discrimination'.

This would rule out bullish campaign groups and overuse by an oversensitive 'insulted' person. It need not require the cooperation of the respondent, would involve no punishment, and would encourage more, not less, discussion and debate.

It would be expensive, but the idea of the targets of religious or racial vilification having a prompt and immediate remedy through an independent third party to contradict racial or religious vilification would let victims challenge any 'silencing effect ... and to contradict (with their own speech) the claims raised by hate speakers'.

Public participation would be enhanced — rather better than in a court. The truth of the claims made could be contradicted, without the need to prove the speaker was deliberately offensive or motivated by racist prejudice. The relative power of the hate speaker could be challenged

There are a range of possible ways for achieving this. A government official could be responsible for ensuring that targets of vilification had their say and gave them the resources they needed to do so. It could be triggered by application to an existing officer such as (in Victoria) the Commissioner for Equal Opportunity and Human Rights. Or it might be a matter that a court or tribunal could order upon an ex parte (i.e. not involving any other party) application by an aggrieved person.

For example, if there were such a right, Holocaust denier and discredited British 'historian' David Irving would not necessarily be prevented from speaking in Australia, but the target group, Jewish people wounded and concerned by the peddling of anti-Semitic misinformation, could counteract his claims by referring to the facts in the public domain.

They would thus reassert the social value of tolerance, and demonstrate through appropriate, equally effective counter information that Irving had already been found, through an exhaustive judicial process (one he instigated himself, in 2000, through defamation action), not to be a 'historian' but a partisan propagandist quite reckless with the truth.

This would not prevent serious race hatred and religious propaganda campaigns from being challenged under other, criminal law procedures that would require proof of intention or mens rea — and this practical, civil remedy should be equally open to religious groups who are similarly victimised, to correct miscommunication of their views and stifle vilification campaigns.

Nor would it be inconsistent to make amendments to anti discrimination law to enable complainants to seek conciliation and 'their day in court' if they would prefer that.

But the recent reporting of the race hatred litigation against a Herald Sun, syndicated columnist shows the limitation of a court-focused, particular plaintiff-led approach.

Criminal laws do not 'educate' if they are not used. The relatively new remedies of litigation by victims of racial or religious vilification or incitement to hatred do not educate true bigots, crusaders, propagandists or victims. Criminal laws are rarely used, and then only affect the worst propagandists, rather than the more influential, if often unthinking, views expressed in the home, which children absorb, as they do in their playground, our shops and workplaces, radio and television, and cars.

The problem of conflict based on race or religion will not go away. Australia's relative success as a pluralist society requires a consistent effort to address it.

At base, establishing the right of reply without demonising the liar or blind pedlar of a muddled world view should be supported by governments of all colours with a comprehensive, long-term, public education program that attracts bipartisan support to address our common fears and misperceptions about the race and religious differences of we, the people. 

Moira RaynerMoira Rayner is a barrister and writer. She is a former Equal Opportunity and HREOC Commissioner. She is principal of Moira Rayner and Associates.

Topic tags: Moira Rayner, Andrew Bolt, racial vilification, Katharine Gelber



submit a comment

Existing comments

Since when is the TRUTH racial vilification?

Margaret Cook | 11 April 2011  

Here, here! I think the ABC show, Q&A, is also part of the "Let's really look at this question" process for examining the truth of an issue. How wonderful if all sections of our wonderful, democratic country agreed to shake hands and get on with keeping Australia a peaceful place. Let's not forget what has made our country successful from its earliest days, our core Australian value, "A fair go for all!"

Kay Bushnell | 11 April 2011  

An excellent article. You can't legislate against hatred or ignorance, you can only drive it underground where it festers and becomes worse. Keeping the dialogue alive will give the "victims" a chance to be heard. It may also help those of differing viewpoints to understand each other better by putting a human face and human experience to those who had previously only been adversaries.

Anna | 11 April 2011  

When an Australian artist photographed young pubescent girls, I noticed there was not much furore at this blatant misuse of 'freedom' in 'communicating' something in art. By comparision I find Bolt's opinions just an exercise in free speech and legitimately so. One is free to agree and disagree - but please have a sense of priorities about what a real abuse of freedom is.

Skye | 11 April 2011  

Skye, the whole point of Moira's article, if I read her correctly, is that in the conflicts between Bolt and his many targets of derision, the odds are stacked in Bolt's favour. He pontificates from a privileged position, with the resources of the Murdoch machine behind him. His targets often lack the resources to respond in like manner. The freedom to agree or disagree with him is meaningless without the freedom to communicate that agreement or disagreement to the same audience that Bolt has been given. The legal remedy is an unsatisfactory substitute. That's surely the point of Moira's article.

Ginger Meggs | 11 April 2011  

"The blind pedlar of a muddled world view" can come in many guises.
In my case most frequently in the supposed friends who forward to me emails which routinely malign the 'other' in our society (asylum seekers, migrants in general et al).
Almost always on the basis of the fabricated testimony of experts...
At first i simply wanted to say-stop sending them-or delete them without comment.
Or in the case of genuinely well intentioned friends with a general comment-surely you don't believe...?

But, in the same spirit of Moira Rayner's excellent suggestion, I now prefer simply to return them with no comment other than evidence of the fabrication.

the truth still sets us free.Admittedly not instantly...but it does make us part of the solution rather than the problem.

margaret | 11 April 2011  

'The objectively determined fact - not a vilifier's fact' is clearly what this conversation carries.

Then, I keep thinking about the 'shouting fire in a crowded cinema' analogy. Even if it were true, the shouter will save lives by not shouting, but contacting the fire brigade instead.

P.S.: And I entirely agree with Ginger Meggs' outlook here.

Joyce | 11 April 2011  

Some time ago I removed myself from the mailing list of GetUp because of material that I regarded as amounting to vilification of people who believe that abortion is wrong. I was sent (presumably automatically) a message asking me why I was leaving, and I explained, and that was the end of it. I miss not being able to contribute to their usually worthwhile causes because of my unwillingness to submit quietly (on rare occasions) to such material.

Gavan | 11 April 2011  

Beyond the instigation of public forums allowing the vilified to participate, we could look at incorporating some simple standards regarding the media. Firstly, Do we consider our media (and writers) of today to be our historians? If so, should they begin each written piece with their own full disclosures?

By this I refer to their personal disclosures, as well as any financial benefits. What is their racial background, their religion, their belief, their group membership, their exposure to or experiences with the person or group of people they are addressing.

This would be a start in the public's ability to identify subjective vs objective social writings. If the media is deemed to be our modern day historian, we should aim to ensure this is done with responsibility and objectivity. Opinion writers should allow us to see where there reference points start from. It would be interesting to see how many of them are willing to document themselves in the same way they document others.

SCOTT | 11 April 2011  

Although, I could not keep Skye's concern out of my mind. The one of an Australian photographer, 'taking photographs of a young pubescent girl.' The photographer's truth is that this is 'art' and thus
acceptable. Where Skye's truth (and mine) is that pornography as a moronic expression of liberty.

Joyce | 11 April 2011  

Mutilation by humiliation is often used as the reason why free speech should be controlled. It has been argued that free speech could lead to the abuse of minorities and social unrest. In fact freedom of speech has never truly existed and hardly exists today. In the Middle Ages free speech had more serious consequences and the church and aristocracy controlled it very effectively. The truth was that the earth was flat and the king was appointed by God. It was found to be reasonable to control freedom of speech and “lies” with a simple hanging or even a greater media event such as burning somebody at the stake.

The danger is that the current limited freedom of speech is again under threat. I don’t mean slander or criminal breaches of legislation to protect the liberties in regards to race, sex, religion etc.. Slander and criminal breaches are currently dealt within the current framework of laws.

The real danger is actually coming from groups pretending to “defend” minorities or from people with the “knowledge of the truth”. These groups have a ready arsenal of cheap weapons of mass humiliation. If somebody dares to challenge their wisdom in any way, they will be shot at with slogans such as racists, bigots, climate sceptics etc.

Maybe it would be more effective to teach children of all races, religions and ethnic backgrounds to be more tolerant and to respect all. Respect for all humans is important, even if we do not agree with their point of view. If we respect other humans, then we respect their freedom of speech. If we try to create another Public Service to “defend the truth” and to defend the political correct view of the world, then we are getting very close to a Spanish Inquisition (2011 model).

Beat Odermatt | 11 April 2011  

I think Moira's solution is expensive and complicated. It suggests public education (in the sense of presenting objective facts about issues) is the responsibility of the victims of prejudice. I don't think this is just.

Public education is the responsibility of many groups in society, among which are the media. The public need education about prejudice, how to detect it and how to respond to it. I understand this is part of all media studies today, in schools, and cultural studies at tertiary level.

The deeper issue is 'free speech'. I accept people may speak out of prejudice (both positive and negative prejudice), but if they are not aware of it, and their listeners are not aware of it, how 'free' is anyone here?

moy hitchen | 11 April 2011  

I read with interest about the odds, as Ginger Meggs writes, being stacked in someone's favour. Who holds the moderators of this site to account? I have often been denied a voice at this very site. I have had multiple posts blocked by Eureka Street's moderators. Often it is when I have sought to defend myself from various charges, including bigotry, racism, etc. My language and accusations have not been vitriolic or stragight out insulting as others have been that were published. At other times it is when I have taken a view contrary to that expressed by the writer. Some of my posts were even edited because I was not complimentary toward the writer.

My emails, requesting an explanation from Eureka Street as to why my posts were blocked, were met with an arrogant silence.

At this point I stopped bothering to post here and all but stopped reading any articles. Given my experience, I do not trust that the moderators genuinely want to hear form all sides in the conversations. Eureka Street might well ask itself if is giving everyone a chance to "speak back".

Finally, I would like to know on what criteria posts are blocked. And who moderates the moderators.

patrick james | 11 April 2011  

Sorry, Moira. I don't believe that we can "educate bigots". Not unless we adopt "brainwashing" methods. Your proposed approach is admirably rational, but it remains theoretical.

I had a chuckle recently when it was reported that "liberal" people had brains that were more developed in an area dedicated to complex thought; "conservative" people's brains were supposedly more developed in an area dedicated to fear.

It reminded me of the campaign against using recycled water in Toowoomba a few years ago. An old ex-mayor led the "anti" campaign, which was based on fear. Those campaigning against recycled water simply did not listen to the facts. I concluded at the time that logic was beaten by fear. And those conservative people were not bigots, simply afraid that they were being lied to.

In the end, it seems to me that bigots are driven by fear; they won't let the facts get in their way, so they won't be changing their minds in a hurry, no matter how many opposing points of view are presented against the likes of Mr Bolt.

Frank S | 11 April 2011  

Margaret, I am a little perturbed by your comment. Have you read about Aboriginal identity? Have you read the articles about what Mr Bolt wrote? Mr Bolt was not truthful in his statements, particularly about Larissa Behrendt's heritage.

MBG | 12 April 2011  

An excellent idea: balancing influence by giving voice to the voiceless. Might there also be a way to implement this using technology? Don't comments sections on news websites also allow silenced minorities to reach the same audience as the columnist?

Greg Foyster | 14 April 2011  

In theory a sanctioned forum where those allegedly vilified might exercise their right of reply in the face of real or perceived power imbalance is laudable. But how do we stop such a forum being abused by the powerful putting on the cloak of victimhood? And how do we prevent it being a place where the narratives of truly marginalised groups are reinforced rather than transformed?

Matthew | 15 April 2011  

It is not about educating bigots. It is about asymmetry of power and the abuse of privileged access to media. The article addresses this well.

graham patison | 15 April 2011  

Thanks for all your comments. My preferred title for this piece was 'Right of Reply'.

Moira Rayner | 15 April 2011  

Interesting article. Not least because it's focused entirely on responses to vilification, and does not dare to mention unjust accusations of vilification. Gee, it just might happen, you know. So, I wonder if this suggested approach might be equally effective for those wrongly accused of vilification? As "a Herald Sun, syndicated columnist" might be ... at least if aboriginal spokespeople such as Bess Price are correct?

HH | 17 April 2011  

Similar Articles

Thinking positively about getting a job

  • Lin Hatfield Dodds
  • 18 April 2011

Prime Minister Gillard's speech to the Sydney Institute last week, and Tony Abbot’s policy announcements two weeks ago, drew unanimous response from the community sector — that getting people into work is a sound objective, but it's harder than it looks.


Humiliating Gbagbo

  • Binoy Kampmark
  • 15 April 2011

Journalistic accounts of the defeat of Ivory Coast's Laurent Koudou Gbagbo seem to contain an unhealthy note of gloating. The Ghana Business News shows a more modest creature who posted his impressions on Twitter even as the crisis was unfolding. 



Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up