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There is no room for section 18c in a truly liberal Australia

Few matters considered by parliament unequivocally define us as a free country. Next week one of those matters arises.

A parliamentary joint committee inquiry into section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act will hand down its ­report. Our federal MPs have a chance to recommend that parliament abolish a law that is a direct hit on free speech, one that casts a shadow of censorship far beyond its terms and encour­ages people to choose victimhood over empowerment. Alternatively, our MPs can choose the coward’s route and fiddle at the edges, with freedom of speech paying the price of their pusillanimity.

Before the committee issues its report into the law that prohibits words that are “reasonably likely … to offend, insult, humiliate or intimi­date another person or a group of people” because of their “race, colour or national or ethnic origin”, it ought to look a little ­closer at the fracas that erupted on ABC’s Q&A program last week.

When Muslim woman Yassmin Abdel-Magied claimed that Islam is “the most feminist” of all religions, she proved the importance of freedom of expression. Her embarrassingly clueless observation about women under Islam was quickly rebuked. From John Lyons writing about his observations travelling throughout the Middle East to Ayaan Hirsi Ali ­explaining what the Koran says about women, Abdel-Magied’s thesis was shot down as ridiculous and, worse, downright dangerous to the plight of women.

What does abolishing section 18C have to do with Yassmin’s foolish claim? Everything. Section 18C must be seen against a backdrop of growing offendedness where a marketplace of confected outrage tries daily to dismantle the marketplace of ideas.

Here is the logical extension of a law based on hurt feelings: growing demands for trigger warnings about content that offends some people and calls for safe spaces where students can retreat from ideas that upset them to stroke therapy dogs and work with Play-Doh. Publishers are increasingly hiring “sensitivity readers” to flag potentially offensive content. Speakers such as Germaine Greer who do not toe a leftist line on gender fluidity are “no-platformed” by left-wing students. When Milo ­Yiannopoulos tries to speak on campus on all manner of things outside the leftist orthodoxy, violent protests ensue.

Section 18C is part of a growing hypersensitivity across Western liberal democracies. And, unwittingly, Abdel-Magied, who made headlines last year by storming out of the Brisbane Writers Festival, has proved why one person’s sensitivity should not be allowed to undermine freedom of expression.

The Muslim woman walked out during an address by celebrated author Lionel Shriver, who ­argued that identity politics, hyper­­sensitivity and bogus claims of cultural appropriation are killing good fiction. According to identity politics, it’s cultural theft to step into other people’s shoes if their culture is not your culture. Yet if we can’t do that, we are left only with a personal memoir, Shriver pointed out with impeccable logic.

Abdel-Magied tried to explain her huffy exit in The Guardian the next day: “As I stood up, my heart began to race … The faces around me blurred. As my heels thudded against the grey plastic of the flooring, harmonising with the beat of the adrenalin pumping through my veins, my mind was blank save for one question, ‘How is this happening?’ ”

Abdel-Magied’s walkout then and her ill-informed comments on Q&A last week coalesce into a neat irony. She stormed out of an ­address that exposed the censoring aim of those claiming cultural appropriation and yet, as a Muslim woman, Abdel-Magied failed to speak honestly about her own culture. Not even a $11,485 taxpayer-funded tour of the Middle East (gifted to her by a ­Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade clearly contemptuous of tax­payers) opened her eyes to the truth.

As dudded taxpayers, we should be asking for our money back. That aside, the logical conclusion of Abdel-Magied’s cultural appropriation gag on free speech is that her claim that Islam is the most feminist religion cannot be critiqued by those who are not Muslim. So we shouldn’t hear from Lyons or others who have seen first-hand the appalling treatment of women in Islamic countries? Should we ignore the lived experiences and insights of Hirsi Ali simply because she has rejected Islam in favour of Enlightenment values?

If we are left only with the emotional proclamations of a Muslim woman who is either poorly ­informed or intellectually blinkered about Islam, where does that leave informed debate and freedom of expression? And where does it leave Islam as a ­medieval religion that needs to find a genuine accommodation with modernity?

Those considering section 18C in the lead-up to their report next week ought to carefully consider Shriver’s response to the brou­haha at the Brisbane Writers ­Festival, where craven festival organ­isers also denounced her com­ments. Speaking on ABC’s Big Ideas program, Shriver, a lifelong Democratic voter, said: “The voice of control and the demand for compliance has shifted from the Right to the Left and I think that may have some parallels in Australia.” Indeed. And Abdel-­Magied’s cultural appropriation ruse to censor writers proves her point.

“It is the Left that is now interested in control,” Shriver said. “It is the Left that wants to restrict free speech. Even the word ‘liberal’ is no longer appropriate because it has that root of liberty. The Left is no longer interested in liberty. It is more interested in its version of justice, and there’s nothing wrong with justice, but the trouble is that justice can be subjective, so the Left has its own idea of what justice is, and it will impose it on you. And it has its own idea of what virtue is and you don’t get any choice.”

Struggling to understand the events that have seen the Left ­become the voice of authoritarianism, Shriver lamented that we are encouraging people to be offended. “We teach people that ‘offendedness’ is a very effective weapon.”

“I’d rather go the other direction,” she said. “We all could stand to grow a thicker skin, and I have been a big defender of the right to offend others because you simply cannot keep yourself from offending others.

“It’s really their problem.”

Section 18C is not a fringe issue. It takes pride of place in the ­armoury in what Shriver calls an era of weaponised sensitivity. It’s not just what the law expressly prohibits that’s wrong in a free ­society. By making feelings the measurement of what can and cannot be said, section 18C creates wider norms that fuel a broader hypersensitivity constraining free speech. Those enamoured of section 18C ought to also consider how these new norms of finding offence infantilise people, espec­ially encouraging millennials to see themselves as victims. There will be consequences that we don’t yet fully understand.

It’s bad enough the Labor Party and the Greens have eschewed freedom and ­empower­ment in favour of censorship and victimhood. But when a Liberal-led government refuses to abolish a law that strikes at the heart of Western liberalism, it’s time to change the party’s name to the Illiberal Party. And in that values vacuum you will hear Pauline Hanson’s tally-counter clicking fast and furiously as more voters choose One Nation rather than a misleadingly labelled Liberal government that cannot find the political backbone to ­defend free speech.

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Posted by Ronit on 2017-02-22 04:12:53 GMT