The Power of Words

The Power of Words

September 15, 2014

All other 90’s kids will remember that old primary school phrase “sticks and stones might break my bones but words will never hurt me”. While the intention behind this motto was to help kids ignore taunts and nasty comments, the idea that words are harmless needs to be seriously readdressed.

The right to freedom of speech is granted to all of us who live in a democracy – its very purpose is to ensure freedom from oppression, and allow each of us to debate ideas, express our individuality and protest against anything we consider unfair. But we must use it wisely.

Andrew Bolt came under fire and sparked much controversy in the Australian media when he made the implication that light-skinned people who identify as Indigenous Australians do so for personal gain. He was found to breach section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, which states that it is unlawful to act in a way that will “offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate” another person or group because of their race, color or ethnic origin.

The controversy of this statement didn’t just come from those who found it offensive; it also came from those who thought he had every right to offend. Earlier this year, Senator George Brandis spoke on behalf of the Coalition to repeal section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. Proposed changes would take out the words “offend, insult and humiliate”, believing them to be too constrictive to freedom of speech.

“It is not in the government’s view the role of the state to ban conduct merely because it might hurt the feelings of others,” the Senator said. “In a free country people do have rights to say things that other people find offensive or insulting or bigoted.”

Bigotry is a state of mind where a person views other groups with hatred, fear, distrust or prejudice on the basis of ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, gender or any other differentiating characteristic. Yes we do have the right to be bigoted, but surely we are more educated than that.

In order to be considered acts of racial hatred, statements have to be made with a clear intent to insult or discriminate. Academic and scientific works, art and debates of public interest are also exempt when carried out reasonably and in good faith. Given all these conditions, it is fair to say that freedom of speech is still being protected.

When the right to freedom of speech or opinion is confused for the right to hate and discriminate, there is a problem within our society; these are not rights these are desires. By revoking a law that aims to protect against discrimination, in favor of those who desire the ability to insult, you are indirectly condoning that behavior.

To make matters worse, proposed changes to the Act stated that what was considered offensive would be “determined by standards of an ordinary reasonable member of the Australian community, not by standards of any particular group within the Australian community”. I’m sorry, what exactly constitutes an ordinary reasonable Australian?

It seems a bit skewed to decide that the ‘particular groups’ likely to be targeted are not the ones who have the right to decide what is offensive.

The decision to repeal section 18C has since been revoked, but the fact that protections against discrimination and mental harm are still being argued against in our society today is slightly concerning. Maybe George Brandis is right, banning conduct that might hurt people’s feeling is not up to the law; it is up to our culture to change the idea that it is ok. We are entitled to freedom of speech, not freedom to harm. These are very different things and we should all know that by now.

Written by: Gabi Brand





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