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Society Must Stand Up For Tolerance Says Discrimination Commissioner

21 September 2016 at 3:43 pm
Wendy Williams
Society must not be complacent in believing racism is just part of “an initiation rite” for any immigrant group, according to Australia’s race discrimination commissioner.

Wendy Williams | 21 September 2016 at 3:43 pm


Society Must Stand Up For Tolerance Says Discrimination Commissioner
21 September 2016 at 3:43 pm

Society must not be complacent in believing racism is just part of “an initiation rite” for any immigrant group, according to Australia’s race discrimination commissioner.

Dr Tim Soutphommasane has called on society to resist political attempts to divide Australians according to race or religion in the wake of Pauline Hanson’s maiden speech in the Senate.

Speaking at a lecture convened by the Herbert and Valmae Freilich Foundation at ANU, Soutphommasane said “all good citizens” had a responsibility to stand up for tolerance and decency.

He said racism wasn’t just about prejudice and discrimination, it was also about power.

“Let us be clear about a few things,” Soutphommasane said.

“Our society is diminished by inflammatory rhetoric or appeals to xenophobia.

“We expect our political representatives to set the tone for our society, not to be targeting particular groups with hostility.

“We should be forthright in speaking out against political appeals to fear. And we should resist political attempts to divide Australians according to race or religion.”

His comments follow Pauline Hanson’s maiden speech made in the Senate last week during which she claimed Australia was “at risk of being swamped by Muslims”.

Echoing fears aired in her 1996 address about multiculturalism, she claimed Australians were “fearful” and that Islam could not have a significant presence in Australia if “we [were] to live in an open, secular and cohesive society”.

Soutphommasane used his lecture on Wednesday to question how to respond to such political rhetoric.

He said it was essential society remained committed to nondiscrimination and tolerance.

“Our values as a liberal democracy demand that we remain this way,” he said.

“We should be making no excuses for the advocacy of discrimination and the expression of intolerance. Acknowledging people’s concerns doesn’t mean endorsing them.

“This doesn’t in any way mean stifling freedom of expression. Those sympathetic to populist political rhetoric about race, immigration and Islam are, of course, entitled to their view. But they are not entitled to engage in vilification or discrimination. They are not entitled to be coddled or be protected from criticism.

“All of us have a right to express our free speech and call out prejudice, racism and bigotry. If people don’t want to be called racist or bigoted, they can begin by not doing things that involve racism or bigotry.”

He said Australians needed to understand the different forms that racism assumes.

“While most of us will know racism when we see it in its most extreme forms, it is important we can also identify its more banal or insidious forms,” he said.

“To be sure, many people still believe that racism is strictly about a belief in doctrines of racial superiority, or about practices of discrimination against people because of their race.

“Many believe the word racism should be confined to describing only the most extreme expressions of racial ideas or occasions of overt discrimination.”

Soutphommasane said racism could be born of ignorance.

“Racism is often expressed in the form of hatred and motivated by malice; yet it can also be devoid of hatred and malice.

“It can be the product of fear, and be born of ignorance. It can result from arrogance – from people presuming too much about others, or about their ability to judge them.”

Soutphommasane also addressed the recent debates over section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, which makes it unlawful to do an act which is reasonably likely to “offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate” someone because of their race.

“It is my view that the Racial Discrimination Act should remain in its current form,” he said.

“Much of the debate concerns free speech – with advocates of repeal or amendment saying that section 18C restricts freedom of speech in covering acts that merely ‘offend’ or ‘insult’.

“However, this ignores how section 18C is concerned with acts that offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate because of someone’s race or ethnicity. There is a difference between someone insulting you or offending you because you support a certain football team and doing so because of your race.

“Racial offence and racial insult can strike at the heart of a person’s being and their dignity, the part of their identity that comes from their background and ancestry. Having a law that covers acts that offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate because of race is aimed at nipping racial hatred in the bud – at preventing it from escalating into acts that cause graver harm.

“As for free speech, no right or freedom is ever absolute. Where acts impinge upon the rights and freedoms of others, it’s right that we hold it to account, as we do with racial vilification.

“Given the broad protection of free speech in section 18D, we are entitled to ask: Why is that people want to make it acceptable to racially offend or racially insult others in ways that are not done reasonably or in good faith, in ways that have no genuine purpose in the public interest? Why is it that people want to have protection for causing gratuitous racial offence or engaging in racial insult? What is it that people want to say, which they can’t already say?”

He said we needed to listen to those who experience racism or bigotry.

“Already since the federal election, we’ve heard Chinese, Lebanese and Muslim communities express fears about a surge in prejudice and intolerance,” he said.

“I understand their fears. I remember the effect on our race relations when, 20 years ago, Ms Hanson said that Australia was being swamped by Asians – I remember what it felt like to be told that you and your family weren’t welcome. Today, it is Muslim Australians who may feel unwelcome.

“This is the cost of the politics of division.

“When politicians target particular groups with their rhetoric, it hurts our communities. It can affect what children experience in the schoolyard, and what their parents experience in the workplace.”

Soutphommasane said we must remember the vast majority of Australians were comfortable with multiculturalism.

“We shouldn’t overstate the small minority who have issues with it. Five per cent of people across the country may have voted for One Nation, but 95 per cent did not.

“Moreover, we must avoid the complacency of believing that there may be nothing more Australian than intolerance – to believe that copping racism is just part of some initiation rite for any immigrant group.”

He said it wasn’t good enough to say targets “must grin and bear it”.

“Some would say that just as the Irish, Italians, Greeks and Asians copped ugliness, so too will Muslims. That immigrants must show grit and forbearance, become part of the mainstream, and then be free to have a go at the next lot who arrive.

“While we may never eradicate racism and bigotry, it isn’t good enough to say their targets must grin and bear it, or that there’s nothing we can do. Doing so amounts to normalising racism, to suggesting that it should be tolerated.

“That’s to say nothing of the perverse suggestion that the greatest aspiration for immigrants should be the power of ‘having a go at the next lot’.

“Most of those who have experienced racism don’t endure it thinking about they will one day get their own back by dishing it out themselves. That’s not how racism works.

“It’s no accident that it is our multicultural communities – the Jewish, the Chinese, the Arab, the Greek, among many others – who are most prominent in fighting racism.”

Wendy Williams  |  Editor  |  @WendyAnWilliams

Wendy Williams is a journalist specialising in the not-for-profit sector and broader social economy. She has been the editor of Pro Bono News since 2018.

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