Repealing 18C would leave Jews exposed as Muslims already are

Liberal senator Cory Bernardi has argued for Australia’s racial discrimination laws to be revisited in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in France. AAP/Alan Porritt

Let’s be clear about one thing as the loony right once more revisits with slavering lips their thwarted desire to allow racial vilification to run untrammelled through Australian society. Nothing that French magazine Charlie Hebdo did or said about Muslims or Christians – but probably almost everything it said about Jews – would have been a tripwire for using Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act if it had been published in Australia.

As such, it is appallingly symbolic that the murderers in Paris chose to tie together anarchic cartoonists and Jewish shoppers. This was done through the murderers laying claim to a particularly bloody set of retributions against the two great enemies of Wahhabist Islam – those who laugh at Muhammad and those who hold Jerusalem.

It is hard to get into the heads of the Cory Bernardis and Michael Sextons of this world, let alone Andrew Bolt and his packs of teeth-gnashing followers: the Racial Discrimination Act does not cover religion. Never has, and clearly is very unlikely to in the future.

So when the Muslim community marched through Lakemba calling for the retention of Section 18C, they did so as Australians standing in solidarity with their Jewish and Chinese and Indigenous and “white” fellow citizens. Not for themselves, because as Muslims – as they well knew – they were fair game for every Islamophobe out there to say and write whatever they wished, but for their friends.

Now if they were to be reviled as Arabs, or as Bosnians, or Sudanese, or French, then they could seek the protections of 18C. But not as Muslims. The Christian priests marching with them were also “outside the law”. However, the Jews who also marched were inside the law, and it is a curiosity of the Racial Discrimination Act that Jews are classed as a racial group.

While we might expect Bernardi, an outspoken Liberal senator, to take the opportunity of Jewish and anarcho-republican deaths to make a play for the advancement of his right-wing Christian worldview, Sexton’s argument is altogether something different. Sexton is a senior counsel, a solicitor-general for NSW under various political regimes, and an expert on defamation. He has also been a major advocate for the repeal of Section 18C, and has renewed that call under the headline in The Australian:

Those who say they are Charlie should support changes to 18C.

This is a nonsensical argument for three very important reasons. First, if the headline had said “Je suis charlie et je suis un juif francais” (my name is Charlie and I am a French jew) as many in Paris but none in The Australian have declared, then the argument would have been more interesting than just essentially an anti-Muslim diatribe.

Second, exactly because the Racial Discrimination Act is silent on religion, destroying Section 18C would do nothing one way or another to limit Islamist aggression. However, it would enhance Islamaphobe hysteria. Sexton’s use of this argument can only be self-serving and directed at another end altogether: an opening up of a free run against Jews and Aboriginal people, with a variety of others thrown in.

Third, abandoning Section 18C now would encourage and authorise bigotry and race hatred. It would amplify the already widespread demonisation of Muslims. It could drive even more rapidly and in greater numbers those who are most vulnerable to the entreaties into the arms of either Islamic State (IS) or al-Qaeda, whichever of the competing global “brands” dreams up the next most bloodthirsty and dramatic media moment.

It will also raise the overall tide-mark of acceptable racism to a level of histrionic activity that even Sexton and Bernardi might come to regret.

As we know from previous research, both academic and commercial, most Australians want a balance. They quite like a society where people are civil. They don’t like it when people get viciously racist, nor do they want a society that makes it illegal to express prejudices in a civil way.

So, Australia has a law that makes it unlawful to do certain things. The onus is on the affronted person to protest (surely a key right in freedom of speech) and there is a responsibility of those uttering the offence to justify their words if they are vicious enough – surely an acceptable part of civil debate. Most complaints under Section 18C are reconciled and everyone moves on. A few are not reconciled – usually those attacking Indigenous people and Jews.

We also have a right to political freedom of speech and we love robust wordplay. The law is there to give a space to debate the bounds of decency and the reach of rights to freedom of speech. A society with such laws is remarkably, diametrically different from anything that IS or al-Qaeda would permit. I think that is worth fighting for.