Oz Blog News Commentary

Tim Wilson and freedom of expression

April 23, 2014 - 09:56 -- Admin

So this brown-skinned Muslim disabled single mother goes to a lecture by a libertarian socially conservative human rights commissioner… It sounds like a joke told by an Andrew Bolt fan after a long night at the pub.

“What’s my punch-line?” I wrote on my facebook page as I waited for Tim Wilson to appear for his in-conversation with Sally Warhaft at the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne.

“Left hook,” a friend responded, before correcting herself. “Oh. You said punch-line. I just saw Tim Wilson and punch. My bad.”

Of course, I didn’t punch Tim Wilson. So far as I know, no reputable religious authority issued a fatwa with Wilson as its target, or is likely to do so. Just because I’m Muslim and strongly disagree with him doesn’t mean I’m going to respond with violence (or, by the way, that my friend’s remark was anything but a joke).

And anyway, he’d only have taken it as encouragement. After all, according to Wilson the collective vomit (not his description) that greeted his appointment “validated what the government is trying to achieve”. It put human rights on the front page, and surely that’s a good thing?

Only if you believe that any publicity is good publicity. Even Wilson conceded that Attorney General George Brandis – with whom he shares “a deep philosophical commitment to human rights” – had “set the wrong tone” with his assertion that “people have the right to be bigots”.

But asked whether the repeal Section 18C of the racial discrimination act – the section which makes it unlawful to commit an act which is reasonably likely to “offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate” someone because of their race or ethnicity – was the right issue for the government to address at this stage of its term, Wilson said “I don’t think it’s the wrong issue.” And he denied that the move to repeal 18C is a sop to Andrew Bolt.

No surprise – Wilson was a fellow at the Institute for Public Affairs, which has campaigned for the repeal of 18C since before Abbott took office. And Wilson himself believes that free speech is one of the most fundamental of human rights (up there with property rights, which he mentioned several time), only to be constrained when it infringed on other rights, such as by inciting violence.

But speech that offends, insults, and humiliates (never mind intimidates) creates an atmosphere in which violence against the targets of hate-speech is seen as an acceptable course of action, even when the hate-speech itself did not directly call for it. And even when no physical violence takes place, the environment created by such speech constrains the lives of its targets in real and concrete forms.

I put this to Wilson during the discussion period, prefacing my remark by noting that as a brown-skinned etc I had been torn between asking a question and expressing my right to freedom of expression by flashing my arse at him. (This was a practical as well as a philosophical decision, by the way. Having broken a vertabrae in a fall last year, I would have required assistance to moon Wilson, and somehow that doesn’t quite seem as spontaneous.)

Wilson waved his hand in a “go ahead” gesture, so (arse safely glued to chair) I told him that the hostile atmosphere fostered by racist speech hampered its targets’ ability to access public space and to participate in education and the workforce. How, then, have their rights not been violated?

Wilson responded that it’s all about where you draw the line, which is the type of meaningless non-answer that he is of course entitled to provide in a society that values freedom of speech.

Whether it’s a satisfactory answer from a human rights commissioner is another question.