Andrew Bolt and free speech

Andrew Bolt - Freedom for Racism

Ellena Savage Eureka Street (edited - present tense) March 31, 2011

Melbourne Herald Sun columnist Andrew Bolt's appearance in the Federal Courts posed questions about eugenics, identity, race, free speech and welfare fraud.

The Nine Indigenous Australians have sued Bolt in a human rights file for breaching the Racial Vilification Act due to what they perceived as gratuitous insults based on race and skin colour that appeared in a number of columns published in 2009. They asserted that Bolt's statements claim the fair-skinned Aboriginal Australians 'chose' their identity in order to access 'serious perks and Aboriginal-only benefits', and personally attacked the nine individuals.

Some voices in the media have presented the case as a challenge to free speech in Australia — political correctness gone crazy. However, this case is not about silencing critiques of the construction of race or ethnicity, nor Bolt himself.

Those who fear a breach of freedom of expression in this case need fear only if they intend to engage in personalised attacks based on the racial or ethnic character of their opponents.

Where freedom of expression is enshrined, it cannot reasonably be absolute; moderation is necessary to protect individuals from defamation, violence, and undue vilification. If we believe in liberal expression, it is not our duty to advocate in favour of hate speech and misrepresentation, but rather to understand and critique the political motivations that form the policy which moderates it.

As a high school student, my introduction to liberty ran along simplistic lines: you can do anything, anything at all (an exciting proposition for an adolescent), so long as your doing so does not infringe on anybody else's right to do their 'anything'. So, not really anything (less exciting, more adult).

In a healthy society, liberty is moderated and directed by a sense of some greater good, whether that is social, moral, or legal. Absolute liberty is dystopic, best avoided. Freedom of expression follows similar lines: Bolt can say anything he chooses, so long as his words do not infringe on a person's moral right to enjoy integrity and a reputation that befits her.

While it's conceivable that a person could disingenuously tick the Indigenous or Torres Straight Islander box for some imagined privilege, the real-world benefit in doing so is so minuscule it barely warrants concern. Shrill accusations against the poor of welfare fraud are ubiquitous. Their reality is far less threatening than is the cost of tax evasion by Australia's wealthy.

One of the many problems with Bolt's claims against the plaintiffs is the subtext of his argument: that these people choose, enjoy, and exploit benefits they receive on the basis of their race without paying their dues (i.e. without suffering from racism).

Bolt accused artist Danie Mellor, a 'white university lecturer, with his nice Canberra studio' of pushing aside 'real draw-in-the-dirt Aboriginal artists', seeming to imply that since Mellor neither draws in the dirt nor lives in it, he therefore has no right to enter competitions for indigenous artists.

To Bolt's understanding, affirmative action, or the 'significant benefits' awarded to Indigenous Australia, is payoff for the inevitable disadvantage and racism they experience due to racial appearance. Discrimination they might endure, then, is balanced out by enjoying, he says, 'more rights' than anyone else.

It is apparently inconceivable to Bolt that Indigenous-specific grants and opportunities might constitute coy reparations for the irrevocable damage and impoverishment wrought by settlement and more than a century of systemically stolen children.

The nine plaintiffs, including the leader Pat Eatock, are native title activist Graham Atkinson, academic Wayne Atkinson, professor of law and Indigenous studies and Australian of the Year 2005 Larissa Behrendt, former ATSIC member Geoff Clark, artist Bindi Cole, public health worker Leeanne Enoch, author Anita Heiss, and lawyer and academic Mark Macmillan.

All are accomplished professionals whose racial backgrounds, if that is important, are mixed. All nine have dedicated their careers to significantly advancing Indigenous affairs in the public sphere.

If their racial identity has given them any advantage, it is the advantage of having feet firmly placed in two nations. If anything can be said to have benefited from their professional and cultural contributions, it the idea that Australia could recognise and meaningfully reconcile with its history.

Bolt was accused of gratuitously and intentionally insulting and humiliating the nine plaintiffs quite simply due the colour of their skin. Their case argued that a legal provision enshrining racial equity — in a nation whose awakening from racist and racialised policies is ongoing — has been transgressed. The outcome to this complex case carries a great weight.

Ellena Savage is a Melbourne writer and the immediate past editor of the Melbourne University student magazine, Farrago.

Comments

Thank you

This is the most logical, objective, and ethical opinion I have heard yet on the "bolt debate". It was intelligently presented, and did not enter into subjective, emototive arguments...

I loved the bit about the excitment we have as children abotu the prospect of doing anything, when in adulthood, we realise that that anything is next-to-nothing. That is gold.

Thank you. Loved reading this.

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