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Sticks and Stones: The Language of Racism and Section 18(c)

When I first came to this country, it was still considered the height of comedy to pull at the corners of one’s eyes and yell, “Ching ching chong!” at Asian looking people in the street. In my early primary school years I remember having one single, solitary friend. I think his name was Paul, and it was his habit of unscheduled, location-independent defecation that placed him on the same social footing as myself. For the rest, I remember those years as one long, unhappy, hate-filled series of fist fights. It was here that I was first taught that stand-by of the persecuted, the aphorism: “sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me,” which was presumably meant to make everything better. It didn’t. Fights and screaming matches over my race coloured my life well into adulthood.

Now, I don’t want you to run away with the idea that I’m playing some kind of tiny violin for myself. My experience of Australia has been overwhelmingly positive and, when all is said and done, it’s my country and I’m proud and happy to be a part of it. No, the reason I mention these things is to establish my authority as someone who understands, first hand, what the language of bigotry does to people, and how much better it is to live without it. Experiences like this twist a person. I now, for example, cannot enjoy the rich vein of comedy that is afforded by the existence of Chinese people. The front of my brain knows that when Alan Davies does his Charlie Chan accent, or when somebody makes a joke about Chinese philosophers and egg foo-yung, that there really is no malicious intention. But my hindbrain doesn’t. Years of mockery and abuse have created a sort of Pavlovian reflex of hatred. I understand full well that this is my problem and nobody else’s, but I think various random people along the way have helped me to develop it.

We also shouldn’t run away with the idea that I’m one of these racialist activists who think that we should edit English language and thought in order to render it impossible for any minority group of any kind to ever be offended in any way whatsoever. I see these efforts for the steaming piles of faeces that they actually are. No normal person should give a flying toss about the number of times the dreaded ‘n’ word appears in Huckleberry Finn, or take personally anything Rudyard Kipling has to say about any race whatsoever (especially white people) – it’s just important that people are not subject to abuse.

Which leads me to the time when all this nonsense suddenly ceased, as if somebody had found the racism tap and decided to turn it off. I wasn’t to know then, but this sudden and dramatic improvement in my circumstances roughly coincided with the introduction of section 18(c) of the Racial Discrimination Act, which made it illegal to “…offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person or a group of people; …[when]… the act is done because of the race, colour or national or ethnic origin of the other person or of some or all of the people in the group.” Political correctness gone mad, if you like, or possibly a dangerous attack on free speech. Sure, why not. But the net result of this legislation, from my ant’s eye view, is that the children of my generation of immigrants are perceptibly lacking in the kind of hate that lives deep down inside me. Asian immigrants, that is. The Muslim newcomers, unfortunately, are all over it.

I think the drafters of this little bit of legislation understood what the language of racism actually does to people. They understood that it’s not about the intent of the speaker, and that it’s not just a question of simply growing a thicker skin and shaking it off. Allowing this kind of bigotry creates a regenerative cycle of hatred and exclusion, one that is ultimately toxic to society and to individuals, and that can legally be defined as actual harm. Sure, when we look at it objectively, and without reference to the tiny minority of Australians who don’t happen to be white, 18(c) can appear to be an unwarrantable attack on our right to be obnoxious and offensive to anybody we choose, but I don’t really believe it is. As George Brandis says, everybody has the right to be a bigot, but do we or should we have the right to inflict that bigotry on others? I don’t know. But what I do know is that subjecting people to bigotry has a deep and lasting impact – one that often leads to violence.

So really, that old aphorism needs to be edited. I propose: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names are where it starts.”

Category: Politics

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