The Slightly Disgruntled Scientist

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The Case Against Bolt is Not Against Free Speech

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As far as I’m concerned, Andrew Bolt being sued for deliberately humiliating a bunch of not-black-enough-to-complain people is far from an attack on free speech.

It all started with Bolt, an inflammatory columnist, penning a column about how certain “career Aborigines” were not dark enough for his liking. He published images of individuals and complained about their taking advantage of a system that is in place to reduce institutional discrimination. His words were ignorant, hurtful and racist. He targeted specific people, got their details wrong anyway, and is now being sued under Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act.

This case is now being depicted as a threat to free speech, the basic argument being that “well, we might not like what Andrew Bolt is saying, but he should have a right to say it.”

Bollocks.

We already concede a degree of freedom of speech to allow for legal action against defamation (slander and libel). We seem to take this for granted, and gloss over it when we debate the protection of speech, but the moral principle behind it — and the reason we sacrifice free speech for it — is actually a bit hazy. My argument is emphatically not that because we already compromise freedom of speech a bit, we should go further for spiels like Bolt’s. My argument is actually that the same moral principles that say defamation should not be protected also imply that what Bolt said should not be protected either.

In an ideal world, our speech freedom would not need to be sullied by defamation laws. A person lying about another person to compromise their opportunities could simply be countered by the victim publishing a fact-based rebuttal in an equivalent medium. The liar would be exposed, the publication would lose some integrity, the victim becomes vindicated, end of story, no laws required. But we all know that’s not how it really works, so we agree that:

  • It’s generally wrong to lie
  • It’s unfair to compromise the opportunities available to someone by being blatantly dishonest

Bolt broke both of the above rules. His entire thesis is predicated on the idea that discrimination against indigenous Australians occurs purely because of skin colour, or indeed that the entire experience of marginalisation is predicated on skin colour. He concludes that these people therefore did not experience it enough to justify receiving any benefits. This premise is factually incorrect — while not in the same easy-to-disprove way that claiming I’m a Cylon™ would be, it is still verifiably false.

But was his aim to restrict his targets' opportunities?

Bolt specifically complained about the opportunities that a group of people had access to. It would be absurd to think that he wanted to complain about it to no effect — in every other topic he writes about, he clearly wants to change the thing he’s complaining about. When he rants about the politics of climate change, the act of writing and publishing is, in and of itself, a clear effort to change the end result. Why is this any different?

In one case, Bolt out-and-out lied about a person’s heritage and ethnicity in order to make them seem like they were less qualified to act in certain roles. You can’t un-publish that. It’s out there, and no correction will ever catch up with it, and that person had better hope no-one reads it who will ever be interviewing them for a job.

So how can you interpret his writings as anything other than an attempt to compromise the opportunities available to the group of people he targeted in his article — and targeted on the basis of their ethnicity and the colour of their skin?

Now, it’s easy to say that, unlike defamation, humiliation will not compromise a person’s opportunities. And to that I have two words to say: David Campbell.

Humiliation is a brilliant political tactic to completely ruin someone’s credibility and ability to succeed, without even needing facts to check. All you need is a whole heap of privilege and some weasel words.

The difference is that defamation affects one person. Humiliation based specifically on sexuality, gender, ethnicity, or any other class of institutional marginalisation affects (a) the person targeted, and (b) any other member of such a group. Gay people still have to choose between publicly disclosing incredibly private information up front, or not running for any kind of publicly scrutinised office. Indigenous Australians now have to consider just whether their skin is dark enough to go for, say, an Aboriginal liason position, or risk being targeted by the likes of Bolt (who implicitly undermines the legitimacy of such positions, with the consequence of further marginalisation of a whole group of people).

I consider this to be orthogonal to racial discrimination — or, more to the point, a larger issue that intersects with it — so maybe it should disappear from the RD act and appear as a separate law in its own right. And I wouldn’t miss the “offensive, insulting, etc” part of the law. But I believe that deliberate attempts to humiliate a person like this, in a way that is designed to further marginalise an entire group of people, should be something a person could see themselves in court for — just as they would for defamation, or for turning a person away from a job because of the colour of their skin.

Note: This originally took form as a series of comments on Dave C’s article on the subject.

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