It’s not always easy to identify heroes in our ongoing quest for freedom and equality. The roster of automatic name checks includes Mahatma Ghandi, Rosa Parks, and Nelson Mandela. But who will be the first hallowed name in the 21st century? Move over, Aung San Suu Kyi! Take a hike, Malala Yousafzai! Make room for Australia’s Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson.
It can’t be easy to take on the role of Human Rights Commissioner. Given the demonstrable ongoing discrimination against women, homosexuals, cisgender people, people with disabilities, and all the various non-white races—you really have to choose your battles wisely. And Tim Wilson’s current battle is to ensure that people can once again use racially-charged language.
The current debate centres upon section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, now so notorious and controversial, it’s only days away from getting a drive-time slot on Austereo. This was the section that saw Andrew Bolt convicted of breaching the Racial Discrimination Act back in 2011 for suggesting that “fair-skinned” Aboriginal people were exploiting their heritage for political gain. Now, you may think it’s strange, with racism such a constant and institutional problem, that the government is leaping to the defence of Bolt’s hurt feelings, but that’s probably just because you’re racist.
This past week, Wilson fanned the flames in an interview with Fairfax:
Racial discrimination laws have led to the “bizarre” situation in which members of a community can use racially loaded language against each others while outsiders can’t, Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson has said.
Asked if he was referring to the word “nigger”, Mr Wilson said: “I won’t say it, but that’s right.”
To be clear, it was legal for Wilson to use the word in a descriptive sense. Even under the current laws, context allows for this sort of acknowledgement, which is why Fairfax isn’t being thrown in front of a court for the above mention. But Wilson clearly has his antenna up: it’s an horrendous word, and he clearly doesn’t want to use it. This, under normal circumstances, would be fair enough, but given he’s fighting to change the laws so that it’s legal to use it in the context of racial abuse, he could at least summon the courage to use it in the descriptive sense. The fact that he doesn’t basically underlines what a tremendously stupid battle this is.
But let’s give Wilson the benefit of the doubt. Let’s assume he’s approaching this argument from the point of view that all people and viewpoints words should be legal, and not from the point of view that the primary goal of the current administration is to thumb their noses at Labor whilst wanking off News Ltd.
Let’s assume Wilson is, true to his word, trying to create a level playing field in which there is no legal difference between the races, and consequently no difference between racial insults. In this utopia, “nigger” is the same as “cracker”.
The example of “cracker” that I used and the example of “nigger” that Wilson didn’t use but employed a series of complicated charades to get reporter Bianca Hall to use before winking his approval, are traditionally American terms. This is appropriate, because it feels as if Wilson is taking his inspiration from Thomas Jefferson’s “all men are created equal” decree from the US Declaration of Independence.
Wilson, like many modern conservatives, appears to approach equality as a baseline starting point. From a purely theoretical point of view, this is not unreasonable, but it really only works if you assume that we all exist in a vacuum. In the real world, this concept thoroughly collapses.
It relies on the idea that every time we reach an ideal, society hits a magical reset button, in which all previous acts of racial disadvantage are ignored. It would be like racing against Lance Armstrong and, after watching him inject a bunch of steroids as his cronies beat you about the legs with lead pipes, he meets you at the starting line and says “All right, starting now we’re equal, aaaaand go!”
If it sounds trite explaining the basic concept of racial inequality, then you should know it fucking feels trite to have to do so.
The political position that inevitably stems from Jefferson’s “all men are created equal” is fooled by the word “created”, forcing it to think that it’s our port of origin. It’s not. It is a goal we are striving for. And the way you know that is that the quote only recognises men. So yeah, this thing is pretty fluid.
On Monday night’s edition of Q&A, Wilson said that the idea that “racism can purely be solved by law” is naïve, but I’m not sure there’s anyone who actually believes such a thing; Wilson’s pointing to a strawman and asking for the right to call him thatch-head (if you don’t know any actual strawmen, that’s basically their worst insult). Nobody believes the law is the only step, but it is an important one. The idea that repealing such a law will either contribute to or fail to impede real progress in this area is what’s naïve.
Wilson’s arguments that, “deference should be towards freer speech” is a legitimate one when discussing freedoms, and, despite my best efforts here, making him out to be an ignorant ideologue is wrong. The concern here is that in the midst of real, tangible problems of racism—the ongoing issue of asylum seekers, the sporadically-reported problems facing indigenous communities, the racially-charged attacks on immigrants—the government should be focusing so strongly on regaining the right to call them names.
“Hero” is probably too strong a word. Let’s just call him an h-word.
Follow Lee on Twitter: @leezachariah