Anything more than a hashtag?

By Sami Joshi, Arts/Law II

The recent Paris terror attacks have compelled Australians to re-examine contentious aspects of our society: the extent to which freedom of expression amounted to freedom to insult and the deeply intertwined nature of race and religion. Leading figures such as human rights commissioner Tim Wilson and Attorney-General George Brandis have attempted to capitalise on the mindset of the masses by trying to revisit section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, hoping that the Parisian indignation of millions could be transferred across the oceans to Australia, and that, maybe Sydney or Melbourne would wake up and suddenly agree with their ill-informed sentiments. Sorry to inform you Mr Brandis, ‘Je Suis Charlie’ is nothing more than a hashtag in Australia. 

Brandis justified his attitude by stating that the possibility that one ‘shouldn’t have freedom of speech to discuss controversial issues because we’re going to insult or offend… stifle our freedoms’. Yet the distinctions between French and Australian culture must be highlighted, with it being obvious that France has a complex history of discussing contentious issues – unlike Australia. From Voltaire’s 1759 satirical novella ‘Candide, ou l'Optimisme’ to Charlie Hebdo’s more successful modern rival Le Canard enchaine, the French are passionate in using pen and paper to humorously criticise, exaggerate and ridicule everyone from Marie Antoinette to former Prime Minister Jacques Chirac. France’s strict secularisation therefore permits these satirical newspapers to mock religion, with it seen to be within the bounds of derision. 

Yet the ethno-religious nature of many minorities sees French cartoonists reiterate racist stereotypes, with hook-nosed Jews and slant-eyed Asians being represented by cartoons that are often read by hundreds of thousands of French. Satire of the political and royal elite often causes the population to rethink their attitudes towards those in power. While Vox magazine’s Max Fisher points out Charlie’s two-layer satire which actually often criticises the racist viewpoint of the conservatives, it requires a deep understanding of French politics and culture – an understanding that the average citizen may not have. Therefore Charlie Hebdo continually inflamed these tensions with its depictions of Prophet Mohammed with his white turban and scraggly beard, fully aware of Islam’s aniconism. Yet while the mainstream media has focussed on the Muslim hostility towards the provocative magazine, it should be noted the magazine was offensive to all groups on the spectrum – from Catholics, to Jews, to feminists, to everyone in between. In 2011 it was noted that while Islamic organisations had only sued the paper once, the Catholic Church has launched thirteen cases against it, and in 2009 the paper fired a journalist for anti-Semitism. These continual denunciations by religious organisations highlights that while the magazine may have been accepted as apart of France’s rich cultural framework, it did nothing more than aggravate existing religious hostility. 

This confirms that the re-examination into Australia’s free speech laws would be futile. Certain individuals (*cough* Andrew Bolt *cough*) have attempted to take advantage of the new wave of rhetoric that demands that citizens have the ‘right to free speech’. However that has never and will never be an absolute right. The much discussed Section 18C of the act prohibits ‘any public act reasonably likely to offend… another person or group, because of their race, colour or national or ethnic origin’. Religion is notably not mentioned – thus the images of Charlie Hebdo’s Prophet Mohammed could not be the subject of a complaint under those laws. It would definitely trigger calls to sue under the law, however would likely be protected under Section 18D of the Act. Those calling for a dumping of 18C overlook its successor, 18D that allows certain exemptions – such as artistic works, statements made in genuine academic, artistic or scientific purposes and fair or accurate reports of matters of public interest. The magazine could have justified their cartoons as ‘artistic works’ and thus been exempt from the so-called oppressive race laws. Thus an abolishment of the 18C laws would serve no purpose other than to intimidate, humiliate and vilify minorities. 

It is not difficult for these privileged Sydney Grammar-esque white boys, who have likely never been discriminated in their life to openly condemn laws that somehow ‘stifle their freedoms’. What is difficult for them is to empathise with the people who would likely be affected by these laws – a Jew who is now forced to listen to Holocaust denial, an Arab who is restricted by a terrorist stereotype, an African who is made to feel a foreigner in the land he was born in. Open, productive discussion on religion (and the criticism of it) is necessary for a functioning, intelligent and tolerant society. The offensive depiction of a revered Prophet on the front page of magazine is not the way to do that. 

Je suis pour une société tolérante civile. 

I am for a civil, tolerant society.