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Jackboots in cyberspace

By Alan Gold - posted Wednesday, 29 May 2002

There's an old and comforting saying that 'sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me'.

When I was at school in England, being taunted for being the only Jew in a class of middle-class British kids, let me assure you that words certainly did hurt me. Indeed, those words of antipathy and religious intolerance from the mouths of children who couldn't possibly have understood their significance have proven to be my greatest motivation in working to prevent others from suffering the same fate.

Thanks to racial vilification laws, which exist in this country, the words that can be used in public these days tend to be far more muted. However, the subtext and context of racially motivated communications, be they person-to-person or in the media, are becoming increasingly subtle to stay within the bounds of legislation, yet they are just as damaging.


We read of carloads of youths of 'middle-eastern appearance'; we read of 'Asian gangs'; we read of 'Jewish businessmen'; listen on radio to pundits of intolerance who whip up communal anger at best, hatred at worst. They see no wrong in what they're doing. They believe that they have the right of free speech on their side, and tilt at the windmill of political correctness.

Journalists who report that an Asian was accused of shoplifting, or a Lebanese youth was before the courts for drug crimes, don't seem to have any comprehension of the slander or hurt they are engendering against the entire community by gratuitously identifying the individual's race or religion when it often has no bearing on the case.

But there's another side to this coin. One that is just as damaging to minority communities. It might please the Aboriginal community for such champions as Cathy Freeman to be identified as an Aboriginal athlete, but is Shane Warne ever identified as a white Anglo Australian? We will all be on much safer ground when we think of Cathy as a gold medal Olympian and Shane as a great Australian bowler.

The unwarranted identification of a racial or religious characteristic in speech perpetuates the gulfs which are growing between the cultures of our multicultural society. I'm not, of course, proposing the abolition of identifiers where they are significant. If the religion, race, ethnicity or persuasion of an individual is essential to the narrative, then by all means use it…but if nothing turns on it, then better to leave it out.

Some years ago, feminists around the world changed our thoughts by forcing us to change our language. Now that racial vilification is so prevalent and finding new media for propagation, I believe that the time is right for a fresh look at the international standards we apply for racial, religious, ethnic and other aspects of identification.

There is a frightening growth in intolerance towards refugees, migrants, and minority ethnic communities, not just here in Australia but throughout the world. Racial intolerance and vilification is unquestionably on the rise. Now is the time to work towards a new language, new protocols, and new standards for all media, in all countries.


Of course, the biggest problem which faces this sort of anti-vilification challenge is the concept of freedom of speech. How often have we heard that we must have fewer restrictions on what we can say and do, and all in the name of freedom of speech?

While the opponents of racial vilification legislation talk about the rights of the majority to say what they like, they always seem to forget that it's the often-powerless minority that bears the brunt of the abuses that this very freedom enables.

And if you'll forgive me, I'd like to quote Kierkegaard, who said that people demand freedom of speech to make up for the freedom of thought, which they avoid. This is all becoming increasingly urgent because today we have a medium which has become so powerful for spreading vilification and hatred, that a whole new set of international laws and standards needs to be written to protect those in our society who are powerless.

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This is an edited version of a speech given to the "Beyond Racism" National Conference on Racism, held at the Sydney Opera House on 12 & 13 March 2002. The entire transcript can be found here.

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About the Author

Alan Gold is President of the Anti-Defamation Unit of B'nai B'rith. He has written 10 books and was the Year 2000 Human Rights Orator. He is also a member of the Sydney Institute, on the Board of Directors of Varuna Writers' Centre and an internationally published novelist.

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Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission
Sydney Institute
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