Interesting discussions on freedom and its limits have been circulating in the media and have even found their way into our church pulpit. We have been listening to a series of sermons on 1 Corinthians which had a lot to say about our freedom and how we ought to exercise this.
The media’s interest emanated from the government’s initiative to amend a law which prohibits a person from publicly saying anything which would likely offend someone or a group of people. On the surface this looks like good law. Peeled away, this becomes a policy issue which in turn becomes a philosophical one.
In the context of Australian society, I believe it is not good law. Australians are by and large, sensible and reasonable people who are (again generally) decent and fair. Also, they cherish freedom – freedom to say what they think. A fair and decent community, who is sensible and reasonable, would very quickly articulate countervailing views and arguments against any proponents of ills such as racism and bigotry. Freedom to say something which may be offensive will very quickly be met with disapproval by such a community. It will lose credibility and before long, currency. Someone would soon say “Oh, shut up” and everyone would approve and support. The racist and bigot would be left in no doubt the community rejects his or her views and such views would certainly not be acted on.
It is also not good law because there is no generally discernible way of ascertaining what is reasonable. The law in question criminalise an act which is reasonably likely to cause offence, humiliate etc. In a free society however – especially one which encourages diversity – what is that reasonableness? Malaysians find it acceptable to ask someone how much he/she earns or what he/she weighs. That would certainly offend and humiliate for another group of people, such as most of the Anglo Saxon community. When no standards exist, the court makes one up and this is usually the view of the presiding judge. So a single person, as opposed to the community at large, gets to determine if what is said publicly is acceptable or is offensive and so may not be said.
Are there groups which require protection from offensive opinions publicly aired? Maybe. Minority ethnic groups or special interest groups can be subject to unfair or inappropriate comments or remarks which amount to ridicule or vilification. But as before, a community which is fair and decent would soon perform that role and makers of such comments or remarks will no doubt find out very soon, that their views form a very small minority and are not well regarded. But they should be free to air their views – who knows, there might be some aspects of what they say – perhaps regarding how the behaviour of minority or ethnic groups need to be altered in the context of their new home – which may resonate and be acceptable to the community? The freedom to express a view is basic. That view may be totally wrong, may be reprehensible even vile, or may resonate well. That’s all for step 2. Step 1 – the freedom to express, should stand. Especially in an open, generally fair, educated and articulate community such as Australia.