May 2014

The Nation Reviewed

Who is the ordinary reasonable person?

By Alice Pung
The trouble with repealing section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act

Senator the Hon George Brandis QC
Attorney-General, Minister for the Arts
Parliament House, Canberra

 

Dear Senator Brandis,

According to your proposed amendments to the Racial Discrimination Act 1975, the standards of “ordinary reasonable members of the Australian community” will determine whether or not something is “reasonably likely to vilify” a particular race, colour, nationality or ethnicity. If I may, please let me introduce you to three candidates for your cohort of “ordinary reasonable members of the Australian community”.

It is just after midday in the back room of an electrical appliance store, and these men are having lunch. They are retail veterans, having done the same job for at least two decades: the guy from the warehouse who has hands like leather gloves and can dismantle a fridge box in a few minutes, the fast-talking guy from the shop floor who’s planning his once-in-a-lifetime holiday to Europe, and the manager who likes to put heartfelt homages to Steve Irwin in his shop ads. But business isn’t so good these days. The store is in one of the most archaic and faltering of commercial places, a shopping strip. Down the same street are a Mediterranean restaurant, an African hairdresser, a Vietnamese chemist. Around the corner there used to be an adult video store next door to a halal butcher and an optometrist.

The manager and the warehouse man lean over the salesman, who is holding an open newspaper. Reading this particular paper is a sign of cultural belonging and a protection against the hostile world outside. “Look at this,” the salesman says, referring to the sentiments expressed on their favourite columnist’s page. “The government says no to racism, but yes to free speech.”

The manager knows all about this freedom of speech. In his previous life, some soldiers once caught him speaking his own language to another man. The two men were made to kneel down and stick out their tongues, while the soldiers – young boys, really – wielded sickles to inflict a medieval punishment. The men begged their way out, but the manager will never forget such terrorism. Luckily, that kind of thing doesn’t happen in this country. They’ve all come here for safety.

In his younger days, the warehouse man once saw a truck that was loaded with starved bodies on their way to burial. “Some of their limbs were still moving!” he said, shaking his head. They vote for the party that will give each man and his family a sense of security.

The proposed amendments to the Racial Discrimination Act say that whether something racially vilifies or intimidates will not be determined “by the standards of any particular group within the Australian community”. This neighbourhood is a place where “no particular group” resides, so maybe these lunchroom guys are the “ordinary reasonable members of the Australian community” on whose views this judgement will be based. I certainly hope so, because one of them is my father.

The people in my father’s shop have come from places like the former Yugoslavia, the south of Italy, Vietnam, Cambodia and India, and they have escaped communism, socialism, ethnic cleansing, anti-Semitism, war and hunger. They see themselves as real men, not wusses with easily “hurt feelings”. They know that one day the talk will come back to them again. How they should not be in this country if they are ungrateful. How they should not be here if they continue to speak their own language, if they don’t assimilate.

These guys may have to look up the word “bigot” in a dictionary, yet they understand racism on a visceral level. In their sixth or seventh decade of life, they sigh and know nothing has changed about human nature or racism but at least laws in Australia protect them from getting killed or bashed.

“Australian newspapers are not like the ones back home,” Dad tells me. “They would never publish anything untrue.” These men know they’ll never be in the paper unless they do something dodgy, and that’s fine. Their hope is for their kids to be better educated and to have a voice.

My university studies and legal work taught me how to engage in reasoned debate, just as yours did, Senator Brandis. Yet I take no comfort in the fact that I may belong in your “reasonable member” group that determines standards, because the problem with my voice is this: I have never known what it is like to be denied housing or jobs because of my race, to be dragged away by soldiers in the middle of the night, to be forcibly separated from loved ones or have my land pilfered. If someone yells abuse at Salesman Charlie, Warehouse Jack or my dad, if someone clenches their fist at one of these guys because of their skin or language or food, these men think there will be a knock on the door, their houses will be burnt down, their tongues cut off, bodies carted away in trucks, accented sons bashed up in the street.

The sort of fear that exists in their minds might lead a more “reasonable” person to wonder: Why are you carrying on like Armageddon will come? Why can’t you form a decent coherent sentence? You can’t even let go of past grievances and move on, you behave irrationally, and for crying out loud, speak English on a bus!

Under the proposed amendments, these reactive, inarticulate, overly emotional “feeling” types will suddenly not be reasonable persons by any stretch of the law. Fear is not an abstract thing debated by politicians, Senator Brandis. These folks see fear where no one else does: in public transport inspectors even though you bought a train ticket, in realising you have too many soccer mates walking down the street at the same time because you’re all black, in always having a light on in the house even when you sleep.

If Dad and his mates stick up for one another when they feel vilified or intimidated, will they be regarded as “sticking up for their own”, considering that their neighbourhood is often written up in the media as an “ethnic” enclave?

While you were studying law and politics as a young man, Pol Pot’s bigotry directly led to the deaths of half our extended family in Cambodia. Imagine if you had been assigned the task of burying the bodies of your starved loved ones in a mass grave – as my dad had to do – and you might want to reconsider whether it is wise to give those with the loudest media voices the right and liberty to be “bigots”.

It is 12.40 and lunch is ending. “Of course we’re reasonable,” my father concludes, and the lunchroom supports him. These folk have more faith and trust in Australian democracy and the media than any flag-waving patriot. “Of course they’re going to judge it by the ordinary individual, and not the terrorist extremist or the sort that has their head stuck in books.”

Alice Pung

Alice Pung is a writer, lawyer and teacher. She is the author of Unpolished Gem, Her Father’s Daughter, Laurinda and Writers on Writers: Alice Pung on John Marsden.

May 2014

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