Hate speech: bigotry is never better left unsaid

Over the past week, public debate in Australia has centred on the alterations being made to Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, which bans any action (including speech) that causes offence, insult, humiliation or intimidation on the basis of race. The changes, proposed by attorney general George Brandis, will soften these laws so they simply prohibit actions that ‘intimidate’ or ‘incite hatred’.

Much of the criticism of the changes has centred on that fact that, as Brandis said himself, ‘people have a right to be bigots’. This statement has led many commentators to argue that a wave of racial hatred and bigotry will sweep the country if the law is changed.

Apparently, thousands of racist, hateful Australians are only being kept in line by Section 18C; any weakening of it and neo-Nazis and White Australia advocates will suddenly emerge and start spewing their reprehensible views.

Ignoring the fact that those with bigoted views are a very small minority in Australia, existing on the fringes of political debate, what many right-on pundits seem to miss is the fact that free speech is not something that exists purely to promote backwards views.

According to one commentator, ‘those who continuously spew hateful and misleading vitriol are the very individuals who continue to thrive from the protection that free speech offers’. Apparently, free speech is not a cornerstone of liberal democracy, but a tool used by wrong-thinking citizens to poison the minds of others.

This attitude ignores the fact that free speech means the freedom to argue and point out the ample flaws in bigoted or racist worldviews. Free speech does not offer protection for disgraceful opinions; it offers an opportunity to expose them for what they are.

Charlie Pearson is a graduate of the University of Queensland and is currently interning at spiked.

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