I recently saw a Panel discussion on Offence at the Sydney Writers Festival. It was very competently and inclusively run by Mr Peter Fitzsimmons. I am always overwhelmingly impressed by one panelist, Mr Michael Leunig, whose cartoons are so thought provoking. At Christmas time I enjoyed reading the very interesting non offensive F OFF by Mr Richard King, another panellist. (I was glad that I was given the book and looked at the cover not just bought it as an ebook or I may have missed that humorous offence). It is fair to say I do not easily take offence, but then, apart from my gender, for which I no longer make apologies, I am not a member of a group routinely exposed to offensive remarks. It became clear, as I heard him in person and forgivingly warmed to him, that Mr Tim Wilson, our Human Rights Commissioner, also on the panel, has no realisation at all how significant it is for his understanding of this issue, that his own wonderful capacity with language and his ability to argue so cogently automatically has put him into a position of privilege.
My own view until recently has been much as the one Mr Neil James presented so well at this event. I thought for many years that with education and involved discussion and positive, all-embracing family and societal influences, discrimination would eventually be eliminated. I deludedly thought Australia was in fact improving in its ability to accept differences especially when the “white Australia policy” fizzled to its long overdue end. Alas none of it has been as successful as I imagined it would be. I was distressed recently when the entire group of my elderly, usually kind, female exercise class unanimously supported one of the woman in her loud complaints about being surrounded by people “gibbering”in their “Muslim language”. I politely pointed out that, as with Christianity, there is no special Islamic language as it is a religion widespread throughout many different countries with different language bases. The response was a firm, “but our Bible is English”.
Oh for a better more inclusive education in Australia was my thought as I dropped the subject in despair!!
But worse, this last Sunday 18th May 2014, I came upon this little ditty in an Album, circa 1900. The album, almost an autograph book, owned by a gentleman long since gone, had messages and rhymes inscribed on each page by friends in the gracious educated penmanship of the time. It sat amid many sentimental messages such as “roses are red.”
“God made the little niggers.
He made them in the night.
He made them in a hurry
And forgot to paint them white.”
Sadly, much laughter ensued as I read it out.
These examples just indicate how pervasively much alleged humour or comment, even of a non threatening kind and meant to be amusing, not specifically intended to be derogatory, can influence the views of generations. If the average person here is still brought up in a “knife and fork” family as Mr Leunig described the language patterns of an average family of the past, how can he or she cope wisely with the plethora of cutlery that are the IT outlets now, when all is shrouded in this “we are holier than thou” misinformation, the mindset that can be seen in all areas of Australian life? And how can what a reasonable member of such a society views as a discriminatory offence, possibly then be used as a legal standard?
Education is not enough. Our legislation, supposed to give leadership as well as being a last resort, has not been enough and it is about to get even less effective.
Whilst so ever this is the case, as was agreed by the panel, we personally have a duty to call discrimination every time we see or hear it in any form, and humour can be no defence.
It is to be hoped that the future may be better in the hands of some of the lovely young people there that afternoon.
I will end on a more positive note with a picture of my sweet, brand new granddaughter with her two grandmothers; one a sixth generation Australian, outspoken feminist and atheist, the other a gracious, intelligent, gentle woman who is a devout Muslim.
Perhaps I can just tell myself and an equally despairing Mr Leunig “We can all love together”.