In the modern era, there has never been a time when the gap between giving offence and taking offence has been so great. These days, for good reason, it is increasingly unfashionable — and sometimes unlawful — to use abusive words to hurt people. However, the diminution of the deliberate insult has gone hand in hand with the tendency of individuals to believe that they have been insulted.
On Wednesday, The Australian Financial Review reported the latest missive from the Diversity Council of Australia. The ABC’s News Breakfast also was given this “exclusive” story along with an interview with DCA chair (not chairman) Lieutenant-General (retired) David Morrison AO.
Morrison’s message, which attracted attention in the media, turned on his proposal that the term “Hi guys” be junked when addressing a group of men and women. Permanently. The AFR reported the DCA chair as stating that people should be wary of “throwaway lines” such as starting emails with “Hi guys”. Apparently, this is a “masculine” expression, the use of which is allegedly likely to offend women. It was more of the same when Morrison was interviewed by Virginia Trioli on News Breakfast. Both admitted that, in the past, they frequently had used the term guys to refer to men and women. But both vowed to do so no more.
Trioli’s moment of truth occurred when she declared: “You’re right, it’s a problem because I’m not a guy.” To which Morrison responded that he had removed “Hi guys” from his lexicon, stating that it was important to do so. Morrison said: “These are little things but a lot of the research done by the Diversity Council has shown that these are almost like tap drips of exclusive language, you know, gender-based language or inappropriate language has as much a deleterious or disadvantaged effect as if you’re saying something blatantly inappropriate to another human being.”
This comment is profoundly superficial. According to the DCA chair, it is just as hurtful to refer to men and women as guys as it is to refer to a collection of migrants as, say, “wogs”. Moreover, Morrison seems unaware that language changes. Once the term guys referred to men. Now it is not gender specific. It’s much the same with the word gay.
Gilbert and Sullivan’s 1877 play The Sorcerer contains a song that includes the verse sung by Sir Marmaduke: “Eat, drink, and be gay / Banish all worry and sorrow / Laugh gaily today.” Likewise, the verse in the 1957 play West Side Story in which Maria sings: “I feel pretty / Oh, so pretty / I feel pretty, witty and gay / And I pity / Any girl who isn’t me today.” Obviously neither Marmaduke nor Maria were making statements about their sexual attractions.
Australia is a remarkably diverse nation. It should not be the role of the Diversity Council of Australia to constrict the use of language. If anything, the term guys in its contemporary usage is inclusive. Not exclusive.
Already in Australia, freedom of speech is being restricted to a disturbing extent under the provisions of the Racial Discrimination Act. This became evident in the case brought against Herald Sun columnist Andrew Bolt for articles he wrote about what the Federal Court termed “fair-skinned Aboriginal people”. The case involved section 18C of the act.
Judge Mordy Bromberg delivered his judgment in the case of Eatock v Bolt on September 28, 2011. It is a complicated judgment. But essentially Bromberg found that a number of “fair-skinned Aboriginal people” were “reasonably likely, in all the circumstances, to have been offended, insulted, humiliated or intimidated by the imputations conveyed” by Bolt’s columns. The court also found that Bolt’s columns were not protected by section 18D of the Racial Discrimination Act since they contained some factual errors.
What was disturbing about the decision turned on Bromberg’s findings about the columnist’s “tone”. In other words, the court made a judgment not so much about what Bolt really wrote but, rather, the tone of his comments. In her address to the Sydney Institute in November 2013, Australian Human Rights Commission president Gillian Triggs supported the decision. Asked about the free speech implications if a finding could be made against a person not for what they said but for the tone in which they said it, Triggs replied that Bromberg J had used the word “manner” not “tone”.
In fact, there are nine references to “tone” in the judgment — including one to Bolt’s “mocking and divisive tone”. In her recent interview with Ramona Koval, Triggs gratuitously asserted that “our parliamentarians are usually seriously ill-informed and uneducated … they need to be better educated”. Yet the HRC president was ill-informed about the key case of Eatock v Bolt. Imagine Triggs’s reaction if someone had referred to a minority group as “uneducated”.
As readers of Hedley Thomas’s coverage of events at the Queensland University of Technology will be aware, the HRC president also has become involved in Australia’s most prominent contemporary human rights issue. Again, it is a complicated case.
In short, an indigenous employee took objection to non-indigenous students who used (unattended) computers in a room set aside for indigenous Australians only. The employee took a case against the students, following their publicised objections for being excluded from the computer room, to the Federal Court under section 18C of the RDA. The case was arbitrated by the HRC, without success. Triggs and her colleagues did not advise the students concerning whom the allegations were made for more than a year.
The non-indigenous students have maintained that the HRC acted improperly with respect to them. They argue that they have been treated with “flagrant indifference” by the HRC because they are white Anglo-Saxon citizens. Meanwhile, the taxpayer-funded HRC has engaged legal counsel, at taxpayers’ expense, to handle the complaint against Triggs and her colleagues.
Nowadays, the costs of taking offence are very high — both in terms of diminishing freedom of expression and the costs of litigation.
Consequently, it makes sense to reduce the indignation instigated by retired generals, sensitive employees and more besides. That’s all, guys. Er, sorry.