This week the West Australian government announced plans to introduce laws that could see people prosecuted for racist bumper stickers. The move was welcomed by West Australia’s Equal Opportunity Commissioner, who claimed the legislation was “overdue”. But is using the threat of legal penalties really the best approach to dealing with this kind of racist speech?
Arguably, banning certain forms of racist speech is merely sweeping the problem under the carpet. Racist attitudes will still exist, but will either be expressed in different ways or be hidden from general view. Both of these have undesirable outcomes.
Banning racists bumper stickers creates the risk that other language or symbols will be co-opted to the cause of racism. This is already happening to some extent with the Southern Cross. Writing in ‘The Punch’, Monique Ross laments how her once loved Southern Cross tatoo has become a magnet for rednecks and racists.
“Oh yes, ladies and gentlemen, I am the owner of a Southern Cross tattoo. When I was sitting in the chair pretending it didn’t hurt, way back before the Cronulla riots and ‘F**k off we’re full’ shirts swept the nation, nobody else had the tattoo. Well, almost nobody else.
But my first ink was destined to join a league of Asian symbols, dolphins and hip-adorning butterflies. Everyone has it. And now I hang my head low, because (according to everyone who doesn’t sport a tattoo of the Australian icon) it may as well be a swastika. My patriotism has been mistaken for nationalism.
I wish my neck was big enough to add a little disclaimer – something that spells out exactly why I love my country enough to ink those stars on my neck. Something that tells the world that I love my country because it is multicultural, and not in spite of it. Something that slams racism with an iron fist, and then spits on the crushed remains. Something that tells everyone that yes, I can locate the Southern Cross formation in the sky and no, I have never draped an Australian flag around my back and hooned around drinking beer at music festivals.” (The Punch, 04/02/2010)
The W.A. governments proposed law therefore risks causing racism to branch out and absorb other symbols and language, muddying the waters when it comes to determining what and who, is and isn’t “racisist”.
The other problem with banning racist speech (including bumper stickers) is that it risks driving these attitudes out of public view without actually addressing the underlying problem. Banning bumper stickers is a bit like sticking a band-aid over a wound without treating the actual infection. Being openly forced to confront racism ought to remind everyone that there is still work to be done in changing the attitudes of certain elements of society.
As embarrassing, awkward and uncomfortable as it may make people feel, racist speech which is not an imminent incitement to violence should not be banned. Rather than covering up the racism in our midst by gagging racists, those who value Australia’s diverse and multicultural society need to respond by exercising their own speech. To paraphase from a great post at Skepticlawyer, the best response to racists is not drive them underground and pretend everything is ok, but to expose their ideas to “the disinfecting light of day“.