The average person’s guide to being offended
Time for a Saturday pop quiz. Question: Tennis star Caroline Wozniacki stuffs paper down her top and pants in order to parody her friend, curvy black player Serena Williams. She struts around, showing off her great fake big boobs and butt to the cheers of fans. Is this racism?
Question. Some Sydney pubs tell men to “give the wife a rest” because the “Carlton Draught girls” will do their ironing. It’s part of a promotion offering drinkers who bought a schooner a free ironed shirt. Is this sexism?
We’ll get to the answers in a minute.
Thanks to the new draft federal laws, there’s a whole new raft of ways we can discriminate against each other: not only on the grounds of sex, race, age and disability, but gender identity and sexual orientation as well.
I used to work in the equal opportunity field, but even I am worried things are going too far – and that’s a pretty big admission for me to take.
The problem is that the draft law now covers conduct that is offensive and insulting, and not just discriminatory.
And there’s not even a clause stipulating that it must be reasonable for the average person to be offended. This means that if you’re hypersensitive and easily offended, that could be enough.
According to a number of commentators, this could mean affectionate terms like “old bastard” could be illegal and political nicknames like “Juliar” or ‘Invisobel Redmond” could be judged offensive.
This is ludicrous. Such terms are part of our Aussie way of life: any judge that rules otherwise is a deadset dickhead.
(See, imagine being unable to use such great terms like that).
As the ABC chairman Jim Spigelman said this week, we need to draw a very clear distinction between terms that are merely offensive or insulting, and those that are humiliating or intimidating, or incite hostility, hatred or contempt.
The fact that claims of discrimination will now be easier to make probably won’t help the situation.
Let’s save claims of discrimination for instances where there is actual harm, or serious hatred– not just hurt feelings or wounded pride.
The problem is that if everything is deemed to be offensive, then ultimately nothing is offensive.
I am arguing this because I passionately believe in anti-discrimination laws.
But I also believe in free speech, fair comment and a robust public debate – not to mention our right to call each other “old bastard”.
We have to make sure that we don’t conflate attacks on someone who may be female as automatically sexist, and attacks on someone who may be black or Asian or Indian as automatically racist.
This is why I think the parody of Serena Williams by Caroline Wozniaki was in poor taste, but wasn’t inherently racist, as some have claimed. The fact that Williams was black was not at the core of the attack, but incidental to it. (And it was an exhibition match, after all)
There are enough examples of real racism around without getting worked up about that.
For instance, there’s the men telling a French woman on a train to “speak English or die”.
Now, that’s racism.
And there’s also the Facebook page called Aboriginal Memes, which included comments such as: “How do you kill 1000 flies at once? Slap me in the face”.
That’s racist too.
Similarly, I’d suggest the Sydney pubs offering women to iron men’s shirts is not a serious example of sexism. These days many men iron their own shirts, and there was nothing stopping women having their shirts ironed by the pub’s ironing ladies.
Again, it was in poor taste, and played on outdated stereotypes. But it’s hardly female genital mutilation, is it?
Ferris Bueller once said: “A person should not believe in an ‘ism’, he should believe in himself”.
Unlike Ferris, I do believe in “isms”, but they should not come before commonsense.
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