It was one of the most confronting Australian news images of 2012. A little boy holding a placard reading “Behead all those who insult the Prophet”, standing among the hysterical crowd at the Sydney protests against an obscure art-house film ridiculing Mohammed.
The discussion inspired by that image was impassioned. The child and, particularly, his parents were held up as evidence that something was seriously wrong within sections of our multicultural society.
The heated nature of the discussion was not surprising at all, even if some of it was unpleasantly over-the-top. But in a free society such as ours it was still a conversation worth having.
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Research is everything in journalism so I am happy to be able to report that for this piece I spent a good half hour watching Rodney Rude videos on YouTube. It was probably around 1983 when I last devoted this level of attention to the work of this Australian comedian.
At our cutting-edge public school there was a tiny room you could hire called “the audio visual centre” which contained a single cassette player, and many lunch hours in Year 10 were spent with mates listening to our tape of the ground-breaking comedy LP Rodney Rude Live.
From memory the album went No.1 in the charts. It was regarded as massively offensive by many people.
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The Punch has asked me for some examples of offensive speech that might be caught out under Attorney-General Nicola Roxon’s proposed ‘1984’ amendments to create a brave, new, Speak-Easy world of proposed anti-discrimination (A-D) laws.
The first thing that comes to mind is that “Juliar” is offensive to some… but an example of free speech we ought to retain for those who don’t like the lady. If you said the word to Ms Gillard’s face, she might take you to court under proposed A-D laws for she would surely find it personally offensive.
Do we have a right to be offensive towards our Prime Ministers? I hope so, for they often offend many of us by their cross words!
Being offended has become something of a national sport in this country. That said, there have been a few things of late to be legitimately offended about.
Greg Ritchie could probably work on some new comic material, given the unsurprisingly negative response to his allegedly side-splitting zingers about kaffirs, and how he keeps Muslim children locked in the boot of his car. Alan Jones offended many people, myself included, with his cruelly twisted suggestion that Julia Gillard’s recently dead father died of shame over his daughter’s lies.
Being offended by Ritchie or Jones is one thing. Advocating that they be fined, banned from speaking or sacked from their jobs is something else altogether.
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Geert Wilders is a hysterical anti-Islamist, a brewer of hate and intolerance. The extreme right-wing Dutch politician has declared there’s no such thing as a moderate Muslim, and compared Islam to fascism.
He’s about banning things including the Koran and the building of mosques, and he wants all Muslims out of The Netherlands. He once called Islam a “retarded culture”.
I won’t go on; the site today has plenty of justified bashing of offensive people.
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Two important lessons are discernible from the disgrace of radio bullyboy Alan Jones. Neither is particularly attractive.
One is the stark exposure of Mr Jones’ true nature courtesy of his own choice words.
The second aspect, which cuts the other way, is the extent to which free speech in Australia remains negotiable against what is deemed acceptable by a political correctness brigade now fortified with social media.
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If the free speech heretics at the United Nations have their way, stifling blasphemy laws will be resurrected in the West.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon last week expressed concern about free speech because sometimes it can be “used to provoke or humiliate.”
God forbid we allow lively debate to take place.
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On the face of it, there’s not a lot to be said for David McRory and his fellow IT pioneer Josh Turner.
This pair of Gen Y trail-blazer were the brains - if that is the right word - behind “Benders Root Rate”, a page on Facebook which invited Bendigo citizens of that Goldfields metropolis to rate the sexual performance of their partners.
The concept was not an original one. The discussion of the performance of sexual partners is older than the internet age, as anyone who has ever stared at the back of a dunny door could tell you. Indeed some of the graffiti discovered in the ruins Pompeii deals with the subject.
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Over the past week tensions between fostering diverse opinions while respecting the reproductive rights of women were brought to the fore by a decision of the University of Sydney Union (USU) to approve the creation of a “pro-life” club.
LifeChoice purports to “promote the dignity of human life from conception to natural death, through reasonable and informed discussion on the issues of abortion and euthanasia in Australian society.”
It is the first clause in its mandate that has attracted the ire of numerous feminist groups and collectives on campus calling for the group to be disaffiliated from the USU. Members of LifeChoice have responded that any such an attempt would be a threat to free speech and the diversity that underpins the USU.
Most people would agree that free speech is worth protecting, even if it leads to despicable Neanderthals standing before a microphone.
I think it preposterous, then, that there have been moves to shut down a recently established pro-life society at the University of Sydney. The existence of LifeChoice Sydney, a secular and non-partisan organisation aiming to promote discussion of abortion and euthanasia, is under threat just a week after it was approved by the University of Sydney Union.
Pro-choice advocates have labelled the society “non-inclusive”, “extremist” and a threat to the safety of women on campus. They have mooted an amendment to the Union’s constitution that prohibits the establishment of any society that is pro-life. They have even proposed that the Union representatives who approved the society be “censured”.
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Yumi Stynes had the right to parp out her little brain fart about Corporal Ben Roberts-Smith. We have the right to criticise and belittle her for it. But should people have the right to make physical threats against her? What about her children?
In the wake of the Finkelstein review, Left and Right are busily and furiously agreeing with each other. Free speech good! Censorship bad!
It’s nice to know some issues can bring everyone together.
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Simon Katich doesn’t deserve a reprimand. He deserves an award for restraint.
After falling foul of the thought police at Cricket Australia he was called up before that stuffy little outfit’s resident kangaroo court to explain his so-called “spray” against Michael Clarke. “Spray”, as it was dubbed in headlines, is a ludicrously overstated term for what Katich had said. All he said was that he doubted he would ever get a spot in the Test team under captain and selector Michael Clarke.
Katich, you will recall, grabbed Clarke by the neck in a dressing room dust-up in 2009, risking serious damage to Clarke’s latest haircut. His assessment of his chances of reclaiming a baggy green under Clarke was both accurate and unremarkable.
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There are varying viewpoints on Sergio Redegalli’s “Say no to burqas” mural, but only one way to look at his facial hair.
It’s unAustralian. There should be a law against this. Could the council make him get rid of it?
This mural has appeared in the trendy Sydney suburb of Newtown.
It was painted by the owner of the property, shop owner Sergio Redegalli who also, apparently, has a ban-the-burqa bumper sticker.
Locals have complained and council officials have visited the owner to talk to him about removing but have said in a statement that legally their hands are tied. There’s a pretty simple freedom of speech issue at play here: should it be painted over?
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The headline is not a mistake. Escape goats exist - at least, they do in the comment threads of websites everywhere, including The Punch.*
The beauty of this term is that while being appallingly bad English usage in a narrow sense, it is a spectacular conceptual improvement on the very word it butchers. Who needs a scapegoat when you could have an escape goat?
I want an escape goat. Rather than resorting to blame any time there’s any sort of problem, just hop on this conveniently-positioned imaginary beast and ride off, leaving behind only the comical clatter of little hooves, and maybe a faint bleating sound. Baa.
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When pastor Terry Jones called off his epically dumb plan to mark the anniversary of the September 11 attacks by burning a bunch of Korans, for a brief period it looked like western civilisation valued people with something between their ears. But then along comes Alex Stewart – an Australian, no less – to confirm democracies provide shelter for the hopelessly stupid.
It was on behalf of people with a brain everywhere that the US President went on television to plead against the pastor’s plan to burn holy books. He succeeded in stopping the Jones protest but then along comes Stewart on YouTube, ripping out pages from the Bible and the Koran and smoking them in a festival of smugness cloaked in a mantle of enlightenment.
Score one for the Taliban and the view that the West is intellectually bankrupt.
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The aims of any public rally or protest generally are to: draw attention to the cause, build public support, and secure a favourable response by authorities.
Australian protesters regularly score well on the first because protesters have an excellent sense of when cameras are likely to be in the vicinity, and that slogans and large, TV friendly signs and props will be useful to those editing the evening news bulletins.
But on the other two aims Australian protests are in something of a rut. Increasingly the numbers of people at public rallies are grimly thin and feature people and slogans that are more likely to inspire puzzlement than passion. This was brilliantly evidenced by two protests in Sydney this week - one which involved a mock kangaroo funeral and another calling for the Reserve Bank to drop rates - both of which were attended by only a handful of protesters. They were extreme examples but underscored the malaise affecting the wider culture of public protest in modern Australia.
UPDATE 11.55pm: SA Attorney General Mick Atkinson has backed down and will repeal the ban on anonymous internet comments.
It is self-evident that websites can be used by imposters and small-time fraudsters to create a false reflection of public opinion on political issues. But there’s no excuse for the South Australian government’s breathtaking censorship tactics ahead of the state election.
Sure, anonymous comments are a problem. There’s a guy posting on the Punch lately who has assumed 21 different identities in four days. He first came on the radar at the weekend after he left a tell-tail trail by posting two similar comments in quick succession. He could have been immediately banned but was given rope.
On a single thread he posted under the names Ronnel, James, Wendy, Rachel, Brad, Jan, Bill, Roger, Janette, Francis, Annie, Randall, Brendon, Judith and Connie. Though I’ve never met him I have an unusually clear picture of what he looks like, which is as follows.
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The Sydney broadcaster, Alan Jones, interviewed me recently on his morning radio program. During a conversation about my contention that we should have a national discussion about our future population, Jones asked me about Muslim immigration to Australia. Let me quote from the transcript:
Jones: ….you’re saying that any migration program should be in the national interest. You further say that, basically, in all of these issues we should be taking the public with us. Right, should we therefore be worried about the growth of the Muslim population just as people are concerned in Europe, you’re not allowed to talk about this?
Andrews: Well firstly I think you should be able to talk about it Alan. It is ridiculous if you can’t talk about any subject and in fact what happens when a subject becomes politically incorrect to talk about, then it ends up with a backlash. I think part of the Hanson movement, back in the early 1990s, was because some subjects were simply said to be off the table, they couldn’t be discussed and a lot of Australians wanted to discuss them.
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