Thinking outside a box of By The Canberra Times 24 September 2005 (c) 2005 The Canberra Times THE HAVE-YOUR-SAY online letters column has been a headache for some time, but, as I have long dreaded, it must now be heavily curtailed, if not by force of law then by fear of the force of law. A reader has complained to the ACT Human Rights Office that some of the letters in HYS vilify homosexuals, and that these ''depressed me and made me feel that as an Australian I wasn't respected by the community. ''I feel sad that such people have such attitudes, are willing to express them publicly, and are allowed to express them publicly by The Canberra Times.'' The complainant has asked the Human Rights Commissioner to require The Canberra Times to make an apology to all HYS readers for offensive material that was published by them, and to put in place a screening system which stops such material being published, so that the young and vulnerable are protected. Whether the commissioner would find the material amounts to vilification I have no idea, just as I have no idea yet whether she has the power to make the orders. What I do know, as I have commented before, is that the ACT Human Rights Office has far too little to do, and seizes on business with enthusiasm, if, in my experience, hardly ever acting as any sort of filter on complaints. I, on the other hand, have lots of things to do which seem to me more important. One makes commercial decisions about time and energy for disputes, even about things which some people will think matters of principle. It's easier to just give in, so that one can devote attention to things which matter. In future, HYS will be tightly monitored to be sure that it hurts the feelings of nobody likely to complain to the guardians of our Bill of Rights, which were once thought to include freedom of speech. There can be no doubt that some HYS letters did say some things which annoyed not only homosexuals but ordinary decent and tolerant Australians who have no truck with homophobia. Indeed a good many HYS letters rejected such views in no uncertain terms - often, in the way of such debates, themselves throwing back offensive barbs at the letter writers, including speculations about their own sexuality or their alleged obsessions about sexuality and sexual-abuse matters. Indeed, even under my liberal regime, a number of letters on both sides seemed to cross the line of proper, if willing, discourse, and were not posted. But it is a fact that a proportion of the community believe that the practice of homosexuality is sinful, and that it is, in the words of Pope John Paul II ''intrinsically disordered''. Indeed this is the formal position of the Catholic Church and most of the established Protestant sects, as well as of Islam and a number of other religions. People are allowed to think that; indeed they are allowed to say it, even with some vigour. Indeed people are allowed also to say that they oppose laws forbidding any sort of discrimination against homosexuals - even though, in spite of their efforts, such laws have been passed. They are also allowed to propagate their views, or theories, about the dangers, as they see it, of programs designed to normalise homosexual conduct, whether in schools or workplaces, or whatever. They are also allowed to make jibes, as often some do, about the seeming obsession of some people with enacting law reforms focused on alleged subsidiary discriminations against people who are not heterosexual, at the expense of other things which they see as priorities. What people are not allowed to do, as I understand it, is to incite hatred, serious ridicule or serious contempt against homosexuals - a phrase which, from its foundation in the old sedition laws, means, in effect, to preach violence towards or persecution of homosexuals. Nor are they allowed to discriminate against them in providing goods and services or making available facilities. My own view is that the anti- homosexuality views of some HYS correspondents, even if strongly worded, have not breached the law. The Human Rights Office has not ruled otherwise; indeed it is in the manner of such busybody offices that they tend to act as post boxes, merely passing on complaints so that others have to do all the work of wondering whether her jurisdiction has been properly invoked. Formally, the commissioner has a power to dismiss complaints as being beyond jurisdiction or involving, on its face, no breach, but my experience with the office is that they get to this point only after tedious correspondence. The consequence of my unwillingness to spend all day writing letters is that sincere views from a significant section of the population about homosexuality will not be published in The Canberra Times. Only views which propagate the modern civilised and tolerant view - and which will not excite tedious correspondence - will get a go. It's just not worth the aggro. The fact that I disagree with the views of the anti-gay writers is neither here nor there. I believe them to be sincere and to have a right to their view. Moreover, they represent a far greater proportion of the community than the modern, civilised and tolerant lobby would think, and that the result of actions designed to make the expression, even vigorous expression, of their views unlawful will not enhance popular tolerance but make it less likely. I cannot remember when I joined some homosexual law-reform association - probably in the late 1960s. The agenda of the organisation, which seemed wildly radical then, was more focused on the decriminalisation of homosexual conduct than on removal of wider discriminations, which came more quickly than anyone imagined. That it might now be against the law to call for the criminalisation of homosexual conduct would have seemed amazing then. Not that any HYS correspondents have called for that. It's by no means a novel experience to find that the most vigorous advocates of book-burning, censorship, suppression of views contrary to their own, and callers for legal sanctions against those with whom they disagree come from the left, the proponents of rights-based agendas, and groups whose civil and legal status have considerably improved, in major part by the vigorous exercise of free speech, over the past few decades. In some cases, vigorous free speech would have involved attacking serious sacred cows of the moment, perhaps to the point of breaching the laws of the day. It's actually rather sad and pathetic to see all the confected indignation about a phrase about ''black arses''. This is not political correctness gone mad, as some think, so much as the misdirected energy of instinctive authoritarians. If only those energies were devoted to kicking arses - black and white - to make things happen in Aboriginal affairs, rather than imagining and prosecuting grievances which have nothing to do with the problem. HYS is full of letters vigorously attacking the Government and its policies on, say, immigration, refugees, Aboriginal affairs, workers, the war in Iraq, terror laws, the moral character of ministers and so on. The general intemperance of many letters, and the willingness to ascribe the basest motivations to the politicians, is quite marked. There are letters on the other side of such debates too, but they are rarely as vituperative. My impulse was to let debates run, even with an amount of personal abuse (particularly if the original correspondent himself or herself showed the capacity to dole it out), subject to a fairly bullish view of the scope of the law of defamation. John Howard, Amanda Vanstone and Tony Abbott have never called to complain of being attacked, though I am certain they are casually aware of the expression of such views. They might not like it, but they accept it as part of the business in which they are engaged. I wish I could say the same of politicians of the other side, or of people who, say, disagree with Angela Shanahan. I once joked that whenever I read Angela too closely, I could smell the faggots burning. (I mean faggots in the proper sense of the word, of course). These days, more likely, the source of the smell is from fires prepared by people from the new mainstream and orthodoxy she so strongly opposes. It rather annoys me that it's being done under the aegis of the Human Rights Act.
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