Friday, April 25, 2008

Torch Relays and Tolerance - a postscript

This photo by Gordon Smith shows Brown Street, Armidale, looking east. I understand that the autumn colours have been absolutely beautiful this year.

I wasn't completely satisfied with my last post, Torch Relays and Tolerance, because I felt that the ideas were just too mixed.

I finished the post with a plea for tolerance. By tolerance, I did not mean the often wishy-washy version that holds in Australia that says that difference should be accepted so long as it falls within commonly accepted bounds, but the far more robust concept that says that we should seek to understand and allow for difference even when we fundamentally disagree.

Tolerance is, however, always a qualified concept with its own built-in tensions.

Part of the reason why so many commentators, including our fellow bloggers, struggled with the events associated with the Canberra torch relay is that it exposed those tensions. As an example, I heard a very uncomfortable Barry Cassidy (an ABC TV journalist) attempt to mount an apologia of the actions of the Chinese protestors, arguing that the protesters were Australian Chinese and entitled to their view, that nothing much had really happened.

Without bogging down, I want to tease out the conflicts a little more.

There seems little doubt that the Chinese Embassy effectively organised large numbers of younger Chinese and especially students to come to Canberra. Listening to the radio on the morning of the relay I was struck by reports of the huge volume of bus traffic heading into Canberra.

This raises two very different issues.

The first is the right of the Embassy to do this. Here I do have reservations, although I accept that this is a matter of degree. The second is the extent to which Chinese students studying in Australia should be allowed to participate in protests. Here I have no doubts. They should be allowed to do so.

The next conflict is that between Tibet, a popular cause, and the expression of Chinese pride and nationalism, an unpopular cause given Australian perceptions of the oppressive and coercive practices still employed by the Chinese regime. There was almost a sense of shock among some commentators that the alternative pro-Chinese view should have been able to organise itself so effectively.

This is where my argument about a more robust view of tolerance comes in. We need to distinguish between the actions of the Chinese Government on Tibet and the understandable need of many Chinese to express national pride. However, here we have another problem, the belief among many Australians that our Chinese citizens should give up their past and accept Australian norms.

This is a slippery one indeed, for it creates a divide that runs across the political spectrum.

Multiculturalists tend to believe that new Australians can maintain beliefs and customs so long as they do not breach the norms that they, the multiculturalists, believe to be correct. Integrationists tend to believe that new Australians should accept core Australian values, however defined, but can otherwise retain traditional beliefs and customs.

In practice, I am not sure how much difference there is between the two schools. My own starting point is that so long as people obey the law, they should be able to believe and say what they want. However, this raises another issue, the role of the law.

In an article in On Line Opinion Tom Calma, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner and acting Race Discrimination Commissioner, said:

Australia is one of the most diverse nations on earth. Australians speak some 364 languages, of which 170 are Indigenous languages. Between 1996 and 1998, 52 per cent of marriages in Australia were “mixed” in the sense that they involved people from different countries of origin. Forty-three per cent of Australians have one or both parents who were born overseas.

I think that this is a pretty fair description of modern Australia. However, Mr Calma then went on to argue for an extension of Australia's anti-discrimination laws, citing overseas trends especially in laws relating to religious vilification to suggest that Australia was falling behind.

I cannot agree with Mr Calma's arguments. Just because certain countries are introducing new laws and controls does not automatically mean that those actions are relevant to Australia. I would go further in that my view is that anti-discrimination laws have in fact become a device for enforcing certain social mores, in so doing blocking off alternative views.

Do not get me wrong on this. I actually support anti-discrimination laws. I just feel that their expanding scope is creating new sets of problems, substituting legal remedies for issues that should be resolved through public discourse.

Enough for the present.

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