Wednesday, May 05, 2010

A Civil Campaign

Yesterday's announcement of the sacking of Catherine Deveny from The Age came as no surprise to many of us who have loathed her particular brand of lowbrow vitriol that covers a wide spectrum – from class hatred and 'hipster racism' to attempts at humour around the sexual activities of an 11 year old girl. And yet the Twitters are alight with dissent over whether she should have been sacked for her tweeting at the Logies.

Others have already blogged on the issues around whether she should have been sacked for her tweets and questioned why more socially destructive and offensive columnists like Andrew Bolt haven't been fired yet. The most compelling piece I've seen came from Jason Wilson over on New Matilda, who asks why she was hired in the first place. And surely those of us who dislike Deveny's work would agree that she's hardly the worst offender. The other trollumnists should be reined in as well, in the interest of a more civil society.

And so I have an idea.

In my meeting yesterday with Graeme Innes, Race Discrimination Commissioner and Disability Discrimination Commissioner for the Australian Human Rights Commission, we talked through the complaints process available to all Australians if they think something published is discriminatory on the basis of race, sex, age or disability.

For example, if you read one of Bolt's columns (and I don't recommend it, though to get this campaign going many of us might need to) and find it offensive, you can lodge a complaint with the AHRC. Even if you believe an 'anonymous' comment is racist, sexist, etc, you can make a complaint and the publisher is responsible for defending or denying.

You can then tweet what you find offensive and suggest others might complain if they too find the material offensive. So rather than all of us simply tweeting our outrage, we can take action.

The AHRC (or you could use your state Commission, such as the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission) is required to investigate every complaint. Clearly, the system will look after itself – spurious complaints should not end up sacking somebody who is undeserving.

The important thing is that the AHRC and state commissions cannot act on racist comments in a column or the comments without an official complaint.

So it's time to speak up!

Logically, if trollumnists start attracting as many complaints as they do rabid comments of agreement, they becomes liabilities for their employers, as Deveny did for hers it seems.

The trolls have had their day. It's time we take away their oxygen.

5 comments:

ana australiana said...

Rock it! This is a good test of the usefulness of these civil complaint mechanisms, too.

Testing might begin here:

This particular piece contributes to racism against Muslims (on the absurd presumption, I guess, that 'Islamic' is a race) symbolised by women wearing hijab/burqa/niqab, promoting a generalised and poorly researched notion of why one might be sporting such garb, reducing it to one of "Muslim women are terrorists slash dupes of the patriarchy(which we don't have in Our Culture)."

Virginia Hausseger's comments display similarly simplistic opinion.

The trickiness of discrimination complaints mechanisms, I suspect, is that they operate on the basis that the incident one is reporting is an aberration from an already-existing equal playing field.

In this case, Bolt and Hausseger's responses are offensive in part because there is an existing ambience of prejudice against Muslims which uses the image of veiled women as an agent for this prejudice.

Media and stereotyping experts, please chime in!

ana australiana said...

PS. I thought the AHRC could only act on a complaint if you personally have been the target of discrimination? This was a problem, in this case for example, where racist (and inaccurate!) pamphlets were distributed in the neighbourhood and a neofascist group was meeting.

Kristian said...

The term to use here is vilification, rather than discrimination.

In NSW at least to show vilification you have to be part of the group allegedly being vilified and the language has to be reasonably expected to incite hatred/contempt against that group.

Free speech/"public interest" is standard a defense. To argue that Islam is a violent religion would probably be covered (rightly, I believe) by free speech defense. To say that we should beat up Muslims for being terrorists would be vilification.

Sadly, the court of public opinion is the strongest place to deal with the trollumists. Running a conciliation session through a Govt Agency regarding a comment might get the comment taken down, but I doubt anything else would come of it.

Sorry if I sound like a downer :) I think it's a great idea but I've worked in the field and it was kind of depressing :)

@ana_australiana In Anti-Discrimination Law (in NSW) there's "Ethno-Religious" discrimination, which is where you discriminate based on religious grounds where that religion would be reasonably considered to belong to a particular racial group. So, even though it sounds odd, being racist against Muslims is actually legally defined.

Tammois said...

Ana & Kristian - thanks for your comments. Of course you're both right - you must be a member of the group targeted in the vilification, though some state laws (Victoria, I know) do allow organisations that represent a particular group (say the Federation of Indian Students in Australia) can make a complaint on behalf of their constituents.

If you're unsure, you can also contact the AHRC advice line number which is 1300 656 419 or www.humanrights.gov.au.

I'm planning to forward this to our campus affiliates through CAPA so that the international students in particular are informed of their rights and the recourse available to them. I hope others might do the same.

Kristian, I fully appreciate your cynicism about the efficacy of using civil complaints mechanism, but in my conversation with Graeme I think what we both hoped was that if the word got out and enough people bothered to complain we might really see an impact, as the trolls become liabilities rather than cash cows.

However, the other method discussed at last week's Cyber-racism Summit (to which I wasn't invited, but Graeme agreed to fill me in at our subsequent meeting) is simply the power of social media - the ability of the community to condemn racism (et al) where we see it. I know we all do this, it will be great to see more people feel empowered to speak out against vilification and even just unproductive offensive comments such as the 'hipster racism' variety.

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