Australian Attorney-General George Brandis in Parliament    

Among the quotations misattributed to the French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire is the cliché: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

The expression has been recast in a recent sitting of the Australian parliament, where Liberal Senator and Attorney-General George Brandis affirmed to a somewhat disgusted audience that “People have the right to be bigots you know”. Shortly thereafter Senator Brandis turned the tables on another Parliamentary opponent:

“Senator Wong interjects, ‘Yes George, you go out there and defend the right to be a bigot’…Well you know, Senator Wong, I think a lot of the things I have heard you say in this chamber over the years are to my way of thinking, extraordinarily bigoted and extraordinarily ignorant but I would defend your right to say things that I find to be bigoted and ignorant. That is what freedom of speech means.”

Even if this is what freedom of speech means, it’s not exactly comforting to hear the Attorney General speak about it with so much conviction.  Though Brandis’ argument may be valid, it provided a sound-bite with unfortunate connotations.  It is not, after all, strictly true that we have a right to be bigots. The right of the bigoted to speak freely is a necessary evil that flows from the protection of free speech in general, complicated by our struggle to agree on what is and isn’t a bigoted statement.  What we do have is a right to freedom of expression, within various constraints. The ‘right’ to bigotry is an abuse of a good system, not something to be celebrated; bigotry is a bug, not a feature. 

Brandis presents himself as a defender of noble principles, but sometimes our principles can be one-sided, especially when they do not take into account the experiences of others.  As Brandis himself admitted less than a year earlier: “I am much more sceptical of rights-based arguments than I was… It reflects the difference between a university student and a person who has to be a decision-maker in a real world.”

Perhaps what Brandis’ principles lack is the weighty real world experience of the bigotry he too glibly defends?  How much bigotry do wealthy, highly-educated and socially esteemed Australian men of Western European provenance experience on a day-to-day basis?  Would it be much of a gamble to bet that Brandis’ experience of bigotry might pale in comparison with Wong’s experience? 

In one report, Senator Wong described her childhood experiences with racism as “pretty difficult” and that her family had “bad things happen, abuse, someone graffitied our driveway, that kind of stuff”.  Wong’s mother recalls that “I remember once Penny and Toby’s ball went next door and Penny went after it and the woman abused her, called her an ‘Asian slut’ and a ‘little whore'”.

In another report, Wong attributes her resilience to these formative experiences with racism, both overt and unintentional, yet notes that “looking back, there were times when I wish I had less need to fall back on resilience. But those occasions when someone else stood up for me, or stood by me, were precious.”

Brandis’ principles might be entirely valid but his rhetoric suggests a failure to consider the special expertise of those who have endured actual hostility and belligerence from the more repugnant members of our society.  For Brandis to describe Senator Wong’s comments in Parliament as ‘extraordinarily bigoted’ ‘to my way of thinking’ is either naïve in his failure to appreciate the lived experience of bigotry for those who are its target, or facetious in attempting to equate ideological disagreements in a house of parliament to the lowest-rung racism and prejudice of vicious people.

It must be very difficult for a politician to remain neutral.  But when we subordinate our principles to the ideological battle, we weaken their grasp on reality.  Our principles ought to serve the truth above all else, and the truth will usually find us in some sympathy – however small – with the motives or experience of our opponents.

Zac Alstin is a freelance writer living in Adelaide, South Australia.

Zac Alstin is a writer, editor and stay-at-home dad to three marvellous children, in Adelaide, South Australia. His hobbies include martial arts, making things at home, and contemplating the underlying...