Author and Fairfax columnist John Birmingham posts a truly delightful splenetic prescription for appropriate responses to the odious Andrew Bolt, in the context of current racial vilification proceedings against him by a polyglot assortment of prominent Aboriginal activists:
The appropriate response to Bolt is disdain and mockery and the poking of his readership with sharp sticks in their yellow, suppurating eyeballs. …
So what if he is read – and avidly so – by a veritable legion of mouth-breathing pinheads and shambling inbred fools, by barely closeted homophobes, and racists and the bottom-feeding scum at the foulest end of the rank, sour, stinking swamp that passes for public discourse on the far right?
Hear! Hear!((Although I appreciate a bracing serve of spleen from time to time, I also acknowledge that Birmingham’s polemic exhibits many of the same negative characteristics for which Bolt is rightly condemned. Moreover, to the extent that he slags Bolt’s readership rather than Bolt himself, it’s a little distasteful (even though I can’t help but be amused by the description). One suspects that most of the people who habitually agree with Bolt (or Alan Jones et al) are just fairly typical older Australians easily provoked to fear and loathing as a substitute for careful thought and analysis. That describes a fairly high proportion of the Australian public of whatever instinctive ideological stripe. ~KP))
It gives me an opportunity to clarify the blogosphere record in the wake of the stressful events surrounding Troppo’s withdrawal from the Online Opinion advertising consortium a couple of months ago. I suggested at the time that the gay activist(s) who rightly took issue with a toxic comment thread at OLO would have been better advised to pursue proceedings under State anti-vilification laws than to orchestrate an advertising boycott of a valued online forum. I was conscious at the time that this suggestion ran completely counter to my own philosophical position on anti-vilification laws in general, which accords fairly closely with Birmingham’s colourful advocacy. I’ve written about the issue lots of times, including here, here, here, here and here. To his great credit, ABC Media Watch host Jonathan Holmes appears to hold a similar view.
I remain of the view that anti-vilification laws are in principle objectionable to the extent that they go further than prohibiting any more than what the Americans refer to as “fighting words”. Even then, only if a strict and skeptical objective test is applied to what amounts to “fighting words” and what doesn’t. Otherwise liberal democratic freedoms would be reduced to the lowest common denominator of thin-skinned intolerance.
I’m conscious that this approach might be contentious with some, especially when only a week or so ago the appalling and inflammatory Koran-burning behaviour of a fundamentalist American Christian preacher led to the deaths of 20 people in Afghanistan at the hands of murderous Islamic extremists. Under US constitutional doctrine, flag burning is constitutionally protected free speech ( see Texas v. Johnson, 491 U.S. 397 (1989) and United States v. Eichman, 496 U.S. 310 (1990)). I imagine that burning religious texts, however idiotic, inflammatory and disrespectful, would attract similar constitutional protection and rightly so. The appropriate sanctions against actions of that sort, as with Bolt’s odious rantings, are moral and social rather than legal ones. Such sanctions are not necessarily any less powerful than legal ones. In fact, as Birmingham suggests, taking legal action against calculating attention-seekers like Bolt in some ways just encourages them. Mind you, The ABC’s erstwhile practice of giving Bolt air-time on Insiders, instead of more reasonable and serious-minded conservative commentators, rather undermines the force of any moral and social censure by granting him a status and respectability that he doesn’t deserve.