Here we go again – Brandis and bigotry

The spectacle of the supposed champion of free speech who has presided over a huge expansion in the government’s surveillance powers is so appalling that one could be forgiven for simply ignoring anything that attorney-general George Brandis says, on anything. But his most recent venture into controversy raises issues that are both important and challenging.

Speaking yesterday to the Australian Human Rights Commission’s Religious Freedom Roundtable (about which my colleague Guy Rundle made some interesting observations the other day), Brandis claimed there was an “alarming emergence of intolerance of religious faith” in Australia, and that “Members of Christian faiths – in particular the Catholic faith – are routinely the subject of mockery and insult”. He came specifically to the defence of Tony Abbott:

The incessant, smearing ridicule of the former Prime Minister, Mr Abbott, on account of his religious faith was bigotry at its most shameful – made worse, if that is possible, by the added hypocrisy of the fact that many of those very same people like to pose as the enemies of bigotry.

What are we to make of this? Let’s dispose of one point first: the idea that having previously defended people’s rights to be bigots, Brandis has forfeited his right to complain about bigotry. That’s nonsense, and dangerous nonsense. It’s fundamental to a liberal society that people can be legitimately criticised – even harshly criticised – for actions that they nonetheless have a right to perform.

There’s nothing remotely inconsistent in deploring and attacking bigotry but also regarding it as a protected exercise of free speech, just as I might deplore, for example, the fact that people vote for One Nation while defending it as an exercise of their democratic rights. That contrast is not some curious by-product of liberalism: it’s central to it.

So, accepting for the sake of argument that the attacks on Abbott amounted to bigotry, Brandis is perfectly entitled to object to them. Given his purported allegiance to freedom of speech, however, he certainly overstepped the mark by concluding that “one can be forgiven for being fearful for religious freedom”. Criticism is not censorship, and to be criticised is not to have one’s freedom infringed.

Indeed it seems at some level that Brandis recognises this, for he adds “– certainly for religious tolerance”, as if he realises that freedom is not really at stake.

So what about tolerance? That leads us back to the question of whether the criticism of Abbott – or “ridicule”, as Brandis has it – on the basis of his religious beliefs really amounts to bigotry.

To me it’s clear that it does not. Abbott’s beliefs were not a passive, personal matter; they were an active influence, by his own admission, on the policy positions that he adopted when he held positions of political power. That made them entirely appropriate subjects for debate, criticism and ridicule.

It’s interesting that Brandis refers to “Members” of a religious faith, because the idea that word connotes of religion as a simple matter of belonging to a community, of accepting certain professions and rituals as just part of the culture one was born into, rather than making a conscious choice for one set of beliefs over another, is exactly what Abbott’s religion is not. His Catholicism is dogmatic, not cultural.

There’s all the difference in the world between intolerance based on cultural identifiers that people perceive as mostly involuntary, and criticism of the beliefs that they’ve explicitly chosen to adopt as a guide to public life. It’s the difference between, on the one hand, abusing a Muslim fellow-citizen for wearing a headscarf or not eating pork, and, on the other hand, attacking the sympathisers of Islamic State for the toxic nature of their beliefs.

Objecting to the first is a matter of simple civility. Wanting to shield people from the second is an attempt to gag legitimate and necessary debate.

No, of course Abbott’s beliefs are not in the same league of dangerousness as those of Islamic State. But they partake of the same fundamentalist desire to force others to live by religious rules, so it’s vitally important that they be exposed to the light of vigorous discussion.

There was a time in Australia (and in other Protestant countries) when Catholics were subject to the same sort of bigotry that many Muslims face today, not for any actual beliefs they held or actions based on them, but simply for their cultural identity. Brandis is deliberately harking back to those days to try to defend religious-based intervention in politics – a very different thing.

No doubt, the doctrine only applies to interventions that Brandis approves of. If a Muslim jihadist were to announce that his faith required him to demand the outlawing of Christian propaganda, Brandis would not regard consequent attacks on him as an expression of religious bigotry.

Freedom of religious belief is indeed a precious liberty, but not – at least for Christians – one that is under any threat in Australia. Freedom to impose one’s religious beliefs on others is much less precious, and defending it in the name of religious liberty is disingenuous and deplorable.

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