Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act is news again, with a claim of racial vilification brought to the Federal Circuit Court against the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) and against individual students and staff members. In 2013 Ms Cindy Prior, an Aboriginal administration officer at QUT, refused to admit three non-Aboriginal students to use a computer lab in the university’s Oodgeroo Unit. The students expressed on Facebook their unhappy feelings about segregation, and the subsequent chain of events has left Ms Prior feeling sufficiently ‘offended, insulted or intimidated’ to require almost $250,000 in compensation.
For some commentators, the Prior case has again demonstrated that 18C must be repealed for the sake of freedom of speech. For others, the case illustrates the decline of free thinking and free speech in Australian universities. An editorial in the Australian on the matter opined that universities, ‘once bastions of free thought, public reason and rational debate’, have now been overtaken by ‘a stifling culture of political correctness.’
I’m not sure I believe that universities were ever as utopian as all that. I suspect there were always students who felt stifled by whatever the prevailing university culture happened to be at the time. I’m also not sure that free thinking, free speech and rational debate is really what universities are about – except in the sense that university students expect to get experiences that might feel like ‘free thinking’ and ‘debate’, along with lectures, tutorials, free concerts, student politics, experimental relationships, and at the end of it all, a degree.
But let us return for a moment to the case of Cindy Prior. Those of us who predicted claims such as this are now saying ‘we told you so’, but with very little satisfaction. For others, faith in 18C as a civilising influence on public debate has given way to cautious dismay: The law was meant to keep the bigots in their boxes, protecting vulnerable Aboriginal people from the worst of Australia’s ignorance and racism. The law was proved to be good when it was used to reprimand the troublemaker Andrew Bolt, wasn’t it? And yet, even with all the goodwill in the world, the virtue in this particular case is harder to find. Is it possible that in this instance an Aboriginal complainant is being unreasonable? Perhaps a trifle oversensitive? Or perhaps – whisper it – opportunistic?
If that is your feeling, you are drifting into dangerous territory. After all, who are you to decide what is ‘reasonable’ or otherwise when it comes to the pain and suffering of an Aboriginal person? To pass judgement on the views or conduct of an Aboriginal person, even in private, is to impose the coloniser’s values and moral framework onto the colonised, thus maintaining the oppression and dispossession of Aboriginal people.
Can you tell I’ve been to university? I can talk that rubbish all day, my friend.
And that is what the university experience is really about. It is where you learn the language, gestures, tastes and affectations that differentiate the educated class from the nasty, blue-collar yobs and bogans. It is where you learn how to behave properly in the middle-class world, because that’s where you will spending the rest of your life.
The ability to demonstrate Aboriginal cultural sensitivity – meaning the ability to say the right things about Aboriginal people and Aboriginal politics, and to scrupulously avoid saying the wrong things – signifies that you are an educated individual who can be trusted not to disgrace yourself by weeing on the couch and dry-humping a poodle after a few drinks. Wearing an appropriate facial expression during an interminable ‘Welcome to Country’ ceremony is as important for the social advancement of today’s young people as was the wearing of flawlessly white gloves or the correctly striped tie in times past. An ability to murmur earnest yet non-committal nothings about Invasion Day, Stolen Generations, Reconciliation and so on is the intellectual equivalent of always carrying a clean handkerchief.
Some might argue that promoting cultural sensitivity and respectful attitudes toward Aboriginal people is a worthwhile project, in no way akin to teaching young people how to fret over trivial things like ties and handkerchiefs. However, it is still all about instilling conformity, valuing niceness over honesty, and teaching young people to fear the social consequences of a faux pas above all else. Conservative commentators often dismiss ‘virtue-signalling’ as merely a silly fashion amongst trendy inner city lefties. Yet the preoccupations of the rich and the culturally influential, no matter how silly, are never trivial. If a university is to furnish students with the necessary skills for success in a world where virtue-signalling is a preoccupation of important and powerful people, then perhaps it is the duty of universities to bully their students into becoming appropriately sensitive and virtuous young professionals.
If universities do their job properly, the kids will learn how to say the right things, and learn when to keep their mouths shut. They will learn to treat the few Aboriginal people they encounter with careful deference, and they will learn that Aboriginal affairs is a minefield of sensitivities, best avoided and never criticised. They will learn how to behave in a society where shut-up laws like 18C prevail, and they will learn how to signal to others that they are highly skilled in shutting up and being inoffensive.
None of this bodes well for the genuine integration and participation of Aboriginal people in Australian society, nor is it a happy prospect for the severely disadvantaged Aboriginal communities that need the involvement of skilled people with courageous ideas. That would hardly be news to them, as Aboriginal people have been watching this performance play out around them for a long time. All this frantic signalling and prim avoidance that passes for ‘Aboriginal cultural sensitivity’ has been a territorial marker and mating call for the educated middle class for decades, and has had very little to do with ordinary Aboriginal people, really.
Most of the kids will figure that out eventually too, and they will learn to be smart and keep their mouths shut about it. University might be a disappointingly stifling and repressive experience for them, but with class on their side, the kids will be alright.
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