During the 2016 election campaign, the Australian Greens declared they were spelling the end of the religious exemptions enshrined in federal anti-discrimination legislation — as they are in the anti-discrimination laws of all States. According to Greens senator Nick McKim, ‘The fundamental principle here is that Australians should be treated the same, whether or not they’re of one particular religion or another or whether they’re not religious at all’.
Once a new norm or principle of behaviour is established — in this case, non-discrimination — groups like the Greens want to ensure it is applied with totalitarian thoroughness to everyone without exception. Failing to ‘treat people the same’ is nowadays held to be an egregious error; enforcing a bland uniformity is seen as the only way to secure a new standard of inclusive justice.
Although couched in the language of the ‘fair go’ it is actually the battle cry of the new ‘minority fundamentalists’ — so called by John Howard — whose purpose is to eradicate all forms of discrimination in the name of liberating the ‘oppressed’.
Minority fundamentalism has all the features of the various religious fundamentalisms so despised by the latte-sipping Green-Left bien pensants: ideological fanaticism, intolerance of dissent, and Manichaean certainty about truth and falsehood. But unlike some religious fundamentalists, the new fundamentalists don’t even pretend to affect measured amounts of pious concern for their opponents, but instead deploy hatred and vituperation as their weapons of choice.
It is the age of the new intolerance that is manifested by the minority fundamentalists; it has become so firmly established in western societies such as Australia that it is almost beyond question. Its playbook includes using intimidation, humiliation, censorship and self-censorship to punish those who think differently. The most frequently cited categories of oppression are gender, race, ethnicity and sexual orientation, whose ramparts must be breached in the name of equality and inclusion. Campaigners for such programs as Safe Schools hold that social structures, including the gender distinction between male and female, must be dismantled and re-ordered in the name of equality. Advocates for same-sex marriage insist that reform of Australia’s marriage laws is nothing less than a matter of justice.
None of this can ever be questioned or challenged — and offence can be taken so quickly. Assumptions about freedom of speech, conscience and association comprise the very foundations of our common life and we expect them to undergird any candid exchange of views. Yet such assumptions belie the experience of people like journalist Andrew Bolt, or Archbishop Julian Porteous.
When Bolt published remarks critical of those whom Justice Bromberg was later to describe as ‘fair-skinned Aboriginal people’, he soon faced legal action brought by a plaintiff who claimed the imputations of those remarks were offensive to her as an Aboriginal woman, and therefore contravened section 18C of the RDA. Justice Bromberg found for the plaintiff because Bolt’s conduct was deemed a public mischief and a threat to the social cohesion the Act sought to promote. Yet while there are already plenty of common law protections against insulting behaviour, the sweeping provisions of 18C encroach unreasonably on freedoms of speech and even religion.
When Porteous distributed the Catholic pastoral letter Don’t Mess With Marriage to parents through the Catholic schools in the archdiocese, he quickly found his democratic rights and freedoms in danger of being trampled by new rights asserted under the state’s anti-discrimination law. Transgender activist and Greens candidate Martine Delaney resolved to take the archbishop to the state’s anti-discrimination commissioner, claiming the letter amounted to ‘hate speech’ because it allegedly denigrated same-sex relationships. Delaney finally withdrew the complaint against Porteous in May 2016.
Even so, newly-minted, fashionable rights, such as the right to equality, are often considered to be both incontrovertible and undeniable. This is because the concept of equality has become associated with the idea of disadvantage. Rights such as the right to equality are intended to address that disadvantage; but in doing so, they threaten to trump any right with which they might conflict.
Not everyone shares the compassion-drive analysis of the progressive Left; or agrees with the objectives of their programs to stamp out the new secular sin of discrimination. Indeed, those who do not belong to the social groups that have borne the alleged injustice and discrimination of the suffering minorities — that is to say, those who belong to the majority — increasingly find their shared assumptions about the principles undergirding a liberal democracy are under threat, even when those principles are guaranteed by law. Yet as the discourse continues to shift from the realm of reason to the realm of emotion, so the grievances of minority fundamentalists are more likely to take root and sprout.
Their expectations of democratic institutions to uphold the principles of democracy serves only to widen what is known as the ‘democratic deficit.’ This widening of the deficit is indicative of an increasing readiness on the part of self-appointed guardians of the moral and social order to privilege the sensitivities of the minority over those of the majority.
Milton Friedman once famously warned that ‘the society that puts equality before freedom will end up with neither; the society that puts freedom before equality will end up with a great measure of both’. The rise of identity politics, and the entrenchment of a series of newly-created rights intended to enforce the interests of specific minority groups, has had a serious impact on the health of our democracy. By prioritising equality over freedom, identity politics threatens to lock people into specific categories at the expense of individual liberty — all in its pursuit of democratic egalitarianism.
Minority fundamentalism poses a threat to the normal political and social functions we have for so long taken for granted; which are under increasing threat. And the freedoms we thought we enjoyed as individuals in a democratic society — such as freedom of religion and freedom of speech — are actually being eroded by the process of identity politics that purports to act in the name of equality as a buttress against tyranny but, in reality, threatens to foster it.
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