Triumph of identity politics over open debate
Excerpt from an article in The Australian by Greg Sheridan
September 15, 2016
The single most depressing aspect of the debate about the proposed same-sex marriage plebiscite is the determination that there not be a debate — more than that, the authoritarian, censorious, profoundly illiberal strain that the very business of debating the issue is somehow insulting if not illegal.
As Malcolm Turnbull observed, some in the opposition seemed to imply that if you didn’t live in a family with two gay parents, you had no right to have a view on the Marriage Act at all. It’s akin to the view that we must change the Constitution purely because Aboriginal leaders want it changed, that the only change must be a change that they want and that the views of non-Aboriginal citizens are less important — though, unfortunately for the advocates of such change, in our democracy all citizens get to vote.
This sudden and utterly toxic triumph of a doctrine of the supremacy of identity politics — your views are legitimate only if you belong to the relevant or approved identity group, and then only if you repeat the orthodox positions — is one of the most dangerous, undemocratic and ill favoured excursions our democracy has ever taken.
Turnbull has sounded the very soul of reason and sense in this debate. Like the Prime Minister, I will vote yes in a plebiscite if we get one. But, like him, I think it utterly offensive and dismayingly depressing that so many advocates think it is improper for the matter to be discussed in public unless to offer ritual support.
These actions are undemocratic and bad in principle, and promise much worse ahead. They are a sign of the degeneration of our political culture into one of bureaucratic command and diminished freedom. This style, which renders many subjects illegitimate for normal political discussion, was pioneered in practice if not in theory by the EU. It produces bad government and ultimately generates a savage, populist backlash.
If the public feels that mainstream political leaders are not allowed to discuss issues they care about, they finally resort to populists who refuse to take direction from the political class.
Typically, the political class then decides even more censorship is necessary and completely needless bitter conflict ensues, wholly because of the anti- democratic impulses of the bureaucratic authoritarians who police the official ideology.
Plainly 18C is desperately bad legislation and ought to be amended, but the trend in identity politics is all the other way. Nothing was more odious this week than to hear the Greens’ Adam Bandt, when speaking of Lyle Shelton of the Australian Christian Lobby, demand of Turnbull that he not empower “bigots like him” to have a voice in the debate.
Bandt is a typical modern face of authoritarian illiberalism. The desperate desire to prevent a popular vote, and the uncharacteristic concern for public money, that it might be spent on the no case as well as the ideologically approved yes case, wore an air of extremism and menace.
Turnbull was right to admonish Bandt that in labelling his opponents bigots he was doing everyone a disservice. I think there is no longer a case for the civil law preventing same-sex couples from marrying. But there is a real danger to religious freedom in the way we are heading and it is here the churches should make their strongest representations. We saw the likely future when the Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Commissioner entertained a complaint against the Catholic Archbishop of Hobart for publishing the most mildly and politely worded pamphlet imaginable in support of the traditional view of marriage.
The complaint was not laughed out of court, as it should have been, or defeated in a considered process. It was withdrawn in what seems to have been a tactical consideration. In this sort of abuse of democracy, often the process is the punishment. Most people, perhaps even the Archbishop of Hobart, cannot afford the endless legal and administrative and financial costs defending such actions entails.
But that surely is the shape of the future. Christian churches, schools, adoption agencies, publishing houses and the rest will all be subject to complaint and even litigation if they simply teach traditional Christian teaching.
I don’t think the law should enforce traditional Christian teaching but I don’t think it should outlaw it either. All these subjective rules are not good laws but dangerous political fashions, which change. Opponents of abortion believe it kills innocent human beings. A few decades ago the law agreed with this view. Opponents of abortion thus would have found it highly offensive — hate speech indeed — to advocate the acceptance of abortion. But such advocacy was never illegal. Notionally, we were more conservative then. But in critical ways we were more truly liberal.
We are at an evil fork in the road. Thought control, needless, ideological speech control — these are not a decent path ahead.