From pillory to post-truth

Peter Kurti

02 December 2016 | Ideas@TheCentre

PK Huang XiangmoThe word designated by Oxford Dictionaries as the Word of the Year for 2016 is post-truth — as in, “some commentators have observed that we are living in a post-truth world.”

Post-truth applies to circumstances in which ‘objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.’

Post-truth is an apt description of the attempt by Huang Xiangmo, the Chinese billionaire at the centre of a political donations scandal, to present s18C as ‘the bedrock’ of Australian society.

Mr Huang has been rallying Chinese community support to resist efforts to reform the troublesome provision in the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 which makes it an offense to insult or offend.

“Major cracks could open in society,” Mr Huang warned in an article published in a Sydney Chinese-language paper, adding that “free speech is the last thing we need.”

He appears to be worried that without s18C in place, public discussion about immigration, foreign workers, radical Islam — and, presumably, the nature of China’s statecraft — would get out of hand.

And indeed for anyone who grew up in Communist China, where all individual liberty is severely curtailed, the western tradition of freedom of speech and religion must certainly seem reckless.

But Mr Huang’s declaration that, “On any sensible reading, [s18C] provides both safeguards against racism and reasonable protections of free speech” is a perfect post-truth moment.

Emotion and personal belief appear to be distorting Mr Huang’s understanding of our robust democracy. For the true bedrock of our society is not the restriction of liberty, but rather liberty itself.

Anyone wishing to avoid public scrutiny is bound to see the benefits of s18C. In the era of the post-truth world-view, it is easy to cherry-pick data and come to whatever conclusion you desire.

And then, once ‘offended’ and ‘insulted’, it will be reassuring to know that a complaint will be received with sympathetic readiness by loyal friends at the Australian Human Rights Commission.

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