Under the avalanche of criticism his comments provoked, McGuire argued his comments did constitute racial vilification, but he did not, himself, racially vilify Goodes. His tortured account went like this:
“Did I racially vilify? No, I had a slip of the tongue. But did what I say, was it racial vilification? Yes it was," he said.
The backstory to McGuire’s ‘joke’ is a long history of making some people seem like they aren’t human; when you ‘dehumanize’ humans, you can treat them anyway you like.
The Federal racial discrimation law is also pretty clear on what constitutes racial vilification:
It is unlawful for a person to do an act, otherwise than in private, if:
(a) the act is reasonably likely in all the circumstances to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person or group of people, and
(b) the act is done because of the race, colour or national or ethnic origin of the other person or some or all of the people in the group
Whether McGuire has got a legal case to answer for, I can’t tell you. His comment did not incite hatred, which is part of the definition of racial vilification in the Victorian Race and Religious Tolerance Act. It was certainly not on a par with the comments by Alan Jones in the lead up to the Cronulla Riots.
The fact that Australia and many other countries legislate to restrict some forms of speech helps explain the scale of the reaction to McGuire’s comments.
Speech can be enormously powerful. And we won’t have a cohesive society if we let people say whatever they want.
All forms of physical violence are underpinned by what Bourdieu referred to as ‘symbolic violence’. We know that people can be ‘incited’ to violence – and that the medium of incitement to violence is language.
Symbolic violence has a different timescale to physical violence. It can come in a wave of hysteria, as in the hate speech associated with the genocide in Rwanda.
But it can also be just the slow ‘drip drip’ of deprecation – ‘casual racism’ – which reinforces the ideologies that enable the appalling inequities in health and education for indigenous Australians.
Goodes, like many elite sportspeople, is a role model for younger Australians. And he has sent a clear message that insulting and offensive remarks are deeply hurtful and not funny.
This column was first published by the NTEU here.