In honour of Zero Discrimination Day (1 March).
In 2017, UNAIDS called upon people to speak up for the principles of Zero Discrimination Day: “Discrimination doesn’t just hurt individuals, it hurts everyone, whereas welcoming and embracing diversity in all its forms brings benefits for all.”
In such places, discrimination can still prove to be literally a deadly, daily life-and-death crisis. Religious homophobia is rampant across Africa, and contributes to the culture that forces many LGBT people to become refugees, fleeing for their lives to places like Kenya, where they remain potentially in danger. One of my African friends, Trinidad Jerry, was murdered in Kenya last year and, as far as I am aware, his identified murderer has never faced justice. Alternatively, India took a step forward in 2018 with the decriminalisation of homosexuality.
In a western nation like Australia, it is easy to feel complacent about human rights as we are relatively affluent and insulated from many of the world’s problems that beseige our human family overseas. It is therefore ironic that this year’s Zero Discrimination Day comes in the wake of the latest attempt by Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his band of religious holy-rollers to usurp the language of human rights and legislate new forms of religious apartheid and discrimination, especially against LGBT people.
Over recent weeks, this fight has been vicious and unrelenting. During that time, I have been largely absent from blogging, primarily because of the consequent intellectual and emotional exhaustion arising from the stress and tension of fighting this legislation that sought to diminish my human rights and the rights of millions of other Australians.
Ubuntu – We Are Family
The fight against discrimination in Africa is strengthened by what has been defined as the South African humanist principle of Ubuntu, a philosophy that acknowledges our common humanity. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who popularised the Zulu and Xhosa term, translated it as meaning “I participate, I share”. Wikipedia (citing the Official Ubuntu Documentation website and the Guardian newspaper) offers a broader definition:
Ubuntu (Zulu pronunciation: [ùɓúntʼù]) is a Nguni Bantu term meaning “humanity”. It is sometimes translated as “I am because we are” (also “I am because you are”), or “humanity towards others” (in Zulu, umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu). In Xhosa, the latter term is used, but is often meant in a more philosophical sense to mean “the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity”.
Such common humanity, humility, and a compassionate, communal identity is the stated ideal behind many of the world’s religions and philosophies. I would personally see this as not the monopoly of religion, but the common humanity of all people being manifested in a variety of facets across diverse cultures and societies. In Africa, where colonialism has left great social, economic and moral poverty, the idea of Ubuntu challenges both their behaviours and our own. I have previously written: “When considering that, ‘charity begins at home’, we need to remember that the whole world is our home.” Expanding on that idea, when considering our primal instinct for protecting our family, we should also ponder the reality that we are all human, we are all family.
And despite his claims of Christian compassion and human empathy, it appears that our Prime Minister has yet to understand and demonstrate Ubuntu.
The Religious Discrimination Bills
The name says it all – whereas most legislation regarding discrimination is contextualised within titles and frameworks highlighting the intent to promote “anti discrimination”, this Australian legislation was unashamedly titled “Religious Discrimination”.
It is exhausting to simply read the title – let alone the contents – of this proposed legislation: “The Religious Discrimination Bill 2021 [Provisions]; Religious Discrimination (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2021 [Provisions] and Human Rights Legislation Amendment Bill 2021 [Provisions]”. Yet this mouthful of bluster and blarney was the latest attempt by the conservative Australian Parliament to legalise discrimination under the pretense of protecting religious freedoms. A previous Parliamentary inquiry in 2018 recommended that further protections might be needed, but acknowledged that this was a nuanced and complex issue that needed input from diverse stakeholders, many of whom called for a more sophisticated Bill of Rights. The Australian Human Rights Commission summarises both the problem and the solution: “Inclusion begins with respect.”
In Australia, there are already many protections for people of faith, and the right to freedom of conscience, thought and belief is restricted – as are all human rights – predominantly by restraints that are deemed necessary to protect the human rights of others. For example, religious people in Australia cannot burn witches, stone adulterers, genitally mutilate their daughters, or throw LGBT people off rooftops. But the spirit behind the proposed legislation is to make it easier for those with more narrow and potentially harmful interpretations of morality to practice their beliefs in ways that might harm others (such as Citipointe Christian College). In proposing such unbalanced, divisive and harmful legislation, the government’s overreach is a violation of equality and universal human rights:
“If a believer demands that I, as a nonbeliever, observe his taboos in the public domain, he is not asking for my respect, but for my submission.” ― Flemming Rose.
Pride and Prejudice
The Australian Parliament recently ran two inquiries on these Bills, as a demonstration of how much the government wanted to push them through: a Senate inquiry and one run by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights. These were the latest in a long line of attempts by the LNP to legislate a form of elitism in Australia: ensuring that religious bigots have special rights to discriminate against anyone who offends their religious sensibilities, including (but not limited to) women (especially single mothers), Muslims, Jews, atheists, divorcees or remarried couples, LGBT students or teachers, people with disability, and those who do not share their religious views.
The widespread public response to the proposed legislation was opposition from across society: churches and religious communities, LGBT communities, people with disability, multicultural networks. In attempting to divide the nation, the government inadvertently united it.
For my own efforts, my submission was accepted (#206) for the Joint Parliamentary Inquiry and my local MP, Kate Twaites, read aloud into Hansard a portion of my representation to her to please oppose the legislation.
Interestingly, her comments about Australia needing a Bill of Rights received an interjection from a conservative MP who implied that the Magna Carta already defined our national human rights – a typical response from a reactionary who evidently believes that an 800 year-old document that enshrines the rights of the English Church (Clause 1) and predominantly defines the rights of king and barons to oversee the running of a feudal society, might have something generically relevant to say today about human rights for those who were not divinely ordained to rule (indeed, one might see how seriously Australian MPs who espouse the Magna Carta are today when considering how they fail to apply its Clause 40 to the human rights of refugees: “To no man will we sell, or deny, or delay, right or justice”).
Double Dealing and Doublespeak
Wrangling over the problems within the Religious Discrimination Bills brought about proposed amendments aimed to protect gay students but not trans students, the latter being a proposed change that aroused concern from Christian Schools Australia. However, the failure to also protect trans students caused five Liberal MPs to cross the floor of Parliament. Ultimately the protecton of trans students was too much for the government and its Christian overlords, who urged the government to abandon the legislation rather than remove their Christian facility to discriminate – thus demonstrating that the legislation was really about discrimination and exclusion rather than religious freedom. One hopes that those who seek to discriminate will instead learn from this experience and join the 21st century.
Meanwhile, Scott Morrison has suggested that the failure of this legislation demonstrates that Christianity is being persecuted in Australia. Such an astonishing hijacking of the language of human rights by a human rights abuser, echoes schoolyards across my 25-year tenure as a school teacher – where every time a bully had his or her bullying behaviour confronted, they immediately complained that they were being bullied. Far from Morrison being oppressed, the reality of his behaviour is far more dangerous: his legislation aimed to divide and conquer, opposing the principles of Zero Discrimination Day.
And perhaps worst of all – any legislation that aims to divide our human family is as obscene as it is ideologically corrupt. While Scott Morrison sees himself in Biblical terms as Samson, strong in heart but under attack from ungodly enemies, I see him more as the Biblical prodigal son, profligate and indulging in narcissistic fancies; someone who is yet to mature into a responsible human being and grasp an enriched understanding of Ubuntu. On the day that he actually learns human empathy and compassion, in line with the allegedly Christian values which he proclaims but ignores, I for one would welcome him back into the wider, compassionate, inclusive human family. Ubuntu.
©2022 Geoff Allshorn