by SU DHARMAPALA
Tony Abbott could learn something from my funny little four-year old. You see, four year old children are disarmingly honest and forthright.
My son only really started speaking properly recently. It was like he held everything in for a long time and he is now letting it all out. So while I am terribly proud of this suddenly articulate little man who uses words like “terribly spectacular”, I am also desperately trying to teach him tact.
Case in point: last week at Woolworths we were at the checkout when a lady who was morbidly obese queued behind us.
Now, we had been reading a great deal about the body and good nutrition lately so it didn’t surprise me much when my son mumbled something about fat cells. Having a background in biochemistry, I had explained to him that excess sugar gets stored as fat. But I wanted the earth to open up and swallow me whole when he pointed to the fizzy drinks in her cart and said in a loud voice, “My mummy says fizzy drinks gives you fat cells and you are already have loads of fat cells. Why do you want to collect more?”
I was genuinely trapped. I could not back out and leave – I had unloaded half my cart already – so I took refuge in apologising profusely and admonishing my child for rudeness. I was mortified. At which point my son took umbrage and called me on it.
“But you tell me to always tell the truth! And I was telling the truth. This lady has loads of fat cells. Why does she want more?”
Thankfully the lady just wheeled her cart away. Wherever you are, I am so so sorry. I am so sorry for the hurt my son caused and I am so sorry you cannot do your shopping without a rude four-year old making your life hell. Sorry. Sorry. Sorry.
Which brings me to the point made by Tony Abbott in his address to Institute of Public Affairs in Sydney on Monday. Particularly he wants 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, the section which conservative columnist Andrew Bolt was prosecuted under last year repealed.
“Expression or advocacy should never be unlawful. And this is not a matter of agreeing or disagreeing with Bolt. It’s a matter of the right to free speech.”
Yeah, I disagree. It’s not an issue of freedom of speech but an issue of tact. It is an issue of hurt. It is an issue of being civil in a civilised society. And it is a sad state of affairs that the legislation needs to exist but it does because being civil is no longer a valued trait.
Don’t get me wrong. I believe in human rights. Especially in the right to hold my own views and to speak them freely in society. But unlike my four-year-old, I understand that using my vocal chords in concert with my brain comes with great responsibility. It requires that you use your words kindly, gently and for good.
Another point made by Tony Abbott was that “hurt” was legally difficult to test. And I agree with him entirely on this point. It would have indeed been difficult to “legally test” the hurt that I endured as a teenager being taunted by a gang of schoolboys who demanded to know where my “waga” was. I had just got off a plane from Singapore, how was I to know they wanted to know where my spear was?
Likewise, it would have been equally difficult to “legally test” the hurt I felt when I was pelted with apple cores while on my afternoon walk seven months pregnant with my son and told, “Black bitch, go home.” Maybe it was the hormones, but I can tell you that night I seriously considered going “home” and questioned whether Australia was the place I wanted raise my child.
At length my son and I discussed tact, tolerance and the importance of not hurting people’s feelings. I told him what my mum had taught me as a little girl; that it is essential to think before you speak. And even if you have a view on something, is it the right place and time to express it? Yes, the lady was overweight but you did not need to point it out. Her feelings would have been hurt. It is never nice to feel pain inside your heart.
My mum also taught me that it is not good enough to have an opinion and that it needs to be an informed opinion. So my son and I chatted at length about finding out about things and how to have an informed opinion – within reason. He is four, after all.
I must say I am proud of my son though. A few days later, he told me he resisted teasing a girl at school for wearing a silly ribbon in her hair. That he did not want her to hurt on the inside. Clearly my four year old son got it. Do you get it, Mr Abbott?
Su Dharmapala is an author and blogger from Melbourne. Her debut novel, The Wedding Season, was published in May by Simon & Schuster. She will be presenting at the Melbourne Writers Festival on 26 August about the fine art of romance writing.
Can we protect ‘free speech’ too much? Where is the line between being tactless and being cruel?