2007-08-25

Legislating to make us nicer

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by Neil Godfrey

Marion Maddox concludes her God under Howard: how the religious right has hijacked Australian politics with an interesting reminder of the power government legislation to effect social change for the better. “[T]here is good evidence that governments can bring out people’s better side” (p. 317). The example is worth keeping in mind in order to counter the cop-out less progressive governments like to use that politicians cannot make people nicer.

1984, the Sex Discrimination Act outlawed sexual harassment in the workplace.

At the time there were howls from critics that the Act could never work, it was impossible to subject so many subtleties of human behaviour to legislation, that ‘trivial’ incidents would be beaten unfairly with a heavy hammer, that mere friendliness would often be misinterpreted and be criminalized, etc etc etc.

Soon after the passing of the legislation those criticisms were scarcely heard.

The government accompanied the legislation with a successful public information campaign, and took pains to ensure it was carefully worded.

It became clear that there was a huge difference between friendliness and unwanted attention that insulted or intimidated, and that such behaviour was far from trivial.

Result of the legislation? A change in workplace culture throughout Australia. Respectful relationships between men and women, bosses and subordinates, in the workplace now can be assumed. Naturally there are occasional violations, but they are now the exception. Government legislation has brought about a change in attitudes.

Marion Maddox goes on to discuss the possibility of legislation effecting a similar change in racist attitudes. “Legislation which forces us to behave as though we are not racist has a good chance of fostering the reality.” Merely preaching tolerance does not work, but “what changes attitudes is experiencing what it is like to live in non-racist ways, getting to know those people we might once have regarded as ‘Them’, and, importantly, working together to oppose racism.” (p.318)

One can’t help but think of slavery as a starting point. Imagine if Britain waited for social attitudes to change 180 degrees before enacting the Slave Trade Act in 1807 and the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833.

So next time we hear a Tony Abbot or John Howard excuse their tolerance (even politically motivated manipulation) of racism we can at least mobilize, organize and act with the above examples in mind to reach out through media, and with direct pressure on the party reps, to give the hope of an alternative view to the broader public. Those who have the benefit of a broader understanding the workings of society surely have a greater responsibility to find ways to share that benefit. Talk fests and introspective contemplations can amount to criminal neglect, I sometimes think.

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Neil Godfrey

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