Is 18c therapeutic? We need more than a law if we are to grow in a culture where taking offense is common place.

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The assumption that clamping down on people who use offensive language will help offended people feel better is dubious. If people want to reduce the likelihood that they will take offense, they will have to spend time talking to safe, loving people who seek to understand them.

The introduction of 18c will not, ultimately, help people who take offence or are subjected to intolerant views. “18c” is a section of the Racial Discrimination Act. This act makes it unlawful to “offend” someone based on their race or ethnicity. This section is a response to, among other inquiries, The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.

Unfortunately racism and intolerance continue to flourish in our nation and this is abhorrent to me and to many people. We must continue to work hard at addressing it. I’ve heard one of our indigenous people say 18c can give minorities a sense of being protected from offenders. Feeling protected by a law is no small thing for people who have been unprotected for so long. I want more for our First People than a law though. I want them to grow strong, proud and resilient despite rude and unthinking people.

If laws like 18c don’t reduce the likelihood of people taking offense, what might?

What works

I spoke with a middle aged man today*. He is single and would love to be in a relationship. I asked him to record some emotional events that happened to him in between his visits to me. He did so and we, after some deliberation, found a link between the three events he described. They were all about either wanting connection or being sensitive to disconnection. I asked him what he would like to do. There was a pause.

“Would you like me to write to that potential girlfriend, to say ‘make sure you don’t think anything negative about him’?”

He chuckled. There was another pause.

“I could write to your work place and say ‘don’t be offensive or else’?”.

Again he laughed quietly as he stared out the window.

“No,” he said, after a pause.

“Why not?” I asked.

“Because I can’t change them, I can only change myself”

He nailed it.

It would be very unhelpful to him if he was to focus on other people needing to change.

A lot of us get offended when we don’t need to be. We become too offended for too long and this happens too frequently.

When upset we over-detect offense and then interpret things in ways that lead us to personalise the situation. In therapy these detection systems and interpretations are the focus of change. Focusing on and changing these things works. Focusing on the way we think, feel and act in the context of a safe relationship helps us to grow. Any victim state is undone when someone takes responsibility for themselves and the way they think, feel and act. Laws like 18c are likely to keep us in a victim state, because they maintain the vigilance to offense by encouraging us to focus on what others say, not on how we think. Its therapeutic value is low.

So in humility, here is a suggestion.

Instead of damning the offender, we might do better to support the people who are offended. Instead of focusing on what is bad, it will be better to focus on what is good or nourishing for human development: Fostering safe, loving relationships, particularly for us in our formative years, in which people can be understood. As one of the great researchers of our time, George E Vaillant, has said, “What goes right is more important than what goes wrong”. This is vital for the development of resilient adults and a resilient society.

Towards this end we are not doing well. In fact there is something of a storm brewing on the horizon. I find it ominous to learn that two thirds of 12-13 year old children in Australia have experienced low warmth or high levels of hostility from their parents, placing them at risk of mental health difficulties in their adult years. Connection, or lack of it, in our early years not only affects us when we are young, but has an impact on our happiness and success in adulthood. It need not be that way, and if we want to create adults who rarely take offense, we need to change it.

Dr Jonathan Andrews MAPS**

Clinical Psychologist

*Demographic details have been altered to ensure anonymity.

** I am a member of the Australian Psychological Society, but the views expressed in this blog are mine, and mine alone.

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