You can't 'respectfully' deny people their rights

“I deplore disrespectful, abusive language, whether it is directed at young gay people or religious people.” So declared that sensitive soul Malcolm Turnbull in response to concerns raised about his farcical marriage equality postal survey.

Presumably, he has been too busy managing his property portfolio and counting his millions to consider how – by unnecessarily providing the lunatic Christian right fringe and their kindred parliamentary cranks the opportunity to take centre stage in a public debate – his postal survey might expose poor Malcolm to that which he professes to deplore.

But it’s not just Turnbull. The mantra of “respectful debate” has become all pervasive in relation to the marriage equality survey and is being promoted across the political spectrum. Although in some cases well meaning, this only aids those attempting to prevent reform.

It does this first by obscuring the inherent disrespect at the heart of the No campaign. That there might even be the possibility of respectful debate in relation to this postal survey assumes that a case in favour of state-sanctioned discrimination against an oppressed minority can be put in a way that is respectful to this same minority.

The ludicrousness of this proposition is obvious when considered in the light of historic struggles for civil rights reform. Was there a respectful way to argue to maintain segregation in the US south? Or for apartheid in South Africa? Or to oppose Aboriginal people in Australia being counted in the census? Was there a respectful argument to maintain a prohibition on female suffrage that in no way denigrated the status of women?

Denying civil or political rights to a group and treating them with respect are mutually exclusive. To advocate otherwise only sanitises the No case. And it serves to intimidate and silence those who rightly see that respect should not be extended to those who advocate for state-sanctioned discrimination.

Indeed, a key argument for the Yes side is that discriminatory laws reflect, encourage and legitimise anti-LGBTI prejudice. Because of years of struggle, such prejudice is now less acceptable in Australian society than it has been historically. For the bigots to argue that pointing out this reality – that they are a minority cohered around prejudice – is tantamount to intolerance and bullying, scores a major victory for their side before the campaign has even really started.

But what makes the “respectful debate” mantra so absurd is that it papers over the fact that it is the law that creates, and has created for more than 13 years, a situation of deep disrespect towards LGBTI people, about which today’s born-again respect evangelicals have hitherto been largely unperturbed.

Formal legal restrictions on the civil rights of a minority have more far-reaching consequences and are immensely more disrespectful than anything some television advertisement might say. If Turnbull was really concerned about respect, he would have changed the law, as he could quite easily have done at any time during his prime ministership. As, for that matter, could have Labor.

So for those who are responsible for the current disrespectful law to argue that civil rights campaigners on the Yes side should demonstrate respect for those arguing to maintain these laws, as if both sides are equally victimised by the status quo, is absurd. One side is arguing to maintain a law that codifies the prejudice of a minority, while the other is seeking historic civil rights reform, the mass support for which highlights just how far past its deadline it has become.

If the government wanted more respect, it should have changed the law years ago. If it wants respectful debate, it should create policy, laws and an ideological climate that encourages it: one that doesn’t vilify people for their sexuality or gender expression, which doesn’t brutalise and persecute people for seeking asylum, which doesn’t treat the unemployed like criminals and which provides for people’s educational, health and welfare needs ahead of looking out for the interests of the wealthy and grotesquely privileged.

But this is not the purpose of the respect offensive. It is in reality intended to give cover and legitimacy to views, policies and laws that deserve the utmost disrespect and contempt.