We believe conversations matter. So when we had the opportunity to chat with Tim Soutphommasane we leapt at the chance to explore his ideas of a civil society. Tim is an academic, political theorist and human rights activist. A former public servant, he was Australia’s Race Discrimination Commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission from 2013 – 2018 and has been a guest speaker at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas. Now a professor at Sydney University, he shared with The Ethics Centre his thoughts on the role of the media, free speech, racism and national values.

What role should the media play in supporting a civil society?

The media is one place where our common life as a society comes into being. It helps project to us our common identity and traditions. But ideally media should permit multiple voices, rather than amplify only the voices of the powerful. When it is dominated by certain interests, it can destroy rather than empower civil society. 

How should a civil society reckon with the historical injustices it benefits from today?

A mature society should be able to make sense of history, without resorting to distortion. Yet all societies are built on myths and traditions, so it’s not easy to achieve a reckoning with historical injustice. But, ultimately, a mature society should be able to take pride in its achievements and be critical of its failings – all while understanding it may be the beneficiary of past misdeeds, and that it may need to make amends in some way. 

Should a civil society protect some level of intolerance or bigotry?  

It’s important that society has the freedom to debate ideas, and to challenge received wisdom. But no freedom is ever absolute. We should be able to hold bigotry and intolerance to account when it does harm, including when it harms the ability of fellow citizens to exercise their individual freedoms. 

What do you think we can do to prevent society from becoming a ‘tyranny of the majority’? 

We need to ensure that we have more diverse voices represented in our institutions – whether it’s politics, government, business or media. 

What is the right balance between free speech and censorship in a civil society?

Rights will always need to be balanced. We should be careful, though, to distinguish between censorship and holding others to account for harm. Too often, when people call out harmful speech, it can quickly be labelled censorship. In a society that values freedom, we naturally have an instinctive aversion to censorship. 

How can a society support more constructive disagreement?   

Through practice. We get better at everything through practice. Today, though, we seem to have less space or time to have constructive or civil disagreements. 

What is one value you consider to be an ‘Australian value’?

Equality, or egalitarianism. As with any value, it’s contested. But it continues to resonate with many Australians.  

Do you believe there’s a ‘grand narrative’ that Australians share?

I think a national identity and culture helps to provide meaning to civic values. What democracy means in Australia, for instance, will be different to what it means in Germany or the United States. There are nuances that bear the imprint of history. At the same time, a national identity and culture will never be frozen in time and will itself be the subject of contest. 

And finally, what’s the one thing you’d encourage everyone to commit to in 2021?

Talk to strangers more. 


To read more from Tim on civil society, check out his latest article here.

Tim Soutphommasane is a political theorist and Professor in the School of Social and Political Sciences, The University of Sydney, where he is also Director, Culture Strategy. From 2013 to 2018 he was Race Discrimination Commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission. He is the author of five books, including The Virtuous Citizen (2012) and most recently, On Hate (2019). 

This project is supported by the Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund.