To my one or two ‘followers’! Hello for the last time in 2021 and the first time in 2022. Another bummer year. Never mind, on we go… Since I have been banging on all year (last year) about the perils of not getting health measures right in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, why stop now when so much is happening or not happening… This one takes a bit of a leap of faith by trying (perhaps too hard and to my detriment) to link two seemingly on-the-surface disparate issues fought over in public debate, that of protesting Covid-19 health measures and diversity in the education sector, to find or unearth commonality. For me that is race or more precisely the invisibility of race. Freedom fighter, so called ‘sovereign citizens’, are front and centre to resisting government interventions intended to contain the Covid pandemic. In some respects they are like a virus themselves identifying and latching on to any weak spot to infiltrate in order to perpetuate themselves. In Australia, freedom fighters in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) commandeered the entrance to the Old Parliament House where the Australian Aboriginal Embassy stands and is protected by Aboriginal people, whose history is of colonisation, and burnt it. It is not too hard to catch the symbolism of this in the attempted take down of Capitol Hill in the US in January 2021.
Protest used to be about social justice, now it is about the individual self, not society (thanks Margaret), though there is no hesitation to co-opt the narrative of social justice to suit the anti-intervention movement. As for diversity in education, freedom fighter politicians are doing their best to stifle progressive efforts to offer students wider knowledge and understanding of Australia’s blemished history of colonisation of indigenous Australians. The constant, I propose, is the continued silencing and invisibility of race as a framework for understanding society. Here it is. Its a biggie…
Freedom Fighting ‘Sovereign Citizens’ and the Invisibility of Race
“…An independent island within the wider sea of Australian law…” (Scoles, 2021)
Stella H. Coram, December 31, 2021
Introduction: Misappropriating Freedom, Democracy, and Rights
Australian sovereigns are like US patriots. Inspired by love of country, and taking nationalism to an extreme, they are the new-age defenders of freedom. Not just street fighters, though, some do their activism through political channels to counter a pretend wave of anti-whiteness leaving no room for tolerance of racial narrative.
Something is happening in Australia and it is not good. Where once people protested against government largely in peace that is less the case now. Australia has become a hotbed of simmering discontent showing itself in violent protests against health policy measures to contain the damage wrought by the Covid-19 pandemic. Doing what is needed for the ‘greater good’ is irrelevant compared to the ‘rights’ of individuals to live freely. They, freedom fighters, resent being told what to do and rally for the ousting of leaders by whatever means. This is challenge for democracy.
Freedom is defined in my Australian Pocket Oxford Dictionary (4th Edition) as a “condition of being free or unrestricted” (p.433). As an extension of this, freedom fighter is a “person who takes part in violent resistance to an established political system” (p. 433). This necessarily equates freedom fighting with violence negating the potential for democracy to be achieved peacefully, without violence. As such, it arguably represents the antithesis of democracy defined as a “government by the whole population through elected representatives” (p.284). Democracy is not a given. It must be defended to ensure that it is not corrupted for self-interest.
Freedom is inextricably linked to democracy. It cannot exist in the absence of the latter in terms of the ‘right’ to vote. Elections, thus, safeguard the assurance that an incompetent government can be voted out of office. However, freedom has been subject to revisionism. Rather than stand for freedom of tyranny, it has morphed into a byword for the sovereign citizen whose interests are predicated on the right of individual autonomy to make decisions for oneself, without political interference, but to the cost of others. Their rights are more important than the rights of those who do not protest. There are sound ethical reasons for when individual rights must apply but in the context of a pandemic this does not wash since decisions must be made for the good of society and its citizens. That said, it is important to distinguish between those who are unable to be vaccinated due to reaction to vaccinations and those who choose not to be vaccinated for ideological reasons.
Australia champions itself as a democracy but this is questionable given recent attempts by members of the Australian federal coalition government to introduce voter identification (Maley, Electoral Knowledge Network, 2021). This is problematic because it potentially denies people, who may not have appropriate identification, such as the homeless, from voting. There is a flow-on effect from the nefarious political conduct of members of parliament to ‘ordinary’ citizens. Permission is given, down the line, for freedom fighters to discard decency. In response to lockdowns imposed namely by Labor state governments to contain the Covid-19 pandemic, freedom fighters, operating on the fringes, were reported calling to “behead” the premier of Western Australia, Mark McGowan (Thompson, December 17, 2021) and to “hang” Victoria’s premier, Dan Andrews (Thomas, November 18, 2021). In the great Australian tradition of adopting the get-out-of-jail default position of claiming ‘just a joke’, the offending party can retreat from such expression of hate to avoid responsibility for any subsequent ramifications. Even so, freedom fighters reject cautioning of their speech, under the guise of free speech, yet grant themselves license to assert invective and inuendo to smear opponents. In this, they reveal an impatience for due process as well as a taste for nastiness.
Freedom fighters are defended as ‘ordinary’ Australians, who feel compelled to protest health measures impinging on their freedoms to go about their lives as they see fit. Their desire to protest may have started off decrying lockdowns but has since morphed into refusal to vaccinate. Where they were once peaceful, they have turned to being hell-bent. Going on the banners paraded at protests, Australia’s freedom fighters subscribe to the arch-right ideology of US-based groups such as Q Anon.
In addition to protestors, there is a subcategory of celebrity profile freedom fighters represented by a mixed bag of public figures including politicians, shock jocks, and academics revelling in serving it up to ‘bleeding-heart’ (mostly Labor) state governments. Unlike freedom fighters loudly protesting on the streets, this cohort is more likely to engage in carefully crafted cerebral games as they equivocate their words. In some respects, they are more dangerous than the in-your-face cohort.
Freedom fighters cite the denial of their human rights. Accordingly, they resist complying with health measures from lockdown and mask wearing to vaccination. However, they misrepresent human rights. Whilst human rights nominally refer to the “right of every man to be free from interference or oppression”, interpretation of this is misguided. Human rights have very little to do with matters of personal choice and everything to do with sanctioning human need for survival in terms of the provision of shelter, protection, food, safety, health, education and the like.
Human rights, moreover, are not discretionary rights, reserved for a select group. They apply to everyone. The principle, Rule of Law, sets equality before the law (Article 7 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights Charter and Section 15 of Australia’s Human Rights Act 2019). Rule of Law benchmarks the centrality of equality for all through observance of due process and protection. Thus, freedom in the context of human rights is upholding freedom from persecution on the basis of race, ethnicity, culture, religion, nationality, gender, politics. It is not about perceived discrimination arising from enforced restrictions intended to protect lives.
British jurist Albert Dicey is credited with developing the principle of equality before the law in the early C19th. Its origins though can be traced back to the C4th to Aristotle, who professed “rule of law over rule of discretion… to inform that of any individual”. In other words, no man was above the law. A noble sentiment in principle, the problem is in the actuality of delivering on the principle.
That is to say, equality of all before the law did not always apply to all. For instance, the taken-for-granted premise of ‘all’ implying inclusivity generally referred to white men (or ‘freemen’), not women or blacks and most certainly not to slaves or non-citizens. Even the much-lauded Magna Carta Libertatum (Great Charter of Freedoms) cited by freedom fighters, as justification for their actions, applied principally to barons (or rulers) of medieval fiefdoms arching up against the tyranny of the Crown.
The Magna Carta Libertatum was a royal charter of peace signed by King John of England and ‘rebel’ barons seeking protection from illegal imprisonment, punishments, and the burden of increasing feudal payments (taxes). In essence, it enshrined core principles in terms of rights to liberty and justice for ‘free men’ (a small cohort, by the way). It guaranteed the right to protest abuses of power without fear of punishment and, importantly as well, it made all including the king subject to the law. This is considered a precedent to democracy (Breay and Harrison, 2014).
To cite the Magna Carta is misguided. For starters, the monarchy relied on its rights of succession to continue to ‘rule’ in its own interests whereas democratic governments are elected to govern on behalf of the people. They can be tossed out. Furthermore, the right to protest is enshrined in democracy as are individual rights to protection from punishment under present-day democracy (or ought to be) as in the right to vote. Health measures are intended for the safe keeping of citizens. Of course, it is claimed by protestors that health measures, in particular lockdown, are anti-democratic – an abuse of power – by restricting individual freedoms even when those freedoms impact or prohibit the rights of others. However, rights under the Magna Carta were not so much about individual choice but rather about ensuring the rights of individuals to protest freely without punishment or retribution.
Unacknowledged here is the gulf between principle and the delivery of equality before the law. Some people are more equal than others. The wealthy, primarily white people, are able to draw on capital not available to others. Critical race theory (CRT) and critical whiteness theory refer to this as “privilege”. At the other end of the spectrum, there is a truck load of literature in Australia pointing out that indigenous Australians are not treated equally before the law. They lack capital necessary to negotiate for leniency. A 2018 report prepared by Jesuit Social Services for the Australian Law Reform Commission outlines the disproportionate rate of incarceration of indigenous Australians. The report also finds that the majority had not committed a criminal offence (Australian Law Reform Commission, 2018).
This raises the classic tension between individual rights and group-based rights. Freedom fighters are driven by individual rights even whilst protesting collectively. As far as I can see, freedom fighters reject group-based rights especially when it comes to racial or ethnic minorities. If anything, they arguably go further than that since their call for the ‘right’ of individual choice means in effect the right to discriminate against others. Freedom fighters, including ‘anti-vaxxers’, put at risk the lives of others by refusing to comply with public health measures. Vulnerable members of the community including indigenous peoples, and the professionals who must care for them should they fall ill with Covid, come to mind.
Anecdotal evidence from a family member, a senior emergency nurse in a Melbourne hospital, tells of ‘anti-vaxxer’ patients, who are symptomatic of Covid, refusing to wear a mask. They also refuse to be vaccinated until it is too late. This implies either: a) they do not accept Covid exists, b) if it does and they catch it, they will not be harmed because they are healthy. C) They are okay with the vaccinated doing the heavy lifting for them – to keep them safe – and d) stressed out medical staff will just have to fulfill their obligation to look after them if they become sick with Covid.
Freedom fighters appear to disregard the law with impunity. For some yet unexplained reason – at least for me – they have become sufficiently inflamed and have thus given themselves permission to act like tyrants. Striking a police horse on patrol during anti-lockdown protest shows blatant disregard for animals and the law (see reference to “Boiling point”). A question, then, is where does this come from?
Thomas (December 22, 2021) links discordant conduct on the streets back to the utterances of elected representatives that border on incitement. She argues: “under the right circumstances some of their audience may interpret their violent language not just as ‘rhetorical flourish’ but as literal”. She points to maverick MP George Christensen, who in as speech to the House of Representatives on November 24 referred to Victorian premiers being “drunk on power” lurching toward “totalitarian regimes” and the creation of “medical apartheid”. Christensen’s answer to this is “civil disobedience”.
Elected representatives do not operate in a vacuum. If anything, they rely on a cosy media. Thomas also argues: “it would be impossible to miss the influence that inflammatory media commentary has had on protests [primarily in Victoria] and the anti-lockdown movement more broadly, in particular Sky News and its stable of pundits”. In September, Gideon Rozner of the conservative think tank the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) calls Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews “Dictator Dan” and asserts he is “literally trying to build a COVID gulag (labour camp) here”. Violent protests followed. She concludes, “Australian democracy is under threat, not from some imaginary dictator but from the creeping rot of distrust in political leaders and alienation from the political process” (Thomas, December 22, 2021).
Protest was about calling for justice for the oppressed. This has changed. Altman, writing for Time (June 4, 2020), observes that the killing of African American man George Floyd by the knee of a police officer in May 2020 triggered civic unrest. There were peaceful protests. However, the accumulative weight of the killing of African Americans by Police, three times that of the rate for the rest of the population, spilled from peaceful protest into civil unrest. Police fired rubber bullets at protestors peacefully exercising their First Amendment Rights. Systemic injustice was the cause inflamed by the killing of Floyd.
Identity-based protests have their radical elements. A point of difference, though, is that the motivation for protest, as a form of solidarity, is for justice when due process has failed repeatedly. This is none more apparent than in the killing of George Floyd in May 2020. It is noteworthy that racial disparity, indicated in the killing of African American men, underscores the impact of Covid-19 in the US. According to the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) data base, 13% of the US population identify as African American., around 22% of that population caught Covid-19 and 23% of that cohort died of Covid (Altman, June 4, 2020). This is significant because although protest against vaccination, for example, may represent an amalgam of people from divergent sectors of society, there is almost always a cohort to be found at the bottom of the pile that suffers most. In Australia, that cohort is indigenous peoples.
Freedom fighters have positioned themselves as victims to tyranny of government. They are the new victims of discriminatory policy favouring minorities at the expense of ‘ordinary’ (white) Australians. They have co-opted the discourse of social justice for their own purpose – to have their rights to do as they choose held to. This of course comes at the expense of others. Whether they realise it or not, they actually want the right to be infected and to potentially infect other people. They ignore the fact that their conduct impacts adversely on the rights of others, especially vulnerable people, not to be at increased risk. In any case, social justice is intended to address longstanding discrimination experienced by members of minority communities not matters of want. This why their framing of ‘freedom’ is problematic.
There is no suggestion that protest is not to be tolerated. On the contrary, the right to protest is central to democracy. The issue at stake is the (mis)representation of freedom, which for some has come to mean the right to disregard due process. Rather than serve as a pillar of democracy, freedom fighting has gone beyond the right of objection to rebellion spilling over into civic unrest. Clearly, tolerance has gone out the window. It has become strategic practise for freedom fighters to release into the public domain the private details of politicians and their families for which the purpose is plainly obvious – to engage in threatening behaviour. Furthermore, they have taken to disrupting the rights of others to be vaccinated by harassing medical staff outside clinics and deploying other means of disruption. Here are indicators that so-called ‘freedom’ is not extended to, or intended for, everyone.
It is my contention that an unacknowledged tension common to the pandemic and identity politics is the right to discriminate. Bearing in mind that discrimination can be done for good – to positively discriminate – in this instance discrimination refers to conduct impacting adversely on the rights of the others. That is to say, freedom fighters protest for the ‘right’ (freedom) to discriminate against others. They seek the right to disregard the rights of others for protection from illness, and freedom from persecution, including the right to engage in hate speech. And they especially seek the right to be irresponsible and for others to pay the costs for their folly. This all about them.
Prior to the pandemic, freedom fighters might have engaged in attacking remedial policies of cultural pluralism. A recent example being in relation to diversity in the education sector most pressing of which has to do with conservative politicians warning of the dangers of critical race theory. Pauline Hanson lobbied successfully to have critical race theory banned from being taught in Australian schools. For this reason, the issue of diversity in the education sector is integral for drawing attention to invisibility of race that cuts across the spectrum of such divergent issues.
Whilst race is not crucial to protesting health restrictions, it is there nonetheless. Indigenous Australians, and other minorities, are generally susceptible to health issues, in particular heart and kidney diseases, thereby compounding their vulnerability to Covid. They cannot afford to protest against vaccination, which suggests that resistance to vaccination is a first world problem. That said, some members of indigenous communities are reluctant to vaccinate perhaps being persuaded by material share online that is hostile to vaccination.
Another relevant point to race is the presence at protests of Nazi symbolism, which is founded on racial hierarchies – of white superiority and black inferiority. Not that that racial ideology gas never been eradicated, it is seeping back into mainstream discourse to the point of becoming common or even mainstream. This is a worry.
This essay is organised into four main components:
1.Freedom fighting for the ‘right’ of individual choice
2.Freedom fighting for the ‘right’ to discriminate
3.Freedom fighting for the ‘right’ to dehumanise
4.Freedom fighting for restoring whiteness
1.Freedom fighting for the ‘right’ of individual choice
‘Iron Lady’ Margaret Thatcher famously remarked to the effect that there is no society meaning that the is only the individual (Brittan, 2013). Emphasis on the rights of the individual has been in the making more readily since. There is the relentless drubbing in advertising on how special (unique) we are. Spending on houses, health, cars, schools, work, holidays, insurance, clothing, food and the like – is plugged as being tailored to individual needs. Individuals, not society, are the centre of the universe. Much like children denied a toy, they bellow in order to get what they want.
Freedom fighters appear single-minded in pursuit of their individual ‘rights’ without consideration for the rights of others for safety and protection in accordance with the law. Their rights precede those of people whose everyday experience is of occupying the margins. The poor, the homeless, under employed, unemployed, casual ‘workers’, racial or ethnic minorities, women, gay people, and refugees.
Their rights are premised on denial. Covid does not kill. How can it, when it is a hoax? What kills is sufferance from being denied the right to do the basics – work, school and play, go to the gym, get a haircut, travel, be with family and friends. It is not difficult to appreciate the hardships to come from restrictions imposed over a very long period of time in terms of being separated from loved ones, and so on. I have lost five family members in my home country of New Zealand, including my parents, whom I was not able to travel to say goodbye to. I’m still waiting for the green light to travel. Hard as it is, on me personally, I get the need for restrictions.
Nonetheless, seemingly possessed of an inflated sense of self-importance, they elevate their individual ‘choice’ to that of a human right – a right not to wear a mask, to not vaccinate – in fact, a right to disregard public health orders. But this is a distortion of human rights, which in essence are about foundational rights, or needs, for survival such as for safety or protection from harm, shelter, food, education, etc. It has less to do with matters of individual preference.
A right cannot be a ‘right’ if it imposes on the ‘freedoms’ of others. Nor can it be a right if it cannot be extended or apply to the betterment of all. In this context, it is not tyrannical for a government to act in the interests of citizens, to protect them from disease, even when the health measures imposed are highly restrictive. There is such a thing as erring on the side of caution. Bottom line, the fundamental check and balance for any democratically elected government, deemed to have over reached, is the next election. This epitomises the very safeguard of a democracy.
Freedom fighters seek to exert their power and influence so as to overturn that which in their view is plain wrong. They know better than people who have devoted their efforts to the cause of humanity. Governments, especially, are in their sights for being ‘sucked in’ by big business and for caving to minority interest groups at their expense. They insist on their rights to free speech even when it its vile and hateful with Nazi insignia is becoming a not-uncommon sight.
Freedom fighters represent the silenced (white) majority: They are heroes to the cause. However, it does not require much to be a ‘hero’ when one has the quiet backing of a conservative prime minister.
So called ‘anti-vaxxers’ insist on the right not to be vaccinated. When asked about the reasoning for this, a common ploy is to adopt a neutral standpoint. “I’m not an ‘anti-vaxxer’, I just want to wait for more research on its safety”. Few appear to actually claim to being an ‘anti-vaxxer’ but there are thousands, who by their actions, clearly steadfastly refuse. This is indicative of planning as to how to push back to criticism. They are schooled in reciting deflections arguably straight out of US based Patriot handbook. As “sovereign citizens”, police have no jurisdiction over them. “I do not consent”. However, Article 61 of the Magna Carta does not grant them the right to “opt out” (Scoles, 2021) Not only do they resist, though, they disrupt peoples’ rights of access to vaccination. This is contrary to the rights of others.
Opportunism is at play. In times of uncertainty, social mores for conduct in the public sphere are discarded. No need for earnest speech founded on good faith when posts or twitter feeds fuelling disquiet are pumped out and when catchy reposts on posters work well enough for drawing attention. It is bad enough that ordinary citizens have been taken in by anti-government rhetoric and hatred but when political figures dare to be associated with arch-right fringe groups, one is obliged to consider whether hatred is on the brink of becoming mainstream.
Australia is mimicking the US. Much like supporters of former president Donald Trump, a highly visible and loud cohort in Australia is challenging due process to the point of inciting insurrection. Mirroring the destruction wreaked on US Capitol Hill in January 2021, freedom fighters insinuated themselves into the Aboriginal Tent Embassy at the entrance to Australia’s Old Parliament House in Canberra and burnt the entrance (McGowan, December 31, 2021). Not only has speech has been trivialised to meaningless slogans such as “make Victoria great again” (see e-Bay) but that all bets are off. Like corona virus they find a weak spot to latch onto and infect.
There is a certain callousness to this. The freedoms sought by protestors, in rejecting public health orders, are nonsensical since their refusal prohibits – or makes worse – attaining the very freedoms they desire. Congregating to protest, especially without wearing a mask, is a known ‘spreader event’ with the attendant likelihood of extended lockdown to disrupt infection. Hardships to come from this do not compare to the indefinite detention of refugees by Australia whose lives really are at stake. They think only of themselves and appear not to consider that their refusal to comply exacerbates the rights of those who do comply to live free of the virus. Imperceptibly taking place, is the subduing of society to the agency of the individual.
As the Australian prime minister Scott Morrison is rather fond of saying, with a view to shoring up support for elections in 2022, “ordinary Australians do not like being told what to do and are taking their lives back”. More to point, ordinary Australians do not like being told what they cannot do. Morrison might not use nasty words but his meaning is nasty. He taps into manipulations of truth by blatantly playing to nationalism citing – the “Australian way” – to defend his coalition government’s head-in-the-sand refusal to set a target for reducing carbon emissions by 2030 in line with the global climate change conference in Glasgow 2021. He counts on stirring Australian nationalism to back him against tyranny of globalisation. Morrison has an unenviable track record of defending Australia’s sovereign right to go it alone by continuing to hold refugees in detention indefinitely. And he did Australia no favours by breaking a billion-dollar contract with France to build submarines so that he could sign a new deal to secure nuclear submarines with the US and the UK (Shepherd, 2021)). If he can get away with it then so too can his supporters including right-wing commentators, who do not hold back in their attacks on opponents.
2.Freedom fighting for the ‘right’ to discriminate
Freedom fighters, in reality, seek the right to discriminate against minorities, in word or deed. As justification, they hide behind the principle of free speech. They do not want to have to engage they just want. Nor do they want to be accused of being bigoted, or the ultimate bogey, of being labelled ‘racist’. The way around this is to deny its presence – a form of latent racism, exacerbating any underlying tension.
Latent racism is like a kind of festering resentment of persistent claims of racism by non-white folk that ordinary white folk fail to see. They wish it would just go away or sink into the annuls of history. They recognise only the standard garden variety of overt racial discrimination to miss the importance that latent racism has more to do with a refusal to see racism. This is partly because latent racism may be typically papered over with language of neutrality. It is hidden in other words. Masked by the very notion of ‘freedom’ without taking into account freedom for some but not all.
Freedom fighters see themselves nobly fighting for a cause, for the rights of ‘ordinary’ people to be restored in response to decades of ‘looney-left’ policy supporting undeserving minority communities. Whilst there is no statement of ‘white rights’, that is the precise nature of grievance, which can be readily identifiable, if one looks closely enough, given racial neutrality underwrites political discourse. There is rarely any reference to race. It is implied rather than stated: depoliticised framings such that ‘identity’ has replaced race. That does not dissolve resentment born of perception of undue non-white privilege, which comes through in loud public outcries in relation to selective criticism of critical race theory (CRT) and ‘cancel culture’ (underwritten by ‘woke’). Right leaning extremism sets out to restore the interests of whites to the centre of social and political discourse by refuting collective, identity-based frameworks for achieving social justice and equality.
A recent debate in the US, reported in Australia, centres on white grievance of identity politics in the context of higher education. Academic Dorian Abbott penned an essay to convey his annoyance at the injustice of placements reserved for applicants on the basis of identity. His argument is that this denies the rights of applicants possessing the appropriate merit. On the cusp of presenting a prestigious lecture, Abbott was “cancelled” (Knott, 2021). Abbott’s essay was not in his field of study and so it is feasible to suggest he is pushing back against the sacred cows of the left such as antiracism, diversity, identity politics, wokeness and cancel culture. He is for restoring the rights of the individual, who has merit, unlike candidates unfairly advantaged on the basis of identity. He is at the very least misinformed and at worst wilfully ignorant for an intelligent man.
Abbot vehemently denied accusations of racism. Yet, he does not recognise his racialized assumption that African American candidates do not, for example, have the appropriate merit. He simply assumes that the hard work (merit) of whites should be the rightful template for acceptance and in doing so fails to understand the invisible hoops that identity candidates must navigate simply to get a look in. In other words, they need to have more than merit and that without a hand up they will continue to languish at the bottom of the heap. Abbott does not acknowledge that scholars of colour are leaving in droves due to the stress of constantly having to defend their appointment and do their job. That is how racial inequality works.
Eduardo Bonilla-Silva (2017) says it best.: “racism without racists”. The presence of racism is not predicated on the existence of the ‘racist’. Citizens may be quick to rise to offence at the mere perception of accusation of being called ‘racist’ but this is hardly the issue. It is of minimal consequence compared to the bigger problem of the enduring persistence of racism – for those on the receiving end. This is not about bigoted attacks – important as they are – but more so about the informality of racial inequality, which exists and persists by virtue of its ordinariness. The common assumption is that racism is intentional. Perhaps it was but not so anymore. Now, it about indifference to the suffering of people living on the margins of society.
The net effect of this is that simplistic notions of race and racism pave the way for misunderstandings of the concepts and measures designed to enhance opportunity for quality of life for people so racialised. For instance, the notion of racial equality is generally taken that being treated the ‘same’ is equality and that to treat people differently on the basis of identity is therefore the equivalent of racial inequality. The problem is that some people have more access to achieving ‘equality’ than others. The starting blocks for life are hardly the same. Thus, it may be necessary to treat certain peoples, especially of marginalised or minority communities, ‘differently’ in order for them to become equal. This is the underpinning to affirmative action.
There is the principle of “all being equal before the law” and then there is the practise of this principle – or lack of. The former is yet to be attained. As George Orwell wrote in his classic Animal Farm “some are more equal than others”. This is the foundation for racial inequality, which one is not permitted to talk about being too political since it smashes the myth of equality before the law.
To be ‘different’ is to be divisive and must therefore be rejected especially when formalised into justice-based social, economic and education policy. This applies to the concept of diversity, which for critics of the right has passed its use-by-date. Rather than engage, the default typically is to label diversity as “lunacy” and to emphasise the fawning of the left to transfer the rights of deserving individuals to undeserving minorities. Whites are being robbed of their rights.
Critical race theory (CRT) questions the persistence of racial disparity despite decades of civil rights work in the US. Asking the same question in the context of racial disparity in Australia is not a good thing for conservatives. Little wonder that CRT has become a whipping boy with barely a thumbnail of knowledge in terms of the origins of CRT or what it is actually about here in Australia. By the bye, it starts with the simple but powerful premise that racism is so ordinary it is near invisible to see and that is in part because racism functions informally. This is not so much about what is done – to discriminate outwardly and adversely – it is more so about what is not done. Neglect. One looks the other way, does nothing, when something ought to be done to preserve the dignity of people such as refugees fleeing persecution from their country of origin. Patricia Williams (1992) frames such indifference within the context of disregard. Thus, one must engage in order to identity the means by which racism persists. The purpose is not to sneer at society and has nothing to do with guilt. It is about insight and understanding.
Nonetheless, the conservative pitchfork is aimed squarely at accusation of indoctrination through CRT to heap guilt on innocent children. More’s the pity given that debate – as an exchange of ideas – has given way to intolerance and opportunism. For Australia’s most famous ‘racist’, Pauline Hanson (leader of One Nation), Australia is white and everyone else just needs to come to terms with that ‘fact’. To undermine the status quo through policies designed to support minority communities amounts for her to “reverse racism”. Thus, ordinary (white) Australians are the new victims of racial discrimination. She is unable to appreciate that informal institutional practises work to effectively exclude minorities from the mainstream leading to policies to ensure opportunity of access to work or study. To challenge Hanson is tricky because this means having to face the music from her adoring cohort, which explains in part why she is still out there. A related problem then is that those who ought to speak stay silent leaving a gap for the shouters.
If not for Hanson, there is always a maverick to pick up the stick. Debate requires reasoned argument, listening, and reflecting in turn. It requires declaration of one’s position and being open to questions. Verity of speech has been undermined.
3.Freedom fighting for the ‘right’ to dehumanise
The dynamic of ‘free speech’ in terms of who speaks and about whom is lost. It is easy for someone of political means to demean another of limited means and far less easy, in contrast, for someone who dares to speak up or back to an oppressor for fear of one’s safety, say. This is not helped by the fact that speech is treated equally.
A rant from the political class about unduly-serviced “proles” (proletariats) at the hands of the public purse is published on the grounds of free speech (Goward, 2021). Speech is rendered a commodity to be manipulated for commercial enterprise and or political gain. There is little need for dialogue since speech has been reduced to statements of accusation that can be readily swallowed and thus conceded to.
Minorities just have to get over themselves and move on. No bleating. This kind of narrative is in itself as form of racialization and speaks to the misrepresentation of free speech. It is free for some and not free for others. The powerful get to speak all of the time and on subjects they know little of. Conversely, the powerless are silenced through ridicule when they dare to speak up. It is not hard to guess who is likely to be powerful and who are likely to be power-less.
Speech is everything. It is what we do, spoken or written, to navigate the world and find our place within it. Certain kinds of speech can lift us to a higher plane of inclusion, acceptance, and belonging or it can drag us down to the horrors of war and killing. It can be truthful and meaningful or it can be filled with venom and cruelty. It is upon us, indeed our obligation, to preserve the principles of speech to ensure the integrity of society. Sadly, that is not happening.
The vulnerability of speech, a conduit to society, reveals itself in numerous contexts. The Covid pandemic has taught us much about ourselves and the value, or lack of, we place on society. We care not for each other anymore. Our only duty is to ourselves. ‘We’ are revolutionaries who rail against political oppression for stifling our ‘freedoms’ whilst making no distinction between governing for good of society and governing for popularity. The former is representative of acting out of courage and the latter acting out of self-interest. There is no truth, only versions of the truth.
Sincerity of thought or deed are lost. Pugnacious attack of opponents is front and centre. Even worse are the inertia and indifference of citizens for tolerating this. On the precipice of a cliff, we could not care less, unless we are impacted. This is the worst of society and in fact is not society at all. We are in free-fall descending into a loose collective of latent self-serving individuals answerable to no one but ourselves. Sensibilities, instincts and know-how are all that are needed to make “choices” befitting the sovereign individual to the cost of society. This is reflected in rising indifference to values and institutions intended to hold citizens to a higher standard.
The threshold for civility has been steadily eroded from truth to lies, science to faith, speech to rant, good faith to attack, obligation to rights, tolerance to intolerance, knowledge to conspiracy, morality to manipulation, right of reply to denial; independent thought to indoctrination, informed to inflamed, decency to menace, open to closed and from trust to mistrust.
Civility in decline is indicated in the shrill on policies of diversity having “gone too far” to the extent that white people are the new victims of discrimination. To put it another way: whites bemoan that they are unfairly being excluded from gaining access to college campuses in the US because places are reserved for candidates on the basis of identity rather than individual, objective, criteria of merit. This veers dangerously into historical racism of black intellectual inferiority since it implies that blacks and or other minorities don’t possess sufficient merit to gain entry. They are therefore undeserving compared to whites who put in the hard work to gain merit.
Again, this taps into historical racism of blacks as lazy and completely overlooks advantages afforded by social, economic, cultural and literacy capital necessary to obtain the pre-requisite marks for gaining entry into tertiary institutions. It also conveniently ignores the fact that until recently blacks, in particular, have been denied access to education the roots for which can be traced back to racial segregation. Policies of affirmative action seeks to address the weight of impact of this by reserving places to which minority candidates may apply. The carry-on about this being unfair to hard-working (‘deserving’) whites is that they have to compete for once. No longer can they take their inherited or acquired capital for granted.
Commentariats of the far-right persuasion in Australia are unrelenting in their attacks on those least able to defend themselves – indigenous peoples, refugees, people of non-English speaking or ethnic backgrounds, gay people and people of indeterminate gender. They really get going, though, when it comes to activists, including teachers, who they see as pandering to ideology of white guilt. It was reported that school students were ‘made’ to reflect on their privilege (Tsika, June 22, 2021). The response from the right was that students were harmed by being burdened with guilt for historical injustices committed against indigenous Australians. Reflecting on privilege has nothing to do with guilt and everything to do with developing insight into the invisibleness of how privilege works.
The right, furthermore, played to the threat of being censured in speaking out against left ideology labelled ‘woke’. The right argument of censorship by ‘woke’ ignores the fact that speech is not unfettered. It is not free meaning one can say anything. Far from it. Free speech requires sensitivity and sensibility. The thing is some people ought to just exercise discretion to not say anything or at least show restraint rather than lash out. This is especially the case when they have at their disposal a number of platforms for engaging in commentary unlike the marginalised who often cop a spray from powerful figures without a right of reply.
Some experts step out of their lane to have a say and it is because they are experts in their respective fields they may be listened to when they delve into subject matter they know little about. This is not good enough. Perhaps their area is not all that crowd-pleasing hence the diversion by turning to controversy to attack social policy.
I have said this before and will say it again. Free speech is not free. It is not an unfettered right to say what one likes in such a manner that causes harm or offence to an individual or group on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender or religion. Free speech actually sets limits to what can be said in terms of the content and context of speech. In other words, free speech carries obligations of the ‘speaker’ to do so in “good faith” in relation to those “spoken about”. It is not a right to shoot freely from the hip, so to speak, to cause harm without sanction, or right of reply, as much as many may wish this to be so.
Another problem with speech is that too many speak and when they do, they are dangerous such as conspiracy theorists. There is not enough distinction between who we ought to listen to and who to ignore. For instance, a twitter rant by a celebrity may carry the same weight of consideration for someone who has engaged in a field of endeavour for an extensive period of time and who is appropriately qualified to speak. This means that the celebrity is just as credentialed as a person holding relevant qualifications and experience. I’m not saying that they be ignored just that being a celebrity does not mean they ought to be listened to. One is most certainly are entitled to speak, express a view, but in order to speak the speaker must be obliged to a standard of reasonable knowledge base and decency in delivery.
My preference is for freedom of speech. That is, the freedom to speak back or up to oppression without fear of life. We seem to forget that journalists go missing, are jailed, or killed for challenging government elsewhere. That is the kind of right to free speech we ought to be defending not individual rights or freedoms being denied by lockdown in response to the Covid pandemic. Yes, lockdown has been seriously hard but having to stay home for our protection simply does not cut it compared to the Chinese doctor who was censured for tweeting about the emergence of a new virus in Wuhan in January 2020. He died from Covid.
Part of the challenge to upholding freedom of speech – as opposed to ‘free’ speech – is the premise that it is considered noble to defend someone’s right to say what they like even when it is vile. The justification being right of reply to that speech. The damage is done though since speech today can be instant in going online to a global audience. Right of reply comes much later. Moreover, this does not address abuse of speech or the right to be protected from dangerous speech. Defending one’s right to speech, however distasteful, is not noble at all. It is self-serving, an opportunity to prove one’s tolerance.
The perception of a ‘right’ to engage in abusive speech on the basis of free speech is a distortion of French philosopher Voltaire’s framing of speech as an exchange of ideas to which one considers with tolerance and replies in response with reason. For Voltaire, no institute was above examination by reason (Shank, 2009). Voltaire is attributed with the much-cited phrase “though I may disagree, I will defend your right to free speech”. This was actually written by Beatrice-Hall under the pseudonym of Stephen Tallentyre in The Friends of Voltaire (1906). It is cited at just about every turn by defenders of free speech. But Voltaire was not referring to vapid expressions of intolerance such as attack, deceit, defamation, incitement or vilification. And being adamant of religious tolerance, he would be mystified that speech has been dragged to the gutter under the name of religious freedom.
Avowed Christian and international rugby star Israel Folau took it upon himself to ‘defend’ Christianity by condemning deviants to hell. Courtesy of the cult of the celebrity, Folau served as a mouthpiece for Christian conservatism knowing he had the backing of powerful people including a prime minister. He could have kept his views to himself but chose not to because he was after precedent for engineering religious freedom legislation. He could have chosen not to launch a tirade. As the saying goes, if one cannot speak nicely then say nothing. Folau embodied the bully. Go hard. Dehumanise and take no responsibility. He hid behind his faith for cover whilst sinking the boot in. He was after precedent to discriminate against gays. What else did he mean when he said that “gays can burn in hell”? (K. `Kelly, 2021).
The point of speech from someone in the public eye is presumably to say what the silent majority, is thinking but not prepared to say for fear of backlash. A secondary objective thereof is to influence an about-turn in policy. Inherent here is the notion that a vocal minority is holding the silent majority to ransom. To challenge this therefore takes courage. It is easy to challenge when one has the backing of leading political figures cheering you on and it does not take much courage to walk away from responsibility should matters go pear shaped in consequence. That will fall inevitably to someone else.
4.Freedom fighting for restoring whiteness
Another form in the right to discriminate against. This is an old one that keeps cropping up, alas. The idea is to put a stop to the undeserving advantages of diversity and inclusion policy in the higher education sector afforded minority scholars. Reading between the lines, this is a waste of money since minorities are intellectually inferior. To run this line means to clash headlong into ‘cancel culture’.
The prestigious John Carlson Lecture to be delivered by associate professor in geophysics, Dr Dorian Abbot (University of Chicago), to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) was cancelled. The theme of Abbott’s lecture was “climate and the potential for life on other planets”. Wikipedia notes that Abbot draws on mathematical and numerical models to research climates – planetary, habitability and exoplanets. The decision to cancel followed a critical essay Abbot co-wrote with Ivan Marinovic: “The diversity problem on campus” published in Newsweek (August 21, 2021). The subject of their criticism was Diversity, Equality and Inclusion (DEI).
DEI violates the ethical and legal principle of equal treatment. It entails treating people as members of a group rather than as individuals, repeating the mistake that made possible the atrocities of the 20th century. Merits and qualifications are disregarded so as to deny admission because an applicant belongs to the wrong group. A more important social objective justifies doing so. DEI treats persons as merely means to an end, giving primacy to a statistic over the individuality of a human being.
Viewed objectively, American universities already are incredibly diverse. They feature people from all countries, races and ethnicities. American universities are diverse not because of DEI, but because they have been extremely competitive at attracting talent from all over the world.
We propose an alternative framework called Merit, Fairness, and Equality (MFE) whereby university applicants are treated as individuals and evaluated through a rigorous and unbiased process based on their merit and qualifications alone.
Ninety years ago, Germany had the best universities in the world. Then an ideological regime obsessed with race came to power and drove many of the best scholars out, gutting the faculties and leading to sustained decay that German universities never fully recovered from. We should view this as a warning of the consequences of viewing group membership as more important than merit, and correct our course before it is too late (Abbot and Marinovic, 2021).
To summarise: Abbot and Marinovic argue that university policy of DEI unfairly disadvantages white students. By focusing on group identity DEI denies access to a place for students with the appropriate credentials. They contentiously claim that to continue DEI is to “repeat mistakes that made possible the atrocities of the 20th century”. DEI is crippling to an extent that “self-censorship within dissenting faculty is nearly universal”, which is why arguably they have decided to speak up. They justify their essay by claiming that they are merely saying what the majority believes, what is already “out there” and that this needs to be said “before it is too late”. They would surely know that their essay was likely to run headlong into controversy.
They attempt to mitigate any suggestion that they destroy not build in proposing their alternative policy based on Merit, Fairness, Equality (MFE). This is rather pitiful since it implies that diversity scholars do not have ‘merit’ and that they be treated equally – that is, without favour granted seemingly to scholars of diversity. They ascribe to a myopic notion of equality where nobody gets a hand up even though they might assume nothing less for themselves but not be aware of this because they are used to being in possession of advantage.
After learning of his fate, Abbott posted a reply on website Common Sense published by New York Times columnist Bari Weiss (Knott, Sydney Morning Herald, 2021). American correspondent to Australian papers, Matthew Knott headlines the fallout in sister publications The Age (Melbourne) and the Sydney Morning Herald respectively. “Speech hits new hurdles: A cancelled lecture at a prestigious US university has ignited a firestorm in academic circles” (The Age, October 23) and “He’s no neo-Nazi”: How a cancelled lecture lit a free speech firestorm” (Sydney Morning Herald, October 22).
Having first read The Age article, it occurred to me that Abbot had engaged in a cynical exercise to gain attention by using an easy target, which was confirmed as much upon reading Knott’s column in the Sydney Morning Herald quoting Abbott.
Over 8000 people signed up for the virtual event, a huge turnout Abbot acknowledges was driven largely by anger at his MIT cancellation rather than demand to hear about the potential for life on other planets.
Defending their essay, Abbott restates the problems with diversity and then turns to savaging woke ideology for the decision to cancel his lecture in Common Sense. Knott (2021) reports on this trajectory.
The focus on identity is distorting universities’ focus on academic excellence and individual achievement. Abbott advocates instead “a regime based on merit, fairness and equality (MFE) whereby university applicants are treated as individuals and evaluated through a rigorous and unbiased process based on their merit and qualifications alone.
The cancellation of his speech, he [Abbott] argued, was “a striking illustration of the threat woke ideology poses to our culture, our institutions and to our freedoms…”
He knows it would be easier for him if he restricted his public comments to geophysics. But he plans to keep speaking out on difficult topics like the role of race in university admissions. “I feel a moral obligation to continue to raise these issues…” (Sydney Morning Herald Oct 22, 2021).
He continues with sweeping assumptions implying that minorities cannot earn a university place without diversity previously known as affirmative action. This holds in consequence to racial ideology of blacks being intellectually or cognitively inferior to whites. Diversity candidates are unduly and unfairly taking places that would ordinarily go to deserving whites with the desired intellectual capital. Most dangerous of all, they assert that the “atrocities of the 20th century (clearly a reference to Hitler) are about to be repeated” with the destruction of academic knowledge and science.
Abbott is provocative and can afford to be since he speaks from the position of being in the system. He is a tenured academic meaning he cannot be dismissed for his views. He’s safe and does not have anything to lose in speaking out. I would have more sympathy for his cause if he was denied entry to academe on the basis of his identity but that is simply not the case.
Abbott is invested beyond merely expressing concern about diversity to wanting to take on cancel culture or ‘woke-ness’ as cancel culture is often linked to. He uses his expertise in geophysics, to grant himself permission, to attack social policy, an area in which he is not credentialed. Of course, anyone can speak but that does mean they ought to be listened to or granted a platform to speak.
Judging from his profile, Abbot gives the appearance of being Jewish implying that he knows what he is talking about when it comes to crimes against humanity. He doesn’t. They don’t. Hitler set out to destroy knowledge, especially dissenting knowledge, in order to stifle opposition and to preserve his fantasy of white superiority. Diversity does the complete opposite by contributing to the existing body of incomplete knowledge. It is vicious and vexatious to claim that white knowledge is being destroyed by diversity. The sheer audacity of this urgently needs to be called out for what it is – an assertion of racial superiority.
Yet, they attempt to prove they are not ‘racist’ by referring to the world class minority academics contributing to the US. It is just home-grown minorities who are the problem for them. An expansive body of literature finds that white women have been the major beneficiaries of AA. They dismiss the fact that minorities enter faculties at the lowest rung and face constant scrutiny. They fail to recognise or acknowledge that merit is the very means by which minorities are excluded. They might get in but they also soon leave. Merit is not objective. Neither is equality. One need only look at who gets tenure. Entry is one thing, being able to secure tenure is another. Diversity scholars are underrepresented in track tenure or tenure positions. They end up leaving or going elsewhere due to pressure or claims of racism.
I am reminded of Herrnstein and Murray’s infamous polemic The Bell Curve” Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life (1994) intended to justify cutting expenditure on programs in support of African Americans when it could be better spent elsewhere. It’s a waste in other words given the inferior intellect of blacks. Abbott and Ivanovic in essence say the same thing. More deserving whites are missing out due to foolhardy social experiments that are doomed to fail as minority do not possess the necessary merit – that is, intellectual capital. Abbott and his ilk speak out supposedly from a position of courage. In reality, they know they have a ‘silent majority’ backing them. They go for the people trying to get in and stay in.
It is nasty and illustrates perfectly, but not in a good way, why it is important for speech to meet a standard of civility at the very least. It is hateful speech that is being protected under the guise of free speech not the right of people to be protected from hate speech. This is an utter bastardisation of “equal before the law”. Racial ideology (essentialism) is back in vogue to explain the differences between the races such that the public purse is wasted on certain peoples.
Abbot was reckless – to put at risk a much-lauded invitation to deliver a prestigious lecture – except that to be ‘cancelled’ would potentially earn him moral kudos. He chose to co-author an inflammatory piece knowing he would set off a new round in the same debate. It is as if he put his prestigious invitation on the line just to make a point about ‘cancel culture’ and to hold himself up as a victim, of being cancelled for his free speech. There is a difference, however, between being ‘cancelled’ and being sacked. As a tenured academic he is safe. He can afford to speak out.
This is important because Australia is in the grip of its own obsession with cancel culture screaming denial of free speech. Neo-conservative critics are in the ascendant reserving invective for cancel culture with relish to which there is little push back.
There is no such thing as free speech. All speech carries obligations to do no harm, to not vilify. They got their shot at free speech with the publication of their biased, uninformed, and nasty opinion piece. If I were to evaluate it on academic objective merit, alone, it would be deemed ‘fail’. It is riddled with unsubstantiated assertions about race coming straight out of bestseller though thoroughly discredited Bell Curve. They wrote nothing new. Their hubris to not acknowledge this is surprising.
Universities ought not be places for discriminatory speech. Academics must be held to a higher standard than the general populace by not repeating malicious untruths underscored by racial tropes. Abbott’s ‘cancelling’ is not an abrogation of free speech, it is instead endemic of destructive speech. To give credence by turning a passive blind eye means to tell minorities in effect that their harm is to be tolerated in order to protect the sensitivities of essentially white academics.
The notion that diversity denies the rights of whites to entry is fanciful. For starters, diversity scholars are less likely to compete with whites since their areas of interest often differ. Critical race scholars are located in areas of social justice such as in education and law. Dorian Abbot, an associate professor of geo-physics at the University of Chicago, is interested planetary sciences. His co-author Ivan Marinovic is an associate professor of accounting at Stanford Graduate School of Business.
As noted, the contribution of diversity scholars to teaching and research is undervalued. It is less likely to be funded and published in the journals of ranking that matter. Diversity scholars face a hostile work environment. They must do their job and defend their right to be there. The plain fact of the matter is that over two thirds of tenured positions in higher education institutions across the US are held by white males. In contrast, African Americans comprise a paltry 3%. White men dominate aging tenure-track ranks (Fain, Feb 25, 2020).
Nathan Matias et al (cited in Higher Education, 2021) draw on the stories of academics to highlight why faculties remain “white” after years of diversity policy.
Lorgia Garcia was hired as a professor in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard University in 2013. She was the only Black Latina on track tenure. In 2019, she was denied tenure even though her tenure committee unanimously recommended she be promoted, which was endorsed. In 2021, famed professor and public intellectual Cornel West announced that he was leaving Harvard after the university refused to grant him tenure. Pulitzer Prize-winning MacArthur Fellowship recipient Nikole Hannah-Jones was also denied tenure by the board of trustees at the University of North Carolina — after the university’s journalism school had recruited her to become its Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism. Although the decision was later reversed, it was too late to convince her to stay.
They are among the most famous and well-regarded in their respective fields. Denying them tenure is functionally equivalent to having MVP-calibre athletes on your roster but sending them to play for another team.
Like the rest of American society — academia doesn’t like to acknowledge it has a problem with race. Although most people think that they or their colleagues are good people who would not intentionally discriminate there is plenty of evidence indicating that racism plays an important role in the structure and function of academic institutions. It affects what gets researched and what is taught in courses, the methods used to conduct research and the people who are included — or excluded — from academic institutions in the first place.
The word ‘faculty’ obscures important hierarchical divisions including differences between tenure-track and tenured professors versus untenured professors. According to the American Association of University Professors, only 21 percent of faculty are tenured.
Tenured positions are indefinite appointments designed to safeguard academic freedom so that faculty members can pursue their research independent of corporate or political pressure. The ability to pursue knowledge freely has been one of the hallmarks of our higher education system. Who does — and does not — get the opportunity to hold coveted tenure-track and tenured positions at America’s universities?
When tertiary institutions invite scholars of colour to join their ranks, they are inviting them to play a game that’s set up for them to lose. They look to teach bright students and conduct innovative research. Instead, they face hostile work environments where their intellectual contributions are undervalued. Negative experiences repeatedly prompt them to search for jobs at different institutions. Inside Higher Ed has reported that a number of professors of colour, especially women of colour, have left their universities, citing racism as a primary motivator. It is not enough to hire just a handful. Colleges and universities must value faculty of colour beyond their contributions to achieving the diversity goals of the university by hiring more. They cannot expect them to do the lifting of racial equity work and do their jobs. Otherwise, nothing will change. This applies to higher education in Australia.
Academics can be just as dangerous as the out-there extremist, and perhaps even more so, given that they tend to possess mastery of language. They are able to cast some pretty nasty stuff whilst hiding behind the language of objectivity making it hard to see at least on first glance. They most definitely can be biased or bigoted except that this is couched in what, to the untrained eye, reads superficially as reasonable. They should know better of course though I concede that when it comes to understanding race and racism a lot of people get it wrong including academics. The unfailing fault line is that racism occurs when people are treated differently on the basis of race and it stands to reason, therefore, that the absence of racism is not treating people differently. Everyone is equal and treated equally. Nice sentiment.
Turning ‘woke’ on the left and right
Wokeness is invoked when a guest speaker at a literary convention, for example, is cancelled by organisers, caving to public pressure, due to a controversial comment or opinion typically made in reference to a minority.
For activists, the goal is two-fold: identify the silences of objectification and apply pressure to warrant a withdrawal of the offending item. As with most ideology, criticisms may be appropriately attributed to twins ‘woke’ and ‘cancel culture’. We can all make mistakes and should be granted sufficient space to atone and not be ‘cancelled’. Thus, the boundaries of acceptability are rigid when the only acceptable response is for an offending item to be cancelled. To forever be branded a “racist” or “homophobe”. A commentator likened this to “vigilantism” (Button, November 20, 2021). There must be room for sincerity of expression unless the law has been broken or the transgressor is a repeat offender on a mission to make a point.
I am not averse to withholding a platform from performers or speakers who wilfully target minority groups for humiliation. But this is not the same as debating or presenting commentary that many might find uncomfortable. So long as this is done in good faith it ought to stand. Ethical standards must apply too. No granting of anonymity. If something is worth saying then stand it is worth standing up for.
Cancel culture, as it is called, comes not just from the left but also from the right. After a concerted campaign by One Nation Leader, Pauline Hanson, critical race theory race theory has been banned (cancelled) from being taught in schools. This is representative of the silencing of voices, of free speech, exploring the ongoing impact of historical racism toward indigenous Australians.
The difference comes down, I think, to motivation. If it is to challenge, to question, to examine, to unsettle, then no problem but if an act of speech is motivated by an agenda to threaten, ridicule, demean, racialize, or mock a minority, then it becomes utterly unacceptable. The former may not be welcome but it is not offensive whereas the latter is any way one looks at it is incredibly offensive and cannot be tolerated.
By the way, CRT made a major contribution to the importance of subjective story- telling to being heard in response to the restrictiveness of objective fact-finding. CRT copped a lot of criticism but now story telling is mainstream. It is fundamental to the principle of freedom of speech in being able to speak back to oppression.
Nazi ideology: A renewal of hatred
A pandemic is an ideal breeding ground for harnessing discord. Neo-Nazis are using anti-lockdown protests to recruit members amongst a mixed bag of malcontents including supporters of ‘Q Anon’ (Estcourt, December 18, 2021). With so much discontent swirling around neo-Nazis are brazen enough to wear Nazi symbols at recruitment camps (C. Kelly, August 27, 2021). Free speech is cited as justification.
A reoccurring motif is the labelling of some leftist (Labor) discourse as ‘Nazism’. This is nasty misrepresentation of Nazism: easy to utter and hard to counter. To impose lockdowns, restrictions on movement, the wearing of masks, and to ‘mandate’ public health orders are not abuses of power. They are intended to prevent infection and therefore the risk of dying whereas to execute critics of Nazi Germany and to exterminate people on the basis of their religion, race or ethnicity under ideology of Aryan racial superiority clearly are. One kind of speech is definitely not the same as the other yet they are treated as such. This is a problem.
Ideology of racial superiority/inferiority is back. Actually, it never really went away. It was just lying lowing until the time was right for it come out of the closet, in this instance, in references to Nazism. This serves a purpose because it sets people back on their heels momentarily in shock. It gets attention which is the point. If it polarises even better. Nazism is exploited to make a point or to shut down debate.
For instance, those who decry their discriminatory treatment at the hands of coercive government imposing restrictions, to mitigate the pandemic, claim that they are the (new) victims of fascism or Nazism. So much so that this is becoming almost commonplace. The flip side to this is to defend one as not being a ‘Nazi’. Knott writes that “Abbott is no neo-Nazi”. Maybe not but he certainly misrepresents Nazism to make a disingenuous point as to why he was cancelled in terms of speaking up about the threat of white racism to the invisible monolith of cancel culture. The Nazis deliberately destroyed intellectual property to squash dissent. This does not even come close to the informal processes that function to deny minority scholars access to the golden goose of tenure in academe. If anything, Abbott buys in Nazi ideology by implying that black intellectualism is inferior to that of whites.
There are consequences to this such that accusations of Nazism are spilling over into political debate. George Christenson, Queensland National party MP in the Australian federal government, likens lockdown to Nazi concentration camps. Predictable statements take the line that whilst party colleagues do not agree with his views, they nevertheless defend his right to express them. This is how hate speech seeps slowly but surely inexorably into the mainstream. It becomes acceptable to utter outrageous exhortations to suit a political agenda, to be tolerated as an exemplar of free speech. But this is not free speech. Hate speech is not a right to be protected. It is nothing more than an abuse of free speech and even worse it is to be tolerated as some kind of expression of moral fortitude.
Christenson knows very well that lockdowns are intended to save lives, even if he does not agree with them as policy, not to destroy lives as did the Nazis of the Jews. He comes across as a self-serving cynic who will say anything – mostly extreme – to stay relevant. He gets away with it because he knows he can. It is too easy to go there and it saves him from having to think carefully and with consideration. Yet, tolerance is not so much afforded leftist critics who condemn hate speech. Instead, they serve as game for a conservative prime minister and his ilk to bury in smear the notion (distorted of course) that the left is hell bent on shutting down free speech.
The game here is a contest between who gets to claim being the victim of racism and who gets to be accused of being ‘racist’. Part of the problem is that certain people are tolerated for their hate speech whereas those who claim the presence of hate speech are accused of being divisive, perpetuating racial hatred. It is certainly not a good idea, moreover, to claim discrimination on the basis of race.
Conclusion: The fault lines of ‘freedom fighting’
I get it. It must be intoxicating being part of a movement on the cusp of change. My problem is that ‘we’ think we have it bad because we are required to abide by some restrictions on our mobility in order to knock over a virulent corona virus. Many have argued that they were not necessary by the fact of Australia’s incredibly low death rate compared to the rest of the world without taking into account that they were low in the first place because of the restrictions. We carry on, too, on account of rising incidence of mental health issues as a consequence of lockdown. Dare I suggest that poor mental health is a normal response to adverse conditions, which can be alleviated once the crisis has passed? Again, the harrowing circumstances of refugees in indefinite detention tell a far more compelling story on the state of mental health of people who have no safe place to call home. We really ought to be ashamed.
Academics can be just as stupid or ignorant, and wilfully so, as much as the rest of the general population. They can be especially dangerous in their speech by exacerbating the very ‘problems’ they proclaim to care about and wish to change, principally because they ought to know better. Or, at the very least, proceed more carefully. Frustratingly, they (primarily white academics) do not understand racism or appreciate the policy taken to address racial inequality, seeing only that their taken for granted advantages may be under threat. They are not but that is how they are perceived. The foundation for their angst is self-serving though their claim is to suggest otherwise in terms of acting for the ‘greater good’ of society. They misuse free speech to belt other people – typically those lower down the social economic or racial hierarchy – back into submission to the status quo they are comfortable with. This has nothing to do with freedom at all. In fact, it is just the opposite. It is about returning to or maintaining inequality through the imputation of select freedoms for select people. Explicit here is acquiescence to hierarchies not just of place within society but of the order of debate. Who speaks and who doesn’t?
Whilst two divergent issues have been at the centre of this discussion – the pandemic and diversity in higher education policy – there are important commonalities. Australia is following in the footsteps of the United States of America in turning inward, often violently, to decry the failings of government and of democracy. We have taken to positioning ourselves as victims to unite under inane conspiracy, or unsubstantiated, claims as justification for not bothering with decorum.
Both, furthermore have taken to misrepresenting race. In relation to the pandemic, Nazi slogans have been paraded in a nasty attempt to assert government excess. In relation to the problem of diversity in the higher education sector, diversity was likened to Hitler’s attempt to quash independent thought since diversity scholars do not hold the appropriate intellectual rigor.
At the core is a form of racial discrimination not against minorities but in a complete reversal against whites. But nobody talks about race in specific terms because that is simply not acceptable. The safer means is to imply racial differentiation by deploying superficially neutral language – to raise the spectre of the presence of Nazism – code for white racial superiority and black inferiority.
The most pressing matter is that debate has been dumbed down to attack with the flow-on effect that rubbish fills the void left by the departure of civility. This reveals itself in the decline of speech in good faith and the rise of the self-serving sovereign individual. They have not come out of nowhere. They have been festering away for years waiting for the right time to emerge to declare their allegiance to hatred.
Democracy is abused. Freedom is abused. Rights are abused. Speech is abused. Down we go. The individual citizen has been elevated to the status of being self-determining but, ironically, at the expense of the rights of others not to be abused. Our debate has to be and ought to be better than this. The diminishing of civil society means effectively that we continue not to see race.
As I conclude this essay, my last one for 2021, my perhaps vain hope for 2022 is for decency to come to the fore. Not a good start, Scott Morrison has just announced sweeping modifications to the definition of “close contact” revising this to mean four hours of close contact in a domestic setting. There is no need for PCR testing unless a person is symptomatic, the objectives being to reduce demand on PCR testing and hence the need for isolation as a result of close contact. It is pretty obvious, even as Australia faces another wave with the Omicron variant, he wants citizens to get used to this so that he does not have to do anything.
Happy New Tear (a typo but I will leave it). Stella.
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