Each month, we see headlines around a recording of a racist assault inflicted on public transport. A sometimes-stressful, sometimes-crowded mode of travel in which representatives from every segment of society literally rub up against each other seems destined to shake the white supremacists out of their silent glares and into acts of verbal, and sometimes physical, violence.
They’re horrible, but it’s too easy to use these as our benchmark for the totality of discrimination in Australia. There are racists, and there are advocates of racist ideas, who can be any mix of polite, cruel, direct and indirect.
There are people who politely urge ‘debate’, which results in immediate discrimination based purely on the existence of the debate. There are calls to attack and erase the culture held dear by immigrants. And there are efforts to reclassify racism, so even direct verbal assaults no longer classify as racist.
It’s a new push for an Australia that pays close attention to skin, and no one knows whether it’ll fly, or fail.
Widening the Overton Window
The ‘Overton Window‘ is, simply, the range of ideas we’re okay hearing about and discussing. In recent months, there’s been a concerted effort to push the edges of this window such that society tolerates the creation and distribution of racist ideas. It’s been framed as a regulatory reform effort to change Australia’s race discrimination laws, but that expensive and ultimately pointless experience was an unsubtle and graceless proxy for this Overton adjustment, allowing for the expression of racism without legal or social consequences.
This push comes from a range of sources. Last December, after a flurry of terror arrests, a Sky News journalist tweeted this:
She followed up with a Facebook video:
“22 of 33 people charged with terrorism offences in Australia are from a Lebanese background. Why do young men, with a Lebanese background feel that they are not part of Australian society, and want to commit such terrorist attacks?
If we don’t have an honest conversation about how these problems manifest how can we have any hope of understanding why they are becoming radicalised in the first place? It’s not racist to be pondering these very questions. It’s about wanting to be part of the solution”
Failing to recognise the impact of assigning ethnicity as a causal factor in the emergence of this issue, based on a sample of 33 arrests is, at best, bad analysis with good intentions. Acts of terror enacted by people with Australian ancestry aren’t subjected to the same anecdata analysis.
This is presented as an honest attempt at problem-solving. The simple outcome is the broadcast of the assertion that if you’ve got Lebanese background, you’re a terrorist, and the data prove it, no matter what you might say to defend yourself. The comments on the Facebook video are unambiguous:
“Send them to Lebanon one way”
Imagine the powerlessness, frustration and anger that attitude must create, and how that feeds into radicalisation and acts of violence. Racial profiling is a tempting pathway, but it’s a road that ends in pointless cruelty.
“The reality is Malcolm Fraser did make mistakes in bringing some people in the 1970s and we’re seeing that today. We need to be honest in having that discussion. There was a mistake made.”
“If it can be demonstrated that we have a significant proportion of a particular community — we’re talking about the Sudanese community in this instance — then we need to work out what’s gone wrong”
Any over-representation in tiny samples of instances is taken as definitive proof that any individual’s tendency to commit crimes is fully controlled by the magical, mystical influence of the place your parents were born, and what starts as back-of-the-envelope statistical errors morphs directly into real hatred. This was also broadcast on Sky News:
“If I were doing the Melbourne [pedestrian] traffic lights, I would actually have – instead of the woman – I’d have a Sudanese guy with a crowbar flashing up on the lights to warn you that you’re about to be carjacked, which is the situation that Daniel Andrews has left that state in, a state of anarchy. Nice one, Labor”
Dean’s comments aren’t presented as a kind-hearted attempt to diagnose a problem by assigning ethnicity as a cause of violence, nor is it a call for ‘honest debate’ about whether brown people have a crime gland.
You can feel the hate behind the words, when he says them. It isn’t casual racism. This feels like palpable, official racism.
Shifting the ‘Overton window’ of acceptable discussion to include whether your racial background makes you prone to crime results in the immediate expression of straight-up racism. An act framed originally as an ‘honest discussion’ results in humans being hurt, regardless of the intentions of the originator.
We will add your biological and technological distinctiveness to our own. Your culture will adapt to service us.
The boundaries are pushed in many different directions. There’s a renewed call for cultural assimilation – a ridiculous, Borg-like assertion that immigrants can only be present on the condition that they fully erase any behaviours, words and foods that don’t precisely match the dominant types in Australia. It’s official One Nation policy:
“One Nation will abolish multiculturalism and the Racial Discrimination Act and promote assimilation, nationalism, loyalty and pride in being an Australian”
This is manifesting as a simple idea: it’s okay to hate someone’s culture, and it’s okay to tell them you think so:
“It’s not about what you want to say, it’s the right of being able to have an opinion. Because I can look at someone of another culture… and I might say I don’t particularly like your cultural dance, or I don’t particularly like your cultural dress… but they may be offended by it. I’m sure everyone in this chamber is a bigot in their own way because you can be intolerant of another person’s culture or their religious beliefs. That is human race, that’s who we are, because we’re proud of our cultural background. It’s about having respect”
Senator Pauline Hanson said that, as part of the debate on changing Australian racial discrimination laws. The signal being sent here isn’t about the law. It’s social.
Hearing those words is a reassurance to those who are creeped out by foreign dress and foreign food, but have kept it to themselves. I’ve been in Australia since 1994. I’ve always felt that there’s been a strong societal defense mechanism protecting the free expression of culture when doing so poses no threat (beyond activating the unstable emotional response of racists).
The debate around 18C was a signalling mechanism for the right to walk up to someone dancing, dressing and eating as they please, and eventually have the full capacity to abuse them without social consequence. Any time someone justifies their argument using ‘freedom’, assume they mean the removal of consequences for themselves, and authoritarian lock-down of all other groups in society.
This is expressed again during the same debate by Senator David Leyonhjelm, in a piece titled “18C debate highlights the ethnic threat to free speech”:
“Freedom of association, worship and movement, freedom from arbitrary arrest, equality before the law and free speech are generally regarded as the bedrock of a free society. On top of these, Australia has embraced equality and respect, irrespective of gender or personal attributes, and rejected claims of inherited status and class.
These values are not necessarily shared by those who come to Australia. Certain Armenians accuse Turkey of genocide but want to suppress its response; Greeks can have issues with Turks and Macedonians; Indians can be racist when it comes to West Indian cricketers but are sensitive to the same speech themselves; those from Arabic and Lebanese Muslim cultures can hold abhorrent views about women and gays and resolve matters of feelings and honour through violence; and many Jews want to suppress Holocaust denialism”
It’s a truly stunning piece of writing. Holocaust denial is an ‘Australian value’? Changes to 18C would still capture holocaust denial anyway. It shakes more leaves from the blatantly scrawny pretension that chipping away at the corners of anti-discrimination laws is anything more than an effort to reduce the social cost of walking up to an Indian woman and telling her that you think her Sari is trying to take over Australia. As is neatly outlined in that piece:
“The debate over S18C is much greater than free speech. It is in fact a fight for the votes of people who have different values from those of traditional Australia. Instead of embracing the values of their adopted country, these ethnic, religious and immigrant representatives want Australia to become more like the countries they left behind”
These are words that make the brains of racists light up like the string of lights on the wall in Stranger Things. Presenting multiculturalism as the first wave of an aggressive invasion seeking to erase Australian culture and replace it with naan bread is a conspiracy theory that hits all of the right buttons in activating racist aggression.
Forcibly erasing the culture of immigrants can’t be achieved without the construction of a social cost for freely expressing that culture. ‘Freedom of speech’ here means the freedom to verbally and aggressively enforce what both the Borg and One Nation refer to as assimilation.
I’m not racist
The third component of making racist discrimination a more regularly exercised hobby in Australia is redefining what constitutes ‘racism’. Again, Hanson leads the way.
“The word racist means to believe your race is superior to another. I have never ever said that. I challenge anyone to actually show me anything that I have said that has been racist”
I’ve listed quite a few examples and discussed the impacts of redefinition here, including one in which Hanson accuses black South Africans of bringing in AIDS. This category-shifting effort filters through into society, as is beautifully and horribly illustrated in the darkly comic example below:
“I’m on my way home, and I cannot go to 7-Eleven, a 24-hour convenience store, because an Indian guy is occupying it,” he said in the footage.
“Muhammad. This is why Australia – is going to shit. This is why Australia is fucked,” he said, later saying he wish he knew the employee’s real name.
“You don’t give a shit about Australians mate – look after your own kind,” the man said as the employee appears to gesture for him to go away.
A sign on the door noted the store was closed for cleaning.
“[We] will reopen after 1 hr 30 minutes – sorry for any inconvenience,” the sign read.
“[You] deny the Australian customers when you buy in our country – fuck you,” the man said.
“I’m being denied a fucking hotdog and bananas. Those bananas look fresh, god-damn, but I’m being denied that by this piece of shit.”
The man later told news.com.au that the comments were out of character for him.
“I am not a racist. I am a very passive person all of the time. I spoke out as I was distressed,” he said.
That people are now so confident in their expressions of racist abuse that they’re willing to post it themselves on their own social media feeds is stunning. More mind-bending is the fact that this man saw the onset of truly vile and damaging abuse, triggered by a brief delay in eating a banana, as ‘not racist’ and ‘speaking out’.
Accusations of racism are powerful, and we still respond to the word, despite over-saturation in recent months. Hanson describing Australia’s Islamic community as a ‘virus’ is racist provocation at it’s worst. Reclassifying attacks based on race and culture is a big part of making Australia develop a meaner, uglier spirit towards people from other countries.
This may not work
The generalised push towards increased racism in society, through ‘honest discussion’, cultural assimilation and the redefinition of ‘racism’, won’t, I hope, be quite as impactful as I predict. Many long-term surveys tracking social cohesion and immigration issues, such as the Scanlon Foundation Surveys, suggest stability, though perhaps paired with some troublesome early indicators.
The examples above seem like awkward and poorly-executed first steps, all with relatively small audiences and a somewhat disinterested public. There’s no real way of confidently knowing whether the urging of those with powerful platforms will spread across society.
I’m skeptical about my own worry, to be honest. I can’t see many Australians running up to Indian performers at a festival in Parramatta to tell them their dancing is erasing Australian culture. Nor can I see jubilation on the streets emerging due to the chance to do some really great, unhindered Holocaust denial. The racial profiling thing has more legs, because a fear of crime speaks to us all, and it’s worked before. We have solid reasons to worry about that.
It’s a weird time to fighting for the right to scream in the face of migrants. The public is basically okay with social cohesion and multiculturalism, and doesn’t get as excited by the prospect of Borg-inspired cultural erasure or consequence-free abuse as political representatives or right-wing media personalities.
The best way to protect against these multiple lines of discrimination-advocacy is to reinforce the things that make Australian multiculturalism so successful. Interpersonal experiences between people from varied cultural backgrounds helps a lot, as does increased representation from diverse cultures in media, television and film.
There’s a place for legal limitations around discrimination, but any chance of there being a rational, evidence-based effort to make these laws useful and fair is lost underneath approximately 2.94 million tonnes of heavy, weird and shamelessly paranoid rambling.
This isn’t just about old mate banging on the window of a seven-eleven, invoking racist paranoia because he can’t get at his fresh bananas. This is about making verbal abuse and cultural extermination great again. We can’t assume it’ll fizzle, because if it doesn’t fizzle, Australia will lose one of it’s most significant global advantages. Australia is largely welcoming, sane and relaxed about giving immigrants the freedom to exist without having to discard their identity.
An Australia that’s hyper-sensitive, petty, mean-spirited and constantly triggered by the existence of foreigners is a shitty country. We can stop it from ever existing, if we try.
Header image – the ‘White Australia’ game via ABC news.
“The aim of this game is to get them to change places, getting all the coloured men out and all the white men into Australia which very much was, I suppose, the attitude of the time”