In the 1969 road film Easy Rider, Wyatt (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Dennis Hopper) chance across George Hanson (Jack Nicholson), a civil liberties lawyer, on their journey across the landscape of the US. Around a campfire, Wyatt and Billy exasperatedly question why they’ve been met with hostility on their journey.
George Hanson: You know, this used to be a helluva good country. I can’t understand what’s gone wrong with it.
Billy: Man, everybody got chicken, that’s what happened. Hey, we can’t even get into like, a second-rate hotel, I mean, a second-rate motel, you dig? They think we’re gonna cut their throat or somethin’. They’re scared, man.
George Hanson: They’re not scared of you. They’re scared of what you represent to ’em.
Billy: Hey, man. All we represent to them, man, is somebody who needs a haircut.
George Hanson: Oh, no. What you represent to them is freedom.
Billy: What the hell is wrong with freedom? That’s what it’s all about.
George Hanson: Oh, yeah, that’s right. That’s what’s it’s all about, all right. But talkin’ about it and bein’ it, that’s two different things. I mean, it’s real hard to be free when you are bought and sold in the marketplace. Of course, don’t ever tell anybody that they’re not free, ’cause then they’re gonna get real busy killin’ and maimin’ to prove to you that they are. Oh, yeah, they’re gonna talk to you, and talk to you, and talk to you about individual freedom. But they see a free individual, it’s gonna scare ’em.
Billy: Yeah, well, it don’t make ’em runnin’ scared.
George Hanson: No. It makes them dangerous.
That night, George Hanson meets his end, bludgeoned and beaten by locals. Wyatt and Billy meet their end in the final moments of the film, chased down by hillbillies in a truck.
Freedom is a thing you talk about, and a thing that may only be enjoyed by a demographic sliver of the population. Race, gender and religion and class are all factors in how freedom is policed and controlled through social pressure, publication and digital abuse.
Last year, in April 2017, this emotion was activated in response to a young engineer speaking her mind, catalysed and sustained by the targeted publication of several hundred thousand words of media articles, and realised by a digital mob of furious, anxious racists, wielding their bludgeon.
On April 25th, Yassmin Abdel-Magied posted a very brief message on her Facebook page.
“LEST. WE. FORGET.
(Manus, Nauru, Syria, Palestine…..)”
That day was ANZAC day – an Australian public holiday commemorating the war efforts of Australian forces. Yassmin Abdel-Magied immediately noticed that she’d erred. She apologised unreservedly, and it took it down.
The reason her apology was ignored, and the reason media outlets continued to pour fuel on the fires of outrage was that her perceived transgression was the perfect outlet for a pre-existing hatred of immigrants in Australia – particularly immigrants with dark skin, and people who too publicly adhere to and defend Islam.
As I wrote back then, “This is driven by a desperate and powerful desire for racism as a social force – brown poppy syndrome, to lop off anyone committing the crime of publicly challenging racism whilst having dark skin. It’s more than resentment or envy. It’s raw hatred”.
The impacts of the abuse centre around making every single digital and physical space entirely unliveable. Yassmin Abdel-Magied said, at a Wheeler Centre event in June 2017, that,
“I wake up every morning and the first thing I do is look at my phone, because that’s what we all do. And I’m greeted with hundreds of, pretty much most days, hundreds of messages on my Facebook, my Twitter, my Instagram, my inbox, of, you know. The fact that I’m a troubled person. I should die. I’m called everything under the sun. People send me screenshots of the guns they think I should be killed by, I get death threats sent to my PO box, my youth organisation’s PO box. It’s every day. And It’s in every social space that I engage in”
The combination of unending media bat signals inspiring fury, alongside a flow of written violence that few of us can imagine, saturates the safe digital lifestyle most of my generation exists within. The right to wake up by scrolling through a slab of glass filled with friendship is revoked.
The surge of articles in July also coincided with a series of increasingly unpleasant attacks:
- A pigs head was dumped at Yassmin Abdel-Magied’s school.
- When Yassmin Abdel-Magied announced she was moving to London – Channel 7 published a Facebook poll on whether she should “stay and face her critics”
- A series of white supremacist posters were distributed in Sydney’s inner west by the group “Aussie Nationalists”, including one demanding the deportation of Yassmin Abdel-Magied.
- Sydney radio station 2GB aired a commentator, Prue MacSween, ‘joking‘ about her desire to kill or injure Abdel-Magied using a car (2GB’s Chris Smith pleaded, in his apology, that “we can probably move on” from the reaction to the comments)
Smith wasn’t wrong to expect that we’d move on quickly – the station hasn’t seen any consequence, despite section 2.1.1 of the voluntary Commercial Radio code of practice, which states that “a licensee must not broadcast a program which in all of the circumstances is likely to incite or encourage violence”.
Prue Macsween, who originally mused about the violence on radio, issued this response on Twitter:
“To all you festering, humourless Twitter ferals. Go tell someone who cares. Last time I looked this was a country of free speech. Get a life”
She had a point. That she can jokingly wish murder on someone already receiving credible death threats without consequence is a perfect illustration of the free speech that she enjoys, and the racist criterion on which that freedom is assigned.
A long stretch of relative silence, interspersed with articles reporting on things she’d said on social media, followed. Someone submitted a complaint about her tweets under Australia’s racial discrimination act (it was dismissed). 5,096 words.
She won an award; 5,668 words. In a testament to the sheer frequency and quantity of coverage, two near-identical articles appeared in subsequent days in The Australian, the second with small changes to copy:
Yassmin awarded free speech prize – 19/03/2018
Yassmin Abdel-Magied wins award for free speech – 20/03/2018
If she commented on almost anything related to race in Australia, a series of articles immediately followed (black crime panics in Victoria, 2,030 words). Her acting debut, 1,478 words, and her new streaming-only six-minute show on the ABC about the hijab, 3,684.
Throughout these pieces, as I coded and copied text, it was clear how targeted this coverage was. As I approached the 200,000 word mark in my spreadsheet collection, one particular headline caught my eye:
“Can’t she just move on? Muslim activist Yassmin Abdel-Magied supports a Twitter campaign to retweet her ‘disrespectful’ Anzac Day post just days before the national day of remembrance”
The subject matter was telling. Sally Rugg, who’d led GetUp’s marriage equality campaign, had tweeted (since deleted):
“What if thousands of us all tweeted ‘Lest we forget (Manus)’ next week on April 25th…..”
Sydney novelist Jane Caro approved of the concept, along with agreement and support from many others. Despite that, it was Yassmin Abdel-Magied’s response that drew the flurry of coverage – a crystalline illustration of the racial element in how speech will be policed and punished.
Richard Flanagan spoke at the National Press Club around the same time, saying that
“The great disrespect to Anzac Day wasn’t the original tweet but the perverted attacks made on it in, of all things, the name of the dead. Those who think they honour Anzac Day by forgetting contemporary victims of war only serve to make a tragic mockery of all that day should be”
That Flanagan could express these criticisms so strongly and so publicly without fear of retribution was evidence for the point he made in his speech, that “some were seeking to transform Anzac Day into a stalking horse for racism, misogyny, anti-Islamic sentiment”. The racially-tuned settings in the social punishment of speech emerge so clearly in the omissions, exclusions and forgiveness.
In early April, something genuinely newsworthy happened – Abdel-Magied tweeted that she was being deported from the US, while attending a writer’s festival. That, and the subsequent details of whether she had the right visa, dominated coverage in early April. This was a rare exception; though the obsessive, abusive content remained as an undercurrent.
In the 365 days since her post, there have been roughly 207,979 words written about her in Australian media. 97,008 (47%) of these words were published by News Corp, with 51,048 (25%) in The Australian and the Daily Telegraph, the two highest contributors, with the Daily Mail coming in third, at 34,187 words (17%).
After Abdel-Magied left Australia, there was a drop in coverage, but the respite was brief, and the coverage continues. The headlines below feature in the Daily Mail:
There’s been little reflection on what the enforcement of racially-tinged free speech rules by traditional media outlets means in a world where emotion is intensified by social media; an algorithmic advertising machine that cares purely for our attention, not our intention. Both good and bad things are catalysed and enhanced by social media, a new, powerful force multiplier for pre-existing emotion.
A campaign engaged against a politician who holds a view an editor finds objectionable may be harmless; the same apparatus targeted at a young, brown-skinned engineer can easily end a life, as it blends with the unique intensities of racism, religious paranoia and sexism. As a consequence, the rules are different for young, non-white Australians. We tread with ridiculous and exhausting caution, even as we’re the subject of frequent casual and formal racism.
Separate from the legal control of words, collective and emergent social pressures restricting speech are vital. But a vestigial feature of their evolution is that they will reflect the anxieties and prejudices of the group from which they emerge. These rules are also enforced through outrage – an emotionally compromised state in which slow, deliberative reasoning is completely shut down. The lizard brain is nasty, unforgiving, paranoid and anxious.
These are the varied and violent anxieties of the safe, comfortable and free. Your speech is free in direct proportion to the wavelength of light your skin absorbs. It’s not worth discussing how this might be countered without first admitting we have a serious problem that is hurting energetic, articulate and successful young Australians.