Monday, 21 April 2014
If you have an interest in Australian politics, you’d be aware that a Senator from Queensland who is also currently Australia’s Attorney-General generated a flood of opinion when he responded to a Question in the Senate with ‘People have a right to be bigots, you know’.
Some days later, following an interview with one of the Australian Human Rights Commissioners, an outspoken ‘repeal advocate’ – the journalist followed the Commissioners line of argument with the obvious question… culminating in the N-word trending nationally.
In the weeks since, public debate has moved from emotional gut reaction, to personal disclosures of victims and observers, and now we’ve arrived at the theoretical, touching on:
– the merits of bigotry (so far nil that I could see);
– the risk to free speech (those with the most strenuous complaints to the threats to their freedom of speech, continue to have more access to speech, the means to pursue defamation and at worst at slight risk of racial abuse);
– the case that was cited as central to efforts to repeal (was lost because as per the finding the offending articles 'included 19 errors of fact and one gross error of fact)'; and
– ‘what is freedom of speech?’ (falsely attributed to Voltaire, and confusion around what John Stuart Mills actually meant by ‘freedoms’ because few have actually read first hand, preferring to be falsely informed or take a wild guess).
So how is your Easter? I’d wanted to use my guest blog spot to share some of my thoughts on Indigenous story telling, and what I think a person would do well to keep in mind when making use of the new technology that continues to come our way.
But the furore surrounding the proposed repeal of section 18c of the Racial Discrimination Act has eclipsed my literary pursuits, with no sign of waning on Twitter – my usual platform for commentary - until at least the deadline for submissions. [30 April 2014]
Social media can’t force people read, but it can give a voice to both the marginalized and the powerful. It magnifies the cycle that surrounds many Indigenous issues – outrage, division, retreat – because it is so easy to tap out a tweet, a blog or an opinion piece. However Indigenous issues compete with 24 hour news cycles, engaging commentators and professional provocateurs of social media, ensuring a constant flow of tantalizingly, easily accessible information.
In short, people get bored or readily distracted. If you’re not directly affected – if you can comfortably expect to never be racially abused, and to very rarely be called upon to intervene when you see it happen in front of – you have the luxury of taking quite a relaxed point of view.
Yes, it pollutes your view of the world, but how you engage in it, what depths you need to navigate to keep your chin above its murky depths is a choice you get to make.
Indigenous people, especially those who look a certain way – and depending on the situation it could be due to the darkness or the lightness of their skin – are in perpetual readiness for something to happen.
It may just be that comment – that you have heard week in, week out for your entire life. It could be more pointed, and depending on what circles you move in, it could feel like an interrogation at a writers festival in front of an audience of two hundred people.
Or perhaps you wrote an opinion piece that was shared on Facebook over 600 times and a whole lot of people wanted to tell you what they thought about it, starting with ..I’m not racist but, or I don’t agree that…, or ‘the author is deficient’ in some way – lets count them, because of not fighting back and giving up (vague criticism); being too conservative (vague again); being too opinionated; using the wrong tone; suspected of merely having ‘a short term political agenda’; or my personal favourite (not really) that I have ‘missed the real question’ altogether, despite it being my opinion and my life.
It is just so…wearisome. In fact, if the Indigenous person would just stop talking about it, we could all focus on something more positive. Or lately, isn’t it better that people get to say whatever vile lie that pops into their head. Isn’t that better than just thinking it?
Well, no. It’s not. And the only people with staying power in the racism debate are the victims of racial abuse, and the people who think treating some people with the rough end of free speech is what makes for a better society.
Rather than listen to someone tell me how bereft they feel at not being able to racially insult people, I’d rather discuss story telling. Stories that would have people less inclined to tolerate and on occasion contribute to the continued ‘not racist but’ dehumanization of Indigenous people.
If we talked more about the contribution that Indigenous Australian’s have made to Australia, for instance. Not in the thousands of deaths that made land available, but from the labour and land management skills of the generations of Indigenous people that built Australia’s prosperity.
An enduring example was the development of the pastoral industry, and the proud tradition of Australian sheep and cattle properties. Livestock only reached pastoral properties across Australia because of the Indigenous jackeroos and jilleroos who drove on horseback from one side of the country to the other, over the last hundred years.
My mother was a jillaroo, and came from a family of station workers. Very few of them ever received a full wage, and most died before the state (Qld, NSW and WA) made arrangements to make partial payment. Though ‘payment’ barely describes the paltry sums on offer to workers, many of whom were already deceased.
But for some, this is ancient history – Stolen Wages, which were only relatively recently settled, is an awkward conversation, particularly if your family or industry benefited from enforced servitude, and is another example of why some observers encourage Indigenous people to grow another layer to that thick skin they suggest will make racial insults easier to bear.
So let’s confine our conversations to timeframes and events that people are comfortable talking about. Let’s start with the Boer War, 1902, when 50 black trackers were rounded up and sent to South Africa.
Technically the majority weren’t enlisted, though it’s highly unlikely that in 1901 black trackers – at least fifty of them – decided to move to South Africa of their own accord. There are records that they left Australia, but no confirmation that they returned. Research is limited but indicates that return travel was impaired by the White Australia policy in operation at the time. People are very cautious in the telling of this sorry story and – to my mind – truly shocking treatment of Indigenous people. ‘Leave no man behind’ is a mainstay of war stories, after all. Descendants of these Indigenous service men certainly didn’t forget – how could you, that’s the sort of story that people would continue to tell for generations, regardless of your heritage.
There’s been a history of those who remain unconvinced certain events occurred. This was certainly the case with the Stolen Generation though these days – post The Apology - people accept more readily that children were removed and their families deeply traumatized.
Hansard Senate March 24 2014 Questions without notice Racial Discrimination Act Senators Peris & Brandis
‘People have a right to be bigots, you know’.
Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson says race hate laws are bizarre, unequal
Amendments to the Racial Discrimination Act 1975
Aboriginal pastoral workers seeking compensation for years of unpaid labour
New project to shed light on legacy of Indigenous diggers
Claims 50 Aboriginal trackers left behind during the Boer War
The Apology - http://www.dss.gov.au/our-responsibilities/indigenous-australians/programs-services/recognition-respect/apology-to-australias-indigenous-peoples