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Razer’s Class Warfare: the debate around speech is larger than Brandis’ arse

Do you hate freedom or do you hate brown people? These were the choices on offer — but it’s a false dichotomy, and you can reject both terms.

When Attorney-General George Brandis defended “the right to be a bigot” earlier this year, his was to a true protection of free expression as my arse is to John Stuart Mill. Which is to say, far too busy safeguarding its seated position to be either noble or sincere. As David Marr said in The Saturday Paper, “Yes, George, people do have a right to be bigots. And political parties have a right to harvest their votes.” George was protecting his own powerful arse.

In an upside-down iteration of “the right to be a bigot” this week, we see two local institutions protecting their arses and re-establishing their power. Opera Australia has cancelled the performance of Georgian soprano Tamar Iveri for her perceived bigotry, while the Festival of Dangerous Ideas has cancelled the speech of Uthman Badar for his.

It’s useful, perhaps, to consider how the ghost of the “debate” fabricated by Brandis haunts broad public reaction to these two performances. Performances, by the way, I have no intention of defending, which turned into cancellations I have no intention of condemning. We’ll leave the Voltaire-of-Convenience bullshit to Brandis — and it would be enormous fun to hear him defend the right of a Muslim bigot. But what we should, perhaps, also leave behind is the simple and illiberal answer to Brandis, which has begun to insist that anyone whose speech upholds established power of any sort should be shut up. What I want to argue is that we must not argue in Brandis’ crude terms.

This does not mean we are arguing for the expression homophobia or racism. This does not mean that at all.

To be clear, these newly sacked workers seem frightful. Iveri is guilty of inanity in the fascist style. Her comments on poo and hygiene might have had homosexuality as their target but were lifted almost directly from the racist (if intermittently homophobic) work of mid-century Nazi ideologues. And even if we allow for the possibility that Badar’s talk was a thought experiment about killing women made in the same ethical laboratory that produces Peter Singer’s talks on killing babies, it seems that the Hizb ut-Tahrir organisation he represents is a bit more hands-on than the world’s favourite bio-ethicist.

But. There is so much that is lost to us if we just keep arguing with Brandis and not beyond him in a way that refuses his clumsy, cynical terms. To simply dismiss the cases of Iveri and Badar, which both happen to have Western imperialism as the real target of their hate-speech, is just a retort to Brandis, and it does not vanquish him. Nor, for that matter, does it vanquish racism or homophobia. We must argue outside of the circumference of Brandis’ arse.

We will never see past the terms set by Brandis unless we exceed a one-size-fits-most ethical knee-jerk. Badar and Iveri may not deserve a platform for their hate speech, but they certainly deserve a closer look.”

Brandis’ concern in defending changes to section 18c of the Racial Discrimination Act was far less for the rights of bigots than it was for the votes of bigots. What the 18c “debate” largely offered, save for a few pieces like that from Marr and Waleed Aly, was as Brandis had likely anticipated: it crashed and burned in no time on the narrow track of a false dilemma.

Do you hate freedom or do you hate brown people? These were the choices on offer, and the ALP, like just about everyone, fell into line as it organised a series of public forums around the need to preserve a legislation that, as Aly noted, “wasn’t ever going to do a damn thing” to meaningfully restrain or punish declarations of racism. It was not seized, as it might have been, by the ALP as a soul-searching opportunity to oppose racism; there was no about-turn on Rudd’s mandatory detention of maritime arrivals or the NT Intervention or any actually racist policy Labor had upheld in government. This was instead an opportunity for the ALP and supporters to say that they didn’t like racism and they’d prefer it if those who did like racism would not trouble anyone with their predilection. And yes, you can argue that you can “have both”; it is possible to argue for legislation that makes the utterance of hurtful slurs illegal and for policy that actively seeks to change the conditions that produce racism. It is possible.  But it’s fucking unlikely. The opposition knows, as well as Brandis does, that taking a position on a section of law that wasn’t ever going to do a damn thing woos votes. Brandis appealed to an actively racist minority. The ALP appealed to an actively anti-racist minority. In the end, the interests of no one but the political class were served.

And so it is, although in reverse, with two of our cultural institutions this week serving themselves an emergency dose of power in the face of (not unreasonable) disgust.

Section 18c of the Racial Discrimination Act was, with few exceptions, a miserable debate whose terms, if observed, could only iterate the lies told by Brandis; a man, by the by, who we can be certain cares as little for bigots or their freedoms as he does for the fortunes of foreigners. The AG kept the electorate busy with a false dilemma, and this week, we are again caught in an illusory debate.

This “debate”, like the 18c debate, never really took place. It was, especially in the case of Badar, an asymmetric war whose outcome was decided long before battle. In fact, the debate is even more illusory than 18c because it doesn’t have much in the way of sides. There are few people, and none of any consequence, who would support the crude homophobia of Iveri. And there are probably no more than a dozen people in the nation who would ever agree that an ethical case can be made for so-called “honour killings”. We’ll never know, of course, if Badar is one of them.

And we will never see past the terms set by Brandis unless we exceed a one-size-fits-most ethical knee-jerk. Badar and Iveri may not deserve a platform for their hate speech, but they certainly deserve a closer look.

Read the description of Badar’s talk, now removed from its official home online, and it seems he might not be making a case for killing or even one for moral relativism. It appears from the synopsis that the yawning Western hunger for tales of Muslim butchers, cf.  Norma Khouri, was at issue. Of course, to read Badar as an upright critic of Western orientalist fetish is probably generous. But we don’t know. What we do know is that the Festival of Dangerous Ideas hung him, and the broader Muslim community he was held to, but does not, represent, out to dry. The festival did it in 2009 with Keysar Trad, who functioned well as hate-porn for self-righteous white dimwits with a defence of polygyny. Again in 2014, according to Badar, he was badgered by festival organisers into talking to this topic under a title he had didn’t originally choose.

There are dozens of op-eds on Opera Australia’s negligence in employing a dirty rotter. Over at Daily Review, my colleague Jason Whittaker offers a decent critique of the organisational snafu but also says that Iveri’s anti-gay rant “doesn’t bear repeating”. Whereas Professor Dennis Altman, the nation’s best and most consistent authority on queer, suggests that the complaint is “worth reading in full”.

And it really is. Not because it contains anything of ethical value but because it makes the terms of a growing global intolerance for Western liberalism and the sexuality that is seen as one of its imported consequences very clear. Iveri, in short, doesn’t hate homos for the same reasons your Aunty Fay does; she hates them for (more or less) the same reasons that Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan does. It’s not because they’re “deviant”. It’s because they’re “Western”.

Badar may have set out to depict the mania the West has for proof of its own liberalism in his talk. In the end, he has fed the mania the west has for proof of its own liberalism. And this is the same mania, really, that led to the Australian end of Iveri. Opera-goers can now enjoy a falsely sanitised experience of Otello; even if OA goes for the traditional blackface, at least it has restored its own power by sacking a fascist whose rants we mustn’t bother reading.

It is easy to decry a “jihadist” or a fascist. In fact, it’s pretty much obligatory. What is not so easy is moving beyond the confines of an emerging illiberal liberalism — the underskirt of Brandis’ classical liberal drag — that says that any expression of extreme prejudice can be legitimately quashed in an effort to restore a social balance. The argument goes that the expression of homophobia or of misogyny cannot be defended because such expression merely re-establishes power relations that already exist and is not, therefore, a free but an illiberal speech produced in power.

Even if we accept the terms of this argument — and I don’t; I think thugs who accidentally lay ruling class ideology bare accidentally serve a more radically democratic future — Badar and Iveri are subjects speaking from within systems of power most Australians, including myself, don’t fully understand. And just because their bigotry is repulsive and indefensible does not exempt us, if we are interested in justice or in ethics, from its understanding.

But, to read the letter or to hear the talk with which we “shouldn’t bother” feels like we are agreeing with Brandis, that we are defending the right to be a bigot. I don’t think this is the case. Perhaps we are not defending a questionable right but maintaining an urgent responsibility to argue beyond the cynical terms of the AG’s false dilemma.

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  • 1
    klewso
    Posted Thursday, 26 June 2014 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

    You just have to be the Right sort of bigot?

  • 2
    peter leahy
    Posted Thursday, 26 June 2014 at 5:01 pm | Permalink

    what you wrote seemed a bit waffly, but i think your argument is that to dismiss an idea outright without even hearing it is itself a form of prejudice? although i think the people who are objecting to this really aren’t interested in free exchange of ideas at all and would be would be happy to live in an echo chamber of self confirming rhetoric.

  • 3
    AR
    Posted Thursday, 26 June 2014 at 7:44 pm | Permalink

    Helen - well elucidated, on both (though really the same) subjects,but could you pare the verbiage a bit?
    A lot would be better - surely you aren’t being paid by the word?
    A small (sic!) problem with the concept “argue outside of the circumference of Brandis’ arse.) - the World is Not (wide) Enough.(apols to CR)

  • 4
    Dean Tregenza
    Posted Thursday, 26 June 2014 at 7:57 pm | Permalink

    In the end, given the title of the event, “Festival of Dangerous Ideas”, doesn’t it sort of beg the question of just what is a dangerous idea? I wonder if the organisers of the FODI themselves are somewhat missing the point?

    Putting on content that generates sensation and much media noise may create great publicity but perhaps is more of a distraction. Much like the debate around free speech that George Brandis has created is also a distraction. Such debates are really for those who speak from positions of power and privilege. They sell newspapers. They are idea-porn, disembodied abstractions, that provide jusy another commodity of entertainment that in the end doesn’t challenge, let alone, transform us or lead to a better world. I admit to enjoying it all… but it leaves me, in the end, hollow.

    Or perhaps what the FODI organisers are doing is their point - perhaps they are only interested in distractions and entertainment?

    Not all ideas are equal, or worthy of listening to. Not all ideas are dangerous.

    Real dangerous ideas are ones that speak prophetically of justice for the sake of the poor, powerless and marginalised in society. These are the ideas that are spoken as truth to the powerless because they provide hope. These are the ideas that disrupt and upset the status quo and threaten the position of the powerful and wealthy. These are the ideas that makes their proponents suffer the ire of those who refuse to recognise injustice and their part in it. The real dangerous ideas most often find the speaker being described as a fool, a criminal and may even find them nailed to a cross.

  • 5
    Irfan Yusuf
    Posted Thursday, 26 June 2014 at 10:12 pm | Permalink

    Wow. That was fun to read. Really good wholesome brain food. Thanks.

  • 6
    Chris Hartwell
    Posted Friday, 27 June 2014 at 7:43 am | Permalink

    Perhaps not crucified Dean, but a dangerous idea is surely one that challenges established norms, whether such a challenge is valid or not is what the debate around such is to determine.

  • 7
    Braden Kydd
    Posted Friday, 27 June 2014 at 10:50 am | Permalink

    Excellent thought-provoking, and challenging writing indeed. I pushed for Iveri to be ditched, because, as a gay man, I couldn’t bear the thought of going to hear a hate- and violence-inciting homophobe sing to me. Why would I? It would be reopening old, deep, and sore wounds. The broader context of her hatred - that homosexuality is a symptom of the much-reviled western social code - is important to remember, however it would seem that Iveri certainly doesn’t hate western values enough to dissuade her from taking our money or furthering her career. Or perhaps she is laughing at us all the way to the bank? There was no forum (especially none from Opera Australia) to explore these issues and to find a better way of dealing with the issue. Ultimately, sadly, Georgian culture will be become more violently pitted against the “west”, and the safety of those in the Georgian LGBTI community put at greater risk. How are we to move forward?

  • 8
    Andrew McIntosh
    Posted Friday, 27 June 2014 at 11:32 am | Permalink

    And just because their bigotry is repulsive and indefensible does not exempt us, if we are interested in justice or in ethics, from its understanding.”

    That doesn’t mean we have to give the bigots a platform to spout off from. It might make sense to, for example, suggest that Alan Jones should be compulsory listening for everyone interested in justice and ethics, but how many episodes of his show do you think are necessary? Likewise, how many times do we need to ponder the mentality behind “honour” killings before we are able to come to the same conclusion we arrived at when we first heard about them?

    Understanding is important but it doesn’t have to involve giving bigots a place at the discussion table. If it’s obvious that their ideas are dangerous, they can be talked about, not talked with. Because basically, they just want to push an agenda and “freedom of speech” is a handy slogan for such bigots. Neo-nazis have been using it for decades - I’d like to think we’d reached a conclusion on Nazism some time ago, yet still today it’s adherents insist on not being “censored”. It’s just too easy an excuse for bigots to decry “political correctness” or “Islamophobia” or whatever it is they think is getting in their way of shoving their stupidity down the throats of everyone else.

    Basically, I’m saying some shit should just be left in the sewers.

  • 9
    Andrew McIntosh
    Posted Friday, 27 June 2014 at 11:39 am | Permalink

    One other wee point -

    Apparently, Bazar thinks all along that “honour” killings are not justified, and he would never support them. So what was the discussion going to be about, then? “I don’t agree with this thing, but we need a caliphate because…”.

  • 10
    klewso
    Posted Saturday, 28 June 2014 at 10:48 am | Permalink

    Speaking of arses, it’s a pity they can’t reverse that botched transplant of his?

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