From the outset, let’s be barbarically clear about the need to see a swift and unpitying end to two national blights. These are (1) the researched prevalence of suicidality among the LGBTQIA young and (2) Cory Bernardi.
Now, let’s agree that it is quite possible to simultaneously despise these dark forces and find the current debate, such as it really isn’t, that surrounds Safe Schools a frustrating, possibly even injurious, nonsense.
Further, let’s say that it is from both sides of this fight for the wellbeing of children that we might smell the harmful rot of ideological garbage. And know that we are able to say this still without compromise to our ardent belief that the LGBTQIA young have a right to material support from the state should they need it. A right, moreover, that is in no way advanced by presentations from either side.
The nature of the stink that comes from the cultural right has already been well described. Namely, that open and public intolerance for those whom we already know to be at risk is an act of moral war. Every time Bernardi and his idiot mates open their mouths to recite their unChristian revulsion, another kid can move another inch toward self-abnegation. Bernardi, Christensen, Abetz and others are not required to like non-normative gender and sexuality. They should, however, be compelled by the terms of their office, if not the good manners their parents failed to teach them, to shut the fuck up.
The source of the smell that has not been investigated, though, is that which wafts from the tolerant cultural left. This is due in large part to the fear that critics will be seen as cheerleaders for youth suicide.
Again, to be so barbarically clear as to avoid the barbaric response “think of the children”, this is not to disparage the loftiest aim of the Safe School program, which is to save our teens from death. It is not even to disparage the program itself. This is notwithstanding my personal suspicion that students will experience these moral lessons just as I experienced mine in the 1980s, which was largely with relief that there would be no academic test at the end. We heard that it was our personal responsibility not to be racist, ableist, mean to kids with lisps, etc, with the sense that this was an hour in service to some bureaucrat’s earnest fancy.
No one smells bullshit better than a teenager, and teenagers smell the lesson that they have the power to make the world a better place for the fiction that it is.
But the cultural left has scant ability to do the same. Like the neoliberalism the cultural left claims to despise but rarely does now with any meaningful rigour, the cultural left believes in the power of the individual to change the world. In this case, of the teen individual.
Neoliberalism can now take a nap on its end-of-history sofa with the confidence that it has conquered all. This victory over everyone, even and especially the cultural left, can be seen by the fixity and scope of attention on Safe Schools. A program to promote individual tolerance.
Again — yes I know, I’m boring even myself with this orgy of qualification — this is not to say that the attempt to end bullying in schools is a bad thing. It is not to call for an end to Safe Schools. It is not even to especially criticise the widely spoken liberal bromide “if it saves just one life, it will be worth it” — even as I might think any state-funded program that saves “just one life” could be seen as underachievement.
But that the overwhelming dedication to this particular issue is evidence that the cultural left has now become entirely cultural. Urgent material threats to Gonski have been afforded not even one-tenth of the attention.
In her marvelous new work From Victims to Suspects: Muslim women since 9/11, academic and Crikey contributor Shakira Hussein takes us to Afghanistan and Pakistan to explore an analogous imbalance between the cultural and material where education is concerned. Western liberals are appalled, appalled!, by the lack of access young women may have to schools. They just don’t really care about the material existence of those schools at all.
What Western cultural defenders of the female Muslim students’ freedom do not often consider is that many of the region’s schools have been bombed by Western forces. Or that some of these students no longer exist thanks to Western drone attacks. Or that many of the Western sanctions on these nations devastated state programs, leaving parents with the choice of giving their male issues to radical mullahs or having no educated children at all.
While the slow devastation of our own systems of education is not violent, it’s a devastation all the same. To fight for tolerance — which is the neoliberal belief that inequality is the individual’s responsibility — in schools without fighting for the schools themselves strikes me as bonkers.
Both the cultural left and the cultural right have fetishistically elevated the importance of Safe Schools. The fight for or against a small program that might, or might not, actually do something bad (or good) for teens is the ongoing fight against material concerns.
Abetz can over-enunciate all he wishes, with that creepy Children’s Television Presenter circa 1974 inflection that he has, that Safe Schools has a “Marx-ist a-gend-a”. Its defenders on the cultural left, however, have no agenda of the sort.
A more “Marxist” agenda would be to actually ensure that there are schools to attend. Not places emptied of resources that contain occasional, fairly cheap programs that occasionally preach the mild neoliberal fiction that homophobia is the fault of the individual, and not the effect, as I believe it largely is, of our liberal institutions themselves.
Helen Razer is a writer whose work appears in The Saturday Paper, Daily Review, SBS Online, The Big Issue, and Frankie. She has previously worked as a columnist for The Age and The Australian and as a broadcaster for ABC radio.