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Mar 24, 2016

Safe Schools is not important, and the left needs to shut up about it

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.


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.


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23 thoughts on “Safe Schools is not important, and the left needs to shut up about it

  1. h_j_m

    “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.”

    ugh, this.

    I work with many LGBTIQ school kids and fortunately most of their teachers manage to treat them like everyone else. If those teachers want some extra resources to make sure everyone else in the class can do the same, then great. The libs argument that queer theory is “infecting” these kids is hilarious to me. If that’s the case then scrap scripture and sex ed. They already know something and it isn’t because of some academic. Teachers help digest and make sense of this knowledge, as they have always done.

  2. Simon

    We can fight the material and cultural battles at the same time, surely?

  3. CML

    Another article filled with tosh!!
    The LGBTQIA kids beg to differ.
    And what on earth has education/schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan got to do with the Safe School program in Australia????
    Helen…you are the one who is ‘bonkers’!!!

  4. JimDocker

    I fell for it again.

    Topical issue, a different perspective, Helen used to be cool when she was on the radio….

    No. Simply reeled in again with another article that is contrariness for the sake of it.

  5. BaBr

    You’re telling us – all in the same article- i) that LGBT youth are bullied in schools which puts them at risk of death ii) that the Safe School program’s aim to end this is positive iii) that the program itself might potentially (or not) be helpful in doing so iv) that the hateful attacks of Bernardi and his ilk do actual harm. You tell us you don’t think the program should be ended and that Bernardi should shut up.

    Finally, you’re telling us that those who agree with you on all those points and as a consequence voice their opinion that the program should stay in place and Bernardi should shut up, are somewhere between evil and dumb for doing so.

    Sorry Helen, you’re just contradicting yourself. Is it “…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.” OR is Safe Schools a “cheap programs that occasionally preach the mild neoliberal fiction that homophobia is the fault of the individual”? Make up your mind. Because if it’s the latter, the program’s attempts to end bullying at schools is a harmful fiction and should thus be ended.

  6. Bronwyn Hazell

    Fabulous Helen, thank you #asalesbian

  7. Carlene Colahan

    What Bronwyn said! #AsALesbian

  8. Norman Hanscombe

    Safe schools ARE important for students, teachers, other staff, parents and the Nation; but the farcical policy is a source of damage to education and little more.

  9. Adrian Hempel

    Ms Razer is carving out a career as the Miranda Devine of the left.

    I’m only a few years younger than her, and I’m bloody sure that my life would have much easier if something like the Safe Schools Coalition existed in my schools.

  10. Kfix

    So CML, what’s your actual argument here?

    1. We must do something.
    2. This is something.
    3. ???

  11. Vaughan Valerie

    I am a medical person and I believe Children have enough on their minds without telling them it is ok to not be the sex they appear physically.
    There is A SMALL proportion of children with gender identity crisis and many people feel sorry for them but if you keep telling the masses this information you are going to have many more disturbed children.Many children today live in difficult situations. We have thousands and thousands of children in foster care.Just because we want alterations to the programme we are not all right wing idiots. I regard the scathing comments by Safe School devotees as the bullying they are endeavouring to stop.It seems teachers have to provide all academic and social skills for children in the five hours they children are in class.You will NEVER stop bullying only reduce the incidence

  12. Joni Carthew

    I saw the title…was outraged…how could HR…I created a profile…logged in, read the full article, felt annoyed at HR’s writing style..(language should always be accessible and any passage of writing should be constructed in a clear and logical way) felt let down by HR as I did greatly admire her radio craft in days gone by, read the comments and found that all of my own objections had already been raised.
    I feel ashamed as I was taken in by a click bait title…
    I should not have expected more
    And the points made and parallels drawn are just silly…simplistic and unbelievable.
    Cultural left? One doesn’t have to apportion causes that rank in order and merit….how about we all just campaign to fight what is wrong, whatever that is? This will mean different things to different people…
    I’m not even going to go into it and further. The positive I’m taking out is that once again, I’m gonna fight the good fight this election year and HR has reminded me that I cannot be complacent and must stand up for what I believe in….
    So sick of these articles that take an opposing point or pick faults just for the sake of it…

  13. Bob the builder

    HR I differ greatly in my responses to your writing (which leads me to conclude we are both functioning adults with differing viewpoints), but this is spot on, only confirmed by the irrelevant objections in the comments.

    Good stuff!

  14. Perrin Walker

    I think you base this article on a ‘straw-leftist’. Sure, if some hypothetical person is raging against the scrapping of Safe Schools, and not paying any attention to material politics (e.g. Gonski), or paying heaps of attention to girls’ education in Afghanistan and completely ignoring imperialism and drone strikes and school bombings and school funding, then sure, give them an I.V line of this article’s argument, stat.

    I just don’t know any leftists who are like that. The media heavily covers discussions of Gonski. There are big ongoing campaigns about it. I’ll pay your (and Shakira Hussein’s) point about the girls’ education, but again, for every imperialist-feminist or imperialist-LGBT activist (or whatever) cheering the military liberation of countries, there are a bunch of very switched on feminists and LGBT activists throwing themselves on police lines in protest against it.

    Obviously there’s great rhetorical appeal in creating a couple of mental sock-puppets, calling them things like ‘the cultural left’ or ‘the cultural right’ and then gleefully bashing them both with your excellent and morbidly entertaining rhetorical flair, but it seems like a missed opportunity for deeper analysis…

  15. Tom McHugh

    “The cultural left has now become entirely cultural”?
    You are making an enormous error of category.
    Some left wingers make a fuss about Safe Schools. This hits the media. (Who decides what is newsworthy? Who sets the agenda?).
    Or, people who have left-wing ideals (whatever those are) campaign about Safe Schools, Gonski, Muslim students freedom to study and their safety from military assault, etc etc. Can you see the difference?
    I sympathise with your sense of helplessness, your belief that the power to make the world a better place is a fiction. Perhaps you need to come out of your media bubble and see people, all over the world, working and struggling to make it a better place.
    Some teenagers are cynical and despairing, some are over-idealistic, – there is no one category of “teenager”, except in the strictest sense of the word, just as there is no single descriptor of left wing people and campaigns.
    All in all, you have allowed conservative idealogues to dictate the agenda, to disract attention from other more issues. When we get rid of these chretins Gonski can be resurrected.

  16. Blair Martin

    Razer: couldn’t interview for toffee, can’t write for it either. Just go away.

  17. Needlemeyer


    You are indeed erradite…errordite…eradyte…really good at writey things.

    I concur and thank you for the good read.


  18. AR

    Another 994 words saying nothing.
    If Crikey is really that desperate for filler, why not give gNormless as whirl?
    He’d probably do it for free, rather than just shouting a clouds.

  19. Eden French

    Helen writes:

    “A program to promote individual tolerance … teenagers smell the lesson that they have the power to make the world a better place for the fiction that it is … the cultural left believes in the power of the individual to change the world. In this case, of the teen individual.”

    Safe Schools is a community-focused program to promote a tolerant school environment. It’s not simply aimed at educating individual students about sexuality/gender diversity while discouraging bullying, although this is obviously part of it. The program also more broadly provides resources and education for schools and staff members so that they can deal with common LGBTQIA issues – for example, providing information on respectful and appropriate ways to engage with transgender students. (Who, incidentally, have been especially targeted and ridiculed in the right-wing backlash – the young trans people I’ve worked with certainly value Safe Schools and are glad the left won’t shut up about it.)

    As far as I can tell from my interactions with people directly involved in Safe Schools, nobody buys into the idea that simply throwing diversity slogans and pamphlets at teenagers is enough to prevent bullying, self-harm, and suicide. To make that claim is patronising at best; at worst, it’s a strawman worthy of Bernardi or Christensen themselves.

  20. wellsy32

    This is almost stream of consciousness! The article was about neo liberals not fighting FOR schools whatever that means but there was scant argument for that proposition.

    As I slide into old age I need a little clarity and Helen’s writing to me is like the algal blooms on the Murray River.

  21. mark petrolo

    At first i thought i hated Safe Schools but i’ve come to realise it’s more the left’s haste to defend it that infuriates me. It’s as if being a religious fanatic or bowing down to Safe Schools no questions asked are the only two options people seem to have. And the less people know about Safe Schools is the greater their conviction.
    Nobody seems to care that the need for Safe Schools implies that teachers aren’t being given the tools to deal with LGBT issues in the first place. For some reason when it pertains to LGBT students the left refuse to believe there isn’t a magical state-funded rainbow-powered cure to bullying. Safe Schools is no different than that crappy cautionary anti-drug/alcohol play they made you watch in high school.
    Even before making wild claims about saving lives just the name Safe Schools bothers me. The implication being that schools aren’t safe without it is so arrogant. Maybe if Gonski’s plan was called the Real Schools program the left might have made a fraction of the fuss to support it.

    Rant over. Thanks as always Helen for being the one voice that doesn’t make me want to kill myself. Even if i’m the only LGBT person whose life is saved by this article it will have been worth it.

  22. Itsarort

    Sooo, we really should just promote Existensialism in schools…? If this article is an exposition, I’ve missed the punch line.

  23. Ashley Nichols

    It’s critical thinkers like Helen Razer and Laura McNally who are bringing a much needed balanced perspective to the Safe School debate and yet voices of reason like theirs are being howled out of the discussion from both the extreme right and extreme left who are basically fighting each other for ideological supremacy.


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