I grew up in the ’70s, and it wasn’t the most well-mannered era. You didn’t get five minutes into daily conversation before any number of racist, homophobic, sexist epithets would be spat out, sometimes with malice, often merely because that was the way many people spoke, whether intending to offend or not. And the media reflected that, which is why so much comedy from the 1970s is now so painful to watch. Anyone who wasn’t a white able-bodied heterosexual male would be described in insulting or dismissive terms, with white able-bodied heterosexual women second on that particular ladder of privilege. They were what was normal. Everything else was Different. Other.
One of the stories of Australia, one of the good stories since that time, is that it has become a much more comfortable place for diversity and difference. I’m not going to use the term “politically correct”, because it’s bullshit. This is about having some basic manners and treating someone as you’d like to be treated yourself, judging a person on their actions, not on the colour of their skin or whom they sleep with or whether they use a wheelchair. The path we’ve travelled has been winding and, on occasion, confusing. I can still remember the Wran government debating whether to decriminalise homosexuality in NSW, while the Catholic churches thundered against it. At the same time, from the same pulpits, racism against newly arrived Vietnamese refugees was being denounced. Go figure. But progress was slowly made.
My Marxist friends will insist that this isn’t any particular achievement, that stopping individuals from engaging in bigotry does nothing to address the systemic causes of that bigotry (invariably, capitalism). I kind of agree with that — although capitalists certainly didn’t invent racism — but that’s not the point. The lives of millions of people are the better for not being routinely abused, vilified and smeared by white-skinned heterosexuals, for their being able to go to work or go to school or go the shops and not be called a “wog” or a “chink”, to be able to talk about mental health without being labelled a “spaz”, to do their jobs without being felt up by the boss, to not lose their jobs because they’re gay. I think that’s a better society than the one I grew up in. Way better.
At some point, however, we started to go backwards. It wasn’t under John Howard, curiously — Howard had his own racial issues, of course, and talked about “political correctness” as though it was some form of Stalinist tyranny. But it was more recent than that. I think it was under Julia Gillard. The mere fact that a prime minister was female seemed to push some button on inchoate rage in many people, prompting an outpouring of misogynist rage.
Since then, it’s got worse. Much worse, and it’s spread across the media and become embedded in politics. Racists like Pauline Hanson have the legitimacy of the Senate now to spread their poison. Australian Muslims, in particular, are the routine targets of vilification. And God help you if you’re a Muslim woman. Yassmin Abdel-Magied has been the target of one of News Corp’s disgraceful smear campaigns for an anodyne comment she quickly apologised for, partly because, given her links to the ABC, she represents two for the price of one. She’s opted to leave Australia — and hey, we can readily give away smart, articulate, skilled women like that because we’ve got loads more, right? — but even this wasn’t enough for some bigots at Yahoo7, who asked whether she should “stay and face her critics”.
Apologise, don’t apologise, stay, go — it doesn’t matter. What infuriates News Corp, the idiots behind that poll, and Abdel-Magied’s critics isn’t what she says or even what she does, but that she’s a woman, that her skin has a different colour, that she has a different faith, and an unwillingness to keep her views to herself. She doesn’t just infuriate them, in fact — I suspect she bloody terrifies them.
Perhaps inspired by the driving out of Abdel-Magied, Sky News’ Rowan Dean this week urged Human Rights Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane — guilty of that ultimate sin, having a name that is difficult to pronounce — to “go back to Laos”. Dean, a “humorist” of quite sublime levels of unfunniness, was swiftly denounced by some of the quality journalists at Sky like Kieran Gilbert, Patricia Karvelas and Peter Van Onselen. Earlier this year, Sky sacked professional Angry White Man Mark Latham after he called a schoolboy “gay”. By that standard, Dean should no longer be employed. He can go join Latham at his Geocities blog or whatever online sewer Biff now operates in.
But with this kind of garbage legitimised in the media, it’s unsurprising that on the streets, much worse has taken place. Posters calling for the deportation of Abdel-Magied and TV broadcaster Waleed Aly and the hanging of the Greens’ Sarah Hanson-Young have been distributed around Sydney by what the media euphemistically calls a “nationalist group” (hint to journalists — they’re Nazis. Actual, living, breathing, Nazis, of the kind we fought a war against).
Like Abdel-Magied (her response to the posters is here), Aly is guilty primarily of Having An Opinion While Muslim (and all the worse because he’s talented, attractive, smart and funny), while Hanson-Young — apart from the obvious crime of negotiating with the government for more funding for schools, a clear assault on Australian values if there ever was one — presumably invokes outrage for being female and a public figure.
As with Gillard, one doesn’t have to agree with, or even particularly like, any of these people to be sickened by this garbage, and to wonder what the hell kind of cesspit of hate we are becoming. This is turning back into the Australia I knew, decades ago, when this sort of garbage was standard. And the pustulent chancre at the core of such sentiments is that Australia has no place for anyone who is Other. Other coloured skin, Other faith, Other gender, Other sexuality, Other physical or mental ability. And, of course, Other opinion. The Other should, in Dean’s words, hop on a plane and go back where it came from — unless, of course, you want it to stick around so you can put it on trial.
It’s Dean, and the News Corp cowards, and the politicians who feigned outrage at Abdel-Magied’s Anzac Day comments, and “nationalist groups” who need to go back where they came from. Here’s how: build a fucking time machine and get in it and travel back to 1950s Australia. Better yet, go to apartheid-era South Africa. Or the Jim Crow-era Deep South. Stop dragging the rest of us back to a country we thought we’d left behind, an Australia in which a whole bunch of Australians got up every morning and made it our business to hate and hurt others for the basic reason that they didn’t look like us. For a while, it seemed we were better than that. Perhaps dumbly I think still think we are.