power Penny Wong
Diana Sayed and Senator Penny Wong on Q&A

There is an Arab saying, Darabne wa baka, wa saba’ane wa shtaka, that translates literally to “He hit me and cried. Then he beat me to the complaint” (trust that it’s far more poetic in Arabic).

It’s an illustration of the tendency of perpetrators to make the first strike and then pre-emptively play the victim, leaving their hapless target with little recourse to do anything but lick their wounds amidst the unfair blame. In other words, it identifies powerlessness as a strategy performed by the powerful. 

I was reminded of this idiom in the dying moments of this week’s Q&A (bear with me briefly here) when guest Diana Sayed, former crisis manager for Amnesty International, challenged her co-panellists on their views of the Uighurs’ persecution by the Chinese government (a key Australian economic partner).

After an audience member asked whether the lives of the million or so Uighurs — a Turkic Muslim minority interred by the Chinese state — should trump our trade relations and propel Australia into some form of official action, the response from most of the panel was uniformly tepid. The Centre for Independent Studies’ Tom Switzer wondered whether being virtuous was worth the expense of being effective. Labor Senator Penny Wong echoed Switzer’s contention that any action Australia took would be ineffective, and Liberal Senator Scott Ryan concurred that any effectiveness would be “virtually zero”.

Sayed, ostensibly given last word on the matter, was the lone voice of dissent. She summed up the other four panellists’ responses as “Muslim lives don’t matter”. This was greeted with a chorus of dismayed sighs as her fellow panellists protested that Sayed — a human rights lawyer and Muslim who came to Australia with her family as a refugee from Afghanistan — had been “unfair” to them. Ryan went so far as to deride her statement as a “bumper sticker”. She then tried to clarify: “This is what I’m hearing”.

Rather than address her critique by, say, simply asking her why this is what she heard in their words, all four of the other panellists — whose professional positions betray far more structural power than that of Sayed — positioned themselves as the targets of an underhanded attack. In the end, the final thoughts viewers were left with were not Sayed’s but Wong’s, who, with a look of wounded betrayal, chastised Sayed’s “unreasonable proposition”.

Sayed’s face said it all. She had no time — and I would wager no inclination after this reprimand — to respond again; her expression was that of a person who knows they have no option but to suck it up. At the end of this hour of discussion involving some powerful political figures in the country, it was the lawyer and former refugee, the sole dissenter, who was painted as something of a bully for merely letting this power in her midst know how its words and (lack of) action impacted her. 

When we think of power, we tend to envision its more ostentatious forms. War. Surveillance. Police raids. But power is not always so conspicuous. Sometimes power is at its sneakily brutal best when it pretends it simply doesn’t exist, that it is somehow at the mercy of those that it dominates.

This can take place in the public square: at the height of the marriage equality campaign in 2017, Tom Switzer wrote a column branding LGBTIQ activists as “bullies” for refusing to tolerate religious intolerance of their private lives.  

It can also occur in the halls of the highest power: in 2015, following criticism from Amnesty International for its treatment of asylum seekers, Peter Dutton wailed that the government was “not going to be bullied” into “watering down” Operation Sovereign Borders. He accused the human rights organisation of trying to “attack Border Force staff [and] naval staff”, before labelling Amnesty International a “disgrace”. 

More recently, as Home Affairs minister, Dutton has accused those that he detains in offshore detention of gaming the system and trying to take advantage of Australia… by using the medevac laws to seek urgent medical treatment on the mainland. The government of Australia, if Dutton is to be believed, is little more than the hapless victim of these cunning threats to our way of life.

Strategic powerlessness is also performed to exquisite effect by the most powerful country in the world. Despite the incongruity of declaring oneself simultaneously invincible and under existential threat from “rogue” states such as Iran, US President Donald Trump boasts of his ability to “obliterate” Iran and portrays it as an apocalyptic danger. 

After the US struck the first blow by withdrawing from the 2015 nuclear deal signed with Iran by Barack Obama, Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton summed up the cognitive dissonance perfectly: he warned Iran that any attack (not that a credible attack had been threatened) “will be met with unrelenting force”. Bolton continued, “The United States is not seeking war with the Iranian regime, but we are fully prepared to respond to any attack”.

With these words, the Trump administration can now claim that any act of aggression on its part is, in fact, merely self-defence. By positioning itself as a victim, power projects its own transgressions onto others, claims innocence for itself, and ensures the sustenance of the status quo. Darabne wa baka, wa saba’ane wa shtaka.

I understand your point but I don’t think it was a reasonable proposition to put to us, that somehow certain lives don’t matter,” Wong rebuked Sayed on Q&A. “Well that’s what I’m hearing,” Sayed replied. “That is not what I am saying.” Case closed. 

Speaking truth to power is difficult enough as it is. When power insists on performing powerlessness, it becomes all but impossible. Which is, of course, precisely the point. 

Peter Fray

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