Every year, on the 25th of April, a collective murmur rises from the lips of all Australians. These are three solemn words, uttered in the earliest hours of the morning, and they strike a chord deep in the heart of the national conscience.
"Lest We Forget".
We say these words to remember over ten thousand soldiers from the Australian and New Zealand Corps (ANZACs), who died in the tragic Gallipoli campaign in 1915, protecting their country and empire during the turbulence of World War One. The ANZACs failed to reach any of their military goals, but their sacrifice left a defining mark on the Australian identity. It is not simply our duty, but part of our very being, to remember these soldiers and the liberal values that they fought for on ANZAC day.
But this year, we forgot to remember those values.
When Sudanese-Australian television presenter, Yassmin Abdel-Magied, used ANZAC day as an opportunity to highlight Australia’s controversial treatment of Muslims in her Facebook post “Lest we forget (Manus, Nauru, Syria, Palestine).”, she was met with bitter backlash, ranging from calls for her sacking, to being called a “bitch” on national television. Citing “offence” and the “disrespectful” nature of her comments, Australia’s conservative right struck down harshly on the activist, publicly lampooning her as a shrewd opportunist who leveraged the ANZAC legend to score some quick political capital.
Significantly, Australia’s conservatives have long been calling for a repeal of Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, a piece of legislation that curtails freedom of speech if it is deemed to “offend, insult and humiliate” racial minorities. Bolstered by the public support behind the #JeSuisCharlie movement and, more recently, the outrage generated over the brutal lynching of Pakistani student Mashal Khan, neoliberals have argued that diluting the right defeats its very essence. Australia’s right fears the creation of a hyper politically correct culture, in which ideas are stifled rather than examined, where minorities can hide behind “offence” in a blunt refusal to assimilate, and where the regressive left protects anyone from critique so long as they are not white.
Their fear is not unjustified – freedom of speech is definitely under attack in Australia. In 2009, conservative writer Andrew Bolt was found in violation of 18C for his comments on “fair skinned Aborigines” using their ethnicity to claim social advantages. His remarks were incredibly offensive to the common Australian, not to mention factually incorrect. However, soon after the hearing, many Australians rose to Bolt’s defence, claiming that banning his views was a mistake, as it communicated to our society that certain fringe views could never be discussed. They saw Bolt’s prosecution as an affront to liberalism, and rightly so – the case illustrated that, for a country that prided itself on its liberalism and free debate, Australia had found itself a sacred cow. Many of us, for example, feel deep shock at Turkey’s law preventing public affirmation of the Armenian Genocide – yet would not think twice about banning those who similarly deny the Holocaust. We shudder at the harsh crackdown of LGBT rallies overseas, but deny neo-Nazi groups the same privileges here. The message from the conservative right was clear – it is precisely the views that offend the majority that free speech is meant to protect, and precisely in allowing offensive views to be brought into the public sphere that they can be delegitimised.
What is shocking, then, is how the narrative changed when the “offender” was Black, female and Muslim. The “freedom of speech” crusaders were nowhere to be seen when Abdel-Magied “insulted” the sacred cow of ANZAC Day. In a bizarre burst of patriotism, “offence” and “disrespect” suddenly became tag words for the very people who had derided these concepts simply months earlier. When Abdel-Magied apologised for her comments merely hours later, they attacked her for backing down from what she truly believed in.
Admittedly, no one took Abdel-Magied to the Human Rights Commission. She was neither fined, nor did she get sacked from the Australian Broadcasting Service. Noticeably absent, however, was the “delegitimisation process” that the right had highlighted in the case of Bolt. In the aftermath of Andrew Bolt’s debacle, Australians talked about welfare benefits, 18C, and whether multiculturalism was a trump card for all discussions about race. When it came to Abdel-Magied, the picture flipped – we saw a torrent of personal insults. Rather than discussing and debating whether ANZAC day could be used as an opportunity to explore Australia’s shocking refugee rights record, criticisms of Abdel-Magied focussed on the activist herself – her religion, ethnicity and even her views on the headscarf suddenly became relevant in the hysteria.
Importantly, those who did comment on freedom of expression blasted her for abusing the right – for making “silly” and “idiotic” comments against the soldiers who died for her ability to say what she did. On national television, conservative commentator Alan Jones reminded her that she should be grateful for the privileges she would not have been receiving had she been living in a Muslim country. Of course, he is correct – no one was ever going to put Abdel-Magied’s life in danger over her comments. The point that the conservatives missed in the subsequent furore, however, was fixating over whether Abdel-Magied had the legislative right to say what she did.
To measure unity and integration, one needs to look past what is written in the strict word of the law. Of course, legislation is important – but what is more important is whether legislation is reflected and applied equally through the norms of a society. Minority groups, such as the one Abdel-Magied represents, clearly face major hurdles when entering the political sphere, whether this be through activism or formal roles in Parliament. This occurs despite repeated attempts at affirmative policy designed to give equal opportunity to these members of our society. Unity must be understood through the lens of policy outcomes and social mores, not just the phrasing of policy itself.
Thus, if we are going to argue that “offence” is not a legitimate reason for curtailing freedom of expression, then we need to be able to properly discuss views that offend the majority as well, and not just deride the exasperation of minorities who are already fighting an uphill battle to have their voices heard. Yasmin Abdel-Magied highlighted that when people of minority backgrounds exercise their freedom of speech, they risk a lot more than those who fit the cultural norm – their personal lives, as well as the potential delegitimisation of their views.
Whether Abdel-Magied’s comments were an affront to the national holiday is debatable. Perhaps she was carelessly insensitive and could have chosen a better time to share her thoughts. Perhaps, as the conservative right would love to think, she was being deliberately iconoclastic, rubbing her hands in delight as she thought of all the offence she might create.
Perhaps, however, her message was a reaffirmation of the ANZAC values themselves, reminding us of the shambolic record of our refugee policy and the fact that human loss is universal. There is little doubt that Australia’s treatment of Muslims is questionable, and it does not take a big intellectual leap to notice how our society is failing to live up to the pluralism and integration that the ANZACs died for.
What is not debatable, however, is whether the treatment she received at the hands of the Australian right was commensurate to the contents of her post. Abdel-Magied’s motives may have been dubious, but her comments, and the subsequent scapegoating, serve as a reminder of how freedom of speech has come to be monopolised in Australian society. It is the prerogative of the white and privileged, and anyone who insults their sacred cows is going to unfortunately have to pay the price.
Australia’s conservatives are right. Freedom of speech is under attack. What they fail to recognise is that they are part of the problem.