The freedom to offend

13 May

 Freedom of Expression

 

This morning I’m thinking about Freedom Commissioner Tim Wilson’s infamous “Occupy Melbourne” tweet; this piece I wrote about Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s tyrannical demand that public servants “dob in” workmates they suspect of speaking ill of the government, and the fantasy of the “freedom to be heard.”

Wilson’s Timsplain on the “civilising” and “regulating” goals of curbing freedom of speech, specifically in employment contracts, can be read here.

The tweet:

@timwilsoncomau Walked past Occupy Melbourne protest, all people who think freedom of speech = freedom 2 b heard, time wasters … send in the water cannons

While sending in water cannons certainly serves to “regulate” behaviour, it is not in itself a civilised reaction to citizens exercising their right to speak freely about the principles and actions of governments. It still disturbs me to know that the Australian Commissioner for Freedom advocates state violence to suppress what he regards as “time-wasting” dissent, and considers such action “civilised.”

There is no such thing as the freedom to be heard. It’s impossible to make someone hear if he or she doesn’t wish to hear: they may give all the appearance of listening, but that doesn’t mean they’re hearing. It’s part of the vulnerability of being human that we can’t make anyone hear us, we can only hope that the other will care enough to bother.

Exercising the freedom not to hear is not a license to forcibly silence, whether by the use of water cannon or by implementing laws designed to protect those who don’t want to hear. For example, if Mr Wilson doesn’t want to hear protestors he doesn’t have to: he can take an alternative route, turn up his iPod, ignore news reports, in short, he can take responsibility for protecting himself from what he doesn’t want to hear, rather than depending on the state to do it for him.

While there is no right to freedom to be heard, there is no right not to be offended either. The increasing demand for the state to protect individuals from what is regarded as “offensive” across the entire spectrum of human behaviours is alarming, and crippling. It is paradoxical that conservative politicians and public figures make much of their desire for “small government,” while simultaneously seeking to prescribe state enforced restrictions on a wide range of attitudes and behaviours in their attempt to establish a society in which no one behaves in a manner determined by them to be “offensive.” To “offend” someone has become a significant, well, offence.

It goes without saying, one imagines, that to commit any crime against another is inherently offensive, and our laws already have crimes covered. Offence is subjective: I am offended by Mr Wilson’s use of social media to advocate state violence against protestors, however, even if I wanted to, I have no means available to me to turn the water cannon on him because he does not have the freedom to be heard. I can ignore him. Block him on social media. Complain about him on my blog. In other words, take responsibility for regulating and civilising my own world without calling upon the state to do it for me.

The only citizens the state will protect from “offence” are those with whom it is in agreement. All others it will seek to silence, one way or another. Even in a liberal democracy such as ours, the state will and does seek to silence dissent. It is in the nature of political power that those who have it seek to retain it, by any means available. The courts are hog-tied by whatever legislation the government of the day manages to implement.

For an insight into this demand for protection from the “offensive” on a popular cultural level, it’s worth reading Helen Razer’s piece on how difficult it is to be a “bad girl,” and the effort now required if one is to be at all transgressive, and why.

Transgression is impossible without causing offence. Transgression is by its very nature offensive to someone. A society that punishes what it considers offensive, making the offensive a crime in itself, is a society in which transgression of all kinds  is increasingly curtailed and silenced. The current dearth of satirical political comment in this country is but one example of this curtailing of transgression on the grounds that it is “offensive” and, as Mr Wilson would have it, uncivilised.

There is no human right that promises the freedom not to be offended. It is to say the least extremely unfortunate that we have in this country a Commissioner for Freedom who advocates turning water cannon on those who offend him. The protestors did not attack him. They did not threaten him. They merely spoke what he did not wish to hear. If we are entering or have entered a period in which another’s free speech is just cause for advocating state violence in order to silence them, we are in very dangerous waters indeed.

(I just looked out of my bedroom window to see snow falling. Ah.)

 

 

Is Struggle Street poverty porn?

7 May

Struggle Street

SBS aired the first episode of the documentary Struggle Street last night, amidst the kind of publicity and controversy media outlets dream of.

Briefly, the program follows the daily lives of families and individuals who live in Mount Druitt, a suburb in Sydney’s far west where unemployment and poverty are rife, and all the complexities created by lack of opportunity and marginalisation serve to oppress, in some cases, beyond endurance.

In this erudite review in The Conversation the program is described as “poverty porn,” created by the entitled for the entertainment of the entitled. It’s worth noting the author of this piece had not seen the program before writing his review of it. Always a mistake, in my opinion.

An alternative perspective can be found here, written by a journalist who has, thankfully, actually watched the documentary.

For the first ten minutes I found Struggle Street almost impossible to watch, so palpable was the pain, confusion, frustration and sorrow of the people involved. There seems to be an inevitability about the trajectory of their lives: the possibility of a happy ending, or an even slightly improved ending seems severely limited, not because the people involved are inherently undeserving or morally lax, but because of circumstances so complex that unravelling them requires skills and resources that are simply not available, and that authorities are unwilling to make available.

It is convenient to cast people in such situations as being entirely responsible for their own misfortunes, ignoring the vast web of circumstances created by the more privileged sectors of society, circumstances that inevitably create an underclass whom the privileged then have the satisfaction of despising.

To be poor is to be surveilled in a manner entirely alien to the middle class, where the possibilities of concealment are many and varied, and to whom “privacy” and the right not to be offended or embarrassed is a privilege enshrined in law.  It could be argued that the documentary is yet another form of surveillance of the marginalised, ostensibly entered into voluntarily, to which the middle class would never subject itself. It could also be argued that the privileged creators and viewers who perhaps voyeuristically consumed the program last night found moral gratification, if they needed to look for it, in the abyss between the them of Struggle Street, and the us of the entitled gaze.

For me, what fought its way through the grim despair that haunts the daily lives of many of the participants in this documentary is their humanity. The love of a father for his recalcitrant offspring who steal from him to buy drugs. The determined attempts to create, from nothing, a party atmosphere for small children. The yearning of a young woman, homeless for two years owing to family disruption, to return to learning and thus make something of her life. The ongoing adversarial encounters with authorities such as Centrelink and the police that are part of the daily grind that must be faced and endured. People keep struggling to love, to make things better, to stay alive, all against the overwhelming influences of forces beyond their control.

Struggle Street is not, to my mind, poverty porn, though there are those who will choose to view it as such. This says more to me about them, than it does about the program and its participants. There will be the righteously self-congratulatory who measure their success against the apparent failures of the residents of Struggle Street. That can’t be avoided, however, that they need to make such a measure speaks volumes, and not about Struggle Street. What I would hope is that this documentary will confront us with the ferocious inequalities in our society, and the inhumanity of political authority that refuses resources and care to those who most need it, opting instead to blame and punish and marginalise. Mount Druitt does not exist in a vacuum. If this series demonstrates anything, it ought to be that reality.

PS: And the Guardian agrees with me.

Truth, employment and freedom of speech.

2 May

President of the Australian Human Rights Commission, Professor Gillian Triggs, yesterday proffered this analysis of the sacking of SBS sports presenter Scott McIntyre, after he posted a series of tweets that suggested, among other things, an alternative and previously unspoken view of the actions of the ANZACS.

In her piece Professor Triggs refers to the case of Banerji v Bowles (2013) in which Department of Immigration former employee Michaela Banerji was sacked after tweeting criticisms of detention centres, the Prime Minister, and the Minister for Immigration. Ms Banerji used a pseudonym for her Twitter account, and argued that her comments are “constitutionally protected by her right to freedom of political communication as an indispensable incident of representative government.” The Federal Court rejected this view.

Ms Banerji has now replied to Professor Triggs’ observations on her case here.

I know there are readers of Sheep who are as intrigued by legal forensics as am I, and the arguments made by both parties are of significant import to anyone who is employed and uses social media. I won’t add my comparatively ignorant voice to those of Professor Triggs and Ms Banerji, rather I’m interested in Trigg’s observations on the use of social media and Truth.

Triggs begins her piece with a quote from John Milton’s Areopagitica in which the poet passionately opposes censorship, arguing for freedom of speech. “Whoever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?” he asks.

Triggs argues that “today’s near universal access to social media challenges the idea that freedom of expression ensures truth will be victorious over falsehood.”  The poet Milton could not have envisaged the extent of free and open encounters awaiting society in its future, and made his observation at a time when only the privileged had access to a public platform.

There are a couple of assumptions in Triggs’ argument that ought to be noted. In claiming that universal access to social media dilutes the possibility of Truth triumphing over falsehood, Triggs, inadvertently I’m sure, is claiming not only that Truth is, as it was in Milton’s time, defined and controlled by a particular demographic who enjoy freedom of expression due to their privilege, but that this is still a legitimate manner in which to determine what is Truth.  Now the masses have unprecedented access to public platforms that democratise freedom of expression, Truth will inevitably be vanquished by the freely expressed opinions of these masses. Whatever is publicly expressed by those other than the privileged and entitled will inevitably be falsehood, is what her argument implies.

Truth is a tricky concept, fluid in the extreme, determined by the orthodoxy, enforced by the state and its agents, and religion and its agents. Social media offers the most expansive and democratic opportunity for the contestation of what Foucault calls “regimes of truth”  that has ever existed in human history.

Truth, argues Foucault, does not exist outside of power:

 on the contrary, truth “is produced by virtue of multiple constraints [a]nd it induces regulated effects of power”. This is to say that “each society has its regime of truth”, and by this expression Foucault means: (1) “the types of discourse [society] harbours and causes to function as true”; (2) “the mechanisms and instances which enable one to distinguish true from false statements” and (3) “the way in which each is sanctioned”; (4) “the techniques and procedures which are valorised for obtaining truth”; (5) “the status of those who are charged with saying what counts as true” (Foucault 1976, p. 112; 13).

Therefore, “truth” is “a system of ordered procedures for the production, regulation, distribution, circulation and functioning of statements”; it is linked “by a circular relation to systems of power which produce it and sustain it, and to effects of power which it induces and which redirect it”. 

It is the function of social media, exemplified most recently by the tweets of Scott McIntyre, to contest truth regimes produced by systems of power that control and sustain what comes to be normalised as “Truth.” Scott McIntyre, Michaela Banerji and countless others have used social media to contest the constructed regimes of truth, to their cost. Whether these challenges to the orthodoxy are accurate or not, the point is they must be made and in a liberal democracy the people who make them ought not to be punished.

There is absolutely no correlation between freedom of expression and what we might, at any given time, consider to be Truth. The very best we can do is, as Foucault recommends, constantly question the origins of our current regimes of truth, by whom are they determined, whose ends do they serve, what techniques and procedures are valorised for obtaining truth and by whom. Our most powerful weapon for contesting regimes of truth is social media. Professor Triggs is quite wrong: today’s near universal access to social media ensures an unprecedented freedom of expression that in turn ensures an unrelenting contestation of truth claims, and herein lies its power, and its threat to authority.

Freedom of expression has never ensured Truth, not in Milton’s time and not in ours. Social media is a powerful tool for the examination of regimes of truth established by the privileged and entitled, regimes that all too often have little to do with what is true, and far more to do with what is advantageous to those who declare it to be true.

Foucault: Regimes of Truth

 

Pluto shits on the Universe

1 May

Pluto-and-charon-artists-impression

 

This is the title of a pome, sent to me by the lovely M who sends me pomes to wake up to most days, and I’ll include it in this post because it is spectacularly attitudinal, and a ripper of a metaphor.

Back again at last in my beloved Snowy Mountains, I woke this morning with a vivid memory of the birthday I celebrated after my first round with cancer. My sons, who were teenagers at the time, broke into their piggy banks and cadged off their dad to buy me a luxurious Yves Saint Laurent bathrobe of thick white towelling with delicate pink and green satin embroidery on the collar and cuffs. I said, unwisely, wow, is this for me to cark in, and nobody but me thought it funny.

My sense of humour was always dark grey and the cancer experience turned it black. The colour black is, of course, the result of the absence of, or the complete absorption of light, depending on your point of view when you wake up in the mornings. I prefer to think of it as the latter because I’m cheered by the notion of darkness needing light for its very existence, rather than being the consequence of light’s total absence.

Anyways, this Yves Saint Laurent bathrobe is the most luxurious item of clothing I have ever owned, and it is still almost as good as it was the day of that first survival birthday. I may yet cark in it. I most certainly will insist on being buried or burned in it. I’m kicking myself that I left it at home, because it would be perfect for running from the hot tub on the freezing verandah back into the glow of the fire-warmed sitting room. I don’t know how those louts of mine even knew about Yves Saint Laurent at that obnoxious stage of their lives, but I’m ever so glad they did.

The pome:

Pluto Shits on the Universe
BY FATIMAH ASGHAR
On February 7, 1979, Pluto crossed over Neptune’s orbit and became the eighth planet from the sun for twenty years. A study in 1988 determined that Pluto’s path of orbit could never be accurately predicted. Labeled as “chaotic,” Pluto was later discredited from planet status in 2006.

Today, I broke your solar system. Oops.
My bad. Your graph said I was supposed
to make a nice little loop around the sun.

Naw.

I chaos like a motherfucker. Ain’t no one can
chart me. All the other planets, they think
I’m annoying. They think I’m an escaped
moon, running free.

Fuck your moon. Fuck your solar system.
Fuck your time. Your year? Your year ain’t
shit but a day to me. I could spend your
whole year turning the winds in my bed. Thinking
about rings and how Jupiter should just pussy
on up and marry me by now. Your day?

That’s an asswipe. A sniffle. Your whole day
is barely the start of my sunset.

My name means hell, bitch. I am hell, bitch. All the cold
you have yet to feel. Chaos like a motherfucker.
And you tried to order me. Called me ninth.
Somewhere in the mess of graphs and math and compass
you tried to make me follow rules. Rules? Fuck your
rules. Neptune, that bitch slow. And I deserve all the sun
I can get, and all the blue-gold sky I want around me.

It is February 7th, 1979 and my skin is more
copper than any sky will ever be. More metal.
Neptune is bitch-sobbing in my rearview,
and I got my running shoes on and all this sky that’s all mine.

Fuck your order. Fuck your time. I realigned the cosmos.
I chaosed all the hell you have yet to feel. Now all your kids
in the classrooms, they confused. All their clocks:
wrong. They don’t even know what the fuck to do.
They gotta memorize new songs and shit. And the other
planets, I fucked their orbits. I shook the sky. Chaos like
a motherfucker.

It is February 7th, 1979. The sky is blue-gold:
the freedom of possibility.

Today, I broke your solar system. Oops. My bad.

ƒ 

This pome is infinitely applicable to all kinds of situations. I particularly enjoy the use of “chaos” as a verb.  I like to recite the pome to the regiments of cancers and their tired metaphors of war. I say it to a couple of people who shit me to tears. I say it to the goddamn state and all its agents. I say it to everybody who

Somewhere in the mess of graphs and math and compass…
 tried to make me follow rules. Rules? Fuck your
rules.

I pass it on to you, dear reader. Go forth and chaos like a motherfucker.

Now there’s an epitaph.

When abuse is just another news story

16 Apr

 news

I was driving home from my appointment with my shrink, with whom I’m attempting to unravel the mystery of how events of the past inescapably determine the present (“Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” George Santayana. Remember it) when I heard on ABC Radio National’s The World Today this report of evidence given at the Royal Commission into Institutional Child Abuse.

The report was preceded by a warning of “disturbing” content.

The content is disturbing. It might make you weep. It might make you remember. It might make you rage. It might make your heart break.

But what is even more disturbing is the manner in which this disturbing content, like all other disturbing content, is transmogrified from a heartbreaking, terrifying, rage-provoking account of one man’s childhood into nothing more than another news story in a busy news cycle, the majority of which is comprised of disturbing content of one kind or another. In other words, as soon as this disturbing event is reported we move immediately onto something else, as is routine, as is expected in a media-drenched world where news is barely considered interesting unless it’s disturbing. The need of comfortable people for the thrill of vicarious disturbance should never be underestimated.

What we should have had after Mr David Owen’s story is a minute’s silence. What we should have had is a minute to absorb the magnitude of his suffering. What we should have had is a minute to reflect that Mr Owen’s story of childhood sexual abuse is repeated and repeated and repeated, perhaps a billion or more times around the globe.

What we also should have had is the opportunity to reflect that while it is on the one hand a “good” thing that these matters are now public, it is also possibly a “bad” thing that they are treated as one more story in the news cycle, and that as a society we are becoming so inured to disturbing content that we can be momentarily appalled then move on, within seconds, to the next piece of news without as much as a moment to catch our breaths and reflect upon what we have just heard.

Everything is a damn hashtag. Everything.

It is unrealistic of me to want a minute’s silence after reports such as that on Mr Owen’s childhood suffering. Yet I was outraged by the manner in which his account of the details of his abuse was slotted between other items of interest to the ABC’s midday audience, and I was infuriated by how we are expected to lurch from stories of such atrocities to something Tony Abbott said with nary a second to catch our breaths. How can atrocity become anything more than wall paper when it’s doled out on the hour in sound bites? And what is this doing to us?

I don’t know what purpose was served by the ABC reporting Mr Owen’s evidence, in all its aching detail, in little more than a sound bite. Fair enough if some time is dedicated to the topic. Fair enough if some respect is accorded to the man, and to his experiences. But to sandwich it between Abbott and the jobless figures is a step too far.

While everyone ought to know what happens to far too many children, and the aftermath, it isn’t a sound bite. Mr Owen is a man of tremendous courage and resilience. His story isn’t fodder for the news cycle.

All we have is a voice

9 Apr

No post today, but sharing a poem that seems alarmingly appropriate, especially the penultimate verse.

 

there-is-no-such-thing-as-the-state-and-no-one-exists-alone-hunger-allows-no-choice-to-the-citizen-or-the-police-we-must-love-one-another-or-die-wh-auden

 

September 1, 1939
W. H. Auden, 1907 – 1973

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
About Democracy,
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave;
Analysed all in his book,
The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.

Into this neutral air
Where blind skyscrapers use
Their full height to proclaim
The strength of Collective Man,
Each language pours its vain
Competitive excuse:
But who can live for long
In an euphoric dream;
Out of the mirror they stare,
Imperialism’s face
And the international wrong.

Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.

The windiest militant trash
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish:
What mad Nijinsky wrote
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart;
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.

From the conservative dark
Into the ethical life
The dense commuters come,
Repeating their morning vow;
“I will be true to the wife,
I’ll concentrate more on my work,”
And helpless governors wake
To resume their compulsory game:
Who can release them now,
Who can reach the deaf,
Who can speak for the dumb?

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

From Another Time by W. H. Auden, published by Random House. Copyright © 1940 W. H. Auden, renewed by the Estate of W. H. Auden. Used by permission of Curtis Brown, Ltd.

Protesting a broken system is not emotional blackmail

8 Apr

Peter DuttonImmigration Minister Peter Dutton yesterday declared that he would not submit to what he described as “emotional blackmail” by Iranian asylum seeker Saleed Hassanloo, who has been on a hunger strike for forty-four days in protest at the DIBP’s refusal of refugee status.

Asylum seekers imprisoned indefinitely in Australia’s off-shore detention camps have few methods available to them to protest their plight. That the camps on Manus and Nauru are hellish has been apparent for some time now. This has been recently confirmed by the damning Moss Report, commissioned by former Immigration Minister Scott Morrison some seventeen months ago after the government alleged Save the Children workers were “coaching” asylum seekers to self-harm in order to attract the government’s attention.

Peter Dutton obviously doesn’t know what emotional blackmail is. For a start, it takes place in a personal or intimate relationship, such as that between husband and wife, mother and child, siblings, bullies in the workplace, or close friends. It’s a manipulative behaviour intended to control the other party through fear, obligation, and guilt, and it isn’t a one-off occurrence, it’s a pattern of behaviour established between two or more people as a primary means of communication and interaction.

Detained asylum seekers have virtually no avenues for legitimately  protesting their situations. Self-harm, which is using the body as the vehicle of protest, is all they have. This is not the fault of the asylum seekers, but of governments that have created conditions in which human beings have no hope, extremely limited rights, and are forced to lives that can only be filled with despair.

Dutton’s reason for refusing to respond humanely to Hassanloo’s protest was that if he did, hundreds of asylum seekers would self harm, seeking the same humane outcome. This likelihood should tell Dutton there is something terribly wrong with the system he oversees. If the people incarcerated in it, including children as young as five are willing to harm themselves in order to escape the detention camps, the problem obviously lies in the detention system, and not in the human beings Dutton is forcing to endure it.

It is the default position of the coward and the bully to blame the victim for his or her reaction to the bullying he or she has been subjected to. Australian governments, both ALP and LNP, have bullied boat-borne asylum seekers for decades now. For decades now both governments have criminalised, demonised and dehumanised asylum seekers for their own nefarious political purposes.

Whenever asylum seekers have self-harmed we’ve heard the same old government spin about emotional blackmail, and the same old complaints about the duress these important politicians have been subjected to by asylum seekers protesting with their bodies. We’ve heard this from every Immigration Minister, from Philip Ruddock who infamously made repeated references to a child asylum seeker who refused to eat as “it,” onwards.

The problem and the fault lies with the treatment of boat-borne asylum seekers by both major political parties. Human beings detained under the conditions these governments have imposed are human beings who are, daily, being severely abused by governments. Our governments are bullies and serial abusers. Their victims self-harm, as victims of serial abusers and bullies frequently do. Our governments blame their victims, as bullies and abusers inevitably will. Our governments then claim victim status for themselves, as they accuse their victims of causing them duress by emotionally blackmailing them.

This is sick. This is dysfunctional. This sickness and dysfunction are at the heart of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection as they implement pathological government policies. Every Minister who heads that department, of either political persuasion, perpetuates the sickness and dysfunction by intensifying the secrecy surrounding boat-borne asylum seekers arrivals, and the conditions of their incarceration.

Increasingly, attempts to threaten and silence anyone who attempts to speak out about the daily abuses, fail. These attempts at silencing have been taken so far by the Abbott government as to personally attack Human Rights Commission head Gillian Triggs, when her report on the detention camps was released.

You can’t shut everybody up, though Transfield, to whom maintenance of the off-shore detention camps has been outsourced, is working very hard to assist the Abbott government in this mission with outrageous attempts to gag its workers.

You are only as sick as your secrets, and this government is fatally ill.

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