Demands that we be kept “safe” by governments play into the hands of conservatives who simultaneously, and with an alarming degree of cognitive dissonance, express their distaste for a nanny state while instigating extreme measures they claim will fulfil both our expectations of safety, and their responsibility to fulfil those expectations.
All too often those measures are an opportunity for authorities to increase surveillance, harvest personal information and exert unnecessary control over citizens, resulting in an erosion of rights that does nothing to keep us safe but rather makes us increasingly vulnerable, not to terrorists but to the state.
As in the family, so in public life. The greatest threat to our safety is allegedly the stranger, in both the private and the public narrative. So we have President Trump’s seven country “Muslim” ban in the US, designed to make Americans safe. In Australia we have the secretive, punitive Department of Immigration and Border Protection, with their ring of steel around our borders and their concentration camps off-shore. Both governments justify extreme measures with repeated assurances that their only objective is to keep us safe.
However, in the case of both family and country, danger is far more likely to come from within the circle than from without: the family is potentially the most dangerous place for women and children, and terrorism is overwhelmingly perpetrated by citizens/permanent residents of the target country rather than refugees, or foreigners who enter the country with the specific aim of conducting attacks.
In a liberal democracy we are supposed to be participants. We have agency. The degree of safety we demand governments provide is incompatible with the freedoms we rightly expect. Governments are not our parents. While as children we are entitled to protection, as adults we have no such entitlements. Protection and safety must be a joint venture: we have to participate in ensuring our own welfare. Once we relinquish our responsibility, we’re on the road to totalitarianism.
Democracy isn’t just the right to vote. It’s a way of being.
Neither will government assurances of safety from external threat protect us from what is most pressingly dangerous: violence in homes and institutions.
Governments are most reluctant to commit resources to these obvious threats to safety and stability. Instead, billions are wasted on the containment of fake threats, and we continue to face real threats grossly under-supported and largely unacknowledged. Our protection in this instance does not require state intrusion into personal life: it requires adequate money and front-line resources administered by competent and experienced citizens, not politicians.
This is an example of democracy working. Secretive bureaucracies are not democratic, and neither is taking money from those in difficult circumstances to fund tax benefits for corporations turning billion dollar profits.
The robust exchange of views between Senator Jacqui Lambie and Islamic youth leader Yassmin Abdel-Magied, broadcast on ABC’s Q&A last week, is a complex example of the degree to which fake threats dominate our discourse. It also inadvertently provided a seminar in free speech, when a number of organisations petitioned the ABC to provide a “safe environment” in which Muslims may speak.
Senator Lambie has obviously swallowed the fake terrorism threat, as is evidenced in her noisy opposition to what she perceives as the imminent danger of Australia becoming subject to what she understands as Sharia law. At present, I’d argue, Australia is faced with the rather more urgent matter of dealing with the consequences of Catholic Canon law than with Islamic tenets, sad confirmation of the theory that the stranger is not our largest and most immediate danger.
I don’t like Lambie’s views on the matter of Sharia law, or her manner of expressing them, however, such views exist and attempting to silence them is not a useful option. Currently, the voices of prejudice, fear and hatred seem to have wrenched the mic from voices of reason and good will. We are under the governance of a conservative ideology that values combat and domination over citizens’ and community interests, while offering fake protection from outside forces in order to conceal that ideology’s very real threat to civil society.
Sharia law is not currently an issue for Australia: political negligence on matters of survival such as climate change and social inequality and injustice are.
I don’t yet know how we get the mic back. I don’t think anybody does. I don’t think forcible silencing of opposition is an option. It’s impossible to dictate the tone and language in which opposition is couched. Once again, personal responsibility stands side by side with freedoms. That there are people with platforms taking little or no responsibility for their speech and its possible consequences is truly awful, but it’s reality.
For mine, freedom of speech was exercised by all parties in the Q&A example, including the freedom of organisations to get up a petition protesting the event, and the freedom of their supporters to sign it.
This is how we contest fake threats. By embracing democracy as a way of being, not just something we perform at the ballot box every few years. It isn’t any government’s sole responsibility to keep us and democracy safe, and once we relinquish agency, we have truly lost all hope of safety, and returned to infantile dependence.