Saturday, March 29, 2014

Is free speech still a right when it impinges on the rights of another?

The Australian government is currently attempting to repeal a section of the Racial Discrimination Act (1975). Since its inception, the Act has courted controversy on the grounds that it impedes free speech. The Act essentially puts a legal framework around racial discrimination. The current government wants to amend the section which criminalises what it commonly referred to as  racial vilification or ‘hate speech’. It will remain illegal to discriminate against someone in action – employment, who can sit where on the bus, etc. – but the repeal will prevent prosecution against race-based speech which is defined as discriminatory.

Not surprisingly, this is an issue that divides.

There has been a lot of discussion in the past week or so, and usually I feel little compulsion to write about topics that are being so heavily covered by others elsewhere. However, I have been struck by the stunning over-simplification of the issues. It appears that you are apparently either in favour of free-speech, or you aren’t. People seem to be wilfully ignorant of the reality that ethical principles or human rights do not always sit comfortably with one another.  

In principle, I am a vehement supporter of free speech, but in practice I am aware that freedom of speech is only attainable when we come from a neutral start point. But we don't ever come from a neutral start point - some people's speech has more power than others. So while free speech is a nice idea, so long as it's more free for some than others, then it is inequitable. Here is where I am faced with a dilemma: I am in favour of free speech but I am opposed to inequality.

If we can accept as true that some people have more freedom of expression than others, it then raises the question of what one privileges more: the right to 'free' speech, or the right to be free from oppression (because bigotry coming from Murdoch and guiding the political system does lead to oppression). I'm fine for people to have their own values on this – I certainly do. I readily declare that I won't tolerate bigotry at the expense of another's discomfort even though having to contain one's bigotry may make the bigot uncomfortable.

A few years ago, in a first year sociology course I was teaching, a student had a Swastika on her folder. She had extreme right-wing views and was opposed to migration and in favour of a white Australia. Certainly, she was entitled to these views, but I had to have a discussion with her about how we manage this in class, I did not want her to feel oppressed; however, I did not want the other 25 students to feel oppressed either. Some students had come to Australia as refugees, and it is more than probable they already felt out-of-place on a university campus without the added dimension of having a student declare that they were not entitled to their place in the room.

Likewise, I teach a course on the sociology of drug use. In the first class, I explain to students that while I encourage open discussion, words such as ‘junkie’, ‘addict’, ‘prostitute’ or ‘whore’ will not be tolerated. Certainly, this impinges free speech, but the impact of not being allowed to use the language is almost certainly less than the impact of being the recipient of such discriminatory language. 

I am not uncomfortable curtailing free speech and this is not because I am against libertarianism; rather, because I am a supporter of it.

If I were to allow discriminatory language in my classroom, I would be diminishing the liberty of some students to feel as equal in my classroom as others. In turn, I would be limiting their capacity to enact their right to free speech. Friere has pointed out that to do nothing in the face of oppression is not remaining neutral, but siding with the powerful. Inaction is action. Not intervening in language that offends is allowing it.

Those arguing that classical liberalism rejects the notion of the state interfering in individual liberties are overlooking the very significant qualification John Stuart Mill made: liberty can rightfully be intruded upon at the point at which it negatively impacts upon another.

Presumably, those in favour of repealing the current legislation in the name of free speech hold close the notion that language is power. The blanket rejection of any impingement on free speech reflects a view that curtailing freedom of expression is a form of oppression. And this is true. However, it is equally true that when those with power use language to further diminish those without power, we see another form of oppression. So the argument that free speech should not be curtailed because it is oppressive lacks nous. The actual argument is that one form of oppression is acceptable and another is not.

When you have not belonged to a group whose rights have been abrogated by other people’s words, it is easy to suggest that words should not hurt. When our mainstream media privileges the voices of the white middle-class, we see policy and social norms developed in response to this. When our mainstream media normalises bigotry and the state allows this to go without consequence, we are not sending out a message about liberty and freedom of speech, we are modelling discrimination.

So yes we all have rights to liberty, but we do not have the right to harm others and people can be harmed from language. But people shouldn’t be offended by what a bigot says, you say? Perhaps. And maybe they are not. But they are likely to be offended by the flow-on effects that come when bigotry is promoted by the most widely-read journalist in Australia. (I have written previously about the power of language)

Given that the government is not seeking to repeal the whole Act – it will remain illegal to discriminate based on ethnicity – it seems reasonable to presume that most people in favour of the repeal are in favour of it because it offends the principle of free-speech; not because they are in favour of racial discrimination.

I am perplexed at how we can agree that discrimination in action should be governed but discrimination in speech should not. I get stumped at this point in the liberty argument. If we are all free individuals, how far do we go before we accept state intervention? For instance, are those in favour of the amendments to 18c also in favour of legalising violence? If it is okay to be a bigot verbally, may I elect to be a bigot physically? Instead of getting angry and saying something mean to you based on your ethnicity, may I just use my liberty to punch you instead? No? Why not? How do we assess whether physical violence is more harmful than a culture of bigotry?

I don’t think I am being too presumptuous to presume that most of those in favour of repealing 18c on the grounds of individual liberty are going to reject my proposition that criminalising violence impedes my liberty. However, I also don’t think I am being too presumptuous to presume that many who have been oppressed by race-related language would have rather received a punch in the face than live in a country which condones inequality based on ethnicity. So what is actually at play here is an argument about which rights and liberties are of most import.

Having two liberties that do not sit comfortably together is hardly new. I’ve written before about this dilemma. In the US, we see gun owners argue that they have the ‘right’ to own a gun and many would agree. But surely many also agree that children have the right to go to school and be free from the risk of someone undertaking a(nother) massacre with a gun they had the liberty to own. Perhaps most people won’t use their guns to kill school children; but the harm that comes from a school of dead children seems far more significant than the harm which arises from abrogating one’s right to gun ownership. We cannot mask this in an argument about liberty – the actual argument comes down to whether or not you preference gun ownership over school children’s safety. Step away from the safe mask of theoretical principles and speak to the practical reality. 

Like the gun debate, the argument about repealing section 18c of the Racial Discrimination Act is only about liberty at its surface. While involvement from the state may not be ideal, I suggest before repealing the Act, we ask those with the power, those whose speech is most free, those who are most offended by the government interference of language, to offer a viable alternative that does not impede one’s right to free speech while simultaneously not impeding racial minorities’ right to feel like an equal citizen. Pretending that free speech is a universal right is na├»ve. Ignoring the effects of hate speech is negligence. Thinking that we are all equal or that language doesn’t have catastrophic influence is downright moronic.

Free speech is much freer to a particular groups of people. Our Prime Ministerial cabinet is full of white men, and it is white men who own the mainstream media: the people who are arguing in favour of repealing the Act are those whose speech has always been free and who have not faced the daily experience of being oppressed. The structural and systemic inequality in our society means that free speech is a privilege, not a right. When this privilege is applied equally to all members of our community, I will entertain repealing 18c.

Friday, March 14, 2014

The missing is visceral

I haven’t been writing much, I know. My mum died and it’s as though she took all of my words with her. All of the words that meant anything, anyway.

I don’t have much to say anymore. I am not angry or bitter or resentful; I don’t mind if you have words. I am not sitting here snarky that people are still instagramming their dinner; I am glad people are instagramming their dinner. I wish that was me. I wish that I had any interest in taking a photo of my meal. But right now I am sitting on a couch trying to fathom how on earth I can live the rest of my days without my family.

My family is gone and so is my vocabulary.

When people ask me how it feels to lose your family, I explain that it’s a hard thing to describe. There are no words that come close to capturing how it feels—not even in a dictionary which has not lost its vocabulary.

It is a feeling; it’s completely visceral. I can tell you about that.

Below your ribs but above your navel, right in between the two, that’s where you feel it. Deep inside. I am absolutely certain that if I had an x-ray of my torso there would be a black expanse there. That black is the missing; part of me is missing and I can physically feel that something that was inside of me, something that was a part of my physical composition, is now gone. Take an x-ray and you will see it missing, I am sure.

I can still function. It wasn’t a vital organ, but it was pretty close. I said to my supervisor it’s not as though I am going to bleed to death; more like I am missing a limb. Or three. I will survive, but I am different now. Permanently different. I am learning how to go about my days with this black expanse inside of me. The days still come and go. Some are good, some are unbearable, most are ordinary.

I function fine. I do all the things I am meant to. I turn up to give lectures, I write articles, do my research, and pay the mortgage. I know I’ll get happy one day. I just don’t know when the One Day is.

My mother’s death was followed very quickly by the anniversary of my brother’s death and then my birthday. Christmas was a fucking nightmare but then it was over. They were bad days; they were very bad days.

My supervisor took over the parenting role when Mum died; she had expected that from him and he takes that responsibility seriously. Chris and Mum were very fond of each other: they were the two people whose interest in me was selfless.

The night Chris was taking me out for my birthday – it’s his job now, he tells me – we were talking beforehand. I told him I’d had a bad weekend. I hadn’t been able to leave the house. He was a bit surprised that I was struggling so much. He’d been there with me when my brother died and he knew that their deaths were different. Jared’s death was shocking and unexpected; much of the grieving was focused on accepting the reality that Jared was dead and ensuring that I was carrying my mum through the death of her son.

When mum died, she had been dying for a long time. Too long. Her death was not a shock. In many ways, it was a relief: her death was not painless and she had not accepted it. Her last days were torturous for all of us, including her medical staff. Her doctor apologised to me for what I was witnessing.

Given this, Chris was curious as to why I was struggling so much – ‘It’s over, Kat, her suffering has ended’.
‘I just really miss them’, I stuttered.
And then he started to cry—my overly paternalistic supervisor who is always so strong for me can’t bear to see me in pain.

My own sadness is not because I can’t reconcile her death or because I have guilt or regret; I am crying because I can’t reconcile the missing. Rationally, I don’t wish her or Jared back – they had suffered enough. But at the same time I wish so much that I didn’t have to live without them.

There is a black expanse inside of me and I wonder when will I get used to its presence? I know it won’t go away; the death of your immediate family is incomparable. Perhaps it is especially pronounced because the three of us had always been so close. I’d never known that other families didn’t tell each other everything. I’d never known that other families didn’t always stop everything or risk anything to look after each other - even if we were fighting.

Chris thinks our closeness probably exacerbates this missing. At his house, the night or so after Mum died, in the middle of conversation he observed, ‘Very few people can talk about a parent the way you talk about your mother - what greater legacy could a person leave than to have their child speak of them the way you do your mum?’

I’d never wondered what losing a parent would be like if that parent wasn’t perfect. When my Mum was dying I had an instinct to be near her. I stopped leaving the suburb, I worked from home, some nights I slept on the floor next to her in the nursing home. In the last days we were under the same blanket holding hands. She knew I was there.

Perhaps my need to be so close was a consequence of her having always placed my brother and I first. Not once, ever, did my mother prioritise herself over her children. Never did I feel that I wasn’t the most important thing in her world: my mother loved us unconditionally and did everything to ensure that we knew it. 

One day she told me that I am good with facing the hard decisions, she said it was because I was 'emotionally secure'. She seemed to think this was a stroke of biological luck. I told her that it was because when I was growing up she had never done anything to compromise my emotional security. 

I hadn’t thought about what it would be like to be losing a parent who hadn’t been a great parent; a great person. I don't have any qualifiers on her greatness. There's no, 'She was a good parent, but ...'. The fact is, she was a flawless parent, always. It was she who taught me that you have to face the hard decisions.

Stopping my life to be with my mother was what I wanted to do – but would I have wanted to do this if my mother was less of a person? I don’t know. Fortunately that’s not a situation I had to face. Of course, having a perfect parent makes the missing hard. Losing Mum makes me miss Jared even more. But as the saying goes, grief is the price you pay for love. 

That price is a vast black expanse inside of me. You could see it on an x-ray, I am certain.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Febfast and hungry kids

Last Friday night I was in promo gear in the city raising money for febfast (which seemed a striking contrast to the Midori promo gear I used to wear on Friday nights ten years ago [stop judging me]).

We made $2200 on the night and I survived the month off booze (with difficulty, I should add).

I received many donations to my own Febfast campaign throughout the month and was really touched by people’s generosity.  

At the moment, I am wrapping up data collection for a project which is seeking to document young people’s views on what sorts of services are most effective for them. A dominant theme that has come up in many of my focus groups has been that they like services where there is food because it means they will get to eat on the day that they go there.

These are teenagers, in Melbourne. They are hungry.

For fuck’s sake.

These young people told me about the difficulty that arises when a service is closed two days in a row--that means they have to wait three days until they eat. 

Sometimes they steal food to get them through, they told me guiltily.

They feel guilty for stealing food when the actual guilt ought to be at the feet of the society which enables this.

YSAS are a beneficiary of Febfast funds and the money raised by staff is hypothecated back to their site. I am going to propose that the money that friends and strangers donated to me be used to alleviate the hunger of these young people, if only temporarily. So if you donated to me, that’s where your money is going.

A massive thanks to all who sponsored me along the way.

In total, Febfast have made over $1m this year. I think you can still donate until the end of March, so I don’t have a final figure just yet.


(If you are so inclined, the place to donate is here )

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Dear Memphis: Perspective

Dear my darling, Memphis,

It’s been a year – a whole year! I will always remember the day you were born. I was at a conference, and I was presenting in a very large room with a very large audience and I performed terribly. I knew you had been born and I was just desperate to get on a tram that would take me to you. Oh my gosh, you were worth the wait. You were the most incredibly beautiful baby. You were so long and looked EXACTLY like your Dad. You had very big hands, and fingers so long I was certain you were born to be a pianist. You were already more tanned than me, but we knew that was going to happen. When you were in the hospital the staff kept reminding Mum that she needed to sleep, but she didn’t sleep. She couldn’t sleep. She explained to me, ‘I just can’t stop staring at him and I can’t get this smile off of my face – the nurses walk in in the middle of the night and I am just sitting there smiling at him while he sleeps in his cot’.

This was the happiest day since the day nine months earlier when she called me at 6am earlier to tell me there was TWO lines on the stick.

Mem, you were so wanted. We had wanted you for so long that when you came we couldn’t believe it. You looked so, so small in your Dad’s arms. Then I held you and I started to cry. You were the most amazing thing I had ever seen. I don’t know what you did to me but I think you made me a little bit crazy. I developed this intense physical need to protect you. That need has stayed – your Mum thinks it is funny. When people come and talk to you in the street and you don’t seem to like them I pick you up out of your high chair and take you away from them. I leave your mum to deal with them. She laughs at me. I will try and get this under control before you are a teenager. (Maybe.)

You started to walk this week, it’s good timing too because Mum can’t carry you too well anymore. She is very small and you are very big. But, she’s not just one person anymore—Mem, she’s making you a sibling! We don’t know if it will be a boy or a girl so I call it my ‘niecephew’. I am a bit worried that at first you might not like Niecephew. This is because a couple of weeks ago we went to look at Niecephew and you put on quite the performance which is not like you at all – you didn’t seem to like not having everyone’s attention. So then I cuddled you. I like cuddling you – you are very cute. (I will also try and get this under control before you are a teenager. [Ha! Who am I kidding?!! No chance!])

I am so proud of your Mum and Dad; they are the most wonderful parents (but don’t tell your Dad I said that about him, tell him I said that he is a Dingus, say it, ‘DIN – GUS’ … we’ll get there, Little Mem).

So, anyway, of course, as always, I got you a present that’s a bit of a life lesson. The lady in the shop was a bit surprised that I was buying a world globe for a one-year-old; however, the lady in the shop did not understand what an amazing one-year-old you are. (She too was a bit of a dingus, obviously.)

So, why did Aunty buy you a globe?

Because – provided Mum can accept that it doesn’t fit perfectly with your colour scheme – it will be in your room. And, like your books, it will be something that is a part of your everyday. The world will be as much a part of your everyday as all of those books I keep giving you.

Why do I want this for you?

Memphis, when you are old enough to read this, I want you to go over to that globe and find the place that you are currently located. You’ll discover that you can’t find the suburb you are in, because it is just too small to see on the map.

Why am I making you do this? Because each time you feel a bit overwhelmed by life; when you feel like the weight of the world is on your shoulders; or when you feel like whatever it is that you are doing is of massive importance – I want you to look at that globe as a reminder that everything is bigger than us. I want you to use that globe to give you some perspective. The world is a big place and you are a tiny, microscopic part of it—you are allowed to have a break. You are allowed to stop and catch some air. You are allowed to let the billions of other people in the world shoulder some of the weight while you take some time out. That’s okay.

The world is a big place – and that’s just Earth! (side note: maybe next birthday we’ll talk about the solar system.) Sometimes it’s easy to get caught up in things and this can make you stressed or anxious or angry or sad, or worse – selfish. This world globe is a reminder that there’s more out there. I don’t want you to feel pressured or caught up in things that don’t really matter, so if sometimes you are, look at your place on that globe.

I want this globe to be a reminder to you that you don’t need to sweat the small stuff. The world will keep on spinning. You can have a day off, a time out, an extension on your deadline. It’s fine. Really, it’s fine. Whatever you are working on doesn’t matter that much.

What does matter you can’t see on that globe either, but one day you will feel it. One day you will get on a plane and travel to the other side of the world. People will ask where your home is and you will tell them whatever place it is that your Mum and Dad live. You will tell them this even if you are 40.

Why is that home? Why, if you are on the other side of the world, is home where you Mum and Dad are? Because you have ties with them that transverse distance. You will know where home is and you will feel anchored. When you have bad days you will want to go home. Home is a place that you can’t see but you can feel.

When you are having a bad day or are stressed about stuff, remember that the world is big and you are small. Remember that nothing really matters so it’s okay for you to be having a bad day. Tomorrow’s a new day.

Remember that the invisible connection between you and home is the most important thing in the world. Keep that as your priority because it will be the one thing that is always there for you. Knowing that you always have home will give you the courage to go and get on a plane and go to the other side of the world. Knowing that you have home will give you the courage to take on big things even when you know that they might fail – because whether what you try ends up as successful or a spectacular failure, home will be there.

So by all means, try big things, be adventurous, have the courage to go and see all the places on that globe. And do this with the knowledge that you can always come home where your worth is dependent on absolutely nothing other than the fact that you are Memphis. And do this with the knowledge that no matter how long you are away for, home will always be there. People at home don’t care what you do with your life so long as you are happy. People at home love you unconditionally. We love you because you are Memphis.

Happy first birthday my favourite little man. Let’s go eat some cake!

Love, Aunty Kat