I’m sure you all saw the horrible scenes on the weekend of the #reclaimaustralia rallies that were held around the country on the weekend. I’m sure the fact that they were held on Easter was probably a deliberate ploy by the organisers, but what they felt they had in common with an Arab Jew who didn’t have a great deal to say about muslims or homosexuals but plenty to say about loving our fellow men and women is beyond me. Unfortunately, the people in charge were not particularly well-organised – passing of their social media account to a prankster named Jeremy was a foolish blunder, and having heavily tattooed and swastika stormfronters showing up to advance their cause was never going to win them friends.
Equally, the ‘left’ – and I’m still not sure what that really means in today’s political arena, and especially so where the debate has so clearly shifted to the right on humanitarian and economic matters – hardly did themselves any favours with their apparent desire to fight fire with fire, or to hurl abuse at the #reclaimaustralia mob – assuming that’s what they did.
Democracy depends on the full and frank exchange of views. It is not, despite what some may believe, about the aggregation of votes and the idea that 50% + 1 makes things right. Rather, it about the contestation and competition of ideas. And, equally, sometimes those ideas may be offensive to other people. That’s why free speech is so important. As horrific as I find the idea of people talking about ‘racial purity’ or, for that matter, the need for women to ‘dress modestly’, I am sure that, many years ago, some people were offended at the thought of having lunch with a black man. Or a woman. Or a black woman. Our morality changes over time, and so what is offensive now may not always be so – but just because we find it offensive doesn’t mean that we can ban it from being said. Having said that, though, just because we have free speech doesn’t meant that our right to the same obviates our responsibility to obey the laws of our country – and to acknowledge that our actions will have consequences. So you cannot go around harassing other people or inciting others to violence, regardless of how your free speech might be protected.
But, and in a similar way, free speech is not enough. We must also learn to consider the views being presented – however abhorrent and disgusting we might find them – with a critical eye. This critical eye is ‘critical’ in two aspects – first, we need to examine what is being said, and how likely it is to come to pass, and what the consequences of such words are, but secondly and more importantly, we must examine who is in power – that is, what are the underlying reasons for what they are saying, and why are they saying it. Of course, this needs to be done delicately, and with a careful weighing of evidence, otherwise we are sure to run aground on the rocks of a communist conspiracy or international zionism or the knights templar.
So, applying that to #reclaimaustralia, and you get an interesting picture of who attends these kinds of rallies. You see and hear a lot of people claiming that ‘the white male’ is the most discriminated against group in society. You see people claiming that multiculturalism doesn’t work. You see a lot of casting about of blame – why does no-one protest against ‘muslim’ atrocities, but they are quick to protest against the Catholic Church? In short, and of course, I’m simplifying things a great deal here for the sake of brevity, if the changes we have faced in the last 30 years have left you feeling a little less confident about your place in the world, you’re looking at prime candidates for these kinds of protests – and probably for EDL and UKIP too. And although I won’t name them, such groups have long been fodder for revolutionaries looking to exchange public support for political power.
In the end, the cause matters little. Sharia law, which I think was the form of the protest on the weekend, is not likely to become part of Australian law in the near future. Even in the UK, Sharia law is limited to arbitration – which any civil body can do as well, and matrimonial issues. It has no jurisdiction in criminal law. But through a combination of misinformation and the aforementioned fear that you no longer have a place in the world, people can be stirred up to be angry about almost anything. As an organiser, I acknowledge that the first step of organising is agitation – almost disorganisation. But the weapon to fight this is not hate or violence. Instead, it is knowledge. Publicly visible debate. And this knowledge has to be disseminated to the public, not held in the hands of a few champions.