So here’s something I’ve been thinking.
Scott Morrison has been saying all the right things in the last few days, both about the terrorist attack in Christchurch and about Anning’s disgusting remarks. He is clearly trying to distance himself from the overt racism of the far right. And this is heartening, as far as it goes. Frankly, if ScoMo has decided that trying to be unifying and bring Australians together is a better election strategy than racism and divisiveness, then I’m all for it. Words matter, and I’m in favour of anything that keeps our multicultural society safer.
Hell, perhaps this is ScoMo’s ‘come to Jesus’ moment – the moment when he sees where the kind of rhetoric he has been permitting leads, and decides to change. Even if it isn’t, I believe that he is quite sincere in his horror and revulsion at this event.
But here’s the thing.
This entire conversation is reminding me of the sorts of conversations we have after a woman is attacked and murdered when walking home at night, or by day, or wherever, by the stranger who comes from nowhere. And we are all shocked and we are horrified and we hold vigils and have conversations about how dangerous it is for a woman to walk alone at night. Because it is so much easier to think of rape and assault as something that is perpetrated by strangers in the dark than the fact that women are more likely to be attacked in their own homes and by people they know.
Fraser Anning is helping ScoMo and his mates quite a bit right now. He is giving them something truly despicable to point at, so that they can say ‘this is racism, and we reject it utterly’. And it is, and they should.
The thing is, though, Anning is that stranger in the dark alley. He and people like him are terrible, terrible people, and we absolutely need to stand against their overt racism – but we must not forget that for every attack by a stranger in the dark alley, there are dozens, hundreds, even, of attacks that we don’t see or don’t recognise, because they happen in private, or because they don’t fit our idea of what an attack looks like.
I think it’s important that we don’t let the government, or the media, or anyone else fool us into thinking that they are fighting against racism because they reject Anning and the acts of terrorists. That is the lowest of all possible bars (and I can’t help but noting that there are those still doing their best to limbo under it).
Pay attention to what else they say. Pay attention to the dog whistles about economic migrants and immigrants who don’t want to fit in. Pay attention to what sort of free speech is protected, and what sort is condemned. Pay attention to who is allowed to be angry, to be outraged, to react in self-defense, to have their feelings hurt.
There are so many microagressions, so many everyday acts of racism, so many things that we ask people just to ignore to keep the peace, because ‘he doesn’t really mean it’, or ‘she was only joking’ or ‘it wasn’t that bad’.
And it’s true that these things aren’t as bad as murdering 51 people because of their religion, or even as bad as blaming those people for their own murder. But, you know, something can be not as bad as the worst thing you can think of and still be not, actually, good. It can, in fact, still be bloody terrible.
You can be less racist than Anning, and still be racist.
I think we ought to be demanding that our politicians do better than ‘not the actual worst’. We’ve become accustomed to some pretty terrible rhetoric, and I think that’s dangerous – our standards have become so low that we feel faintly relieved that ‘at least’ Morrison referred to the killer as a terrorist.
(And I wasn’t even all that surprised when Dutton tried to claim that the Greens were just as bad as Anning. Surely that ought to merit more than an eyeroll?)
We need to do better than this. We need to demand that our leaders take responsibility for the racism and xenophobia that they have been enabling (or at best, turning a blind eye to, for the sake of votes).
But most of all we need to understand that racism doesn’t start with a man murdering people at prayer because he is a white supremacist. It starts with words, with small cruelties, with tiny acts of exclusion. It starts with all the little things our society does to signal that it’s OK to be a little bit racist, it’s OK to think that people who come from somewhere else, or who worship differently from us might be a bit funny or a bit dangerous or a bit inferior.
And, after all, don’t we care about freedom of speech?
Fraser Anning has said terrible, racist things. This is indisputable. But we can’t afford to be distracted by him, or by arguments about the proper use of eggs vis-a-vis politicians of any stripe.
I would love to believe that this is the moment when our society and our politicians look inside themselves and reject racism once and for all. But I’ll need more than a denunciation of Anning to be convinced.
Disclaimer: I’m white. I have no direct experience of racism, nor have I devoted significant time to studying it. So this analogy might be terribly flawed. I welcome comments from those who are more knowledgeable. (But bear in mind that all comments are screened, and I’m not always online and available to unscreen them.)