Ruby Hamad on Arabs and Whiteness

As part of SBS’s Face Up to Racism (FU2Racism) week, writer Ruby Hamad published an article arguing that Arabs are not white. I was a bit annoyed. Some wanted to know why so I’ve jotted some preliminary thoughts down here. While I agree with her overall claim (that Arabs are not 'white' in the present) she prosecutes her case via historical inaccuracies, cherry-picking arguments/facts, while sniping other minorities in the process. Part of the bitterness though comes from a wider set of disappointments. I consider Hamad to be one of the more prominent and informed writers on race issues in Australia so I have come to expect more of her than others. It comes during the week of FU2Racism's disappointing programming on SBS (Australia's multicultural channel) featuring two problematic documentaries that left me dejected at the state of discussions of racism in Australia. When Hamad's piece popped up on my newsfeed I had a brief flash of hope that was quickly dashed.

To start with, the article is often vague and poorly defines key terms. For example, it’s not clear what the distinction is, or if there is a distinction, between whiteness, white, European, Western European, western, race, racism, colonialism and imperialism. Early on the article claims that 'whiteness' was used to "justify everything from slavery to Terra Nullius to the war on terror". But this simply isn't true. Indeed, one of the reasons why we study the doctrine of Terra Nullius is precisely because it underscores how modern racism justified itself through legal categories of property and ownership in contrast to the Spanish conquistador's use of the divine mandate to justify Christian colonisation during the Age of Discovery. Granted, the point may seem overly finicky to some, but it's a really important way for those of us who study racism to trace racism's extraordinary adaptability. Terra Nullius was grounded in the liberal framework of natural rights while the Christian mandate was grounded in theological notions of divine rights and ordained responsibilities. What this shows is that racism, as the differential distribution of rights and resources according to a hierarchy of Europeanness, was able to function effectively under completely different political regimes. 

One of the reasons this is important is because contemporary debates about racism in public life tend to assume that racism is only about skin colour - something Hamad is also critical about. I agree that neither racism nor whiteness is just about skin colour. However, Hamad's conceptual move is to expand 'whiteness' into such an expansive ideology that it covers all instances of racism, colonialism and imperialism. This will always encounter problems once you test it against the archive. Take the War on Terror, one of the examples she raises. As the name implies, one of the striking things about the war on terror is that it used potential terrorism and weapons of mass destruction as its primary justification for its pre-emptive invasion. After it was clear there were no WMDs a new justification conveniently emerged in conservative and mainstream media primarily focused on gender and sexual equality and rights in the Middle East/Islam. Whiteness was not a central concept in these justification. It was racist, sure, but not because of 'whiteness'. White people benefited, sure, but whiteness itself was not a primary concept for mainstream mobilization. This is what makes the work of scholars of racism difficult, because we often have to painstakingly deconstruct the rhetoric of the time and trace out the power relations in order to prove that racism is at play. The lack of 'whiteness' in the official War on Terror rhetoric is also what makes the rise of populist nationalism so prominent in the political landscape because what we are witnessing is a bold and in-your-face return to the language of race, and 'whiteness' in particular, to justify state actions.

Throughout the piece one of her central contentions is that whiteness is fluid. One the one hand, this emphasis on the fluidity of whiteness fails to recognize that its fluidity only oscillates between ‘whites’ and ‘honorary whites’ (eg. Eastern Europeans and East Asians), while failing to note that there has never been a period of history where descendants of Africans and Southeast Asians were considered ‘white’ (except in instances of 'passing' and/or 'mixing'). In other words, whiteness is fluid for some groups, but other groups are always excluded. Whiteness is far more fluid for an Arab, who can at least weave in and out of the category depending on historical, geographical and cultural context, than it is for an black African. On the other hand, her main concept ‘Arab’ is never defined, although I think we can presume she is referring to an ethnic group from the Arabian peninsula and the Levant. The problem here is that while she devotes much time to showing that 'whiteness' is fluid there's no self-reflection on how 'Arab' identity might be fluid as well, in which case it is possible for Arabs to be considered white in some contexts.

In addition the piece is riddled with factual inaccuracies. She claims early on that whiteness wasn’t invented until the early decades of European colonization of the Americas. (I want to emphasise that this particular thesis is a favourite of white socialists who are desperate to believe that racism is simply a divisive tool to separate the workers. The argument that whiteness was invented by the ruling elite in the American colonies in order to suppress worker riots by splitting the workers conveniently fits their core political ideologies.) Anyway, the article she cites as proof actually talks about colonial Virginia in 1600, pinning the emergence of the language of race around the 1680s and claiming that it was codified in Virginia law in 1691. It is strange, to say the least, to describe 1691 as the ‘early decades of European colonization’ given that extensive European colonization began after 1492 spearheaded by the Spanish expedition of Christopher Columbus. But rather than challenge this historical claim, let’s just accept the claim that whiteness was invented in 1691 in colonial Virginia USA for the sake of the argument. Later on Hamad argues that the Irish were colonised “on the basis that they were not ‘real’ white people”.  Again, presuming this was true, and failing to couch this in the political, social and economic history of that region played out in courtly intrigue, conflict, war and conquest, there is no evidence provided for this significant claim. In fact, the book she cites in her article as ‘proof’ relates to the racialisation of Irish migrants in the USA in the 1800s. It is not even about Irish colonisation. But let’s assume that she made a simple citation error and that there is a book she can later show that does proves the Irish were colonised on "the basis" that they were not 'real' white, and let’s assume that she’s referring to the English colonisation of Ireland from 1536 to 1691, rather than say the Norman invasion of the 12th century. According to her own argument, whiteness was the pretext for colonising Ireland in 1536 but was only invented in Virginia, USA in 1691. This is impossible unless they are Time Lord colonisers!

What is also missing is an understanding of the different histories of colonisation. Her assumption throughout is that whiteness is somehow necessary for colonisation. Yet one of her first claims is that whiteness was invented after the colonisation of America. How is this possible, unless there are other categories used to justify colonisation other than, and prior to, whiteness (and I would argue co-extensive with and after it as well)? And if it is the case that other concepts were used then her major contention falls apart. The picture she paints of a monolithic ideology governing colonisation and imperialism from 1492 until the War on Terror across all geographies, all European empires, all colonies, in all languages and in all time periods, is just breathtakingly simplistic. Missing are categories central to the history of colonisation and imperialism, like ethnicity, culture, civility, civilization, nationality, religion, character, progress, barbarism, divinity, order, and more recently democracy.

Furthermore, there's just no reflection on the different geographies that her article crosses over. The claim that Arabs are not white surely has to be read within specific contexts. Some polities recognize Arab as an identity and others do not. Some record it in their official records and others do not. Some categorise Arab as a variation of 'white' while most do not. We cannot make a blanket claim about the status of Arabs across the world, especially between places where Arabs are minorities and places where Arabs are the ruling majority and elite. These require very different analyses of power because of their relationship to the ruling hegemony. It is therefore striking that almost all of her references are from the US, perhaps the one place where her argument just doesn't hold. It's striking because the argument could have been much easier to make in the context of Australian history, where Hamad resides. This reflects the general Americanisation of racial politics in Australia, which I have been struggling against (and losing).

But let’s leave aside such moments – and there are many – and focus on what I believe is the core of her argument.

As I understand it, her main argument is that even though Arab Americans are classified as white by the US state, and even though some Arabs identify as white, and even though Arabs may exploit workers from Africa and South Asia, she contends they aren’t white because Arabs face discrimination and therefore ‘fall short’ of whiteness. It bears reminding that this same argument is used by white people to deny they are racially privileged. For example, some Irish people argue that they do not have white privilege because they were victims of colonization too.

On a more fundamental note, it’s her own definition of whiteness that undermines her main thesis. She argues that whiteness is not just skin colour, nor does it pertain to “people themselves but to an ideology that set European (now more broadly “Western”) culture and ancestry as the benchmark by which all others are judged”. Later, she argues that “whiteness is a social construct not a biological reality, it is fluid rather than rigid, the boundaries separating those with privilege from those without constantly shifting”. Thus, from her own words, who counts as white is historically contingent. It follows then that it is possible that Arabs may count as white depending on whether they occupy that position of white privilege. This means that if you can prove that Arabs occupied that position of privilege then they would be 'white' within such a timeframe.

This is precisely what her own account suggests. As she rightly notes Arab Americans were considered white by the US state through the census and some Arab-Americans, to her dismay, even identify as white. In other words, not only are they structurally privileged by being conferred the status of whiteness within a white supremacist state, they even identify with that position. How is this not ‘white’ according to her own definition? Her dismissal of such moments of affinity through the metaphor of seduction is telling: “the appeal of whiteness is so alluring, they succumb to the temptation to win favour in a racist system”. The Arab, here, is portrayed as being reluctantly mislead by the succubus of whiteness to oppress others less racially privileged.

What she conveniently leaves out is that this came about because of several court cases from 1909 to 1915 involving Syrian immigrants to the US that specifically argued for their status as ‘white’ rather than ‘Asian’ to circumvent the effects of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act which prevented them from gaining citizenship. In other words, this wasn’t an accident, a random happenstance that they became ‘white’. It wasn’t thrust upon them by the fate of history, nor were they mislead by some seductive temptress. They actively pursued and argued for their status as ‘white’, pooling their money togetherto fight across several courts, to ensure their designation as ‘white’ in the US. This isn't an "appeal" of whiteness. Arab Americans purposefully occupied the positionality of whiteness for a century.

These cases are briefly mentioned in the resource Hamad herself links to her article. Yet rather than pursue this line of inquiry before her, Hamad chose to portray the “attempt to position [Arabs] as white” as some kind of external imposition, when in fact they pursued it for their material benefit and maintained it for about a century. What is even more shocking is when you realise that the example that Hamad cites as an unfair imposition is actually an article by a Sudanese-American Muslim, Isra Amin Ibrahim, who is at the time critiquing anti-black racism from Arab Muslims. It would be completely different, and I would be far more sympathetic, if Hamad was arguing against white authors who were unfairly coopting Arab Muslims identities. What this reveals is that Hamad’s article is a response to being positioned ‘white’ by Black Muslims critiquing racism.

If, on the one hand, Hamad's attempt to dissociate from whiteness is done to protect against accusations of anti-black racism, on the other, she happily draws on model minority myths to portray Asian Americans. At the same time that she denies Arab Americans as white, despite legally fighting for this classification in state apparatuses and even self-identifying as 'white', she then cites approvingly the claim that Asians in the US are increasingly grouped with white people. If we leave aside the ludicrousness of such a claim (the news article she cites is a hyperbolic observation of the model minority myth), this ends up undermining her own thesis. If she can so readily agree that Asians can be white, why is she so adamant to dismiss the facts before her about the historical whiteness of Arab Americans?

This raises some uncomfortable questions. Why choose now to claim the category of People of Colour? Why are Arab Americans so insistent now that they are not ‘white’, rather than, say, during the Civil Rights Era or during the Vietnam War? Consider, for example, Arab American, Kayed Hassan, recounting favourably his service in the US military during the Vietnam campaign in 1967:

I didn’t feel any discrimination at all during my service, even after the Arab-Israeli wars and the politics of it all […] And with a name like Hassan, it’s not like you can hide from it. I didn’t. I was proud to be Arab and also proud to be American. […] The other soldiers always respected me as an Arab and as a Muslim […] I was too busy being an American and an Arab to allow anyone to attack me.
— Kayed Hassan, 69yo, Syrian American Veteran

Compare that to Muhammad Ali’s response to conscription in the same year:

Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights? No, I’m not going 10,000 miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over. This is the day when such evils must come to an end.
— Muhammad Ali

The response by two different Muslim Americans to the Vietnam War couldn't be more divergent in their political modes of racial identification. It's one of the reasons I was struck by the number of young non-black Arab Muslims in America and Australia who attempted to coopt Muhammad Ali as ‘one of their own’ upon his death, oblivious to the racial specificities of his life struggle.

This leads me to another glaring absence in her argument. The smooth causal ties she creates between whiteness, colonialism, slavery and Islamophobia is undercut by the existence of the Arab slave trade from the 7th century onwards. Hamad’s attempt to pin the kafala system in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and UAE squarely on the European ideology of 'whiteness', while completely ignoring the history of slavery and indentured and forced labour in the Arab world is probably the most obvious attempt to whitewash history in her favour. That strikes me as a rather disingenuous way of dismissing Arab privilege in systems of exploitation that are sanctioned by Arab states. I don't have enough knowledge or time to go into the differences between the Transatlantic slave trade and the Arabic one, but it is possible to recognise the existence of the Arab slave trade without falling for false equivalences.

Are Arab Americans white now? No. But they were white for almost a century, and happily so from what it seems. A century is a long time to occupy privileged spaces to accrue access to resources, education, jobs, etc. I can understand that many Arabs across the West definitely do not feel 'white' right now. And it is valuable for Hamad to give voice to this political shift. But why can’t she just make a case for dissociating from whiteness in the present rather than pretending they never had it? Why not focus on the excellent writing by Arab Americans that are currently challenging and resisting the label of whiteness? Or if her goal is to highlight the contemporary plight of Arabs, then why not simply cite the growing body of literature charting and tracing the contemporary formations of Islamophobia across the West? Why not simply cite the important body of work tracing the colonial and imperial struggles over the Middle East and North Africa and how these shaped the contemporary political, economic and social instability of the region? It strikes me as a rather underhanded and convoluted way to claim oppression by denying the history of one's privilege in specific contexts, especially when the author does so by pushing back against other racialised minorities.

[NB: A far more nuanced account of the racialisation of Arab American's at the turn of the twentieth century can be found in Sarah M. Gualtieri's Between Arab and White: Race and Ethnicity in the Early Syrian American Diaspora. She provides a more in-depth and sensitive account of their decision-making within the context of America's racial order than what I provide above.]

Thoughts on Activism in Australia

So a young activist friend recently asked in despair what the left should be doing right now. This has been part of a longer conversation I’ve had with her about my time in left political movements in Australia from the 1990s onwards as well as discussions about the current state of the left-wing activism in Australia. Marisa Wikramanayake posted up a response here, which I think offers a great list of practical things you can do (but also very focused on individual action). 

I promised this activist friend a while ago (as well as a few other friends) I would write more of my thoughts and experiences on leftwing politics in Australia, so this seems like an opportune time. I have an aversion to lists which present a strict series of orders or dos and don'ts, but I also understand why these are popular. Maybe it's because our memeified culture tends to reproduce these lists at an alarming rate and it feeds directly into a culture of individualistic entrepreneurialism.

Tony Abbott Hopeless poster, Melbourne, 2015.

Tony Abbott Hopeless poster, Melbourne, 2015.

But it's also because, for me, political empowerment doesn’t come from being told to write a letter or sign a petition, it comes through cultivating political awareness, consciousness raising and skill sharing through political action. Signing a petition or writing a letter aren't political unless you know what you are writing, what the document stands for, and you are doing it in order to contribute to some kind of change - no matter how small or impossible that change may seem. Furthermore, political movements have to be responsive to their particular historical conjuncture.

That's all to say I’m afraid I don’t have a ‘5 easy steps to political liberation’ program. I don't think of myself as a particularly good activist role model in any case. What I have instead are some observations gathered over 15 years of on-and-off political activism, of some successful and many unsuccessful campaigns. If I were to pin down the difference between successful campaigns and unsuccessful ones in my experience, I see three main differences: emotionally mature leadership, strategic mobilisation and political intervention.

Emotional Leadership: If a campaign is to be successful the organisers will need to build a broad movement and this means creating the relations and the space that can sustain such movements. Such a space requires mature, emotional leadership.
  • The current discussions I see online and in political activists circles are full of grandstanding, self-righteousness, and displaced moralism that are just as likely to perpetuate lateral violence as to call anyone in real power out. Movements need leaders who take the emotional work of activism seriously (and by leaders I don’t mean charismatic, patriarchal leaders leading from the front, but anyone taking on the responsibility who can just as easily lead from the side or even from behind).

  • Emotional leadership is more than just telling people to take time out or indulge themselves in self care ready to come back to the same burnt out space of demoralisation. It means diffusing tensions, refocusing the collective, bringing people together in hope and mutual respect. Long-term campaigns/movements are able to create these spaces of hope and senses of belonging. By contrast groups marred by in-fighting don't tend to last. So take time out for self care, sure, but also do the work of preparing yourself emotionally for solidarity. This applies particularly for men to ensure they are not emotionally burdensome on fellow women activist to play mother.

  • It also means being aware of those that emotionally ‘drain’ activist spaces and taking steps to deal with them or, if need be, ask them to leave and come back when they are more ready to work collectively. It means cultivating emotional awareness in junior activists to prepare them for the work ahead. It means preparing spaces that are resilient enough to have difficult debates and even long-standing disagreements that do not jeopardise the movement, while recognising that this necessary discomfort is different from emotionally draining individuals.

  • Campaigns and movements will also need to consider different activist spaces and its effects on organising. Online discussions at the moment are a ‘ranty’, rambling mess of incohesive opinions, which are easily derailed by a single troll. At a collective face-to-face meeting, there are a number of different ways of dealing with derailing behavior that are not possible or less useful in online spaces. We need better tools for managing online discussion and debate and we also need to commit to continuing those discussions in person. Many 'fights' are resolved quickly face-to-face, which might have boiled over for days online.

Strategic Mobilisation: Prioritise campaigns, not actions. If I compare the campaigns I was involved in that were successful versus campaigns that were unsuccessful, one of the differences is the existence of strategy.
  • Don't just jump into action every time someone calls for an action or asks you to sign a petition and try not to pass these on or create them as well. Constantly getting people involved in useless actions creates an expectation that things will change and when they don't (because there is no campaign), this can lead to demoralisation. Constinuously demoralised activists eventually leads to demobilisation.

  • Question what is the campaign? what are its long term and short term goals? what is the overall strategy? who is being targeted? with what demands? and will it be effective? Without these kinds of questions and discussions, political movements simply leap from rally to rally, slowly leaving activists burnt out and overly cynical.

  • When there is no strategy it also easy to distract the movement, since members are not clear on their goals. A clever opposing strategist can make them leap from media event to media event fighting shadows and symbolic wars while allowing prevailing structures free reign. Lack of strategy also enables the cooptation of our movements by celebrities and others better at manipulating media events than your average punter.

Political Intervention: Finally, devise strategies that actually work in the systems of power you live within. In order to effect politics there has to be some power that you can leverage. The movement must be attentive to the political processes, institutions, and formations in order to effectively intervene.
  • When I look at succesful campaigns it was because we leveraged a lot of different kinds of power. Sure we organised people power and held rallies, but this was supported by clear messaging in successful long-term media strategies, lawyers using cases to push on the legal front and politicians pushing on the legislative front. We also built broader alliances across multiple movements for support. However, if the campaign/movement attacks all journalists, academics, intellectuals, lawyers, politicians, etc. as 'elites' and 'sell outs' then you can't be surprised when your strategy fails to intervene in the prevailing, dominant political structures and institutions.

  • This also means being attentive to the different kinds of values and roles that your members can play with the skills, talents and networks they have. Know your collective and ask for their help in appropriate things. This not only builds confidence and allows people to feel helpful and useful, it generates far more interesting and successful movements because a more diverse body of people can see themselves reflected in the movement. A movement needs all types and talents and leaders that understand and appreciate the variety of skills available and how they work in and through and leverage various kinds of power.

  • Having said that, there are many instances where you cannot rely on certain kinds of power or where it will actively be opposed to your campaign. If this is the case, must also find ways to deal with opposing forces in the context of your campaign and take account of them in your overall strategy. This is part of being attentive to the political systems you live within.

  • Finally, being attentive to the political systems and processes also means paying attention to the fact that Australia is not America or the UK and that we have our own political institutions, processes, formations, protocols, history, culture, etc. that we need to engage. Simply copying American or British movements in Australia does not necessarily work unless you’ve done work to understand the local political, social and economic contexts. I’ve seen many ‘activists’ insist on running American-style campaigns in Australia and when it inevitably fails, the first thing they do is attack fellow activists and Australians or Australia more generally. This is perhaps one of the more recent but highly pernicious forms of demoralisation I’ve noticed recently, particularly in anti-racist activism.

As I said, I don't really like lists. These are more notes of things I've learnt over the years. Hopefully, these lessons are useful for others too.




Reflections on Christmas, 2016

Most other times I can momentarily leave politics to the side, but I can't bring myself to 'celebrate' Christmas with people that knowingly vote for refugee detention on our shores.

It says something that two Muslim friends, who don’t even believe in Christmas, have invited me to spend Christmas Day with their families in their homes because it pains them to know I will be alone on my holy day. By contrast, this Christian nation willfully supports the locking up of Muslim refugees to be tortured, raped and abused because ‘we’re full’ and ‘can’t afford' to shelter them.

It is somewhat ironic that the hypocrisy of this stance is most evident in the season to celebrate Christ’s birth. During Christmas, Australians are predicted to spend AUD$48.1 billion at retail stores. Of this, $19 billion will be spent on food and $8.8 billion on presents alone. By contrast, Australia has spent $9.6 billion between 2013 and 2016 to fund its deterrence policies against refugees.

It costs something like AUD$1 mill per year to house a single asylum seeker on Manus Island, and estimates of housing refugees in the community are between $12,000 and $40,000 per year to house them in the community on a bridging visa. Taking the more conservative costing, if we didn’t buy presents for each other to ‘celebrate’ Christ’s birth but rather enacted the lessons Christ gave us to help the destitute we could potentially house 220,000 refugees in Australia on a bridging visa each year. Alternatively, if we had used the money we already spent on draconian deterrence policies over the last 4 years we could have already housed 60,000 refugees to live in our community while their refugee status is being determined. This presumes they aren't working. If they had the right to work it would cost less. Instead, we have enacted a policy to forcibly incarcerate them where they are tortured, raped, physically assaulted and medically neglected. So how did we get here?

Christmas Island is the site where Australia's draconian refugee policy was born. The island was so named by Captain William Mynors in 1643 when he sailed past it on Christmas Day. In August 2001, when the Norwegian ship, MV Tampa, attempted to disembark 438 refugees on Christmas Island, it was forcibly stopped by Australian special forces under the orders of the then Prime Minister John Howard. As Suvendrini Perera brilliantly outlines, this led to an emergency cabinet meeting where the then Prime Minister Howard excised Christmas Island from Australia’s migration zone so that they could not claim asylum. And so John Howard's Pacific Solution was born.

A few months later in October 2001, another boat carrying asylum seekers sunk off the coast of Christmas Island when it was intercepted by HMAS Adelaide. In order to malign the public against the refugees, the Howard government made public allegations, repeated by journalists, that the parents had threatened to throw, or had thrown, their own children overboard to save themselves, which were later proved to be false.

The 'children overboard scandal' was a propaganda masterstroke that exploited the public’s fears of a wave of immigrants for support in the upcoming election, while simultaneously silencing any sympathy for the refugees from the ‘bleeding hearts’ by portraying the refugees as themselves heartless. The children overboard claims could not be challenged without evidence that obviously had to wait until an investigation was possible well after the election.

Our willingness to lie about refugees for political gain, while severely punishing them for seeking refuge, continues throughout our subsequent refugee policies. Often touted as protecting a Christian Australia, they starkly reveal that we are only ever nominally Christian. Our impoverished version of Christianity is most evident in this clip of our ex-Prime Minister Tony Abbott trying to explain how turning back refugees was consistent with the teachings of Christ: 

Notice the twists and turns the then Prime Minister Abbott performs in order to ignore the central teachings of the Second Testament. The Cleansing of the Temple that Abbott invokes was when Jesus drove the traders from the temple because they had made a house of worship into a house of trade, not because he believed things belonged in specific places. In various versions of the story in the Bible, Jesus refers to them as 'thieves' because they profited off the poor and the widowed. It is a condemnation of those that would use the temple to generate money, that would twist prayer into profiting off the downtrodden. In other words, the moral of the story is the complete opposite of Abbott's retelling, which he uses to justify turning away those in need.

We should remember that Abbott wanted to be a priest and so his misinterpretation must be understood as a willful attempt to mislead since it contradicts so much of the Second Testament. He ignores the circumstances of Christ’s birth, with Mary and Joseph seeking refuge from the Massacre of the Innocents according to the Gospel of Matthew. Gone is the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10: 25-37) where Jesus answered the question ‘who is a neighbour?’. And it ignores the numerous injunctions in the Bible to help the poor and the needy, such as Matthew 25:45 where it warns that whatever we do or do not do for the least of our brethren (i.e. the most destitute, most poor, most downtrodden of humanity) we also do to, or do not do for, Christ.

In fact the Abbott government was so morally bankrupt that when refugee mothers were self-harming in the misguided hope that their children would be allowed to come to Australia, Tony Abbot’s response was to accuse them of ‘moral blackmail’. Any human being would have had at least a moment of sorrow, a bit of shame and possibly self-doubt. Not so for our then Prime Minister, who, unable to recognise his own conscience, projected the negative feelings generated by his conscience onto the victims to then accuse them of forcing him to feel sorry for them. Notice too that whereas the children overboard scandal under John Howard portrayed refugees as being heartless because they were willing to sacrifice their children for themselves, in this case the parent's own willingness to sacrifice themselves for the sake of their children is now portrayed as a form of 'blackmail'.

This is what comes of decades of allowing shock jocks and rightwingers to use ‘bleeding hearts’ as a pejorative to disparage attempts to centralise humanity and compassion at the core of good Australian 'Christian' citizenship. The Most Sacred Heart of Jesus is one of the most well-known devotions of the Roman Catholic Church:

Pompeo Batoni 1767 Sacred Heart of Jesus. This is a common image of the sacred heart. Variations are used extensively in Catholic imagery.

Pompeo Batoni 1767 Sacred Heart of Jesus. This is a common image of the sacred heart. Variations are used extensively in Catholic imagery.

Catholic Card, circa 1880. Auguste Martin Collection, University of Dayton Libraries

Catholic Card, circa 1880. Auguste Martin Collection, University of Dayton Libraries

The physical heart of Jesus, sometimes represented as bleeding from an arrow, is taken as the manifestation of Christ’s love for humanity. It is also meant to be a reminder for us to practice the teachings of Christ, particularly his commandment to ‘love one another’. The Christian Right and increasingly the mainstream media have done everything possible to undermine this message. They openly mock people who have ‘bleeding hearts’ so that the average Australian now thinks it is a sign of weakness when individuals cannot abide the violence against asylum seekers. Their message has borne fruit. After years of forced, mandatory, mass incarceration of people fleeing persecution, the violence against those we detain has been extensively documented now in innumerable reports both national and international.

And so it was that we arrived this Christmas to wake up to the death of anther refugee in our detention system; this time from medical neglect. Faysal Ishak Ahmed, a 27 year old refugee from Sudan, detained in Manus for over 4 years despite his claims to refugee status being upheld by the Australian authorities, had suffered from seizures and blackouts for several months prior to his death. Despite seeking medical treatment from International Health and Medical Services, which manage the medical services in refugee detention, he was consistently told he had no problems. At one point IHMS actually banned him from returning because they claimed there was nothing wrong with him, which prompted 60 refugees to sign a petition to provide Ahmed with adequate medical assistance. The petition fell on deaf ears. Ahmed collapsed in detention on Thursday and was flown to Brisbane hospital where he died on Christmas eve.

Refugee Banner on Manus Island, 2016 (source: Refugee Rights Action Network Western Australia,

Refugee Banner on Manus Island, 2016 (source: Refugee Rights Action Network Western Australia,

Today, a ‘Christian’ nation will greet each other with 'Merry Christmas', stuffing their faces with more food than they need, as their children gleefully scratch open their $8.8bill worth of presents. While their children run into the backyard, squealing in delight, to play with whatever expensive bauble they’ve just received from Santa, asylum seekers are ‘celebrating’ Christmas getting beaten by the security guards and ignored by the medical personnel we hired to abuse them. I can already imagine the spin that the (nominally 'Christian') Right will pin on these events to paint the refugees and asylum seekers as 'ungrateful' and 'undeserving' so that we can go on with our Boxing Day shopping having convinced ourselves that it was 'their fault' all along.

On Dehumanising Opinions

There is a meme going around that tries to critique the use of the right to opinion to protect harmful speech. The meme actually doesn't make sense. It is easy to dispute. But on a more profound level it relies on a problematic model of racism as ignorance.

The meme looks like this:

The problem, I argue, is not that 'X is sub-human' is not an opinion, nor that it is ignorant, but that it is a dehumanizing opinion. By 'dehumanizing opinion' I mean a statement about a group of humans that calls into question their status as humans. It is dehumanizing because it ensures that the people whose humanity is called into question will always enter this debate from the position of being not-yet-human.

In the first instance, the meme is just factually incorrect. Both the phrases 'I prefer X over Y' and 'I think X is Y' are actually opinions. An opinion is an uncertain judgement about a thing (as opposed to knowledge). 'I like ice cream' or even 'I like ice cream more than chocolate' indicates a desire or a preference, and makes a value judgement between two things (ice cream and chocolate).

The problem emerges when you take the two opinions to be of the same order. A statement of preference ('I prefer coffee over tea') is wholly subjective. It can not be disputed because it is a statement about the speaker's subjective preference. Only the speaker will know whether they like coffee over tea and therefore only they can verify if the statement is true. The problem is when you treat 'I think X are sub-human' as a preference or a statement about the speaker's subjectivity. This is not a statement of preference, but makes judgements about external things, things which are verifiable and therefore debatable by others. In this case, we can have better or worse arguments based on verifiable evidence to determine which opinion is more reasonable and persuasive. (Of course, whether people apply the rules of logic to determine persuasiveness is another matter entirely). So the problem with 'I think X are sub-human' isn't that it's not an opinion. It is an opinion, although we can question whether it's worth having and I'll return to this below.

The second problem is that the meme suggests that bigotry and vilification (in this case, racism) is about ignorance. This draws on a wider popular critique of protecting ignorance under the right to have opinions. We see this in similar memes like the Dilbert cartoon below or this Morpheus meme:

These are important for debunking, for example, people that think that their opinion based on ignorance should be treated equally as opinion based on verifiable facts and reasoned arguments. For example, when media commentators without any scientific background or study into the research of climate science consider their 'opinions' about climate change should count as much as those of a climate scientist or even worse should equal the weight of the worldwide consensus of climate scientists. In such cases I am definitely sympathetic to the critique of ignorance and also the critique of protecting ignorance under the right to an opinion.

However, the first meme cited above problematically conflates racism with ignorance. I understand that the meme is trying to debunk racism's protection as a form of opinion, but assuming that racism is a form of ignorance raises problems. Racism isn't about ignorance; it's about power. In the statement 'X are sub-human' that power manifests as a form of dehumanization of one or more groups (more on that later). By treating 'X are sub-human' as a matter of ignorance, it concedes that the statement is potentially true. In other words, it suggests that the statement 'X are sub-human' is incorrect and therefore those that hold that 'X are sub-human' are ignorant. But what this ultimately does is to turn 'X are sub-human' into a verifiable statement and therefore, leaves it open to further debate. We see this happen on a daily basis now in America, the UK and Australia. Thus, conflating racism as ignorance in this case actually opens it up to debate rather than shutting down the debate.

The problem with 'X are sub-human', and this is my third point, isn't that it is not an opinion, nor  that is based on ignorance. The problem is that the opinion can have violent effects on the group mentioned. 'I think X are sub-human' is rather different from discussing the preference of coffee, or the merits of tea or the properties of chemicals. These debates about external inanimate objects matter, but in different ways to debates about particular groups of humans. 

The problem with 'X is sub-human' is that for those that identify with X it is inherently dehumanizing to enter into that debate. Why? Because the statement begins from the presumption that X's humanity is up for question, is in doubt, and furthermore that the outcome of such a debate could be used to determine whether such group is afforded protections that other humans are given. In some contexts, the consequences can be so violent as to make them 'killable' or 'torturable' if they lose the debate. Thus, it is fundamentally different for us to debate whether we have a preference for tea or the properties of coal in opposition to debating the ontological status of one of the debaters, because the ontology of at least one of the speakers is called into question from the beginning.

It is important to note that not all statements about particular sub-groups of humans are dehumanising, even if they are linguistically 'objectifying'. The frivolous statement 'white people can't dance' is not a form of dehumanisation. The statement is definitely a kind of generalisation, and it turns 'white people' into an object of the statement and it is in the form of a debatable opinion. But the outcome of such a frivolous debate only determines whether white people are dancers or are good or bad dancers. It does not call into question their humanity from the beginning and therefore the consequence of the debate can not lead to their dehumanisation. This is completely different from dehumanising opinions, which should not be a protected form of opinion. Dehumanising opinion presume that some people's status as human is debatable and that therefore some people's rights can be nullified through debate rather than universally protected as a natural right. 

We can apply this to actual debates our governments and media are entertaining now about whether we can be tortured, whether we can be indefinitely locked up without charge, whether we can be deported and even whether we can be killed. These debates are not simply opinions about external inanimate objects but debates that make some people's access to liberty or even freedom to exist questionable. All genocides begin with such opinions, which are seemingly protected by the civility of 'open debate'. When we engage dehumanising opinions, even to argue that they are ignorant or untrue, we are nevertheless granting them status as debatable statements and therefore assume that some people's humanity is indeed contingent. This is why we should not entertain them, why we should not believe that these are 'debatable'. They are not.

When media, government, celebrities, commentators and activists tell us that we should be open to persuading the far right, to engaging them in these debates, what they are ultimately agreeing to is our dehumanisation, to the contingency of our humanity and thus they leave us open to violence. Could you imagine having panel after panel, talk after talk, workshop after workshop, of people of colour discussing respectfully and civilly, politely and eloquently whether we are allowed to kill white people and under what conditions we could kill them? Could you imagine if such things were entertained seriously on a daily basis? Or again could you imagine an all gay panel discussing when it is acceptable to perform lobotomies on straight people and what are the acceptable ethical limits for doing so such that we can retain our own humanity while still performing this violence? There's no way such a thing would be allowed! Dehumanising opinions are not fair fodder for civil debate, it is inherently uncivil.