No, friendly cups of tea are still not a good way to fight racism

It really feels like many different things are changing, and that feeling is punctuated when we notice things that aren’t changing at all.

As my friend Osman Faruqi points out on his Medium page, America’s media landscape is being changed by the #BlackLivesMatter movement. After the New York Times published an op-ed actively arguing for a military occupation of America to quell black American protest, a revolt both internally and at other outlets has resulted in a clear awareness that platforming every idea is actively harmful, and that pseudo-objectivity solely ends up benefiting oppressors.

In Australia, there is a still a widespread hesitancy to engage with the causes and consequences of a lack of diversity in media. The ‘consequences’ part has really played out over the past few weeks.

  • The ABC’s main political show, Insiders, was revealed to have not featured a single non-white Australian as a panellist for likely its entire history, going back to the mid 2000s.
  • The Age published an editorial insisting Australia has no history of slavery, and issued a correction nine days later, after staff complained.
  • Earlier, a story on the front page of The Age cited an anonymous government source that organisers of a Black Lives Matter protest were planning to ‘spit’ on police and use ‘inflammatory chanting’; that was later apologised for, not as the outcome of institutional racism, but as a ‘breach of editorial standards’.
  • A letter from The Age’s journalists to the paper’s bosses pointed out that “as far as we are aware The Age has had only one Indigenous reporter in its 166 year history. Every editor in the Age’s history has been a white man, as is every current foreign correspondent”
  • The Australian Financial Review, within the Fairfax / Nine stable, published an opinion piece that repeatedly used shockingly offensive terminology to describe Indigenous Australians, by a white writer, broken down here.
  • News Corp’s Daily Telegraph published an opinion piece which declared that:
  • An Australian reporter interviewed American protesters and insisted that Australia doesn’t have a ‘history of police violence’ again black Australians. It does.

Are you picking up on a theme here? A badly non-representative industry struggles to cope when dealing with racism, white supremacy and systemic problems ingrained into society.

Platforms where other voices can rise — such as Twitter — are dismissed as shouty, shrill, not-white-enough-noise. The backlash to The Age’s editorial denying Australian slavery? It exploded on Twitter the day it was published and came largely from non-white accounts; the apology didn’t happen until nine days later, the paper’s own journalists complained to their bosses.

Be nicer to racists, please

One regularly proposed counter for racism has been ‘just calm your pretty head, think hard, drink tea, and write a counter-argument’. Racism will be demolished in the Marketplace Of Ideas.

It goes back a long way, but a neat example is from 2016, when One Nation’s Pauline Hanson was elected, and journalist Margo Kingston wrote “Go with her to where her voters are and have a chat. Western democracies are splitting up into warring tribes. I think Hanson’s return to our parliament is a chance to bring ours together a little bit”.

Since Hanson’s election, she got an actual neo-nazi senator elected into parliament, who cited a ‘final solution’ in his maiden speech and praised the perpetrator of the Christchurch massacre. Hanson put forward the white supremacist slogan ‘It’s okay to be white’ as a motion in parliament in Australian parliament, which was narrowly defeated but drew the support of the government. Recently, Hanson put forward the motion ‘all lives matter’; itself a similarly pseudo-reasonable plea and similarly put forward in bad faith and in aid of white supremacist groups.

Somehow, the past two weeks of constant news highlighting the unchanging whiteness of Australia’s media and commentary landscape and the consequences of that hasn’t altered the view that the victims of racism simply ought to argue peacefully and thoughtfully against it:

Minchin later specifies that he’s talking about an opinion piece on the tearing down of monuments to historical racists published by white writer in Australian media.

Here’s the first, most obvious problem: both the argument and the counter-arguments are prosecuted by white Australians with no experience or understanding of the problem, because that’s just what the industry looks like. Several weeks of white faces covering Black Lives Matter protests, alongside with the racist articles, the apologies and the revelation about Insiders, might have been a clue that the root cause isn’t ‘not enough counter articles’ but ‘too many racist articles’.

This hurts me more than it hurts you

The deeper problem with Minchin’s argument is that it is morally repugnant to demand that the victims of racism plead with their tormenters using carefully reasoned, polysyllabic arguments developed over seven cups of hot tea.

If, for example, Andrew Bolt writes an article declaring that migrants are vermin infesting and invading Australia, how many days must you wait before you counter with ‘I’m human’? How many cups of tea must you drink before you’re allowed to get angry?

Minchin goes into more detail on the utilitarian argument against saying the word ‘racist’ on a recent podcast interview (edited for brevity, but please listen to the whole thing if you can):

“Can I give you an example that might be a bit contentious coming from a white guy? I have seen a lot of my friends, white privileged people, living in Australia, posting stuff online that basically says ‘if you say all lives matter, you’re a racist. You’re an idiot. You don’t understand’.

Now that’s a good example because I think I really understand why the ‘All lives matter’ riposte is offensive, but everyone who says ‘all lives matter’ is not necessarily a horrible racist. They’re just gone ‘Oh, don’t all lives matter?’. They just haven’t read the things you’ve read…’s not because they’re evil, and if you scream at them ‘Racist! You said all lives matter’, then is that going to be the quickest route to helping them understand?…

…screaming at someone that they are racist will not make them less racist. It’ll make them, because of what in psychology they call the backfire effect, double down on their belief, firm up the walls around their belief harder, and they will be impossible to penetrate, because you have defined them as the other and they will wave that flag proudly”

This all sounds reasonable, but it is a misdiagnosis of the word ‘racist’. It acts to create a social consequence for an act, not to meekly convince the xenophobe to please, please reconsider. It is not a request; it is a spray-paint marker to highlight something everyone else is badly ignoring.

If this sounds strange to you, try to recall the last time heard someone implored you not the use the word ‘sexist’, in case it backfire-effects a man into deeper sexism, or urged you to pause and consider whether someone really is an activist for men’s rights.

This also came up a few years ago, when then-ABC comedian Jazz Twemlow repeated the plea in a not-good skit for the show Tonightly:

I’m familiar with the ‘backfire effect’ because it came up a lot in climate discourse where a similar plea was put forth: just politely and kindly try and convince your climate denying friends, and everything’ll change. Don’t call them deniers; that’ll damage their feelings and entrench their belief. That too was a plea to grant more power to the already-powerful, and that too failed.

What worked is climate change deniers were de-platformed from media outlets. They lost their place at the false-balance table, and have been reduced to a tiny fraction of their numbers. It didn’t matter whether their tiny minds were back-firing or not; change happened outside of their control or their participation. We stopped pretending not to see bad faith deception. We stopped trying to argue with it.

No, polite chit-chat didn’t reduce Pauline Hanson’s influence. No, it is not morally wrong to shout, yell, scream and get mad when you face racism from one direction, and stern policing of the tone of your response from the other. No, racism isn’t a reasonable suggestion worth debating; just like transphobia, homophobia and sexism aren’t debate worthy ideas, either.

And no, that guy named Matt that you’re mutual-mutual-friends with on Facebook isn’t calling it the ‘Chinese China Virus from China’ because he is a geographically minded fellow, and no, you spending seven hours furiously writing and posting reasonable arguments pleading with him is not the most logical and effective use of your time.

Here’s an easier solution: tell Matt that his shtick is see-through and obvious, and let everyone see you doing that. Tell him that he can’t hide behind coded memes and bad faith misdirection about ‘accuracy’. Tell him that no matter what’s in his heart, he’s broadcasting racist ideas and hurting people in the process.

That’s worthwhile. Don’t do it over a cup of tea. Do it over a spicy Bloody Mary.

Edit 16/06/2020 — I didn’t get time to include a full transcript, but if you click onto this Youtube video I’ve used the site’s auto-transcribe to make a draft. I’ll add in the full text with names and timing etc when I have time



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