To the disappointment of many and to the delight of some, the cartoonist Bill Leak will not be sanctioned by the Press Council for work recently published in The Australian newspaper. Moreover, it seems that there is no legislation that can make such work unlawful. In short, it is perfectly legal for Bill Leak, or anyone else who happens to be employed by a national newspaper, to have an unpleasant thought and turn it into what passes for satire. Even if the views “satirically” expressed could be thought to have a detrimental impact on a particular group of people, in this case Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
Perhaps you are one of the persons delighted by this vindication of the right to (well-paid) free speech. If so, be assured that you and I have nothing much in common besides carbon. Please move along to something else on the internet that will allow you to take more pleasure in the victory of a man with average talent and mediocre ideas. Bye, now.
Now, it’s just you, a person who is in possession of a human heart, let’s talk about what it means that Leak and others have their expression protected under law, and under custom. And, let’s consider that as objectionable as we find his work, and work like it, that making the case for its punishment is not helpful, and possibly even damaging; that this work should be legal and permitted.
The promotion of such undead views, whether critical or not, give new life to them.
Okay. Hold on there, Chuckles. Before you head over to your Facebook page and bash out the words “Helen Razer is a tool of the racist devil” or similar, I want to remind you of your great capacity for thought. People like you who are clever enough to see that there are certain groups who have social privilege and certain others who have none at all are also the people more likely to see that there are more than two sides to an argument. You are the sort of person, for example, who heard former President Bush say “You are either with us, or with the terrorists” and thought, “Way to over-simplify decades of conflict with a brutal divisive message, Georgie. I am neither with you nor with the terrorists”.
We can be, in this case, neither with Leak nor with those who would have him punished. And, no. This is not going to be some sort of dreary free speech argument of the “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” sort. I wouldn’t defend Bill Leak as far as the post box and I don’t feel “proud” to live in a nation that produces new ways to repeat old victim-blaming. There are some free-speech enthusiasts who say that they think extreme cartoons of the sort in question is evidence of a healthy, debating culture. I am not one of these. I think it’s evidence only that The Australian’s circulation figures are so low, editors do their controversial bit to find free outrage publicity.
And, please. Do not make the mistake of thinking that items of the Leak type are produced without taking your reaction into consideration. Actually, your objection is key, here. When you amplify the existence of a cartoon that would otherwise only be seen by those who already believe that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are responsible for the bad things that happen to them, you remind people of a largely forgotten newspaper. More importantly, you remind people of a toxic view, and some of them will be inclined to reconsider that view as favourable, for boring reasons, some of which I have explained to you in earlier boring lectures. In short, the promotion of such undead views, whether critical or not, give new life to them.
So, using The Walking Dead principle of action, we need to think about how to effectively end such zombie ideas. And I would say that making the expression of a zombie idea illegal is about as effective as chopping a zombie finger off. Undead ideas from the colonial past are not ended by a flesh wound. And, WALKING DEAD SPOILER ALERT, even shooting them in the head doesn’t end the virus.
To stop him is not to stop this victim-blaming at its source. That is a really big job, and one we must address with hard and careful work.
Real disease control is really difficult. As good as it feels to antagonise the zombie, it’s not a solution to the conditions that produced the terrible idea virus. And while, yes, absolutely the pain inflicted on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples when they see this kind of expression is deep and real and awful, the conditions that made that expression possible are not addressed by making it illegal.
Bill Leak didn’t invent what we now call victim-blaming. He engages in it, sure, and, because I know it hurts people, I really wish he wouldn’t. But to stop him is not to stop this victim-blaming at its source. That is a really big job, and one we must address with hard and careful work.
Think of victim-blaming as a virus symptom. Masking the symptom makes it easier for all of us to live with the disease. And that we continue in Australia to live with the tragic disease of colonisation is going to prolong our ill health. All of us suffer. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples suffer in many obvious ways, such as reduced life expectancy and increased risk of suicide, and many less obvious ways. Non-indigenous Australians suffer a great disgust for themselves, which is why some of them engage in racist myth-making of the Leak “it’s your fault” variety.
We must work to free everyone from the zombie virus of the past. This means reparation. This means treaty.
For selfish reasons as well as compassionate ones, we must work to free everyone from the zombie virus of the past. This means reparation. This means treaty. This means letting The Australian newspaper shrivel, as it is doing in any case, and trying—as hard as it is—not to feel the sting of its petty insults.
Let them deliver their “free-speech” for a fee to a diminishing audience. Let them drown in the zombie gunk of their market and political irrelevance. Let us own up not just to a past but a present disease that takes the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
This is not going to be easy. This is not going to be half as much fun as blaming The Australian. But good work, just like evil work, can be pretty banal. I’d suggest it starts by self-determination of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Which is the opposite of allowing persons like Bill Leak to set the terms of conversation.
Let him have what he believes is “freedom”. The rest of us can advocate for the real thing.