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‘Cancel culture’ debates distract us from real freedom of speech issues, says Greens Senator Faruqi 

Senator Mehreen Faruqi presenting PEN annual lecture 2022 with presenter Claudia Taranto and an empty chair for Julian Assange Photo: Wendy Bacon.

By WENDY BACON

Freedom of speech but for whom? This was the key question asked by Greens Senator Mehreen Faruqi in her Sydney PEN’s annual lecture held at  the Sydney Writers’ Festival this week. 

Sydney PEN Centre is part of PEN International that defends freedom of expression by campaigning on behalf of writers who have been silenced by persecution or imprisonment and promoting the written word in all its forms. 

Before Senator Faruqi began, Radio National producer and coordinator of PEN Sydney Claudia Taranto pointed to a large empty chair in the middle of the stage. This was a reminder that Australian journalist Julian Assange faces decades of imprisonment in  a United States prison after a UK court approved his extradition to face charges under the Espionage Act for publishing information about US war crimes. 

In many ways, Senator Faruqi’s lecture was a clear departure from the older classic notion of freedom of expression according to which “everyone must be able to say or write whatever they like” and the core issue is freedom from any government control. Instead, she explored contradictions in debates about ‘freedom of speech’ in contemporary Australia, both from a personal and political perspective. 

Her speech has particular relevance as mobile phone text messages containing wildly false information spread by far right-wing organisations fly across Australia on the eve of the Federal election and fear-mongering Palmer United Party advertisements have cluttered our media in recent weeks.

As a woman of colour who migrated to Australia from Pakistan and is the first Muslim Senator in the Australian parliament, Senator Faruqi began her speech with the idea that freedom of expression is an “active daily struggle” in which we “make a commitment to each other to do more, whatever we can, to ensure that freedom of expression is upheld, that marginalised voices are heard, and that stories that were not supposed to see the light of day or deemed important enough to be told, get told”. 

In other words, real freedom of expression is about “who gets heard and who doesn’t, who is given a voice and who is silenced, what are the consequences and what needs to change”.  

For Senator Faruqi, the struggle in Australia must begin with racial justice. This is because, at the heart of Australian settler society, there is silencing and violence against First Nations peoples. There can be no social justice without racial justice, and there can be no racial justice without First Nations justice. For this reason,“First Nations people and their voices must be front and centre of this struggle. Justice must come on their terms, not ours.” 

As one of 227 politicians in the federal government, Senator Faruqi recognised her own privilege in having one of the “potentially loudest voices of anyone in this country”. But despite this privilege, she experiences contradictions.  

Growing up in Pakistan, she believed that Australia was an inclusive and democratic country. Only after migrating, did she discover the deep roots of racism in Australia. Once here, she found that Australia is a place where “it’s extremely difficult to get heard – to get taken seriously and to change society – if you don’t have white European roots”. 

As she described in her first Senate speech in 2019, politicians of colour have been called, “cockroaches”.

“Some say we are a disease against which Australia needs vaccination. Some, if they had their way, would ban us from making Australia our home.” She found that even after they are elected, women like her are constantly asked to “apologise for our presence because we are not quiet enough, not respectful enough, not thankful enough, not Australian enough.” She blames this ‘threat of abuse’ for discouraging people from standing for parliament.  

Despite more diverse faces on television, progress is slow. There are still “very few people of colour or First Nations people in parliament”. Australians with a non-European ethnic background, constitute about one-quarter of Australia’s population. If these people had their share of representatives in parliament  that “one-quarter would translate to federal parliamentary representation of more than 50 MPs of colour. Fifty MPs!  It’s almost an unthinkable notion, when you picture the current cohort of the Australian political class, and in particular who makes up the front bench” of the Morrison LNP government. 

Although she is proud that the Greens Federal Party room is “60 per cent women with half of them being Black and Brown women”, Faruqi says this “is in no way reflected throughout the rest of the parliament” and “because of our tiny representation and the toxic culture of the place, it is not a welcoming environment”.  

Put simply, the Australia Senator Faruqi sees inside her current workplace is radically different to the Australia I live in – the streets and suburbs that I walk every day. Much has been said over the past twelve months or so – very fairly, and very honestly – about parliament as an institutionally sexist place. I would add that it is an institutionally racist place, as well”. 

Reinforcing her point that parliament is a racist as well as sexist workplace, Senator Faruqi drew on  sections of the Kate Jenkins Independent review of Commonwealth Parliamentary Workplaces report that dealt with the experiences of people of colour. These received very little publicity when the report was released last year. She quoted several excerpts:   

“Participants shared that identifying in this way, or as otherwise different from the norm in these workplaces, is inherently unsafe. These participants identified a need to increase diversity to neutralise the impact of this and reduce the potential for people to be ‘targets’.” 

Another participant from a parliamentary department reflected on, “a clear indication given to me by my colleagues, peers and managers that I don’t belong here and that this isn’t a (physically or psychologically) safe space for me, being a young woman of colour”. 

“A number of participants told the Commission that ‘even raising issues of racism or the intersectionality of racism and sexism within my workplace kind of initiates a very aggressive response’. Participants reflected that this contributed to their sense of a lack of psychological safety and unwillingness to report misconduct, given the risk of further ostracism.” 

Since she arrived in parliament, Faruqi has experienced the difficulties of what she described as “layer upon layer of power, privilege and hierarchy above us to push through just to raise our heads above the parapet, then we have to muster up the courage to speak up. The eye rolls, the finger-wagging, and the ridicule that happens every time you talk about racism are enough to make me police my own behaviour to not be too loud, too grateful, or too outspoken to avoid further abuse. The reactions we face when expressing our freedom of speech gate keep what we can and can’t say.”  These are experiences she shares with other politicians who are First Nations people or people of colour.

Her colleagues get her name wrong all the time. In a Senate hearing, she had to patiently correct then Senator Ian Macdonald several times. “He kept pronouncing it incorrectly anyway,” she said. MP Craig Kelly who resigned from the LNP coalition and is currently standing for Palmer’s United Australia Party mispronounced Faruqi’s name and then told the room full of people from the sub-continent that “we should have simple names”.  

When Faruqi was in the NSW Parliament and speaking about the expansion of coal mining, one MP “commented that I should cook with cow dung as a million families do in the subcontinent”. Another accused her of using “terrorist sorts of tactics” when I was raising a procedural point”. 

More recently, while speaking in the Senate on the Christchurch mosque shootings, a subject of huge personal significance and seriousness to her community”, a Liberal senator repeatedly screamed over Faruqi that the terrorist was “a socialist”. In fact, the final report of a New Zealand Royal Commission found that “extreme right-wing Islamophobic ideology” motivated the terrorist. But Faruqi found it “extraordinary to have a fellow Senator shouting this mistruth at the only Muslim representative in the Senate at a time when I was mourning the massacre of 51 innocent Muslims by an Australian man”. 

She also finds it galling that MPs feel so comfortable in the chambers of parliament that they can “fling racism and abuse across the aisle, safe in the knowledge that most of the time, Hansard doesn’t record their interjections”. In this case, racism is perpetuated not only by its expression but also by rendering it invisible in the official record.  

On the other hand, she has found that when she and others try to hold those who use racist speech to account, they are silenced. “This type of situation typifies the different rules built into our society which allow free speech for some, but not for others”. 

Recently, Senator Faruqi had to formally withdraw a comment she made in the Senate describing a fellow senator’s conduct as racist. But that same senator had been given free rein in a senate committee hearing to question Chinese-Australians’ loyalty to this country on the basis of their cultural background. “Only one of us faced consequences for what we had said … those who call out racism – we cop it frequently. We are the ones gaslighted. We are the ones accused of causing division and told to shut up, as if it’s not racism that is the problem, but us calling it out,” Faruqi complained. 

Another contradiction, she finds in the debate about freedom of speech is that those who complain most loudly about freedom of speech are often those “who already have an enormous platform and enormous privilege by virtue of who they are”. 

From Senator Faruqi’s perspective, it is a “point of national shame” that one of the longest political debates about free speech in recent decades has involved “conservative, white male politicians trying to water down the section of the Racial Discrimination Act which makes it unlawful to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate someone on the basis of their race. For years, we had seemingly endless discussions about section 18C — its operation, its application to particular News Corp columnists, its utility in a supposedly non-racist society”. “It’s  instructive,” Senator Faruqi argued, that “the parliamentary inquiry set up to consider section 18C was called the ‘Freedom of speech in Australia’ inquiry. As if no other free speech issue held a candle to the “right to be a bigot”, as it was put by the then Attorney General”. ( Ed: This was Liberal Senator George Brandis.)

While all this has been going on, “public servants have been sacked for anonymous tweets; over-the-top defamation laws continue to protect the powerful from fair criticism; and whistleblowers are refused protection for the supposed crime of exposing misconduct in our institutions”.

Some people may see ‘hate speech’ as an abstract debate. But for Senator Faruqi, it’s deeply personal. Like other public figures of colour, she experiences the impacts of a “corrosive, abusive culture, especially online”. But ultimately, she believes that this is another consequence of the “overwhelming whiteness of our political class that has had inevitable consequences for what issues take up political space, and what issues facing communities of colour are dismissed or even quashed”. 

Cancel Culture is fiction

While the debate over section 18C has died down in recent years, a debate in the form of cultural anxiety about so-called ‘cancel culture’ has emerged. According to Senator Faruqi, this is the new bogeyman for “intolerance for ideological or political differences that is held by the progressive left”. This intolerance, she argues, is punishing good people who may have said or done something that they now regret, or simply hold a different view and have been unfairly targeted and stigmatised because of it”. 

“I’m going to be upfront about my view on this. I think it’s a load of crap. The only ‘cancel culture’ in our society is one that targets the already marginalised. It’s one that forced a young Muslim woman to flee the country and move overseas after posting a seven-word tweet about Anzac Day, for instance.” 

“The right’s confected outrage over cancellation is little more than an attempt to retain some sort of power over the terms of debate when minorities and their allies muster the courage to speak up and try to inject their own voices into the political conversation, often simply defending their own right to exist.” 

At an example, Senator Faruqi focused on the selection of controversial anti-trans activist Warringah Liberal candidate Katherine Deves. “Her abhorrent views on trans people had already been expressed in the public domain” before her preselection. This meant that the “community backlash was predictable, but it was also, in Senator Faruqi’s view entirely justified. “Transgender people are some of the most marginalised in our country. Young transgender people face enormous stigmatisation and are at much higher risk of serious mental health concerns, self-harm and suicide than their peers.” 

“Just in the last few years, trans people have been more public and vocal about their right to exist. Organisations and governments have shifted – incrementally, it must be said – to accommodate and acknowledge the fact that gender diversity is part and parcel of the human condition. Sports codes have drawn up guidelines. The medical profession has dedicated resources to trans health. Schools are working out how to accommodate trans students. Within this shift, of course, there will be different views about how best to support trans people and what that means for cisgender people as well.”

In this context, Deves’ comments were abhorrent. However when Prime Minister Scott Morrison was asked about this, he said, “What I won’t allow is for those who are seeking to cancel Katherine simply because she has a different view to them on the issue of women and girls in sport”. He said: “I’m not going to allow her to be silenced, I’m not going to allow her to be pushed aside as the pile on comes in to try and silence her”. 

From where Senator Faruqi sits, “There wasn’t a thought for those who have been hurt by hearing what the Government’s preferred member of parliament for Warringah had to say about them and their community. It was about, at a fundamental level, her right to be a bigot”. But she asked, “what has actually happened to Katherine Deves? She remains the Liberal candidate for Warringah. She is out campaigning and is on the ballot paper on Saturday. She was granted a sympathetic, front-page interview with the Sydney Morning Herald last week. Regardless of what happens on Election Day, she will be just fine”. 

“Cancel culture, as the right characterises it, is fiction. Supporters of equality and for the rights of the marginalised spoke up – as they are entitled to do, ” Senator Faruqi said. At the end of the day, the “Katherine Deveses and Scott Morrisons of the world – white, well-off, well-connected – hold the institutional power. They are not the ones whose freedom of speech we should be worried about – particularly when they have expressed such vile hatred.”

Real free speech violations

Moving on from cancel culture, Senator Faruqi outlined some “real free speech violations” impacting writers and communicators in perilous circumstances.

She began with the well-known writer and journalist Behrouz Boochani who fled Iran in 2013 following military raids on the office of the magazine he co-founded. He was incarcerated by Australia in PNG for seven years and wrote about his experiences. As the Saturday Paper put it, he “defeated the best efforts of Australian governments to deny asylum seekers a face and a voice”.  Boochani is an example of someone who broke through silencing, speakers for many others with no voice.

Her next example was the recent assassination of Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh by Israeli armed forces which she described as a “horrific loss and a stark reminder of the silencing of those who speak for justice for Palestine”. Akleh is just one of the dozens of Palestinian journalists who have been killed since 2000.

Freedom of Press is essential to democracy

Despite the contradictions in notions of ‘freedom of expression’, Senator Faruqi agrees with those who argue that the “legitimacy of a democracy is dependent on the freedom of the press – and the freedom of all writers to express their views, critique government policy and report honestly on what is happening in the world”. But this is not the reality we live in. “It’s pretty obvious that freedom of speech is very conditional on who you are and what you say,” she argued.

Where to from here?

The speech finished with ideas  about what we can all do “to make sure voices holding hate to account are not silenced?”

Her proposals include “diverse representation at all levels of our society – from parliament down … It will protect our right to be heard, not silenced, and it will help us call out the hate speech that is flung our way, without being accused of playing the race card”.

Her second proposal was that there must be clarity around “who is responsible for promoting the voices of the powerful and vilifying the rest of us who dare to call them out. Media, like News Corp, has been the flag  bearer for dog-whistling and flagrant racism”. This proposal involves holding powerful abuses of media power to account.

For her own part, she has conducted a personal boycott of Sky News. In relation to Sky News, she argues, “We must act with our feet. I’ve said from day one of my federal parliamentary career that I will never participate in an interview on Sky News Australia. I’ve never pitched, and I’ve rejected or ignored every single request from them. That is because in my view, Sky is an anti-democratic organisation with a malicious agenda, that aside from being responsible for a long list of awful racist incidents, has as its principal political objective the normalisation and validation of far-right ideas. It sees our evolving multicultural democracy as a threat to the white patriarchal order that has run this country more or less since colonisation. Viewers, advertisers and guests who are concerned about democracy, human rights and discrimination should walk away from such media”.

Thirdly, Senator Faruqi argues that we must actively support the work of writers, groups and publications that are promoting diverse voices and ensuring they are part of the conversation. She said groups like Sweatshop in Western Sydney, the advocacy group Media Diversity Australia, and even sections of mainstream media that invest in diverse writers and give voice to their stories and perspectives” should be supported.

Don’t allow ‘freedom of speech’ to be weaponised

Her final proposal is to “seriously invest time and effort to ensure the marginalised in our community have a voice, and the right to free speech isn’t misconstrued and weaponised by the powerful as their right alone to hang onto their cultural and political power. This is a big task, but it is a critical one”.

She finished by reading from a poem by Pakistani writer Faiz Ahmed Faiz who was imprisoned for four years. She read a verse in Urdu and summarised its essence as we have a “duty to resist, to speak up and to speak the truth, no matter our circumstances.” She finished with the light touch of showing a small tattoo on her arm in honour of Faiz Ahmed Faiz.

Wendy Bacon was previously the Professor of Journalism and supported Greens Senator Mehreen Faruqi in her campaign to be elected to parliament. She is also supporting Greens David Shoebridge in his current campaign for the Senate.

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