In defence of Marcia Langton

A key part of assimilation is the taking away of language. Culture is chased out word by word. This continues until a people no longer have a voice in which to speak, until they cannot tell their stories except in a new dialect washed clean of tense and history.

It is no coincidence that in the campaign against the Voice this is happening again. Forbidding words from usage is a powerful form of disenfranchisement. The rule now is that a “Yes” campaigner cannot say the “No” case is racist, even when it is.

If this rule is broken, they will be punished in newspapers and by politicians. Their judgement will be questioned. They will be blamed for losses being sought by the people doing the blaming. Their old speeches will be reread and taken out of context. They will be victims of the same upside-down thinking that lets the people holding the axes say the Voice is splitting the country.

Answering a question about the “No” case at the weekend, Marcia Langton told the truth. She is always telling the truth. “Every time the ‘No’ case raises one of their arguments, if you start pulling it apart, you get down to base racism,” she said. “I’m sorry to say it but that’s where it lands – or just sheer stupidity.”

These are uncontroversial thoughts. If anything, stupidity is a generous out. The “No” case is built from racist tropes. It is Jim Crow cartoons and allusions to money and greed. It is caricatures of the angry black man, of the manipulative victim, of the “real” Indigenous Australian and the urban “elite”.

For months now, the campaign for the Voice has been shown through a funhouse mirror. The people with the most power pretend they have the least. Clownish arguments leer up and take over. Infinitely more space has been given to Marcia Langton telling the truth than the “No” campaign lying over and over and over about what the Voice will do.

Langton was not judging “No” voters, although she would be within her rights to do so. She was warning against the specious arguments and base fears that propel the “No” campaign. For this she is now being punished. The idea is to hound her out of the debate.

It is not new. Alongside the taking of language, the colonial project was sustained by the making up of rules. These are the legal fictions that allowed a continent to be stolen and then forgave and excused the killings and violence that defended that theft. Their enforcement was lawless and inconsistent. The winners were always the same.

The “No” case runs on a knowledge as old as invasion: whatever you do, you will get away with it. Retaliation is the tool that makes this true. Revenge is the whip hand of power. The fact this remains the case is the very reason to vote “Yes”.

Langton continued to tell the truth this week. It is a sad truth, one this referendum could hope to change. It is the truth of a fragile country, vulnerable to its own history and the ugly figures who wish to keep living within it.

“I think the ‘No’ case has caused severe damage to our social fabric and our democracy,” Langton said. “And it will take a long time for Australians to recover from the viciousness of this campaign.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 16, 2023 as "In defence of Marcia Langton".

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