Peter Dutton is calling for “civilised debate” in Australia. On Sky News he complained that the current standard of public debate is “reprehensible” and “unacceptable”. The opposition leader blames social media for the decline. I do not.
Dutton’s public conduct, over two decades, shows little commitment to civility in debate. He is either a hypocrite or his new-found commitment hides something more disturbing than the need for good manners. The latter should be the main concern. Dutton’s method of setting out the problem and the solution he proposes contains all the elements of censoring robust debate or criticisms. Social media is the targeted platform because it is the only media sphere that doesn’t align with his ideologies and which he can’t bend to his influence. He can’t intimidate social media with cuts to budgets or threats of abolition, as he does with the ABC.
Dutton is one of the most, if not the most, polarising figures in Australian politics. He has been labelled “an extremist”, and referred to as “a ferocious partisan” and a man who “tends to think ends justify means”. He is at best “indifferent to other perspectives; at worst, he openly weaponises … differences for crude political gain, as he’s done with the toxic politics of race”. His divisive and inflammatory conduct has spread across social media, traditional media and the corridors and floors of parliament.
On Twitter, he referred to “dirty lefties”. In parliament, he boycotted the apology to the Stolen Generations. On traditional media, especially Sky News, he participated in the unrelenting racialisation of crime, leading the hysteria over African gangs. Dutton claimed, without evidence, that these gangs were scaring Victorians and stopping them going out to restaurants. He went as far as blaming the death of a young girl on African gangs, despite pleas from experts, police and her family not to politicise the issue. Dutton never changed his tone. Never apologised. Never showed an ounce of civility or grace. His fearmongering exposed African-Australian communities to racial abuse, threats of violence and entrenched racist hate.
It was reported that racist attacks on African Australians and other people of colour increased by 50 per cent. Racially divisive statements about African Australians increased by 34 per cent. A study found one in four people in Melbourne reported “very low levels of warmth towards African people”. African–Australian communities lived under the constant threat of vigilante violence, with some groups promising to hunt “these so-called human beings”.
For Dutton, it doesn’t end with race. He accused an opposing political candidate, Ali France, of using her disability to her advantage. He called a journalist a “mad witch”. In response to allegations of rape from women in Australian detention centres, he said they were “trying it on” in order to secure a medical transfer to Australia. Now in opposition, Dutton is inviting American-style culture wars over education. The bullshit is more apparent when you consider it was the Coalition that signed off on this curriculum just days before the election was called. There is more, but the point is not to provide an exhaustive list of Dutton’s “incivilities” and his erosive contributions to public debate and public life; it is to display his flimsy attachment to civility and why his newfound commitment is suspect on arrival.
In the main, it is not Dutton’s hypocrisy that is of the most concern. What is most concerning is the manner in which Dutton set out the problem of civility in public debate and how he intends to address it. Dutton claims social media and the impact it has on civil debate and discussion is a public policy issue that needs to be addressed. Dutton is not alone in framing social media as the problem. The powerful and those disproportionately privileged by the status quo have a problem with social media.
Rupert Murdoch decries it. He claims social media rigidly enforces “conformity” and is “a straitjacket on sensibilities”. Murdoch claims social media and “woke orthodoxy” are suppressing freedom of speech. At a shareholders annual general meeting, he called for the reform of big tech “because the algorithms are ‘subjective’ and silence conservative voices”. This is a long way of saying social media is not good for Murdoch’s business model and other interests. He isn’t making that claim directly, but it is obvious in the contradictions apparent in his statements.
Whose sensibilities are straitjacketed by social media? Why should any person’s or group’s sensibilities enjoy special protection? Why isn’t Murdoch’s concept of free speech inclusive of “woke speech”? After all, Murdoch media and conservatives often demand that racial and other minorities live with racist speech, hate speech, homophobic speech, sexist speech and climate-denialism speech in the services of their version of free speech and in protection of their sensibilities. Why should “woke” speech be cancelled and their speech protected? As a bargain, this is not remotely fair. It is not intended to be. What it is, is an attempt to exercise power over who can speak.
Murdoch is wrong on his other points, too. Social media algorithms don’t have a bias against conservatives; in fact, they might have a bias favouring conservatives. Nor is social media a threat to democratic freedoms, which are at much greater risk from the heavy concentration of media ownership in the hands of a few powerful white men. If the status of the United States is any indication of what the future holds for the survival of democracy, what we need is not social media reform but reform of the Murdoch media monopoly. This does not have to be a political position: it is about democratic survival. A diverse press is essential, even critical, to that survival. We have cause to worry.
This year, Australia slid from 25 to 39 out of 180 countries in the Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index. Australia ranks below several emerging democracies in Asia, and below our neighbour Timor-Leste, which is ranked 17. Nothing suggests Murdoch would find the slide troubling, despite his protestations on the importance of freedom of speech. Murdoch told The New Yorker magazine in 1995: “The truth is – and we Americans don’t like to admit it – that authoritarian societies can work.” When you reflect on this statement – and what it says about a commitment to democratic freedoms such as free speech – Murdoch’s real world view becomes clearer. Not only is this statement a repugnant moral position, but it also has erosive consequence for democracy itself.
The ultra-concentration of media ownership, political pressure and intimidation of the ABC, and their combined effect on the vitality of Australian press freedom, is one of the real consequences of Dutton’s insincerity about what is contributing to the decline of civility in public debate. Different people can share the same concerns about the impact of social media, but the way each frames the problem suggests the interests they wish to protect and the powers they intend to preserve or consolidate.
The fact that much of Dutton’s past conduct fails to live up to even basic courteousness reveals who and what would be protected by his “public policy” responses. It would not be a response shaped by a collective appreciation of our democratic interests but rather by his political interests and their alignment with the business interests and the sensibilities of a powerful few. This will not make our public discourse civil. It will shrink the space for robust and difficult debate and anything that might rebuke government. As American novelist Toni Morrison identified, we would end up being “bullied into understanding the vital exchange of passionately held views as a collapse of intelligence and civility”. That is why we should reject the charge of incivility, especially when it is advanced by those who weaponise it with brutal and cruel political precision.
When the charge of incivility is only directed against one class of people, it is often to protect the status quo. It is rarely an invitation to equally and fairly discuss how we should conduct the business of living with each other. Instead it is an instruction to that class of people on how they must conduct themselves in the face of power. That is one reason that complaints of incivility often come from people who barely meet its minimum requirements. They don’t consider their conduct uncivil or themselves hypocritical for demanding a standard they don’t embody; they are speaking within their power, and power, as history attests, “concedes nothing without a demand”.
To determine what is “uncivil”, we must first determine what is at stake. To be directed by a concept of civility divorced from the context of the injustice in question is to seek progress without struggle. From slavery to suffragettes to the civil rights sit-ins, disruptive “incivility” stood up to the power, which is to say it stood up to the status quo that had been shielded by the requirement for civility. Even if the perception is that things are different and not as bad today, any progress can’t escape the need to make power uncomfortable. Politeness, especially as demanded by the powerful, is surrender before the fight begins. This is how we must see the question of civility, or lack of it, in public debate.
If we fail to appreciate what we are being asked to give up, we concede too much, too soon. What we give up is a means for creating change that has been, historically, the initial impulse for social progress. What we give up is civil disobedience; it is impoliteness as a radical agent of change. In Uganda, rudeness rattled one of Africa’s oldest dictators. Stella Nyanzi, a writer, academic, poet and activist, called Yoweri Museveni, the ruler of Uganda, a “pair of buttocks” and mocked him publicly. For that she was arrested and manhandled. She eventually fled Uganda for Germany in search of safety.
Many called her approach uncivilised and uncouth. Toussaint Nothias, academic, and Rosebell Kagumire, feminist writer, correct that stance. They saw the use of obscenity not “as mere provocation” but as a “conscious effort by Nyanzi to reclaim, in a digital age, a strategy of upsetting civility, using offensive words and shocking actions to speak truth to power”. Nyanzi’s courage is also inspiring a new generation of activists and writers, such as Kedolwa Waziri, who notes that politeness and civility are used to rob us of our “ability to speak up in the face of injustice”. Waziri notes how manners “always end up on the shelves, next to civility, collecting dust and making the silence louder”.
Uganda might be different to Australia, in that we do not have an open dictatorship. The difference in this case is superficial because the reaction to perceived incivility is remarkably similar. In Uganda it has seen a vilification of social media, followed by a “policy response” that is entirely about stifling civil participation. At least in Uganda activists don’t pretend they can’t see what hides behind the complaint of incivility. They know the road to progress is seldom paved with good behaviour.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 23, 2022 as "The boundaries of civility and freedom ".
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