By Jackson Willows
In a class a couple of weeks back, we were discussing the area of legislation regarding who could become an Australian citizen and under what circumstances.
There was a quote on the board from Peter Dutton, the Minister for Home Affairs. In it was the suggestion that, under a new policy, Australia would not allow criminals to become citizens. One of the criminal acts targeted was female genital mutilation (FGM).
The teacher opened the floor to discussion. One student suggested that precluding people who practice FGM from becoming Australian citizens was discriminatory to a particular ‘group of people’.
I put my hand up and said:
“The suggestion isn’t that a ‘certain group of people’ are stopped from becoming citizens… (pause to choose my words carefully) ... the suggestion isn’t that Muslims be stopped from becoming Australian citizens - it’s that people who practice FGM be precluded from becoming citizens.”
I was being politically incorrect by using the word ‘Muslim’ in the context of a discussion about immigration, and eyebrows were raised.
Not only did people seem surprised or concerned, but I can imagine they jumped to conclusions about my views on Muslim immigration and FGM (neither of which are contained in, nor relevant to, this article). Some probably even thought to themselves “he’s racist” or “he’s Islamophobic”. All of this got me thinking about self-censorship, name-calling and political polarisation.
Does merely saying the word ‘Muslim’ in that context mean you’re against Muslims gaining Australian citizenship? Of course not. Using direct language doesn’t mean you are a bigot. Direct language in combination with an open mind and some basic decency are the makings of a productive conversation.
The trouble is that some people mistake self-censorship for decency, while others replace reasoned argument with name-calling.Our political climate is stifling and our unwillingness to have a conversation shows how polarised we are politically. This was very clear during the lead-up to the marriage equality postal survey. To even have a conversation that canvassed arguments for a ‘No’ vote made you a homophobe in the eyes of a lot of people. I’m sure it still does. Shouldn’t people have voted ‘Yes’ based on reasoned arguments, rather than because they were scared of being called a homophobe? Doesn’t a reasoned argument require engaging with counter-arguments?
It’s the same story with feminism. If you even question it or its current cultural ascendancy, you are a sexist. Conversation over. No wonder many people don’t feel comfortable talking openly about it, or when they do talk about it they just spout platitudes. How does that help the progression of ideas in our society?
Defaulting to name-calling instead of engaging someone’s views doesn’t help anyone, and neither does withholding your views because you fear being called names.
If you disagree with someone, even vehemently, resist the urge to throw labels at them. Instead, reason with them. Talk them through why you think they are wrong. That’s hard because it requires the admission that you might be the one who is wrong. It’s far easier to justify disregarding someone’s opinion by saying they are a bigot, a racist, a homophobe, a sexist etc. than to risk being proven wrong while engaging their argument.
When all people receive for expressing their views is vitriol, they don’t change their views; they withdraw and find places where their views are shared. In turn, their views are amplified and you have online echo chambers that facilitate movements like the alt-right. That’s dangerous.
If you are withholding your opinion or modifying your language because you are worried that your views are politically incorrect or controversial, then say it, whatever it is. And to the people who resort to name-calling, do you want people to agree with you because your arguments are strong, or because they’re scared of you?
Maybe you are wrong and your views need to be moderated, but maybe you are right and someone else’s views need moderating. The only way to find out is by having a discussion. We can only do that by saying what we mean and listening to each other without jumping to conclusions.
So for the sake of political discourse in this country, stay open minded and don’t be afraid to engage in frank conversation.