Week 9, Semester 2
By Xavier Boffa
My mum frequently reminds me of Eleanor Roosevelt’s observation that ‘nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent’. Despite three years majoring in Philosophy, I’ll admit I’ve often felt I haven’t truly understood what she meant.
I’ve been thinking a lot about those words since Queensland Senator Fraser Anning delivered his widely criticised ‘first speech’. Anning’s speech was clearly designed to stir controversy in an attempt to cash in on free media attention and build the relatively unknown Senator’s public profile. It seems to have worked: in the days after, Senator Anning’s Facebook following grew by almost a quarter.
This lead me to wonder: did the cavalcade of critics play right into the Senator’s hand? Did they give him what he wanted? Was I doing the same by allowing his comments to occupy my mind? And is all of that such a bad thing, or a fair price to pay for calling out contemptible rhetoric?
I began to wonder if maybe Eleanor Roosevelt meant: nobody can make you feel inferior if you choose to ignore them?
The logic of this approach made a lot of sense. Demeaning another person for an arbitrary personal characteristic is bullying. A bully draws their power from the way we let them affect us. Ignoring them saps them of that power.
But this logic didn’t sit well with my experience. For the longest time, I’d told myself that I didn’t choose to be half-Chinese, so it couldn’t be my fault that people treated me differently. I was wrong to think like that.
It does take a great deal of courage to look a bully in the eye to tell them to rack off because their behaviour says more about them than you. It’s often simpler to grin and bear it: to pretend it doesn’t affect you. But while ignoring a bully might get them to leave you alone, it doesn’t really address the root of the injustice they commit.
I’ve always found persuasive Karl Popper’s observation that a tolerant society must refuse to tolerate intolerance. That’s why Senator Lucy Gichuhi struck a chord with me when she asked, in response to Senator Anning’s first speech: “[a]t what point are we going to say you are Australian?” In calling out the absurdity of the frequent marginalisation of migrant Australians, Senator Gichuhi gave a voice to more than 28% of Australians born overseas and took a stand against injustice.
In that moment, I was thankful that Senator Gichuhi was someone who had said something. I was glad she hadn’t simply turned the other cheek because migrant Australians – people like my mum and my Nonna – deserve to be treated with respect, not treated as inferior. They shouldn’t have to ignore injustice.
I was convinced Eleanor Roosevelt’s message could be better understood as: nobody can make you feel inferior if you’re prepared to stand up to them.
Then came Julia Banks’ announcement that she would leave politics in the wake of alleged bullying from both sides of politics. For me, this came with mixed emotions. Regret for what she’d endured, pride for her courage in standing up for herself, and inspiration at her decision not to let toxic forces rule her life.
One of the first lessons in philosophy is that if you have to resort to ‘playing the person’ to win an argument, you’ve already lost. You might say the same about the losers who try to belittle and demean others for sport. Some people just aren’t worth arguing with.
With the benefit of a little more maturity, I think that the real lesson is that nobody can make you feel inferior if you choose to feel good about who you are.
Clearly, a good attitude and stiff upper lip is far from enough to redress vast injustices to which many people, through no fault of their own, are subjected. But maybe, together, people of reason and good conscience can make a difference. At least that’s what I’d like to think.
As law students, few are better placed than we are to critically examine current affairs and shape a better world in so doing. We should be exercised by fundamental, philosophical questions concerning human reason, dignity and conscience because we are people who can actually make a difference.
I may never understand what exactly Eleanor Roosevelt meant, but that’s not the point.
I now know that I’m proud of my heritage and no amount of dog whistling about ‘Chinese carpetbaggers’ will change that. More than that, my experience of culture is deeply personal and doesn’t turn on what other people think.
I also know that I’ll keep thinking and talking about these issues – when I’m not day-dreaming about common intention theories of contract and Callinan J’s dissent in WorkChoices. If you have a view, feel free to share when you see me around.