Words || Rhys Cutler
The way in which we talk about subjects is directly political, it encapsulates, reinforces and persuades a set of ideals upon passive audiences. This really isn’t a new concept. We do it all the time in ordinary life. Say for example the way that our Australian swearing tends to denote a tone of misogyny. Key examples being: bitch, slut, whore, cunt, etc. It’s clear that the way we phrase subjects is linked to ideologies that we maintain or that were subtly handed down to us by our forefathers (because apparently foremothers don’t exist).
Whilst this can be accidental, taught or desensitised by exposure, it does have frightening implications on the way we view the world. Rhetoric in this form has almost always been used as a tool for perpetuating racism and formalising distinctions between groups whilst promoting certain collectives, usually those that are steeped in Eurocentric ideologies.
A quick dive into the rhetoric of our Prime Minister, the sweetly named Scomo, is an important exercise for every person. We’re gonna break down what Scomo has said and the meaning behind it. Simple as that.
First though, let’s have a quick look at a nifty little Australian phrase as a warm up. Let’s start with every politician’s favourite “it’s un-Australian.”
If we take the words at face value we get the simple fact that whatever it is, it is not Australian. But what does that actually mean? Does it mean it did not come from Australia, to which we draw the conclusion that something not made in Australia and anyone not born in Australia are un-Australian? By using this logic, immigrants who have lived here almost their entire lives and who have been immersed in our culture are un-Australian. Does it mean that it is not of the Australian ideology? That this is not what Australia believes in or values in society? Through this conceptualization a person who has never been to or heard of Australia could be considered “Australian” merely because they fulfill the ideological requirements.
The biggest problem with the term un-Australian is that it tells us what Australia isn’t – rather than what it is, what it believes in or what it values. This use of ‘Orwellian’ language causes so much fundamental slippage in the meaning and makes the term “un-Australian” practically devoid of significance and hence empty rhetoric. The only thing it captures is the philosophy that you are either Australian or you are not – the phrase “un-Australian” removes the issue away from Australia by saying “it isn’t us.”
Maybe that’s what it means to be “Australian.”
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Scott Morrison’s comment that, “there was no slavery in Australia,” is probably an honest mistake. I mean if we taught history from a factual perspective, it would be rife with genocide, dehumanisation and slavery, or slavery hidden behind a very, very thin veil of technicality. Yes there were no laws permitting slavery – but there were no laws against it either.
So let’s delve into it.
The question: On closing the gap, there’s been a lot of frustration from First Nations people this week about the lack of tangible progress in achieving those measures. How committed are you to closing the gaps? There’s many of them. And just in terms of your comments yesterday about Australia not having had slavery – do you regret those comments and do you accept that we have seen those actions here in Australia that First Nations have been very upset to hear you make those remarks?
I know this is a bloody long question but for the sake of clarity I’ve presented it word for word.
Scott Morrison’s response was rather long winded and probably wouldn’t fit in this article so I’ll give you a brief synopsis with some key quotes:
I’m not racist: in this section Morrison precedes to suggest several reasons as to why he is not racist, more so that he supports Indigenous communities. Rather than apologise he begins with the classic “I’m not racist and here’s why” scenario, I mean he went to the national apology right?
- “I’ve had an enduring and committed passion to closing the gap.”
- “One of the most important things I’ve had the opportunity to participate in as a member of parliament was in those first few weeks, when I was able to stand for the national apology.”
- “…we have had problems in our past, we have acknowledged those and indeed in our federal parliament, we have acknowledged those.” (Because acknowledging it has definitely fixed the problem…)
Actually technically I’m right: following this he runs into my favourite dialogue choice; the “I’m right about this.” I mean as I’ve said before, not having laws that approve of slavery doesn’t mean that slavery was deemed illegal – ironically enough it really doesn’t mean much. Neutrality and indifference rarely favour the oppressed.
- “…one of the principles was to be that Australia, or in that case NSW, was not to have lawful slavery.”
- “There was not the laws that have ever approved of slavery in this country.”
Interesting apologies and more acknowledgment: in this section Morrison apologises, but only for the fact that his comments gave offence. Followed by a quick regression into Actually technically I’m right. In no part of this entire response does Morrison actually apologise for the comments. He does not take responsibility for his words and in fact makes a point that he is only sorry they caused offense. Funnily enough, he never uses the word “sorry” in his apology.
- “My comments were not intended to give offence and if they did, I deeply regret that and apologise for that. But this is not about getting into the history wars.”
- “Australia, yes we have had issues in our history, we have acknowledged them.”
I’m not racist (reprise): again we regress back into the beginning ideology that Scott Morrison is in fact not racist. I mean look how much he cares and invests in Indigenous communities. It’s not like we just had protests because the treatment of First Nations peoples is so appalling. But hey what do we know.
- “…those who I work closely with, in this area, would know that personally I have been heavily invested in these issues and I will continue to be heavily invested.”
A tribute to his predecessors: yes in a response to his historically inaccurate (and in my opinion severely ignorant) comments he brings up past Prime Ministers. He spends more time talking about past PM’s responsibilities than he does actually apologising. Need I say more?
- “I pay tribute to my predecessors as Prime Minister because you know when you’re Prime Minister you know this [Indigenous issues] is a responsibility that you have.”
- “…that [responsibility] has always been the case from either side of politics.”
- “I generally don’t believe there are large divisions when it comes to the issue of acknowledging the treatment of Indigenous Australians in this country.” (We’ve done a lot of acknowledging Indigenous issues but I haven’t heard a ‘sorry’ or a ‘we really need to do something about it.’)
We’re not racist: this is the sister part to I’m not racist 1 and 2. In this part we back-track into why Morrison is the biggest advocate for Indigenous issues and how Australia is too. It appears that Morrison’s greatest poetic device is repetition – if you say it enough it will eventually become true, correct?
- “But I tell you what there is an even bigger passion for and that is to ensure that the passage of reconciliation, the process of improving lives and outcomes of Indigenous Australians is foremost in our minds and I think all Australians of good will and good faith are endeavouring to achieve that.”
If we have a quick review of the entire response, which only lasted about 4 minutes, we find that barely any time is actually spent taking responsibility or even apologising for the comments. This is a simple matter, and the response is also simple – I’m sorry, I will do better.
I could give you a lecture about how history is taught, how our language use perpetuates the “gap” and how we need to properly work with Indigenous communities to make amends. Unfortunately this is unlikely. Morrison’s response here is a perfect reason why.
Properly committing to fixing these wrongs would mean that Australia has to change, that Australia has to take proper accountability for its actions. The truth is our Government doesn’t want to hold accountability. They would rather chase after acknowledgement and merely saying sorry. For them, sorry is enough.
Scott Morrison did get one thing right though – this isn’t about history wars. We don’t care if you don’t think you should deal with these issues because you specifically didn’t cause this. I had a friend much like Morrison, who once said to me, “I didn’t cause the Stolen Generations, why should I have to fix it?” Sorry isn’t enough.
This lingering ideology that underpins and contextualises communication with Indigenous communities is the reason change is difficult. The entirety of Australia would have to admit that they are the reason why we see a continued gap between Indigenous populations and the rest of Australia.
Scott Morrison, our elected leader, can’t even say sorry or admit he was wrong. I’m not holding my breath for the rest of Australia.