The strategy is simple. A big offensive headline. A picture that doesn’t reveal the core concerns of the group depicted. A little bubble asking you to ‘Have your say’, hoping that you’ll say the sort of inflammatory — preferably even racist — things that stirs controversy.
This is how the Herald Sun set the tone of the discussion yesterday. It railroaded a discussion about the policies regarding the funding of remote indigenous communities, and instead turned it into a conversation about selfish activists who interrupt the lives of honest, hardworking, mostly non-Indigenous Melbournians.
The strategy wouldn’t work if everybody agreed with the sentiment portrayed. The trick is to inspire a hostile reaction from people who disagree. They share the image, respond with unhinged views, and keep the story going. Even blog posts like this is what the Hun ultimately wants. Look at how much influence and control over the public discussion they have. Barely a paragraph of content and they’d shaped a national discussion.
By posting their view in an inflammatory way, the conversation is polarised by default, and thus we end up with discussions about protests in general — should they be disruptive? should they have a purpose? to what extent can they impact upon others? — rather than conversations about this particular protest and the events here. We therefore had extremely silly positions such as, ‘You either agree that every protest can shut down a city, or you don’t believe that people can protest at all.’
This could easily be yet another blog post about ‘outrage culture’ and ‘identity politics’, but instead I figured I’d talk about my beloved s18C and s18D of the Racial Discrimination Act. My argument is fairly simple: everybody has quiet enjoyment rights and, if you want to interfere with those quiet enjoyment rights, you need some sort of reasonable ground to do so.
Thus, the person who wants to humiliate and ridicule a person because they’re an ethnic minority needs to have some some sort of justification. In my ideal Act, the person who wants to humiliate and ridicule a person because they hold religious views needs to have some sort of justification. And so on and so forth.
If you looked at the discussion posed by the Hun through this lens, you get a very different discussion: ‘Why did the protest need to disrupt the city?’
Instead of this ‘Fuck everybody else, this is free speech and we’re entitled to disrupt your bourgeois ways’ rhetoric that we’ve been getting from the left, we’d instead have ‘We did it deliberately to show what happens when infrastructure in communities breaks down’ or ‘We did it deliberately because it’s the only way that we can get our message on the front page of the newspaper’.
People only seem to agree with this kind of disruption strategy when the protest accords with their views. When the UK was set to introduce a tax to encourage recycling, skip lorries drove into London and brought the traffic to a stand still. There, the left was outraged at the anti-social, selfish, childish antics of the lorry drivers. Why did the lorry drivers need to disrupt everybody else’s quiet enjoyment? Weren’t they trying to get people to support their position? How does upsetting a city full of people achieve that goal?
Conversely, look at strike actions where everybody who uses a particular service is inconvenienced. There, the message is ‘Look how frustrating life becomes when we stop working. Therefore, it’s in your interest to pay us reasonable rates.’
Had the protest moved barely a hundred metres to Federation Square, the impact on the city would have been minimal. Instead, they chose the intersection of two major tram lines outside a major train station, right when people were trying to get home for the evening. If you were commuting from regional Victoria, you were stuffed. If you had carer’s responsibilities, you were stuffed. But the response from people responding to the Hun image is: ‘We don’t care. Our protest was more important.’
All of this by the Hun is sideshow. It’s rightwing Australia trolling the left by making any kind of protest action seem illegitimate. The fact that the Hun gleefully supports shutting down Melbourne for sporting events and various carnivals shows that they’re not playing a level field. The fact that the Hun didn’t have a spread depicting the royal visit to Canberra — where every road from the airport to Civic was shut down for twenty minutes while the entourage was sped through — as ‘selfish’ shows that they’re baiting a reaction. But, at the same time, there is a reasonable point behind the baiting, trolling, and dog whistling: how do we justify disruptions to others?
Letting the Hun set the tone of a political discussion is a mistake. That is true regardless of whether you agree with their editorial lines or not.