Last year, I argued that Australia was developing a new standard for political protest: the ‘Theatre Kid Threshold‘. If you rocked up to a political protest with a gallows that looked too good, you were no longer protesting but, instead, advocating violence. I argued that this was a bad intuition, radically expanding what we understand to be a death threat and the apprehension of harm. I also argued that–let’s be serious–what was driving a lot of the discussion was opposition to the message of the protest. Which is fine and I agree with that intuition, but we might want to use other legal methods for achieving that end instead of inflating what counts as advocacy for violence.
I touched very lightly on the idea that the protest was a form of terrorism, an idea that gained some traction in the week surrounding that protest. It’s an idea that has gained significantly more traction in the past week following the protests at Old Parliament House. Perhaps more interesting from my perspective is the Othering of the protestors: right wing commentators have described the protesters as left wing; left wing commentators have described the protesters as right wing; there have been very disturbing denials of the Indigeneity of some of the protesters; there was one very incorrect use of the term ‘stochastic terrorism’ by an author who recently wrote a book about the alt-right.
A boring version of this blog post is me patiently working through the relevant law to explain why the protest at Old Parliament House wasn’t terrorism. A slightly less boring version of this blog post is an argument that we should use ‘terrorism’ as a label of last resort and that contemporary popular uses of the term are missing the ‘terror’ element.
But I want to start 2022 with a blog post that really gets the blood pumping. I’m going to sledge Sami Shah.
So why are people quick to go to ‘terrorism’ in their intuition about political protest? What’s unusual is that it’s not a simple concept to intuit and yet it is ubiquitous in public discourse. Take a really classic example: the Lindt Cafe Siege. Experts still disagree about whether or not this was a terrorist attack; the inquest report that came to a conclusion that it was a terrorist attack openly acknowledges that reasonable people disagree. And yet ask most people on the street and they’ll readily intuit it to have been a terrorist attack. For the record, I don’t want to suggest that the Siege was mere political protest; but I do want to say that I’m not entirely comfortable with characterising it as terrorism.
One reason the public jumps to ‘terrorism’ quickly is that it is a label that does an extremely good job of Othering the parties very quickly. Anglo-Australian media was perfectly happy to declare the Christchurch Massacre a terrorist event but far less happy to explore whether endemic racism in our media had anything to do with the event. Once you can stick the ‘terrorism’ sign on the event, you don’t have to wonder how much the terrorist is a reflexion of you. They’re a terrorist; you’re not; case closed.
This kind of frictionless application of terms is not limited only to terrorism. Ginger Gorman’s book Troll Hunting begins by showing how complex the term ‘trolling’ is: it’s used to describe a wide variety of behaviours in a wide variety of contexts. She attempts to (unsuccessfully, in my view) resolve this complexity by using the term ‘predator trolling’, but doesn’t rigorously demarcate precisely what this term does or how it’s distinguishable from other forms of trolling. The result, inevitably, is that every negative interaction online for Gorman is now labelled as ‘predator trolling’ as she advocates for greater policing of online interactions. What drives it? Well, once you’ve described a negative interaction as ‘trolling’, it’s case closed for whether or not you need to reflect on why you’re experiencing the negative interaction. Emma Dawson, the Executive Director of Per Capita, has a genuinely terrible history of saying gross and offensive things about the unemployed. When she experiences negative backlash for the things she has written (such as telling unemployed activists to put more time and effort into getting a job), she declares the negative backlash mere trolling. It’s insulates against having to think: ‘Maybe I’m the problem here?’
And, again, we see this with the term ‘bullying’. This gets me to Sami Shah. Over the past few weeks, there has been a protest about the Sydney Festival accepting funding from the Israeli Government. More than 20 acts have joined the protest, boycotting the Festival in solidarity with Palestinian activists. The Sydney Festival is one of the largest arts events in Australia. People have written to artists participating in the Festival and expressed the view that, as fans of the artists, it would mean a lot if the artists expressed solidarity with the activists. People have also noted, critically, that at least one of the people on the Board of the Sydney Festival, Benjamin Law, has built a brand out of supporting progressive issues, and yet has been conspicuously quiet about the protest.
The result has been a wild ride. Artists have said that pressure placed on them to join the boycott is akin to bullying. Human rights advocate, Nyadol Nyuon, claimed that pressure to join a protest was a ‘disturbing’ example of ‘purist politics’. Sami Shah, apparently, agreed with this take and retweeted it, following it up with the following:
Almost everyone on here trying to cancel people for not meeting their personal ethical standard is also doing bags of cocaine which actually cost human lives. So maybe the entirety of our online puritanical demonstrations are bullshit.
Shah later stated–and, in fairness, probably accurately–that this tweet wasn’t about the Sydney Festival but was, instead, about criticism of Patton Oswalt after he posted a ‘herogram’ selfie with Dave Chappelle. I’m not sure that this tweet is somehow better or more enlightened as a result of not being about the Sydney Festival, but we can pass that by.
People fairly reasonably read Shah’s tweet as being related to the Sydney Festival debate, and instead of saying ‘Whoops, yeah. I phrased that badly and should have been clearer’ had a massive meltdown culminating in a Patreon blog post:
A lot of artists have withdrawn from the festival, but some have yet to do so. Some are even on the board of directors. Nyadol’s argument was that while it’s fine to call for a boycott, we don’t know everyone’s circumstances and so bullying others into boycotting isn’t right. It’s a point I definitely agree with.
See, I’ve boycotted a lot of things for ideology in my life. And I will do so in the future. However, I’ve also been in situations where I’ve not been able to boycott when I wanted to.
Boycotting is a luxury.
Weird take that relies on this nebulous idea of ‘bullying’. It got worse:
Palestinian activists and BDS supporters, some of whom are little more than 20-something kids in Sydney with no actual sacrifices of their own, or stakes they will pay, attacked Nyadol like she was an IDF military commander demanding a Palestinian village be demolished.
Which is nuts, but not yet the crescendo of nuttiness:
The thing that struck me though, was the tone of the attacks. It was a lot of “you call yourself a comedian”, and, “you’re not very funny”. Or, “you should write clearer for a writer”, and “you’re clearly having a meltdown”.
(Those are all quotes btw)
They struck me as deeply familiar. It was school all over again. Like when one of the bigger kids would call you “gay” (this was the early 90s in Pakistan, we weren’t as understanding of LGBTQI+ issues then). And you’d say, “I’m not gay”, and they’d say, “That’s what a gay would say”, and you’d say, “But I’m not gay”, and they’d say, “Stop freaking out about it. If you weren’t gay you wouldn’t care”.
That’s right, friends. Being told ‘you should write clearer for a writer’ is a form of bullying of a kind with homophobia.
No doubt there will be people who dissect Shah’s bizarre rant from a more informed lens about what it’s like to be a Palestinian being told that your campaigning is of a kind with homophobia. That’s not my purpose here.
My purpose here is this thread of finding a reason why protesters have to behave in a particular way in order to be legitimate, and the ‘particular way’ appears to be, invariably, ‘ineffectively’. If you cross the Theatre Kid Threshold, it’s not protest but advocacy of violence. If you make somebody feel bad about themselves on social media, it’s not protest but predator trolling. If you exert collective pressure to support a protest, it’s not protest but bullying.
In pulling on this thread, I don’t mean to say that advocacy of violence doesn’t exist, or that trolling or bullying don’t exist. But what I do want to say is that these should be our classifications of last resort after we’ve asked a more basic question: ‘Is this just protest?’
Final point: authorities are faced with a difficult problem when confronting the very different worlds of extremism and online abuse, and it’s a problem of subjectivity. Authorities have to make a judgement call about what it is that we’re seeing. This isn’t the legal test but, in essence: Was a fire started for the purpose of terrorising the public? That element of ‘terror’ in terrorism is the part that is so nebulous and difficult to analyse, and it goes beyond the legal definition (which, after all, we might amend if we feel like it doesn’t capture the social understanding). One of the guiding lights is public sentiment: go too hard and you risk a scandal.
But we’re seeing regular derision of public protest by media voices, reducing that threshold of scandal. If you sent in the counterterrorism squad to arrest every man, woman, and child who was at the OPH fire, we have a not tiny segment of the population who would happily cheer this on. That’s terrifying. And I say that as a person who studies national security law and errs on the side of State power: it is terrifying to know that we would probably get a lot of public support for grossly inappropriate use of the power. But this is what we get when we don’t start from the perspective that democratic protest–even when it makes us uncomfortable and maybe feels a bit rough personally–is a good that we need to prioritise. And, remember, I go carefully from this point to ‘Let’s ban Neo-Nazis using a different set of powers’. But I start firmly from that position: I would prefer to have a little bit more democratic protest even if that means some hot head sets a statue or doorway on fire (which then gets mopped up with ordinary criminal law anyway). Similarly, I would much rather live in a society where activists put pressure on the media and artists than in a world where we see every use of collective pressure as an example of a bullying problem that we need to police.
This was long and my lunch break is now over. Do not bully me with negative feedback.
A tiny clarification: Because I know what the Internet is like, I want to make this bit a bit clearer. We should not, for a tiny moment, forget that people cloak all kinds of gross behaviour in ‘activism’. Emma Dawson has received really, really grossly misogynistic comments. Nyadol Nyuon has been subjected to the most deplorable racism online. During the last two years of the pandemic, politicians received hellish amounts of abuse and actual death threats regardless of whether they were pro- or anti- various public health measures. When we discuss these things, we have to remember that there is a cohort of deeply unhinged people and I don’t want to minimise that.