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When we give ourselves permission

Fatima Measham |  07 December 2016


It is hard to overstate the sort of things that become permissible when the dominant political culture appeals to our darker nature. This year we have seen what voters can live with, and it seems we have assumed too much of what they won't bear.

Racist posterWe need only take in the cascade of brutality in the Philippines, or the stream of hateful incidents in the US, the types of groups that have been emboldened there, and the apparent loosening of the mechanics of government in both countries.

In Australia, white supremacist groups staged 'victory rallies' after the US election. Posters also appeared last weekend at Melbourne University telling 'dunecoons, shitskins, niggers, chinks' to 'GET OUT'. This hostility is homegrown and deeply rooted, but it looks set to flourish in a permissive climate.

This permissiveness isn't just about Donald Trump, though he is a catalyst. It is Peter Dutton impugning the character of Australian citizens from Lebanese backgrounds, under the guise of 'honest discussion'. It is the Coalition government seeking to erode protections encapsulated in the Racial Discrimination Act.

It is Pauline Hanson saying that she'll continue to pursue a ban against Muslim migrants and a 'crackdown' on halal certification. It is Labor capitulating to the anti-global mood by reverting to a nationalist-protectionist stance on jobs — for which Hanson applauded Bill Shorten.

I wrote last June about how societies are held together or come undone through the permissions that we give each other. I first became fixated by the idea three years ago, when videos emerged of separate incidents of racist harassment on trains and trams. When we take the constraints of civility for granted, it can be shocking to watch a person verbally abuse a stranger in a public space. I wondered where the permission came from. Who was giving it?

Around that period, Julia Gillard spoke of 457 visas that 'put Australians in the back' and declared that border anxieties have nothing to do with racism. Tony Abbott promised over and over to stop the boats. Scott Morrison declared that asylum seekers brought serious risk of epidemics.

Eddie McGuire casually associated Adam Goodes with King Kong. Andrew Bolt had become a martyr for free speech, over articles that suggested that nine light-skinned, high-profile Aboriginal Australians had exploited their identity to gain professional advantage.


"Social permissions mean that there are opportunities yet. We saw it in the way Rosie Batty pulled domestic violence out of the fringes of public policy, and in the way Australian queer communities refused to endure a humiliating public discourse around same-sex marriage."


There is a term for the link between these incidents and the behaviours that are engendered: social proof. In times of uncertainty or in situations with high levels of complexity, we tend to take our cues from those we regard as authoritative or credible, or from groups with which we identify. Sometimes there is a multiple source effect, where an idea becomes more likely to be true as more people support it. The more people are drawn, the more it satisfies our need to conform.

This makes for depressing reading of recent developments, which seem to constitute a tipping point. Impunity is also permission. Even when we know that someone has done something wrong, but is not punished, and perhaps even profits from it, what else could it be but licence to do the same or more?

On the other hand, social permissions mean that there are opportunities yet. We saw it in the way Rosie Batty pulled domestic violence out of the fringes of public policy and changed the terms. We saw it in the way Australian queer communities adamantly refused to endure a humiliating public discourse around same-sex marriage. We saw it in the way Indigenous Australians refused to let gross, cartoon representations of their fathers pass unchallenged. We saw it in the way the Eltham community in Victoria organised welcome activities for Syrian and Iraqi refugees, in direct counterpoint to the hostility stirred by a current affairs show and a racist group.

There is still power in being able to say: you are not allowed. Permissions are given — but they can be taken away.


Fatima MeashamFatima Measham is a Eureka Street consulting editor. She tweets @foomeister and blogs at This is Complicated.



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Submitted comments

Thank you - we need the reminder that it is up to us, the community, to take away the permission. Not to ban all, but to make a clear statement that this is wrong. This is not acceptable. This is not what a healthy society looks like or sounds like. We need to let the quiet voices - the voices of calm, of peace and of inclusion - be heard.

Liz 09 December 2016

Like the great themes of mercy and judgement, justice and forgiveness, the terms autonomy and heteronomy are the paradoxes of, not just our times, but all times. The weakest in our society have the most power to change their particular situations, if only they realised. With role models like those mentioned in the penultimate paragraph there is hope.

Pam 09 December 2016

a lovely article - thanks, Fatima

Anne 09 December 2016

“Posters also appeared last weekend at Melbourne University telling 'dunecoons, shitskins, niggers, chinks' to 'GET OUT'.” If people outside universities rarely pay attention to what the young social warrior enthusiasts of the student body put up around campus in posters extolling social reform of a leftish nature, why would they pay any more attention to what a similar bunch of outliers (but towards the right) put up in their campus posters? The great unwashed middle class of Australia (or the US) do not put up crazed posters or spit on people on trains. Crazed outliers do, but to assert that they represent the great middle class is to commit the error of conflation, the linking of Eddie McGuire’s casual and unreasoned slur to Andrew Bolt’s reasoning on a public policy issue being another example.

Roy Chen Yee 09 December 2016

There are Climate changes happening other than those connected with the weather, many of which, sadly, result from regression from the idea of giving everyone a ‘fair go’, to absorption in self-interest. However sometimes it doesn’t take much to defuse unfair aggression. Recently, on a rather long bus trip, a mobile phone was answered by a petite woman who began speaking rapidly in what sounded like French. After a while another woman looked at her and demanded, ’Speak English’, and looked around either to seek approval or to challenge dissent. Undaunted, an able-looking teenage girl spoke up, ’Leave her alone. She’s not speaking to you.’ The aggressor looked around, and getting no support, sat down and subsided, so the incident passed peacefully. Of course, intervention in such matters can escalate. It is necessary sometimes to assess the climate carefully before becoming involved.

Robert Liddy 09 December 2016

Re the "fair go and absorption in self interest" RL. Eight of the ten students in a group I was co-examining with an English professor in final year Medicine were Chinese. The professor asked after we had examined half of them, "Do you think we should mark them depending on whether or not they are going back to where they come from after graduation"? I said we should mark them depending on whether they knew the answers to our questioning. He asked the next Asian candidate at the end of the viva, "Going home when you graduate, are you"? The candidate looked confused. "Singapore or Hong Kong perhaps"? the Prof urged. Losing his confused look the student brightened up and said , "No Sir. I was born in Redfern" It was pleasing to me that the Prof was going back to England after the exams. We human beings are indeed a weird mob regardless of where we come from and it is doubtful that we will ever change regardless of contemporary trends, perceptions, policies or curtailments of freedom of opinion and its expression. God made us with many flaws, unfortunately, racism and nationalism being not the least of them..

john frawley 09 December 2016

Fatima, there is much truth in this essay. Particularly 'we tend to take our cues from those we regard as authoritative or credible'. An example of this is Andrew Bolt, whose access to a TV audience, and weekly newspaper column, would lead one to think he is a responsible, authoritative journalist. Alas and alack, it is not so, but the perception is all that is needed. And Robert Liddy's comment, about the teenager made me think "thank the Lord for young people" - fearless and clear-thinking. But not all the young are like that, and not all the old are over cautious. We cannot afford to be forever 'assess(ing) the climate carefully before becoming involved.' I will, in future, take a lead from that teenager, and speak out when I see injustice - or at least I will try. We all need to do, at least, that.

Vin Victory 09 December 2016

john frawley: "God made us with many flaws, unfortunately, racism and nationalism being not the least of them." John, I think God is not being given 'a fair go' here. God made us with the potential to become saints or sinners. Which way we go will be ultimately decided by ourselves, but there are many factors that can influence us, not the least being the home and community environment, so parent and community leaders bear a heavy responsibility to ensure, as much as they can, that these influences are positive rather than negative.

Robert Liddy 09 December 2016

Worrying article, Fatima; though all the more reason for drawing attention to the spate of racial tension and abuse that dominates the current policy discourse. Only last week, when disturbed at 3am by a neighbour's barking dog, I was stymied by him in mid-sentence with a terse command that I "Speak English!"

Michael Furtado 09 December 2016

I don't see why protecting local jobs has to be lumped in with the clearly deplorable attitudes you mention.

John 10 December 2016

Yes, Roy - both the so-called left and the right of politics have their extremes, but the questions is which extreme represents a Christian ethical point of view? Extreme exclusion or extreme inclusion? And while there may be merits in certain Christian teaching about sexuality - if St Paul knew that his words would lead to the murder, suicide and exclusion of LGBT people 2000 later, I suspect he would have added a bit more nuance to his words to avoid the ideological impasse we face today.

AURELIUS 11 December 2016

Another nice piece Fatima. The movement from giving permission to allowing permissiveness is the nub of the political correctness debate. Some people want permission, for example, to make careless, false and damaging allegations about fair-skinned Aboriginals. When the courts intervene and deny permission to make allegations of that character, the offender howls on the steps of the court that he has been silenced, that free speech has been killed in the name of political correctness, and that section 18c of the Racial Discrimination Act must be erased from the law books. With the rise of the likes of Trump and Hanson, Andrew Bolt and his ilk are now emboldened to demand permissions that have been previously denied. People like the girl on Robert Liddy's bus will increasingly be denied permission to speak up against aggressors, and so will need to show greater courage in doing so mixed with the judgement to know when the climate is not right to even try. Yesterday a girl in Saudi Arabia was arrested and jailed for posting a picture of herself unveiled on a Saudi Street. She was demanding permission to be normal from a position of weakness and there are calls for her execution from those with power. She has shown admirable courage but may now be wondering whether her likely martyrdom is worth it.

Paul Begley 13 December 2016

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