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When we give ourselves permission

  • 08 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.

We 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