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Rock the boat

  • 08 February 2022
The Governor of Florida, Republican Ron DeSantis, is reportedly pushing for a bill that would make it unlawful for schools and workplaces to make people feel uncomfortable when providing instruction on discrimination in US history. The bill is part of a wider debate in both the US and Australia over the teaching of critical race theory — a debate that has been used as a proxy for an ongoing culture war over the nature of racism and systematic injustice. This wider debate raises many important issues, but one I am particularly interested in here is the issue of discomfort, because it permeates so many of the current debates around injustice and social change.

When children marched peacefully for climate justice, for example, our Prime Minister admonished them for not being in school and said, ‘What we want is more learning in schools and less activism in schools.’ When a local conservation NGO used litigation to force the Minister for the Environment to actually follow the law when considering an application to approve the Adani coal mine, our then Attorney-General accused them of illegitimate green ‘lawfare’. When NFL players quietly took the knee to draw attention to systemic racism in the US, President Trump called on them to be fired.

In all of these examples, the real target of the critique was the underlying cause. The Prime Minister did not agree with criticism of his government’s record on climate change, and nor did the government agree that the Adani coal mine poses an unacceptable risk of damage to the local and global environment. Similarly, President Trump is an unashamed defender of white supremacist ideology, and underlying this new Florida bill is a fundamental refusal to acknowledge any problem with the systemic nature of racism in the US or the responsibility of white people to challenge it.

However, as fundamentally problematic as all these examples are, what I find particularly insidious are those critics who profess to support activist causes, but still insist that their activism should avoid causing discomfort. We see this all the time, such as in the civility policing of Grace Tame, whose principles and activism are apparently less important than the Prime Minister’s self-serving photo opportunity, or in the hounding of Adam Goodes for not being more gracious to football fans who booed him and shouted racist epithets. We see it in the (incessant) cries of #NotAllMen from men who