Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has been discussing an issue that has a vast impact on the lives of ordinary Australians – the topic of Australian values. He has, along with his conservative colleagues, been playing the Trumpian ‘Australia First’ card by promoting a vision of social cohesion – called Australian values. When asked exactly what those values were, Turnbull struggled to compose an agreed list of them.
There are a number of reasons Turnbull has started this discussion – to boost his sagging ratings in the opinion polls; to stop the hemorraghing of votes to the other ultra-right anti-immigrant parties such as One Nation; and to distract attention from the growing income inequality in Australia. Turnbull, no doubt inspired by the electoral success of Trump in the United States (and the anti-immigrant xenophobia that was a crucial part of the Tory Brexit campaign in the UK), has forged the campaign around ‘Australian values’ as a political weapon of exclusion, rather than an instrument for social inclusion and cohesion.
There are many aspects to this issue of Australian values, and reams of articles have been written. Rather than go into all the permutations of this debate, let us focus on one core assumption of the right-wing brigade – that migrants are unaware of Australian values, or that migrants have values that are completely at odds with living in Australia. In fact, it is the conservative side of politics that more than not, responds with the ugly trademark of Australian racism – ‘go back to where you come from’.
The refrain of the ignorant bigot, and the constant slogan of the Australian conservative, is the phrase above, which I have written about previously. Antoun Issa, senior editor of the Middle East Institute in Washington DC, has written a perceptive article about this obnoxious feature of Australian racism. Emboldened by the rise of ultra-rightist anti-immigrant forces in Europe and America, blasting Australians of non-Anglo-Celtic background has become almost a sporting pastime, and has gained greater legitimacy in the mainstream media. The hounding of Yasmin Abdel-Magied is a case in point. After sustaining a campaign of vitriol and hatred against her, she is relocating to England.
As Antoun Issa explained in his article:
For some, Australia’s democracy and freedoms are reserved for Anglo-Celtics only. The vulgar retort “go back to where you come from” has been an ugly trademark of Australian racism dating back decades, as my Guardian column last year discussed. It is the standard rebuke for racists in this country when non-Anglo Australians dare attempt to participate in democracy on an equal footing, and question core assumptions of our socio-economic and political foundations.
The assertion of ultra-rightist white anti-immigrant xenophobia is nothing exclusive to Australia, or particularly new. What is different this time is the degree of normalisation that such hate speech has achieved, particularly in this age of the internet and social media. The occurrence of patriotic trolling, as Carly Nyst puts it in her article, is currently something quite new, and is sweeping all those countries where critics raise their voices against the rich and powerful. Social media outlets have become a new space for hate mobs to vent their vitriol. In a way, they are the inheritors of the legacy of all the old angry lynch mobs of racist whites that confronted the African American and civil rights protesters of the 1960s.
Unpronounceable names and fitting in
There is no desire on my part to be unreasonable or stubborn. So, look, I understand one basic fact of life in Australia – by Anglo-Celtic standards, I have an unpronounceable name. It is easy for me, and it rolls off my tongue. It is no challenge for other Armenians. But yes, for people from an English-speaking background, coming across what is for them a ‘foreign’ name is a challenge. I have had my name butchered by teachers during roll-call in school, mispronounced by baristas when picking up my order from the coffee shop, and mangled by sales people and postal staff when using their services.
I can relate to the experiences of Mariam Veiszadeh, who wrote an article for the Sydney Morning Herald entitled ‘The beauty of unpronounceable names is that we all eventually learn them’. Look, I understand – the average Anglo-Celtic person in Sydney is confronted by a bewildering array of migrants from all over the world – Armenians, Lebanese, Chinese, Tamils, Indians, Vietnamese, Afghans – each of us jabbering in our own languages, cooking our strange exotic foods, and making our first meagre efforts to understand Australian English – if you can call it English.
Understanding and pronouncing a person’s name is the first step towards accepting a core part of their identity as a person. I can create a video, and upload it to YouTube, in which I pronounce my name, and you can listen to it as often as needs be. When you mispronounce my name time and time again, and still tell me to ‘go back to where I come from’, it is a direct assault on not only my identity, but an exclusionary move to deliberately place me outside the pale of society. Ironically, the same ultra-rightist bigots who demand that migrants should immediately assimilate, are also the loudest voices in promoting moral panic about Australia being ‘swamped’ by hordes of migrants. When examining the data, they tell a different story.
Another person with a similarly unpronounceable name is Tim Soutphommasane, the Race Discrimination Commissioner. He made a reasonable and viable suggestion to improve the quality of life for all Australians – that the media should contain more voices from non-English-speaking backgrounds. Greater multicultural diversity in the media would promote more awareness and acceptance among all sectors of Australian society, according to Soutphommasane. The predictable and obnoxious response from the conservative media to Soutphommasane’s remarks – ‘go back to where you come from’.
Values cannot be reduced to a simple shopping list of commodities that can be ticked once they have been consumed. Yes, we are all aware of some contenders for the category of Australian values – mateship, larrikinism, respect for law, commitment to democracy, etc. These are values that migrants actually understand and bring to Australia. The collection of allegedly Australian values are quite average and understandable to the migrant – there is nothing particularly unique or extraordinary about Australian values.
My migrant parents taught me values to live by and contribute to Australia – compassion, generosity, solidarity, and resilience in the face of obstacles. My late father kept the Shahada in the living room – and he was secular. He displayed the Shahada out of respect to his fellow Egyptians who were of the Islamic faith. He gave of himself to the cause of the Palestinians, as an expression of cross-cultural and anti-imperialist solidarity. No, my late father never advocated beheading people. He never promoted female genital mutilation, suicide bombings, or spousal abuse. If anything, there was domestic violence in the homes of the Anglo-Celtic families in our neighbourhood. I am a red-diaper baby – the child of socialist-minded parents. Standing up for the downtrodden and the oppressed is a crucial value I learned from my migrant parents.
Those values sound perfectly commendable to me.