In the wake of the latest racist tirade on a Melbourne train and the tragic loss of life when a boat carrying asylum seekers sank off the coast of Indonesia, I copped some unprovoked abuse on Twitter on Friday evening: “Wish your refugee boat had sunk at sea, bitch.”
Once I had recovered somewhat from the shock of receiving the tweet, I checked the @GregJessop1 Twitter profile which, among other things, indicated that he was an Engineer based in Queensland and worked for Rio Tinto (although his profile did bear the standard Twitter disclaimer, “Opinions mine, do not reflect views of Rio Tinto”). Determined not to stoop to his level, my immediate response to him was, “Lucky for you, I came by plane.”
It was perhaps ironic that, only hours earlier, I had tweeted: “If you witness a racist rant on public transport, don’t remain silent. Speak up if it’s safe to do so. Silence condones #racist behaviour.” I was deeply moved by the actions of Mahmood Reza, an Australian Muslim man who stood up to a drunken woman who was racially abusing a packed Melbourne train last week. I found the incident, which was captured on a passenger’s phone and reported to media, deeply disturbing. How many similar incidents occur on public transport throughout Australia, but go unreported?
Not long after receiving the tweet, I (along with many others) tried to contact Rio Tinto by means of Twitter to bring this matter to their attention. Whether the Twitter profile of @GregJessop1 was fictitious or he did in fact work for Rio Tinto was almost irrelevant – surely he couldn’t get away with making such hateful, vile, almost threatening comments and still have references to Rio Tinto in his profile.
There have been countless victims of social media abuse, Charlotte Dawson being a notable example. Dawson’s online tormentors drove her to become suicidal. In many cases, these unidentifiable Twitter trolls are never held to account because they are untraceable. In my case, @GregJessop1 volunteered information about Rio Tinto in his Twitter profile and I used this information as a legitimate means to hold him, and people like him, to account.
@GregJessop1 was clearly rattled by all the attention his offending tweet had generated. He deleted the tweet and then tried to suggest that I photoshoped the screen shot of the offending tweet. But what baffled me most was his response to someone who questioned how Rio Tinto would feel about his hateful tweets: “at work, I’m on work time and $. If they want me to be respectful, so be it. On my time, i’ll do as I please.”
I was also subsequently advised by others on Twitter that I should have the phrase “proud Aussie” in my Twitter profile, rather than “proud Refugee.” I use this phrase in my profile, not because I am an ungrateful Aussie, but because I want to demonstrate that refugees are educated and active participants in our community. Ultimately, I want to help change perceptions. Moreover, if my actions don’t demonstrate my gratitude, how would a label somehow do the trick? And why must I assert my level of Australianness every minute of the day? Excessive pride and racial hate speech should be viewed in the same manner – both are entirely unnecessary, really.
Since Friday, I’ve been overwhelmed by messages of support and compassion, and indeed by offers from strangers to help me. For every instance of abuse, there are many expressions of compassion and solidarity. Perhaps the one that has meant the most to me was from former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser: “I am deeply sorry you had to experience that, some people are so insensitive and stupid, try not to let worry you.” Mr Fraser, of course has been especially vocal in recent times and spoken out about the plight of asylum seekers – if only some of our incumbent politicians shared and expressed his same convictions!
Yesterday afternoon, I received a response from Rio Tinto, as well as a call from their media representative, who assured me that they had commenced their investigations on Friday evening. It is comforting to know that an organisation like Rio Tinto would never condone such behaviour.
Irrespective of whether he is a mere Twitter troll or an actual Rio Tinto employee, the attitude of @GregJessop1 is indicative of a deeper malaise in this wonderful country of ours: a high level of low level racism, a form of racism Waleed Aly has described as “subterranean racism.” I used to think that on social media people were more inclined to make irrational and utterly vile comments under the cover of false identities than they would in person, in real situations. But the recent racial rants on public transport which has been reported in Sydney, Melbourne, Perth and even Canberra disprove this theory.
But this begs the question: what is the root cause of this type of hateful bigotry? Wherever this bigotry stems from, there is little doubt that the current and thoroughly toxic political debate which wilfully demonises asylum seekers is fuelling it. There have been hundreds of op-eds written by advocates across the political spectrum criticising the character of political debate about asylum seekers, and there is nothing I can recount here that hasn’t been written many times before: that, compared to other refugee-hosting countries, Australia receives a very small number of asylum applications and we are in no danger of being “swamped”; or that we are a signatory to the United Nations Refugee Convention and are in breach of Article 31 every time we load men, women and children onto a bus at Christmas Island and then transport and “detain” them for an indefinite period of time; or that the countless health-care professionals have advised that indefinite detention leads to irreparable mental damage and ultimately, in some cases, to suicide. But we have all heard that before.
Australia’s refugee policy is symptomatic of a political preparedness to pander to short-term electoral interest over tenable long-term planning, much less humanitarian concern. With a federal election looming and an incumbent government needing to pull a political rabbit out the hat, it is hard to see how things could improve – indeed, the likelihood is that the politicking at the expense of asylum seekers will only get worse.
But our politicians’ nonsensical and frequently inhumane remarks about asylum seeker policy are partly, if not largely, based on what they believe Australians want. If the brutal logic of deterrence, of “stopping the boats,” wasn’t a vote-winner and didn’t represent an advantage in the opinion polls, surely the political discourse would be different. We, my friends, are part of the problem. It’s time to become part of the solution.
Mariam Veiszadeh is a lawyer, writer and Welcome to Australia ambassador.
Originally published on ABC Religion and Ethics Online