Passing bull 56 – Bullshit about manners, taste and identity: Part II



In his piece about identity politics, Mr Kelly wrote about the reaction to the Four Corners program about the abuse of young aboriginals in detention in the Northern Territory.   Mr Kelly said that the media had been reluctant

….to mention, let alone canvas, the underlying causes – the breakdown of the indigenous social and family order through a range of issues including family dislocation, neglect, violence, parental abuse and drunkenness.

Mr Kelly referred to a commentator who referred to ‘the politically correct ‘selective outrage’ and [who] told the ABC that ‘Blackfellas’ had ‘to take responsibility for their own children,’ and another indigenous commentator who told the newspaper that ‘this was primarily about children who had been failed by their families rather than race’.  Mr Kelly said that ‘then an honest debate had been sanctioned.’

Australia, once famous for its straight talking, seems a frightened country.

Why were the alleged failures of parents of black children relevant to a story about revealed cruelty and mistreatment by government of the products of those failures?  We are again talking at a very general level but how does the suggestion that children have been let down by their parents bear on the actual mistreatment shown in the program?  I don’t get the point.  Are we, God-like, apportioning some kind of universal blame?  I don’t know.

Perhaps the problem comes from the author’s reference to ‘the underlying causes’ – causes of what?  The mistreatment of aboriginals in detention, which was the subject of Four Corners, or the miserable condition of blackfellas at large?  If the latter, how do you avoid going back to 1788?

The cartoonist, Bill Leak, had a cartoon depicting three figures in the outback.  A Northern Territory copper holds a kid by the scruff of the neck before his father.  Both blackfellas are depicted as ugly – some would say Neanderthal – and in bare feet.  Dad holds a can of beer.   The copper says: ‘You’ll have to sit down and talk to your son about personal responsibility.’  Dad replies: ‘Yeah, right, what’s his name then?’


What that cartoon means to you will probably vary on where you come from.  It will mean some things to some white people and some other things to some coloured people.  What it suggests to me is that blackfellas are drop-out drunks incapable of being responsible for their children.  On that meaning, the cartoon is plainly racist, since it denigrates a people by reference to their race.  I find it hard to see how you could avoid saying the cartoon is tasteless and, yes, offensive.  How would you like it if someone said that about you?


Mr Kelly has a very different and very clear view.  He says that Mr Leak has made clear the purpose of the cartoon.

… If you think things are pretty crook for children in the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre, you should have a look at the homes they came from.  It wasn’t hard to get.  But the fascinating thing about Leak’s piece was the feedback he got that people couldn’t understand his cartoon.

That’s right, they didn’t get it – surely a victory for a politically correct, dumbed down education system and the spread of identity politics culture where such images turn the brain into a non—functioning, non—computing defence mechanism.

Well, if that was Mr Leak’s purpose, he failed to make it clear to me.  And what does it add to the Four Corners story to say that the victims of the government were worse victims of their own upbringing.  How is that allegation relevant?  Well, it might be relevant if you are trying to spread responsibility for the unhappy fate of these people.  ‘Responsibility’ is the dominant word in the cartoon; Mr Leak omits it from his description of his purpose; Mr Kelly says that the cartoon depicts an ‘irresponsible indigenous father who couldn’t recall the name of his son.’

The real problem with the cartoon is that it can have no relevance to the news story unless the shoddy beer-can-bearing black father is said to be typical of blackfellas – and on no view is any such proposition attractive.  And the problem for Mr Kelly is that his inability to see how other people might react differently to the cartoon reveals that he is used to speaking to the true believers who are happy to share the same bubble.

Mr Kelly then offers himself some gratuitous legal advice, saying of s.18C that ‘on racial issues, the test is subjective – whether the individual is offended.’  Mr Kelly wants a reference to ‘community values’.  If it is the law that a person can succeed under this statute simply by saying that ‘I personally am offended – at being described as of Scottish descent when I’m really Irish – even though no reasonable member of the community in my place would be offended’, then I agree with Mr Kelly that the law needs some attention.  But I very much doubt whether that is the law.


As it seems to me, at the core of people’s worries about this statute, is the fear that ‘offensive’ is too plastic or personal or variable to be safely made the criterion of a law.  People think that the law should be made of sterner, clearer stuff.  They fear that it will be too hard to draw the line.  People might then be inhibited in what they say – the law may have ‘a chilling effect’.


The answer is that exactly these kinds of issues arise a lot of the time in all areas of our law without giving rise to the suggestion that as a result the relevant law should be abolished.  So much of our law is founded on moral questions of degree or issues of current standards or practice.  Was he honest?  Was she careful?  Did he break his word?  Did she intend to be legally bound?  Did he mislead her?  Did she lie to him?  Would what he said make others think less of her?  Did he mean to hurt her when he said that?  Was she offended by that remark?  What did he mean when he said that?  In that meaning, was it true?  Was it fair comment?  Will he get a fair hearing?  Will my renovation annoy my neighbour?  Will it be bad for the amenity of the area?  Was her purpose proper?  Was he acting with a good conscience?  On a bad day, a judge might ask you whether you have come to court with clean hands.  (That is the very wording of the law.)


Dealing with the issue of whether conduct is offensive in a legal sense is neither harder nor easier than any of those questions of degree that have either a moral base or that relate to conduct in the community at large – if you like, community values.


And of course there will be laws against offensive behaviour – such as a depraved professional man ogling or pawing schoolgirls on a tram; or a jilted suitor standing outside a church shouting that the bride is a slut and that her mum is worse; or a bystander abusing veterans in an Anzac Day march as war criminals; or a drunken blackfella bursting into the best pub in Kununurra and throwing up in front of a busload of Japanese senior citizens.  We have laws to allow police to intervene in such behaviour because in our opinion, it would be uncivilised for any of our citizens to be exposed to the hurt caused by that kind of offensiveness without protection from their government.


The other reason for these laws is related to the first – these kinds of offensiveness constitute a breach of the peace in themselves, and they are likely to lead to worse breaches of the peace if people ae left to help themselves.


And, yes, these laws could be abused, and they were abused by the police in the past before compliant magistrates, but the answer is to control the abuse, and not to abolish the law.  All this seems obvious.  Do those who want to abolish s 18C – Mr Kelly is not one of them – want to exclude behaviour that offends on the grounds of race – when that kind of offence is likely to be the most wounding and also the most likely to start a fight?


And, yes, laws against offensive language or behaviour do have an inhibiting effect – or, if you prefer, a chilling effect – on the way people behave.  Most laws are made for precisely that purpose.


Finally, where and when was the Golden Age of Mr Kelly’s ‘old Australian character’ when the nation was ‘famous for its straight talking’?  Assuming that Mr Kelly is not talking of the time of the White Australia Policy, when did we use to talk straight, and when did we stop?


If Mr Kelly is talking of times before laws were made against offensive language or behaviour, he will have to go back before the First Fleet to seek his Arcadia.


Poet of the month: Kenneth Slessor

Waters – Part I

This Water, like a sky that no one uses,

Air turned to stone, written by stars and birds

No longer, but with clouds of crystal swimming,

I’ll not forget, nor men can lose, though words

Dissolve with music, gradually dimming.

So let them die; whatever the mind loses,

Water remains, cables and bells remain,

Night comes, the sailors burn their riding-lamps,

And strangers, pitching on our graves their camps,

Will break through branches to the surf again.

Passing Bull 55 Bullshit about manners, taste and identity


Do you know about identity politics?  Have you never heard the phrase?  Could you give a damn?

If I were to sit down to dinner with Paul Kelly of The Australian, I suspect we could agree on a lot of political issues.  But I don’t think that we could agree on how to write about them.  Most of what Mr Kelly writes sounds to me like waffle – or bullshit.

Here are extracts from a piece on Saturday under the heading Race, gender: the risk of identity politics; Political correctness is stifling debate and dissent.

Identity politics, pursued in the U S and on display within university campuses and at the recent Democratic National Convention, is about laws, norms and etiquette to protect and advance identity causes. 

A powerful movement with deep cultural roots, it testifies to the revolution within leftist and progressive politics since the failure of Soviet communism and the supplementation of class consciousness with identity based on race, sex, gender and ethnicity.  This is fused by historic grievance suffered by such identities and their contemporary demand for redress.

The rise of politics based on the question ‘who am I?’ poses further problems of voter fragmentation for both the Coalition and Labor, though Labor has proved astute in channelling some of this sentiment.

This movement proves the ideological creativity of the Left, the manipulative power of human rights law and the perversion of the idea of justice – seen in this country in section 18 C of the Racial Discrimination Act where individuals can initiate legal action because they are ‘offended’ by others.

The politics of identity speaks to deep human need.  Yet its application veers towards narcissism, censoring of public debate, vicious campaigns of intimidation and a diminished public square.  It is extraordinary to see how many institutions and prominent figures buckle before the campaigns of identity politics, too weak to stand on principle.

The author then refers to the Four Corners program on the shocking abuses of indigenous children in the Northern Territory and says that politicians and the media were reluctant…

….to mention, let alone canvas, the underlying causes – the breakdown of the indigenous social and family order through a range of issues including family dislocation, neglect, violence, parental abuse and drunkenness.

The author then refers to an aboriginal commentator who referred of ‘the politically correct ‘selective outrage’ and [who] told the ABC that ‘Blackfellas’ had ‘to take responsibility for their own children,’ and another indigenous commentator who told the newspaper that ‘this was primarily about children who had been failed by their families rather than race’.  After those disclosures, the author says that ‘then an honest debate had been sanctioned.’

Australia, once famous for its straight talking, seems a frightened country.

The author then referred to the cartoon by Bill Leak ‘depicting an irresponsible indigenous father who could not recall the name of his son.’  The author refers to the outrage this cartoon provoked, including that of one Minister who said that it was racist, and said that the cartoonist had pointed out the purpose of the cartoon:

… If you think things are pretty crook for children in the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre, you should have a look at the homes they came from.  It wasn’t hard to get.  But the fascinating thing about Leak’s piece was the feedback he got that people couldn’t understand his cartoon.

That’s right, they didn’t get it – surely a victory for a politically correct, dumbed down education system and the spread of identity politics culture where such images turn the brain into a non—functioning, non—computing defence mechanism.

Is this Australia’s future?  It is certainly the future the progressives want…

…The essence of identity politics runs as follows: because you haven’t shared my identity, you haven’t shared my own oppression and you cannot understand my pain and if you cannot understand my pain you have no right to tell my group how to behave.  Identity politics, therefore, is hostile to ideas and debate.  Indeed, it mobilises the argument of ‘offence’ as a disincentive to debate and to challenge the right of others to engage in vigorous or provocative public discussion.…  Yet it is driven by powerful idea whose essence is ‘respect my identity and don’t offend me.’

….The parallel mechanism is social media – used to brand institutions and people as racist and sexist as a means of destroying them by mass hysteria.  In this climate the spirit of Orwell and Voltaire face a slow but sure death.  Let’s hope there is still sufficient left of the old Australian character and courage to turn back the tide.

What is going on here?

  • There is hardly one assertion of verifiable fact in this piece.
  • What we get are general comments on the kinds of behaviour of kinds of people. There are two levels of abstraction – the kinds of groups of various people, and the different ways in which membership of such groups are said to affect their behaviour.  In effect, Mr Kelly is applying labels to groups of people and then more labels to their perceived behaviours.  There is no room for you or me as individuals – we only get verbal constructs – that represent phantasms from the fear zone of the author.
  • What are the criteria for the author’s groups? ‘Race, sex, gender, and ethnicity.’  The first and last look to be identical.  The author also mentions class.  For reasons we are not told of, any distinctions between groups of people based on caste, class, creed, wealth, sexuality, health, education or age do not qualify for creating issues of ‘identity politics’.  Why not?  Each of them has been or is poisonous in Australia as setting up barriers between people.  Each label has been invoked to deny the individual dignity of real people and not just that of pictured groups.
  • What is the alleged problem with the behaviour of these groups? People inside the group say that people outside it do not and cannot understand them and are therefore precluded from commenting on them.  This is the broadest generalization of all.  Many French historians get very close to this precipice when discussing ‘their’ revolution’, but any Chinese, Jewish, gay, Muslem, aged or poor person who made such a claim in Australia would be plain bloody silly.  Would they accept the apparent converse – that they might be incapable of understanding or commenting on their estranged critic?  Of course white people have trouble following what is happening with blackfellas in the Northern Territory.  Most white people in Australia don’t have the faintest idea of how blackfellas live – and most of them are desperately keen to keep it that way.  It is the same with refugees.  But is absurd to suggest that as a result, white people are not qualified to discuss either.  If you want to attach a label to that kind of silly suggestion, one would be ‘racist’.
  • Mr Kelly does not claim to be standing in the middle on all this. He has a position, or, if you prefer, an agenda.  He names his opponents – leftists, progressives, the Left, perverted views on human rights and justice, and the politically correct.  The reader is taken to understand what those terms connote.  My understanding of them, which is limited, is that these terms have no intellectual content at all, but are code for the labels applied to those who follow Fairfax or the ABC.  I gather that the label for the conflict as a whole is ‘culture wars.’  I find it hard to imagine anything more sterile or unbecoming.
  • May I say something for the term ‘politically correct’, the Antichrist of Mr Kelly? Most people are conscious of differences between themselves and people of a different race; very few think that their group is inferior; most proceed on the contrary basis; there is therefore the basis for conflict between people of different races.  We tend to describe such conflict as ‘racist’ or ‘racial’.  To take a religious example, it would seem safe to posit that very few Muslems think that their Islam is inferior to the religion of Judaism, Hinduism, Voodoo, or Christianity.  The best that we can hope is that people are brought up well enough to avoid showing their feelings to people of a different race in a way that will offend them.
  • Now, what good manners or courtesy may require are matters of degree in time and space. They are matters on which reasonable people may differ.  The phrase ‘politically correct’ is I think too often a label used to obscure if not smear the role of courtesy in discussing sensitive issues like differences in colour or creed or sexuality.  We might think that some people go too far and get too precious, but that is no reason to discard courtesy altogether.  Courtesy and cutlery are what separate us from the apes.  I can well remember a gentle Catholic man at Blackwood telling me he thought a black footballer had gone too far in complaining of being called a black cunt, and I nearly fell over when I read that a former federal minister (Amanda Vanstone) could not understand why Adam Goodes objected to being called an ape, because we are all descended from them!  (It is I suspect reactions like these, which I regard as absurd, that cause some blackfellas to say that you have to at least have lived like a blackfella before you can understand how wounding white people might be to them.)  But debates at the edge do not warrant the abolition of the centre.
  • Mr Kelly does not need to explain a lot of his terms because he is using language familiar to most of his readers – who are expected to share his assumptions and to adopt his values. We are then talking in club.  At a guess, could that group exceed one in twenty of the adult population?  Put differently, could say ninety-five per cent of adult Australians give a bugger about any of these plays on words?  What do these questions tell us about the relevance of the Australian press to our politics?  Is this a perfect example of the kind of intellectual elitism the wholesale rejection of which has led to the uncomely rise of people like Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson, Donald Trump, Marine le Pen, and Pauline Hanson?
  • Some of Mr Kelly’s judgment, and it does read a little like a judgment, is not without condescension. We get references to the failure of Soviet communism, the fusion of historic grievances, and the ideological creativity of the Left.  We are told ‘the politics of identity speaks to deep human need.’  Well, survivors of the holocaust, or any other genocide, would agree.  But would they then ‘veer towards narcissism’?  Is this sweep not a bit large?  If, as we are, told the question is ‘who am I?’, may not the enquirer face the question put by Snow White when she looked at their mirror?  And what is wrong with ‘respect my identity and don’t offend me’?  Is that not just to put as a prayer in the first person an injunction normally expressed in the second?  How many people walk about asserting the contrary – ‘just walk all over me and get right up my nose?’
  • And as for the invocation of Orwell and Voltaire, could we have done a bit better with the Enlightenment than Voltaire? What about Kant, who said that each of us has a dignity that derives solely from our humanity?  Or are human rights inexcusably suspect?  As for Orwell, he said this about political language.

Political language – and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists – is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.

And if you are looking for snobbery, we may put to one side ‘the mass hysteria’ of social media – of which I am blessedly ignorant – but it is hard to overlook ‘the politically correct dumbed down education system.’   Dear, dear, dear – a slogan and a cliché, and some of the poor buggers may have been exposed to government schools.

  • That is enough for this post. What we have so far is, I suggest, pompous drivel, or, in the style of Mr Kelly, a rant from the Right.  I will come back later to deal with the cartoon, the references to the alleged failures of parenthood within the indigenous community, the complaints about s 18C, and Mr Kelly’s invocation of a Golden Age.
  • May I just mention a piece in The Saturday Paper that made verifiable allegations of fact about aboriginals in the N T? We are told that the Territory has the population of Geelong but that they at Geelong don’t face the same problems – thirty per cent of the population are indigenous, not literate, speak another language, and suffer from various disadvantages.  It is then alleged that the government spends more on white people in Darwin than on black people in the sticks.  It then offers other critiques of government based on evidence that at least leave me better informed.
  • Finally, surely the big lesson from recent events in the U K and the U S is not that white people do not know enough about coloured people, but that they don’t understand enough about their own white people outside the current version of the Pale. In short, the complaint is the old one – people who live in Mr Kelly’s bubble don’t know how real people live.  They haven’t got the foggiest idea.

Since writing the above, I have watched the Four Corners program.  The brutality is horrifying.  Authorities gassed children held in close detention; two who thought they were being killed, huddled under a sheet and said good bye to each other; this was just one of the reminders of the hell of prisons described in For the Term of His Natural Life.  We have gone backwards since this country started as a barbarous jail.  We committed crimes against humanity against children.  We now stand further indicted of dismissing those crimes with the claptrap pf Mr Kelly and his colleagues about political correctness and identity politics.


Poet of the Month: Kenneth Slessor




Chafing on flags of ebony and pearl,

My paladins are waiting.  Loops of smoke

Stoop slowly from the coffey-cups, and curl

In this fantastic patterns down the room

By cabinets of chinaware, to whirl

With milky-blue tobacco-steam, and fume

Together past our pipes, outside the door.


Soon may we lounge in silence, O my friend?

Behind those carven men-at-arms of chess

Dyed coral-red with dragon’s blood, and spend

The night with noiseless warfare.  Queens and rooks

With chiselled ivory warriors must contend

And counter-plots from old Arabian books

Be conjured to the march of knights and pawns.