Human Rights, Populism and the Crisis of Meaning – Dr Waleed Aly
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Human Rights, Populism and the Crisis of Meaning – Dr Waleed Aly

August 28, 2019

[ Music ]>>Deborah Terry: Thank you very
much and good afternoon everybody. Can I too begin by recognising
the traditional owners of the land on which we meet this afternoon, the
Whadjuk people of the Noongar nation, and pay my respects and my thanks to
their elders, past, present, and emerging. And a very warm welcome to Curtin University
and to our annual human rights lecture. It is wonderful to see so many people here
this afternoon so obviously interested in the state of human rights in Australia. We are extremely honoured that this
year’s lecture will be delivered by the inspirational Dr. Waleed Aly. A deep commitment to human rights goes
to the very core of strong, effective, and healthy democracies, but there are threats. As Waleed will argue, there is a risk that the current political dynamics
are sidelining human rights, a move that creates a vacuum available
to be filled by more assertive and negative forms of nationalism. Our annual human rights lecture
was established to support and encourage a strong human rights culture
both within and outside the University. This is a responsibility that we all share,
a sentiment that was beautifully captured by Eleanor Roosevelt when she addressed the
United Nations back in 1958, and I quote, “Where after all do universal
human rights begin? In small places, close to
home — so close and so small that they cannot be seen
on any map of the world. Such are the places where every man, woman, and
child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination.” I congratulate Baden [phonetic] and
his colleagues for hosting this lecture and for the important education,
research, and advocacy that they undertake within the University’s Centre
for Human Rights Education. Education is, as we all know, critically
important if we are to ensure that we live in a nation where human rights are fully
realised and social justice is enjoyed by all. We have a responsibility to ensure that
our students are educated in an environment where understanding, ideas, and views are
shaped and challenged by facts and evidence, by open debate, and by deep reflection. As we see increasing signs on the
global stage of fear and anxiety, it is this role of universities
that is so critical to our future, a future where the protection of human rights
must remain a core and fundamental value. As Waleed will argue, human rights need to
regain their persuasive power, in his words, to rediscover a way to become enchanted, imbued
with some politically compelling meaning. From The Project to ABC’s The Minefield, The
Guardian to The Monthly, Waleed uses his work to do just this, to demystify and
diffuse the polarised views attached to everyday issues and world events alike. He is a broadcaster, an author, an academic,
a musician, and widely regarded as one of Australia’s most respected
and multi-skilled media talents. Waleed is co-host of Network Ten’s The Project. He has also hosted the morning
programme for ABC Radio in Melbourne and presented political analysis on Q and A and
BBC World as well as making regular appearances on Meet The Press, The 7:30
Report, and Offsiders. In 2014, he was awarded the
prestigious Walkley Award for Commentary, Analysis, Opinion, and Critique. In 2016, he won the Gold Logie Award for
the most popular Australian TV personality and Silver Logie Award for best presenter. And in 2017, he picked up another
Silver Logie for best presenter. Waleed’s social and political commentary has
produced an award-winning book entitled People Like Us — How Arrogance is
Dividing Islam and the West. Waleed originally studied chemical engineering
and law at the University of Melbourne and recently received his
Ph.D. from Monash University. He is now a lecturer in politics
at Monash working in their Global Terrorism Research Centre. And when he’s not broadcasting and writing,
he’s usually involved in something musical. As the ABC noted, Waleed is probably the
only Australian academic to have trended on Twitter twice and to have written a
formal harmonic and structural analysis of the great hit Bohemian Rhapsody. Waleed, we are honoured that you agreed to present the 2017 Annual Curtin
University Human Rights Lecture. Please join me in welcoming
Dr. Waleed Aly to the podium. [ Applause ]>>Waleed Aly: Thank you for that introduction. Thank you very much for coming out and I
proceed, of course, in the comfort of knowing that we’ve been welcomed to the country
and acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we’re gathered today. And I do want to point out
it is actually a rhapsody. It’s remarkable. I think Freddie Mercury knew what he meant
with that title because I always thought of that song being three
songs just stuck together. But when you do the analysis, you actually
find that there are five different sections and what sounds reiterative is actually
a different section in its own right and it’s therefore through-composed and follows
very conventional form, thus being a rhapsody. So dinner parties all across
Perth are going to be set aflame with the knowledge that you’ve
just been granted. Thanks to everybody again. Thank you for the invitation,
by the way, [inaudible]. It’s — it was a wonderful think
to be able to accept because — because it’s such a new aeration and
I think this is only the second one, which is good because it means that I’ll
definitely be in the top two by the end of the night, and so you’ve got
to get in early with those things. Also, you get to set the tone, and so before
this becomes a really stiff formal event where everyone’s in tuxedos or robes, I’m
going to make this as informal as possible. And then that’s going to screw it up for
everyone else that has to come after me and I’ll get some delight from that. I think I know roughly how these things are
meant to go, so my understanding is I’m meant to get up here and talk about how human rights
are really important and they’re under threat and then maybe cite as many examples
as I can think of from, I don’t know, asylum-seeker policy, and then sit down. Although there’s a Q and A thing that
will intervene, but you get the picture. That’s the general arc of these things. I’m going to break with convention,
although as I say, it’s only the second one,
there is no convention. I’m going to break with whatever
convention there is by not doing that today. I’m not going to undergo some kind of list
of all the ways in which human rights are under threat and all the ways in
which they’re continually violated and all the different spheres in which they are
because I think that’s what everybody would do. Also because there are just so
many areas you could look at. For example, when I was in the — like
getting on a plane to come here today, I ran into an academic who was a legal
academic from Melbourne University and her expertise is obviously in administrative
law and she was passionately telling me about this problem that is emerging within administrative law whereby
legislation is subtly being passed that allows the responsible minister to have
discretion as to whether or not they even need to consider your particular application. So for those of you are into administrative
law, and I’m sure that’s everybody, right, this is a really significant thing. So this is not — let’s take the area of
immigration, where this is probably most common. What this means is not that I submit an
application for a visa, whether as a refugee or as a skilled migrant or whatever, I submit my
application for a visa and then the minister has to consider that and they might have
a discretion ultimately as to whether or not they grant me the visa,
but they have to think about it. Now, we’re starting to see the introduction of
mechanisms whereby the minister has a discretion as to whether or not they will
even pay attention to the fact that you’ve made the application,
which is extraordinary. This is like a minister getting to
choose whether or not they’re going to enter into a relationship with you. And in immigration that’s one
thing, but we’re now starting to see that in areas like welfare policy, right. I should point out I know nothing about this. I’m just regurgitating what I heard
this morning before I got on my plane, but it’s just an illustration that the kinds
of areas where these sorts of questions about the erosion of human rights is live. And the thing is, they’re
live in all kinds of areas. But I also know that when I
go to work on Monday or — at Channel 10, or I go to work at the
ABC on Wednesday to do my radio show, I almost certainly will not be
speaking about something like that. And the reason I will not
be speaking about something like that is, well, frankly, nobody cares. And this is what I want to talk about today. I want to talk not about all the instances in which human rights might be
being compromised or overlooked. I’m interested in the fact
that no one cares about that. I’m interested in the fact that this has become
among the singularly most unpersuasive things you can possibly say about something,
that this is a breach of human rights, that Australia is in breach of
its human rights obligations. How many times have you heard that sentence in
media reports over, I don’t know, five years? Pick your timeframe. Let’s see, how many times have you heard that? and how many times have you seen
a single thing come from it? I think — didn’t Amnesty go so far as to describe our current asylum-seeker
arrangements as approaching torture? Or at the very least as breaching
the convention on torture? Where did that go? Well, it didn’t go anywhere. Nothing flowed from that. I think the Prime Minister
said something angry about it. That’s it. I think I read an article about it, which was
good for me, but it didn’t help anybody else. Nothing happened. There’s no interest really in any of this. So the point, really the starting point for
what I want to talk about today is that people and certainly politics now seem to have entered
a phase where they’re just completely unmoved by human rights as an idea,
and why has that happened, and is there anything that
can be done about that. I think it’s interesting — it’s
important to think about that. Whether or not you can remedy this in the
short-term or even the medium or long-term, but I think it’s important to
think about this because it — well, take it as a case study of
some voter phenomena in politics that I think are important for us to understand. I refer to it this way. I would say that the reason
that we are in this situation, whether there’s simply no political purchase
that attaches to human rights claims, is that no one seems to know or remember or bother articulating the philosophical
foundations of human rights in the first place. In other words, we keep hearing these
claims of human rights violations, breaches of human rights
violations, breaches of conventions that have just interminably long names. We keep hearing this, but beyond knowing
that it’s apparently a breach of something, I don’t think we really have any
understanding of what’s that meant to mean. What have we actually breached? What’s the point of what we’ve breached? What’s the meaning of having violated some
kind of — like it sounds heavy, right? human rights. That gets — it sounds like
it’s the top of the tree. But when you keep hearing it, you
become desensitised to it and then at some point you probably need to know
what the deep philosophical idea it is or is that you meant to have breached. So if in the absence of that,
what tends to happen is that human rights becomes a
claim amongst other claims. There are human rights. There are property rights. They’re all matters of rights and
they all compete and then they kind of just resolve them via the crude mechanisms
of politics as we have at our disposal and that’s pretty much what happens. In fact, you — and I think this is
partly why we have this phenomenon that I think is easily observable at the moment. We’re far from human rights becoming
persuasive in a political way or even decisive and determinative in a political way. Really what happens is defying
them becomes a badge of honour within the context of certain
political movements. Am I remembering correctly
that one of the many times that the United Nations Special
Reporter made adverse comment about Australia’s human rights record on
indigenous people and on asylum-seekers, Tony Abbott, who was then Prime
Minister, responded by saying, “I think most Australians would
just like to see the U.N. butt out.” I didn’t make that up, right? That happened, yeah? Enough people are nodding for
me to take that as a fact check. Good. [Laughter] It’s remarkable the
confidence with which that can be said. Right? that to me is more remarkable
than anything the U.N. Actually said. It’s the way in which the response
to that can be, well, you know, we’ll consider the U.N.’s report and of
course we disagree with its conclusions. Like I can come up with the script,
that kind of polite gentile script to respond to — I could come up with it. I think I’ve heard it quite a
lot of times in my working life. But what’s amazing was just
the total abandonment of it. Forget the — I don’t need to read the report. The U.N. should just butt out. What’s the U.N. got to say about anything? I don’t want to pay attention to what
— they’re just wasting our time. Just getting in our business. That’s our brand of politics. That’s — we’ve seen it over and over. It’d be — it wouldn’t be hard at all to pick
people within probably all the great democracies of the world, within the major parties
of the great democracies of the world, that have uttered statements like this. One of the things that I think is so fascinating
about the way in which human rights is treated at the moment is that we’re very good
at holding on to them until such a point as they have some kind of meaning, which is
the point that circumstances conspire to ask us to enact them, to sacrifice
something to enact them. At that point, we don’t seem
to like them very much. Even something as fundamental
as the norm against torture. I mean, this is a preemptory norm. This is a human rights norm that is meant to
apply whether you signed up to anything or not, under any circumstances that there is. In other words, if you ask human rights
lawyers about this, they will tell you that you can’t opt out of this and there is no
circumstance that justifies a resort to — none. Like they thought them through, they’ll come
to us with a new circumstance and say, yeah, but something’s about to — I’ve got to
— we’ve got to torture this — no, no. We thought through that, we know that,
and we’ve said you still can’t do it, and that this is such a fundamental human right
that you don’t even need to agree with it for it to be something that we consider as applying. There’s no convention that you have to
sign in order to be bound by this idea. It’s that powerful a law and yet
we’re quite happy to violate it. Look at democracies happy to violate it. I mean, if we were giving a speech
like this in the United States, this would be a much more live concept for us. You would’ve thought a lot more about it
because it’s been a very common touchstone of American politics, this debate over what
— what constitutes torture, of course, and then what counts as its legitimate use. And one of the things that Barack Obama
came to power upon was this wave of disgust within the United States at what had
happened in Guantanamo Bay and this idea of rolling back this use of torture. And then of course it all turned very quickly. Although today I was reminded of some of the Republic primary debates
which are amazing to listen to. Even now, they’re amazing to listen to. We hear arguments about what torture actually
means and then you hear Donald Trump just cut through all those arguments just
by saying — what did he say? “I would bring back waterboarding and I’ll tell
you what, I’d bring back a hell of a lot worse.” And then cheers erupt from the audience, right? And of course, there will be arguments
that people will make about something like the legitimacy of the use of torture
under certain circumstances and so on, but that’s the thing with human rights
breaches, even the really big ones, is that the reason they exist is because
there are circumstances where people were to argue they should be suspended. That’s the point. It’s not hard not to torture somebody
when you can’t think of a reason to do it. The whole point of having a prohibition against
torture is that you might want to do it. That’s why it’s there. If I were to stand here and say, “I
hereby prohibit all of you from flying,” you’d probably sit there and say, “Sure.” But if I give you wings, suddenly
that prohibition means something. And that’s the same sort of thing
with human rights discourse. We tend to see this pattern where it’s fine
to support human rights until such a moment as we actually don’t want to, and it’s at that
moment we find out whether they mean much to us. I often think about this. I know I wasn’t — I said I wasn’t going to bang
on about the asylum-seeker debate or something, but I’ll just use it as an
example every now and again. I think the approach to asylum-seekers
is an interesting case in point here. We accept, generally speaking, if you were
to, I don’t know, survey in the abstract, take the temperature of the political community,
we’d set the basic ideas of prohibitions on arbitrary detention, for example. Set the basic ideas of the Refugee Convention,
although that might be waning a little bit now. But we basically accept those things. But at the moment of application, at the moment
where we’ve been put on a tight spot of it, at a moment where there is a counterargument
to be made along the lines of, I don’t know, say the deaths at sea argument or
something like that, at that moment it’s — what’s interesting is how easy we find how
to distance ourselves from those ideas. So I’m not just interested in
the fact that we’re doing it; I’m interested in the fact
that we do it so easily. What does that tell us? What does that mean? And the asylum-seeker case
is a really interesting one. Actually, the deaths at sea argument,
I think, is a really interesting one. Because if you — if you think
about the deaths at sea argument, it’s kind of framed in these terms. We must deter other people
by punishing these people. So we are quite explicitly not
trying to resolve this situation. That’s not the aim. The aim is to visit punishment upon them
so that other people don’t act in ways that will harm themselves, like get
on boats where they might drown. Alright? And the politicians who assess
the issue in this way will assess it by citing the number of people who died at sea,
Maybe if they’re former Immigration Ministers, they’ll even cite the number of people who
died at sea on their watch and the more burden that that places upon them and
how heavily they feel that burden and all of those sorts of things. And I don’t deny that a lot of that is genuine. That’s not my argument here. I’m interested in the mode of reasoning. It’s an interesting mode of reasoning because
we don’t seem to apply it to anything else. We don’t, for example, say, well,
smoking kills a lot of people, so I’m going to pick a thousand
smokers and I’m going to torture them. As a way of deterring, I’m going to break the
tobacco seller’s business model and I’m going to deter those who come after them. Now, I get there are differences in the — I’m
not saying these are exactly the same case, but the mode of reasoning is that. I mean, you move it out of
the asylum-seeker case, where the debate has kind
of evolved to that point. We kind of forget that we didn’t
start anywhere near there. We kind of got to a point where
that’s become conventional wisdom. It’s taken probably 15 years
for us to get to that point. But when you take it out of that context and you
put it in another context where we don’t reason that way, it just feels really alien. You take another example that is perhaps
not as shocking as the smoking example. Organ donation. We do not have an opt-out
system for organ donation. We have an opt-in system. That is because, I believe, or the law holds
your body to be sacred in some kind of way, or at the very least your property if
you want to make it a proprietary thing. Because of that, it would be a transgression
for the state to have access to your organs without your — you giving permission. There are a number of people advocating
for an opt-out and, whatever, I get that, but as it stands that’s not what we do. But who can deny that if we flip that and if we
said your body becomes state property upon death and the state can treat it as it wishes and
it can take your organs without any consent, then you have to lodge a complaint. If you don’t — don’t want that to
happen, you have to protest before death. Or after if you can manage
it, but you probably — and if you don’t do that,
then it’s state property. We just take your organs. Who can deny if we had a system like
that it would save a lot of lives? It would. But we don’t reason in that
utilitarian way about those things because the point — I was going to say the
point of human rights, but actually the point of liberalism — and there’s an argument
that human rights is an outgrowth of that which can get a lot of human rights theorists
fired up, but leave that to one side, the point of liberalism is that
we don’t actually make decisions on whether we can save more lives
by harming a group of people. We hold each of those people to have
something inalienable about them such that they can’t be sacrificed for
the good of somebody else or for the good of three other people or five other people. That is, we don’t do a calculus like that. That’s not how we reason. And yet on the asylum-seeker case,
that’s precisely how we reason. That’s — that’s the moral reasoning. That’s the compassionate reasoning, right? So when we present what we’re doing as a
form of compassion, that’s how we present it. It’s a utilitarian thing, at which
point I’m kind of tempted to say, okay, let’s be utilitarian then, just
everything becomes utilitarian after that. But that would lead to all kinds of examples,
all kinds of policies that are very different from what we have now, and people would
probably not like it all of a sudden because they would find that their rights
are being subordinated to what in the mind of someone else is a greater
claim of other people. We tend not to like reasoning that way. But the reason we can reason that way in
this case, I think, is because this idea that I’ve just articulated that every human
being having something inalienable about them, is no longer an idea that means very much. Like if I were to poll this room and say, “Do
you believe in the sanctity of the human being,” and then ask you to give your reason, there would probably be no consensus
on what the reason for that was. Or to put it another way, if you record, you
know, probably an uncomfortable conversation with somebody who just didn’t
want to accept the sanctity of the human being, what would your answer be? Or to make it more broad, what would the
answer of those who value human rights be to the question why is this sacred, from
where does this idea of a human right spring? What’s the basis of it? You’re telling me I can’t harm this person for
my benefit or for the benefit of other people. Why not? Really, why? On what basis can I not do that? And I think because so many of the foundational
human rights instruments and conventions that we talk about now arose out of a period
of history where that question was kind of self-evident, the answer to
that question was self-evident. We’d seen World War II. We’d seen what happens when people
are treated more or less as chattels. And so we revived this idea of people being
somehow sacred or invaluable or having some kind of inalienable set of rights that couldn’t
be done away with at political expediency. I think because all that was kind of
fresh, we didn’t need to do a huge amount of theoretical work or have a whole lot of
public theoretical conversations about this. It was kind of intuitive. But it’s not intuitive now. Not when we’re prepared to sacrifice
a group of people for another group of people as a moral thing to do. This is different. Sacrificing a group of people for another as a just pragmatic political
calculation, that’s one thing. Doing it as a moral commitment
is something else. And the fact that we can do that now as
a moral commitment means that this idea of the human being having rights
that are somehow inherent is thin. And as it thins out, human rights
become something that police views, but they don’t become something
that means anything. And hence, human rights becomes
a claim amongst other claims. Oh, the human rights lawyers don’t like
it because they look at things always through these conventions that they talk about and that’s just the way they
talk about everything. So a perspective from amongst the perspectives. What we don’t have, it seems, certainly not in
popular discourse, is a theoretical foundation for talking about what makes
a human being special. So if, for example, you were
a Christian and I’m — I’m not a Christian, but my understanding
of Christian theology, I think, goes far enough to be able to say this. If you’re a Christian, you could
articular something fairly clear. Human beings are created in the image of
God, therefore they are imbued with something of divinity, therefore a defilement of the
human being is a defilement of the divine. So it was a really clear narrative
that helps explain why the human being, an individual human being,
is sacred in some way. Now, I’m not saying that
that would never be violated within a religious paradigm, but it’s there. It makes sense. There’s a coherence to it. It’s logical. There’s a philosophical basis on which I can
now assert the inviolability of the human being. But as our society has secularised
more and more, what’s replacing that? if we’re not talking about a human
being that’s imbued with some kind of divine life, then what is the human being? Where — what is it about them that makes them
any more sacred to another collection of cells? I mean, each one of us in the room on
our own can maybe come up with something, but I think what’s interesting is that
there’s no obvious answer that’s occurring in all of your minds right now. And what I want to suggest is
in the absence of an answer like that, human rights remains vulnerable. And that is part of the reason, if
not a very big part of the reason, that human rights become
politically dispensable. Because there’s not political purchase
that’s attached to this claim that they make. Now, to be fair, this is a problem
that pervades politics generally. I would say this is a problem that
has evolved over the last 30-40 years, particularly in western liberal democracies. And by that, I’m really talking about the period
of time that flows from the end of the Cold War, when all of the great conflicts of politics, all
of the great ideological conflicts were resolved and the world agreed on how
to run a perfect society. And that was through the model of liberal
democracy, the application not just of liberalism really but of
neo-liberalism, of a renewed liberalism that posited market-style thinking
as the way to make decisions, the way to make political decisions. And that’s why, and I recognise
I’m being impossibly crude here, but that’s why if you were to look at the
evolution of particularly western societies over the last 30-40 years, you would have to
summarise it by saying, in economic terms, the right one, by being liberal and the
liberalisation of markets and so on, the slow erosion of collective restraints on
the market, like union power or whatever it is. And in cultural terms and social terms,
the left one, with the slow liberalisation of social attitudes to just about everything. I can’t think really of a compelling alternative
account of the way that politics has evolved over the last 30 years, but what’s interesting
about that is not about what the left one or what the right one — and, you
know, anyone who has read some of my more obscure work would know
that I actually can’t stand either of those terms and I think they mean nothing. But what’s interesting is that
in both cases liberalism won. Whether it was economic liberalism or social
liberalism, it was liberalism that won. The idea of liberalising everything. Liberalism at its heart is a
political philosophy that holds that the individual prevails over the
collective, that the aim of politics is really to maximise the freedom of the individual,
and the collective can’t override that with their claims, that
that would just more brutal and so it would lead ultimately to tyranny. But something happens when you expand liberalism
in the way that we’ve done over the last three or four decades and that is that it
starts to change from being something that is culturally imbedded, that is that
we preserve the right of the individual but we understand that those
individual rights exist within a cultural framework that is shared. And we start to apply a kind of
market rationality to everything. What begins to emerge is a new expression of
liberalism that is acultural, that’s amoral, that’s not really about preserving any kind
of moral or cultural consensus or moral or cultural bedrock out of which individual
liberty might spring, but is actually ambivalent on questions of morality or culture. So how do you determine morality
within this scheme? Well, you determine it more
or less by market mechanisms. If a market exists for it, then
there’s sufficient consensus for this particular moral commitment to exist. So the example I often use to illustrate
this point, just because when I first saw it, it kind of was the one that made me pause,
was consider the case of companies coming up with hypersexualized clothing for kids. In fact, there was a report done on this, I
don’t know, five years ago, maybe a bit longer. It coined it the term “corporate
paedophilia,” I think. But you might have seen it. Anyone who’s got little kids would’ve
come across this at some point, you know, G-strings for six-year-olds and all
kinds of sexually-loaded messages on clothing for kids and stuff like that. Now, as a society, what’s our reaction to that? Well, if you take the consensus
of society over 30-40 years, where you’ve had economic liberalism
win and social liberalism win, then the answer to that is, well, if
there’s a market for it, it keeps going. That’s — and that’s what’s happening. What is fascinating was to watch the
free market cultural conservatives try and figure out what to do about this. [Laughter] It’s fascinating to watch. The response seemed to be support
the free market and blame this kind of sexual revolution on the cultural left. Well, that’s convenient, and
it’s not entirely stupid, either, but it — that was kind of the resolution. But the consensus seems to be,
well, waive it through, no problem. Like we can like cringe about it
a bit, but not really a problem. So the point I want to make here is when
you take on in quite a deep way this method of social and political reasoning,
you kind of end up with a political and social conversation that, you know,
with complaints here and there and a bit of resistance here and there, largely
boils down to, I guess, three basic ideas. One is efficiency. Two is non-harm or what you might
call a negative version of freedom, the classic liberal conception that is, as the
cliché goes, you might’ve heard it before, that my freedom to swing my fist
ends where your nose begins. That sort of idea. And the idea of non-discrimination. And as a society, if you think about how we
publicly reason, pretty much every debate seems to collapse back on those
three ideas, doesn’t it? I mean, there might be others I’m missing,
but I can’t think of them immediately. The ones that come very easily to hand
are those three: efficiency, non-harm, and harm in a fairly restricted
sense, and non-discrimination. And that’s kind of the way —
so how often do you hear this? You can do whatever you want as long
as it’s not harming anybody else. Right? what’s interesting about that
is not that, I mean, that’s just — that’s straight up and down liberalism and
there’s a lot to commend that, by the way, but as a form of political
reasoning that makes sense. What’s interesting is that’s kind of become
how we reason socially and morally as well. So what’s happening there is that a whole
language and a whole mode of reasoning is kind of disappearing, and the things that are
disappearing in that mode of reasoning and in that language are really anything
that is, to use the term that I’m using for the purposes of this presentation,
anything that’s more enchanted than that. The — all those three notions,
efficiency, non-harm, non-discrimination, the only one of those that is positive
or has content really is efficiency. The others are about not doing things. Even the idea of freedom is a negative idea
because it’s a negatively defined freedom so we get out of your way, so it’s
non-interference as much as it’s anything else. It’s not positive freedom. A positive notion of freedom would be, for
example, I’m going to build a fence at the edge of a cliff to stop you throwing yourself
off it so that you can more full — lead a, you know, more fully live
your life and fulfil your potential. That would be a more positive
version of freedom. A negative version of freedom
would be tear down the fence. You want to jump off? your decision. Right? They’re the kind of different
— that’s really crude, but — and so we adopt this negative version
of freedom, we have non-discrimination as probably one of the biggest
principles in our society now, and efficiency becomes really the
only positive value that’s there. And so — and in this —
throughout this process, what that triumph of liberalism
has kind of meant is that all of the meaning-giving institutions
of our lives kind of slowly started to lose their purchase on our imagination. So think, for example, of the role of the
church in our public reasoning at the moment. I can’t recall a time, certainly
not in my life and probably not in my parents’ life — bad example. They came from Egypt; the church wasn’t
an institution that mattered in Egypt in quite the same way, but
you know what I’m saying. Throughout the course of this
century, really I can’t recall a time where the church has had less persuasive power. Any church. I’m not even saying like, you know, the
sandstone churches with the biggest robes and the — the, you know, the
most potent incense and all that. I mean, any church that’s lost its purchase. Family. One of the consequences of the economic
slide of our liberalism has been a real change to the way that we go about working, a real
change to the availability that we have to have in non-family things, which has an impact
on the way that family must operate, and you start to see family change. It operates in a different kind of way. Family relationships are much harder to sustain. Things are not built around the idea
of family time in the way they were. This is why we have a penalty
rates argument that goes on. And the thing that astonishes me — this is just
an aside now, but the thing that astonishes me about the penalty rates argument is
that it really is no longer sustainable to have a penalty rates argument
that’s actually about life on Sunday. You couldn’t do it. You could try, but you couldn’t really do it. So the only way to have the penalty
rates argument now is to make it about taking money away from low-income people. But Sunday’s not Sunday;
everyone kind of admits that now. Because the things, the structures of our lives
that once protected these kinds of institutions that I’m, again, crudely describing as
meaning-giving institutions, have changed. So — and you could even throw into
this the presence of the union, although it’s a slightly different
thing, but there were sort of meaning-giving structures within unions. Unions meant something more
than just negotiation. There were notions of solidarity that
were bound up in that, so on and so forth. So in this process that I’m trying to
describe, I think what’s happening is that those things that are enchanted disappear. Those things that have a meaning that — that seems somehow grander or attached to some
overarching mythology or even an ontology. These things slowly start to disappear and
they’ve become replaced with this series of ideas that are really about abstract rights. So sort of like non-discrimination,
abstract right. Things like freedom giving by
non-interference, abstract right. Things like efficiency, well, that’s
an abstract organisational principle, but really abstract rights came to replace
things that were — they got more emotional. Even things like solidarity. The very idea of solidarity is an idea that kind of sounds old now and I guess
it’s because it is. And then what flows from that
is that our lives kind of enter and our social organisations kind
of enter a transactional phase. I get these rights in a transaction from the
government who confer these rights upon me and I confer upon them the legitimacy
to govern over me because of that, and then I might take those rights and I
might seek to barter them away in a contract or arrangement because I can earn
more money by doing that over here. And then society benefits because if we allow
these kind of transactional arrangements, then we end up getting a more efficient
organisation of social and economic affairs. So how do we become transactional? We become a bit more atomized in that way. What could I get out of this? What do I have to give you to get
the thing that I want out of this? I become recast not as a member
within a solidarity group, not as a citizen within a broader polity, but
kind of as a consumer within a broader set of relationships, transactional relationships,
or as an entrepreneur who’s trying to figure out how I can never get my way through this
social world in a way that will benefit me most. By the way, I’m not — I’m not immune from this. I’m not trying to make a claim about
the decisions that we make as people. I’m talking about sort of the
prevailing social and political systems that operate as we make these decisions. And so this kind of transactional
phase that we’ve entered into, I think, over time has led us to a situation where it
becomes difficult for us actually to think through concepts like solidarity because we’ve
kind of forgotten how to cultivate solidarity and empathy and these sorts
of ideas between people. That sort of takes practice and we’re
falling out of practice with that, and falling out of practice for good reason because it’s not really helping
us, not in our day-to-day lives. So, yeah, I was about to go on a tangent about
[inaudible] feminism, and stuff like that, but I — I’ll leave that
for Q and A or something. If not here, then maybe the show. So what I’m describing, though,
or at least what I’m trying to describe, is a relatively new thing. As I said, 30-40 years. And it’s always been a bit tenuous. I think on some level we kind of all understand
that what I’m describing in a particularly kind of glum way is not something that
anyone would put their hand up and say, yes, this is what I want. And so we kind of through this process
always had outbreaks of what I’m describing as more enchanted political ideas and usually
they take the form of nationalist posing, so, you know, values tests and things like that, the recent citizenship test
and that sort of values talk. This is not new. Do you guys remember when the Howard
government tried to do a similar thing? Hands up if you remember that. Yeah, okay, pretty much everybody. One of the things I loved about
when the Howard government did it — and you have that whole stuff about
Bradman’s average and all this. Remember? One of the things I loved, which I
don’t think was actually one of the questions. It just caught on, I think, because there
was a headline in the Herald Sun about it or something, but one of the things I loved about that period was the way
in which it was announced. So the Howard government found a way to
announce the citizenship test like five times. First, well, here is the committee
that’s going to look at it, and then this is the committee’s
decision on what it is. And then third announcement,
we’re going to do it. And then fourth announcement, it’s in
the budget and out of the whole budget of whatever year it was, there was a
separate press release saying $120 million or whatever it was set aside
for the new citizenship test — like it just kept getting press released. It was just the one initiative, but it was
announced over and over and over again. And what these are, these are kind of
symbolic nationalist interventions kind of sprinkled throughout our politics at the same
time as something like Work Choices is going on. Right? So we get these sprinklings
of these things. It’s a similar story in the United States
with the way that Republican politics evolved. But if you think about something
like a citizenship test, it’s a fascinating idea actually. What is that appealing to? What is that — what is it
that makes us hear that? maybe not you, but makes a lot of
people hear that and it hits them in the gut and it feels satisfying? Well, part of it is a kind of “we’ll
make sure we get the good people, not the bad people” kind of impulse. But part of it is it’s an
articulation of a glue. It’s an expression of — like it’s a
mechanism for the reinvention or rediscovery of this solidarity that is kind of not
there in the way that it used to be. And so it feels good. There’s something emotional about it. It’s enchanted. It’s got meaning. Even if it doesn’t. Because one of the other changes that
came along with the citizenship change was that when you added up all the
different mechanisms of citizenship, it actually made it a shorter
waiting time and it easier to get, but that wasn’t the press release. The press release was the citizenship
change over and over and over again. The test. The mechanism for solidarity. So it’s always been tenuous and you’ve
had these kind of breakouts with people — these breakouts are sort of these tokens of
meaning-seeking mechanisms that we’ve had in our lives that we can kind of latch onto. But generally speaking, this — this new
form of social and political reasoning that had been scrubbed clean of
whatever it was that was enchanted about our lives has kind of prevailed. But the thing about that, even
though it’s always been tenuous, I think it becomes especially fragile when you
enter a period where the economic side of it, the economic story, no longer
holds the way that it used to. It was an easier thing to get on board
with and feel sated by as long as you felt that you were winning an
economic battle in some way. But we’re now, in Australia
less than other places, entering a phase where that
economic battle is not being won. The [inaudible] is of course
the classic example. We are in Australia now beginning to have a
conversation about wage stagnation, for example. We’re having conversations
about wages not having risen in Australia on average in about six years. I imagine you have conversations that
are even more pointed about it in a state like this, which is a boom-bust state. In the United States, they’re
having conversations about wages not having gone
anywhere for 30 years. That’s a totally different
order of conversation. What’s interesting about that
is not that that bothers people. That you would expect. But that becomes a bit of an existential crisis
when you’ve created a social and political order that is about really little more than that. Where do you go where that
bit of it isn’t working? And when that happens, and you’ve got
this whole other aspect of social life where that has been really about the
field where meaning is given to people, so not the material circumstances necessarily
but the meaning that they can attribute to those circumstances, the kind of airy-fairy
conversations that we don’t do in politics. Once that had been hollowed out and the economic
side of the story wasn’t working anymore, then what happens is just a massive vacuum. Because people, being human beings who
like having stories to tell themselves about who they are and why they
are, will find someone to tell it. I think what we’ve seen in the past couple
of years that has stopped so many people in their tracks has just been the story
of watching people tell people a story. Give them a story about themselves
that they can latch onto. Take that field of meaning giving
that has been slowly eroded or perhaps even vacated and fill it. That’s what I really think is going on here. There are lots of other analyses that you can
come up with, and indeed that I have written and spoken before that can fill the
breach, but this is the element of it that I think is too ignored,
that goes unremarked too often. And the people who can fill
this vacuum are going to be populists, and they’re really good at it. And you know why they’re really good at it? because if you think about what they’re
offering, whether it be through the rhetoric of stronger borders, illegal immigration,
cracking down on crime, which — the code for which is usually crime inflicted
by minorities and so on and so forth. Whatever the language of it is, they
are providing something that is instant, it’s an instant narrative, it appears historic,
it is therefore rooted, it is anchored, it connects you to people around
you like that, and it connects you with people in history instantly. That’s powerful. And that’s the strongest
form of enchantment there is. The story that is being told to you
at that point is not just about you. It’s about you in relation to the cosmos. It’s about you in relation to history. It’s about you in relation to a large
group of people that are around you. It’s about solidarity, and there are
different ways of building solidarity, and some of those ways are more
positive and constructive than others. But in the absence of too many alternatives,
there’s only going to be one winner. And I can’t help — this probably hit
me most strongly last year when I was in the United States for the election and I
was standing there at a Trump rally surrounded by all the Trump supporters and they’re chanting
“lock her up” and all that sort of stuff. And these were lovely people, by the way. It was astonishing to watch. Some of the nicest people I’ve ever met. And then suddenly, “lock her up.” It was amazing. Amazing transformation. But it was at that point, the feeling that you
get at a place like that, even though it’s fair to say I wasn’t broadly sympathetic with their
worldview and they weren’t sympathetic with — I was going to say my existence,
but perhaps that’s not fair. That’s not fair because they
were actually quite lovely to me. I think the fact that I was
Australian really helped. Make of that whatever you will, but
what I got was that this was charged. This was a way of quite thick,
profound connexion with people. It felt great. Even I enjoyed it. I’m interviewing this woman and I’m saying,
“What makes you like Donald Trump so much?” And she’s like, “I think we need
to kick all the Muslims out.” And I said, “Thank you very much.” It’s amazing. And somehow even I enjoyed it. Because there was something on offer there. There was a — there was a thick form of
solidarity that was being built there. Suddenly, the individual within
that crowd was so much more than the consumer who now couldn’t buy anything. And they were so much more than
the entrepreneur who now was not in a position to create anything. And they were so much more than
a vessel for abstract rights, which they could only understand if
they went to a university like this. And given that they were white
working-class men a lot of them, the abstract rights discourse was not something
that had touched them particularly personally. It’s not like they’d seen an emancipation
in their lives or anything like that. So they were suddenly part of something that
gave them instant meaning, historic meaning, contemporary social meaning, thick meaning. And I think we can’t underestimate
the power of that. But more than that, we can’t
underestimate the human need for that. But the thing about a lot of
these populist narratives, and this has been true throughout history,
is that they are modern concoctions. They are — they are not things that are —
they’re not like soberly worked out analyses by scholars and historians
that have just grown over time and eventually reached a
critical mass of support. That’s not what they are. They are political creations that are usually
quite recent in the way that they’re created, but they talk an ancient language. But because they are from instant
solidarity, one of the quickest ways to do that is via scapegoating and
via exclusion and via pointing out enemy minorities and all that sort of stuff. That’s just a shortcut. That’s not the only way you can create
solidarity, but that’s just a shortcut. And in a field that’s been vacated for
so long, if you want to do that quickly, that’s a really, really good way of doing it. Alright, good’s probably not the right word. That’s a really, really efficient
way of doing it. And human rights as an idea is
going to lose in this contest. That’s why no one cares. Because over the course of time and as we’ve
forgotten a lot of the reason that human rights in the form that we have it
now is kind of drugged up, they have become more abstract ideas. They are abstract rights,
like non-discrimination. Then they hit you in the gut. When I talk about international
covenant on civil and political rights, you’re unlikely to feel inspired
to storm a barricade. You’re more likely to fall asleep by
the time I get to the end of the title. And lawyers, of course, being in charge of this,
is the worst because they love titles like that. I know because I was one. So human rights is going to lose in that contest because it’s an abstract —
it’s about abstract rights. It’s part of a package of sort of
globalised, sort of anti-localised ideas that are not connected with the
meaning-giving institutions of our lives. That’s why I think it’s so easy for
Tony Abbott to say it would be great for the U.N. To stop lecturing us. That’s what Australians want. Think about that statement. It’s so potent and it’s so brilliant. The U.N. should stop lecturing us. This sort of globalised group of people who are
not of us, who talk about these abstract ideas that are not our ideas, they
should butt out so we can get on with our sovereignty, so
that we can get on with us. Tell me there’s not a tiny little bit
of you that finds that attractive. You might [inaudible], but
there’s — it’s there. That’s why it works. Because it’s enchanted. Because there’s something in it. And that’s why I think the whole idea of human
rights and all the institutions that talk about human rights are so easily just packaged up with this global elite idea
that can then be disparaged. So that’s why no one needs to listen, because you just become re-categorised
in this way and that’s that. So I guess what I’m saying is none of this is to
say human rights is just an irrelevant concept. I think what I’m trying to say is that
human rights recovers its political ground by discovering a way to become
enchanted, and I think that becomes — I think the only way to that is the rediscovery
and the cultivation of the very notion of solidarity, of the notion of what it is
about the human being that’s significant, and what it is that’s meant to
connect me with somebody else such that their human rights are
somehow a reflection of mine. That’s easy to say, by the
way; much harder to do. But as long as human rights
remains a kind of abstract notion, a set of ideas that lawyers bang on about,
it’s not that they will be irrelevant. It’s not that courts will
suddenly refuse to hear them. It’s not any of that. And it’s not that it will not create
stimulating conversations and analyses and perhaps even quite powerful
analyses in universities around the world or whatever it might be. Even in media. But it’s going to be hard to move lots
of people at an emotional level when it’s up against something else that’s so potent. That’s the challenge before us. So as a guest of a centre that deals with
human rights, I would say to the people who run that centre, “Good luck.” And thank you very much for having me. [ Applause ] [ Music ]

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