The Politics    Friday, October 9, 2015

Words, words, words

By Michael Lucy

Words, words, words
Malcolm Turnbull told us a lot about his vision for Australian society today

A week ago a 15-year-old boy named Farhad Jabar shot and killed a police employee, Curtis Cheng, outside Parramatta police station in Sydney. Jabar was subsequently shot dead by police, and in the week since several people have been arrested in an attempt to find out how Jabar was “radicalised”. His motivations are unclear, though Islamist extremism appears to be part of it.

This afternoon, Malcolm Turnbull gave an interesting speech to the media about “this phenomenon of violent extremism, of terrorism, politically motivated violence”. It was a measured call for calm and national unity against extremism. What he really wanted to talk about was language and his vision of Australia, “the most successful and most harmonious multicultural society in the world”.

He said at the outset that the entire speech was “carefully calculated to support the work of our security agencies”, before moving on to the importance of “mutual respect”, which is “the glue that binds this very diverse country together”. (Turnbull also believes that a lack of respect is at the root of men’s violence against women.)

There was another particularly illuminating passage:

Not all extremist talk, intolerant, hateful speech, not all of it leads to violence. But let me tell you: that’s where all violence begins. And we have to call it out. We have to call out the language, the examples of disrespect, the language of hatred wherever it is practised. It is critical for our success that we see here and now that as Australians, we respect each other. And we expect to be respected by others.

It is perhaps no surprise that Turnbull, as a former barrister, has an appreciation of the instrumental value of language, but this is quite something: he’s saying that all violence comes from acts of speech. It might be he means that the ideas behind the speech are the key, but it sounds like the speech itself is the root cause, to Turnbull’s mind (not that the two can be so cleanly separated). If the key issue is respect, then for the PM respect is first shown through the careful use of language. (How this will play out in Turnbull’s attitude to censorship, hate speech and so forth remains to be seen.)

A lot of Turnbull’s solution seems to come through speech, as well: he said he had spoken (and listened) to many Muslim community leaders, has planned for next week a meeting of various agency heads in Canberra to “discuss at an officials level what more should do and what we need to do better”. All this is quite the change from Tony Abbott: despite his facta non verba manner, he too knew the importance of language – he just preferred to use it to project a tough-guy image, to offer veiled threats, and to foster division.

One journalist noted the change, asking “Is there any suggestion by you that your predecessor was doing anything to worsen the problem?” Turnbull was “frankly disappointed that on a matter of such importance you try to create mischief like that”.

Still, the comparisons will linger for some time to come. Whether Turnbull’s version of a civil society built around, well, civility can come to pass remains to be seen; we’re also yet to see what means will be used to enforce it, and what views and language will fall on the wrong side of the line.

There were a few more of Turnbull’s recent catchphrases thrown in for the fans: we were told that “those seeking to preserve social harmony have to be very agile”, “this is the most exciting time to be Australian”, and that “Australia, my friends, has the greatest future ahead of it” …

Anyway, as Turnbull said to another journalist, who queried his use of political rather than religious extremism, “Thank you for the interesting discussion about semantics.”


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Michael Lucy

Michael Lucy is a writer based in Melbourne.


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