Susan Carland: Hello, I'm Susan Carland, and welcome to What Happens Next, where we take a closer look at some of the more confounding issues facing the world. Experts already fear the growing threat of violence posed by far right radicals in Australia and the online sites they use to organise and recruit. Australia's intelligence agencies are warning that right wing terrorism will remain an enduring threat and groups are growing more organised and cohesive.
In March last year, the Christchurch massacre shook New Zealand and the world, while the Australian federal election had far right groups presenting themselves as legitimate entities with the aim of entering our political system.
In this three part series, we explore the impact and influence right wing extremism could have on our world if left unchecked, who is taking action to address it and what impact that's having. And finally, the steps individuals like you and me can take when confronted with extremist language and action in our own lives.
Today we're joined by historian and social researcher Andrew Marcus. Professor Markus warns that the capacity for these groups to destroy lives is growing and will continue to do so if it's left unchecked. Is it actually getting worse, or do we just think it is? So you would say quantifiably right wing extremism or hate speech is on the increase.
Andrew Markus: It's the capacity for these people to do great harm to destroy lives. So that's what we're doing. It's not something that we can quantify. It's not like we've got 100
whereas previously we had five. If we have five, where people's lives are being destroyed,
that, to me is enough to say something needs to be done here
Susan: When you say lives destroyed, do you mean physically, as in, this could result in death or as in the psychological impact of hate speech on people is incredibly destructive?
Andrew: Both. Increasingly we have incidents of mass shootings. It's not like thousands of people that at any particular time, but there's, these are like, defining incidents. What happened in New Zealand, in Christchurch, that is a defining incident which will come to characterise the impact that these groups have. It's not going to go away, like, people will remember that for the course of their lives. And not just talking, obviously, about the people who are directly impacted, who lost their relatives, who lost their lives. But I'm saying New Zealand society had a major impact.
Susan: And Australia. The ripples seemed to even come … all of Australia seemed to be quite devastated.
Andrew: Yes, because the issue is that this could happen tomorrow. This could happen to you. This could happen to your family. But at another level it's the, as you said, the psychological impact on individuals. You know, people who don't have anything better to do. They troll
their political opponents as they see them, and it's sort of a daily ongoing vilification,
and these people engage in this activity, think that they're doing something fine and noble.
So if someone has to actually stand up and say What? Wait a minute. There has to be some limits and we're imposing limits.
Susan: Online platforms and social media have delivered unprecedented access to information and made it much easier to be exposed to extremist ideology. This has increased the ability of these groups to recruit new members and to organise.
Andrew: If we go back to, say, the 1960s, and we look at some of these extremist groups, they were struggling for air time. They were struggling to get their messages across. I remember, like, at University teaching extremist ideologies to students. And we might want to get an example of an extremist ideology like, for example, Mein Kampf, or other works.
And it might actually be quite hard to actually locate these. Look at the situation today, and you can go to 100 sites and find all of these extremists works. That's a fundamental change in society. We actually have to recognise it, and we have to understand that what's happened has been unregulated development of something which causes great social harm.
Susan: Professor Markus says Australians strong belief in protecting free speech has contributed to an unwillingness to perceive hate speech online as a clear cause of social harm in the way that we would see, maybe, issues of worker exploitation. For example, he says. We need to see a shift in society's perception of these issues to mobilise the community and demand better protection against hate speech and extremism.
Why do you think we've been so reluctant to have some sort of formal regulation in the Internet when we have it in all other aspects of our lives and we generally see the social value of that?
Andrew: At one level it's developed in a sort of organic way so that people haven't really taken full cognisance of it, they do now. But it probably took a while for people to understand, just as the people who use the Internet to vilify and to attack and to mobilise for various causes, it took them a while to understand the potential of what they were doing. There's also the aspect of free speech, that people greatly prize free speech, and it has possibly made some of the people who would have been up in arms and saying, ‘we've got to do something about that’ it made them a bit reticent to do anything because they felt wait a minute. If we rein in that group's freedom of speech, we are also denying our own freedom of speech. So it's obviously a very complex matter.But the complexity of its shouldn't prevent us from having like a more serious and fundamental debate about that issue and to get away from this notion that somehow it's really up to the service provider to rein that in. It should be the role of regulatory authorities to impose limits.
Patrick Emerton: I’m Patrick Emerton, I’m an associate professor in the Faculty of Law at Monash University and associate of the Castan Centre for Human Rights Law. I research.
in political theory and constitutional theory and also in national security law.
Susan Carland: Our next guest, Professor Patrick Emerton, isn't convinced that we actually need more freedom of speech in Australia. The controversial Section 18C offers important protections for Australians, and it should remain, he says. But legislation that would impact people's ability to connect and get involved is concerning no matter what their political perspective.
Patrick: Australia at the moment has a lot of, a lot of regulation of what people can say and do, and obviously Australia's nothing like Soviet Russia.
Susan: Do you think we're over-regulated when it comes to free speech?
Patrick: I wouldn’t necessarily want to go that way. That way of talking about it very quickly buys into a certain narrative that I would associate in the Australian context with the Institute of Public Affairs and then you get into we should repeal 18C. I've got no objection to 18C, that’s not what’s sort of, burdening people, it’s more attempts to shut down political collective action, people getting involved collectively, trying to say and communicate things together.
Whether that may be Reclaim Australia, who, I mean, when they're having a rally they're not out
there attacking, violently attacking people, threatening property. They're there in the public square doing their thing, and we don't have to like them for it, I mean, we can revile them for it.
[Sound interlude - protest]
Susan: It’s only recently that law enforcement agencies have been viewing right wing extremism as the same type of threat as, say, Islamist extremism. Suddenly, these groups of finding themselves captured by laws they previously applauded.
Patrick: So for a long time, ASIO, in its annual reports, used to have two headings, they had a heading called Terrorism and under that you had Al Qaeda, Islam, Salafists, Jemaah Islamiah
blah, blah, blah. And then they had a different heading - Nationalists or Nativists. And under that you had you Reclaim Australia types. And as far as I know, I was the first academic voice in Australia to ask the question, why?
Susan: As in, why two separate categories?
Patrick: Yeah. Given that when you looked at the construction, the interpretation and a potential application of Australian counterterrorism law there were clear instances of white Australian, white supremacist violence that would count - I’m thinking, particularly of there, firebombings of restaurants, I think, especially Chinese restaurants in Perth in, I want to say, the early 90s. Now there's been a shift in thinking about who counts as a terrorist, and there are currently terrorist laws being used against white nationalists. Now put ourselves in the shoes of the white Nationalists. When the terrorism laws were introduced and they were all about getting the Al Qaedas, I'm going to guess at least some of those white nationals thought that was a good thing. But now they turn around and see Oops,
we're caught under that. To write a law and have it be a credible thing to be enacted, there are kind of certain formal standards of adequacy that it has to meet. Its nearly always gotta have elements of generality. So the law won't say it's a criminal offence to utter white supremacist speech. It'll define the speech in some more neutral way. So speech generating certain fears of attack, speech creating a certain sense of ostracism or off social dislike, whatever it might be. And then, well, there are people who feel that when the AntiFa say things, just as, right, it turns out that the same abstract formal categories that capture the Al Qaedas - so for them in terrorism law, it's threats of violence against people or property that have a political motivation and intimidatory intent - turns out some of the white nationalists do that, too.
Susan: Patrick also agrees with Professor Markus about the importance of effective opposing voices when it comes to extremist views.
Patrick: Quite a few years ago, now I'm picking my daughter up from her ballet class, and between picking her up and having to get a birthday party, I knew there was an anti Reclaim Australia rally happening Parliament House and thought she is old enough to come down. So took her down.
Susan: And how old was she?
Patrick: Seven maybe?
Susan: Daughter’s first Right Wing Extremist rally observations!
Patrick: So I take it down and she says, like, who are the different people. And it's like, well,
those ones in hoods are probably our scary friends and those ones there with the signs, they're not our friends, and when I mean not our friends, they think that … well, we’ve got family members who are People of Colour and they don’t think they should be here in Australia. That's why we're here to protest against them.
So now, say it’s speech, and it’s by the Reclaim Australia people or their sort of hangers on and so on, and that has, in a sense, implications from me and my family - I don't think it's criminal. I mean they’re not … I don't think it's got quite the interpersonal aspect, perhaps, that's going to trigger 18 C. I think it's like kind of ‘piss off’ type posters, so it's not stuff that I like. They're part of a counter protest, But I mean, I don't think that's criminal, and I'm not myself sure that it needs to be. I mean, I think I'd rather go there with my slightly scary friends in black hoods
and make a different public statement.
Susan: Let's hear from Andrew Markus.
Andrew: But if you want to be effective, yeah? And you want to actually have the voices to counter these right wing extremists claims that they're making. If people can see tangible demonstration of articulate spokespersons for these communities, I think that that can actually make a significant difference.
Susan: Right. So you're you think that those sort of articulate spokespeople could be one of the best weapons against extremism?
Andrew: Yes, because again, how does the media work? The media works with personalities. The media doesn't work with masses, yeah? So you have to have people who are going to develop that profile and become the go-to men and women for the media to go to, to get responses. But it’s very difficult, because how is one person supposed to speak say, for the African community, when the African community is diverse?
Susan: Right? It’s a continent!
Andrew: It’s a continent. But people don't understand that.
Susan: No, that's right
Andrew: They think Africa
Susan: Right, Kenyan, Somalis, they all think the same thing is the mentality.
Andrew: And if we want to make a difference, is within that sort of mainstream segment of the population that can go this way or that way, we want to influence them, we have to do it in a way that they can understand and it can't be overly complex. It has to be about like star ratings and has to be about people who can cut through, people who can get up with some of these right wing commentators, who I won't dignify with a name, who are all over our media print and electronic. Who can actually go pound for pound with these people. Very, very difficult to find people like that. And, in a way, if communities want to make a difference, and I think we all do want to make a difference, then I think has to be seriously considered. But I recognise how difficult that is because to have one person as spokesperson, it's like the Australian community taking one person who's going to be spokesperson for the Australian community.
Susan: It's like saying Scott Morrison is the spokesperson for everyone in Australia
Susan: So let me ask you one last question, then, on dealing with right wing extremism,
what about just not giving them oxygen? I think about them, you know, the right wing commentators that you speak about who churn out many opinion pieces and do these people just need to be starved of oxygen? By engaging with them. We're actually giving them the oxygen they need to keep flaming and maybe the best thing to do is just keep doing our work and they'll eventually become irrelevant. What do you think about that?
Andrew: I'm not sure about starving them is the correct sort of way to think about it. It's effectively rebutting them. You know, I'd recently, a week ago, I saw a documentary that dealt with McCarthy, Senator McCarthy, The period of McCarthyism, the attacks that were made on people who at one point in their lives, might have been members of the Communist Party with the republic, servants, diplomats, whether that whatever. What brought that to an end? And what that brought that to an end was, there was a televised hearing when he started attacking the U. S. Army and one of the leaders of the Army, he got up and he effectively rebutted him, you know, he challenged him. Said ‘do you realise the harm that you're doing’ and in that sort of context, when there was an effective spokesperson, that made a tremendous difference and basically discredited McCarthy thereafter. In a way, that's what we have in America today.
American society is so divided. The Democratic Party, as we speak, doesn't seem to be able to come up with an effective candidate. We've seen a number of countries that are having elections, and they actually haven't come up with majorities. So this is the problem, the problem of leadership, the problem of having confidence in a person to articulate a viewpoint. It may not be totally your viewpoint, but if it's powerfully articulated and targeted, then there's the potential to make a difference.
Susan: Do we still live in a society in which that can actually be achieved? I think of the way the media works now, and you could have a person stand up and give a very compelling rebuttal to whoever in Australia. By the time they're finished, you know, there's been 58 think pieces written in response to them. A million tweets have been written about it. This is fake news. There's Facebook groups popping up about this and that. It seems like because of the way the media works, a 24 hour and online news cycle works, you cannot just have a single rebuttal anymore. Everything's fragmented, you know? You just look at the way people respond to Q and A now it's no longer a debate, it’s just an argument./ So I wonder how effective is is that model in today's society?
Andrew: That's a very sort of pessimistic viewpoint way.
Susan: [Laugh] Yes.
Andrew: and if we adopt viewpoint …
Susan: Nothing will change.
Andrew: We’re sort of, up the river. And there's no way that we’re actually going to get back into the mainstream.
Susan: All right, please, get us in the boat Andrew, tell us how to get back there!
Andrew: So if you would accept that view, that basically the game has changed, the media has changed, people's capacity to be heard, and to be listened to has fundamentally changed.
If that has happened, we're in pretty dire straits.
Susan: Aren’t we?
Andrew: Like, those of us with children or grandchildren, we have to be worried, because it’s not necessarily going to be impacting on me, right, given my age, so much as with the younger generation. And it's a very powerful argument to say that in fact, the game has changed and what we were talking about, no longer going to work. And then I say, well, if that's the case, you've got two options give up, go home, enjoy yourself …
Susan: Watch everything burn
Andrew: Make the most of it while Australia burns, and the rest of the world, and climate change destroys our planet. Or you can say, Well, I don't want to accept that. And it may well be that I actually have to rethink some of these issues. I might have to actually give up some of my freedoms. I may have to actually abandon this notion that everybody's got the right to say whatever they want on the Internet because we can see where that's taking us, and it's a place where we don't want to be. So the people who are activists across the spectrum, they have to rethink that issue and say, really ask themselves in this changing environment, how can we actually be effective, because I think that what is effective speaking for the mainstream is someone with the capacity to articulate viewpoints and then people accepting that I don't 100% agree with that. But it's better to accept that and to have powerful spokespersons thing to knock everyone off at the knees.
Susan: Well, on that cheerful note, I am going to choose your happier of the two options. Thank you very much Professor Andrew Markus. From that discussion, it seems like being quiet Australians won't deliver the change we need. On the next episode will discover more about what drives extremism and what else could be done to change it. Thanks for listening. I'll see you on the next episode of What happens next?
The internet’s a great place to meet like-minded people… even for far-right extremists.
Today’s political climate has emboldened this growing group in Australia and beyond. How will society look if this growing threat goes unchecked?
Social researcher Professor Andrew Markus and legal expert in human rights and anti-terrorism Associate Professor Patrick Emerton reflect on the implications for society if right wing extremism is allowed to grow unchecked.
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