The Violence of Forgiveness
‘I’m talking about assuming the best in people … showing others radical generosity in the face of their hostility even when it hurts. This is the harder choice because it demands much more restraint and patience, and so much more strength.’ So advised Waleed Aly Tuesday night on popular television program, The Project. His comments came as a response to yet another barrage of anti-Islam voices in the media, primarily Sonia Kruger, who called for Australia to ban Muslim migrants from entering the country to reduce the risk of terrorist attacks.
Pauline Hanson also appeared on Q&A Monday night, espousing her age-old argument that Islam is a political ideology incompatible with a modern secular society, and which ultimately seeks to control people.
This followed columnist Andrew Bolt’s wildly provocative article, asking ‘who could blame’ vigilantes who took up arms against Muslims in defence against a rising (and surely inevitable) homegrown Islamist threat.
In the midst of this violent rhetoric, Aly yet again pushed for the ‘peace and love’ route, urging people to sideline their anger against figures like Kruger, and instead ‘try to understand their fear, and then empathise with how they came to their conclusion’.
This begat the #SendForgivenessViral campaign, a movement intended to encourage people to forgive and empathise rather than get angry.
Yet, beyond the well-intentioned hashtag lies a harmful form of symbolic politics common to liberal activism, including Aly’s.
In calling on the outraged to employ laudable virtues such as empathy, patience, and understanding towards those seeking to harm them, Aly performs an act typical of mainstream liberalism. That is, to obscure systemic injustices and destructive political realities in preference of a terse symbolism that fails to address those material realities. In this case, an orchestrated appeal to an abstract forgiveness that does nothing to alleviate the suffering already felt by those on the receiving end of Australia’s many violent practices. It is no small irony that on the same day of Aly’s impassioned speech for forgiveness, yet another woman was found dead in police custody.
What Aly and many like him fail to recognise is that this racist rhetoric and genuine fear is produced by the same systemic forces that they ignore when offering such problematic solutions. Aly says that ‘while it feels good to choose destruction, right now I think we need to try construction’. Yet discussing destruction and construction as a matter of ‘choice’ assumes an empty, even playing field, and obscures the fact that there is already a construction: a system constructed on the bodies of undesirables, and which constructs, in turn, the racist ignorance, anger and fear that Aly calls us to sympathise with.
In this politics, racism is reduced to a deficit in communal love and respect, rather than a product of racialised politics, aggressive foreign policy, or the wider oppression of minority groups. Racism becomes a bad attitude, rather than a bad system producing bad attitudes. Aly’s liberal worldview has him placing individuals at the centre of society and its systems rather than the other way round. Therefore, problems are solved not by addressing the institutions and systems that generate them, but rather by rehabilitating the injured individual, who is tasked with adjusting their mindset in order to address violent realities.
This explains how many Muslim and non-Muslim figures alike have chosen to extend a dinner invitation to radical figures such as Pauline Hanson as a means of addressing Islamophobia. Islamophobia, presented merely as a lack of dialogue and engagement, is stripped of its virulent history: enacting the harshest anti-terror laws in the world becomes a sideshow to the real problem of not sharing tea with a racist politician. It is precisely this symbolic politics that, in a twisted logic, has for years demanded the ‘good Muslim’ subject condemn Muslim violence as a way of ending violence against Muslims.
Heartwarming as it may be, in a climate of systemic violence, Aly’s struggle of abstracts and ideals is precisely what facilitates the internment camps he fears. Indeed, his insistence on symbols provides the soothing balm that covers for the violence we already enact. It’s how Australia can claim to be multicultural while enacting a border policy that inspires neo-Nazis, and post-racial while incarcerating the highest number of Indigenous people on earth.
And so, in his emotional appeal to the Gravitron that we’re apparently all on as individuals, Aly glaringly misses the main lesson of the analogy: who exactly is spinning the Gravitron? Who, or what, is it that’s spinning us into oblivion?
Aly would have us believe that it is our individual attitudes – our destructive anger and hatred – that make things go round. If we have learned nothing else from the atrocities of the past (and clearly we haven’t), we should at least have learned of the banality of the process of evil, and how those who carry out violent pogroms can be driven by a genuine fear such as Kruger’s. But that does not make the deaths inflicted by their hands any less deadly. More instructive would have been to unpack what produces these fears, and how such fear has festered and spawned the growth of the likes of Hanson, Kruger and others alike, and generally pushed left-leaning political parties strongly to the right.
What is really forgiven in Aly’s gesture, then, is a global system of inequality, of racialised, gendered social relations that enrich some at the direct expense of others.
If we want to speak of a banal evil, we should look no further than the misplaced hashtag.
Co-Authored with Claudia Maryam Sirdah. First published in Overland Journal, 21 July 2016.