June 30, 2015

Denial is not a River in Egypt

The woman who I once thought was the love of my life stopped talking to me because I said that Australia was founded on a lie. Sometimes I think about whether I should have said nothing. But when it comes down to it I would do it again.

This is a scary article to write in a bunch of ways. I have faced so much heat over the years for being a progressive or being myself, in the form of being called un-Australian’, or much worse, that I fear the repercussions of even some of my close friends telling me that my views are abominable.

This article is not primarily about Australia. However, I opened this article with a controversial statement. The lie that I principally referred to was the lie of terra nullius’, the lie that Australia was uninhabited by civilisation’ or humans prior to European settlement, a lie that was used in many other countries colonised by Britain. The other lies I referred to were the lies inherent in a punitive class system and legal system in Britain that allowed poor people to be exiled for minor crimes, and the lies sold to settlers promised a green and bountiful land free from hardship. That these lies and misdeeds happened, and that they were intentionally deceitful is not in any way a historical controversy. Those things did in fact happen. Sri Lanka, the country of my ancestors, was founded on similar lies. The Sinhala people were not indigenous to Sri Lanka, but displaced the Veddas, a people closely related to Aboriginal Australians, and until recently the evidence that these people were anything other than hunter-gatherers and in fact had complex civilisation, buildings and a society was denied.

I have been confronted many times by other people with the question of why I do not keep my damn mouth shut. That day I certainly was. And at other times about why I distress myself or make myself angry by confronting unpleasant issues. So, this is a story that is only indirectly about Australia, or Sri Lanka; it is actually a story about no longer sticking my head in the sand. A story about the times I tried to pretend nothing was wrong in situations around me. About not sticking up for people who were being hurt. About not following my own principles. And about deciding to change, and doing things for my own sanity.

Most people know me as a rather outspoken person. Being outspoken is in my nature. It is to some extent part and parcel of me being a smart-arse. Someone who has great confidence in a lot of my opinions. So perhaps it will surprise a few people that I have self-censored not just my opinions but my very nature and being aware of my principles for years at a time.

One of the most shameful things I think have been the times that I ignored racism towards other people. Though I have been no stranger to some disgusting, hateful racism, having English as my first language and speaking it with a western accent shield me from a surprisingly large amount. For example, when we were in New Zealand it was at a time of economic recession and xenophobia and I recall not challenging others about their perceptions of Asians’ as insular and unfriendly. I do not think being a teenager at the time is in any way a good excuse. I knew it was wrong. I just pretended it did not matter. Eventually I made the effort to make friends with the unfriendly Asians who talk in Chinese all the time’, but I still regret my weakness.

As an adult, the two periods of time that stand out to me the most because of just how extensive my denial of issues were are the following:

I got my Australian citizenship during the John Howard years. It was an ugly time period that is only surpassed in regressiveness by what is happening now. Many people may not remember or know this but it was a time where we were scared to have a different sexual orientation. We did not know what was going to happen. The passing of anti-terror’ legislation (which is still being abused) meant that people could be detained at any time without charge, including under nebulous charges for exercising freedom of speech. The political behaviour towards racial minorities, in particular Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, refugees, Muslims and those ethnically from the Middle East was openly offensive. It was an oppressive, frightening environment.

I was a university student at the time. The political reality I mentioned earlier bothered me intensely. In addition, being harassed on the streets by strangers for either being Indian’ or for being female’ was not uncommon. This, despite living in inner-city Melbourne, surrounded by what seemed mostly to be progressive, diverse young people.

So how could I have possibly started to ignore such a reality? Well, simply, I think I got exhausted, sick of arguing and being told my views were objectionable, and I felt the need to identify with my new citizenship. I had a lot on my plate- family problems, some toxic friends and relationships, university, other emotional things, my sexual orientation- and it seemed like I had to prioritise that much lower. And people also kept telling me that I was taking things too seriously.

For a couple of years I shut things off and tried to stop caring.

It was like a part of me was dead.

What a lot of people do not realise, and what I was trying to communicate very poorly to my ex, was that once you accept one lie as truth’ (such as I did by denying as the existence of horribleness), the cognitive dissonance leads to you accepting a bunch of other lies. Because you have to change your world view to accommodate the lie.

At the time it meant that I believed in a naive, bastardised version of moral relativism common to some university students in which all moral frameworks were equally valid, or should be equally respected’. So I should respect’, and not argue too much with, for example, the view of the fundamentalist Christian guy who decided to tell me that my lifestyle’ was a sin after I saw my first (brief) girlfriend for the last time for a whole month. I should respect’ the views of people who had superficially well-reasoned arguments’ for bigotry, or extreme political views.

Similarly, if you are someone who still bizarrely believes in terra nullius’, you have to find a justification for why. Perhaps you believe that the indigenous people of your country are not really human (yes, I have heard this view), or that their culture is and was uncivilised’. Once you swallow that lie, it becomes easier to justify the poor condition they are in, often by believing that they are the way they are because they were born to be different’ and that they chose’ a different (and unhealthy) lifestyle. Once you believe that one race is intrinsically different, there is the idea that a kind’ of person is born different. Other social classes, races, genders, sexual orientations, followers of a religion are intrinsically different’ because of an accident of birth or an ingrained’ culture. It is no coincidence that multiple kinds of bigotry often combine in one person.

People contort their views and feelings in many ways to make sense of the world when things do not quite make sense. My way was one, believing in intrinsic difference’ is another, internalising and developing self-hatred is yet another.

It feels horrible. Cognitive dissonance takes a lot of effort. It is subconscious mental effort that is expended on selectively ignoring and justifying and arguing with oneself. Mental effort forcing yourself to say nothing. It is far more exhausting and awful, at least to me, than accepting the truth that there is evil out there in the world.

Eventually I snapped out of my daze. It happened in a series of steps, I suppose. Moral relativism got the flick because, honestly, I could not take being insulted by rude people to my face any more and I could not justify why I should have to put up with it and be harmed while they went on their merry way. I made new friends who were more passionate about openly discussing the problems with society from time to time, which made a huge change. One controversial and very personal choice was, some time after the 2004 election to identify as an Australian citizen but not as Australian’ in a cultural sense. It was a change that gave me tremendous immediate relief. I fully support everyone who identifies as both Australian and progressive and passionate about political change; it is of utmost importance that there are Australians who change the meaning of what Australian’ is. This is just a personal decision I made for my own sanity. I saw the effects of sexism in how some people just accepted, denied and justified domestic abuse that happened to several of my friends, both female and male- and saw just how damaging that denial was.

I could not stand denial any more and reality gave me a rude shock.

So I started speaking my mind again. I started doing more to help strangers too, then. I gave food and money to the homeless. I reported to the police when people were being assaulted or harassed in public, or when my neighbours had what sounded like an episode of domestic violence. I went out of my way to help people who were unwell or hurt or did not speak English and needed assistance. I told a few people off for being dickheads or for spouting bigoted nonsense. And those things have an immediate positive effect. When you do not go out of your way to help, you do not think that you can make any difference. But when you do do something, it is actually very effective. The police do come and arrest people. An ambulance does come and attend to a sick person. The tram inspectors do stop harassing the immigrant. The homeless do have a meal. People eventually do change their minds. Other people do start helping strangers and speaking up too. And people thank you. It is a great feeling.

The second lengthy period of time when I felt I could not speak my mind was as a surgical registrar. Quite simply, it is a culture which is very hierarchical and in which you are expected to just agree with whatever your boss says if they talk about politics. It is the most socially conservative subculture in medicine, and probably the most right-wing.

At the same time, Sri Lanka was ruled by a fascist would-be dictator of a president, Mahinda Rajapaksa. Members of my family received death threats for speaking out against the regime, while other Sri Lankan family friends praised Rajapaksa. Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott both supported the Rajapaksa regime in a bizarre attempt to reduced refugee numbers, making Australia the only western country to openly support him. Speaking out publicly against this man was fraught with difficulties. If I wrote an article, would it be read in Sri Lanka, and would it harm my family? I am a citizen of Sri Lanka as well as Australia, and there was absolutely no guarantee that Australia would do anything to help me if I got in trouble overseas. So I was scared.

Going back to my main source of despair, it is not just surgeons who are conservative or who reinforce a sexist or homophobic or transphobic environment. It is the culture in theatre. I cannot count the number of times (despite being single) I was interrogated by female theatre staff I barely knew about my reproductive future because you cannot be a surgeon, female and have kids’. Slightly off-colour jokes and rambunctiousness are fun in theatre but every now and then you get someone spouting sexist, homophobic, classist and racist jokes that are really not funny at all. Most surgeons and theatre staff are great people. But when someone in theatre, surgeon or otherwise, does something that would be unacceptable in any other workplace, unfortunately no-one says anything. And to say something could compromise one’s career because of just how regimented and competitive it is.

So I hid who I was too. Not just my gender (which I was only dimly aware of) but my sexual orientation. My political views. The fact that I find systematic bigotry appalling. My pride in the public health care system, even!

I remember one particularly unfortunate argument where I mentioned learning that Aboriginal Australians’ high rate of liver disease could not be explained by alcohol (the daily high risk drinking rate among the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population is the same as the non-Indigenous population), and was more likely to be explained by high rates of things like Hepatitis B, a completely preventable condition. The anaesthetic registrar (who in a past life had been a privileged, rich commerce type who lived exclusively in Sydney) went on a loud, lengthy rant about how despite statistics I was wrong’, that Aboriginals are drunks’ and that I had no idea’ and that they choose to live like that’. It was clear from this rant that she had little to no understanding or solid data to back up her claims. I just backed down. In the face of that, I had no choice. As it turned out, in the next room was a lovely Aboriginal mother and her small gorgeous child. I hope to this very day that they could not hear what the anaesthetic registrar said, those hateful, vile words.

Eventually I burnt out and quit. Quitting was the best thing I did. I do not regret my time in surgery but there is no way I could go back to pretending to be someone I am not. By the end I was really unhappy. Not so much because of the work but because I could not be myself. I had no voice.

Having no voice is the other part of silencing oneself that is unbearable. Just like with cognitive dissonance, it takes a lot of mental energy and it is almost painful at times. Suppressing yourself and nodding along to things that you find objectionable. Knowing that you are indirectly making things worse. Of course, I know when there is no point in arguing with someone, and when it is also not appropriate to argue and I pick my battles, even now. However what I am talking about is the feeling of having to pay lip service to everyone, all the time just in case someone might get offended. Not offended because you have said something offensive or hateful, but in fact because you espouse the opposite. Because you are proudly egalitarian, pro-human rights, pro-freedom.

After I quit work, I rested for 3 months, living off savings. I wrote a lot. I slept a lot. I caught up with friends. I played with my cats. I read a lot. I became myself again. I locumed, happened to find a place and a new job along the way that I really enjoyed, in a new speciality. The great thing was that I finally felt at home. I could be myself. I was surrounded by progressive and like-minded people. I was in a system where some degree of disagreement, healthy debate and personality were allowed.

These days sometimes I offend people. Sometimes people write distasteful things and I argue with them. Sometimes I get offended and angry. Sometimes people, even people close to me, verbally abuse me. But mostly I have enjoyable, engaging, free conversations with my friends and colleagues, many of whom have a variety of opinions but are able to engage and debate things without things getting heated. Sometimes I change minds. Sometimes I do not. The important thing is that I feel like myself. I do not feel dead. I feel sane. I feel content. I can be a bit prouder of myself.

There is no way I can go back to biting my tongue all the time. There is no way I can just bury my head in the sand and pretend everything is hunky-dory. Especially at a time like now, when a doctor reporting the sexual abuse of refugee children in detention centres’ can be imprisoned, when the government wants the power to strip dual citizens of Australian citizenship on a minister’s whims, when public healthcare and education are under dire threat, when corporations can pay politicians any amount of money to ignore the people, when corruption is rife, when the Great Barrier Reef could be destroyed by a coal mine, when same-sex marriage is banned, when the response to inadequate public services in Aboriginal towns is to force people out of them, when the prime minister goes out of his way to support Cardinal Pell, a man who covered up thousands of cases of child sex abuse, but demands that media outlets cannot criticise the government, only praise it. Being silent in the face of this abomination is impossible.

The worst thing is to have no voice. So many people do not have one. I have a voice. I will use it.

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