Sara Ahmed has written a wonderful, scholarly account of what she terms ‘the feminist killjoy.’ The feminist killjoy is the person who speaks up in both informal and formal public situations—be it the dinner table with family, the pub with friends, or the workplace with colleagues— to point out or question sexist discussion. Inevitably this person is met with the feeling invoked by a pair of rolled-eyes, as those around her frustratingly ask/say things like: ‘why do you always have to take everything so seriously? Way to dampen the mood. Can’t we all just have a casual discussion without getting political…?’ And so on. Ahmed illustrates how emotions get entangled with the political: to interrogate sexist discussion is somehow to threaten good feelings, and as such, is not an easy position to occupy.
We’ve all been there. Someone says something offensive and we scroll through our response options in our head, quickly and carefully weighing them up against the probable fall-out. Is it worth it to speak up? It probably always is, but I’m certainly guilty for not always doing so.
Yesterday was Australia Day. I am currently living in Canada and was thus relieved of the intense flag-bearing nationalism one is often subjected to on this day. However, the uneasiness I experience on this day in Australia still haunted me here in Canada. My Canadian housemate asked if I would be doing anything celebratory to mark the occasion, i.e. to have a “happy Australia Day!” But as I explained to her, I find it difficult, if not impossible, to feel “happy” about Australia Day. I am an Australia Day killjoy.
Australia Day is celebrated on the 26th January, the day England’s First Fleet arrived to “settle” on the continent in 1788. In other words: the day the Imperialist movement invaded the continent to brutally take it over from its rightful Indigenous inhabitants. As it stands then, this day commemorates mass violence and the denial of the world’s oldest Aboriginal populations. The day is clearly not off to a happy start. Yet, as Ahmed notes, the past is often associated with bad feeling; the future with good feeling. There are those that will say: ‘yes, that was a bad start, but we have to let go of the past, we have to focus on the great things about our country in the present.’ Not doing so is somehow (and paradoxically, it seems to me), ruining the “happy” of the moment.
So let me move to the present. In the past year the Gillard Labor Government attempted to legislate a “people swap deal” with Malaysia for its asylum seekers. Our government wanted to send asylum seekers to Malaysia for “processing,” in exchange for “already-processed” asylum seekers granted refugee status. (Anyone would think we were talking about salami, not people). It was defeated, but legislation was passed to send asylum seekers to remote Pacific Islands. Here, desperate people are currently imprisoned in inhumane conditions, despite their rights under International Human Rights Law to seek asylum in any country. (It seems clear to me who the actual “people smugglers” are). Melissa Phillips from University of Melbourne raises some good questions on asylum seekers in the context of Australia Day.
In 2012 we also denied legislation to legalize gay marriage in Australia. Marriage aside, standard civil rights of our Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transsexual community are constantly denied in the face of brash homophobia.
I love my country for a number of reasons. But, so long as it continues to shove people into the margins and outside the realm of humanness, I cannot feel “happy” with it on the 26th January. Australia, you can continue to push people out of sight but I refuse to let them be pushed out of my mind, especially on a day that is supposed to celebrate all Australians, along with the country’s overall virtue. I will celebrate your decency when you act decently. (HINT: changing the date of the national holiday would be a good place for you to start). ‘Til then, the beer I raise is in solidarity with all those fighting to be rightfully included in Australia Fair’s ‘boundless plains to share.’
Oh, Danni. Way to dampen the mood.