The Fine Line in Our Conversations
Over the past 12 months we have seen many setbacks and restrictions placed around the world. For those living in Melbourne, we are no stranger to the rigorous lockdown protocols and the hardships that it entails. Having lived through five major lockdowns, many businesses and individuals have had to think outside of the box to continue to operate and survive these strict, yet necessary measures.
One area of society that is often forgotten during these times, is the movements and practice of advocacy and protest. While advocacy can be preformed through a number of mediums and methods such as through digital platforms, certain issues and human rights abuses within the community require more urgent and traditional advocacy methods to gain necessary traction. One of these being, physical protests that have the ability to gain wider public attention quickly.
An issue that needs urgent attention and wider public recognition is the current Medevac refugee concern that has seen innocent men imprisoned within hotel rooms for over two years with no solution to their suffering in sight. More broadly, we also see urgency needed for the human rights abuses that have been consistently faced by those seeking asylum for eight years. Having daily, and physical protests outside these hotels in Melbourne has gained significant attention and public education about the human rights abuses occurring within our community, that had until then, been so meticulously hidden and silenced.
To address and combat these barriers during lockdown, many wonderful organisations rallied together to come up with alternative ways to continue to urgently share and inform the public about what was happening. One effective way that was recommended, was to place signs and messages on your car. In doing so, when using your car, those sharing the road with you have the ability to read the messages, and hopefully gain some interest, and do further research. Thus, creating awareness in the attempt to gain more traction in a very limiting situation.
In an attempt to raise some much-needed awareness and to keep the conversation going in an already isolating and neglected area of concern, I decided to include some messages of my own, on my car. On my back window ‘free the refugees’ could be read in bold blue outline, in conjunction with a number of bumper stickers with similar messages. Not only was this an effective method of activism during 2020’s tedious lockdowns, but it was also a really interesting little experiment. It was interesting to witness the numerous reactions of those around me.
To my surprise, I got quite a few fellow road users, who stuck their thumbs out their windows as they drove past in solidarity. However, many also expressed their lack of support through dirty looks and head shakes. Although I felt vulnerable in my tiny car, drawing further attention and risk of confrontation to myself, I felt, for a short moment in time, the hostility and uncertainty of what these men trapped inside these curated prison hotels feel every day when speaking up against their abusers and the suffering that is being inflicted upon them. And yet, despite the uncomfortableness I often felt in the uncertainty that came with these short encounters, I was still free, and this vulnerability is not even the slightest bit comparable to the feelings faced by these innocent people every single day.
I was inspired to write this piece as a result of one of these encounters that was sparked by the messages on my car. Previously, I have published pieces about effective advocacy practices, and this is an encounter that allows me to draw on some of the topics I have discussed earlier. While this encounter is something that many people have experienced, it was the outcome of this meeting that significantly challenged my perceptions and ultimately honed in on the theories that I have been studying.
I was sat at a set of traffic lights in my car and a middle-aged man pulled up next to me, there was nothing out of the ordinary there, other than the fact that he was trying everything in his power to capture my attention.
At first, I did not want to engage, especially when someone was trying to approach you in such an insistent way. However, he was very persistent and continued to persevere despite my clear disinterest. Eventually, I decided to engage with him and hear what he had to say. To no surprise, it was in relation to the messages on the back of my car.
The first question that he asked was ‘why should we free the refugees, and why I was advocating for this?’.
Predicting where this was going, I confidently replied with a simple answer, saying ‘they are human beings, just like you and me, therefore, they have inherent human rights, just like you and me’.
To which he simply rebutted, ‘well don’t you know they are all illegal?’.
This was a pivotal moment within our conversation, my response to this loaded and antagonising comment could potentially shift the entirety of this encounter. I could have responded to this statement and situation in a number of ways: aggressively or dismissively with the intention of trying to make him feel like an idiot or enemy, or in contrast, I could respond with calmness and dignity.
I opted for the latter. I wanted to approach the situation in a way that was calm and respectful in the hopes that he would engage further and reciprocate with me in a respectful manner, with the aim of instigating a broader, more constructive conversation.
So, I responded to his statement, asking the simple question of whether he was well versed in this issue of refugee rights, and whether he had a broad knowledge and education about the current situation surrounding refugee and asylum seeker rights within Australia. This question was not intended for me to be superior in the assumption that he lacked an education, but rather to set up a broader conversation to discuss.
To which he responded, ‘yes in fact I am, and they are all illegal’.
In response, I continued and shared my excitement in hearing that we were both well versed on this current topic. Along with this, I expressed my confusion, and asked if he could provide me with some insight into the facts and information that has given him the conclusion that refugees are illegal within Australia. I further reiterated my confusion to this and explained that the education that I had been receiving on this issue, and everything within my studies had pointed me in the other direction to what this man had determined, and that with each conclusion I had be given, it has been consistently found that the act of seeking asylum is in fact legal, and an inherent human right.
With this request, he could not respond.
So, to continue his point, he had to try and find some faults within my stance some other way. A common pattern we see when someone is confronted with honesty and cannot back up their uneducated statements is through the accusations and labels targeted at the character of a person, rather than the issue at hand.
Through the mentioning of my studies, this man had learnt that I was currently studying at university. And with this information, he decided to make a very broad assumption and began to stereotype me. Through another broad and sweeping statement, this man claimed that I must be a ‘radical lefty’.
Obviously, I do have left values and beliefs, and this is something I am very proud of and not ashamed to share, however, I did not want to admit this to this man, not because I wasn’t proud, or because I did not want to concede to this stereotype, but I knew if I validated this assumption and stereotype for this man, that in doing so, it could potentially be the end of this conversation. If I was to admit to his assumption surrounding my left values and beliefs, I assumed, that to this man, it would be enough to end this conversation. And anything else that was further added to the conversation from that point forward, would lose its value, and any attempt of additional contribution to my argument would no longer be valid and be dismissed.
Of course, this viewpoint and assumption I had made was one I had curated myself. However, within these conversations, particularly when you have captured someone’s attention who has such a strong opposition to what you are advocating for, there is no room or space to make a mistake. Because as soon as you do, that small fleeting chance of engagement is at risk of being lost.
With this knowledge and realisation, I did not want this conversation to end. After all, the most important issue at hand was to talk about the refugee situation and to try and convince him of such importance. I was determined not to give him the stereotype that he was looking for. So, in response to his assumption, I indicated that I did not consider myself a person with ‘radical left values’, as he had stated.
At this point, the traffic lights had turned green, I farewelled the man and wished him a lovely day. I thought this would be the end of the conversation, but to my surprise, not even 100 metres up the road, we found ourselves at another set of red lights and the man gestured that he wanted to continue the conversation. By this point the man’s demeanour had shifted and he had become less aggressive and more inquisitive. And I too was interested to see where this next set of traffic lights would take us.
The man proceeded to ask whether I had travelled. This was something I am still unsure of his intentions with, however, I assume it was to see if I have had experience. Again, I answered truthfully and acknowledge the privilege I had in visiting the number of places that I have in my short and very privileged life. With such an acknowledgement I added that with this privilege I know how important it is to educate myself about the world and those around us, including topics such as the current refugee situation here in Australia and the constant human rights abuses that consecutive governments have inflicted upon these innocent people.
To which again, he could fault and he couldn’t question, therefore, could not respond.
From here, the man proceeded to try another stereotype that is often linked with those that protest and actively participate in social justice conversations, and that is the stereotype that many activists are unemployed and have nothing better to do with their time.
(God forbid, people in their spare time, away from work, want to stand up for human rights and compassionate….)
He asked me if I was currently working, and again, I could answer his question and bust this assumption and typecast. Yet again, I could crush this stereotype and these theories so he could not fault me, and in return end the conversation on his terms. I would not give him the validation he was seeking to absolve him of these limited predispositions, one that he could not answer for and confidently support. I was not able to reassure him in these assumptions, and that his viewpoint was one of value and legitimacy
These limited beliefs, predispositions, and stereotypes that this man brought forward to the conversation are so common and dominant within our mainstream narrative and discourse. A narrative that comes from a place of misinformation that is fed by our government and our fear mongering media outlets, that harbour so much hatred and limiting beliefs.
It was interesting to see how he had entered this conversation so aggressively, so confidently and sure of himself and his stance on this topic. Yet, because he could not fault what I was saying, and as a result of my respectful and calm approach, I could answer every single question. As a subsequent, he had nothing left to add or no place to move other than to simply reflect back in on himself and his assumptions.
By the end of our short encounter, the man exclaimed that he respected my opinions and values, and he thanked me for my perspective and wished me a lovely day. I too, thanked him for asking questions and for acknowledging the messages I had across my car, as well as for giving me the time to also answer and respond. That respect is often hard to come by in these short and often politically fuelled encounters, and for that I was grateful.
Finally, the light went green, and we parted ways. I was left so pleasantly surprised that I almost felt uncomfortable with the humbling and dignified encounter.
Whilst I acknowledge that this man is probably not going to be dramatically transformed in these perceptions and his values towards this situation, I am still hoping that this encounter and the way that we engaged in this conversation will have an impact on this man’s next conversation surrounding refugee rights. That this man will come away with a little bit more kindness. And hopefully, with that kindness, he might not be so quick in making these loaded and often damaging assumptions. Or better yet, he might engage in conversations in the future that are in relation to refugee rights with less aggression and harmful predispositions and sweeping statements.
Although it was just one person, and a quick three-minute encounter at a traffic light, it has the potential to have such a dramatic ripple effect more broadly. Something I have taken away from this meeting is that through each encounter that we have, we must be so conscious of how we approach it. Particularly in situations that are, unfortunately, sensitive within society like the discussion surrounding refugee and asylum seeker rights, where we see people as equally and as passionately against the acceptance of these individuals, as much as we see so many people that are in support of it.
As a result, it is a conversation that we need to approach in a way that gains the public opinion and increases the public attention in a significantly kind, compassionate, and respectful way. Ultimately, without that public opinion and support, the situation surrounding refugee rights becomes even more challenging. Although the ultimate change comes from political values and opinions, this will only ever change through a shift in public attitude and opinions. As a result, it is vital that we approach these encounters and conversations with sensitivity.
I will be the first to admit that on countless occasions I have approached these situations with aggression, and it is easy to understand why others do the same. After all, it is a situation with so much emotion, frustration, and urgency, attached with feelings of hopelessness and helplessness. But it is also an issue that is so delicate and brings forward immense division within the community. Such division has been created by our government, who have consecutively instilled significant fear and hatred into our society, feelings that stem from nothing more than racism and discrimination. These are values that the public have believed for so many years. As a result, there is a vast amount that needs to be changed within this complex situation, so it is important to acknowledge that this shift is not going to happen overnight, and it is also not always going to happen with aggression.
Of course, it would be foolish to not admit that some situations within advocacy call for aggression and disruption. However, when we are encountering conversations like I had with this man, the best way to approach it, is with respect and kindness and to not be too quick to dismiss them for their ignorance.
This man could not fault me, I did it in such a respectful way and in such a factual way, that forced him to reflect back on himself and to consider his assumptions and values. Through this act, this man, unconsciously practiced critical reflection. He had no other choice than to re-examine his statements and reflect. Hopefully, with such reflections, he will come away from that experience to be more critical with these preconceived and predisposed assumptions and values that are so problematic and dangerous to some of the most vulnerable people in our society. Often people are unaware of how destructive and powerful they can be with these words and assumptions, even if it is just a one-off comment or label.
It is important to acknowledge that not every situation grants us the opportunity to have such a civil and unconvoluted discussion. However, it is so essential when safe to do so, that we approach each interaction with the goal of bringing the conversation back to an inner reflection, one that forces the other to subtly begin critical reflection without making it obvious and divisive. There is a fine line in this practice, and it is not easy to do, but this approach is so important to bring people together and to not scare off those we are trying to engage. Politically charged issues are even harder to curate and so delicate with their engagement, one wrong comment and you have lost so much attention.
It is essential that we go into every conversation within advocacy with a lot more compassion for those who are less educated in these areas. We must recognise that they need to be educated, and understand that with our education, we have a responsibility and duty to inform others. However, the method of how we inform others is crucial in its execution and must not continue to create a division.
It is time for kindness, compassion, and more importantly, the freedom of these incredibly resilient people who have endured so much pain and suffering. Individuals who have shown so much resilience, strength, as well as compassion to others despite their hardships and the torment they have endured for 8 years. Our community continues to be divided over a blatant human rights abuse, one that has been endured by some for nearly a decade. With such blatancy, it is hard to create a discourse to rebut. It is time to bring this compassion, to not only the conversations we have, but to extend it to those trapped by the tight grip of our government, and to finally set them free. Enough is enough.