Send solidarity, not help

Tim Blackman

A letter and petition was given recently to the government that offered a solution to the recent de-funding of Safe Schools Australia, which fell victim to a savage and unfounded attack by rightwing media and politicians such as Eric Abetz, George Christensen and Miranda Divine.

Last year, the Turnbull government announced the program would not be funded any further than June this year.

The letter was authored by Ben Grubb, a former Fairfax media technology editor, and signed by a number of high-profile celebrities including Troye Sivan, Missy Higgins, Joel Creasey and Guy Pearce.

It called for a national anti-bullying program based on "tolerance" and "mutual respect" of LGBTI young people in schools. They called for a program that wasn’t engulfed by “politics and controversy” and was free of that filthy word, ideology.

Since its release and outrage from the LGBTI community and activists, some signatory celebrities have withdrawn their support and even claimed they didn’t know the wording of what they were signing.

Mr Grubb released an apology and withdrew the letter, citing approaching a “Canberra decision-maker” for advice and not long-term LGBTI activists, Safe Schools, or indeed teachers. He said his aim was to “de-politicise” Safe Schools in the interest of protecting children.

Appeasing those who politicised Safe Schools in the first place isn’t the answer as, put simply, they were wrong. Research and the inquiry into Safe Schools showed it was working and not a social engineering Marxist grooming agenda.

Although this petition issue is somewhat put to rest with the immediate outrage at suggesting LGBTI students should be "tolerated", it does raise concern about trends in our society. These include appeasing the Right, celebrities using their platforms to speak for and not with minorities, and individualism over collectivism.

Mr Grubb acknowledged his poor decision in writing alone. Freedom of speech is such an important cornerstone of society, as is people being involved in activism. But so is education and collaboration.

Maeve Marsden put it perfectly in her Sydney Morning Herald opinion piece ("The celebrity letter calling for a new Safe Schools does more harm than good", 2 May) saying “tolerance is begging for crumbs from your oppressor”. And too often a compromise such as tolerance is seen as positive activism or tagged as "better than nothing".

The fighting drive of activism for what is right, equality and justice isn’t something to just be compromised on. It really upsets me when issues as serious as the safety of students is so easily destroyed by a very loud and powerful minority - a minority that did not have the backing of research or facts but was driven by fear and ignorance.

What grieves me even more is when members of the LGBTI community (or any oppressed minority) are willing to fight for compromise, not change. It is a toxic complacency that continues to creep into the hearts and minds of activists.

The author of the letter says he wrote it himself with little to no consultation. Big mistake. Neoliberalism thrives on individualism and this has infiltrated activism: individuals spreading their views without consultation with the people they talk of or about; individuals not being held accountable for the damage they might cause when throwing around words like "tolerance".

Collectivism means "good intentions" cannot form the basis of a movement: understanding and knowledge can.

Activism is not immune to the effects of populism, individualism and the anti-intellectual agenda with which sneaky neoliberalism infects all aspects of society. Activism is weakened when it allows for the individual voice to be louder and separate to a collective voice.

As teachers and activists, we know all too well the power celebrities have in influencing public debate, opinion and even policy.

Often that can be wonderful, with many celebrities spearheading important causes. The voices of those to whom the cause relates should, however, never be silent or quashed.

In activism for the global South, we often hear from Westerner celebrities talking about the needs of the global South. Their platform and fame is used to promote a cause, yet in doing so silences the people who belong to affected, oppressed minorities. Fame should be used to give voice to those impacted. Notions of helping must be replaced with a commitment to solidarity. The same can be said for this letter about Safe Schools.

There is a reason we, as unionists and teachers, weren’t calling for a "Safe Schools 2.0". Safe Schools 1.0 was working and we are busy fighting for it to be left alone and returned to schools. Perhaps more solidarity with the teachers and Safe Schools architects is needed, not our acceptance of quasi-activist individuals.

Tim Blackman is a proud Aboriginal man and HSIE teacher. As a PhD candidate, he is researching radical teaching in poverty education