Gaslighting Lidia Thorpe

Gaslighting Lidia Thorpe

I think Lidia Thorpe is wrong about the Voice. But she's probably right about white dudes with little dicks. Whatever point of difference the boys in line at Maxine's (oh so politely) raised with the Victorian Senator ahead of the their filmed interaction on Saturday, her widely-publicised transgression was to refuse being called 'a racist dog' with the appropriate decorum.

Tough titties: as the owner and proprietor of an aforementioned tiny tadger, I reckon my paler, maler demographic would do well swallow down their reflexive outrage and consider whatever made this black woman so angry in the first place. Frankly, the lot of us could suffer being made bit more uncomfortable about what we're prepared to accept.

Even before last weekend's shocking assault on the dignity of innocent blokes, harmlessly enjoying the simple pleasures of erotic dance, Thorpe was publicly marked as loose unit number one.

Unfettered from the discipline of 'electability' by resigning from the Greens, Thorpe rapidly made headlines by embracing a politics of resistance: protesting police brutality by laying down before a Mardi Gras float, a brutality she later experienced personally when she was knocked down by an  AFP officer at an anti-trans rally. Deploying tactics more familiar to activist groups than elected representatives, Thorpe has continued to prove herself willing to put her personal profile - and more importantly, her body - quite literally on the line. And Australians don't like it.

The public response has been less than understanding. In January, race-baiting potato Andrew Bolt was already calling Thorpe a 'hate preacher' who was unfit to sit in parliament, with the Herald Sun labelling her 'embarrassing, disgusting and divisive.' Meanwhile, The Australian's media commentator Sophie Elsworth decried the supposed double-standards of reporting on Thorpe, and asked us to 'imagine if this was a conservative woman'.

The thing is, she's not a conservative woman. Thorpe is a black woman raised in the housing commission flats in Collingwood. She left school at 14, and had her first kid at 17. Her first husband was an abusive alcoholic. The issues that animated the Senator's work as an activist would have put her in contact with the most under-priviliged people in the country, people fighting not only entrenched racism but fighting for their lives. For Thorpe, the status quo is a state of emergency.

Unlike her overwhelmingly white colleagues in both the Senate and the House, or her critics on Sky or Twitter, Thorpe's family and friends live in the constant presence of violence. Black women like Thorpe represent 28 percent of hospitalisations caused by violent crime, despite making up less than 3 percent of the population. Her children (and grandchildren) are 20 times more likely to be imprisoned than non-indigenous kids. Even without a heckling from a squad of lippy drunks, it'd be understandable if Thorpe felt like she were under seige.

The double-standard isn't in the supposed Indigenous exceptionalism spruiked by Elsworth, but in the expectation that Thorpe should remain unruffled and emotionally statuesque while 'rationally' discussing what for most politicians is an intellectual exercise, but for her is an existential fact. To be rendered inarticulate, to lose one's poise, to shout and spit is probably a more reasonable response to unshifting injustice than the psychotic rationalisation the rules of respectability demand. But, as Anne Summers has been patiently explaining for the last forty years, Australian women are routinely punished for expressing desire, opinions, agency and ambition beyond their role in the lives of men. "They are harpies, ballbreakers, sluts," she wrote in the SMH. "And probably crazy."

After the visit to the Gentleman’s Club in Brunswick, anyone more conservative than Marx has a readymade way to dismiss Thorpe wholesale. Classily, Bolt wheeled out Thorpe's father, Roy Illingworth, who called the Senator 'spoilt' for refusing to acknowledge 'her white side', while Chris Kenny was on hand to 'feel sorry for her'. Even my boy, Anthony Albanese (who is, amazingly, currently Prime Minister of Australia), lit the fires under the ancient gaslights, when he suggested Thorpe might be sick in the head: “I think there are obvious issues that need to be dealt with in terms of her health issues," old 2SM’s Richard King on Wednesday morning. “These are not the actions of anyone who should be participating in society in a normal way, let alone a senator. And Lidia needs to be very conscious of the way in which this behaviour has been seen.”

Delegitimising Thorpe by branding her as 'abnormal', dismissing her demands for justice in the realm of both race and gender, is predictbly textbook. Audre Lord spells out exactly how these conflicts always play out in her essay, 'The Uses of Anger':

""When women of color speak out of the anger that laces so many of our contacts with white women, we are often told that we are 'creating a mood of helplessness,' 'preventing white women from getting past guilt,' or 'standing in the way of trusting communication and action.'"

But Lorde also points out that rage needn't be a futile gesture: women of colour who embrace their anger, analyse its roots, can channel it as a catalyst for change. In calling for a recognition of Indigenous sovereignty ahead of incremental change, Thorpe is undeniably running counter to the realpolitik of white Australian culture: but this just goes to show how divorced the national conversation is from the reality of black lives, and the untenable situation that continues to shape them. To paraphrase Sara Ahmed, anger implies something or someone is worth fighting for: shouldn't we all be more angry about the treatment of First Nations communities?

However you feel about Thorpe's un-ladylike spray on Saturday night, the press conference the Victorian Senator held upon quitting the Greens to pursue "a Blak Sovereign" agenda was a welcome evolution in Australian politics. Here, in the industrially bland monoculture of Federal Parliament, where Indigenous citizens are frequently spoken about rather than listened to, was a Gunnai, Gunditjmara and Djab Wurrung woman (loudly) refusing to accept the frame that had settled in place around her. Surely, if this country needs a Voice speaking up for the lived experience of Indigenous Australians, then it's got to be prepared to listen to opinions with which it doesn't automatically agree. So, if the Senator was able to speak to the nation from a place and for a people who've been systemically silenced for generations, parliament, the media, the public - and me - could all afford to be made a little uncomfortable. Even if it ruins Boys Night.