Are you sure you’re not a radical?

Back in September the government released its radicalisation awareness kit. The example contained in it of radical greenie Karen became the centre of attention in the twitterverse, on social media and in the mainstream media but should our concern end there?

All the detail and the booklet is available on the Living Safe Together government website. It was prepared on expert advice but how much was reworded by the public service on the orders of ministers and ministers’ offices we will probably never know.

It identifies three issues or three steps:
  • radicalisation
  • radicalisation to violence
  • violent extremism
Radicalisation: a process during which an individual’s beliefs move from being relatively mainstream to being supportive of drastic change in society that would have a negative impact on the rights and freedom of others. It does not necessarily mean a willingness to use violence to realise those beliefs, but some individuals come to believe that violence is justified to achieve ideological, political or social change.
That definition, from the glossary in the booklet, ignores that many radical ideas actually have as their aim the improvement of the rights and freedom of others, not just a negative impact. In other parts, the booklet actually acknowledges that when it states:
These attitudes differ significantly from how most members of society view social issues and participate politically. In most instances such behaviour does not pose a danger and can even benefit the Australian community. [emphasis added]
So the booklet is treading a fine line between radicalism and radicalism associated with violence but, in my view, does not do it well. Despite the statement quoted above, the overall impression is that radicalism will most often lead to violence.

It insists that Australia is a free society and people can express their views in many legal ways but radicalism is dangerous as soon as non-legal means are used (or ‘criminal activity’ as it is termed). The booklet concedes that some such activities may not cause serious harm but are still illegal: such as vandalism, minor property damage, trespassing or protesting in a violent way. It does state that:
Many forms of activism … can be disruptive but are often used simply to draw attention to a cause through peaceful means. This is a legitimate expression of freedom of belief and free speech in Australia.
The phrase ‘radical activism’ is used but never explained or explored. That term would better fit some of the minor illegal activities listed above: after all, how violent is trespassing? Instead the booklet seems to make a leap straight to violent extremism. Its occasional statements to the contrary seem to get lost or are ignored in making the link between radicalism and violence.

The well-publicised case study of Karen the environmentalist clearly shows the booklet’s blurred line between ‘activism’ and ‘violent extremism’. Karen’s activities, as listed, fit the description of activities that do not cause serious harm and it is in relation to Karen that the phrase ‘radical activism’ is used but her case study appears in the section on ‘violent extremism’. Surely there is a difference between trespassing, even spiking trees (for which a warning has been given), and planting a bomb in a public place? — but this booklet does not make that distinction. Even the experts whose research and information was used said that the example of Karen was a real-life case but had been shared with the department, one said, ‘as an example of someone who in fact did not radicalise’; another said she was a radical ‘but that does not make her a violent extremist’.

The booklet says the following on violent extremism:
If a person or group decides that fear, terror and violence are justified to achieve ideological, political or social change, and then acts on these beliefs, this is violent extremism.
The problem with that description is that it can also be applied to governments — the war in Iraq was to achieve ‘regime change’. History also shows that violence often arises in response to the violence of the state. When peaceful protests are met by water cannon, tear gas, baton charges, or in more extreme uses of force and violence, shooting into the demonstrators and using tanks, people movements often form a militant wing. The Black Panthers in America arose from the violence meted out to the non-violent protests of the civil rights marchers. The ANC in South Africa created a militant wing in response to violent government suppression of demonstrations. The current civil war in Syria arose from the reaction of the Assad government when it sent tanks against the mass street demonstrations opposing the government — people decided they needed to defend themselves. My point is, the resort to violence is not always a simple choice made by a radical group to achieve its aims but can arise from the actions of the state, when what start as peaceful protests are met by state-sanctioned violence.

While the booklet mentions ‘terror’, it does not explain it but I think there is an important distinction between terrorism and other acts of violence in support of radical ideas. While not supporting extreme violence, I must point out that current terrorism is often aimed at the civilian population. While there were examples of pure terrorism, in the 1960s and 1970s, there were also many overseas militant groups who targeted government and infrastructure and often gave warning of their attacks to avoid, or at least minimise, potential loss of life. Attacking infrastructure, while disruptive to the general population, put pressure on governments in terms of the cost of restoring services. I consider that modern terrorism, and what I would call genuine terrorism, targets the civilian population with the intent of creating fear and terror and attempting to put pressure on governments in that way. They should realise that it has never worked. Even the Blitz on London can be seen as a terrorist act in this context: Hitler turned the Luftwaffe from bombing military targets (airfields) and factories, to heavy bombing of the civilian population of London. He hoped that would pressure the British government to come to terms with him. It didn’t happen.

The booklet mentions potential sources of radical information which an individual may seek out:
Along with physical social networks, literature and music, the internet is often used by individuals to seek out perceived justifications or rationalisations of their use of violence.
A moderate statement except for the inclusion of music. The booklet does not make music a major issue but it is mentioned as well in the case study of Karen: turning to ‘alternative music’ was presented as one step on her road to radicalism. I hate to tell them but they should listen to a lot of folk music if they want to hear anti-establishment, anti-government messages. Over the centuries folk music has been important in supporting the oppressed and Ireland and many countries in South America have a long tradition of revolutionary music. I would no longer be termed a revolutionary but I still enjoy immensely listening to political and revolutionary folk songs: does that make me a radical inclined to violent extremism? — according to this booklet, perhaps it does.

The booklet lists behaviours that indicate an increasing level of intensity towards radical violent extremism, and labels the behaviours as: ‘notable’, which should be addressed by those close to the person; ‘concerning’ which may require responses from a number sources, including law enforcement agencies; and behaviours requiring ‘attention’. To list some:
  • The individual begins to identify with a group or ideology that is very different from the mainstream. (notable)
  • Changes in normal behaviour may also occur. (notable)
  • The person becomes closed to those whose explanations or views do not agree with their ideology. (concerning)
  • They may begin to use language advocating violence or aggression. (concerning)
  • They are very hostile towards people they see as the ‘enemy’ including law enforcement and the government. (attention)
  • They see using violence as a way of achieving their ideological goals as acceptable and necessary. (attention)
Some of those would still fit me: I hold an ideological view that is different from the mainstream, in fact, I pride myself on it; I don’t think my normal behaviour has changed but that may be because I have held a radical view for so long; in many situations, I do see government and law enforcement as the enemy of the poor and oppressed; and I do accept that, in some circumstances, violence is acceptable and necessary, particularly in response to state violence. Luckily Australia is not so bad that I would apply all those views here.

Now Tony Abbott: he certainly held a radical view different to the mainstream, as evidenced by the popular rejection of his neo-liberal agenda in the 2014 budget; he was certainly closed to opposing views, including on climate change; and he used the language of aggression against his ‘enemies’ and certainly saw that as a means of achieving his political and ideological objectives, the only difference being he was in government and could legitimately use law enforcement and violence. So was Tony Abbott also a radical inclined to violent extremism? — perhaps so if you believe this booklet.

When you have two opposing ideologies like that and one is being enforced by the state, is there a reciprocal right to violence to oppose the state? That is the key philosophical question but, as I explained earlier, the violence should be directed against the state and not inflicted upon the civilian population if it is to be justified — otherwise, in my terms, it does become terrorism plain and simple.

While the booklet pays lip service to freedom of ideas and expression, it comes down strongly on the side of peaceful protest by legal means. If, however, governments change the laws, as Bjelke-Petersen did, to restrict demonstrations, then which rules apply? — the right to express dissent or the obligation to obey the law. In other words, legal protest may not always be possible, and this booklet cannot cope with that situation.

The booklet is very careful not to target Muslims and does use examples from the right and left of the political spectrum. It adds that religion can be a factor in underpinning radicalism and violent extremism but makes sure that it also mentions the violence of the more extreme Christian anti-abortionists. The Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on Terrorism, Michael Keenan, however, made clear:
Despite the environmental case study, Mr Keenan said the main targets of the booklet were young people at risk of being radicalised by Islamic groups such as Islamic State.
So despite the efforts made to retain a ‘neutral approach’, Keenan laid bare the real intention. The NSW Teachers’ Federation suggested the booklet was ‘not to make anyone feel safer but to engender fear and intolerance’. I’m inclined to agree because, as I have pointed out, there are statements dotted throughout the booklet that offer a quite realistic assessment but they are over-shadowed by the general tone that any radicalisation is ‘bad’ and leads to violence. That is also what made me question whether words had been added, beyond the original words of the experts, to ensure that message came across — the experts’ own comments seem to confirm that.

Gary Bouma, Emeritus Professor of Sociology at Monash University and the UNESCO Chair in Intercultural and Interreligious Relations — Asia Pacific, one of the experts quoted in the booklet, has said:
… it was never intended to be distributed to schools.

“It was meant for professionals who are leaders in communities, and to be used in training sessions to make people aware of the background of social and cultural factors that lead in very rare cases to radicalisation,” he said. [emphasis added]

“We workshopped it with communities … then out of the blue the Attorney General’s Department decided to send it around to schools.”
The overt purpose of the booklet is, I think, legitimate. It is valid to try to stop young people being attracted to terrorism but its approach also threatens what I would consider legitimate radical activism which may include illegal activities that do not cause major damage nor harm to people. In that regard, the underlying purpose of the booklet is to maintain the status quo: you are allowed to protest, to express dissent, but only within the law, no matter how repressive those laws may be. You are a radical if you wish to change society, even without resorting to violence. As Michael Brull put it in an article for New Matilda:
The paper sets up only one type of violence that it rejects in every instance. That is, it always rejects violence devoted to radically changing the status quo. Violence used to uphold the status quo, however, is passed over in silence. Seeking change is by definition violent extremism. Accepting how things are is tacitly assumed to be ideologically neutral. Seeking change is treated as suspicious and problematic in a way that keeping things the way they are is not.
In that sense one can see the conservative mind-set driving the approach — any change is threatening. Where does that leave ‘progressives’, let alone radicals? If one can take account of all that is said in this booklet, it could be said to be relatively neutral, but that is not the prevailing message that comes through and if that message was to be believed then almost anyone demanding social or political change would be classified as a radical capable of violent extremism. It is itself an extreme message that appears to have twisted what the experts involved were saying. Perhaps it is best seen as a remnant of the Abbott era.

What do you think?
With Abbott gone we may hear less about ‘radicalisation’ but the booklet is out there — it was sent to schools. If Ken is right, the real message to young people is to ‘toe the line’ and not demand change in society. Without the ‘radicals’ of the past we would not have some of the freedoms and rights we do today, so such a message is for the conservative maintenance of society. It should not go unchallenged.

Next week 2353 discusses corporate attempts to patent genes in ‘You can’t patent ethics’.

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31/10/2015Ken What a thoughtful yet challenging piece you have gifted us! The consensus among progressives would be that the Abbott conservatives purposed to create uncertainty, and worse still fear, among the population. And in the same breath they subliminally implied that they would protect us from these vague and evanescent threats. This was their inducement to voters. The technique is old hat, used for centuries. Being tested by time, and having been found effective, it is resorted to by those who seek power and control. You have carefully analysed the government booklet and uncovered its flaws. You have pointed out how is seems intended to work. If the exposures you make are signs of an intentional attempt to deceive, to manipulate the thinking of readers, that is a serious matter. The other explanation is that the booklet is a poorly conceived and clumsily written piece of government propaganda. I suspect the former is the case, and that the attempts of public servants to write a balanced appraisal of the risks of radical thinking have been thwarted through interference by those wanting to maximize apprehension and fear. I believe I know what George Owell would conclude. Thank you another fine piece. We need to learn more about the nature of the conservative mind.


1/11/2015Ad Thank you for your kind words. I do think that the booklet has the imprint of Abbott's ministers and staffers, if not Abbott himself, all over it. It goes further than the statements of the experts who were involved and, as you suggest, probably further than the initial drafts that the public servants would have prepared based on the expert advice. In that sense, it also a lesson in how the public service works these days. No matter what the public service may think, the final word belongs to ministers and their staff -- once it was only ministers but now staffers have a huge say in the final shape of government documents and, of course, staffers are more interested in the political implications and the survival of their minister. In that way, 'frank and fearless' advice by public servants now has little meaning.


2/11/2015Ken When I stop thinking of myself as radical, will be when I'm dead. Some ways I'm a radical conservative too. The word radical derives from Latin *radix*, a root, so, fundamental. (So that's where we get radishes from.) Properly speaking it's an adjective, meaning fundamentally differing from foregoing examples, as in, say, describing the work of an architect, and by extension the architect himself. In such situations as "Radical young artist..." or "using radical new techniques" the word is a Hooray term, denoting approval. Now, when we speak of people whose religion goes back to the extreme roots of their scriptures we call them fundamentalists.We don't call them fundamentals. But oddly, we don't call political extremists radicalists - we call them radicals, turning the adjective into a de facto noun. But this time it is not a term of approval, but one that is pre-coloured by prejudice and infused with innuendo: so, an implicit slur. If e.g. you read "A group of young radicals ..." you know that they'll have been up to something the writer disapproves of. Yet of course all social progress must be made by people with radical ideas. Henry Ford. Leonardo da Vinci. Whoever invented the Arch as in Architecture, and the Wheel as in Wheelies. The dreamtime woman who placed flat stones to form a path down to the creek over the mud flat, so creating the beginnings of paving. "WOW" said her friends, "Radical!" So I couldn't live with myself if I didn't feel radical. And I know that I have been called A Radical too over time ... Well Yes! I vigorously protested the Vietnam war, got myself arrested at the Bjelke-Petersen-inspired racist Springboks tour, marched against the invasion of Iraq and Australia's refugee practices. I have campaigned long against the Cannabis laws and on behalf of Aboriginal rights and biodiversity. I wouldn't be much of a thing at all in my own estimation otherwise. Viva Radicalism! I've only written half of what I meant to. The other half must wait. It relates to the dark aspect of radicalism - the impulse to secrecy and ultimately violence that is often associated with the bright side. Is it ever justifiable? Can it indeed be necessary, and even laudable, in some circumstances? Thanks Ken.


3/11/2015TT Apologies for not replying earlier but I wasn't well yesterday and spent most of it lying down and/or asleep. As to your comment about being a radical -- you and me both. I liked your etymology of the word radical. And as you suggest, 'radical' ideas are the foundation of our society. Even the capitalists should realise that it is radical ideas that have changed production over the years, that have led to new products, and so on. So radicalism is common across society as a whole. It is just that for the conservatives, radicalism becomes a problem when it is applied to politics. But if radicalism permeates so much of the rest of society, why shouldn't it also permeate politics? There is a valid place for radicalism in politics that this government booklet (admittedly prepared under Abbott) tries to deny. You mention that you didn't go into the darker side of radicalism. That is my point in drawing the distinction between "terrorism" (an extreme form of radicalism) and "radical activism" which may undertake illegal activities but without harming people. And I think there should be room for 'activism' in our political system.

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4/11/2015TT Thank you for your erudite comment. I always enjoy reading your writing. There is so much wisdom in what you write. Apologies for my slow response; I've been preoccupied this last week. When injustice is rife and unfairness is promoted by the political process, when stupidity prevails, is it any wonder that radical thoughts enter people's minds and radical actions occur? Since Abbott's departure, I suspect radical thoughts have lessened!

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4/11/2015Folks No doubt you have heard in the news today about the most recent research of CSIRO on climate change. Shalailah Medhora writes in [i]The Guardian[/i]: “[i]The research found that 78% of Australians believed that climate change was happening. “In 2014, less than two in five – 39% – thought that climate change was happening but was naturally induced. Another 46% nominated humans as the main cause of environmental changes. In 2010, 50% said they believed that climate change was human-induced. “Greens and Labor voters were the most likely to believe that climate change was human induced – 76% and 59% respectively. Coalition supporters were much less likely to believe that climate change existed, with 13% of Liberal voters and 18% of Nationals voters saying that they did not think climate change was happening. “Most Liberal voters (52%) said they believed that climate change was happening but was naturally-occurring – 28% said they thought it was human-induced. By contrast, 31% of Labor supporters said climate change was naturally-occurring, and 59% said it was human-induced. “But one of the report’s authors, Zoe Leviston, urged caution in reading too much into the correlation between voting habits and climate outlook, saying a person’s opinion on humans’ impact on the planet was much more relevant.”[/i] [b]Notwithstanding Zoe Leviston’s rather cryptic caveat, I do wonder why those who vote for the conservative side of politics are less convinced that climate change is occurring, and more strikingly are so much less likely to believe that climate change is human-induced, than those who vote for the progressives – Labor and the Greens. Are the conservative voters less inclined to embrace such a radical idea that the globe is steadily warming and that we humans are a significant cause? Any explanation?[/b]


5/11/2015I mentioned the dark side of radicalism - the impulse to violence. Well. My father was a genuine pacifist, yet he was no coward. As a Teacher, he was exempt from being drafted into the armed forces during WWII, and refused to join voluntarily on the grounds that Australia itself was not under threat in the earlier part of the war; it was Dad's opinion that non-involved countries ought to stay out of the war unless directly threatened, so that it would not escalate into another global conflict. (As someone famously said during the Vietnam fiasco - "What if they gave a war - and no-one came?") My brother Gordon was born in 1939, my sister in 1941, so Dad had other reasons for not being eager to go to kill or be killed. But then the Japanese did begin to threaten our region, and that changed Dad's mind, or at least, it was the situation which he did firmly believe must be defended. So he joined the RAAF in 1943, while I was still an embryo, and finished his training as a Bomber Navigator in Victoria just a week before I was born. He saw me just once before being posted to England. (Not to fight Japs but Huns.) I still have his log book. He contracted macrocytic anaemia while there, he nearly died, and I never saw him again until 1947 after he had managed to survive in a base hospital in America. I remember Mum taking us to Adelaide's Outer Harbour to take him home. I was almost 4. When Australia's disgraceful Yankee-wanking Vietnam conflict started, I became "radicalised" myself, in that like millions of others, I despised our part in it. When the Liberal Government began conscripting young men, we in the Vietnam Moritorium Campaign helped to hide and shield the new conscientious objectors, playing cat-and-mouse games with life-and-death stakes. I was a year too old for the draft, so I demonstrated with the rest, including silk-screening lots of Moratorium Campaign flags out of good quality new head-cloth, which hilariously the pro-war violent thugs assaulting our marches from the sidelines would seize from those flaunting them, and then with a great macho show they would triumphantly hold them up to rip them in half - But ha ha, the cloth was very strong and instead of the flags going RRRIP! the thugs were UGGHHH! as they tried time and again to get a rip started. They were horrible violent people but we were able to laugh when they did that, and it drove them crazy. During this period I considered what other actions might be used to help stop Australia's involvement in the "War". Kidnapping a Government Minister? Naah. Forcibly occupying a Government office? Stabbing the tyres of Police cars that would be used to arrest us? Well these were all too "radical" altogether. But what else? The cops said we scattered marbles under their horses' feet but I never saw that, and I don't believe it neither. And someone at a demo was allegedly accused of throwing some stuff called chloropicrin into the back of a paddywagon in which there were some protestors already locked up. It apparently made them gasp and their eyes sting. For some reason someone suspected me of that, - I think the alleged person was redhaired as was I - and one of those who had been affected grilled me about my involvement, but I had no idea of whodunnit and wouldn't have done it even if it'd been the Cops locked inside the paddywagon, let alone some of our own! I was tempted to make a display of myself by publicly cutting off my ring finger before a crowd as a media protest. I was pretty mad, yes. I actually went quite close to doing so too I think, but then Gough was elected and that brought our involvement to an end. Now, during this period I had many differences of opinion with my father, who was firmly of the view that protestors should resist the temptation to violence - and indeed, really we never did resort to that. I wasn't ever into violence but I was vehementy opposed to the Draft laws and would have been only too happy to subvert them to embarrass and hopefully bring down the (by then) Gorton Government. But here is the kicker. Come 1975, after Gough's sacking, and given the involvement in his overthrow by Bjelke-Petersen's replacement of a dead Labor Senator by the false-flag quisling Senator Field - destroying Gough's majority in the Senate, which brought his Government down - Dad amazed me by remarking, WTTE, "Well I know I've always argued against violence - but I could forgive anybody for shooting Bjelke-Petersen!" Now Dad was nearly 60 by then, pacificist all his life, and though he would never have shot Jo himself, he was quite serious in what he'd said, and it was a sort of epiphany. It blew me out actually. So what I can't help thinking is how I would feel if I were a Iraqi, or an African American, or indeed anyone like Jimmy Blacksmith, or Ned Kelly, or Spartacus, or Jeanne d'Arc, or the French Resistance, or the North Vietnamese, whose people and homeland have long been mistreated by invaders and persecutors. We don't all claim to be Christians, being the meek and turning the other cheek even unto seventy times seven times, and those that do are lying. Nelson Mandela. Xanana Gusmao. Fidel Castro. Radicals. All broke laws to right wrongs. Violent yes, Terrorists they will always be called by their oppressors, but they're heroes of mine.


6/11/2015TT I also well remember the Vietnam years having been carried out of sit-ins in parliamentary and Liberal party offices and being kicked in the ribs by a cop passing the other way as two others carried me by arms and feet slung between them. The violence most often came from the police. We were conscious that if the police on the day weren't wearing their numbers (each policeman then wore a badge with their unique ID number) then that was a sure sign that they intended to treat us roughly. We had a contact in the police department who warned us before one demonstration that the police had orders to be rough with the demonstrators and try to provoke a 'violent' reaction from us. Another police tactic was to keep us on the footpath and not allow the demonstrators to use the roadway. That had a number of impacts: it forced large numbers into small spaces with all the consequent dangers (windows were broken) and people were more tetchy being crammed together. From the police and political point of view that tactic also had the benefit that it annoyed the non-protesting pedestrians trying to use the footpath. Despite all that, there was no or little violent reaction on the part of the demonstrators. Under current laws I could have been arrested for 'planning a terorist act' because I, and a couple of mates, had a map of Sydney on which we had marked military installations and police stations, and key bridges that would slow the response of the police and military. We weren't really planning a revolution but looking at the logistics of one. What it did show us was that the logistics were staggering. So any revolution would have to work like Castro in Cuba with a small fighting force and reliant on gaining popular support -- and as Australians were not so oppressed as to offer such support, a revolution in Sydney had little chance of success. To your list of what I would call revolutionary heroes I also add Emiliano Zapata, Michael Collins, Rosa Luxemburg. There are too many to list but without the radicals of the past we would not have much of a society today. And, as you say, there are parts of the world where that continues today. When people are oppressed, there will always be those who rise up against that oppression. The danger, as it has always been, is that sometimes one oppressive regime is replaced with another. It takes the Mandelas of the world to ensure that the new regime is for the benefit of all.


8/11/2015Ken Meet the new boss Same as the old boss Don't get fooled again Until next week
How many umbrellas are there if I have two in my hand but the wind then blows them away?