Mind Your Language
The other day someone called me a sheeple. I was offended. Not personally, but on behalf of sheep. It’s a term meant to denigrate my agency by suggesting I have herd stupidity. Sheep are incredible, and surprising beings. Before you start denigrating sheep, you should know they are emotionally complex animals who can self-medicate! They can smell with their feet! They recognise faces, both sheepy and human. And civilisation has sheep to thank for their tireless generosity in feeding and clothing us. So when you are coming up with a word to imply that people don’t do their ‘research’, maybe you should do a little first; Sheep are awesome. And by definition it’s misaligned with the intent of the insult. Herd behaviour in individuals, or a group, is when they act collectively without centralised direction. Generally, if someone says you are a sheeple it’s because they think you are under the sway of Big Pharma, or Big Gov, so that, technically, is a centralised direction. It’s a woolly metaphor.
And while I am on the subject of language, can people stop saying medical ‘apartheid’. It isn’t appropriate to use the Afrikaans word that denotes a social system in South Africa that segregated black people from the white minority to describe what is the minority of unvaccinated people. The white minority government in South Africa ruled from 1948 to 1994, where they enjoyed higher status at the cost of black freedoms. You can’t compare not being able to get into a pub to being incarcerated for 26 years for speaking out against injustice. During Apartheid, the white people, who were 10 per cent of the population, owned more than 90 per cent of the national wealth, and the black South Africans, making up 80 per cent of the population, owned nothing at all. People were detained because of their skin colour, jailed, tortured and in some cases murdered. To be a white person living in a privileged country like ours, you cannot use the word ‘apartheid’. It is offensive, and it trivialises the 46 years that black South Africans suffered under the most shameful prejudice.
And can the antivax movement stop using our feminist phrases for bodily autonomy? ‘My Body, My Choice’ belongs to feminists who have fought long and hard for reproductive rights for women. It goes back at least 50 years. That was our catchcry when we marched to demand our right to safe and legal abortion. A slogan we continue to need going by a recent law being passed in Texas that allows anyone who helps a woman to get an abortion to be sued. An eavesdropping stranger can now sue the clinic where the abortion is performed for up to $10k, and also the person who lent the patient the money for the procedure, and even the person who gave the patient a lift to the clinic. In Texas, even if you get raped you cannot get an abortion. This illustrates the powerful need for the ‘My Body, My Choice’ cry. It belongs to our feminist movement. I have seen images of male antivaxers with these signs – the same men who demonstrate outside fertility clinics against a woman’s right to choose, are now using our slogans. So, at a push, the Right to Life guy that raped you in Texas could attend a ‘freedom rally’ holding a ‘My Body, My Choice’ sign.
And ‘sovereignty’. White people in this country just shouldn’t be using this word. In this stolen country ‘sovereignty’ is a concept that allows for the recognition of Aboriginal people’s inherent right to self-government, and provides guarantees that their rights would have constitutional protection and thereby not be subject to the passing whims of non-Aboriginal governments. We shouldn’t steal the land, and then steal the word being used to highlight the power of and need for Indigenous self-governance. The current ‘sovereignty’ moniker, as antivax, anti-mask protesters use it, has its roots in the Sovereign Citizen movement that came out of the US in the ’70s – which was anti-government, with some white supremacist elements. It’s pretty much a right wing libertarian ideology that uses harassment, intimidation and sometimes resorts to violence. Sound familiar?
And ‘freedom’. That one makes me uncomfortable too. The word just feels too big. It was used for those fighting generations of slavery and cultural genocide. I’ve just finished reading Behrooz Boochani’s No Friend But the Mountain, which is all about his time on Manus Island in ‘detention’. When you read about the inhumane incarceration of asylum seekers, the world’s most vulnerable people, to then speak of ‘freedom’ with regard to our access to an overseas holiday or entry to an RSL club seems trite. This is a time of a global pandemic, and those of us who live in an affluent country like Australia have access to resources and supports (even under lockdown) that many of the world’s population do not.
It’s opportunistic to hitch your political cart to the long histories of race, gender and class struggle when your issue with the covid vaccinations is about none of these. Perhaps when it comes to conversations about ‘the right to choose’, we should consider carefully the words that we use, being ever mindful of the powerful legacy of language, because history has shown us: find the right words and the world will listen.