The Many Faces Of Violence: Human Rights, Charlottesville and Marriage Equality


Debates about the role and impact of violence have been central in recent events at Charlottesville and in Australia around the marriage equality plebiscite. How we understand violence has a lot to do with our position of privilege, writes Dr Melinda McPherson.

Donald Trump’s instinct on the weekend to condemn violence ‘on all sides’ in the midst of a neo-Nazi rally is deeply disturbing. It has translated into another round of debate in US social media about freedom of speech – in summary, if one supports freedom of speech, then the speech of the neo-Nazis is protected (just as is the speech of those who are protesting against them) and ergo, both sides should be held accountable for violence.

People repeating this platitude should think carefully about the insidious racism and attack on human rights that it represents.


Freedom of speech and human rights

Free speech is protected in the US and in Australia in a range of ways; it also has limitations and boundaries. I am constantly fascinated by who gets to decide these boundaries, and how they are enforced.

If one subscribes to a view that certain privileged groups should not have the ability to confer rights upon, or revoke them from, others then any speech which denies, imperils or threatens the human rights status of another group should be the subject of serious debate as to its status.

If the speech of certain young Muslim men to join fighting overseas is considered terrorism, then how is incitement by white supremacists to harm people of colour anything less?

American president Donald Trump. (IMAGE: Gage Skidmore, Flickr)
American president Donald Trump. (IMAGE: Gage Skidmore, Flickr)

The hypocrisy of comments made by the US President in relation to Charlottesville were stark. He has labelled and enforced laws decrying Islamic terrorists, but spent none of his precious tweeting time denouncing the consistent, pervasive, constant and often violent bigotry directed towards Muslim citizens in the US.

He has labelled Mexicans as criminals and rapists, but again spent no time denouncing the pervasively racist treatment of Mexican Americans. Where is his deep moral drive to name violence on ‘both sides’ in these circumstances?

The answer is, entirely absent.

Alternatively, at a rally where neo Nazis took a life and injured many, screamed racial epithets and advanced a view that undermines the fundamental human rights of non-whites, he made reference to the sin of violence on ‘both sides.’

These manifestly divergent standards, and the distorted representation of the events at Charlottesville, speak volumes about his attitudes – and his voter base. These attitudes are based in a view about privilege that ignores systemic inequalities.


Human Rights are innate

I am as much a product of the accident of my birthplace as I am of anything my parents or I, or my community, has done for me. My parents were white lower and middle class working people, who enabled many opportunities for me because of their sacrifices. And while I have deep gratitude for all they sacrificed and enabled, their hard work does not make them innately more deserving of human rights than anybody else.

‘I worked for what I have’ does not cut it as an explanation for why some groups of people have higher occupational and promotional status, better educational and health outcomes, or lower rates of incarceration. Where we are born and the bodies we are born into afford us privileges or not that enable or impede our lives.

It is innately unjust when communities are structured in such a way such that some groups of people have the power and capacity to confer human rights onto others. We note men voting on women’s suffrage, white Australia voting on Aboriginal citizenship, and now a vote in Australia as to whether non-heterosexual couples have the right to marry.

new matilda, marriage equality
(IMAGE: Emily Mills, Flickr).

More troublesome is the way in which these debates are narrated by those with privilege, to make it appear that the status quo is ‘natural’. It is often further implied that non-privileged groups must earn their rights, as though those born into privilege somehow ‘earned’ theirs.

Arguments about biological determinism have commonly been invoked to support these bigoted views; for example that women have smaller brains and are not responsible enough for the vote; or that people of colour are more slow or inclined to criminal behaviour, and so are incarcerated more often.

In these cases, the minority groups were commonly narrated as having to ‘earn’ their rights. The nature of privilege and its systems are rarely questioned by the privileged; to do so would be to unseat the great lie that somehow it has been earned.


Privilege should not be the judge of who else should have rights

The current marriage equality debate in Australia is illustrative of the situation where one group’s human rights are subject to another’s validation. In this case, people of mostly heterosexual and Christian backgrounds in parliament have the right to decide if the rights of marriage should extend to non-heterosexual couples.

Strong views in particular are advanced by religious groups, who argue the sanctity of traditional marriage.

In the end, it is a human interpretation of a biblical text that informs this perspective; and while religious folk are absolutely entitled to their views, they are not entitled to impose them on others.

Another argument for ‘traditional’ marriage is that the definition has been around for a long time. Slavery was around for a long time. That doesn’t make it right.

Another spurious argument is that all relationships are equal, but that marriage is a particular relationship that cannot be separated from heterosexuality. The problem with this argument is that a privileged group of heterosexual people decided this definition in the first place; it is no less socially constructed than other definitions.

‘Traditional’ marriage advocates articulate their offence at being labelled bigots. But it is difficult to argue that a cross over between the two does not exist. Is a person who disagrees with interracial marriage a bigot? I would think so.

Human rights and equality mean that all groups of people should have access to the same institutions and rights of protection of the state. Calling marriage by another name for a particular group of people simply re-institutes segregation.


Non violent protest and privilege

The Washington Post reports that anti-Nazi protestors did not instigate any violence at Charlottesville on the weekend; some anti-racist protestors used capsicum spray in self-defence. Any comments made by the President about ‘violence’ in this context are entirely misleading.

A neo-Nazi drove a car into a group of defenceless people, killing one and injuring 20. Even if capsicum spray was involved, one could hardly characterise this as anything resembling a balanced violent engagement. But in some ways, all of this is beside the point.

It often makes me squirm when I hear white leaders extolling the virtues of Martin Luther King as a leader of change because of his method of ‘non-violent protest’.

Don’t get me wrong; King’s strategies were sophisticated, well co-ordinated, and highly successful. And I don’t like violence. But then again, I’m in a white body, and I already have my rights.

Several African American feminist scholars have reflected on the representations created by those with privilege to imperil access to rights by the marginalised. Only when members of the minority behave themselves according to standards decided by the privileged, might they be afforded the same rights.

Before ‘formal’ segregation was dismantled, white America subscribed to notions of ‘good’ African Americans who minded their manners and knew their place, and ‘bad’ African Americans who were ‘uppity’ or inclined to violence.

A #blacklivesmatter rally in Annapolis, to support greater police accountability. (IMAGE: SocialJusticeSeeker812, Flickr)
A #blacklivesmatter rally in Annapolis, to support greater police accountability. (IMAGE: SocialJusticeSeeker812, Flickr)

Those who behave well might ask for their rights but, when denied them, are expected to accept the result. Any angry, violent, or disorderly action by the minority in response to the withholding of their rights is seen to exemplify why that minority should not be ‘granted’ their rights.

It’s a win-win situation for the privileged. Women’s suffrage is a perfect case in point. Time and again a vote was put to parliaments and congresses around the globe that women should be granted the vote; time and again men found reasons not to confer it.

Is the argument by those advocating non-violence that no matter how many millennia a group’s human rights is denied, there should be no civil action?

People have rocks in their heads if they believe that women’s civil disobedience, including the destruction of property, their incarceration and self-harm, did not influence the outcome of their eventual suffrage. It absolutely did.

In addition to acts of individual or group violence, we must also look to the role of state power in re-instituting inequality.

The same neo-Nazis who regard the state’s protection of their free speech as sacrosanct don’t, as a general rule, seem to have such a problem with state-sanctioned capital punishment or torture. When a group is denied its human rights, and any acts of resistance are suppressed by the state in whatever form, we must ask what role institutional violence is playing in the maintenance of privilege.


In the current US context, this question is ironic given that Hillary Clinton was pilloried as the candidate with the strongest inclination to abuse institutional power. Currently in Australia, the rights of non-heterosexual couples to marry has been subject to a public survey upon which parliament may choose (or not) to act.

This process has legitimated debate ‘for and against’ the proposition, as though both sides enjoy equal power. Would it not be state-sanctioned bigotry and protection of privilege if we were having a similar debate about interracial marriage, or the rights of particular ethnic groups to call their unions ‘marriage’?

At what point is hatespeech simply characterised as a legitimate alternative perspective rather than an incitement to violence or a breach of human rights?

I attend protests and I loathe violence. But as I said earlier, I already have my rights. Who am I to judge that another group without rights should be ‘well behaved’ according to my standards, in order for me and my privileged citizens to confer rights on them? And how is their potential use of violence any better or worse than complicity of the state in using its force or power to deny certain citizens their human rights?

Think carefully before repeating platitudes about the evils of violence on all sides, and especially of the right for some groups such as neo-Nazis to openly articulate views about removing others’ human rights.

Violence takes many different shapes and forms.

Dr Melinda McPherson is a social justice researcher and activist with an interest in gender, diversity, refugee issues, and education. Her recent book explores representations of refugee women in education. She has also written on women and violence, women and the asylum process, and women and the media. She is a past board member of the VIRWC and works professionally in education and social justice.