Before I had even entered Australia, the customs official put me in my place with one single word - "Babe." That was his address, as he sought my attention. Having had no sleep for two nights, I was unsuccessfully trying to use the machines at customs to get my documents approved. Here he was, trying to help me - but in the process he was asserting his right to treat me as a sexual object first and foremost. It was my defining characteristic to him. What a welcome.
Things got better. On Saturday I attended a speech by Murong Xuecun, a prominent critic of Chinese censorship who has managed to evade arrest due to his abstaining from directly inciting people to get politically active. Nevertheless, his social media account has been shut down a lot. He keeps "reincarnating" online, as he calls it. He taught us how the entry of more English words into the mainstream Chinese vernacular had produced "democrazy" (the Chinese Communist Party promotes the idea that its governance is actually democratic) and "shitizen" (after the sense that things aren't quite alright in the country). More importantly, he brought home the expansive nature of Chinese censorship by identifying examples when it has played out within Australian shores. With its large Chinese immigrant community, Chinese Australians are very much affected by the propaganda of the motherland through the media they consume. The unspoken take-away from Murong's ideas was that we should put pressure on our government to engage with China in a way that doesn't accept its totalitarian policies.
Obviously there is a vast difference between freedom of speech in China and that in Australia, but there are still things I don't feel comfortable saying in Tony Abbott's Australia. We can't claim to be a full democracy when people are locked up (out of sight, out of mind) in psychiatric institutions for feeling and thinking the socially unacceptable. Our vindication of the notion of insanity marginalises ideas which are extreme outliers - ideas which are often very good, or, at the least, contain very good elements. It's no co-incidence that the average intelligence of a person who is hospitalised is through the roof. We abuse our deepest thinkers, drive them to isolation within the wider communities and then limit their human capacities by necessitating that they take brain-altering drugs. Freedom of speech remains a myth. (Possible exclusions for some areas of Finland.)
Maybe one day I will give a speech of my own at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas on this topic. I can't see things changing dramatically in Australia anytime soon, mainly because the mainstream is suspicious of the revolutionary ideas required to get us there, but you never know. At the very least, I can write a blog post about it. And keep my hope alive.