You are an activist.

“At what point do you say, ‘I’ve read enough. Now I need to act.’ ”

– Peter Mares, in Opinion Makers, Perth Writers Festival 2017

I walked away from my one-and-a-bit days of this year’s Perth Writers Festival heartbroken and inspired in equal measures: I had accidentally — or, perhaps, serendipitously — booked myself into sessions that rang with hard truths and calls to action.

On Day 0 (23 February), I was fortunate to meet Liam Pieper, The Toymaker author who generously gave our book club his time and attention in the early evening, and hear Ben Rawlence‘s opening address about refugees, war, humanity.

Ben was electrifying, his reflections on Dadaab a testament to the resilience of people in survival mode. His talk relayed important messages — that refugee camps are not hotbeds for terrorist activity, that identities are fluid (“In a crisis, identity flips quickly and splinters.”), that we need to act together if we seek to influence our leaders.

Day 1 (24 February) saw me attending three sessions.

In The China Effect, Annabel Smith spoke with Madeleine Thien, Madeleine O’Dea and Mei Fong about their experiences of a China modernising and moving beyond its One Child Policy.

While there was a pervading belief amongst panel members that democracy had been on the horizon five years ago, the China of today is one where censorship is extreme (Madeleine O: “once the government banned the words ‘today’, ‘tomorrow’, and ‘yesterday'”), dissent is crushed under ramped-up nationalism, and filial ties are bound in legislation after having been systematically broken down by successive regimes.

I was intrigued to learn that the events of Tiananmen Square in 1989 continue to shape present-day China through their absence: this history is largely unacknowledged or ignored by the Chinese government. Cloaked references to the massacre (Madeleine O: “the difficult period”) and other contentious issues are pointers to the codes by which the people of China have learned to speak and survive.

This session’s overall message was one of praise for the resourcefulness of the Chinese people (Mei: “resistance can be painful, so be like water: flow around it”), and one of hope.

In Opinion Makers, Sisonke Msimang, Peter Mares and Lindy West talked about feminism, public opinion, and the importance of being loud.

The panellists had varying reasons for their respective forays into opinion writing: Sisonke couldn’t see her voice or interests being represented; Lindy was asked by a local newspaper if she could express opinions on local plays, and ended up a national film critic and, later, as a political and feminist writer; Peter followed an early love for radio.

This session raised thought-provoking questions and observations, such as:

  • Do social media connections translate into real thought and action? (Sisonke)
  • The way we empathise, through writing, viewing, and listening needs to comes to a critical next step: how does that opinion change anything? (Sisonke)
  • We have got to a place where the stories can undermine the facts. Can reasoned logic really change today’s world? (Sisonke)
  • Emotion and reason have to act together. How do we act on these real human emotions of concern and empathy? (Peter)
  • On being loud: “It’s hard to be a marginalised person and not feel angry a lot of the time … Sometimes this has to be public, to be reckoned with … We have to read men’s opinions that are violent or loud in institutionalised ways and there is value on pushing against that.” (Lindy)
  • Different styles and tools, such as comedy, can be used to convey important but difficult ideas — “like hiding a pill in some pudding”. (Lindy)

The Flame Throwers saw Geoff Hutchison hosting a panel that challenged our Australian way of life, with Clementine Ford, Nakkiah Lui, Elspeth Muir and Omar Musa.

One of the discussion’s central questions was: is it enough to ruffle feathers?

The ensuing response involved a short course on how to deal with trolls from Clementine (trivialise what they say; remember it’s all abstract; engage for the sake of those who ‘listen in’; spend time with other points of view; get trolled often and it will stop affecting you so much), and thoughts about recognising our own privilege in the Australian “fever dream … the highly polished veneer of egalitarianism and the fair go”(Omar) to be truly open to the plights of others. True understanding of our own lives and empathy for others can change minds and ways of doing.

“Actions don’t change unless thoughts do.”

– Nakkiah Lui, in The Flame Throwers, Perth Writers Festival 2017

The panel pointed out the value of social media in enabling marginalised and dissenting voices to join together and be heard. Clementine challenged expectations around needing the ones who name societal problems to come up with the solutions, and of having to be ‘nice’ to perpetrators of injustice and abuse: “The system used to say, you’d get further if you weren’t angry, if only you were nicer.” Her advice? We don’t have to constantly reassure those around us.

Nakkiah’s response to the follow-on question of when anger is acceptable was delightfully succinct: “One of the reasons that anger is so toxic is that anger equals blame, which means that someone has to be accountable.” And accountability leads to change, fiscal loss. Real outcomes from the simple act of ruffling feathers.

What I loved best about Nakkiah’s words was the essence of her hope: people’s willingness to listen and change, and what makes communities — laughter, loving, sharing stories, telling art.

The key message I distilled from the waves of passion and outrage woven through these sessions was:

While research and writing and rational debate are important to building empathy and understanding, it is time to act. Now. We need to listen to others and decide what is important. Then we must do something — by mobilising in an organised way, and lobbying our decision-makers. We need to show up for values that mean something to us. Because change follows thought and united action.

These PWF sessions reminded me that we are all activists. Even by choosing not to act we become activists — for those things we may not agree with. It’s called implied consent.

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