Hello everyone, and welcome to Undesign. I’m your host, Kosta.
Thank you so much for joining me on this mammoth task to untangle the world’s problems and redesign new futures.
I know firsthand we all have so much we can contribute to these challenges, so listen in and see where you fit into the solution as we go on to undesign the concept of nationalism and identity.
Now, when we talk about the nation, what do we actually mean? As a physical concept, it refers to an entity that is defined both by its geographical boundaries and the people within them.
Nationalism, then, in its most basic form anyway, can be thought of as a way we internalize this sense of who we are, based on what makes us different to everyone else. As an idea, it represents shared traumas, victories, and the character of a collective. It’s powerful, it’s attractive, but is it the only way we can feel connected to one another?
If recent global events are anything to go by, we are truly seeing how the concept of the nation-state and nationalism is a source of major unrest.
For some, the nation-state is the basis of efforts seeking to restore a sense of national pride and autonomy. We’ve seen huge events like Brexit and the storming of the Capitol Hill done in the name of nationalism. In Australia, we have evergreen arguments about citizenship and values tests, our migration policies, our treatment of our First Nations people, and even the wording of our national anthem.
For others, the nation-state is the biggest antagonist of historically oppressed groups, from Indigenous and First Nations people of settler-colonial countries to minority communities of color. Whichever way you split it, nationality feels like a bigger cornerstone of people’s identity more than ever before.
The nation-state model for modern civilization is one that we perhaps take for granted. So has the time come for us to revisit a big question, “Is nationalism distorting our sense of identity, and how?”
Picking apart this question on today’s episode is our esteemed guest, Associate Professor Dr. Farida Fozdar.
Farida is a distinguished sociologist with the University of Western Australia. Her primary research focuses are on migration, race and ethnicity, refugee settlement, racism, nationalism, and cosmopolitanism. She has published widely, with over 100 journal articles, chapters, books and reports on these fundamental questions of how diverse communities and people form relationships with one another and themselves.
From the way we live as organized societies to the relationships we form with others (and most importantly, the way we see ourselves), this is an idea of self that, if we untangle, also leaves a huge space to fill. So what do we put in its place, and how do we do it?
KOSTA: Farida, thank you so much for joining us today for our Undesign podcast.
The question we put today as the central provocation for our discussion is this idea, “Is the nation-state obsolete?” When I say that sentence, what comes to mind for you, based on all the research and work you’ve been doing for all this time?
FARIDA: First of all, I love the question. I think it’s a great thing for us to be discussing.
What my research has shown is that it is almost impossible for people to think beyond the nation-state. We’ve become so used to the idea that that is the natural category — which our identities are attached to, for our economic systems, for our political systems, etc — that we almost can’t think beyond it.
I did some qualitative research across Australia, where I was trying to trigger people to talk about the question of the nation versus a more global citizen kind of idea or a sense of cosmopolitanism, a sense of our obligation to others globally, etc. I was trying to prompt them to talk about that stuff without actually asking them, “What do you think of the idea of a post-national world?”
KOSTA: That’s when you get the most honest answers, right?
FARIDA: Yeah. I thought, “How do I get them to talk about this stuff?”
So I used images, I used photographs, to try to trigger them to talk about these things. I had an image of the globe, a world map image. I had an image of somebody with two passports to suggest dual citizenship. I had an image of the leader at the time (who was Kevin Rudd) and the Chinese leader shaking hands.
I thought that might trigger people to talk about how the world is so much smaller, and how we’re orienting away from the US and Europe and more to Asia. I just thought it might generate some interesting discussion.
KOSTA: And what did it generate?
FARIDA: Another image was an image of smokestacks generating pollution. These are global risks, right?
KOSTA: Of course, yeah.
FARIDA: With all of those images, you would imagine, “That’ll make people talk about our relationship with the world, and the sense of the world becoming a smaller place, and how we can travel and no longer need to think of us so much in terms of nationalistic ideas…” Nah.
FARIDA: Short answer — people revert always to talking about themselves in terms of the nation-state.
FARIDA: The picture of the world map — the immediate response, in every single one of 27 focus groups, was “We’re so far away”. I think that’s really interesting. Away from what?
FARIDA: Obviously, the orientation is still towards Europe, and the “we” is the we of the nation-state.
KOSTA: That’s true. You take on a secondary role by saying, “We are far away from that locus of activity, or whatever that is”. That’s really interesting.
FARIDA: Absolutely. And what I found was, the images that I had cleverly selected and thought, “We’re going to generate an interesting discussion about a post-national world and cosmopolitanism”, didn’t do that.
We ended up actually having to ask the question, “So what do you think of an idea of a borderless world, a post-national world?” There was a particular, interesting pattern in the responses.
There were a few people in the focus groups. And these are groups of around 6 to 10 people, who are all sitting around a table. They know each other, because they’re all from different groups, so you get this really interesting dialogue between people.
Some people would say, “Oh, that would be a good idea” or “We’re already in a post-national world, because we can travel around the world”. And, you know, there are New Zealanders — they can come and live in Australia. We have examples of political influence from other countries globally. We have multinational companies, and so on. But every time that idea was raised, it was quashed by the other people in the group.
FARIDA: People would step in, and they would say, “Well, you know, while the idea of a post-national world might be a great idea, it’s a bit utopian. It’s not practical. We couldn’t do it. And the reason we couldn’t do it is, we’ve got to get the nation-state right first.” And that people are naturally oriented to the nation-state, that we are a collective. They couldn’t see beyond that idea of “we” being members of the nation-state.
KOSTA: Just to rewind a bit… How old is this idea of the nation-state, from your vantage point? (I mean, I feel like that’s a question that could have a lot of answers.) And how do you even define “nation-state”?
Because, in the preparation for this podcast, I was thinking, “Wow, how do you define nation-state?” Really, it’s a mixture of geographic boundaries and some shared characteristics or traits of people within those boundaries, right? How long has that idea been around from your vantage point?
FARIDA: That’s a great definition, actually. You’ve given a very useful definition.
We think of it as an ancient thing, but in fact, it’s only about 400 years old. In Europe, there were ongoing religious wars. And when I say religious wars, I mean within Christian sects, denominations of Christianity.
To put an end to those wars, a treaty was signed (the Treaty of Westphalia), which set up the structure and the rights of sovereign nation-states. That was the first time that you get this coalescence of the idea of the “people”.
Prior to that, nation was almost synonymous with “ethnic group”. It had that kind of identity, the “we the people” element to it, together with the political side, the geographical borders, and the right to rule within that system. What I think is interesting — that’s only 400 years old. It’s a blink of an eye.
KOSTA: That’s so strange to think about, that it’s only that recent.
FARIDA: Yeah. But it’s now so ingrained that we can’t think beyond it. In fact, one of the sociologists, some decades ago, talked about the nation as an imagined community. It’s a community of people who think of themselves as a community, even though they’ve never met each other, and they feel that they have a sense of collective.
Part of that is the potential of communication. The idea that [Benedict] Anderson was talking about when he talked about them as an imagined community of nation-states, as an imagined community, was that with the development of the printing press, there was an opportunity for governments to communicate with people, for people to share information through that particular means. And that means defined the nation-state.
FARIDA: Now you would think, “Well, now, that’s not how we communicate”.
We communicate through the internet. We have these amazing global technologies, which allow us to connect. So you would think that should result in the crumbling of the nation-state. Yet we do maintain this idea.
Our political leadership more recently — and we’ll probably talk a bit more about this later — has pushed us back into thinking about ourselves. We went through a phase where we started to become more global in consciousness, and we’ve reverted back.
KOSTA: We’ve reverted, yeah.
FARIDA: Just one more thing I wanted to say about the “how old is the nation-state?” idea. We all think we know what the nation-state is, but we have a nation-state as small as the Vatican City.
Vatican City is a nation. It’s a nation-state. It’s its own thing, right? Less than a thousand citizens, 75% of whom are clergy. So we’ve got that. And then we’ve got Russia. There are a couple of nation-states with over a billion people. And that’s the same with China — massive diversity.
These are fictions. When you think about that, you start to realize there is no real, logical reason that the boundaries are set in these particular places, and that the consciousness of the people should thus be constrained.
KOSTA: Yeah. You’ve just got me reflecting….
And this is before the Treaty of Westphalia by a longshot — I think of ancient Greece, my background. Well, my background’s not ancient Greek. Actually, I should do a 23andMe, and I’ll find out. I’ve always wanted to.
KOSTA: This is sort of the natural segue for me here, because the research you did back under the Rudd Prime Ministership really does feel like a time in our recent history where we had the most global outlook that I can remember for quite some time.
Now things are quite different. As you’ve rightly pointed out, even back then, we hang a lot of our identities on this idea of what nation we belong to, whether that’s geographic, imagined, or whatever it is.
When I was thinking about Greece, there’s this obsession — particularly with extremist movements, for example — there’s an obsession with purity and going back, and a reversion to a golden age, and a reversion to how things were.
Quite often, the image of the Spartan or something like that is invoked, or the Olympian gods or something like that. Actually, more those legendary heroes like Leonidas and those historical figures, right? They’re invoked as these ideals of a particular value system. But when you look into Greece’s formation, they were a series of ethnically diverse tribes that coalesced into the Hellenic people. This idea of purity is something that recurs, particularly when there’s economic strife.
Based on the research you did, all those number of years ago, and you put that on the current context, where we’ve had what some people have called an insurgency or an insurrection on the Capitol and the change in presidency in the US…
How do you reflect on those? How do you reflect on the research now, knowing what you extracted from those results there and applying it to the current context? How do we get from one place to here in such a short amount of time?
FARIDA: I’m not a political scientist, but I’m interested in politics insofar as the political rhetoric. The language and the sorts of speeches that our political leaders give, and the ways in which they influence, and the permissions that they give to the more extreme fringes of the general population.
We had [Kevin] Rudd… I totally agree with you in terms of our outward-looking focus under Rudd. This was a Prime Minister who could speak an Asian language (that is very unusual), etc. You can contrast him with our current Prime Minister.
In fact, Tony Abbott was quite different as well. We did some research looking at Tony Abbott, who, among other things, talked about Team Australia — that you don’t come to Australia without wanting to be on Team Australia.
That ties in a little bit to this idea of purity, and that we all know who belongs to Team Australia, what the characteristics of those people are, and who doesn’t belong, who is excluded by that term. He doesn’t need to say anything more. He can just use that idea, and everybody immediately knows what he’s talking about.
We had [President Barack] Obama, who was much more outwardly focused and more cosmopolitan, if you look at his own racial background as well. Here is an example of a global citizen. And then we have him followed by [President Donald] Trump.
It’s almost like there’s a pendulum swing. Part of me thinks that it’s the death throes of the nation-state, that the nation-state is trying to reassert itself under material conditions and ideological conditions that say, “No, this is just not going to work. This is not relevant. This is an anachronistic kind of political structure.”
The people — and it’s not to say that people are sheep, and we know that there are great grassroots movements, etc. — but the people do tend to take their lead from the political leaders.
As you were talking about that, I just pulled up something which was striking to me. It’s the speech that [Prime Minister] Scott Morrison made when he was bringing in, right at the start of COVID… You know they brought in a whole bunch of legislation to set up JobKeeper, JobSeeker, and so on. At the same time, they changed a lot of structures that would have been traditional. They nationalized the health system, they poured a whole lot of money into the economy to support people, etc.
Just in the little speech that he gave to bring that legislation in, he used the word “Australia” and “Australians” 37 times, and he used the word “sovereignty” nine times, which is really interesting. Can I give you a little snippet of that?
KOSTA: Yeah, I was just going to ask.
FARIDA: He says, “Today we act to protect Australia’s sovereignty”.
How is that what he’s doing? What’s it got to do with sovereignty when he’s talking about protecting Australians from a bug? What links is he making here?
“Today, we act to protect Australian sovereignty. When Australian lives and livelihoods are threatened, when they are under attack, our nation’s sovereignty is put at risk, and we must respond. Our sovereignty is measured in our capacity and freedom to live our lives as we choose in a free, open and democratic society. While people are being shut into their homes…” and so on.
It’s this weird statement. As these politicians do, he’s just using it as an opportunity for this particular dog-whistling to a particular set of constituents. Nation under risk, rather than individuals at risk. He’s using the nation in a context which is, you know, it’s about the threat that we face from —
KOSTA: It’s an objective threat. As in, it’s not an ideological threat. I mean, some people would argue that it is, and that’s a whole other discussion. But you’re right, it’s literally a virus.
FARIDA: That’s right. But he’s turning it into a national threat.
KOSTA: Why do you think that narrative is so seductive for leaders?
FARIDA: It’s seductive for them, because think of the alternative.
I keep using the terms “post-national” and “cosmopolitan” as interchangeable, but I do want to distinguish between the two. So “post-national” just means… It doesn’t mean anti-national, but it means moving beyond the nation-state to other sorts of political formation.
“Cosmopolitan” has more of a normative element to it — a recognition that we share an obligation with our fellow humans. So our obligation is not just to those people who live within a nation-state. It’s to all people as humans.
KOSTA: So is the point of distinction there that cosmopolitanism really is about an outlook on humanity and our sort of people and what differences mean within that broad collection of humanity, whereas post-nationhood is more about looking at different ways to see ourselves?
FARIDA: Yeah, and and ways to govern —
KOSTA: — or to actually organize as a society.
FARIDA: It’s less normative. And, you know, cosmopolitanism might attach to post-nationalism. But I think it’s a useful distinction to have.
So now I have to try to remember why I was talking about the distinction between cosmopolitanism and post-nationalism. And it was in relation to your question about —
KOSTA: — why this language is so seductive.
FARIDA: If you think about the idea of the post-nation, that means that these politicians will be out of a job. So there is a very personal interest in maintaining nationalism and maintaining a voting constituency who believes that that is the logical structure for governance. So we’re never going to get our politicians leading us into the post-nation.
Although, having said that, I want to contradict myself and say, we have the European Union. There’s the African Union as well. There are these sorts of movements around the world.
KOSTA: In that same — Oh, sorry, I don’t mean to interrupt.
FARIDA: No, no. Just to say that you have to have politicians who can see beyond their own personal interest in maintaining the nation-state as their little sovereign region that they run, that they’re in charge of.
KOSTA: If we look at just recent events, where we’re seeing a crumbling of that again, and people or groups of people wanting to claim their own collective sovereignty — however defined, because it’s hard sometimes to distinguish between sovereignty and nationhood, right? As an example, Brexit breaking away from the European Union, various ethnic conflicts within the greater Russia boundary nation, lots of fragmenting and secessionist groups…
I don’t know if this is the right read, but I’m getting the sense that people want to become smaller again, in some ways, or just to be more contained, or to have those boundaries more confined.
I feel like even some of that dialogue has been at play with the national response to COVID, in terms of West Australia being isolationist. That’s kind of in our state character, I think, just by virtue of being an isolated city in the world, where we do tend to think of ourselves as more independent.
But it’s almost being turned into this team sport kind of rhetoric, where it’s West Australians — the secessionists, the ones that never play along — versus the rest of Australia. Even then, you’ve got sovereign citizens’ movements. Again, another thing that is coalesced with extremism in recent years, or recent years in Australia, I should say. Actually, even then, that’s probably not accurate. But it’s just we’re seeing more of it.
But at the same time, the argument has been made that things like the European Union and the African Union are ways of giving countries enough appearance of sovereignty whilst actually being mechanisms of controlling and consolidating power for an elite few. There’s always an interplay between the elite few and the rest of us.
FARIDA: Yeah. And some have even argued that what the European Union is, is an externalizing of national borders. The responsibility to control the movements of people has just been ceded to this larger collective so the individual nation-state doesn’t have to worry about it. So it’s still exclusionary. It’s still about keeping people out. It’s an interesting phenomenon.
And you mentioned Western Australia. There’s a new political party now, NWA, which is a secessionist party. And you wouldn’t think —
KOSTA: Wait, there’s a formal political party?
FARIDA: Yeah, it was on the news a couple of nights ago.
KOSTA: [sighs] Oh boy. I’ll be watching that closely.
FARIDA: Yeah, yeah. It’s astonishing.
Just a personal anecdote… When I was doing my PhD, we were living in New Zealand, and I realized I was talking at cross-purposes with some of my PhD buddies. We would talk about all sorts of interesting stuff related to what they were studying or what I was studying. I realized that there was a mismatch between what our visions of the future were.
So I asked them, “What do you guys think the world is going to look like in 100 years?” And they all imagined what you’ve just described — a world of smaller and smaller units of homogenous people. People would self-select into smaller and smaller communities of like-minded people, of people who were similar in various ways.
Whereas my vision… And I fully recognize that that’s because of my weird mixed background, where I come from a mixed marriage, an Indian American who was raised in a particular religion in another country, and then grew up for part of my life in Australia. So I have all these connections around the world. I see myself as one of these global cosmopolitan citizens, and don’t feel a strong affinity with the nation-state. And so my vision of what the world would be like in 100 years, was that the nation-state, yes, would have crumbled, but not to produce these smaller entities.
KOSTA: Like micro-states.
FARIDA: The danger of that is that the vision is one of similar people. Basically, that’s conceding that we can’t live together with difference.
KOSTA: When we have so much evidence to the contrary, right?
KOSTA: I mean, what are the alternatives then? We talk about thinking beyond the nation-state. I think the natural question people have is, what are the alternatives?
What do you see as the different ways that we can live together? Are there any examples that really stick out to you as something to pay attention to, or noteworthy, or just something to consider?
FARIDA: I think the European Union is an interesting example. Also the United Nations gets a lot of bagging. But when you actually see them in action, it’s quite inspiring, the ways in which people come together to try to solve the world’s problems at the UN and all its various organizations associated.
KOSTA: It’s a monolith. But it’s a monolith with all these [heads]. It’s a hydra.
FARIDA: The problem with the United Nations is that it’s the United Nations. So it’s still giving power to the notion of the nation-state.
KOSTA: I guess the United Sovereigns of United People doesn’t have…
KOSTA: That’s a really good point. I never really thought of that.
FARIDA: Yeah. But then when you move away from that, and you talk about global governance, or world government or something like that, people get very nervous with ideas like that. Because they see it as automatically —
KOSTA: It’s a recurring feature in a lot of conspiracy theories.
FARIDA: Yes, conspiracy theories and sci-fi movies and so on. It’s seen as something fundamentally dangerous. I think that’s really interesting.
If the current nation-state is not seen as dangerous in that sort of way, then why, if we imagine that on a global scale, does it suddenly become menacing? Is it because that’s the only option?
Then there are ways in which to ensure that you’ve got democratic processes for representation, etc. There are ways of doing that, particularly with developments in technology, etc. So it’s interesting that we have this frightened reaction.
KOSTA: A kind of collective neurosis around it.
FARIDA: Yeah. And again, is that because we simply cannot think outside the nation-state?
But we don’t have any trouble thinking, for example, of a federated system. Many nations have their own system of states, etc, internally. There’s no suggestion that people should be blocked from movements internally. So why do we think that it’s so natural that we should block people from moving between one country and another?
KOSTA: I guess, because as soon as you talk about anything that implies a border, it can be framed as a preservation thing as well as simultaneously an exclusion thing too. Perhaps there’s that understandable, but not necessarily true, thing that follows — that with boundaries comes control and restrictions.
If you look at even the rhetoric of a lot of extremist movements at the moment, there’s real fixation with not wanting to be controlled. We’re seeing much more visibility on libertarian views, extremist movements that talk about this idea of not being controlled by these big shadowy entities.
For me, there’s a real tension between this idea of not wanting to be controlled and actually collaborating with people and seeing it as, “You can have well-drawn parameters of who you are and who you are as a collective, [but] not at the exclusion of other people”. Is that a fair observation?
FARIDA: Yeah. I think, if we’re talking about borders, again, a lot of the restrictions are kind of arbitrary. If you look at, for example, Australia’s border regime — we’ve seen an increasing securitization of our borders and desire to keep people out and define who belongs internally. And maybe we can have a bit of a chat about the values, the value statement, and that sort of stuff.
KOSTA: I want to talk about values, yeah.
FARIDA: But if you actually think about the rules for who can come into Australia and who can’t, they’re really quite arbitrary. If you have enough money, you can basically get a business visa to work in Australia.
KOSTA: Surprise, surprise. [laughs]
FARIDA: I always find it a bit ironic when people criticize asylum seekers for being “cashed up”, that they’re able to buy their way on a boat to Australia, etc. I think, well, that’s built into the Australian migration system. It’s just that they don’t have enough money to come through those means.
We have an open border policy, more or less, with New Zealand. Now, why New Zealand but not Papua New Guinea? In fact, Papua New Guinea actually pointed that out recently and said, “Why is it that our seasonal fruit pickers have to go through all these rigmaroles and promises that they’re going to go back home afterwards, when New Zealanders don’t?” And there you see how the White Australia policy is still visible.
KOSTA: Yeah, that rears its head. And we haven’t even talked about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians yet.
FARIDA: No, no. That’s sort of a special case where arguments around moving beyond the nation-state become problematic.
There are political scientists who argue that the only way to ensure that people have rights is through the nation-state. You might have an idea that there are human rights that are inalienable and belong to everybody in the world. But how do you enforce those? There is no international body that is able to enforce those. It is only through the nation-state that those are able to be enforced. So that’s an argument for the nation-state.
KOSTA: That’s carefully worded, though, isn’t it? Because it’s not saying we have to identify as people, to a nation-state, in order to be who we think we are or to coexist, right? The nation-state is responsible for the enforcement of rights.
FARIDA: Yes, yes.
KOSTA: But it’s not saying the only way to have a nation-state is to identify with it. I guess there seems to be a missing link with what that means culturally, and how people actually live in the everyday world. Sociologically, what does that mean?
FARIDA: Yeah. There is this distinction between ethnic nationalism and civic nationalism. Theorists have argued that we’ve been moving towards more civic nationalism, which is a nationalism based on pride in the structure of our political system, and a sense of obligation to that, and allegiance to the political system, as opposed to allegiance to a particular kind of people as a single ethnic group.
But getting back to what you were saying about Indigenous people… The argument that the nation-state is the entity which can protect the rights of Indigenous people, for example, is a reasonable kind of argument. On the other hand, you can say —
KOSTA: It’s also fraught.
FARIDA: It’s the nation-state that caused the problems in the first place.
If you take Australia, the US, Canada and New Zealand (where these are colonial settler nation-states), that nation-state is the reason that the Indigenous people have been oppressed. I don’t see the nation-state as any guarantee that Indigenous peoples’ rights will be protected.
But there must be ways within a more global perspective to ensure that the rights of people — for example, the Australian Indigenous people who have been here for over 60,000 years — that their rights are given a priority. So yes, everybody has a set of rights. But you know, these guys were here for —
KOSTA: — for 60,000 years compared to 400, right?
FARIDA: Yeah, that’s right. [laughs]
KOSTA: I admit, I have a lot of work to do in terms of learning about our true Australian history, the pre-1700s or even before that. (Well, as much as you can learn about 60,000 years with the current information we’ve got.)
But it sounds like we could seek to learn a lot from how Indigenous groups organized before we even got here. I’m not sure what the number is of how many language groups existed in Australia before we started to colonize…
FARIDA: Yeah, I’m not sure.
KOSTA: But it’s in the hundreds, right?
KOSTA: To me that says, well, that’s interesting, because maybe in common parlance, we’d call them little nations, or we would just call them groups that just lived side by side. I know you did a lot of study. Did you study the New Zealand context in terms of Maori people?
FARIDA: Yeah, we happened to be living in New Zealand when I did my PhD there. And so, yeah, I know a little bit about the Maori context.
KOSTA: Are they analogous in any way in terms of how Maori groups organized, and then how that changed? I know, New Zealand is different, probably a bit more advanced in that conversation in terms of acknowledging First Nation rights. But are there any lessons for us from that?
FARIDA: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. But, yeah, there are fundamental differences. In terms of the lifestyles of the people before colonization… While there is now quite a bit of evidence that Indigenous Australians were not simply hunters and gatherers, that they did actually farm, etc. The Maori were much more stable in terms of having established farming and so on.
One of the fundamental differences is that a treaty was signed in New Zealand. There was a war and a treaty was signed. Now, there are all sorts of problems with the treaty. For example, the Maori-language version is different from the English-language version, so they were signing different things.
KOSTA: I wonder what international legal scholars have to say about that. [laughs]
FARIDA: So there is argument about the meaning of some of the terms that were used, and the ceding of sovereignty, and what sovereignty meant in the different languages, and so on.
But it set up a legal foundation from which Maori have been able to argue for certain rights. The result of that can be seen in some of the political systems — dedicated seats in Parliament, parallel justice systems, parallel education systems, etc. But they also can be seen in the… not the sense of pride, because, of course, Indigenous peoples have a sense of pride here in Australia as well. But in New Zealand, they were starting from a footing ahead, because of that treaty.
KOSTA: It was elevated there. Their sort of standing was elevated.
FARIDA: Yes. In terms of their personal senses of who they are, they weren’t completely trampled on in the way that Australian Indigenous peoples were.
KOSTA: That speaks to your earlier point about the idea that the nation-state possibly is the way to protect rights, whilst not necessarily trampling over people’s cultural, ethnic origins or affiliations. On a continuum of perfect to imperfect, a bit further along than us, I would say?
FARIDA: Yeah, yeah. I mean, all you need to agree with is that there needs to be some sort of political structure that will recognize those Indigenous people. Now whether that political structure is at the nation-state level or the city-state level or the international level, you need some sort of political structure that will recognize those rights and enforce them.
KOSTA: And that’s at once representative, but not too invested, or people have too many personal… Yeah, that’s also an interesting tension, where you want something to be representative, which means you probably have a personal interest in the outcome, without being too personally invested in it, right?
FARIDA: Yes, yeah, that’s a tension.
KOSTA: I think that’s always a tension in every political system or any sort of formal system you design.
I guess we’ll just circle back to the citizenship test and just this idea of Australian values. I agree with you in that you hear things like “Team Australia”, “Australian values”, “citizenship test”, and there is this deeply ingrained understanding of what that really means.
I don’t know. I’m just going to invite your thoughts on it, because I just have so many questions. Where are we at in that conversation right now?
I don’t know. It just generates a lot of feelings for me that I just really feel uncomfortable with. What are your thoughts?
FARIDA: Yeah, I’m the same.
I just read out the part of a paragraph from [Prime Minister Scott] Morrison talking in the COVID context. And when the Acting Minister for [Immigration, Citizenship, Migrant Services and Multicultural Affairs], Minister Alan Tudge — when he announced that he was bringing in changes to the citizenship test to include more values questions and a change to the value statement (which is a statement not just that people who want to become citizens must sign, but it’s a statement that any migrant to Australia has to sign), he framed it in terms of COVID again.
It’s bizarre. He praised the multicultural communities within Australia for their response to COVID, for looking after their people and helping out in a range of different ways, and actually gave some examples, and then somehow segued into the fact that we therefore need stronger commitment to Australian values. Very, very bizarre.
When you look at the value statement, it is interesting in itself. It identifies certain Australian values, including respect for freedom and dignity of the individual, freedom of religion, commitment to the rule of law, parliamentary democracy, equality of men and women, a spirit of egalitarianism that embraces mutual respect, tolerance, fair play and compassion for those in need, and pursuit of the public good. Australian society values equality of opportunity for individuals, regardless of their religion or ethnic background. And English is the national language. So that’s a set of values that are identified in the Australian values statement.
KOSTA: And on the first reading of that, they don’t sound particularly controversial.
FARIDA: No, they don’t sound [controversial]. I think what’s interesting about these values is that they’re basically cosmopolitan values, but they’re being recruited for nationalist ends.
KOSTA: Oh, I’ve never seen that before. [laughs]
FARIDA: Yeah, yeah, that’s right. They’re Australian values, Kosta.
Nick Haslam, who’s a social psychologist, has actually done a study. He’s compared national values across 80 different countries. There’s a well-known values test (the Schwartz Values Test), so you can compare across 80 different countries.
What he found about Australian values is that they are the second least distinctive of all those 80 countries. We are completely average in terms of our values. So to call anything Australian values is a bit of a joke really, because these are values that are actually shared across 80+ countries.
So that Australian value statement — that was the old one. That’s not the new one that [Minister Alan] Tudge was talking about bringing in, which has slight modifications, which I’ll just talk about briefly in a second.
But that earlier one — I included questions about that in a survey that I did. About 90% of the respondents said that they agreed that, “Yep, those are Australian values. This statement reflects Australian values.”
About 80% agreed that migrants should have to sign the value statement, so there’s overwhelming support for the idea of a values statement.
50% think that migrants should be deported if they breach those values. Not laws. These are not laws, these are values, okay? So half of the population thinks that we should send migrants home if they don’t abide by the values.
But then I was mucking around with the ideas a little bit. So usually the next question you would ask would be, “Do you think Muslims share these values?” Because that’s who these values are directed against often. When the idea of Australian values is used —
KOSTA: Especially when deportation comes into the conversation.
FARIDA: You know who the target group is. So I didn’t ask a question about Muslims.
I asked whether people thought that members of the Catholic Church hold these values. And interestingly, only 34% of the respondents said that they thought the Catholic Church [did].
So it’s interesting that people can actually recognize that even though in a general sense, they like this idea of values, that there are sections of the population that don’t espouse those values.
KOSTA: My question is just, what if a non-migrant (however defined) breaches those values?
FARIDA: Yeah, I should have asked that as a question.
KOSTA: Where do you send them? Jail? [laughs]
FARIDA: But interestingly I also asked, “Should Australians adapt these values if migrants can improve them?”
KOSTA: Ah, interesting.
FARIDA: If migrants could bring us a new set of values, which would improve these —
KOSTA: That we all like.
FARIDA: Yeah. And 49% agreed with that statement.
There’s this sort of contradiction in people’s attitudes, right? That they like the “Rah rah, Australia’s great. These are our values, and anyone who doesn’t stick by them, we’re gonna throw them out.”
But they also have internalized enough of Australia’s multicultural ethos to recognize that also migrants might bring something of value to us. That it could be a positive thing.
KOSTA: To think of it more as an exchange rather than a trade off, right?
FARIDA: Exactly. Which is the whole idea of what “integration” as opposed to “assimilation” actually is.
There are a few changes that are being brought in as a result of Tudge’s statement. The main one is that, rather than simply being asked whether they will respect those values, people now have to sign up saying that they will conduct themselves in accordance with these values.
How do you conduct yourself in accordance with values as opposed to accordance with laws?
KOSTA: Well, who’s the judge?
FARIDA: Who’s going to police it, and who’s going to judge it? If people are not demonstrating equality of men and women… Does that mean that we can take to court the companies that are paying women 80% of the salary of men? Again, it’s this sort of dog-whistling conservatism, all in the name of nationalism.
KOSTA: It really just hits home, that tension between control and collaboration, right?
KOSTA: That, for me, is a really salient theme — I don’t want to be told what to do or how to do things, and these are my boundaries, and the people like me have the same outlook as me. Whereas the reality is, in a place like Australia… I really think of Australia, potentially more than most countries, we have the potential to be a microcosm of the world as it is.
KOSTA: This has been a really thought-provoking conversation, but what do we do with this information?
FARIDA: That’s a really good question. And, of course, that’s where we have to start. So two immediate things come to mind.
One is to try to recognize where we are being manipulated, in terms of the way we’re thinking. So when we hear government officials talking in terms of the nation-state —
KOSTA: Especially in terms of COVID.
FARIDA: — in terms of COVID, in terms of Australian values, in terms of Team Australia, recognize that for what it is. There’s some other interesting research, which demonstrates that for most Australians, part of their nationalistic pride is around multiculturalism.
Our sense of Australia as a great nation — part of that sits on this idea that we’re a great nation because we have diversity, because we’ve allowed migrants from many different backgrounds, because we have supported people in living that diversity within the community, etc.
So recognize that exclusionary nationalism for what it is, and lean in towards the multicultural version of nationalism as a step on the road to being able to think beyond the nation-state as the crucible within which we have to think about ourselves in terms of our identity, in which we govern ourselves, etc.
Part of that is also that there is a whole lot of research that demonstrates that cross-cultural interactions, that friendships between majorities and minorities, that interpersonal friendships are the way to break down prejudices and barriers, to move away from discriminatory action.
So, again, if everybody in their individual lives can think about ways in which they could make that step towards engaging with the Other… We, in sociological theory, use the idea of the “Other” with a capital O as the general category of person who we think of as fundamentally different from us, who doesn’t deserve the same rights as us, who should be kept outside our circle. Trying to engage with those people — prejudices drop away.
The literature demonstrates that people who come into a relationship like that, with certain sets of stereotypes and preconceived ideas —
KOSTA: Can I just throw in… Because I agree, fundamentally. I just want to throw in a provocation here, as just a challenging thought to see how you would navigate this. I think this is where the role of social media becomes really important to consider.
We see a lot of people on social media get in trouble for things they’ve written in the past, where they’ve invoked racial or homophobic slurs. They’re at a point in their life, where they’re quite young, maybe not really understanding the history or meaning of those words they’re using. And what you’ll often hear from a segment of those people is, “I grew up around black friends, I can say that. I grew up around gay friends, I can say that.” Arguably, they’ve embraced that in their own lives, but have failed to…
Is the extra challenge with social media, or just more visibility? (It’s not even just social media that represents more visibility, I would say.) Is there a challenge, then, in what sense we make of that?
I guess what I’m trying to say is, they would argue that they’ve tried to do that. And now they’re being punished for it because people are imposing their standards on that person.
They’re not necessarily seeing their responsibility from a private setting to a public setting — where, in a private setting, you can negotiate the meaning of those words, where the interactions between friends are possibly more equal, or whatever it is. How do you embrace that responsibly, I guess, is what I would say?
FARIDA: There’s a number of things there.
One is that discourse analysts have demonstrated that “some of my best friends are black but…” is a very common phrase that gets used to justify the critical thing that is going to be said. So you need to be careful that anybody who’s using that argument is not just using it in that rhetorical sense to justify what they’re saying, to get away with what they’re saying.
KOSTA: I mean, more on the good faith stuff, where people are like, “But my friends say it’s okay. Therefore, why isn’t it okay for everyone else?”
FARIDA: Yeah. That, then, is simply about having open dialogues. Again, the anti-racism literature does demonstrate that sharing openly, developing a sense of empathy… And we have this “cancel culture” thing —
KOSTA: Yeah, that’s a big discussion.
FARIDA: — where you’re shut off from actually engaging in these really difficult conversations. I often think we talk about multiculturalism in Australia, but often what we’re demonstrating is multiracialism. “I’ve got some Asian-looking friends, etc, so long as they are culturally the same as me.”
KOSTA: Interesting. Because it’s a diversity of what?
FARIDA: Exactly. We talk about the Cultural Iceberg. The tip of the iceberg is the things that we see. So it’s visible differences —
KOSTA: Generally the unchanging things, right?
FARIDA: Yeah. And food, and language, and so on. But below is the fundamental differences in ways of being in the world, differences of values, etc. And it’s that stuff that we need to be having more open and deeper conversations about.
But we’re not going to get anywhere if we stop talking about it. Obviously, that’s a pat answer to say, “We need to talk. We need dialogue.”
KOSTA: But it’s recurring for a reason, obviously. Because my feeling is, we also need to redefine what we mean by conversation, because it’s a really bastardized concept.
We think of it as just an exchange of words between two people, when really, if you look at the research in Conversation Therapy and Narrative Therapy, it’s actually a way of doing and being like in any sort of relationship.
So, you know, nonverbal cues — it’s not confined to one interaction. It’s a sustained interaction across a period of time. It’s just about people. It’s what people do and how they exist in a particular relationship. So when we have tough conversations, it’s not just an exchange of uncomfortable words. It’s actually around action as it exists within a relationship with others.
So would it be fair to say that maybe we need to redefine what we mean by “tough conversations” as well? Because you need to level the playing field first in order for people to feel like they can engage in a tough conversation.
FARIDA: Absolutely. And that there are all sorts of power differentials out there, like gender and —
KOSTA: It’s my Conflict Analyst hat coming on, but I just can’t get past that point…
FARIDA: We didn’t talk about the flag study. Do you want to talk about flags?
KOSTA: Let’s talk about the flag study. I’ll let you lead that one. [laughs]
FARIDA: It’s just another example of the sort of stuff we’ve been taught.
KOSTA: How long ago was that one?
FARIDA: The data was collected in the Australia Day of 2011. And so it was published and got a lot of news covering it… It was the Australia Day kind of news story. You know, “Crazy academics suggest the flag is associated with racism”. Oh, God. [laughs]
For 2012. So yeah, it’s a while ago now. It seems like we’ve mostly moved past the “flags on cars” thing. It might have been a phase for a few years. But, at that stage, it was one in four cars had flags on them.
That was a survey comparing people who put flags on their cars to people who don’t, on a range of measures of nationalism, particularly exclusionary nationalism. So I asked questions like, “How do you feel about particular minority groups?” One was a statement about the White Australia policy and whether Australia had been saved from a lot of the problems of other countries by having the White Australia policy, etc.
Surprise, surprise, the people who have flags on their cars were more negative about minorities, more positive in terms of Australian nationalism about Australia, and more exclusionary generally.
People got very, very upset by those findings, because it seemed to people as though I was saying that the Australian flag is racist. That wasn’t what I was saying. What I was doing was reporting findings, which suggested that there’s an association, a correlation between exclusionary nationalism and flag use.
So the flag was coming to be associated —
KOSTA: It’s being used as a fence or a shield.
FARIDA: Exactly. And that was around the time when the flag was being used at the Cronulla Riots. People who looked racially different were being forced by a gang to kiss the flag. So it was being used as a weapon. The flag, in that period (2007-2010), was being used in that way.
All that research showed was that we were moving perhaps from a more multicultural version of Australian nationalism to a more restrictive, exclusionary version of Australian nationalism. I was just asking the question when I actually wrote up the paper, “Are we handing the flag (the flag being symbolic of the Australian nation) to the people on the more extreme fringes in terms of kind of racist attitudes, etc?”
KOSTA: When really we could be punishing people. I mean, if we’re talking about enforcing rights… Not that we should be punishing people. But if it was really about how we use the flag and how we live our values, then if multiculturalism is a value, then we shouldn’t be using the flag as a way to be racist or to be exclusionary.
FARIDA: Yeah, that’s right.
KOSTA: But because that’s not being policed in quite the same way, the underlying message is that it’s okay to use the flag in that way. If we let people behave in a racist and violent way, use the flag with very little consequences, then the message that’s being sent is that the flag is okay to be used in that way when it’s not okay to be used in another way.
I think of the Australia Day billboard where it was two young women. One of them had an Australia Day flag — it had been fashioned into a hijab.
FARIDA: Yes, that’s right.
KOSTA: That sparked a lot of discussion. It’s just amazing what that revealed about what people saw in that image, which wasn’t a violent image. But because of all the subtext, apparently, that it represented for certain people based on what they believed, that was a really revealing insight.
Just as a way to start to wrap up… We’ve talked about this pendulum a bit, from the outward global focus to the more inward “preservationist” focus.
What does that say about the people in those societies? Democratic institutions being as they are… If we take them as, “There’s no corruption we can identify in terms of our electoral processes, and no vote-stealing, or anything like that.” What does that say about the people voting for these institutions?
What does it say about how society lives together at the moment, if we’re swinging between these poles in a very short amount of time? Can you observe anything at that social level, about what that says?
FARIDA: I think it’s partly what we’ve been talking about in terms of the need for more dialogue. I fear that the way our democratic system has evolved, with the two party system… We’ve seen this in the US where, in some ways, they’ve centralized in terms of economic policy and so on, but social policy is becoming more bifurcated.
We have seen, again… Some researchers have tracked the way… For example, [former Prime Minister] John Howard. We can say what we like about his political rhetoric, but he actually instituted all of Pauline Hanson’s platform. He recognized that he had lost 10% of his vote to Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party way back when. So he just quietly instituted all of her policies, so that that constituency would come back to voting for the Libs.
If the center-right party is directing its… There’s about 50% of the population that votes for each side, right? So it’s the people on the fringes that these political parties are having to —
FARIDA: Yes, court, exactly. Then that can be a dangerous thing. So how do we move beyond that? We need a less antagonistic system of government.
KOSTA: A less team-sport oriented system.
FARIDA: Yeah. The team sport is okay if you’re all on the same team. There needs to be opportunities for mediated discussions —
KOSTA: And healthy competition, like competition of genuine ideas or competition of genuine merit.
FARIDA: Yes, exactly. Exactly. And then concession. Nowadays, political parties just don’t concede to each other.
KOSTA: Or it’s not really picked up in news. Like all the stuff that happens in Question Time or where they’re like, “Yep, all good”, like everyone in the chamber votes for something. But you don’t really hear about that stuff.
FARIDA: No, that’s right.
KOSTA: But that fact is covered a lot. That’s something that’s repeated in media — that we don’t hear about this stuff. We don’t hear about this stuff enough. Then, well, tell us.
FARIDA: You’re the ones telling us! [laughs]
KOSTA: You’re reporting on yourselves, so it’s ridiculous. Anyway, that’s by the by.
FARIDA: That also leads to a recognition of the importance of having a free press. The Australian situation is —
FARIDA: Very problematic.
People revert to online media sources because they’re not trusting the mainstream sources. But with those online sources, people end up in their own echo chamber, finding the news that speaks to them, which again mitigates against the opportunity to engage in a dialogue across those differences.
KOSTA: And there’s a bit of a… It’s interesting, that question, and probably the subject for a whole other discussion, but just as a thought to throw out there.
When I teach at uni, I teach terrorism and extremist violence. Well, I teach about it. I don’t teach it to my students. [laughs]
One experiment I like to play on them is: I sourced a graph, an x-y graph, which maps… Actually, it’s more of a Cartesian plane, like the x and y-axis and the cross. On the x-axis, you’ve got political ideology, and on the y-axis, you’ve got journalistic rigor. Someone has done a mapping exercise where they’ve looked at Australian media and just plotted the different sources along it. It might not be perfect, but it’s generally in the ballpark of right.
So I’ll say to my students, “Here’s this map. I want you to choose the three that you regularly…” I’ll ask the question first, “How many news sources do you consult for your information?” (The average is always between three to four, across the three different classes I’ve run this with.) I’m like, “Can you pick out which of those three are on here? Or write in where you think your third or second one is, where on this graph they fall.”
So they’ll do that. And then I’ll be like, “What do you notice? So all around the center?” And they’ll be like, “Okay.” “But have you also noticed how close those sources are to each other?” And quite often, almost without fail… There’s always exceptions, obviously, but the sources they identify are in clusters, rather than spread along this spectrum.
I find that really interesting. You’re corroborating, you’re triangulating your information on source media that is very close to each other. What effect do you think that has on your worldview, even for the stuff you’re not actively consuming? Just to see the same thing written about by three different media outlets, it probably has an effect. It probably consolidates knowledge, because you’re like, “They’re all reporting the same thing, therefore this.”
But then if you want to venture to those extreme sites, it can come at quite an emotional cost. As a researcher in extremism, I have to check that effect. It’s like, cool, I want to go look at the other side. And I hate saying that. But, you know, trying to look at the other side of the spectrum. Let’s see what they’re writing.
The amount of crap (in terms of racist, homophobic, just hateful, bad faith stuff) that you have to wade through in order to even just understand some of the more moderate stuff is huge. So it becomes really undesirable to even do that. Just based on the fact that I’m gonna have to wade through a lot of racist, sexist, homophobic crap in order for me to just try and get an understanding. If they’re okay with that, or if they’re not dealing with that, then they must be okay with it.
So can you see what I’m getting at here? To have a healthy, robust discussion sometimes… And if you’re on the other side of the spectrum, and you think that being progressive and — what’s the word that’s used?
FARIDA: Bleeding heart liberal.
KOSTA: Bleeding heart liberal, social justice warrior. If you find that stuff offensive, regardless of what you think, if that makes people upset on that side, then they’re going to be less inclined to engage with some of the other stuff that’s being said as well and what the truth is.
It’s a really interesting tension I’ve noticed, in terms of trying to augment our worldview using media. So I think the role of media in how we look at post-nationhood is really important, because to access the possibilities, you have to wade through a lot of things that will really upset you, perhaps even traumatize you if you’re looking at it all the time.
This is just putting you on the spot, but do you have any thoughts on how to bridge ideological divides whilst protecting ourselves?
FARIDA: It’s a good question. There’s some research by Anne Pedersen and colleagues which looks at anti-racism and the sorts of strategies that work, the sorts of arguments that work, the provision of facts and the development of empathy and the use of emotion, etc.
We wrote a paper actually, Anne and I together. We called it “Diablogging about asylum seekers”.
KOSTA: Diablogging. That’s great.
FARIDA: It was just one blog discussion that was responses to an article in The Australian by Phillip Adams. It divided almost equally. In terms of 100 posts, 50 were pro and 50 were anti. But they were doing this dialogue. They were actually talking to each other. Now, there’s no way of knowing whether anybody’s position changed at the end of it. But I think that what you need are opportunities for that interaction.
KOSTA: So it comes down to social, right?
FARIDA: Yeah. Going and looking at — what’s the word?
KOSTA: The loudest voices.
FARIDA: Yeah, the loudest voice on a still website.
KOSTA: And it’s static, isn’t it?
FARIDA: Yeah, static. As opposed to an interactional opportunity.
KOSTA: That’s a very good point.
FARIDA: There was a lot of name-calling from that side, which was really interesting, whereas the pro-asylum seekers tended not to use name-calling as much. But they tended to use the provision of facts.
KOSTA: Which smacks of elitism, doesn’t it? Sometimes.
FARIDA: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. And you wonder whether, you know, a fact is actually going to convince people, or would some sort of recognition of emotion such as, “I recognize that you feel threatened by what you see as a challenge to your culture or a challenge to the economy of migrants buying up houses or whatever”? That attempt at empathy might actually work. Some of the research suggests that.
KOSTA: It goes a lot further, doesn’t it?
FARIDA: A lot further than the provision of facts — that there is no queue, they’re not queue-jumpers, that sort of stuff.
KOSTA: So really you’re talking about bringing nuance and humanizing the conversation?
FARIDA: Absolutely. I found it very interesting, Biden’s inauguration speech yesterday. He spent a lot of time talking about the need for respect and for Americans to start reacquainting themselves with the concept and treating other people with respect. He said that the people who work for him in the White House and so on, that he will be expecting respect, for each of them to treat each other with respect.
The point he was making was a wider point — that regardless of the position that you might hold, the attitudes that you might have, that we need to engage with each other from a position of respect.
All of my research is on racism. But I’m astonished at how I can kind of see the perspective, I can understand the point of view of people when I’m interviewing them and they say, “I’m not racist, but…” Given their circumstances, given their worldview, you can actually understand why they have that attitude.
So that’s the point at which we have to then start the conversation. Might be easier said than done. But we’re not going to get anywhere without that.
KOSTA: And it’s better to think of these as a long-term relationship, rather than an interaction that is designed to change minds.
KOSTA: Because everything you said, I feel like, has come down to the quality of the relationships we have in our everyday and how that is either reinforced or supported by our governing structures — like a nation-state, like a city-state, whatever it is, whoever is responsible for protecting the rights. How they view out those interactions, or what opportunities they create for them to happen, says a lot. People pick up on that, regardless of their ideological persuasion. That’s cool.
FARIDA: That’s right. And that’s what the research shows, that it’s about the quality.
There’s been thousands of studies done on this Contact Hypothesis or Contact Theory, which is about where you have people who hold prejudices about the other group. You get them together. It has to be under conditions where there is institutional support for it, where there’s a signal to say “We like the idea of you guys interacting with each other”, and where the relationship is sustained and a deeper-level relationship.
KOSTA: And also letting people decide what they do with that space, rather than assigning roles to people?
KOSTA: Because then that speaks to that fixation of control that we have. We can create the environments, but create enough opportunity for creativity on how people interact with each other. As long as there’s baseline understanding of respect, just on the basis of being human, then people will organize themselves, I would think. If the supporting structures are strong enough.
FARIDA: Yes, absolutely.
KOSTA: Yeah, great. I think that’s probably a good note to wrap things up. Thank you so much for joining us for a really, really thought-provoking conversation.
FARIDA: Thank you. It was quite fun. [laughs]
KOSTA: You’ve been listening to Undesign, a series of conversations about the big issues that matter to all of us. Undesign is made possible by the wonderful team at DrawHistory. If you want to learn more about each guest or each topic, we have curated a suite of resources and reflections for you on our Undesign page at www.drawhistory.com.
Thank you to the talented Jimmie Linville for editing and mixing our audio. Special thank you to our guests for joining us and showing us how important we all are in redesigning our world’s futures. And last but not least, a huge thank you to you, our dear listeners, for joining us on this journey of discovery and hope. The future needs you.
Make sure you stay on the journey with us by subscribing to Undesign on Apple, Spotify, and wherever else podcasts are available.
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