Tuesday, July 5, 2016

So many points of no return.

Just before Australians cast their votes in our most indecisive election ever , the leader of the Liberal party and incumbent Prime minister gave an address to the National Press Club. The answers he gave to some questions touched on a theme of interest to me. It’s the theme that everything hangs in the balance or that we are at a point of no return.

A question from Catherine McGrath from SBS television about engagement with multi-ethnic Australia prompted a response that oddly was able to include this sentiment;

“Right across our nation, the choice on Saturday is clear - my team, a stable Coalition majority Government, with a clear national economic plan that will enable Australians in all of their diversity to realise their dreams.
On the other hand, the chaos, the uncertainty, the debt, the deficit, the higher taxes slowing investment, deterring employment, depriving Australians of those opportunities – that is the choice. It’s a clear one.”

A question from Catalina Florez for Network Ten about the Prime Ministers security in his own leadership was deflected with this idea;

“Catalina a win for the Coalition on Saturday is critically important for the future of 24 million Australians. It’s critically important for their children and their grandchildren. It’s critically important for the generations that are yet unborn.”

This could be considered standard political rhetoric. An incumbent government will always want to hype the risk of change, especially when it has only been in power for one term. Suggesting that voting for the other team will bring descending chaos is par for the course.

It is not surprising then to find similar sentiments from the main opposition party, or from minor parties. The issue might be the health system, public television, the environment or some vaguely racist Australian way of life but the tone is the same; everything hangs in the balance, this is the point of no return. Vote for me or we're doomed!

I am not writing this blog to scoff at this rhetoric. There are ways in which I consider the stakes high enough and the choices stark enough to make exactly such statements justified. The Great barrier reef is in very dire straits, possibly past the point of no return. The removal of protections for Aboriginal sacred sites in Western Australia will commit damage that cannot ever be undone. If we sign the TPP we will have shackled ourselves legally to support more rights for corporations than governments and cannot simply walk away. A line was crossed when we gave our immigration minister the capacity to remove people’s citizenship. We need a commissioner to investigate the abuse on Nauru before the perpetrators crawl under some rock and evidence is destroyed.

I believe everything I’ve stated in the above paragraph so I am not trying to mock claims that we face critical junctions. In fact I often suspect we are wired to dismiss catastrophic language out of hand. I think we might very well carry a sense of our own absolute importance and believe that this protects us, individually, nationally and globally from anything too bad. I remember a story of a musician who fell out of a second story window one day and only just survived. It was the moment when they realize they were not guaranteed a starring role in life; they could just be the guy who dies in the first act. Most of us don’t have that realization. Religiously there seems to be a similar sort of denial that climate change is really real, as if God would never let it happen to us. Nationally we want to believe that a mining boom was evidence of our hard work or national destiny, not a lucky streak we have ridden while our manufacturing has dried up and blown away. I don't think we are too special to  be doomed.

What I do want to do is ask, “What are the implications of a genuine belief that we might pass a point of no return on a matter of deep importance?” In life we must often cope with holding a sincere high stakes view of a particular choice and the awareness that we don't control how that choice will be resolved. This might be because we accept that we share that choice with so many others in a democracy. It might be because we see the world around us as largely idiots led by liars. Either way we know we might lose in a contest of ideas even when everything hangs in the balance.

One solution is to make personal choices and support causes that match our values, separate to the political process. During the election campaign our family came close to hosting a survivor of Nauru currently on a bridging visa who was stuck without housing in Bendigo. Bridging visa’s preclude housing services from being able to offer much assistance and a robbery had left him without means. He left Bendigo for work on the Murray instead which reflected his discomfort with taking charity (and probably not our messy house). Our name is now linked with Rural Australians for Refugees, as a potential site of accommodation. I’m not saying this to brag (we didn’t actually do anything) but because this, plus weekly tutoring we do for a family of Karen refugees, is how my family copes with having little political control over the high stakes matter of Australia’s refugee policy. Other people make the choice to foster, donate to services for the homeless, establish farmers markets, or fund-raise for solar panels on schools. Taking these actions can help us cope with fast approaching dooms we can't convince our leaders to care about.

Sometimes we refuse to tolerate our slide towards disaster. I can think of many times when I have admired direct action to oppose injustice despite the democratic will of the majority. My hear swelled with genuine adoration of the people who refused to allow a Quantas flight to take a refugee back to persecution in 2015. There is obviously a danger of elitism to this. How do I know that I am right to stand against the will of the majority. As any student of history shows however majorities don't just get it wrong as often as individuals they get it even wronger in more spectacular fashion. My last post which mentions the Heroic Imagination Project raised the very point that obedience to social norms is evils best friend.

What consideration should we show other people’s dread that something is a matter of extra-ordinarily high stakes and beyond their control. If we share their understanding of the issue we can lock arms around shoulders and cry together. But what if I don't agree with the weight they give the matter? I know people who felt the inability of midwives to obtain insurance for homebirths was tantamount to disaster. It just didn't rate like that for me but do I owe them any allowance for the grief and outrage that I understand in principle? And what if we are opposed to their view; do we owe them any graciousness even as we work for the very outcome they perceive as catastrophic? What graciousness could be meaningful short of a concession to their strong feeling?

This last question bears relevance to the matter of same-sex marriage for me. I support the removal of gender from the marriage act of Australia. I have increasingly been seeing it as a matter of less importance though. This is because as more and more other nations endorse same sex marriage we are increasingly culturally accepting the institution in advance of any legal change. A same-sex couple can say they are married in Australia and the response in many public spaces is that this is a "real" marriage. This response emboldens other declarations and before you know it gay couples are as likely to want you to look at their wedding photos as straight ones.

This current situation in which culture leads the law (rather than the opposite) actually appeals to the anarchist in me. There is something empowering about recognizing marriages in spite of the state's position although to be fair we have relied on other nations laws to get us there. Still I sometimes wish  we who have argued for legislative change never gave such importance to government opinion in the first place. Rather than feeling that a same-sex marriage which lacks government imprimatur is not a real marriage I feel like it is more real – more purely a statement by two people, fists raised together against the world. I’m a romantic in this way.

There are however people both supportive and opposed to same sex marriage who feel that marriage law reform is the paramount political issue of our time. There was an unfortunate statement put out by the Presbyterian church of Australia in the lead up to this election. It described passing marriage law reform as to “embed motherlessness and fatherlessness in public policy.” The sole mention of any other concerns was to rank them as less than marriage law reform.:
“The Presbyterian Church understands that the moral matrices by which each of us evaluates political parties are often wider than one issue and weighted differently. They include concerns about social justice, equity, and morality when weighing the common good. However, redefining marriage is a once in a lifetime issue, and it is our belief it should be weighed accordingly, and considered carefully.”

This was a relatively calmly toned piece. We can find hotter heads on either side of this issue if we try. The point is that in this statement the Moderator General of the Presbyterian Church of Australia spoke for many who feel that same-sex marriage constitutes a watershed moment for their politic. Assuming that eventually we will get there and same-sex marriage will be passed is not ridiculous. It regularly receives above 60% support in reliable polls. Do we who support marriage reform have any obligation to sympathy to those who oppose same sex marriage and fear that it will take us to a place of catastrophe?

The simplest answer is no. A sense of impending doom can’t be allowed to create obligations on those who don’t share that sense. Otherwise we create the incentive to manufacture such a sense of doom. Anyone who parents knows this. And if you don’t then I would like to tell you how critically I feel I need some chocolate. Very critically.

This answer however is insensitive to the way in which friendships and family connections reach across political divides. I have people close to me who do think that same-sex marriage is a mistake of epic political importance. As, culturally, same-sex marriage recognition is already here, due to international influences, and is likely to be introduced legally to Australia soon, its worth reflecting on how I would like those friends and family members to act towards me if they were winning this debate. How would I feel about their triumphalism if the poll numbers were reversed? I probably wouldn’t want to hear it.

One thing that can be done is to listen to specific fears and see if they can be mitigated. Some people think that the only time you should take your adult pants off with another adult person is if the two of you are married and whats under those pants is wildly different. Specifically they think there should be a penis and a vagina. Some of those people, but not all, also think you should only put those bits together to make babies and not do anything which makes babies unlikely. There are ways that these ideas are defended that breach standards of polite conversation  - calling women who live differently sluts for example or describing gay couples as narcissistic (you know because a man loving a man is like a man loving himself). But even there do we really want to use the law to make such speech illegal? I don't and would like to nut out some agreement about the reasonable freedom to articulate a variety of views about sexual morality. This includes some appreciation that what is ok in church is not necessarily ok in the workplace and what is forbidden in the workplace needn't be forbidden in church. People shouldn't fear that marriage law reform will lead to gulags for traditionalist Christians and that means challenging any rhetoric against their views that justifies that fear.

There are areas of potentially unsolvable conflict. I am not comfortable with descriptions of homosexuality as a disorder or mental illness or as sinful. I don't think any of those descriptions constitute hate speech but I don't think they constitute "health speech" either or "holy speech" if you like. I want to argue against these descriptions but I don't want to have those arguments in federal parliament. School policies, government tenders to service providers, the regulations of professions like social work and psychology are areas where the line between local argument and state control have always been murky. I am not sure how to resolve lines between free speech and therapeutic or justice priorities in these areas. I think we can avoid confusing these battlegrounds with marriage reform but I concede people who think homosexual activity is sinful are scared they wont be able to keep saying so and maintain public employment. I'm willing to investigate that fear and we should all interrogate our motives to see if that is actually our intent.

There will be celebration when marriage law reform finally happens. There should be. Marriage requires an element of public celebration after all. However I will try to be mindful that there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth as well and that this feeling is no less sincere than the feeling I have about the death of the Great Barrier Reef. Although can I just say, the Great Barrier Reef is dying within two centuries of white invasion after thriving under thousands of years of responsible care by several different Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander nations.... if we could at least not trumpet the supremacy of Judeo-Christian Australia so much it'd be great! Bloody hell.

Politics takes us past many points of no return. Life does too. We cope in different ways. Even if our fears of descending chaos are not founded it can be difficult to know that at the time. I think if we are to maintain the bonds of family and friendship across disagreements about matters of high stakes then we need to have some consideration of each others angsts. In terms of our own fears hopefully we have shoulders not only to cry on but that join in making our hand cart as just and fair as it can be on its descent to hell.