• ...Politicians have forgotten that they’re there to sort out our human differences, and not their own. (AAP)Source: AAP
Faith in politicians and in the press has never, in all of modern history, been so low as we constantly hear the phrase “fake news”, and see the open exchange of personal insults by politicians in our political houses. Helen Razer believes it's high time for our leaders to start acting like the social elders they are meant to be.
By
Helen Razer

17 Feb 2017 - 1:04 PM  UPDATED 17 Feb 2017 - 1:51 PM

People, as you know, can tend at times to throw garbage.

Each one of us has plunged our mitt into the trash can of personal fury and tossed it across to another. So long as this isn’t our most usual exchange and the How Do You Dos and the Peace Be Unto Yous outweigh the smelly rage by a good margin, this isn’t too much to fret about. We’re people and we’re going to get personally angry with others at times. So, sue us. Misunderstanding is the human condition.

We all know that we’re going to misspeak at times and prefer personal insult to pragmatic speech, that we’re always balancing the needs of the self with the need to be involved in a society. It’s a universal problem. So, of course there has not been a single culture that hasn’t found a way to resolve this inevitable conflict.

No one gets to escape the law, for example—well, no one but those wealthy enough to buy their way out of it.

In Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander societies, there are customary means of dispute resolution. And in Ireland, the home of my forebears, we work our stuff out by singing mournful songs and uniting in our loathing for the English. Every recorded society, I was told by my first-year anthropology teacher, has had some kind of harvest festival where there was room not just to exchange food but to overcome differences. We know we’re not perfect together, and we always develop some sort of guard against this problem.

In mass societies, we lost the opportunity to swap vegetables and stories. The weird thing about life in a huge, “developed” economy full of people is that the time to meaningfully interact with other people just disappeared. We are still people who misspeak and throw garbage, of course. We are still people. So we came up with big, bureaucratic ways to manage being people.

Where once we had community customs to manage and understand ourselves, we now have mass solutions. Some cultures retain a link to the non-mass way of doing things, but all cultures are forced to move to the totalising rhythms of big, “efficient” societies. No one gets to escape the law, for example — well, no one but those wealthy enough to buy their way out of it.

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Our big societies now have big ways to manage and understand themselves, and two of the biggest are politics and press. Most of the world has liberal democracy to manage itself. All of the world has press to understand itself.

These things have never been sacred or honoured in the way, say, that a harvest festival was. But, for many years, we have had to trust these institutions.  We just don’t have the time or the chance to ask elders for guidance and law, so we look to these formal methods.

But, now, there’s a crisis. Faith in politicians and in press has never, in all of modern history, been so low. We all hear or read the phrase “fake news”, and, now, we see the open exchange of personal insults by politicians in our political houses. And not just every so often, but constantly.

Sure, Australian politics has always been lively. But the Turnbull “speech” struck me as a kind of political death. This was personal, not political. And, it’s part of an ongoing trend.

I learned of Prime Minister Turnbull’s recent blast at Opposition Leader Shorten first by press. Dozens of journalists wrote that this was a wonderful moment. I watched it, and could only conclude two things. First, that the press gallery must have become so bored that a few snipes about where one guy went to dinner is news. Second, that politicians have forgotten that they’re there to sort out our human differences, and not their own.

Sure, Australian politics has always been lively. But the Turnbull “speech” struck me as a kind of political death. This was personal, not political. And, it’s part of an ongoing trend.

I know a lot of people really liked Prime Minister Gillard’s “misogyny” speech. I was not among them. Like Turnbull, Gillard was making a personal case, not a political one. I mean, sure I feel bad that she, then the most powerful politician in the nation, copped some sexism from Tony Abbott. But, Julia, it’s not about you. It’s about the Australian women whose lives you shape. And on that day, you shaped them for the worse, and not the better. Gillard might have been inspiring to some women back in 2013. But many women, specifically single parents, were stripped of benefits that very same day.

These institutions are not filling the role of elder anymore. They’re just toddlers tossing trash.

Whether our leaders and press like it or not, they fulfill the function that elders once did. They maintain their authority over our personal affairs by suspending an interest in their own.  Obviously, elders are still people, but when they step into the role of elder, they must resolve to be something more.

Press and political figures now seem to have little but self-interest. We can see journalists push their agenda, and we rightly accuse them of producing “fake news”. We can see the Prime Minister have a personal hissy fit about having been called a rick kid, and we rightly lose our faith in his office.

These institutions are not filling the role of elder anymore. They’re just toddlers tossing trash.

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