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Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Othering and the dynamics of survival in a time of peace

Got a minute? Yeah you. I know you want to know more about what I want to say. And what do I want to say? Well yes, it does have something to do with the photo attached to this blog post, which shows a scene shot at the Cairo riots. It's also got something to do with my recent blog post about the human need for community, which I said was "hardwired" in humans. But what's that got to do with the Cairo riots? Ok. Maybe I should explain this notion of 'othering', which is the topic I have chosen for today.

This topic came to me while I was on Twitter. Someone mentioned that she had picked out 27 different flavours of feminism, and wondered what all that was about. Then I saw another tweet which asked what had happened to the ANC (the African National Congress, the political party that grew out of black South Africa's struggle for ownership of the franchise and for social equality). In the first case, I think that what "happened" is that feminists lack a credible enemy and so have started to turn on themselves as they work to continue the feminist program. In the second case, the ANC has entered a new phase of its existence, in the absence of the traditional white police state as an enemy, and now finds itself in a position where it must "win the peace". In both cases the problems experienced by the 'movement' relate to the absence of the Other, and it's the same in Cairo. Or it will be at some point down the line once Egypt has done what it needs to do in order to feel that is has entered the community of stable, successful nations. Egypt has already held parliamentary elections. It must now complete its Constitution, and then hold presidential elections. Then it must work out how to handle the Army. Once all these things are done it must start improving the conditions of everyday life for Egyptians.

So Egypt achieved the universal franchise and regular elections by othering Mubarak. Feminists achieved some sort of equality in Australia by othering the entrenched patriarchy. And the ANC achieved government by othering the white South African police state characterised by Apartheid. Once these goals have been achieved you enter the phase of gradualism, where governance is more important than guns and consistency is more important than protest. I don't know who first made that line about "winning the peace" but it was Russian writer Anton Chekhov who said, “Any idiot can face a crisis, it is this day-to-day living that wears you out.”

A classic case of failure in the absence of an Other is visible in the phases of the French Revolution. Once the monarchy and the clergy had been removed and Reason placed in the void, the new state apparatus failed to sustain itself and this led to a military coup which brought Napoleon to the leadership. The new state then turned on external enemies and began its explosive expansion across Europe, which continued for about a decade until Waterloo. With the failure of the government to deliver prosperity and security, a king was reinstated. Three steps forward, two steps back. Same in England 150 years earlier with the Commonwealth.

In Europe, nation states have indulged in othering for as long as there has been written history, and probably longer. You wonder if there could be a thing called 'England' without a rival thing nearby called 'France', and vice versa. You see the dynamic at play, today, in places like Iran and North Korea where leaders drum up internal support for their regimes by demonising an external enemy. In these cases it's the United States. "Look," the leaders say, "you need to support me because otherwise the US will come and take over and then where will you be." It sounds like bluster but for their part the people being addressed in this manner have a dominant grievance, too. They resent the wealth differential that characterises the relationship between their country and the othered country, and so they play along. It makes them feel better. It also delivers the feeling of community they need to compensate for a real lack of material wellbeing. So othering serves the purposes of the leadership and also those of the people led. This kind of relationship between leaders and the people they lead has happened innumerable times throughout history.

In Australia, othering occurs as well. From the outside, Australia probably looks like a really stable, happy place where people are fulfilled and nothing ever goes wrong. The truth is that, inside, it is animated by conflict and riven with rivalries every bit as fierce as those that exist in a revolutionary nation-in-the-making. What is different is the way that these rivalries are expressed. To a degree you have to be in a position to fully view them in order to appreciate how fierce they are. Journalism can - and should - do this for people outside. But who cares about Australia? It's hard enough for Australians to get reliable information about rivalries inside the United States, that wondered-at global hegemon.

But we have othering too. You take a classic example. One day another boatload of asylum seekers appears off the coast, or near Christmas Island, or at Ashmore Reef. The Navy picks them up and the headlines start to appear. Then along comes that delightful character, Scott Morrison, with some quip about the Labor Government's failure to protect our borders. Typical dog-whistle stuff. What the Liberal Party is doing is drumming up support for itself among the disaffected and the marginally unbalanced, the people who troll the comment threads of Daily Telegraph news stories and who make phone calls to Alan Jones to whine about how Australia is going to Hell in a handbasket. Morrison gives them an enemy - the Labor Party - and they start baying. The shock jocks and Andrew Bolt know they are there, and play to their prejudices. It's delightful, yes? But this is party politics in a stable country.

The 27 different flavours of feminism have the problem that both major parties support equality. Yes, we had some slight embarrassment with At Home with Julia, but we've also got the deputy leader of the Opposition who is a woman. The problem here is that feminists need to locate a new enemy inside the fabric of Australian society. It must be one that most Australians can easily recognise, and it must be demonstrably dysfunctional. Further, it must be identifiable as such by the mass media. By fighting amongst themselves those 27 groups of radicals are in the process of identifying who the new enemy is to be, and how they should be addressed. Progress isn't easy, especially once you have achieved the step-change that can be illustrated with a headline, a quote, or a dynamic frontline photograph. Up on the plateau the air is thinner and the dynamics of revolution come to assume the dynamics of survival.

1 comment:

Jude the Obscure said...

Matthew, I can only say "Bravo" to this blog. The concept of the "Other" is one that I have thought about for many years as an explanation for many types of people's reactions whether to asylum seekers, aborigines whom most Australians have had very little to do with, Iranians (this week!) gays, the last group of migrants - probably Sudanese this month etc etc. It really helps to understand people's kneejerk responses to implausible threats.