Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Asking the impossible? Online civility and identity politics

Could this man really be a troll?
How would you know?
I have a friend. Actually we went to the same school and there were times when we visited each other's houses at the weekend or at the end of a day in classes. I really don't remember too clearly. It was a long time ago, too long ago for complete recall. But because of social media we have become connected again after a period of several decades, so I know something about his life nowadays. He has a family, a wife, a job, a mortgage, a community affiliated with his religion. He loves sport. He used to post images of his kids but these days it's more usually something to do with his football team. We exchange acknowledgements on the web, we might make a comment or something similar. Mostly we just do these simple things, acknowledging each other from time to time. It's all very civilised and congenial except for one thing: the carbon tax.

Occasionally when something happens in my friend's life to make him aware of the Labor government's carbon price, which is to change into a carbon market in the not-too-distant future - given that the Coalition does not gain office and abort the legislation in turn - my friend undergoes an odd personality shift and then out pop those crude words, 'Ju-liar'. We saw them on one memorable occasion during a protest outside Parliament, and it's been hard for people to forget them. Another painted sign that the protesters held up for the media on the day carried the words, 'Ditch the witch'. Opposition leader Tony Abbott attended the rally, mingling with the crowd and sharing his views on the government's intentions (this was before the legislation had passed through Parliament).

I tried to discuss the reasons for Julia Gillard's about-face on the carbon tax in a comment I left for my friend. It didn't turn out well. His other friends on social media chimed in with their views and the scene rapidly took on an unpleasant tone. It's pretty easy to understand, of course, the rancour. I mean, there was a popular ballot in 2010 and the result of the plebiscite was a hung Parliament. Because of the way Australians voted the balance of power is held by the Greens along with a number of independent MPs. Abbott has criticised the resulting Parliament and he has been joined by certain elements of the nation's media, notably News Ltd vehicles such as The Australian. But the ballot was quite legitimate, and reflected the wishes of the electorate on the appointed day. Noone can therefore blame Gillard for acceding to a priority of the Greens. Gillard has managed to keep the Parliament functioning effectively by working with her partners, even if she did not choose them, with the result that there have been a large number of new laws passed despite the objections of the Opposition. But it was of little use my explaining the new reality that took hold in 2010 following the popular ballot. My friend gave it as his opinion that, as leader of the Labor Party, Gillard was obliged to hold firm to her earlier public pronouncement, from before the election, that she would not introduce a carbon tax. In his view, that single public utterance is more important, in the balance of things, than the political reality that confronted Gillard following the election. No compromise. Which is a lot like the position taken by Abbott in his role as Opposition leader.

And what might cause my friend to bellyache about Gillard? An electricity bill showing a higher total than usual. Forget about the handouts Gillard orchestrated to offset cost increases such as this. I suggested to my friend that the price of electricity would go down once power providers switch to renewable generation but this was dismissed as irrelevant. There is no way to address this kind of obstinacy, at least not in a civil manner. Civil discourse of this nature requires a certain number of words to be expended. You have to point out that renewable electricity providers are ready and waiting for a favourable regulatory climate. There are difficulties associated with starting up the operation of large, complex energy production facilities. You also have to negotiate sales agreements with the downstream operators who control the distribution network. And the government is really, in actual fact, doing very little to help renewable energy companies. It's not like in Denmark or Germany where it appears there has been particular success in the renewables sphere because of the cooperation between government and the private sector. There is never any time to say all these things before the conversation deteriorates.

For progressives such exchanges serve only to underscore how pessimistic the Opposition is, how determined it is to prevent the achievement of any improvement in Australia's environmental performance, and how undesirable a win for the Opposition would be in 2013. People like my friend are ready to hold an Abbott government to account, to ensure that any progress toward a more sustainable future is immediately reversed, returning Australia to the status quo ante. My friend is wedded to his conservative, brown vision of Australia, a place where dirty energy producers can happily and profitably continue their businesses. And I hope for something better, knowing that a progressive, green vision can not only help to address environmental issues but also provide jobs for people who have the qualifications and the desire for work in the renewables sector. Me. Him. Opposites by personal identification with different dominant social discourses. Irreconcileable. Enemies, even. No wonder public discourse sometimes descends to incivility, to insults and deprecations, to flame wars and anger.

A similar mechanism obtains with respect of marriage equality. Not with my friend, it's true, but there are plenty of people online who stick to the conservative view where marriage can only be "between a man and a woman". And here, again, I find myself, without giving it a second thought, on the side opposed to the Opposition. Opposed, even, to the governing Labor Party, which has yet to manage passage through Parliament of legislation to enable same-sex marriage. Once again, it's a matter of personal identification. I simply do not want to live in a society where two people are so visibly discriminated against on account of their sexual orientation. It offends me deeply. It's even a human rights issue. The Opposition says that it rejects discrimination and supports measures to remove regulations that place it in the way of homosexuals' enjoyment of the full privileges of life in Australia. But in my mind if you are not moving forward you are going backward. It's not enough to maintain that the rights of homosexuals can be upheld by doing things other than allowing them to marry. You cannot remain the way you were yesterday, because if you do you are telling the community that homosexuality is wrong. The result is individual suffering, especially among the most vulnerable. Children who discover that they are gay are immensely conflicted. It's not just their own perception of difference. Other children perceive difference as well and feel justified in attacking it because of institutionalised discrimination that actively disadvantages a minority within the community.

So how to force change? How has change been achieved in the past? One major element has been mobilisation, or the concentration of the efforts of a large number of individuals toward a single goal. We saw this at work in the new world of online activism with 2GB, where the Alan Jones program's advertisers were attacked en masse by individuals using online tools and the telephone. The result of the onslaught was that 2GB cancelled all advertising for the show, taking a huge financial hit. Jones' future looks very shaky. But a lot of what happened might appall even people who disagree with Jones' behaviour. When a lot of people get involved in such a campaign it's hard to predict the results. How can you know who will behave civilly, and who will resort to threatening, insulting, or hateful words? It happens so fast. There is no way to vet the participants, or coach them, or lay down any rules of engagement. The wave of feeling thunders on and obliterates all obstacles that lie in its path. People react viscerally to what they hate, as they must when it is not just a matter of addressing an issue, but of affirming who they are. The cry goes out, 'It's our turn!' This is the realm of identity politics and as we know people can act in unpredictable ways when their very self is offended by something, and when they finally see a way to removing the offending object. Wiping the slate clean. Righting a longstanding wrong. Achieving a material improvement in your world.

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