Tuesday, 19 June 2018

Conservatism’s ugly side can only be cleaned up through education

Vandalism of the impromptu memorial set up in the Melbourne park where Euridyce Dixon was murdered last week was quickly suppressed by authorities. Police on patrol discovered graffiti on the grass at around 4am yesterday morning and someone then called the firies. A video on the ABC website yesterday morning showed a man dressed in a firefighter’s fluoro-yellow protective outfit using a high-pressure hose to wash away white markings from where they had been made on the lawn, so we will never know what had been written there.

Which is a pity, because we need to bring attention to the problem of male entitlement that is so solidly entrenched in our society. We know, for example, that about 40 percent of the population routinely vote Liberal at elections. (The swing voter in the middle is the one who decides their outcomes.) And the Liberals have plenty of help in their crusade to keep things just the way they have always been. In Sydney, many people read the Daily Telegraph or listen to Alan Jones on the radio. There’s plenty of money to be made peddling messages animated by bigotry and other manifestations of conservatism. There are any number of media outlets that cater for people who feel they have a right to continue to do whatever it is they have been advised by experts it is probably better they stop doing. In America, such people voted the demagogue Donald Trump into office.

The ugly conservatism that underpins Australian society is at the root of the problem of male entitlement, which is why it is important that signs of it, such as the overnight graffiti, should be displayed publicly. Discussion in the community about the ugly conservatism that animates so many unthinking and often dangerous people who live among us is needed if we are to improve society for the common good. Which is just what such people don’t want. They want things to stay the same. They find any suggestion that they have been doing the wrong things not just implausible, but offensive. Hence the graffiti and hence dismissive remarks from men that started to appear on social media yesterday.

Tony Abbott perfectly embodies the ugly conservatism that lies just beneath the skin of modern Australia. His elite education is belied by the down-home accent he bungs on in order to appeal to the ignorant and entitled Daily Telegraph reader. He leveraged the latent fascism of the electorate, expressed for example through xenophobia, to get his extreme policies, which only benefit the big end of town, through Parliament. One Nation is a party of the same ilk as Abbott’s Coalition government, which has thankfully been replaced by Turnbull’s.

At least Turnbull is honest enough to not hide his roots behind a false ocker accent. But the Liberal Party continues to produce policies animated by the same impulses that drove the Nazis into office in German in the 1930s. Support for big business is part of the policy mix in the party’s bid to capture the vote of the entitled bogan who is the swing voter in certain electorates. But so is the attempt to stiffen language requirements for migrants. The shabby treatment of offshore detainees who came to this country legitimately seeking asylum, is another facet of the fascist right’s appeal to the ugly side of ordinary Australians who have been deprived in recent years of access to the profits of productivity gains by a managerial class the Liberals want to benefit with their antisocial tax policies.

(You can’t make this stuff up. More recently, of course, impartial experts tell us that labour unions need to be given more power to bargain collectively for pay rises for ordinary workers in order to offset the effects of decades of neoliberalism, which has led to profits from productivity rises being quarantined by the managerial class the Liberal Party supports.)

Returning to the other face of unchecked male entitlement, there will be more women like Eurydice Dixon murdered by entitled men who live freely in the community unless we revamp the entire education system to make boys more pro-social. And the effort needs to be made at each age in different ways. From the very earliest days at kindergarten, boys must be taught how to respect girls and treat them as equals. Might is not right. We know that behaviour is not always the same for children and that it changes with the stage of life they are going through, so there is no quick fix and the curriculum has to be adapted at each step in the road to maturity in order to make sure that the message gets through the native impulses and the hormones and the larrikin need for free expression.

The word “larrikin” itself is a signal of how bad things are. In the 19th century, larrikins were street toughs who dressed in a flamboyant style and frequented public houses and were often rowdy, and sometimes deadly. They flouted the constraints of authority but also killed people in violent abandon when roused to anger. They were feared by citizens and police alike. But now the word has a positive connotation, entirely cleansed of the taint of the brown shirts it used to possess. We encourage a larrikin to misbehave by rewarding him with a laugh, but on the other hand the same man might decide to obey the larrikin streak inside himself by sexually assaulting a woman he sees walking home alone in the park late at night.

My father, whose father was an immigrant, grew up during the 1930s and 40s in Melbourne and saw the ugly side of the Australian character close-up. Called a “wog” by other kids without compunction due to his name, he also saw his father openly mocked in the street for his poor English. Dad worked for a time as a labourer on building sites and was dismayed at the harsh treatment his workmates sometimes meted out to people they didn’t like or who didn’t “fit in”. Dad eventually went to night school and got an engineering degree from Melbourne University, then forged a profitable career in corporate management. He maintained a deep-seated loathing for such icons of popular culture as Ginger Meggs because of the treatment he had been subject to as a boy and as a young man by local larrikins. Course behaviour of any kind upset him and made him very strict about personal conduct when my brother and I were young. It was one of the reasons he was keen for us to get tertiary educations.

A final note for educators: we don’t need to turn our schools into Japanese educational institutions exactly, but merely take the best ideas they have developed there that help to make children more pro-social. Japan has other problems such as a high suicide rate and a low birth rate. And rigid labour laws like Europe’s disincline agile employers there from hiring workers. There is also a deep strain of xenophobia in Japan, and a deeply-embedded distrust of foreigners, and so they have virtually zero immigration, something that might conceivably help the country loose the grip that recession has held there for the past 20 years. So we don’t need to be “turning Japanese”, just learn to be more pro-social in general. Especially more empathy, and less entitlement, for men.

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