Just like Tom, I find that the holidays are perfectly suited to broadening my horizons. I’ve found myself in a bit of a political funk – I feel horribly underrepresented by both sides of politics, and I’m finding it very difficult to achieve any sort of clarity about how government should function. I’ve left my teenage years behind, and I feel like it’s time for me to “grow up”, “mature” and get such issues sorted out in my brain rather than leave them as a formless mess.
I first remember engaging in political debates back in high school. I was highly conservative. I gave a speech in year 8 about how we should have a Zero Tolerance policy for drugs – taking them, selling them, possessing them, all of it should result in jail time. I also remember expressing disgust at boat people, referring to them as ‘queue jumpers’. The system Australia had established was under threat, so we had to defend it. Those who were not interested in playing by the rules were not worthy of the privileges that society bestowed upon people like me.
I remember remarking casually to a friend in year 9 that Greek and Italian people were not as successful in society, and arguing that their racial/social background was to blame. If only they could learn to do things right, I thought, they could be as good as us. I had similar attitudes towards Aborigines and other racial groups. The culture and atmosphere that I was a part of was inherently virtuous because it was more successful, and those who wanted to do something different were obviously choosing to fail.
Interestingly, and perhaps crucially, I thought that these attitudes were entirely acceptable. There was no-one around to tell me differently, so I was not even aware that some might find my attitudes a little frightening. I feel like I was surrounded by those who attained (and therefore defined) success. I had no perspective, and trusted that the government would do the best for
me Australia with all my heart. I believed that I was privileged, and should take advantage of it.
This attitude affected my (then) Christianity as well. I remember remarking that homosexuals were just like shoplifters – they’re tempted to do a wrong thing, so they should stop. I also thought that I didn’t “judge” them (because that would be deeply unChristian of me). I sympathized with their plight, but thought that it was a worthy thing for them to struggle to overcome their dark desires.
Looking back now, I am deeply ashamed of how I behaved and spoke. I hope to spend the rest of my life making up for the hateful, disgusting and divisive things I said to people. And divisive is the key word here. I feel that my parents, my school and my church were all looking down the pyramid, imposing artificial differences between those who were “like them” and those that weren’t. The groups that I belonged to all claimed to know answers that others did not – secrets to succeed at business, achieve good marks and obtain eternal life and happiness. I was all too happy to imagine myself at the top, pleased with the knowledge that I knew how to win at life much better than other people.
When I’m in a particularly vindictive mood I now view this behaviour as an attempt to rationalise exploitation and justify unwarranted privilege and success. When I’ve had my tea and relaxed a bit, I see it as a thing most communities do – defining the people in it by defining those outside. It’s a way to achieve cohesiveness and belonging, and everyone wants to feel like they’re special, remarkable. Whilst I never actually thought that I was better than other people, it was implicit in my views at the time.
I honestly thought that people who didn’t send their kids to private schools (if they didn’t get into a selective school) didn’t really care about their kids’ education. It was always emphasised to me and to others that private school was “not just for rich people, but for people whose parents work hard to give their kids the best opportunities”. In acknowledging how hard it was to send kids to private school and believing in its power as an institution to educate, it was an easy skip to elitism.
In year 10, I had a nervous breakdown. I’m sure I’ll go into that some other post, but the important element for the purposes of this post is that I was forced to re-evaluate most of what I thought. It was abundantly clear to me how arbitrary these definitions were, and how much it must suck to be looking up rather than down.
Firstly, it didn’t really matter all that much to me that I was Australian. Most of Australian culture seemed boorish and boring, and I came to see nationalism as an extremely dangerous form of division. Why should I believe this vast governmental bureaucracy is worth defending? No-one seemed to have any answers worth listening to. I wanted to know how the system we have arose, who maintains it and why. Then, I would know if I should be supporting it.
I also realised how lucky I was. I remember walking home in my school uniform, bag full of textbooks, and realising that there was no good explanation as to why I was there. I had clean clothes, a bag full of knowledge and a full belly, and no amount of “because I’m white” or “because my parents are better than others’” could justify why other people couldn’t have them too. Why should I eat my fill when others were starving? Why was I, by omission, starving these people?
I could see the tacit assumption that the richest and most successful people were somehow virtuous and worthy of mimicry screaming from every newsstand. But how much of this was deception and empty promises from those above to keep me distracted?
I was (and still am) one tiny, tiny step away from being homeless, a “dole bludger”, poor and downtrodden – the labels I used to attach to people to justify my hatred and fear are cosmetic, almost transparent. There is very little difference between me and everyone else on the planet, except for a couple of letters somewhere in my DNA – just as one cow is much the same as another. I wanted to know what made me different, and why I should consider myself different.
I no longer had any desire to define myself by the ideas of others, assuming that they knew best. But how far down did this rabbit hole go? What made an idea worth holding on to?
These were tough questions, and I realised how much work it was going to be. I knew most of them wouldn’t have good answers. But I knew two things, and still believe them to this day.
The first is that most people thrive on being given responsibility. The more decisions you make for people, the more likely they are to do less and blame you for their failings. The second is that collective responsibility is almost non-existent – if a group of people you’re a part of adopts a particularly disastrous course of action, it’s easy to blame everyone else in the group for not pulling their weight, stringing you along, even tricking you!
I wanted to know how to relate to people, how to judge their decisions and inspire them to greater things, whatever that meant. I haven’t quite figured it out yet, but I’m getting there. I hope I have established my origins and the attitudes I now despise, and I’ll continue the account of my political odyssey next week.
PS. Apologies for the lateness of my post. I’ll have the next one done by a civilised hour next Friday.