Marriage equality: Don't be distracted by false conflicts with natural allies

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Mike Dowson says presumptions and false conflicts keep us distracted from our common enemy — the privileged.

ON A FLIGHT to San Francisco I sat next to the wife of a Texan oil executive. She was worried about the future. I could see difficult times ahead for her husband’s industry. Renewable energy is taking off, despite government obstruction. The price of oil had fallen again.

My fellow traveller wasn’t thinking about that. What kept her awake at night was Obamacare.

I caught up with friends in the UK. They were finding the cost of living exorbitant. I wasn’t surprised. Wages have stagnated. The Government has cut services drastically. Even with supposedly good jobs, many people struggle.

My friends knew who the culprits are. People on “benefits”.

Back in Sydney, I was talking to the owner of a manufacturing business. Manufacturing in Australia has been in transition for decades. Old industries continue to close in the face of foreign competition as governments remove support.

“Greenies," explained the business owner, nodding sagely.

Do you suppose these people sat down, thought carefully through their problems and arrived at these conclusions? That would be rather troubling, wouldn’t it? But of course, they didn’t.

If the lights go out because you didn’t pay the power bill, you have options. You can pay the bill, install solar, or buy candles. But accusing people you don’t like wouldn’t be very useful. You might as well blame evil spirits. Of course, not long ago, that’s what people did. In some places, they still do. In fact, those are the kind of places which depend on candle power.

The Anglophone democracies have some unpaid bills. Over many years, leaders and legislators failed to adequately promote factors essential to a robust capitalist economy: viable industries; a healthy, educated, confident population; high median disposable income; and managed technological transitions. But who is getting the blame?

Here’s a suggestion. Regardless of who I identify with, what my values are, or which minority I despise, if something other than myself, the people close to me, or a force of nature is affecting my material circumstances, the people most likely to have a hand in it are the rich and powerful.

Not sick people. Not the unemployed. Not environmentalists. No, the people doing the damage could be any kind of person, but they must have one essential attribute — the means to do it.

And here’s the strange thing. Most of them don’t mean any harm. To be brutally frank, they don’t give a damn about us, unless we’re standing in their way. They’re just going after what they want. But, whereas you or I have limited means at our disposal, theirs are substantial. They can buy influence, avoid scrutiny and manipulate the media. They can rig the system. And over time, that can make our lives unpleasant. As neighbours, they might be annoying. But at Bilderberg, who knows what they get up to.

Yet they never seem to attract much public opprobrium. We’re not supposed to begrudge a person’s wealth, even if it’s excessive, even when millions are suffering, even while the rest of us franticly tread water. That would be “the politics of envy”, wouldn’t it?

Human beings like order. Look around. If you’re somewhere in the modern world, you’ll be looking at a way of life that is artificial and highly organised.

Some of us like a bit of surprise and adventure too, but few of us prefer an actual jungle. We can put up with inconvenience, occasional deprivation, even structural disadvantage. But we become very uncomfortable without rules to live by.

We like order so much, we prefer an unjust order to none at all — especially where the injustice mainly affects other people. But this is where another human trait comes in: empathy.

It’s extremely disturbing to observe another’s pain or alienation, when we are safe in the fold, enjoying our good fortune. There are two ways we can resolve that discomfort. One is to fix the inequality. The other is to blame the victims.

If they are suffering, they must be doing something wrong. They’ve broken the rules. It’s sad, but nothing to do with us. We certainly don’t need to help them. They should learn their lesson.

Professor of Sociology Michael Kimmel observed that privilege is invisible to those who have it. 

In practice, I’ve found that people often confuse privilege with virtue. This is the other side of victim-blaming. If we’ve got advantages over other people, it must mean we’re better than them. They should stop complaining and pull up their socks.

Because we don’t easily recognise privilege for what it is, it hurts more when it’s challenged. A level playing field can feel like victimisation. We may even think we’re being attacked.

This has been revealed in the marriage equality debate. "No" campaigners characterised the redress of a form of injustice as an assault on something just — in this case freedom of religion. The issues are only related for those who believe their freedom depends on the deprivation of others.

But when our privileges are disappearing, without another group trying to muscle in on them, it’s necessary to imagine one. This is what is behind the complaints of my travel acquaintances.

While none of them is independently wealthy, they’re all members of a fortunate, managerial class. They have no instinct for finding out what’s wrong with the system. Whoever else it injured, the system looked after them. That was all they needed to know. Now something fundamental has changed.

They don’t realise it, but their membership in the winner’s club has been revoked. It’s not personal. It’s simply the inevitable consequence of skyrocketing inequality. As the world’s wealth is concentrated in ever fewer hands, millions of former beneficiaries are being shown the door. But, like retrenched white-collar workers packing up their desks, they take their trophies with them. They retain class loyalty.

They join the ranks of the disenfranchised, like the people in depressed regional centres, working class suburbs and once proud single industry towns, witnessing the Godzilla of global capitalism stomping through their communities, and blaming some other group of ordinary people, while the real authors of their suffering cry, like Liberace, all the way to the bank.

Some well-healed older Australians deride young people who can’t find secure employment or buy a house as lazy and entitled. Battlers fume at imaginary armies of bludgers stealing their entitlements in the outrage factory of Sydney’s Daily Telegraph.

Online comment threads fill up with hatred for the men on Manus — “illegals” and “queue jumpers”, who should be left to rot.

This is the poisoned reservoir of fear, ignorance and moral cowardice that unjust authority has always drawn from. But whenever people come together and rediscover their common humanity, that reservoir dries up, and the river of goodwill begins to flow again.

Majority support for marriage equality is to be celebrated. But we should use this occasion to reinforce the great principle that underpins all progress.

The need for us to find common cause and native unity – beyond race, colour, gender, sexual preference, religion, class or any other superficial difference – is now more urgent than ever. We must recognise that mutual respect, not victory over others, is what protects our cherished identities.

Until we remember how much we have in common, and how cooperation, not conflict, has always been the path to greatness, we are doomed to suffer a system which divides us into winners and losers. Ironically, its beneficiaries are a small but diverse group of people who have found common cause in exploiting the rest of us.

Mike Dowson is a private management consultant. 

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