SO­CI­ETY:

The Weekend Australian - Magazine - - CONTENTS - Bernard Salt

In the 1950s and the 1960s, Aus­tralia was a vastly different place to the coun­try we know to­day. In the two or so gen­er­a­tions since then, it’s as if our na­tion has been re­born – and I don’t mean in the make-up of the pop­u­la­tion but in our col­lec­tive val­ues and the way we think.

I am going to be gen­er­ous to Aus­tralia’s post-war cul­ture. Perhaps it was the pri­va­tions of the De­pres­sion and war, but I think we came out the other side as a ho­moge­nous, mil­i­taris­tic and mas­cu­line so­ci­ety, and that this mind­set shaped our in­sti­tu­tions and our val­ues. Uni­for­mity and gritty self-re­liance were val­ued; dis­sent and dif­fer­ence, let alone in­dul­gence, were not only not tol­er­ated, they were oblit­er­ated. We think very dif­fer­ently about these con­cepts to­day.

If I were to be un­kind to Aus­tralia’s post-war cul­ture I would call it in­tol­er­ant, bru­tal and nar­row. These were not good times to be different in Aus­tralia – or in many other places for that mat­ter.

Most of the change since that time has been for the better. For ex­am­ple, I can­not fathom the pri­vate hor­rors that many en­dured and that were sim­ply never spo­ken about. Slowly, over the years, mon­strous be­hav­iours that were ap­par­ently quite rou­tine, even ac­cepted or con­ve­niently ig­nored by author­i­ties, have been ex­posed and re­placed by a kin­der, gen­tler and hope­fully more vig­i­lant so­ci­ety that is less naive and a lot more aware of hu­man­ity’s darker side.

A con­sis­tent theme of the past few decades has been the ef­fort to cre­ate a better and fairer so­ci­ety. The aim is that no one is left be­hind. Women’s rights and gay rights and the recog­ni­tion of the in­dige­nous com­mu­nity as well as the greater ac­cep­tance of re­li­gious mi­nori­ties are im­por­tant so­cial shifts that show we have cre­ated a better Aus­tralia. Not per­fect, but better than it was.

This is all the re­sult of pi­o­neer­ing work done by brave souls from the 1960s on­wards, start­ing I think with the US civil rights move­ment, and it con­tin­ues to this very day. The as­cen­dant #MeToo move­ment and our re­cently awak­ened aware­ness of do­mes­tic violence are just some of the re­cent fronts upon which this bat­tle to forge a better so­ci­ety is be­ing waged. Other fronts have opened up in places where the com­mu­nity’s faith in big in­sti­tu­tions and fig­ures of au­thor­ity – the church, the union move­ment, the banks and the po­lice force, for ex­am­ple – has at times proved to be might­ily mis­placed.

The over­all ob­jec­tive of root­ing out er­rant in­di­vid­ual be­hav­iour, let alone sys­temic be­hav­iour, is surely what we all want. But I am con­cerned about a corol­lary of this is­sue: the think­ing that be­cause you work for, or can be iden­ti­fied with, an er­rant busi­ness or au­thor­ity fig­ure or in­sti­tu­tion, you too are a le­git­i­mate tar­get for com­mu­nity anger. There are good peo­ple in busi­ness, pol­i­tics, the union move­ment and the church who are put in the po­si­tion of hav­ing to ex­plain the way­ward ac­tions of a few. It takes the form of a finely crafted mi­cro-ag­gres­sion. It is a kind of bul­ly­ing and it needs to be called out.

We are a fair peo­ple, al­ways care­ful to en­sure, for ex­am­ple, that the ex­treme be­hav­iour of some re­li­gious mi­nori­ties is not used as an ex­cuse to per­se­cute en­tire com­mu­ni­ties. The progress we have made in cre­at­ing a kin­der and gen­tler so­ci­ety is re­mark­able. But there’s just one more step I think we need to take. Con­demn proven trans­gres­sors, by all means. But our so­ci­ety does not, and most surely should not, sup­port the con­cept of col­lec­tive guilt.

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