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.