Gal­lop­ing ig­no­rance

In­dulged rad­i­cals don’t re­spect law, they’re just out to im­pose their will

The Australian - - FRONT PAGE - HENRY ER­GAS

‘Ex­tinc­tion re­bel­lion’ tram­ples on the le­gacy of Gandhi

“Ex­tinc­tion re­bel­lion” is not a protest against gov­ern­ments — it is a protest against the vot­ers who elected them. And its mes­sage to those vot­ers is as sim­ple as it is man­i­festly un­demo­cratic: adopt our poli­cies or we will make your life im­pos­si­ble.

It is true the pro­test­ers have not re­sorted to vi­o­lence, at least so far, but their meth­ods are in­her­ently co­er­cive, pun­ish­ing fel­low cit­i­zens by de­priv­ing them of the right to peace­fully go about their business.

To jus­tify the harm they cause, the or­gan­is­ers cloak them­selves in the man­tle of civil dis­obe­di­ence, in­vok­ing Ma­hatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King at ev­ery turn.

But at the heart of Gandhi’s cam­paigns was the fact In­di­ans were de­nied self-gov­ern­ment. The prob­lem wasn’t nec­es­sar­ily the poli­cies them­selves, though there were many he stren­u­ously ob­jected to; it was that the peo­ple of In­dia had never been given the chance to ap­prove or re­ject them.

King was even clearer. All cit­i­zens, he wrote in his fa­mous Let­ter from Birm­ing­ham City Jail, have a duty to demon­strate “the high­est re­spect for the law”. And it was that very re­spect which de­manded peace­ful protest against laws that were plainly un­just.

But a law was never un­just merely be­cause one dis­agreed with it. Rather, the defin­ing fea­ture of an un­just law was that it was “in­flicted upon a mi­nor­ity” that lacked “the un­ham­pered right to vote” and that there­fore “had no part in en­act­ing or cre­at­ing it”. It was then and only then that one could dis­obey the law in good con­science.

Writ­ing in the wake of the civil rights move­ment John Rawls, per­haps the pre-em­i­nent po­lit­i­cal philoso­pher of the lat­ter part of the 20th cen­tury, un­der­scored King’s point.

“If we break laws when­ever we deem them un­sat­is­fac­tory,” he ar­gued, “the mu­tual trust and con­fi­dence on which our in­sti­tu­tions de­pend will dis­si­pate.”

The rule of law rep­re­sents “an enor­mously valu­able so­cial good” and once the obli­ga­tions it cre­ates are ig­nored “egre­gious in­jus­tices are likely to re­sult”.

Rawls, who was hardly a re­ac­tionary, did not deny that so­cial and po­lit­i­cal in­sti­tu­tions could be griev­ously im­per­fect. But “ci­vil­ity im­poses a due ac­cep­tance of the de­fects of in­sti­tu­tions and a cer­tain re­straint” in re­spond­ing to their short­com­ings.

Mak­ing the need for re­straint all the greater is the fact when an ag­grieved mi­nor­ity, hav­ing failed to con­vince other vot­ers, re­lies on di­rect ac­tion to get its way, it tram­ples on the re­spect we owe each other as equals.

It is, as a re­sult, solely if the core po­lit­i­cal rights re­quired for “demo­cratic will for­ma­tion” are threat­ened that civil dis­obe­di­ence can be jus­ti­fied.

All that, of course, cuts no ice with the pro­test­ers. Scorn­ful of the rule-gov­erned ac­tiv­ity that al­lows a plu­ral­is­tic so­ci­ety to ex­ist and to per­sist over time, they see only ab­so­lutes, not trade-offs, and be­lieve that those who don’t share their con­vic­tions are ig­no­rant, du­plic­i­tous or cor­rupt.

Nowhere is the fa­nati­cism more ap­par­ent than in Greta Thun­berg’s calls for fun­da­men­tal moral re­con­struc­tion.

Her de­mand is not sim­ply for a change of poli­cies, it is for “a whole new way of think­ing” in which com­pe­ti­tion “must come to an end” and be re­placed by an age of fric­tion­less co-op­er­a­tion.

There is, in this yearn­ing for a to­tal­is­tic so­lu­tion to all hu­man woes, the old utopian fan­tasy of a wholly trans­par­ent com­mu­nity in which ev­ery­thing that di­vides us has been elim­i­nated — ei­ther by agree­ment or by the sub­mis­sion of the re­cal­ci­trant to the dic­tates of those whose goals are “beyond com­pro­mise”.

Those fan­tasies may be un­der­stand­able in the case of an ado­les­cent. Un­for­tu­nately, there are far more ado­les­cent minds in our so­ci­ety than there are ado­les­cents.

And what those minds have in com­mon is an al­most be­wil­der­ing lack of ma­tu­rity. A ma­ture per­son, said psy­chol­o­gist Erik Erik­son, is “ca­pa­ble of faith and in­dig­na­tion” but is none­the­less “tol­er­ant of dif­fer­ences, cau­tious and me­thod­i­cal in eval­u­a­tion, just in judg­ment and cir­cum­spect in ac­tion”.

Ap­plied to the world of pol­i­tics, where opin­ions in­evitably clash, ma­tu­rity in­volves recog­nis­ing that there is no way to ar­rive at a fully shared com­mon un­der­stand­ing, much less of cre­at­ing in­ti­macy writ large. How­ever, through bar­gain­ing and ac­com­mo­da­tion, there are — and there must be if demo­cratic pol­i­tics is to sur­vive — op­por­tu­ni­ties for peo­ple who dis­agree to come to­gether in a shared pub­lic arena.

But move­ments such as the “ex­tinc­tion re­bel­lion” can’t en­vis­age bar­gain­ing or ac­com­mo­da­tion. Not for them the hard work of win­ning elec­tions; ex­em­plars of nar­cis­sism in its group-psy­cho­log­i­cal form, they claim the right to pick and choose among the obli­ga­tions so­ci­ety im­poses.

Nor are they alone. On the con­trary, from the Greens — whose leader, Richard Di Natale, re­cently boasted about how many Greens had been ar­rested — to the rad­i­cal ve­g­ans, the be­lief that it is just fine to break the law has be­come com­mon­place.

And the ACTU’s Sally McManus has per­sis­tently con­doned as mere “civil dis­obe­di­ence” the law­less­ness of Aus­tralia’s most vi­o­lent union, the Con­struc­tion Forestry Mar­itime Min­ing and En­ergy Union, with even John Setka cit­ing King and Gandhi as ex­cus­ing his ac­tions.

But it is hard to imag­ine an at­ti­tude that is more hyp­o­crit­i­cal and more self-de­feat­ing. Hyp­o­crit­i­cal, be­cause no one is keener to ban con­duct of which they dis­ap­prove than these cru­saders, and self-de­feat­ing be­cause ex­actly the same ap­proach could be used to un­der­mine their own poli­cies should they ever be adopted.

In that too their words and deeds bear no re­la­tion to those of the pa­tron saints they so freely in­voke. King, for ex­am­ple, nei­ther viewed the US as fun­da­men­tally le­git­i­mate nor its le­gal or­der as de­serv­ing of uni­ver­sal obe­di­ence.

None­the­less, he ex­pected his dis­ci­ples to evince the “ut­most fidelity” to the law be­cause only then could they prop­erly re­quire their op­po­nents to abide by the laws he urged Amer­i­cans to ac­cept.

And, for ex­actly the same rea­son, King in­sisted the pro­test­ers he led should pay the price of break­ing the law, com­par­ing the fear­less­ness he hoped they would dis­play to that of the early Chris­tians. As King recog­nised, gov­ern­ments must en­force the law if the rule of law is ever to pre­vail.

In con­trast, our law break­ers in­vari­ably seek and all too of­ten re­ceive le­niency, as if their ac­tions had not been un­der­taken in full knowl­edge of the penal­ties they faced. That spine­less­ness is per­haps un­sur­pris­ing in move­ments that, like “ex­tinc­tion re­bel­lion”, are largely com­posed of stu­dents and of grad­u­ates em­ployed in the pub­lic sec­tor.

Af­ter all, as Saul Bel­low once ob­served, it is the dis­tin­guish­ing fea­ture of our age that it has man­aged to cross “the tigers of wrath with the horses of in­struc­tion”. The re­sult? Gal­lop­ing ig­no­rance.

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