Month: May 2015

Us and them: australian politics and the rhetoric of ‘lifters and leaners’

Words matter. As an anthropologist, it is my job to derive meaning from the words and actions of human beings. Today I realized that through his countless verbal gaffs our bumbling Prime Minister is offering us a direct pathway into his worldview.

Like our primate cousins, humans are inherently tribalistic mammals. It is instinct to divide ourselves into groups based on empathy and similarity – ‘us’ versus ‘them’. We have difficulty relating to ‘them’. We tend to think of ourselves as inherently good and not think of the others at all. ‘They’ are less human to ‘us’ – in anthropology this is called ethnocentrism. Fortunately, unlike our primate cousins, we have a uniquely developed frontal cortex that gives us the capacity for abstract thinking. Abstraction allows humans to override our biological ‘monkey’ nature. We can break our tribalistic ethnocentrism. This takes energy, empathy and focus.

A little while ago Tony Abbot (Australian current conservative head of state) used the word ‘Holocaust’ to punctuate his political rhetoric. When confronted with the fact that this trivialised a horrific incident for a large section of the Australian public, his government went on the defensive – ‘we were not using the word the way the Jews do’. Makes sense, Tony isn’t Jewish. But his use of the word showed a lack of connection to that segment of the population, a lack of empathy with ‘them’. The current Liberal government has a history of this kind of ethnocentrism. The rhetoric of ‘lifters and leaners’ also divides the world into ‘us’ and ‘them’. ‘Us’ being the economically well off and ‘them’ being anyone who isn’t. This is something that becomes clear when one has to consider that some highly productive vocations take time to develop. Time that is hard to put in when you have no economic support network.

When Tony was asked what he had done for women (as minister for women) he demonstrated his ethnocentrism once again, telling the public that his economic policy was his gift to a group whom he clearly fails to empathise with and understand.
There are two ways in which humanity evolves. One is a slow physiological adaptation, a process we share with all other biological entities on this planet, the other is an evolution of knowledge. This second process is the unique capacity to build and expand on the inventions and ideas of other members of our species. Our ability to internalise the thinking of our predecessors lead us away from our primate nature and allowed us to achieve technological and philosophical feats that are truly beautiful and staggering. In earlier times this made us feel ordained by god – no other creature can do what we can. We thought ourselves above the other apes, we saw ourselves as angels. This evolution is the outcome of our ability to internalise the perspectives of others, particularly others who think in radically different ways to ourselves. We built on ideas we ourselves could never have, and what we achieved is the outcome of our abstract reasoning capacity coupled with our empathy. Yet, this evolution is a fragile process. Isolate a human from the achievements of our fellow humans and we begin anew. A blank slate: naked, illiterate and ‘savage’. Our animal natures are still here, but they are counteracted by the collective intelligence of human society. We benefit from the unity of human diversity on the material, the moral, the intellectual level.
In Australia we saw a budget that delineates society into ‘lifters’ and ‘leaners’. Take a moment to look behind the ideological rhetoric. The idea of putting pressure on the ‘leaners’ to ‘lift’ themselves up is a mask for simple intolerance: you don’t aspire to the same things as me? There’s something wrong with you! It is a demonisation of difference. This kind of thinking strips us of our mutual intelligence and reveals the animal inside. It makes us selfish, myopic and territorial. One of the reasons we have an amazing country is that we recognised the value of difference. We though it was worthwhile to pay a little extra to make sure a member of our community didn’t die in the street, even if her/his circumstances and outlook was different from ours. We practiced empathy. We benefitted from the resultant diversity. Politically, we took a step in a different direction. We replaced the idea of empathy based on national unity with the idea of empathy for outlook uniformity. This government is devolving Australian society. It is appealing to our primate nature. I hope you will not let yourself become an ape, I hope that you will choose to remain an angel.
The Liberal Party views are not based on malice. They are based on a lack of connection with anyone who doesn’t fit a very narrow band of ‘us’. Our Prime Minister is demonstrating his own human limitations, which would be fine if he wasn’t elected to represent the entirety of the Australian public. Here lies the problem. Doesn’t matter how much this government will promise to change or listen to ‘the people’, they will never be able to surpass their ethnocentrism. They are disconnected from anyone who isn’t like them. I have no doubt that this government will do its best to serve the Australian people. But to Tony ‘Australians’ will always be Anglo, Male, Wealthy and Christian.
Refugees? Forget about it. This government can’t relate to the majority of the Australian public, let alone people from different nations and different cultures.
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