People, as we know, are a rotten affair who can tend to bad taste and malice. But then again, they do tend to get some bad press. Several of the week’s most popular analyses have held people to account for much of the heartbreak in the world. Perhaps it is time to rethink people’s culpability. Perhaps, people are not always to blame.
A very common reaction to the horror of Manus Island is despair. But the despair seems to be aimed less at the rationalised violence and policies of a government demonstrably responsible for this horror than at people. Even, and it seems now especially, from those disposed to a more structural view of violence, we hear that it is people who are to blame.
The commentator Jeff Sparrow, who has previously enjoined us to lay blame with the political class, has shifted his focus to people. Of the violence on Manus, he says: “The only limit is that which we’re prepared to bear.” His has become a more refined iteration of the “Not In My Name” protests favoured by anyone who has an interest in displacing the violence produced by the whole — or in this case, very much by the Australian government — onto people.
Not In My Name, or the Greens’ Not With My Vote, is a bromide that shifts responsibility for death and injury from policy that has ordered it. Whether it is caution from normally useful left-wing thinkers that we must be more caring or surveys that “prove” Australian people just don’t care, the account is the same: people are no damn good.
This is an entirely understandable emotional reaction. It is just a really shitty intellectual one. If we continue to blame individuals and their no-good ways for all the bad stuff, we are no longer able to describe structural inequality. We just continue to blame our neighbours.
A popular piece by Julia Baird on “trolls” this past weekend produced a more sophisticated confusion of people with structures. Which is to say, she showed us how the structure of sexism was upheld by people — in this case, trolls. Of course, sexism is a structure that, unlike mandatory detention, does require the complicity of people. Leaving aside for the minute the idea that a structure like sexism depends on an unconscious and not, as Baird would have it, a conscious complicity in its powerful nonsense, she just sort of got it wrong.
Trolls are not powerful silencers of women. They are, as data indicated last week, a small group of unstable idiots. They are horrible and they can, for the moment, do damage to others with a force previously unobtainable to individuals. But we can be fairly sure that their anonymity — unfortunately, the same anonymity that allowed extraordinary things like WikiLeaks and citizen journalism to unfold — will be disabled by legal means. In fact, Baird says she favours that course of action.
But what she doesn’t favour is an account of the world where power is either top-down or diffuse. And power is, of course, both of these things. The power in the case of detention is entirely in the hands of the Australian government. It is their rationalising and not our lack of concern that produced death and heartbreak on Manus Island. The power in the case of sexism is in such diluted quantities in trolls, it really doesn’t merit public discussion.
Except, of course, now it does. Because individualism has become a dominant account for all power. It Starts With Me. Not In My Name. The Power of One.
Look. The personal may be occasionally political, but it is, more often than not, just a boring and impotent way to describe what it means to live in a society that produces such complicated, systematic horror. It is not people who need redemption. It is the systems they consciously and unconsciously built.
Helen Razer is a writer whose work appears in The Saturday Paper, Daily Review, SBS Online, The Big Issue, and Frankie. She has previously worked as a columnist for The Age and The Australian and as a broadcaster for ABC radio.