There’s a credible argument that our brains are belief engines evolved to produce sense out of chaos. Pattern recognition, so the evolutionary story goes, is an indispensable tool for survival. It is safer to be informed by the crude deduction that, say, all animals with fur want you for brunch than to allow for the possibility that a particular mammal might be on the I Quit Human regimen. Such patternicity can manufacture false information, but complex thinking can end in your death.
Across the centuries, we have developed methodologies to deliver us, materially and conceptually, from this sort of thinking. Science gives us the means to live beyond physical and metaphysical fear, but even so, we sometimes engage in behaviours that ignore the era’s privilege of doubt. We imagine patterns in poker machines, the face of the saviour on toast, and reason in “alternative” medicine. And we see patterns in news events all the time.
In the face of the quasi-primal fear unleashed by Man Haron Monis earlier this week, our ancient patternicity can be seen throughout local media. Large numbers of people could apparently “see the signs” for this act of brutality, and these have been read in a number of patterned ways. The limbic idiocy of News Corp and talkback radio kicked things off with predictable hate speech about Islam. If only we banned Muslims, none of this would have happened. But it wasn’t only Andrew Bolt who was on the Paleo Diet of reason. There would be days of patternicity to follow.
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Just hours after Monis’ actions resulted in the loss of two lives, a brutally simple feminist account followed. His was not the work of Islamic State but of the Misogyny Terrorist Front. The “total disregard” — that’s a total disregard — of the juridical system for the lives of women produced the events in Martin Place and then, in related critique, everyone and her aunt demanded to know why everyone else and their suspicious aunts weren’t in some kind of remand. Basically, local media was united in its call to lock “this kind of person” up. Their only point of disagreement was on precisely what kind of person, and what kind of pattern, Monis happened to be.
With scant knowledge of the crimes Monis was alleged to have committed and full knowledge that he had been unequivocally rejected, now and previously, by the Muslim community, commentators held forth. We might understand the primitive fears that produce this patternicity, but we can’t excuse its broadcast. You don’t just publish your first emotional response for the same reason you don’t scream “I KNOW WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE” during plane turbulence. We’re all entitled to our base moment of private panic, but we’re also obliged by the most fundamental tenets of community to keep it to ourselves.
“Without explicit permission from Johnson’s grieving partner, the author has no justification whatsoever to press a dead man whose views were unknown to him into the service of a campaign he happens to support.”
But now shutting up even when you have no credible expertise is considered an act of repression. One’s first response is considered an authentic response even if it is made from fear and primal shit. And so, we have journalists acting less as filters for reason than they are as amplifiers of patternicity. Anything dark or stupid or knee-jerk I felt in the minutes after I heard about the siege, I can now read in Fairfax and News. The worst of me is legitimised in print.
None of this is terribly surprising. After the bullshit engine of 9/11 emitted thousands of hours of unedited speculation, all media employees and anyone with a Facebook account feels free — and actually obliged — to describe the patterns they have identified without thinking. We live in a time of truthers, birthers and anti-vaxers, and no longer in a time of quiet reflection and review. We all think we know how bad things happened and how to stop them happening. What is a little new in the wake of this week’s events is that we seem to think we know how to make good things happen as well.
I shan’t say much about the #illridewithyou hashtag out of a rational fear that patternicity will see me as a dangerous racist if I do. Instead, I’ll just offer this link to a critical piece by my associate Eugenia Flynn. But I will say that the campaign to honour the life of slain manager Tori Johnson by urging for same-sex marriage is some of the most base and presumptuous cheerleading patternicity we could ever hope not to see.
In an absurd piece for HuffPo, writer James Peron makes more presumptions than sense. Let’s count them. While it is true that the reportedly heroic Johnson was in a long-term same-sex relationship, it is not true that the author can know if he identified as “gay”. The author could not know if Johnson was a supporter of same-sex marriage. The author could not know if Johnson felt he had died a “second-class citizen” or that he wished to be remembered or redeemed in this way. Without explicit permission from Johnson’s grieving partner, the author has no justification whatsoever to press a dead man whose views were unknown to him into the service of a campaign he happens to support.
To suppose that all people in same-sex relationships identify as gay and support same-sex marriage at all let alone to the extent that this cause, above all the causes, would be the one with which they would choose to be identified with in death is a crude inanity of Bolt value. What if Johnson cared more for, say, the treatment of queers in detention or homelessness or mental health? What if he thought, as many in the queer community do, that same-sex marriage was an unwelcome and legally meaningless straight-approved distraction from the long and violent struggle for queer justice? What if he thought it was a dangerous shift of a strong and defiant Sydney community into normalising weakness? What if he had no opinion on the matter at all?
Well, of course he did. He had a male partner ergo he utterly supports “gay marriage”. And the mammal is going to eat me. Patternicity tells me so. Tragically, Johnson can’t.
Of course, it could turn out that Johnson’s most sincere wish was to wed his partner and extend that state endorsement to all. We don’t know. But we can’t suppose it any more than we can suppose to understand the events in Martin Place.