I have always found so many reasons to avoid a true study of histories. First, it was because Dad wouldn’t stop banging on about John Monash. Then, it was because it clashed with the unit at my progressive Canberra high school, “Women in Film”. Last, it was because several important philosophers told me during university that the way that people studied it was mostly wrong, so I was able to cram the gaps in my knowledge with lazy remarks like, “well, it’s just a dialectic really, isn’t it?” This is a lifetime of oversight it’s probably time to correct.
If only for reasons of emotional health, the study of eras now seems like a good idea. I always used to laugh when Malcolm Turnbull mentioned Thucydides in his speeches — I thought he was being pretentious. Now, I understand that it’s a self-soothing activity and that when the PM talked about accounts of the Peloponnesian War, as he did without pause in his first few weeks of office, it simply made him feel better. If you’ve got a handle on a conflict of the past, you probably feel more able to walk through those of the present.
The English Interregnum. The rise to power of Nazism. The era before the Partition of India, or whoever those guys were in early industrial Europe who kept tearing apart machines. Perhaps true knowledge of just one of these times would help me get my head around a year in which we can fully expect to see headlines like “US Education Secretary DeVos announces grade school drones piloting program to be fully sponsored by Lockheed” or “US President Trump hosts White House’s first cage fight”.
I suspect that in studying history, we find that the way in which populations respond to what we later see to be times of great transition is whacky. There must be grief when people feel great change and there must be evidence of neurosis. I’m sure we find some people in history who respond tactically and meaningfully to the troubles of their time. I’m sure we find many more so shocked by the shift, they go around trying to reverse it with fairy dust.
This is what it seems like right now. There is a monumental change in the way politics is done and understood, and a widespread response that looks, to me at least, to be monumentally naive. The unfolding of brutal chaos is answered by millions, justifiably terrified, with statements about compassion and understanding. “Love Trumps Hate,” say the people, as though good vibes were a meaningful weapon.
Compassion, to be gracelessly clear, is wonderful. But even I, such an idle student of history, know that it has played no significant role in either resistance or rule. Nonetheless, we see a doubling down of the idea of virtue and as the problems in the world become more serious, widespread and complex, the popular solutions to these become whimsical, individual and simple.
You can punch one Nazi. You can delete one app. Crochet just one pussy hat and show those guys how proud you are to be one woman. All of this is done in a spirit of great generosity. All of this seems, to me at least, to be evidence less of a powerful collective than it is of a personal pathology.
We are grieving for a newly diminished past. Our ideas about the power of the good individual are gainsaid every hour as some report appears about the power of the bad collective. Membership to One Nation increases, and we answer this with stories of love. The virus of the organised alt-right encroaches, and we tend to it with a single punch. These groups, and the social problems that produced them, start using spreadsheets, and we knit ourselves a beanie. Because love Trumps hate and the way to fight fascism, as we all didn’t learn in history class, is by being cheeky.
Or, the way to fight intimate partner violence is by growing one’s body hair. Perhaps at another time, the “Get Hairy February” program would not have achieved such wide media attention. Before last November, it would have been what it was: another nice month in a year of nice months that promised the double dividend of raising both funds and awareness.
To be gracelessly clear, there is nothing that is not good and noble about this scheme, which asks women to grow their body hair all this month, possibly taking selfies of it, while collecting funds for frontline services. What is curious, though, is the fixation in recent days by media outlets who report it.
This is good, of course, for organisers who will pass on all donations to the Full Stop Foundation. But it’s curious that it’s being reported. It is hardly as though the matters of both “awareness raising” and over-reliance on a range of not-for-profits as effective tools in the fight against family violence have not been problematised. It is hardly as though the idea, central to this program, that an end to sexism, expressed in this case by the expectation that women should remove their body hair, will also be an end to partner violence. The “Duluth model”, the way of thinking about domestic violence as largely the by-product of sexism, is not, as reported by both Crikey’s Guy Rundle and The Saturday Paper’s Martin McKenzie-Murray, may not be as effective as it appears.
To talk about the prevalence of domestic violence is, of course, essential work. We all know someone impacted by this brutality and we all likely understand how the reluctance to concede that one is a victim of it is another hurdle to its end. But, what we also know, or at least once did, is that complicated problems require complicated solutions, and that a simple retort can be obfuscating. In some cases, awareness raising of domestic violence can normalise the very thing that it seeks to counter.
This is not to say “do nothing”. It is, however, to say that all “somethings” are not necessarily helpful, even, at times, inimical. To provide the powerful illusion of a solution diminishes the possibility of a real one.
Which I would probably know better. If only I had studied true histories.