The most striking scene in The Brothers Karamazov is when Dmitri, the eldest brother, humiliates a poor career officer, Captain Snegiryov, in front of his small son Ilyusha.
Of all the terrible things that happen to people in that novel, that is the worst, and we understand why: Snegiryov is shamed beyond recovery in the eyes of his son, whose capacity for unquestioning trust in the world is too damaged, too early.
The fact that the scene strikes almost everyone who reads it so deeply suggests a universal truth is at play, a rule you don’t break.
The desperately sad death of Wilson Gavin brings that scene to mind.
Gavin, a 21 year-old president of the University of Queensland’s Liberal National Club, took his life a day after leading a disruptive protest at a session of “drag queen story time” at a Brisbane library.
Reports say that the protesters banged on the glass wall of the room the session was being held in, frightening and distressing the children. The protest prompted, on social media, not merely outrage but disgust.
Apparently no one involved in this protest was willing to call out its obvious absurdity: in the name of conservatism, the most basic duty of care between adults and children was being breached.
These young defenders of the family had no innate sense of what is owed to children by adults; nor any sense that we limit our conduct in these situations because we know that once that limit goes, it all goes.
The Liberal National Club protest touched the very outer edge of that. It had a whiff of Berlin ’20s about it; a nasty piece of right-wing squadism in chinos.
The protest was, in other words, deeply shameful. In this wonderful new world where social media pushes young teens and tweens to suicide, or attempts at such, we know the role that shaming plays in making people want to kill themselves.
Such shaming operates on our internalised conscience, setting up conflict within: the voice in the head saying, “you’re terrible, kill yourself now”.
Wilson Gavin became exposed to the risk of being overwhelmed by self-annihilatory desire because he had done something genuinely shameful, doubly so as a conservative, and with his identity as a gay man thrown into the mix.
Faced with this nasty, life-denying protest, its ghastly aftermath, and the possibility that what Gavin actually did may have played a role in his subsequent actions, the right might have had a moment of reflection.
But that would have been against the spirit of gleeful nihilism that powers the right’s culture wars, so they went another way.
The liberal-conservative notion of personal responsibility — that Gavin, though clearly getting way out of his depth very quickly, had made a series of consequential choices — went out the window.
The purely social-causal explanation — usually derided as a caricature leftist position — was substituted. Gavin died because of social media.
The attempt by the right to obscure the role of its own ideas in Wilson’s awful death is understandable.
For years the right has advanced a nihilistic politics-first approach, drawn not from the heritage of conservatism but from the concept advanced by the Nazi philosopher Carl Schmitt — that your politics is defined by the identification of “an enemy”. Your political and personal identity then flows from being implacably other to them; your victory and ecstatic transcendence delivered by their annihilation.
This is the sentiment that has driven News Corp’s onslaughts against people like Larissa Behrendt and Yassmin Abdel-Magied; unmistakeably racist assaults, whose ultimate “direction of travel”, whether admitted or not, was the complete psychological breakdown of their targets.
There’s now enough talkative defectors from the Oz for us to know that such attacks were conducted in a spirit of spitting hatred, a deliberate assault on such civility as remained in Australian politics.
Having introduced this into our national life, News Corp is now keen to cover its tracks by blaming social media.
The right seems surprised that the lethal politics it has courted for years has now started to have consequences among the right.
Having derided progressives for years for being “snowflakes”, the right has belatedly woken up to the fact that its young recruits are as fragile as any person growing up today.
They are even more so, because the sort of Gauleiter rightism that makes you think disrupting a children’s story reading is an OK idea appeals to unstable young people in need of rigid beliefs (to hold their selfhoods together) and violent action (to externalise internal conflict).
And, yeah, some are just haters.
The right will find itself with more of these people — bad recruits will crowd out good — as its politics dips further into the sewer.
Much right wing cultural politics is now a form of sustained hysteria. Such energies will have their out, and it won’t be the editors and columnists paying the price.
If you’re a News Corp journo being told to participate in a character assassination, don’t do it. It’s an industrial issue; call in the MEAA and refuse the instruction. (Do it over climate change denial too.)
You don’t want to be involved in pushing people over the brink. Quite aside from it being wrong, it will fuck you up for a long time. In Karamazov, Snegiryov is broken, and Ilyusha falls ill.
Nobody wins and worlds are destroyed, as happened in Brisbane this week.