This week, it’s cancel culture. Twitter is aflame with reciprocal blockings and exhaustive justifications of said blockings. 

Harpers published “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate”, signed by 153 famous writers, decrying the threat that public silencing is imposing on free speech.

Last week it was statues; before that, Black Lives Matter. Every aspect of the COVID-19 crisis — lockdowns, masks, economics — is a battleground of conflicting and heatedly asserted interests.

Stood back from, it’s exhausting. And it is achieving none of the aims of any of the antagonists, on any front. That begs a question: why are we being collectively so irrational?

Fashionably, one should point one’s finger at “the right”, a meaningless term, or “conservatives”, a misnomer; what we really mean are the forces of reaction to change. Change is the constant; society continues to move forward, no matter who’s setting fire to whom.

Reactionaries, disliking change for the reason that it challenges privilege, are accustomed through long practice to asserting their preferences as “rights”. These include the right to free speech (to state unpopular opinions, use racial slurs, blame victims for their misfortune — and a special sub-species, the right to cultural appropriation); the right to not wear a mask or be vaccinated; the right to preserve a preferred version of history by words, flag or statue.

On “the left” (also meaningless), or “progressive” (also misnomer) side, what we have in truth are the forces of equality. Because equality, meaning the death of discriminatory difference between any two humans, has to be fought for at every step (it has never been volunteered), that fight is rooted in grievance.

The only truly universal human right is equality; unless you are genuinely a bigot, it cannot be denied. The other rights, enshrined in law or not, are controversial and qualified. Every society recognises limitations to freedom of speech, assembly, religion and arbitrary detention. This is because their philosophical underpinning is unsound, grounded as they are in necessary compromise.

Every “progressive” movement is a fight for equality. Every reaction to it is a defence of privilege. 

So when J K Rowling tweets her opinions that deny the validity of transgender existence, she asserts her free speech right to speak her mind.  The resulting uproar comes from the historical reality, that until recently that denial of transgender people had always been the norm. 

To have your identity rejected is deeply hurtful; hence the deep anger and demands that Rowling (or, more accurately, her social licence) be cancelled.

That pattern is repeated constantly on every battleground. The Harpers letter was an angry assertion of right, by people who believe that a witch-hunt is on and they may be next. As people of letters, they are claiming their right as one that it is in society’s interest to protect. Shakespeare, after all, was quite racist but where would we be without The Merchant of Venice?

There is the gap. On the one hand, the increasingly aggressive assertion of human rights whose limits are not clearly defined; and on the other, hurt and anger manifesting from the deep intergenerational wounds of inequality.  These twin mountain tops of rage are far distant and growing ever further apart.  They share no common ground or even language.

This phenomenon, as it extends through various layers of our culture, is bringing normally natural allies into conflict as well. The fierce debate over the Sydney Film Festival’s giving of an award to the short film Mukbang seemed uncontroversial until writer Michelle Law raised the red flag of cultural appropriation, calling a scene “profoundly problematic in the way it appropriates Korean culture in order for a white girl to find herself”. 

The festival and film-maker issued sincere apologies but a bonfire of harshly expressed opinions followed from both sides of the debate. For one thing, was Law herself being racist in her pejorative use of “white girl”?

Surely, the creative arts industry should not be at war with itself? But it certainly is; even SBS, the mainstay of multiculturalism, is under fire for having too white a management team and tolerating racist treatment of its own staff. For god’s sake, the ultra-equality campaigner Mad Fucking Witches just blocked legendary lefty Mike Carlton because they had a Twitter falling-out. That’s a patently bizarre outcome regardless of who’s “right”.

I’m not actually pointing fingers at anyone, apart from the self-conscious provocateurs stoking these fires for fun or profit. What I am pointing at is the uselessness of these arguments, for so long as they stand on separated ground.

The assertion of rights is personal and defensive; the expression of hurt and grievance is equally personal and challenging. They are failing to find a common place to explore understanding.

The only possible basis for that is empathy. When we are all fired up, as we all most assuredly are, we will be blind and deaf to each other’s hurts and demands until we open ourselves to their possibility.

That means accepting that inequality is real, systemic and always wrong. It also means appreciating that the equalising process is traumatic and unsettling for those who’ve never considered their own privilege and therefore may not recognise that the raising up of another is not their own unfair loss.

Otherwise, we’re doomed to continue this ridiculous dance of the disgruntled, at ever faster speed.

Peter Fray

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