Getting some perspective on Charlottesville

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Instead of refining his initial remarks about a Nazi rally in Charlottesville, which brutally claimed the life of a counter-protester, Donald Trump has doubled down. At a heated news conference in New York, he demanded that journalists define 'alt-right', invoked the idea of an 'alt-left', and lay blame on 'both sides'.

xxxxxThe proposition that there is an equivalence between white supremacist, militant groups and anti-racist networks has highlighted the moral vacuousness of the idea of balance. On its own, there is nothing wrong with balance. Reality is complex, and we hold priorities that are negotiated with others. Everyone wants to feel heard. The expectation that decisions are made 'on balance' animates our sense of natural justice.

But reality is also finite. A certain perspective prevails. That is the story of the struggle for black civil rights in the US, recognition of Australian Indigenous entitlement to land, the attention to violence against women. At some stage, there are no more 'sides' to be heard, no work of persuasion that changes the terms. Something has to give, and we hope for the better.

Perhaps that is what more accurately describes balance: the point before everything tips away. It would explain the clamour for balance from those who have got much to lose. Inertia serves their interests.

For instance, corporations have been known to generate counter-information about climate change. Denialists demand space, seeking to 'debate' scientists at every turn, and complain about the imbalance of coverage.

Balance is also used as a shield in cases of abuse and violence against women and children. Victims are blamed and shamed, as if mundane selections around dress, movement and location hold the same moral weight as the decision to rape or protect the rapist.

The both-sides mindset is often mistaken for civility, but when it rests on uncivil terms it cannot but be grotesque. There is no 'balance' in the way that Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people are treated under law. Nor in tabloid campaigns against women of colour. Nor in the manner that queer families are dissected. Nor in how generational wealth is distributed. Nor in the siege that minorities in the US have been under since January.

The status quo only ever seems fair to those who benefit from it. Others experience it as disequilibrium, an ongoing and sometimes futile effort to find or keep their bearing. They recognise balance as a fig leaf for their continued marginalisation.

 

"At some stage, there are no more 'sides' to be heard, no work of persuasion that changes the terms. Something has to give."

 

In other words, the insistence on balance is an exercise of power to obscure differences in power. To borrow from Charles Baudelaire, 'the devil's finest trick is to persuade you that he does not exist'.

Those who dominate areas of society—cultural, economic and political—would have others believe that they are no different, that they could be victims too. 'White lives matter', they chant. Such types invoke heritage, values and tradition as if these are neutral and not self-centring, hegemonic shorthand, with bleak historical antecedents.

It might be unsettling personally, since it could be us, but there are situations where someone has to be wrong and there is no balance to be had.

This can be quickly established in matters of fact, where things like physics, statistics and primary sources from history can mediate different beliefs.

It is somewhat complicated in matters of harm, given that imagined harms will always be rendered larger than real and present hurt, and aggressors can mimic their victims. It is in this area that an acute sensitivity to power differentials really matters the most.

The concept of balance, of 'both sides', appeals to our need for order and fairness. But unless we recognise the ways in which it has been used to perpetuate injustice, we become complicit without even realising.

 

 


Fatima MeashamFatima Measham is a Eureka Street consulting editor. She co-hosts the ChatterSquare podcast, tweets as @foomeister and blogs on Medium.

Topic tags: Fatima Measham, Charlottesville


 

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'The status quo only ever seems fair to those who benefit from it.' That's a powerful but absolutely correct statement. Fatima. Thank you for your challenging and extremely important article.
robert van zetten | 17 August 2017


I am in Palestine at present. Our equivalent of neo-Nazis are the white racist zionist settlers preaching hate and condemnation of anyone who opposes their narrow vision of how humanity should be valued unequally. While the Western press, correctly in my view, condemns white supremacists, zionists would seem to be an exception! Why the double standard?
Denis Loft | 17 August 2017


Omg thank you. Such a succinct summary to explain my frustration and despair in the current political climate.
GAJ | 18 August 2017


Some really excellent points, Fatima, and very clearly expressed. You've helped me unravel a great deal of frustrated discussion I got involved in on 'The Conversation' (see https://theconversation.com/when-it-comes-to-same-sex-marriage-not-all-views-deserve-respect-82433). I will, however, continue to contend that most social issues have their foundations in individual psychology/human behaviour, not groups. We only create groups, or join them, to support our own identity and belief system. Or more accurately, as Erich Fromm argues, we are all involved in a psycho-social cycle where one feeds the other. If we believe that social issues are only 'social', or, issues about isms, then we are only half way to resolving the problems that result. I suppose what I'm getting it is the motto of the Movement for a Better World (I believe)..."God, change the world, starting with me". As such, any sides that exist are the two sides of my own inner struggle. Too idealistic...probably. Easier to fight social wars in group form rather than focus on one's self first, what is driving us to think the way we do, view others the way we do, view life the way we do which results in the way we act. But, thanks again - this was great.
Stephen de Weger | 18 August 2017


When SMH cartoonist Cathy Wilcox brilliantly invoked Joni Mitchell's classic song "Both Sides Now" to parody Trump, she apologised to Mitchell as is usual. Mitchell's song is a deeply personal one, and I know I related to it strongly and still do. It's very possible that those of a different colour, sex, religion and political viewpoint to myself also related to those lyrics. And the personal cuts deep. I deplore the violence that happened in Charlottesville and do not agree with Trump's worldview. I agree very much with your penultimate paragraph Fatima.
Pam | 18 August 2017


"At some stage, there are no more 'sides' to be heard.." This misses the point. The question is not whether one's enemies are morally indistinguishable or equivalent, but whether our own side has flaws we need to deal with. Shrugging off all accusations as "right-wing noise machine" is a bad strategy for progressives (I suggest googling "Gerry Healy", eg, or "Lauren Ingram"). It's as fallacious as the Right saying "Australia is a better place to live than Iran Pakistan, therefore Waleed Aly has no grounds to complain about prejudice in Australia".
Tom R | 18 August 2017


Two videos have emerged which might help in the getting of perspective. After watching this, again, I find myself asking...what happened in this man's life, not ot mention all those passionateyl violent on either side, to make them who they are. I just hope we do not slip into more 'four legs good, two legs bad' mentalities but, rather attack our own fears and phobias. If this man (the right wing neo-nazi) was to take the time to analyse his extremely obvious psychological issues, he would be off the streets rather than acting out his early damage whatever that was. However, I have seen equally treasonous people from the left wanting to create Australia into a Marxist state and god help anyone who gets in their way. When such activity is exposed, then the 'movement' peopled by damaged individual extremists, goes underground and develop new methods of attack. Marxist...Nazi...both have ended in miilions of deaths of those who spoke up against those in power. This is not a left or right issue - it is a human issue, one where it needs to be taught that individuals need to first fix their own damage before trying to fix the world. Hitler, Stalin, Mao all had very violent abusive fathers and doting religious mothers. Does that tell us anything. Their societies just made the fatal mistake of not recognising their damage and giving them power and their freedom.
Stephen de Weger | 18 August 2017


"'both sides". There are of course many 'sides', as hinted at by the introduction of terms such as 'alt' and 'moderate'. Perhaps the now rather meaningless terms 'left' and 'right' should be discarded, and in the light of the call, 'one for all and all for one', be replaced with something like 'cooperative' and 'selfish'. Luke 12:48 reminds us that 'from those who have received much, much is expected'. Life began on Earth within 600 million years, but only as individual single-celled beings. It took almost 4 billion years for those single-cell life forms to learn to cooperate and form multi-celled life, with increasing benefits for all. We are all One People, endowed with great gifts, but we still struggle to learn the cooperation that will bring us the harmony, peace and benefits this will bring to us all. This will only come when we put GOD first, and relegate 'our- side' to its proper place, not as number one on our list
Robert Liddy | 18 August 2017


Two videos of the Charlottesville riot have emerged which might help in the getting of perspective. They are a must see. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RIrcB1sAN8I https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=On-_hCn16wM After watching this, again, I find myself asking...what happened in this man's life, not to mention all those passionately violent on either side, to make them who they are. I just hope we do not slip into more 'four legs good, two legs bad' mentalities but, rather, attack our own fears, prejudices and phobias. If this man (the right wing neo-nazi) was to take the time to analyse his extremely obvious psychological issues, he would be off the streets rather than acting out from his early damage whatever that was. However, I have seen equally treasonous people from the left wanting to create Australia into a Marxist state and god help anyone who gets in their way. When such activity is exposed, then the 'movement' peopled by damaged individual extremists, goes underground and develop new methods of attack. Marxist...Nazi...both have ended in millions of deaths of those who spoke up against those in power. This is not a left or right issue - it is a human issue, one where it needs to be taught that individuals need to first fix their own damage before trying to fix the world. Hitler, Stalin, Mao all had very violent abusive fathers and doting religious mothers. Does that tell us anything? Their societies just made the fatal mistake of not recognising their damage and giving them power and their freedom. They did not recognise the damage because no one told them to look for it.
Stephen de Weger | 18 August 2017


I find this a sinister article, the take-out from which is "I disagree with what you say and I'll defend to death a prohibition on you saying it." It's France 1793 all over again.
HH | 18 August 2017


This first comment didn't include the video connections. There was a second, fixed one which did. Anyway, here they are. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RIrcB1sAN8I https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=On-_hCn16wM
Stephen de Weger | 18 August 2017


Thank you for a great article, Fatima. Of course what trump was trying to do was to speak down the crime that was committed in Charlottesville by the Neo Nazi and KKK thugs. Part of e reason for his action was because heinous that these people support him. We know where Trump stands on the issues of social justice, human rights, equality and care for the environment. He has made himself abundantly clear. We must not forget that Trump is not the only politician who has tried to trivialise criminal behaviour. Many Australian political leaders have done this in recent history as the Indonesian military has committed genocide and sickening human rights abuses in West Papua, East Timor, Acheh and Indonesia itself. No matter where people try to minimise crimes against others, people of goodwill have to take a principled stand.
Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 19 August 2017


Planet America nailed it last night. One of the apparent mitigating issues for some 'viewers' was that the original rally consisted of a broad range of people from average mum and dad Republicans wanting their side to be heard, to extremist neo-nazis and KKK, not to mention sociopaths who, when triggered, drive cars into the crowd. The 'mitigating' element for Trump and many others looking into this event may have been the apparent attendance of the far more ordinary right-wing citizens. Where Planet America, and others got it right was by saying, "What the hell are these mum and dad righties doing associating with such extremists? Doing so, legitimates what is essentially a philosophy of totalitarian evil and hatred. Yes, we can only rely on the news to reveal what really happened, who was really there. But as a response to what we've been told happened, this is great, Fatima. One thing, though: When freedom of speech is working, it allows such groups to become 'visible' rather than be underground, and odd as it may sound, this has its benefits when it comes to knowing who is around and what they are thinking. They have now revealed to the world their disturbing individual and collective psycho-social illnesses. For more, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RIrcB1sAN8I and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=On-_hCn16wM
Stephen de Weger | 21 August 2017


Charlottesville is where one group denied the right of another peaceably to publicise their non-normative ideas, not that having non-normative ideas has anything to do with anything, given the adage that freedom of thought requires freedom to be given to offensive thoughts. And so we tolerate the Left raining on the parades of the Right by demanding the cancellation of speeches by people such as Geert Wilders and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and throwing tantrums to extort cancellations from the operators of the putative venues.
Roy Chen Yee | 28 August 2017


Thought provoking and articulately stated thanks Fatima, especially on the vacuousness of 'balanced' reporting when power is overlooked. On Tuesday 22/8 ABC journalist Sarah Ferguson spoke extensively about Charlottesville in her John Button oration at Melbourne Writers Festival. Without simplifying the power issues she highlighted the importance of listening to suppressed voices. I am glad Eureka Street makes a place for listening.
Julie Perrin | 31 August 2017


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