When ugly things happen, unity is everything

Political tribalism is fuelling social unrest when that’s the last thing we need

There was never a more telling instance of internet power. Just days after video was posted showing a policeman kneeling on a black man’s neck, and in the face of pandemic lockdowns, mass protests erupted in cities round the world.

The video was evidence of a crime, fully justifying the arrests that eventually followed and the scrutiny that confronted people and governments everywhere, including in Australia, about racism embedded in laws, policies, procedures and customs.

It brings to mind a couple of other recent videos that got a mass audience. One featured three people fighting over toilet paper in the aisles of a Sydney supermarket in March. The other was about a woman in New York’s Central Park three weeks ago who, asked by an African American man to put her dog on a lead, phoned police. Stupid, racist – and all too human.

Against a backdrop of the pandemic and various other events, both the shoppers and the dog-walker were targets of public ridicule. The shoppers have faced court; the dog-walker – notwithstanding an apology – lost both her dog and her job.

But I can’t find it in me to condemn them. The videos didn’t leave me amused or outraged, just sad. Whatever personal shortcomings were on display, the people involved were at breaking point. And they broke.

The power of social media to expose injustice also makes it easy to stoke division and ridicule people. Those small disagreements seem trivial compared to the sufferings of millions through famine, war and displacement, but what lies behind them is anything but trivial.

We are encouraged to see security as soldiers defending the nation and police catching criminals, but that’s mostly politics. So-called security policies that use heavy-handed policing, punitive justice and an unresponsive bureaucracy to divide people actually undermine the real, inner security we all need.

Divisive politics now extends to every corner of society. Behind the robodebt fiasco that drove thousands of low-income Australians to despair is the implication that welfare recipients are cheats who steal from the public purse. The spectre of terrorism is used to target certain ethnic groups, to justify secret court hearings and to bypass other democratic and legal principles.

And then there’s race. School histories never admit it, but Australia was founded on racism. Earlier governments rated our land’s first people so low in the scheme of things that they didn’t even register as human. That attitude remains in different forms, such as political indifference to the disproportionate numbers of Aborigines in prison.

Australia’s acclaimed multicultural policies of the last century involved managing a complex interplay between different races, religions and traditions. That was until the Tampa incident gave conservative politicians a green light to express prejudice and xenophobia for electoral gain, all but wrecking the multiculturalism they claim to defend.

None of these things – cynical politics, wealth disparity, racial inequity, heavy-handed authority, ethnic division, judicial missteps – are unique to Australia. We can see daily the same sorts of issues popping up everywhere, and nowhere are they more starkly evident than in the United States.

Donald Trump is an appallingly ignorant, self-obsessed president who puts electioneering ahead of the national interest, rejects expertise and experience and promotes narrow nationalism and internal division. His administration is now a train-wreck of lies, accusations and general confusion.

Like all Americans, the hapless Central Park dog-walker has a lot to contend with. While she had no reason to be afraid of the calmly spoken black man who requested she comply with park rules and leash her dog, she almost certainly felt fearful during their encounter. She is a case in point that in her country, feelings of insecurity are expressed in more dangerous ways.

But insecurity is global. Chronic racial division, employment uncertainty, poverty, income inequality, a public health crisis and a destabilised climate – even without the devastation of war – add up to the greatest challenges to governments and peoples since at least World War II.

Fighting over toilet paper and making false claims to police are foolish, and it’s bad tactics to protest in public streets when there’s a pandemic. But people do irrational things when deep-seated fears and anxieties affecting whole populations are left to fester for years, or decades.

Like the rest of us, politicians will never agree on everything, but the crises we are living through call for them to abandon empty political point-scoring, acknowledge the truth of evidence and stop attacking messengers.

We need them to recognise that the big challenges we face demand unity of purpose and action, between individuals, communities, governments and ultimately nations. If we don’t achieve that, the ride ahead is going to get even rougher.

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