Never has the current shortage of civility, or as we say at Christmas, peace and goodwill, been more dramatically on show than in the Queensland shootings last week, driven by hate-filled conspiracy theories on the internet.
The internet is a wondrous tool for connecting the world, enabling people to bypass borders, institutions, corporations and other communication roadblocks, and to reach other ideas and people, wherever they are and whatever their station. Its flip side is that it draws on our fascination with conflict and division to spread falsehood, distrust, paranoia and hysteria.
That is where 34 members of the US Congress found themselves two years ago as they exchanged text messages with Trump White House chief of staff Mark Meadows. Their fanciful theories about a “stolen” 2020 presidential election, and their desperation to keep Donald Trump in power, were exposed when their messages were published last week.
The internet didn’t cause either of the above developments; it was just the medium that facilitated them. But it’s disconcerting to see how its use can narrow people’s channels of thought to the point of murdering innocent people and fomenting insurrection.
Tunnel vision has also led to a persistent political mindset in Australia around development. While especially pernicious in conservative ranks, it has afflicted politicians on both sides of the political divide, and led to the demonising by both major parties of Green and independent politicians and others who stand up for the environment.
Radical state laws to stop protest action on roads and public land were criticised internationally after politicians expressed pleasure at a 15-month jail sentence for a Sydney Harbour Bridge climate protester last month. For their part, Tasmanian governments have sought for decades to use the law to stop public protest in places of work and business.
In the Hobart Mercury last Friday, Danielle Wood rightly condemned the lack of vision of Premier Jeremy Rockliff in failing to prioritise protection of our outstanding natural values. She focused on the Mt Wellington cable car project, but her criticism applies also to unrelenting government promotion of inshore fish farming and old-growth forest harvesting.
In the midst of a global environmental crisis, promoting development while jailing people who oppose it is pure folly. When politicians see enemies around every corner, all sorts of things fall apart.
All of us need to know how to hold our fire when things irritate us. It doesn’t take too much thought to understand that good manners really are the cornerstone of civilisation, an argument impeccably put in a gem of a book I have treasured for many years, “Why Manners Matter”, by the appropriately-named Sydney writer Lucinda Holdforth.
Good manners have never been more important, nor more neglected, than now. In every conceivable human interaction they are the oil that makes these interactions work, and their absence makes it all the harder to maintain the order that laws are supposed to underpin.
In these times of extreme partisanship, for all sorts of reasons citizens need to see political leaders working with others, both on the home front and externally. Leaders wanting to mend damaged international friendships need to look to how they treat people outside their orbit – in other political parties, other social groups, other communities, other countries.
After a period in the wilderness, Australia-Pacific relations seem to be back on track, which calls for a toast. Each culture has its own lubricant for this – champagne, beer, or whatever else takes your fancy. In the Pacific they toast with the local brew, kava. Former prime minister John Howard never managed to master that art, famously calling for a cup of tea instead.
So it was pleasing to see kava ceremonies on multiple islands last week taking in not just Foreign Minister Penny Wong and Pacific Minister Pat Conroy but also Opposition counterparts Simon Birmingham and Michael McCormack. The latter fell ill from a brush with potent kava but was gracious enough to say he didn’t mind. Diplomacy takes effort.
There are reasons for hope in the US too, where polls show Donald Trump is losing popular support. The signs from his latest money-raising venture – selling faked images of himself as everyone’s hero – are that he’s headed for the exit, at which point we can look forward to some relief from the mad hyper-partisanship that has so damaged that country and the world.
There can be no peace without goodwill, and there’s no goodwill in the false narratives and disrespect for others that lie behind the strife besetting us. Suppressing these demons – they won’t be defeated – will take strong, open, generous minds and no small amount of courage.