November 29, 2009

The potential for change

As a species, we stand to learn a great deal from the past - from the mistakes and successes of prior generations and to everything that has come before this moment. 
In our own personal lives and as a society, history has the power - not only to teach us the most valuable of lessons - but also to judge us according to our actions. 

Sometimes we look to the past and struggle to make sense of what has happened. Or we denounce the past with a sickening complicity because we are so ashamed of what we failed to see - or how we failed to react. 

During the Howard government’s war on asylum seekers, I remember feeling dumbfounded by the  complacency of my fellow countrymen and women.  I remember wanting to shake people awake - to wrestle them out of their zombie states - to incite some form of reaction. 
I remember driving to the beach on the day a group of detainees stitched their lips together (in what can only be called an act of desperation) and pulling over to the side of the road because I was too upset to drive. 

I remember the children overboard saga in 2001, and the demonic way in which the refugees on board the Tampa were depicted as killers of children. 
I remember not being able to turn on the television or the radio without hearing yet another shocking account, each one depicting the dire situation for the men, women and children in Australian detention camps. 
Initially, everyone had an opinion  (even the ones who had no idea what they were talking about), but as time wore on and more horrific stories emerged, I noticed the subtle decline in their impact. 
Australians were becoming desensitized to the issues, until eventually, those stories became nothing more than background noise; the static of a broken political landscape. 
As a high school student learning about the Holocaust, I struggled to understand how the dominance of one man’s ideology led to the scale of genocide that killed 11 million people - including 6 million Jews. 
I have since learnt about the devastating repercussions of compliance. 
We only have to rewind 15 years to the events that took place in Rwanda to learn that over the course of 100 days - although the eyes of the world were watching - 500,000 people were brutally murdered. 

More recently in Australia, we have been urged to look back to the Stolen Generation, to years of systemic abuse inflicted upon the most vulnerable of people: the women and the children – the peaceful custodians of this land. These atrocities were made possible largely due to the compliance of the church and the state, as well as the wider community.  
Today however, with the luxury of hindsight we are able to look back to these historical events with 20/20 vision – each one of us bewildered at how they came to pass.

I once spoke to a Salvation Army member who defended the organisations involvement in the Stolen Generation. 
He played the ignorant card; claiming that in those days they thought they were acting in the best interests of the children
Is it possible that over time, our moral compass can shift that much – or is it something else? 
Human beings have an incredible capacity to adapt to just about anything. 
Give us enough time and we will acclimatise to the environment to which we have been exposed. Gradually, (often despite the flapping of moral and ethical red flags), the general community will accept a set of circumstances as though they were ‘the norm’. 
And although there will always be a select minority - those who through education, self empowerment and activism - can and often do incite real change, the cards are rarely stacked in their favour. 
In other words, it is not outrageous to assume that as human beings, we can be trained in how to think and how to feel. 
Look at the evangelical cults in America that are now appearing here (Hillsong etc). For 2000 years, Christianity used the bible metaphorically; teaching the scripture as a series of allegorical tales. 
In fact, before the 1960's Darwin's theory of evolution and the teachings of the Christian Church were able to sit alongside one another or in other words, one did not simply cancel the other out. (This documentary called Did Darwin kill God explains all).  

But since it's inception in the 1960's, Fundamentalist Evangelical Christianity has taken 2000 years of Christianity's 'loose interpretation' of the bible and replaced it with a literal reading of genesis. 
Creationism teaches children that human beings walked the earth alongside dinosaurs because the bible says that first God made all the animals and on the sixth day he created man. 

Sure, upon hearing this you might think it a load of hogwash, but 400 million Evangelists might disagree. This documentary on a creationism museum must be seen to be believed. 
But brain washing is not isolated to politics and religion.  Time limits have been recommended on violent video games because studies have shown that children become desensitized and numb to repetitive violent imagery. 

On the opposite side of the spectrum, training regimes for the soldiers fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq involve prolonged use of video games with high-level violence. 
The desired effect it seems is to acclimatise the soldiers to the brutality of war. 
A rather frightening exercise when you think about the premise of those video games – the more civilians maimed and killed the better. 

In November this year, a woman was raped in a Washington park in full view of 100 witnesses. Not one person intervened. 
Studies  have shown that witnesses of crime were much less likely to step forward if they were in a group, than  if they were by themselves. This phenomenon is known as the Bystander Effect.

But as a species, are we really that devoid of moral initiative? Or does the pack mentality always reign supreme? 
I can think of no other film that tackles the issue of pack mentality more poignantly than the 2006 Australian film Jindabyne
Based on the remarkable short story by Raymond Carver, There's so much water so close to home, and turned into a song by Paul Kelly, Everything's Turning To White, Jindabyne is the story of  a group of well respected adult men who go on a fishing trip in a small NSW country town. 
Upon arrival, the men find the body of a woman (presumed murdered) floating face down in the river. 
But instead of alerting police immediately, the men decide to continue fishing and wait to report the crime until the third day when they return home - thus behaving in a way that shocks everyone, including themselves. 
After the event, when the men are alone and have each returned to their natural lives, they struggle to make sense of their actions. 

In 2003 I joined a group called Chilout (Children Out of Detention) and I began visiting with the refugees at Maribyrnong detention centre in Melbourne. So many of the stories I heard in there will stay with me forever, but I will share them here another time. 
Many of the detainees would often ask me why Australians were so hateful toward refugees, when they had only ever heard good things about Australian people. 
I told them that most Australians were good people but that they had been fed a bunch of lies and brainwashed by the government. 
I told them that most Australians had never sat down with a refugee and listened to his or her stories, or stopped for a moment to understand that they were someone's brother, sister, son, daughter, mother, father or friend. 
I told them that most media coverage never showed the close up faces of the refugees but rather used long shot images of people on boats. 
I told them that while I was proud to be Australian, I was ashamed by my governments actions and sorry that so many Australians had failed to educate themselves about the difference between lies and truth. 
For this insight, they were humbled and grateful. 

So with the debate about Asylum Seekers back in the public domain, lets take this opportunity to alter the course of history. 
We cannot change the past but we can change the way our actions will effect the past and we can do that today.  
We do not all have to go out and visit detainees at Christmas Island; the Rudd Government has made that all but impossible, but we can do small things, simple things. 
We can educate ourselves by asking questions, by not assuming and taking things at face value, by not believing everything we read and everything we hear. 
We can do this by taking some initiative over our own minds, to really ask ourselves what it is we believe and to delve deeper to find out why we believe what we believe. 
knowledge is power and without it, we are nothing more than a pack of blinded sheep, with the potential to be led astray. 
Knowledge is the tool with which we change ourselves and in changing ourselves, we then have the potential to change the course of history. Now wouldn't that be lovely. 


aybrus said...

Again outstanding...
People used to criticize the Russian mystic Gurdjieff, saying: "Your system contains no ethics. It speaks nothing of Love."
He replied: "Can automations love?"
His idea being work on yourself, and when you've ceased becoming an automation (or passive medium of mass ideas/norms/influences), then he would speak to them of love.

Anonymous said...

James Dean of all people said once " I can't change the ship I'm on but I do have the power to change the sails and it's direction"
again miss Misha beautiful and powerful words

mishaloula said...

Thanks for the comments people, I love and appreciate your feedback on my posts.