Razer: Warm 'understanding' is no match for cold fact

Private fear that one lives in a world doomed to disappear up its own bunghole is a pain. But, public declaration of this fear can almost be a pleasure. In past weeks, two local journalists have delivered some of us from solo despair to a crabby chorus. Thank goodness for the shitted-off laments of newsman Stan Grant and The Age’s Kathy Evans. Both of them, it seems, have had it up to here with you, me and the thick-witted, lovey-dovey tolerant syrup that coats our current discussion.

If you’ve not yet read these pieces, I rule that you do so directly. Even in the case that you have read both, return to them now with the idea that they are each the other’s valuable and unhappy companion. There is so little popular local writing that dares to question understanding, the most (over) valued moral quality of our time, that two such advances in just two weeks is a fluke that demands our focus.

Grant, who writes critically on recent widespread support for retired AFL great Adam Goodes, doesn’t care how much we care about the other. Evans, who urges for a less “joyous” view of people with a disability, could not give two hoots for our hoot-giving. Both writers advocate for a society that functions, and not a culture that presumes only to understand.

The idea that our cultural understanding can treat the world’s social ill has been naturalised by media. Both Fairfax and The Guardian, the outlets that had the rare sense to publish these two punchy pieces, are usually full to the point of runoff with whiffy understanding.

In the past month, understanding is uncritically held in these publications as the solution to asylum seeker settlement, affordable housing and to media itself. If only we really understood the suffering of others, so the popular story goes, we would immediately relieve it. All we need is understanding. And a theme-park walk in someone’s cut-price shoes.

There are plenty of reasons this injunction doesn’t work. First, most humans, especially the least understanding ones, are fairly convinced that the scope of their understanding is already ample. Second, the Tolerance Industrial Complex has now produced such an over-supply of propagandist understanding, the advice is without value. I mean, can you stand another non-sexist language lesson?

If you can, by the by, here’s a fun one from Fairfax. It claims that those who have publicly uttered sexist language should be under the same scrutiny as Zaky Mallah, someone who has publicly uttered his appreciation for the al-Nusra Front. Of course, these Fairfax thoughts were intended as a warm opportunity for understanding. In this case, understanding of Muslims, who are demonised for their faith instead of white sexist men, who are valorised for theirs. This asymmetry is, of course, quite true.

But what is also true is that the Muslim in this case had openly declared his admiration for Syrian al-Qaeda making him (a) completely unrepresentative of Islam (b) of legitimate interest to ASIO and (c) ultimately useless to “understanding” — unless, of course, you prefer to think of all the world’s Muslims as the same basic guy. The tolerance industry was so eager to generate understanding, it failed, as Shakira Hussein wrote this year in Crikey, to understand that the public Mallah had very little to do with Muslims at all.

More than such idiotic oversupply of well-intended nothing, though, is the idea that we can change the whole world through individual understanding. This idea is pants. Considered historically, understanding just isn’t much of a revolutionary force and tends to trail well behind, say, disobedience, disruption or even self-interest. Considered logically, it’s deluded. Individual understanding of others is, even in the very unlikely case it is attained — frankly, I don’t even understand the self in whose actual shoes I walk — no antecedent of change. It’s not even a close relative. It is, as Grant suggests in his piece, very often a moment of liberal hedonism.

He writes: “It is easy to align with Adam Goodes, he is a wealthy, powerful symbol of Indigenous survival. He should make Australians feel good. Like me though, I know Adam would be aware that we are the “acceptable faces” of Indigenous Australia. We don’t pose hard questions. No one need cross the street when they see us coming, not like some of the boys I grew up with”.

Grant, who had previously written of Goodes’ pain on the paddock, is onto something. Understanding may be momentarily cheering to receive, but the lasting pleasure belongs to the giver. Australians, he writes, “who so laudably challenge the bigots among them need also challenge themselves”. Grant doesn’t outright say, as an indelicate harpy like me might, that public display of anti-racist virtue is the necessary flipside of public racism itself. But, he edges just to the side of despair.

Evans looks despair in the face. Following a comment she read naming strapper Stevie Payne, a young man with Down syndrome, a “beacon of hope”– if you sniff a hint of Fairfax Tolerance here, you’ve got a good nose — she refines her exasperation thus, “people with disabilities are either heroes or tragic figures. They are either an inspiration to, or a burden on society”.

Stan, by his own admission “acceptable”, is not like the boys he grew up with. Nor is Stevie Payne. As Evans says, the strapper is an anomaly whose luck delivered him to full-time labour.

Warm understanding is no match for cold fact, with which we are doused by each writer. Aboriginal Australians and Australians with a disability are subject to institutional cruelty, exclusion from employment and an uninterested policy class. Individual acts of understanding offer momentary comfort, says Grant, and so do figures like Goodes or Payne. But, when we permit ourselves the delusion of illumination by these “beacons of hope”, we might just find ourselves in the dark.

Grant notes that legal and ceremonial shrugs of understanding, like the ’67 Referendum or the Apology, have failed to deliver real change to the boys he grew up with. He’s a diplomatic bloke, so he doesn’t say these acts serve the alienated mythologies that sustain racism; he doesn’t quite say that the belief in individual acts of goodness, either as Outstanding Black or Compassionate White, leaves the question of real change perpetually unasked. But he does remind middle Australia that there is rent past due. Perhaps we should offer our most sincere traditional expression of cultural understanding: money.

Both writers find themselves intellectually and actually frustrated with a world that buys hope from the socially marginalised with a fistful of sweaty understanding. Grant, a Wiradjuri man, and Evans, the mother of a child with an intellectual disability, are exactly the kinds of people to whom the tolerance industry might extend its understanding. But, they don’t want it.

What they have begun, as activists, to ask for is not only a less cultural and a more explicitly political understanding of particular social classes; those who would feel more significantly “understood” if their social needs were even halfway met. They are also asking as journalists, for new terms of public discussion that don’t fetishise the reader’s emotional need to understand.

Previously by Helen Razer: 

Germaine Greer is ruining the world again 

4 responses to “Razer: Warm 'understanding' is no match for cold fact

  1. Absolutely, this reminds me of George Orwell’s critique of Dickens, the idea that Dickens promulgated through his fiction this notion of happy endings for the Deserving Poor attained via small acts of kindness by the Compassionate Rich, when in fact it’s quite obvious in retrospect and should have been at the time that the whole system was rotten through and through, and that a little compassion for heart-rending indivdual stories of poverty was never going to be any substitute for a revamp of the entire system. Equally the performance of anti-racism, or pro-disability rights, does nothing to address the real exclusion of these groups from society. I would say though that practical change may follow normative change, and maybe this apparent requirement for performative tolerance is a sign that we may be softening up to real material changes to the way we operate – but it’s going to take a lot more than a facebooktweetribbon campaign to achieve it. At the very least people need to come round to the idea that not every indigeneous person is a wealthy upstanding star athlete, just as not every poorhouse inmate in 1840 was Oliver Twist, but that this in no way lessens the moral urgency of the problems faced by these groups.

  2. Well I could read their articles, but I was busy reading yours Helen.

    The understanding industry reminds me heartily of the education industry. There was a time when I also believed that education would solve many problems, but I didn’t realise that most people don’t imbibe education, they just browse it. Your education is something you wear, not something you are.

    And so, actual behaviours are never changed by education. Education is a mind thing, while behaviour comes from other parts of our being.

    Understanding changes nothing. When skimming the surface and making appropriate sounds is sufficient to get another like on facebook, who has the time to examine themselves, or the world that we live in.

    We’re all rooned, rooned I tells ya.

  3. Helen – i agree. On a similar vein was one interview I saw with jockey Michelle Payne . At one point the female interviewer tried oh so sympathetically and warmly to express how she knew how tough it was for the female jockey, especially her plight handling blokes in horse racing. Payne slapped that down pretty quickly with ‘oh I can, and have been, looking after myself thanks’ (I paraphrase).

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