The growth of intolerance and violent hatreds for individuals and groups appears to be growing worse and becoming greater than it has within living memory. And yet, as I read Hannah Arrendt’s powerful book on The Origins of Totalitarianism (1976) there are ideas and acts that are being replicated from history and it appears we are wilfully ignoring the past, or are deliberately seeking a repetition for the future as a way of acquiring and holding power. In the broader examples, it is about power over our country and the world; in the local instance, it is about power over women and such thinking exists in our families, workplaces and communities. None are free of this replication.
Arrendt rejects the notion antisemitism was an accidental purpose for the Nazi ideology which was used to gain and hold onto power – a pretext for winning the masses or an interesting device of demagogy.
She writes about the Nazis’ contempt of the narrowness of nationalism and its provincialism which prevailed during the first half of the twentieth century and their stated focus and intent to make their movement international. To that extent, antisemitism was a very useful mechanism. This was because the contribution of Jews to nations around the world, their prosperity and visibility, even though many did not seem themselves as anything other than citizens of the country in which they lived, became a profoundly useful signifier on which to build the character of the Nazi’s international, global aims using hate and fear as a unifying narrative.
Tocqueville’s similar commentary on the hatred of the aristocracy in France at the time of the French revolution, has a similar conclusion. As long as the aristocracy held vast powers of jurisdiction, they were not only tolerated but respected. When noblemen lost their privileges, among others the privilege to exploit and oppress, the people felt them to be parasites, without any real function in the rule of the country. In other words, neither oppression nor exploitation as such is ever the main cause for resentment; wealth without visible function is much more intolerable because nobody can understand why it should be tolerated. (1976:4)
The other point worth noting is Arrendt’s reflections on being a scapegoat. To imply the Jews are always the scapegoat, implies that the scapegoat could have been someone else as well. It upholds the perfect innocence of the victim, and innocence which insinuates not only that no evil was done but nothing at all was done which might possibly have a connection with the issue at stake. And that clearly is also not true. (1976:5)
So where is this going you might ask?
As I look at our country, here in Australia at our treatment of women, I recall Julian Burnside’s critique made three or four years ago as he asked about our treatment of refugees, when did we become so vindictive and cruel? When did it become acceptable to us as human beings to treat groups and individuals the way we clearly feel so comfortable doing; overt and obvious discriminatory and abusive treatment, behaviour and language used by our governments and among our community leaders; in our homes, schools and workplaces.
I don’t want to confuse and conflate the ideas I am seeking to draw out with the range of groups I am thinking about, but it does seem to me, that the appalling treatment and contempt with which half the human race has heaped upon the other half because of gender is profoundly disturbing and our danger is, as Hannah Arrendt comments, that we will rush to quick and superficial answers and not bother to do the real work that is intergenerational, unequivocal and essential. And it is the same behaviour and thinking that is invested in other discriminated groups.
It is both a global and singular behaviour, mindset and worldview. Such thinking and behaviour feeds the attitudes in our country and elsewhere towards human trafficking, sexual slavery and domestic abuse. It is evident in the boardrooms and everywhere where power relationships exist.
Such corrupt thinking and behaviour is like water, it finds the cracks and spaces where there has been no reflection or willingness to understand, in each of us and in the communities in which we belong. It seeps its way into the general attitudes of people as individuals and in our governments and leaders. All men all have a burden to bear in this space and are responsible for changing the hearts, minds, language and behaviours of those around them, never settling for anything less than respect, understanding, dignity and equality for all women.
Recognising their privilege and giving it away is the only pathway forward for men. It also means too, however, that women are not the innocent scapegoat that might be implied. And at any moment in time, I am able to see such treatment also being meted out by many upon the refugees, our First Nation peoples, on people of different faiths – and our list can be very long and it is not questioned. The innocent victims whom the world can blame for its sins and through whom it wishes to escape punishment for these sins, are groups that simply become one group among many which are involved in the business of the world and are being held accountable for the world through the application of injustice and cruelty. Innocence or guilt are irrelevant. Usefulness and availability are sufficient.
The willingness to slip towards contempt of another, to feed actively the feelings of violent hatred and discrimination and to organise it in a way that enables it to flourish and grow because it is believed that those to whom this being done can be blamed and are the authors of their own condition, speaks simply and clearly to our fear and greed and their importance in our rationalisation of how we reach and hold onto power. We are better than this and so are those to whom this is being done, in our name.
Leaders like Trump, Turnbull and the Liberal Party, Putin and Duerte are very clear about their techniques and tactics. This is about the rise of totalitarianism and the use of terror as a major weapon of government. The fundamental difference between modern dictatorships and all other tyrannies of the past is that terror is no longer used as a means to exterminate and frighten opponents, but as an instrument to rule large groups of people who are already obedient. Terror strikes without provocation and innocence or guilt is irrelevant. The power to control and decide on everyone’s future is where our leaders wish to be. It is where our fathers and brothers wish themselves to be – for those invested in holding abusive power over women.
Waking up from such a dream of privilege and power is a shock. Arrendt said, after the trial of Adolf Eichmann, that his defence was the defence of all those who refuse to be held responsible and as I simplify her argument for my own reflection of my own behaviour , the defence starts with: ‘I just do my job and do what I’m told’; ‘I have to do what I’m told because I am in danger or my family is in danger’; ‘I do it because everyone else does it and how can you expect me to know the difference’; and finally, ‘I do it because my leader does it and how could I do otherwise’.
In such circumstances, to everyone, my challenge always is to ask, what is your excuse, who is your excuse and how might it be different?
It is our time to be a disturber of the peace and not be absent when the call reaches you.