Issue 3, Volume 17
The author of ‘The Woke Oblivion’ touches on an important dynamic that I want to focus on. Yet, at the same time, I do believe there are some important points and context to consider. In keeping with the author’s lead, I shall proceed anonymously. Furthermore, in the spirit of dialogue, and in a most genuine attempt to locate ourselves in the real-world context, I address you, dear author of ‘The Woke Oblivion’, directly, so that we may as Michael Polanyi termed it ‘indwell’; to understand ourselves in the world, and see that we exist within the problems we talk about, not somehow transcendentally outside them. Be assured, this ‘you’ is purely conversational – no-one should mistake any animosity or negativity, because, that would, as you have astutely pointed out, undermine the whole purpose of any such exchange. There are some points on which I must express disagreement with you, yet they are not my focus. Rather than explain anything to you, I want to work towards a mutual understanding.
I very much sympathise with your opening. We all get tired, stressed by the workload, and need a good coffee (may I recommend to all students the filter coffee at Assembly, it is spectacular!) etc. And it is particularly revealing, as you would have so designed, that you chose to open on this very point! (Read this next sentence visualising me shaking my head whilst bearing a sorry visage.) It is a sad state we are in today that all too readily and quickly, people strip down those they don’t agree with to oversimplified categories based on identity. I don’t seek to paint all criticism that touches on identity and identity politics with one brush, for there are valid criticisms on these points which exist, but I take as earnest your concern that your opinions may be painted away with personal attacks and simplistic categorisations. I am but a budding first-year student to the JD, and thusly cannot hope to profess knowledge of the political climate on campus. Yet in a technologically over-connected age typified by distractions and interruptions, we often see personal attacks blisteringly intermingled with political arguments.
I agree with you that there are numerous significant ways in which the Law School supports, intentionally or not, certain political narratives. However, this has always been the case, with all institutions. There is no apolitical ground, no supposed ‘neutral’ beyond which everything else actually is political. There is a whole legion of thinkers, who one way or another have touched on this (and I will save the tiresome yet highly relevant referencing of one bald French man). All institutions, including law schools and certainly including the legal system itself, must base themselves on some philosophical and political ground. The concepts of ‘contract’ and ‘sovereign’ are indelibly influenced by Hobbes and his famous work Leviathan, which itself emerged in the context of the English civil war, a very politically charged time and event. Hobbes himself, whilst not consciously indwelling, argued about human nature and government, and chose a very political side in the turmoil happening around him.
The Law School, the University of Melbourne, the Australian Parliament etc, could not stand and survive if people did not believe that these institutions upheld important values. And in choosing the ways in which these institutions uphold these values, they must make political arguments to the public about the merits of their actions. This political discourse reaches even further, to when values themselves are debated and contemplated in society. I would advance to you here the Greek understanding of politics, or the zoon politikon (the political animal), as termed by Aristotle. Politics should be understood as self-governance (as opposed to tyranny or despotism), and humans understood as self-governing animals. Human society is inescapably political; we will never completely agree on how to realise our values and what these values even are, and so must justify our actions. We live in a world now where long-established political traditions have emerged, and do political battle about how we should govern ourselves. There is no neutral ground to stand on. Even purely technical world views or economic theories rely on deeply political assumptions.
If you would so kindly excuse my indulgence, where do we find ourselves after this philosophising? I must admit that this International Men’s Day is news to me, but whatever stance the University takes, it will be seen as political. If it can be taken as a sincere endeavour (forgive my ignorance on the matter), then we should build an understanding as to why it holds merit to support it on campus. I believe this is more or less what you are eloquently espousing, and most certainly the issue should be addressed on its own merits; this process would show a deeper understanding of politics than of an immediate reaction based on how something is perceived. I bear no opposition to your sentiments, as I understand them, here.
I must strongly express my disagreement with you over acknowledgement of country. I do not believe, nor do I think it can be convincingly argued to the broader public, that “the welcome is a way to preserve racial differences in society, and elevate one race above the others living in contemporary Australia.” As I have (hopefully somewhat convincingly) argued above, there is no apolitical, and thus there is no apolitical position to take on the place of First Nations peoples in this country. The historical injustices inflicted on the first peoples of this land were structured upon a political way of understanding the world. They have left a long-lasting legacy which still impacts this country to this day. Indigenous Australia was pushed to the margins of our society, by our society. To then turn around and to not see them, to not recognise them, is a very political act. The modern Australian nation was built by political acts; it does not hold some inherited neutral ground. To go about day by day in a society based on values, customs and laws – let alone in one with a history of dispossession and violence – is a very political act; there is implied acceptance of power structures, such as prisons (remember the Frenchman) and laws and so on. Consequently, participating in our society, there can be at worst an implied acceptance, or at best a condemnable lack of interest in justice and compassion in the face of, this nation’s history of its treatment of its first peoples. To acknowledge country is indeed a very political decision, but to not acknowledge country, to decide not to recognise the wrongs of our history, is too a very political decision. Also, I do not believe it can be argued that the acknowledgement “elevates” Indigenous Australians and Torres Straight Islanders above everyone else. The fact that we walk on what is traditionally their land does not attribute to us some lower status, and I believe the acknowledgement of country is more substantively about culture, history, and recognition than it is about race.
Although I feel this is an obvious point – I am indeed newborn to this environment and should thus not indulge my blind assumptions – I most strongly agree with you that your identity does not define the way in which you interact with the world. Our most basic identity is being human, which opens the political world to us. Arguments are not valid based on the identity of their speaker. However, as I have attempted to outline, identity does impact our lives in concrete and very political ways. It is not possible to go into these nuances here without enormously expanding the length of this piece, save to say that in treading this particular path, we should seek to build understanding, and not attempt to explain differing opinions away. You do, I say, display sincerity and concerns over widely shared values, and your views should be engaged with, not brutishly cast aside or most unjustly satirised. The two choices just mentioned are political ones, yet the former does justice to the idea of self-governance, while the latter does not.
In concluding what has become a longer essai than I would have desired, the Melbourne Law School will take a political position on relevant issues, as life is inherently political. To try to avoid ‘politics’ would be to give tacit consent and acceptance to the current, and political, order of affairs. I would much rather that we openly discuss how we live as zoon politikon, that we openly exchange and debate ideas. Just as simply shutting down or personally attacking someone for their opinion does not do justice to humanity or our self-governance, so too does holding to a supposed neutral ground and undermining open attempts at discussion and reflection as ‘political’.
As a side note, I would strongly urge caution to you when talking about Australia’s history. Describing the first peoples of this land as “long-dead precolonial inhabitants” is far too close in resemblance to the simplification and typification which works to undermines or derail debate that you yourself complain about. Further, such a description could rightly be interpreted as insensitive and trying to place these people as irrelevant to our modern-day context. And please, forwarding an absurd or fear-mongering argument about turning over land and property cannot but be taken as insincere. It is completely irrelevant to discussions about the acknowledgement of country.
If we take the time to remember that we are all human, that we are all trying to understand and make sense of the world, we will do much better indeed than attempting to boil each other down to simplistic categories or engaging in unsympathetic caricaturing. We owe more to each other than this.