Best of 2017: Getting some perspective on Charlottesville

 

Instead of refining his initial remarks about a Nazi rally in Charlottesville, which brutally claimed the life of a counter-protester, Donald Trump has doubled down. At a heated news conference in New York, he demanded that journalists define 'alt-right', invoked the idea of an 'alt-left', and lay blame on 'both sides'.

xxxxxThe proposition that there is an equivalence between white supremacist, militant groups and anti-racist networks has highlighted the moral vacuousness of the idea of balance. On its own, there is nothing wrong with balance. Reality is complex, and we hold priorities that are negotiated with others. Everyone wants to feel heard. The expectation that decisions are made 'on balance' animates our sense of natural justice.

But reality is also finite. A certain perspective prevails. That is the story of the struggle for black civil rights in the US, recognition of Australian Indigenous entitlement to land, the attention to violence against women. At some stage, there are no more 'sides' to be heard, no work of persuasion that changes the terms. Something has to give, and we hope for the better.

Perhaps that is what more accurately describes balance: the point before everything tips away. It would explain the clamour for balance from those who have got much to lose. Inertia serves their interests.

For instance, corporations have been known to generate counter-information about climate change. Denialists demand space, seeking to 'debate' scientists at every turn, and complain about the imbalance of coverage.

Balance is also used as a shield in cases of abuse and violence against women and children. Victims are blamed and shamed, as if mundane selections around dress, movement and location hold the same moral weight as the decision to rape or protect the rapist.

The both-sides mindset is often mistaken for civility, but when it rests on uncivil terms it cannot but be grotesque. There is no 'balance' in the way that Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people are treated under law. Nor in tabloid campaigns against women of colour. Nor in the manner that queer families are dissected. Nor in how generational wealth is distributed. Nor in the siege that minorities in the US have been under since January.

 

"At some stage, there are no more 'sides' to be heard, no work of persuasion that changes the terms. Something has to give."

 

The status quo only ever seems fair to those who benefit from it. Others experience it as disequilibrium, an ongoing and sometimes futile effort to find or keep their bearing. They recognise balance as a fig leaf for their continued marginalisation.

In other words, the insistence on balance is an exercise of power to obscure differences in power. To borrow from Charles Baudelaire, 'the devil's finest trick is to persuade you that he does not exist'.

Those who dominate areas of society — cultural, economic and political — would have others believe that they are no different, that they could be victims too. 'White lives matter', they chant. Such types invoke heritage, values and tradition as if these are neutral and not self-centring, hegemonic shorthand, with bleak historical antecedents.

It might be unsettling personally, since it could be us, but there are situations where someone has to be wrong and there is no balance to be had.

This can be quickly established in matters of fact, where things like physics, statistics and primary sources from history can mediate different beliefs.

It is somewhat complicated in matters of harm, given that imagined harms will always be rendered larger than real and present hurt, and aggressors can mimic their victims. It is in this area that an acute sensitivity to power differentials really matters the most.

The concept of balance, of 'both sides', appeals to our need for order and fairness. But unless we recognise the ways in which it has been used to perpetuate injustice, we become complicit without even realising.

 

 

Fatima MeashamFatima Measham is a Eureka Street consulting editor. She co-hosts the ChatterSquare podcast, tweets as @foomeister and blogs on Medium.

This article was originally published 16 August 2017.

Topic tags: Fatima Measham, Charlottesville

 

 

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