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Abbott-whacking Greens senator's emotional politics


In a speech this week to the almost empty Australian Senate, the Greens Senator Scott Ludlam excoriated Tony Abbott. It was by no means the stirring speech that the headlines suggested, but it was forthright.

Ludlam homed in on Abbott's politics of fear: 'your determined campaign to provoke fear in our community — fear of innocent families fleeing war and violence in our region — in the hope that it would bring out the worst in Australians is instead bringing out the best in us'. Whatever you think of Ludlam's speech, its implication was that politics includes a struggle over the cultivation, control and directing of public emotions, a struggle to 'bring out' in people emotions that are politically powerful.

We tend to think of our liberal political discourse as a neutral framework accommodating all perspectives and conceptions of the good life that don't impinge upon the rights of others. Our instinct is to think of our politics in terms of discussion and consensus — 'democracy as public reasoning'.

This may be because our sense of emotion, shaped by a regnant liberalism, is that it should be confined to the realm of the 'private', that public collective emotion is dangerous, easily associated with threatening and 'radical' politics. 'Public emotion' conjures up images of rallies and marching, the kind of ominous display crafted by Leni Reifenstahl in The Triumph of the Will.

That's why displays of public emotion are often met by calls for 'rationality', for a collective calm after which public reasoning can resume. Social 'calm' is the historical liberal antidote to the destructive public emotions of the early 20th century. As Pope Francis put it: 'we are a society which has forgotten how to weep.' 

But there's a problem here — our liberal democratic framework requires the cultivation and sustenance of certain emotions, just as any extremist political ideology might. There are base and not-so-base emotions, emotions that flicker for a moment, and emotions that linger.

In a recently published book the philosopher Martha Nussbaum argues that certain political philosophies and their attendant institutional arrangements rely on corresponding public emotions: liberalism's being the capacity for an imaginative extension of sympathy to the other. This is the emotional capacity that political liberalism rests on — a sympathetic recognition of other interests.

Technically, political liberalism does not rule out a role or political contribution for 'bleeding hearts', though — as Andrew Hamilton noted earlier this week — some political liberals assume that it does, and the cost is to the ethical content of political activity.

Ludlam's speech was a very long way from being a radical call to attention. It was a fairly standard political challenge. It caught headlines because it conveyed some sense of a moral and ethical struggle, a struggle over not only how best to realise 'the national interest', but how Australians conceive of that interest.

As David Marr has noted, and as I've noted in a previous article, a sense of 'decency' or 'reasonableness' sits easily enough in the psyche alongside cruelty.

I wonder whether our sense of our liberal-democracy as a forum for public reasoning directed towards consensus inhibits the possibility of disruption, of voices of dissent sounding from outside the now evidently conventional way of speaking. Cornel West, the idiosyncratic Princeton philosopher, refers to the voice of 'prophetic religion' as a voice that is not directed towards consensus building; rather it is a performative mode that calls people to attention, that jolts them out of the realm of the 'reasonable'.

The death of Reza Berati, for example, required such voices speaking with emotion, not with the aim of developing consensus but of calling us to attention, of showing us that, even in 'reasonable' Australia, our public schemes can be filled with violence.

One of the striking elements of the Australian public response to Berati's death was the holding of candlelit vigils in capital cities. This was powerful in its movement beyond the language of 'civility' that we think of as appropriate for the public sphere. It recognised that the public sphere is a realm of cultural formation, in which public emotions are expressed, and which includes forms of expression beyond speech, such as ritual, recognition and mourning. It was a moment in which Australians remembered how to weep.

We need to ask: What spaces are there from which people can offer a deeply challenging critique of our political culture? Are we receptive to these 'calls to attention', these challenges to the boundaries of the accepted? Given the kind of religious, ethical and cultural pluralism we live with, they may be made in languages that don't fit with our notion of 'public reasonableness', languages that may be disruptive to our sense of public 'reason'.

The only choice we have is to go on speaking those languages, getting that vocabulary out there in the public sphere, insisting that public reasonableness take into account these dialects. That's why Catholic Religious Australia's call for a National Lament is worth supporting.

Benedict Coleridge headshotBenedict Coleridge is a postgraduate student at Balliol College, Oxford University. Follow him on Twitter @Ben_Coleridge

Topic tags: Benedict Coleridge, Scott Ludlam, Tony Abbott, Reza Berati, Manus Island



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Existing comments

"striking elements of the Australian public response to Berati's death was the holding of candlelit vigils in capital cities" The candlelight vigils were 'spontaneously' organised by "GetUp" the left leaning, Greens/Labor supporting lobby group. Nothing wrong with that - just needs to be known and stated.

Observer | 06 March 2014  

Hannah Arendt and recently Giorgio Agamben make similar points as to how decency is redefined politically very quickly by establishing a culture through rhetoric and then defending it. Works well,with racism as Agamben shows in France of the pre WW1, and Germany 1930s.

Paul Vincent Cannon | 06 March 2014  

I read what you wrote, Benedict, but I didn't understand it. Then I listened to Scott Ludlam's speech and I understood it. What you wrote may go down well in Oxford, but what Scott said has gone round the world. Emotional, yes, but simple words, simple English, simple logic will always beat academic theorising.

Frank | 07 March 2014  

I disagree with Benedict Coleridge's suggestion that Scott Ludlam's speech was not stirring. His low key delivery underscored the power of his words and the truth of his assertion that the Tony Abbott Government does not faithfully represent who Australians are as a nation, despite the fact that there were only four senators in the chamber at the time. We don't need a leader who uses fear to motivate and manipulate voters to support his party. We don't need a leader who dehumanises and demonises "boat people" by giving them numbers instead of names in the way totalitarian regimes all over the world do. Australia is better than this government and this leader, so much, much better. We are a nation that is concerned for justice and giving everyone a fair go, irrespective of their race, gender or religion. We can rise above the politics of fear and hatred, because the truth is that we are all "boat people" one way or another. We are a nation of people that has a long history of welcoming the stranger to our shores and the sooner we rediscover that spirit the better, for all of us.

Paul Arnott | 07 March 2014  

Well said, Observer! And I note further, that the same alleged "spontaneous" outburst of emotion was noticeably absent while over 1000 boat people drowned courtesy of Rudd/Gillard/Greens. Funny how Australians suddenly "remembered" how to weep again, once Tony Abbott took the reins ... Same time as the Human Rights Commission, after a lull of ... well fancy that, seven years! suddenly decided the treatment of boat people of concern again.

HH | 07 March 2014  

Agreed HH and Observer. The Greens had their chance to make a real difference for asylum seekers by agreeing to the Labour compromise solution during the last parliament. They didn't because that would have involved a real and difficult political compromise along the way to a more humane solution. Ludlum is just doing the easy predictable Greens thing which costs him nothing and allows him to play to his left wing online gallery while the senate chamber, a place where the messy business of politics is transacted is fittingly empty and indifferent to his cheap jeremiad. I look forward to seeing him lose his senate seat soon thereby giving another candidate from another party a chance to do something really tangible. Deep down the Greens don't want to make a real difference because that would involve making the types of choices and sacrifices which have caused pain for other political parties but which have helped to make them mature. relevant and truly influential over time. The chamber is empty for the Greens because other elected representatives realise the Australian people aren't serious about them. Some of them just like this disguised NGO to register a loud protest sometimes against messy real world democratic politics.

Anthony | 07 March 2014  

It has to be observed that the candle light vigils have started happening too at a time when we have a government with a policy of deliberate secrecy about its actions. One has to question that the vigils are simply a response to the murder of a detainee under Scott Morrison’s watch. They are a sign that people know the government is not to be trusted, that its words give a deliberately misleading picture of events. In a time when lies and deceit characterise a government, by definition, people show their knowledge of this by acts of vigilance. Those who impose secrecy don’t wish to be questioned but want their every word accepted on face value. Silent protest in the face of such policies and behaviour is a direct challenge to the lies and secrecy. Another aspect of the vigils is that they meet violence of word and attitude with public passive resistance.

CLOSE READING | 08 March 2014  

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