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Actively bending the moral arc of time

  • 19 December 2017


December often evokes reflection on the passage of time. Perhaps it is fitting that Christmas lies at this end of the year, and leads into the next, infusing the period with a sense of gratitude and hope.

Measuring time lets us say, we made it. We made it through 12 months of political vacuity, culture war, environmental disaster and humanitarian crises. We withstood the sight of predators, one after the other; so many revealed across industries and institutions. We endured closer things: illness, breakup, loss and stress.

The western conception of time as linear is useful in this sense. Things end. Soon we will be able to say, 'that was in 2017'. That could be consoling.

But this linear sensibility can also keep us from confronting the things that linger. For instance, there is no fixed point to demarcate the past for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island peoples. They cannot say, 'that was in 1788, that was in 1901'. It is all the time.

They had hoped to recalibrate time from the point of treaty and a voice at Uluru last May. But they will not be saying 'that was in 2017' as if it were a bookend. It is now part of the library.

Neither is time linear for the people we have abandoned on Manus Island and Nauru, who experience it as a series of brutalising experiences. The night Reza Berati died from a rock to the head. The short hours it would have taken to save Hamid Khazaei from sepsis. That October when power and water were finally cut at Lobrum. There is no Point B.

What we know from resistance to social justice is that the conception of time as a single direction, like an arrow, is favoured by those in power. It does not pierce the realities of those who are historically oppressed. The linear past works like this: where it demands reparation, it is something to leave behind, but powerful people will revert to it in haste at the prospect of change, saying that the line is what it is.


"What if, in entering the world as a baby and leaving it in death as a man, there is a cyclic element that asks more from people of faith than the passive comforts of the line?"


Non-western cultures understand and treat time differently. For most it began as a responsiveness to nature, a mode of watching for cues in the environment to