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Future shock is the new normal

  • 24 July 2015

A few weeks ago my Eureka Street colleague, John Warhurst, wrote a fascinating piece on the ‘normalisation’ of lying in Australian politics. ‘The terms lie and liar,’ Warhurst said, ‘have become so completely devalued that there are now far worse sins in modern politics.’

This set me thinking about ‘normalisation’, but I was not alone. Warhurst’s article had provoked many comments. ‘Normalisation’ has some sophisticated connotations, but what I mean by it here, and what I think Warhurst was interested in, is that process whereby certain phenomena that intrude on our daily lives and that we usually find shocking, or at best unacceptable, have their effect gradually dulled.

By a process of relentless iteration, they become normal. The catastrophic extinction of lives, especially of teenagers, by the mad excesses of road death, for example, becomes almost ‘normal’ because it happens so constantly and predictably. ‘Carnage on the roads’, despite its acknowledged horrors and waste, is regarded simply as the way things go for people in technologically advanced societies. It has become accepted, however reluctantly and shamefacedly by those who don’t directly experience it, as normal for our time and place.

The dispensation under which we now live, which may be loosely described as one manifestation of neoliberalism, both relies on and encourages new episodes of normalisation that go far beyond helpless acceptance of catastrophes on the roads. We are, for example, slowly coming round – or being brought round – to accepting that danger and disaster are always imminent.

They are ‘coming to get us’, warns our Prime Minister, adapting the ‘bogey man’ mode of our childhood fears to the contemporary narrative of terrorism and violence. It’s not that there is no threat – of course there is. It’s just that each manifestation of it, whether domestically or in world trouble spots, becomes, in neoliberal hands, a trigger for a further ramping up of nervous excitation, fear-mongering, khaki diplomacy – the fortuitous substructure of policy. The human tragedy, loss, grief and waste, central to and pre-eminent in every terrorist outrage, are disjoined from the event which quickly becomes an aspect of and yet another justification for policy decisions. In The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, Naomi Klein puts it like this:

At the most chaotic juncture in Iraq’s civil war, a new law is unveiled that would allow Shell and BP to claim the country’s vast oil reserves … Immediately following September 11,