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Getting some perspective on Charlottesville

  • 17 August 2017


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'.

The 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.

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.


"At some stage, there are no