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The ebbtide of responsibility

  • 28 July 2021
  The frustration with recurrent lockdowns in Australia is not unique. It is experienced also by people who advocate for social change. Underlying the frustration occasioned by COVID is the fragility of assumptions previously taken for granted. We had come to see the trajectory of our lives and society as an uninterrupted journey that would lead smoothly to a better future. We were the drivers who could moderate its speed and map its path around obstacles. Our experience of living with coronavirus, however, has not been progressive but tidal. 

The tide comes in with energy and carries us forward, but then recedes leaving exposed the sand previously watered, only later to return. Like King Canute, we are not masters of the tides but on them are carried in and out.

This experience is painful but familiar to those who come close to people who are seen as different and who seek more humane and rational treatment of them. Those pressing for a more just response to people who seek protection in Australia, for example, have seen small incremental improvements based in compassion followed by a receding tide of absurdity and naked indecency.

This pattern is also found in attitudes to children. Once depicted as small adults from whom was expected responsible adult behaviour and whose failures were punished in the belief that punishment would promote change, children are now seen as persons at various stages of development. Corporal punishment in schools is regarded and sanctioned as barbaric, the stages of brain development and its consequence for children’s responsibility for their actions are recognised, and children’s dependence for their development in a nurturing home is widely accepted. The media images of children are attractive and usually in the company of caring adults. They project innocence. This is the highwater mark.

Some children, however are seen as different, and attitudes to them are regulated by the old proverb: ‘Spare the rod and spoil the child’. To be spoiled is to be rotten and to be put out with the rubbish. For these different children psychological science and the lessons of experience are forgotten and the logic of punishment rules. This bifurcated attitude to children means that in social policies to deal with children’s antisocial behaviour any tide of reform can quickly and destructively ebb.

The most notable recent example of this turning of the tide can be seen in the Northern Territory. Photographs of large and menacing guards