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The worst may already have happened



What's the worst that can happen? I've been turning to this question with some frequency over the past year, as denial, deflection and sometimes outright lies run like an avalanche, seeming to bury things we hold precious.

Alone in a crowd (iStock/Getty Images Plus)As a writer I must ponder what it takes to persuade people, especially when they have stopped listening. When someone dismisses what I say because they have decided that I am a 'lefty', it can be frustrating. There are things that matter, beyond what others imagine us to be and how they see themselves in opposition. If the terms of engagement — like fairness, transparency and the common good — aren't a mutual priority, then what language could we possibly speak that might be understood?

This is a time of intense contraction, people collapsing inward from anger and despair, or keeping to the tribes they have defined for themselves. There is a palpable sense on all sides that something fundamental is being lost. Under such conditions, it is hard to get people to concede that what they believe might be incomplete. No one wants to give anything up.

This is an attempt to get people to give something up. Here is how to do it: ask what is the worst that can happen. Then accept that it may have already happened. But not to you.

If we are called racist, then the worst has already happened. Someone has felt that their worth as a human was brought into question. Histories of oppression called up in a moment, as fresh as the sting of a whip or baton. If we are a public figure being racist, then the effect is magnified. Racism acts like a contagion, infecting the systems in which we live unless it is quelled. In which case, entire groups of people have been made to work — to educate, to fight, to heal (again) — because of us.

What is the worst thing that can happen if the constellation of Indigenous peoples — Arrernte, Gamilaroi, Noongar, Wiradjuri, all of them — lit the way for parliament, through the formal voice that they propose?

The worst has already happened. The scale of historical loss and ongoing deficit is incalculable: land, language, culture, children, health, security. Having to rethink the way parliament works for First Nations is not in the same universe by comparison — though if we must take the work involved to be onerous then it can be. But it would make possible one of the best things: law-making that accounts for adverse impacts on Indigenous peoples. That is a conservative outcome, such is the baseline.


"Having to accept the damage of what we said or did will never be the worst thing. But it can be the start of better things: a chance to learn and expand, to build rather than destroy."


What is the worst thing that can happen when a woman tells the truth about a man, that he harassed, assaulted or raped her? It has already happened: an intimate violation of body and mind.

A woman or a child having to survive a man, not just once but again and again, their life an ongoing choice to outlast what was done to them — that is its own league of 'worst'. The evidence suggests that in contrast not much happens to men, given that these crimes are under-reported and the hostilities that women and children face on multiple fronts can be difficult to overcome. Powerful, abusive men have held on to their careers after lying low for a time. The institutions or industries to which they belong might teeter. That is still not the worst thing.

What is the worst thing that can happen if we brought all refugees in offshore detention to our shores and let them begin their lives? The worst has already happened. Men have died in despair by their hand and others, and from rampant neglect on the part of the Australian government. Children have given up in the most profound way possible.

If we accept that the worst has already happened, if politicians can find character enough to own what they have sanctioned, then space can be made — for life, and perhaps a measure of redemption where there has been dishonour.

Having to accept the damage of what we said or did will never be the worst thing. But it can be the start of better things: a chance to learn and expand, to build rather than destroy.

This is only a mental exercise, limited in its fashion; a single key in an infinite corridor of closed doors. Yet it is the perception of threat that drives people into lockdown, which makes it worth pondering.

What is the worst thing that can happen? The question measures our strength by testing for brittleness. It may be that intransigence mars our discourse because we do not really give ourselves enough credit to withstand change. But what if we allowed ourselves the chance to survive the process of changing our minds — becoming a better person, a better people?



Fatima MeashamFatima Measham is a Eureka Street consulting editor. She hosts the ChatterSquare podcast, tweets as @foomeister and blogs on Medium.


Main image credit: iStock/Getty Images Plus

Topic tags: Fatima Measham, racism, sexual assault, Aboriginal Australians, asylum seekers



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Existing comments

This is a very thoughtful, well-constructed article Fatima. It seems to me to be about the tension between objectivity and subjectivity. Objectively, an event, on a scale of 1 to 10 may be a 4 or 5. Subjectively, it may be a 9 or 10. And that's about the worst that can happen - for a particular person. That is speaking at a personal level. Still, your argument has great merit. We, as a people, need to do better.

Pam | 25 October 2018  

Thanks Fatima for an interesting article. I think the worst thing that can happen is that good people fail to act on major issues, including climate change and the cruel treatment of refugees. Evil will triumph over good if good people do nothing. But there are so many good people in the world who are challenging the evil being done that I am hopeful that good will triumph eventually.

Grant Allen | 25 October 2018  

Agreat point: The worst has already happened. Now let's reconsider our part in it, and open up to live our love!

Johanna Blows | 26 October 2018  

Fatima, in each of these issues that you cite, the worst case you list only considers the impact on the particular group you refer to. The people that disagree with you have a principled position based on a bigger picture that considers that the worst could still be in the future by affecting others in society and potentially everyone. In taking a narrow quick fix, we would quickly add to the tragedies that you have listed. For example: * First Nations Voice to Parliament - the parliamentary process locks up because of delays and conflicts caused by interaction with a third parliamentary body with poorly defined powers, and government grinds to a halt; * #MeToo - when you abandon presumption of innocence or lower the bar for presumption of guilt, you inevitably increase the likelihood of harm to innocent people (for example see Bettina Arndt in https://quillette.com/2018/10/25/challenging-the-campus-rape-narrative) by increasing the acceptable fraction of innocent in jail and/or defamed * Detainees - massive ocean drownings when it is clear that the way to migrate to Australia without a visa is re-opened The issues you list are tragedies. It is easy to take a quick, short-term and narrow choice that solves a problem for the specific people that you identify. But consider the impact of that solution on others, on the rest of society. It is clear that the obvious fix proposed is likely to cause significant harm, affect even more people, and compound the tragedy. With the wrong solution, the worst is still ahead of us.

Patrick | 26 October 2018  

Thank you, Fatima. Another way to think about our responsibilities where bad things that have happened.

McLean Marianne | 27 October 2018  

What's the worst thing that can happen if we keep a small group of people confined and without hope, in order to preserve a dubious political policy? The worst has already happened. Our nation has largely accepted that the preservation of a policy is more important than the preservation of the lives and sanity of people. And people who came to us in good faith, looking for help. Yes, that's already happened. Thank you, Fatima. And now let's honestly address the question of what would be the worst that could happen if we changed our hearts.

Joan Seymour | 01 November 2018  

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