Compassion & Commitment to Change: The Value of a Life (Part 2)


The June 2016 post, “The Value of a Life”, was an examination of expressions of sympathy and outrage following events resulting in the loss of life, contrasted with actions taken by individuals, companies and governments who prioritise their own gains over the lives of others. Examples of deadly disregard for life in that piece included international support for the devastating war in Yemen, the concealment of scientific evidence of harm by the tobacco and fossil fuel industries, and the lack of action to prevent the deaths of asylum seekers in the Mediterranean. Countless more examples of callous policy and behaviour have occurred since the original piece: government policies resulting in deaths and suicide attempts at Australian-run offshore immigration centres and the separation of migrant children from their families detained at the southern US border; the total disregard for the residents of low-lying and vulnerable nations in the face of the climate emergency, with nations and industries unwilling to change their practices or endanger their own profits; weapon manufacturers lobbying against any form of gun regulation against a backdrop of frequent mass shootings and terror attacks.

Following high-profile cases of tragic loss of life, there are public outpourings of grief and calls for change, expressions of sympathy flood social media, flowers and money are donated, candle-lit vigils are held and politicians promise to take action. However, in today’s constantly moving news cycle, the initial shock and outrage quickly blunt as time passes and other issues come to the fore. While ‘thoughts and prayers’ may be plentiful, without constant public pressure the political will to deal with the underlying problems is limited and real efforts to bring about positive change have been lacking.

A white supremacist terrorist attacked two mosques in Christchurch, Aoteroa-New Zealand this March, killing 51 people. The immediate aftermath saw a huge outpouring of public grief and solidarity with the country’s Muslim population, including donations to victim-support funds and multi-denominational vigils held around the country. Images of Prime Minister Jacinda Adern comforting the families of victims flashed around the world. The Prime Minister’s message to the Muslim community, “You are us”, became a rallying cry and many other New Zealanders took comfort in the assertion that, “This is not us”, firm in the conviction that the country is a welcoming beacon of equality. This raised questions about this utopian vision of the nation, with a conversation being initiated, asking for a deeper examination of the country’s colonial past and treatment of the Maori people and current outcomes for the indigenous community, as well as its history of racist attacks against Pacific Island, Asian and Muslim citizens and residents. There were also  calls for the government to review its immigration policy , to end discrimination against those from African and Middle Eastern nations in the quota system. Meanwhile, rugby, for many the heart of New Zealand’s cultural life, also came under scrutiny. The Christchurch-based team in the Super Rugby competition, established in 1996, is called the Crusaders and boasts a logo with a sword-wielding knight and precedes home matches with horse-riding armed knights galloping around the stadium. The name and imagery had been questioned by some in the past but, in the light of a terrorist attack specifically targeting Muslims, the view that the branding was not appropriate gained some momentum. While the club were reluctant to make any immediate changes, they agreed to conduct a full review, including gathering public feedback. Their club statement read; What we stand for is the opposite of what happened in Christchurch on Friday; our crusade is one for peace, unity, inclusiveness and community spirit. In our view, this is a conversation that we should have and we are taking on board all the feedback that we are receiving, however, we also believe that the time for that is not right now.”


Six months after the attack and the issues of racism, discrimination and the country’s immigration policies have already slipped down the news and out of many’s view. For a while, a spotlight was placed on white supremacy in the country, with charges brought against those who shared the Christchurch attacker’s video and screed, and other racist messages, and the government initiated a gun buy-back scheme to remove semi-automatic firearms from the streets. However, already the political consensus on further gun control is breaking down and many of the questions surrounding systemic racial inequality, discriminatory immigration quotas and the reporting of hate crimes remain unaddressed. Over at the rugby stadium, small changes were promised for the logo, removing the sword by 2020, but the horses returned to the ground after a few weeks (without weapons). Submissions from the public were collected, including many from fans citing the ‘long history’ of the club and a resistance to caving in to politically-correct do-gooders, and in June, the club announced that there would be no name change until at least 2021, if at all. NZ Rugby Chairman Brent Impey explained that, The reality is that Adidas have got to make jerseys, there’s merchandising and that sort of stuff,” As well as this blatantly financial motivation, Leanne Ross, from the University of Otago’s department of marketing, explained another factor that may have contributed to the decision: “[fans] have extremely sentimental connections to the identity of a team. They feel that identity as themselves, as part of a community and a group.”   So it seems that, in spite of the sentiment that “You are us”, expressing solidarity and inclusiveness between communities, individuals’ own sense of identity and belonging can make it difficult for some to bridge divides. Many white New Zealanders’ national identity is built upon their perception of the country as a fully-integrated, totally accepting nation, and any suggestion that there are deep-seated issues of racial discrimination and violence is just too uncomfortable for some to contemplate. There is no doubt that people were genuinely upset by the horrendous events in Christchurch and really do want a better, safer place for everyone, but when it really comes down to it, many are not actually willing to make any alterations or take any action they see as impacting on their own lives and identities in order to relieve the pain of others.

While it’s easy to express condolences and sympathy following tragic events, how ready are we to actually make changes to our lifestyles in order to help others? Are we willing to really have those difficult conversations about our own positions of privilege and the racism and discrimination in society that we may prefer to discount? How much do organisations and governments rely on the fact that we will forget our outrage and demands for change in a packed news cycle; that we will reach saturation point and lose compassion for others? Do we just accept that those in positions of privilege and power are able to avoid addressing the problems that disadvantage others in order to continue benefiting themselves? The difficulty is sustaining that feeling of injustice we experience on hearing about the loss of life, maintaining that commitment to change, progressing the conversations about injustice and inequity, and keeping pressure on organisations and governments to make the structural changes required; to not forget and move on to the next grim news, while allowing callous disregard for life to continue.

4th September 2019, Jacqueline MacDonald

Temper Tantrums: Don’t Appease the Angry White Men

We all recognise it. The red-faced fury, curled lip and stomped foot of the toddler tantrum. Their whole being overtaken by an unfathomable fury they can’t control, sometimes even causing them to lash out at those around them. The removal of a toy or refusal of a treat enough to reduce them to a mass of unbridled destructive emotions. Thankfully, as time passes, with guidance, the little ones learn how to express themselves rationally, how to control the negatives feelings rather than being controlled by them, and how to share the things they have with others rather than losing their minds. They become fully-functioning members of their communities and society.

It is becoming increasingly apparent however, that some little boys (and yes, I do mean boys) do not fully develop beyond the tantrum stage, and as adults that is proving to have truly horrifying consequences. And to make matters worse, there are others who suggest we pander to the angry demands of those who feel slighted rather than accepting none of their nonsense and stating firmly that they need to grow up and learn how to share.

One obvious example of a public display of privileged victimhood and resulting tantrum is Brett Kavanaugh. At a hearing in which he was supposed to exude the cool, level-headedness and rational thinking of a judge worthy of the US’s highest court, he instead became indignant that he was a victim of ‘a circus’ and ‘a calculated and orchestrated political hit’. This defensive anger and self-pity came in the face of credible and powerful accusations that he had committed sexual assault. His outrage was matched by other men on the confirmation committee, such as Senators Lindsay Graham and John Cornyn, appalled that a man of Kavanaugh’s elevated position should be asked to address such accusations at all, calling it ‘a national disgrace’ and ‘hell’.(All the Angry Men of the Kavanaugh Hearings). Kavanaugh and his supporters argued that his reputation was endangered by a woman accusing him of sexual assault, that he was the real victim in the situation and therefore justified in his ire, merely lashing out in self-defence. Kavanaugh claimed that, ‘my family and my name have been totally and permanently destroyed’ and Cornyn reassured the judge that his tantrum was justified, telling him, ‘You’re right to be angry’. Of course, there are countless examples of men facing down accusations of sexual assault by claiming victimhood, equating damage to reputation with the mental and physical trauma suffered by sexual assault survivors. Whether it’s Weinstein, Ailes, Clinton or Trump, such men will do whatever it takes to protect the position in society they see as rightfully theirs; countering women who bravely come forward to recount the most painful experience of their lives with anger, verbal attacks, belittlement or the use of their power to silence them.

The theme of men protecting what they see as rightfully theirs is all-pervasive. Even on International Women’s Day, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison could not entertain the idea of men relinquishing any power to aid women in their battle for equal rights and recognition. He made it clear in his, tone deaf at best, assertion that any societal progress made by women should in no way damage men’s status or position of privilege. “We want to see women rise. But we don’t want to see women rise only on the basis of others doing worse. We want everybody to do better, and we want to see the rise of women in this country be accelerated.”

This sense of male entitlement reaches a horrendous extreme in the cases of the killers self-identifying themselves as ‘incels’ (involuntary celibates). In the dankest corners of the internet, the incels spew hatred towards women and the men that women choose to have sex with, in fact railing against anyone who prevents the incels from getting the sexual attention they feel they deserve. This has had deadly consequences, with six fatalities in an incel-perpetrated killing in 2014 in Isla Vista, California, which then in turn inspired the murder of ten people in Toronto Canada in 2018 by another man who saw himself as a footsoldier in the war against women who denied him what he wanted. Canadian psychology professor, YouTube philosopher and doyen of men’s rights activists, Jordan Peterson, explained that such violence was inevitable because, “the masculine spirit is under assault”. Peterson, who in most circumstances rejects any redistribution interventions as Marxist, seems to agree with the incels that enforced monogamy is required to ensure men’s success, stabilise society and prevent male violence. Speaking specifically about the murderer in Toronto, he explained; “He was angry at God because women were rejecting him. The cure for that is enforced monogamy. That’s actually why monogamy emerges.”

And it’s not just women that these dangerous men-children see as threats to their status. The President of the United States is indignant that the co-equal branches of government are able to conduct investigations into his election campaign, his potential profiteering from the highest office in the land, and potentially illegal activity by his business, his foundation and himself. Feeling cornered, he has been lashing out angrily at anyone he sees as a critic or a threat in a true adult tantrum. From petted-lip complaints about being picked on by comedians, to attacks on Congress, the media and the judiciary for investigating him, to veiled threats of political violence against opponents, the President seems to be having regular roll-around-on-the-floor moments of self-absorption. He has taken to justifying his behaviour in office and protecting his presidency by claiming that his removal would cause civil unrest;
“I can tell you I have the support of the police, the support of the military, the support of the Bikers for Trump – I have the tough people, but they don’t play it tough — until they go to a certain point, and then it would be very bad, very bad”
and on being asked about his potential impeachment during an interview in the Oval Office, he said, “I think that the people would revolt if that happened.”

This type of rhetoric, attempting to justify bad behaviour when people do not get their way, is dangerous. It has also been present in the UK, where Brexit negotiations have seriously faltered and a smooth exit from the EU is highly unlikely. As some call for politicians to realise the folly of the venture and return the final decision on a deal back to the people in a second referendum, those pushing for Brexit under any circumstances have argued that any other outcome will result in far-right violence and therefore Brexit-at-any-cost is required to appease them. Pro-Brexit politician Chris Grayling caused controversy when he warned, “There’s already a nastiness and unpleasantness in our politics, more people with extreme views, more people willing to behave in an uncivilised way,” and cited the English Civil War. Blaming those who don’t give violent people what they demand rather than blaming the perpetrators of violence is a dangerous political road to take.

We cannot succumb to this kind of appeasement and justification of violence. An appalling example followed the terrorist attack in Christchurch, which specifically targeted Muslims during worship and was perpetrated by an Australian-born white man with connections to white supremacy groups. In Australia, Senator Fraser Anning, known for his inflammatory opinions on immigration, including a maiden speech calling for a “final solution” to Muslim immigration, sent tweets and released an official statement condemning the violence but blaming it on immigration rather than white nationalism: “The real cause of bloodshed on New Zealand streets today is the immigration program which allowed Muslim fanatics to migrate to New Zealand in the first place”. While Anning is one of the more extreme examples, politicians and media in Australia, New Zealand, the UK and the US have all stoked a fear of immigration and of Islam for political gain, ideas then reinforced in social media echo chambers. Anti-immigration messages have been used to drive support for Brexit, Trump and his border wall, and Australia’s off-shore detention centres, where asylum seekers, including children, are being held for years without hope. Politicians and powerful media figures have created, and capitalised on, concerns that any help and opportunities given to people trying to escape the world’s worst war zones, will result in a loss of opportunity and privilege for others. And this ‘othering’ of asylum seekers is also applied to all people of colour, including the indigenous peoples of those nations. The discrimination and attacks against them by white people are driven by an unjustified fear that advancement for the marginalised will somehow cause the white population to lose out, and perhaps, as the Christchurch terrorist believed, even be replaced. Rather than condemning these racist ideas, people like Anning resort instead to victim blaming in an attempt to justify white men’s uncontrollable anger when they feel they are being robbed of what is ‘rightfully theirs’, and of being ‘replaced’. And Christchurch is just the latest example of how deadly this appeasement of white supremacism can be.

For children younger than four, tantrums are common and a natural way to deal with the frustrations of being unable to communicate what they need. “However, if children have learned that tantrums are an effective way to get what they want or avoid what they do not want, tantrums may remain a significant problem for parents and teachers.” (National Association of School Psychologists). Pandering to an older child’s tantrums only leads to further selfish behaviour and a false sense of entitlement. “Giving the child what he or she wants will likely end the tantrum (much to the relief of parents and teachers) but will also teach the child that having a tantrum is an effective means of getting his or her way.” Similarly, we cannot appease the angry men, who perceive themselves as victims, trying to protect their position of privilege by denying opportunities to others. They cannot be allowed to justify their mistreatment, attacks on and murder of anyone they perceive to be a threat; be it women or other gender identities, people of colour and indigenous communities, or adherents to religions other than their own. We must ensure that such behaviour is never normalised, justified or accepted as a reasonable way for angry, violent white men to demand they be given everything they want.

22nd March 2019

Jacqueline MacDonald