Eyed entities & blind justice

In the spring of 2000, a writer friend of mine from the US married a local bloke at a harbourside ceremony (performed by a celebrant; gay weddings weren’t yet recognised). Then we dined at a restaurant where the entertainment included a drag show, during which a bitchy queen dissed two older guests. Appearances can deceive: those women weren’t as square as their hairdos, but they winced, like the newlyweds, at the ageist, misogynist humour.

Yet it hit the mark or no-one would have laughed. If a few feathers (or stiffly set hairs) got ruffled, so what? Back then, gender-bending culture still felt transgressive. Living outside polite society, you had less to lose if you spoke the truth. So what would have been scandalous from a straight man passed for harmless fun in drag. But since the turn of the century, things have changed. What once defied convention has morphed into orthodoxy. How did we get so sensitised to slights against our identities?

Much as some products provide ad space first and serve the user second, campaigners waving signs demanding, say, trans or anti-trans rights (same impact either way: that’s ‘equality’ under capitalism) are fuelling an ideology first and supporting a cause second. Because the market (or values-decoding machine or nascent totalitarianism or choose your own label for our globalised Babel) doesn’t care which brand you buy – the same elites own shares in the corporations that compete. It just needs you online to feed it data. Reliant on your ignorance, it promises knowledge (wiki means ‘quick’ in Hawaiian – fast food for the mind); cultivates your inertia to sell you convenience; stupefies you with updates, new ‘improved’ features and non-stop entertainment. It shrinks history, amplifies outrage, privileges spin, reconfigures language to dumb down discourse, and excels at viral transmission of subliminal hints.

Some ideas get hammered in by dint of repetition. Thanks to rampant pop-science writing, the once arcane view of the self as an illusion has gone mainstream. To believe in an autonomous ‘I’ or ‘me’ now makes you naive (though it’s not just the self that’s unreal in spiritual terms, so is everything else – nothing Buddhism and psychedelics couldn’t tell us, but try selling disposable crap to folk who’ve touched bliss through yoga or communed with the spirits of psychoactive plants). And ‘sovereign’, if said of your body, may as well be a dirty word, while any suggestion of an original essence, sacred creative source or precious because unique expression, now embarrasses many progressives. Independent thinking vs. heeding herd opinion can get you burned. Banned. Locked down. Cancelled. But seeing through the illusion of ‘democracy’, ‘progress’, ‘science’ and so on can lead to liberating conclusions.

Progress runs on unmet desire, not serenity or contentment. Its engine is conflict and opposition, binaries of all kinds. Friction generates forward momentum. Separation. Social distance. Us against them. So, disassemble the self, replace it with a sense of identity, and batter that until the ego shatters, leaving a vacuum, a crack-up ripe for exploitation. Luckily we have avatars, gravatars, profile pictures, user IDs: flatly virtual banners and shields to hide behind. And this acronymic, fetishistic focus on identity (the outer shell of the debunked, defunct self) is our consolation prize for the theft (or sellout?) of nature. While the meaning of nature gets debated, as if it too is illusory, it refers here to uncertainty, beauty and wild organic diversity, not the planned PC brand of diversity backed by shrewd corporate sponsors and politicians courting a growing cohort of LGBTQIA+, differently abled, neuro-atypical, multicoloured customers comprising the phenomenon of ‘vulnerable groups’.

Lately we hear a lot about ‘the vulnerable’ – a function of the Western obsession with safety. Used to languishing at the end of the queue, they got pushed to the front when Covid jabs were ready to test en masse (like my 99-year-old mother and a host of compromised others). And hordes of decent citizens endured dire side effects in the name of protecting those most at risk: the old, fat, diabetic, asthmatic, disabled, immunosuppressed etc. But with Covid now ‘endemic’, the focus of caring can shift. Calling for Medicare coverage of gender affirming surgery, one trans rights advocate says, ‘desiring but not being able to access gender affirming surgery is psychologically hazardous…’ Fair enough. Anyone resorting to self-harm and suicide needs support. But not all desires are equal. Some last longer or come from a deeper source or affect our ultimate prospects more than others do.

Western civilisation runs on both fear and desire, oversupplying empty threats and shallow enticements – no wonder suicide is on the rise – but who determines whose desires are valid? A psychiatrist? Do trans people (or other oppressed and persecuted minorities) need to play the victim card to prosper? Policing hate speech and pronoun violations won’t make irrational hatred and prejudice go away. Victims attract bullies and/or smother mothers (which share a resemblance). And once identified as a member of a ‘vulnerable group’, you become a political pawn in a rigged game. Because the system that judges you or me ‘vulnerable’ is often the architect of our disadvantage to start with. And so when that system gets woke and displays benevolence, we can and should assume a hidden agenda. One issue to consider might be whether its assistance can deepen dependence, thus heightening vulnerability.

After all, our society has become increasingly subject to edicts and policies that needn’t follow logic; fear of censure breeds obedience (see the Covid vax program). ‘Names will never hurt me!’ we chanted as children, but today’s adults lack such resilience. Now words possess more power to hurt because we’ve invested so much in the virtual: a world without touch, severed from Earth. Our birthright, the natural if delicate balance of physical and mental realities, has been swallowed and spat out by digital technology. Yet our culture has grown more materialistic, making metaphors corporeal, dysphorias intolerable.

In my late teens I lived with a photographer who taught Aboriginal students skills they could use to document the world on their own terms, so I met a few prominent Black activists – fierce, funny, warm, astute and inclusive folk. And one night at an inner urban exhibition opening, an Aboriginal man, a stranger, looked deeply into my eyes. ‘You’ve got the Koori spirit in you,’ he said. It wasn’t a line (he might have been drinking, but openings offer wine). Sensing he meant it, I just held his gaze. I knew he could see something subtler than blood. Yet subtlety eludes a culture whose people don’t look into each other, yet where, instead, surveillance technologies look into us as we tread on eggshells around PC boundaries.

What if that Koori man only spoke a truth I’d always known in my bones, and I desired outward confirmation? Should I blacken my skin? Flatten my nose? Take advantage of Koori community services? I guess that would depend on whether all Kooris could see what that man saw in me. But I’ve always had a keen sense of my own potential to offend (ironic for someone prone to posing contentious questions). And so, at the risk of being branded transphobic, I’ll confess that, once upon a time (i.e., before the pandemic), on sidestepping a person with a penis seated by a lockable local pool designated for women only, I saw no female spirit in them (nor a male spirit, at least not exactly, despite the telltale anatomy). The definition of ‘women’ has changed (ditto, ‘they’, ‘them’, ‘their’). But to say we should just admit it and maybe discuss the repercussions, both personal and political, like sane and respectful citizens, could get the PC crusaders baying for my blood.

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4 Responses to Eyed entities & blind justice

  1. This is fabulous. Say it like it is. I particularly felt a resonance in the recognition of this whole set up; in your words…”Because the system that judges you or me ‘vulnerable’ is often the architect of our disadvantage to start with”. We are all playing out a theatre piece written by power structure. The cast is unpredictable but the story line is always going to be the same; Keep people fighting among themselves as a distraction, whilst, what really needs addressing; the corporate disease, is fed and enlarged by those it oppresses.
    Your essay is eloquent and deep dives into this god damn quagmire of identity politics.

    • Thanks, as always, for reading & for your affirmation. Your saying ‘written by power structure’, for me, brings to mind what I’ve been reading lately about AI & how those enabling its training no longer quite know how it learns what it learns; the precise workings of its accelerating development are becoming increasingly opaque to them, not just to us. Reminds me of the sorcerer’s apprentice trope (& we could have fun speculating on the identity of the sorcerer). ________________________________

  2. Oh goddess yes, the sorcerer’s apprentice is spot on. I find that scene in Fantasia one of the most disturbing scenes ever and it never gets easier to watch. Almost as disturbing as watching this bizarre dominant culture mess this whole planet up, with its ignorance and addiction.
    Fantasia is a phenomenal piece of art…timeless.

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