Toughness and Respect


Internationally, we are slipping into a multiculturalism of co-existence as opposed to a multiculturalism of interaction. We are letting clichés such as ‘respect other cultures’, dominate our lives, instead of embracing the living breathing multiculturalism we have developed over the years.

This is because, since the declaration of the War on Terrorism, we are developing into warring societies. Warring societies are not necessarily at war. They are societies that adopt a permanently defensive posture. Their citizens are encouraged to become warriors with an ‘are you with us or are you against us?’ logic of dealing with others.

And so the language of war permeates all aspects of our life: war against terrorism, culture wars, history wars.

All societies are structured around enjoying and defending the good life. And when we are defending the good life, we sometimes act in a manner contrary to this goodness. Thus, we sometimes engage in non-democratic acts to protect democracy. Let us not be idealistic about this. All democratic societies involve at their margin, non-democratic spaces used to protect democracy.

Thanks to Bill Leak at The Australian

Thanks to Bill Leak at The Australian

It is common sense: sometimes you have to be nasty in order to protect your goodness. The essence of having a good society is to know how to balance this act. That is why when terrorists strike we say that we want to fight them but at the same time we want to preserve our way of life. That is, we do not want to install a dictatorship in order to save our democracies.

We tell ourselves this precisely because we know that it is easy to slip into a totally defensive mode. The problem is that not everyone is concerned about this to the same degree, and many people in warring societies slip into a defensive impulse that starts taking over the enjoyment impulse. People can become so mentally and socially driven by the idea of defence that they end up undermining the very thing that they are defending: they openly abandon the rule of law to supposedly protect the rule of law.

Most importantly, warring societies produce what, psychologically speaking, can be referred to as masculine toughness. The difference between masculine and feminine toughness is very interesting for this discussion.

Imagine a five-year-old in the playground at school. She falls and hurts herself. You find often, especially if she has not been at the school long, that she will not cry much. She will be tough. However, at the end of the day, as soon as mum or dad holds her hand, the wailing begins. The interesting issue here is, when was this child at her toughest? Was it when she was closed in on herself, thinking ‘I am so tough I am not going to show people that I am vulnerable. I am not going to let them know that I am hurt’? Or, when feeling safe and secure in the presence of her carer, she opened up to the world, thinking ‘I am so secure that I don’t mind showing that I am vulnerable. I will cry’?

It should be clear why this issue is important: human interaction requires, by definition, a lot of feminine toughness. If we are to interact with another, we have to feel a certain sense of basic security and an ability to live with the insecurity generated by the process of opening up to someone else. We are implicitly saying: ‘Come and get me. I am open and I will interact with you. I will not just coexist with you. I will interact with you despite all our faults. We will go through the ups and downs, hate each other and love each other, respect each other one day, fail to respect each other on another.’

This is the complicated stuff of social and cultural interaction, which requires feminine toughness. However, when society is structuring itself defensively, it is increasingly inviting the citizen to live defensively. It is telling us: ‘They are out to get you.’

Masculine toughness can easily dominate in such conditions. Citizens close in on themselves and avoid any complex interaction with people from other cultures. The options become either to coexist with and respect the other; or to hate the other – but no longer to interact with the other. This seems to me what is happening with Muslim cultures around the world today: lots of respect, or hatred, but very little interaction.

While other communities do not allow themselves to open up to Muslim cultures, Muslim cultures also close in on themselves. In the process, we are losing the rich interactive vein so integral to our multiculturalism. We end up creating ghettos in the very process of coming to fear them.

The warring impulse that prevails in our society must be challenged.

To be sure, it is necessary that societies develop a warring impulse in the age of terrorism, which is a real and serious threat. But it is easy to slip from a situation where we keep our warring impulse alive (on the side, so to speak), to a situation where this warring impulse comes to dominate.

This is the difficult task of reasonable people everywhere: to resist the dominance of such a warring impulse while equally recognising the legitimacy and the importance of maintaining it. It is a question of not giving the people consumed by ‘defending our society’ a free rein or else they might force upon us a society of subcultural cocoons and ghettos.

A previous version of this and last week’s ‘When Respect Is Not Enough’ appeared in the Australian Financial Review on Friday 22 July, under the title ‘We need interaction, not just coexistence’.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.