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Language is important: part 1
Bad language warning c/o state daddy Mark McGowan
On the day of the federal election, United Australia Party volunteers heckled and verbally abused WA premier Mark McGowan as he placed his vote. It was bad behaviour. In a press conference the next day, McGowan called these people "misfits" and "losers". Such divisive language from McGowan has become par for the course. In the past 9 months, he has told the unvaccinated to "grow a brain", has instructed constituents, "don't be a dropkick", and has consistently displayed both an inability to see things from a perspective other than his own, and a lack of respect for the beliefs and views of certain minority groups within his constituency.
WATCH MCGOWAN’S SPRAY HERE
WATCH MCGOWAN’S SPRAY HERE
Never mind that Labor volunteers were also reported to have badgered voters, verbally abusing them, calling AEC supervisors over unnecessarily, and being a general pain in the arse. McGowan ignored this bad behaviour from his own team, singling out minority groups for judgement and name-calling from his podium of power.
So what’s wrong with a bit of sass from the premier?
Well, here’s the thing. Language is important. And coming from people in positions of power, it’s even more important.
What McGowan is creating here with his disrespecful rhetoric and harsh mandates (though after 6 months of some of the world’s toughest mandates, they are starting to ease) is an increasingly disenfranchised minority. There is risk inherent in this approach. ‘Othering’ minority groups, boxing them into a corner, and stoking public angst and derision towards them risks isolating these people further. This has implications for social cohesion, mental health, and radicalisation of fringe actors.
The stories of ex-white power extremist Christian Picciolini and ex-Islamist extremist Maajid Nawaz remind us that perfectly nice people can become extremely dangerous in the right (wrong) circumstances. In an interview with Sarah Silverman, Picciolini admits that his attraction to the extremist fringe was about moving towards love. That was where he gained a sense of belonging. Perhaps counterintuitively for anyone who has not tried this at home, Piccionlini says, “compassion is what changed me.” In other words, if you want the stop the disenfranchised from becoming extreme, show some understanding and love so that they don’t have to go to the extreme fringe to find it. That’s not to say that you have to agree with them, but people first need to feel understood before you can change their minds. This is How to Win Friends and Influence People 101.
It would seem, however, that McGowan is not interested in persuading the errant minority. It also seems that he is either unaware that he is stoking social division, or he just doesn’t care.
Never once have I heard McGowan sincerely show understanding of and address any of the concerns that these “losers” so evidently have. It’s worth pausing to consider some of the reasons those rowdy UAP supporters might have felt compelled to lash out in anger on election day.
Did they have a dad who died alone, prevented from seeing their family, like my friend’s dad, and the father of the woman who broke down sobbing in my yoga class?
Did they too, like my colleague, have heart attack symptoms whilst driving? Were they then told by a cardiologist and other health professionals that subsequent similar attacks were “just anxiety”? Do they still experience constant chest pain? (Official documented cause: Pfizer)
Did they, like my dentist friend, also experience long-term debilitating pain in their working arm from their first jab that they so willingly had, hoping to ‘do the right thing’? Did they also find that fellow medical professionals gaslit them, and that Medicare won’t cover the significant long-term costs associated with pain management? (Official documented cause: Shoulder Injury Related to Vaccine Administration)
Are they still partially blind from the first jab but unable to get an exemption from the second jab, even though the doctor freely admits this is a common side effect amongst coeliacs (This is the husband of my friend. He was not warned)? (Official documented cause: Pfizer)
Did they lose a husband to suicide, when he couldn’t see a way out of the crippling debt brought upon them by lockdown after lockdown, as happened to a family I know?
Did they get locked out of their own businesses, prevented from working in them or even setting foot in them, as happened to so many hard working business people I know?
Did they get denied medical exemptions for serious and valid conditions, like my friend with lupus, the one with a congenital heart condition, and those of us with central nervous system disorders?
Have they, like someone close to me, been excommunicated from their family because government and health officials told those families that anyone who did not take the (non-sterilising) vaccine was unsafe and selfish?
Here is a premier who shows no empathy, no understanding or even acknowledgement of such experiences. All of the above instances happened to people in my own network. Some of them do therapy and have found healthy ways to channel their grief, rage and pain. I can imagine that others with similar experiences and less of a grip on emotional regulation might have a strong impulse to yell a few insults in McGowan’s direction if he came within throwing distance. Wouldn’t that be understandable? Some might even feel compelled to send their vote towards any alternative – even Clive Palmer.
In my own experience, I bristled intensely when McGowan told my cohort to “grow a brain.” I did not think it was funny. I don’t believe that it was meant to be funny. I won’t defend myself by detailing the extensive list of papers I read, podcasts I listened to, discussions I had and experts I consulted in order to make the best-informed decision on the subject of Covid-19 vaccination (except that by saying that I won’t list them, you know that all of these efforts were completed and have been catalogued). Being told to “grow a brain” was insulting. But more than that, it was threatening. To have a premier with emergency powers, powers which give him enormous sway over what I can and cannot do - where I can eat, where I can sit, which borders I may cross, whether I can work, earn a living, access pain management services, enter a hospital, by a bottle of wine - and to know that that person does not understand, does not want to understand and does not respect my position. That’s really scary.
I can’t change Mark McGowan. I don’t know him, and though I troll him with passion and consistency, he does not read my DMs. He seems pretty smug about his current MO.
But we, the public, have a choice. We can absorb our premier’s bad language and divisive tactics, internalising them as beliefs before externalising them in our behaviour.
Or we can say, no, language is important. No name-calling. No othering.
We can say, I do not understand, but let me try.
And we might find that in doing so, the understanding comes.
I have heard neuroscientist and philosopher Sam Harris say numerous times on his Making Sense podcast that the easiest way to find compassion for people we don’t like, or whose behaviour we don’t like, is to imagine them as a 4 year old. Imagine them before life happened to them, before they developed those ugly traits and behaviours that you abhor. Imagine that 4 year old experiencing pain, fear, or loss of control, and imagine that this tantrum is the expression of that 4 year old – who is essentially the adult’s inner child.
The challenge is that we must do this for all people, not just the ones we feel sympathetic towards. For my part, it’s much easier for me to imagine the pain of a UAP supporter than it is to imagine Mark McGowan, a man I truly loathe, as an innocent child. But compassion requires that I extend it to both equally.
Language is important. Make love, not hate.