Can we reconnect in 2017?

The establishment, circa 2050

What does your vision of the future look like?

Whether it’s a cosmopolitan global village or a throwback to more simple and prosperous days gone by, I’m sorry to tell you, but we’re off track. Neither one of those or any other favourable scenario is on the cards while we remain this divided. We’re hurtling towards a world where we all lose, besides the privileged few who retreat into impenetrable enclaves, such as in the film Elysium, pictured above. This is the path we’re on, but it can change.

To avert disaster we need to realise that we are pawns in a rigged game. We have been pitted against each other over an ever-shrinking section of the board while the real enemy hoards the spoils. We’re all screwed unless we recognise this. But we’re so distracted by our daily battles that the enemy can openly brag that the game is rigged and still avoid detection. He is hiding in plain sight and getting very cocky. And this is the thing: the game’s broken dynamic means the more money you grab, the more power you buy, the more influence you wield, the more money you channel, and so on. It feeds itself until those in control become untouchable. Judging by the Orwellian first days of Trump’s reign, the new president believes he has already achieved invincibility.

Whether it’s Trump or others like him, where I’m writing in Australia or elsewhere, we in sight of the tipping point to an Elyisum world where the 1% cloister in luxurious safety while the rest of us rot. Their unchecked greed is leading to unprecedented inequality. Meanwhile, we bicker. They automate our jobs away and scorch the earth. We misplace blame. When we’re eventually left with too little between too many, it will be too hard to try to force them to give their fair share. They’ll retreat to safety. We’ll be coping with the undrinkable water and unbreathable air they left us and the millions of climate refugees at our borders.

So what to do? This is where I say the things that it’s all too easy for the straight white guy to say. We need to listen more to those we disagree with. We need to concentrate less on our differences over politics, gender and race and more on our mutual needs as humans. We need to heal our divisions and turn our sights against those who perpetuate them for their own gain.

Just like that we enter the moral minefield of who can say what about who should say what.

We’ve read all the takes and counter-takes about ‘woke white boys’ who need to check their privilege. Indeed, it’s absolutely not fair for me to tell victims of hate or oppression that we all just need to get along better, when I have personally avoided such prejudice by pure chance. It would be easy for me to say that most of the hate emanating from the right is just a symptom of the broken system when that hate doesn’t weigh on me.

That’s just one of the many possible pitfalls for people with an opinion (so basically everyone nowadays). Another is that those who do try to cross the empathy wall run the risk of regarding their Others as zoo animals to be observed with scientific fascination. Those who join the frontline for causes that don’t afflict them directly can fall foul of the white saviour complex or step on toes. The best of intentions don’t always prevent insensitive slip-ups. Then there’s the ignorance and casual racism from people who should know better by now.

So it can be really tricky to participate in the social discourse. And you know what? So it should be. So should privilege be checked. So should allies be respectful. So should bigotry be shouted down in all its forms.

I’m torn though because while these sensitivities are legitimate, they put walls between us, and we’re running out of time. Calling each other out for being ‘woke’ (in its sarcastic sense) or telling others to ‘stay in their lanes’ are the petty pawn battles we need to quickly move beyond. But hang on, while fascism is on the rise, we also can’t afford to compromise on the standards we hold each other to. But it’s really hard to say “brother, your views disgust me, now let’s hold hands and smash the machine together”. Argh!

In some cases, perfect is the enemy of the good. As I see it, the political left is splintered into subgroups, each insistent on their own rigid ideology and rendered ineffective by their inability to coalesce into a united front. There is a great analogy from basketball that says each finger on a hand, alone, is weak, but the five together form a strong fist. The left needs to be a fist right now, but some progressives would rather remain limp than embrace those who don’t share their exact vision.

On the other side, conservatives are so guarded due their defence of the often despicable policies their leaders use to stoke fear and blame, that they are more likely to start a conversation with a preemptive attack than an open mind.

All the while, no one wins and the board keeps shrinking.

How did we get so divided? Surely the internet and its echo chambers play a big part. Some elite-hating rurals think the youth is indoctrinated at uni and in the big cities. Well, I grew up outside the city and moved to Sydney for work after I finished high school, like many. I never went to uni and nobody ever pulled me aside and told me how to think. All that happened is I lived day-to-day in proximity to people who aren’t exactly like me, and quickly realised they are also just humans who just want human things like security, opportunity and community, and therefore deserve them if I do. It’s simple exposure. Social media circumvents geography and allows us to connect exclusively with those exactly like us, and hate others. It is the anti-city.

The brevity of commenting online is the second problem. We’re so quick to resort to name-calling and we act as if using the correct clever label is the end of the debate. And there’s a fucking name for everything. For example, you don’t just like Apple products; you’re an ‘iSheep’. Once identified as such, all your future opinions about tech products become moot. The most ridiculous label is ‘social justice warrior’, the barb of the anti-PC brigade. If you are so appalled about someone’s brand of social justice of all things that you have to insult them rather than engage with them, you seriously need to rethink your priorities. If it’s social justice itself you have a problem with (which it often is, just check the #sjw hashtag on Twitter), I have another name for you: dickhead.

I haven’t been called those things to my knowledge (besides dickhead) but two recent pawn battles come to mind. At the women’s solidarity march in Melbourne, my American female partner started the chant: ‘The people, united, will never be defeated!’ After it died down, a lady in her fifties leaned over and corrected: “The women united.” Last year, while in the US, we went to see Southside With You, a film about Barack and Michelle Obama’s first date (it’s great, by the way). As we left during the credits, an older lady from the predominantly black crowd said to us, the only whites in the cinema, “Going to ask for your money back?”

I feel I can both respect the context of those comments and also call them unhelpful. I’m not going to dictate how feminism should be done but I will say that every moment spent debating it internally is a moment spent not fighting together for its ultimate goals. I’m not going to play the victim to the lady at the movie or begrudge her a moment of pride, I get it, but would it have been somehow better if no white people made the effort to see it?

I’m no saint. During the election campaign I routinely shared things like this cartoon, or those vox pop videos with Trump supporters at his rallies. The contradictions and irony were funny to me. Still are. In Australia we also like to poke fun at the less enlightened.

But I look at this now and see a call for help being slammed back in the faces of the disenfranchised. Yes, his supporters will soon be surprised to learn that a billionaire from a gold-plated New York penthouse is not their saviour from urban elites. Go figure. But when that happens, are they about to fall at the feet of those who condescended them crying ‘you were right all along!’, begging for wisdom? Might they be more inclined to work with someone who tried to hear them out rather than write them off?

All this is to say that we’ve found a million ways to argue in a time when we can least afford to. We need a massive attitudinal shift. ‘Fuck em’ doesn’t cut it anymore. There’s too much at stake.

I’m not saying we have to find a middle ground on conflicted issues, certainly not on justice or equality. We just need to change our approach to our Others. Start with open ears instead of open mouths. Try to convince before we accuse. Trade schadenfreude for pity. Save your zingers for the real enemy. Don’t empathise with your pawn-foes because you’re now some kind of monk; do it because you’re a selfish jerk who doesn’t want to live in Elysium, and try to get others on board.

2016 was the year of broken conventions. Unwritten rules we thought kept some kind of balance in the universe were shattered, clouding the future. 2017 must be the year of reconnection. Only united can we avoid disaster.

Still, I am conflicted. I remember how easy it is for me to deliver this lecture. How do we do it? How do we resolve seemingly irreconcilable differences to fight a bigger but less tangible enemy? How can we do that without compromising on our rejection of unacceptable opinions? Who should take the lead in building these new alliances? In this very article I have name-called and preached in ways which would have turned off some readers, illustrating the difficulty of the task ahead. I am still a finger that’s not part of a fist.