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The language of discontent

By John Töns - posted Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Australian cinemas are currently showing two important films: Utopia and Hannah Arendt. You will have to work hard to find these films but they are worth the effort.

This is not a review but more a personal reflection of the impact that the films made on me.

Like most Australians I am vaguely aware that indigenous Australians are poorly served. However all the indigenous Australians that I know are very little different to me – well-educated living lives of apparent middleclass contentment. But if we take the trouble to inform ourselves then we have reason to be ashamed at our ongoing failure to enable all Australians to enjoy the quality of life that we tend to take for granted.


When we talk about gender equality we demonstrate shortcomings by highlighting damning statistics: average wage of women is lower than the average wage of men, women are under-represented in our company board rooms and are rarely seen in key decision making roles. It is not too difficult to do something similar for indigenous Australians – over-represented in jails and among Australia's poor, chronic malnutrition and poor health and under-represented on key decision making institutions.

These statistics for women, indigenous Australians and others highlight that our social institutions fail the criterion of fairness. In a truly fair and equitable society you would not find significant demographic disparities in people's life chances.

It is not enough for us to point at politicians - for we all have responsibility for the sort of society in which we live. By our silence we are complicit. I am not claiming that the problem of institutional fairness is easy to solve but until we acknowledge that this is a challenge that we all need to address films like Utopia will continue to be made.

Part of the solution may well be found in the film Hannah Arendt. Clearly the film makers had immersed themselves in her philosophy for although there is a strong biographical narrative Arendt's voice was not muted but amplified.

One of the positives to come out of the horror of the Holocaust was the Declaration of Human Rights. The Nazis were not anti-Semitic – rather they were anti-human – just as Pol Pot, the criminals in the Balkan Conflict and those in Central Africa are anti-human. Both victims and perpetrators were dehumanised by those exterminations. Both simply became cogs in a machine, the perpetrators willing surrendered their role as independent thinking people and allowed themselves to become the willing accomplices of an evil system. The victims likewise were so degraded that they lost their capacity to act as independent reasoning human beings.

What is happening in Utopia may seem a far cry from events like the Holocaust but they are two sides of the same coin. Part of the problem seems to be that we have not thought hard enough about what it means to be human, what our responsibilities are as humans. When we refer to people being racist, sexist or whatever we are giving ourselves a get out of jail card. Perhaps we should start referring to these activities as anti-human and assert that they do not just violate the rights of some but that they undermine our common humanity. I am diminished by the reality of Utopia, I am diminished when I stand by and hear people marginalise individuals on the basis of their race, colour, religion, gender or physical ability. In every instance we are engaged in anti-human behaviours and as we are all human – we are not just hurting others we are hurting ourselves.


Go and see these films and ask yourself – where do you stand with respect to the big issues raised.

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About the Author

John Töns is President of the Zero Carbon Network a network established to promote clear thinking about the issues associated with climate change. In addition to operating the only zero carbon boarding kennels in South Australia he is also completing a PhD at Flinders University in the area of Global Justice. John is a founding member of a new political party Stop Population Growth Now.

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