Who's on top? Society's changing norms
Former High Court judge Michael Kirby.
If Michael Kirby considers himself a second-class citizen, who is riding in first?
Straight people? Straight men? Perhaps anyone who identifies as being right-handed.
The address yesterday to the Parliamentary inquiry into same-sex marriage from one of the most respected thinkers in Australia may have been in relation to social perceptions of homosexuality, but it was not limited to that issue. Kirby may have been speaking of unreasonable social discrimination against gay people and the unreasonable marriage discrimination it supports, but he also spoke of an idea much larger – one that drives right at the heart of contemporary Australian social identity.
Who are we?
Straight, white, Christian, English-speaking men used to be on top. These blokes were on top politically, religiously and economically. They were on top of their straight white wives, on top of their straight white kids, and, naturally, on top of anyone else - who cares if those others were here first or worked harder? Then, who we were was the norm, because he was most normal. Norm was normal based on what we valued, as determined by who was on top.
But where are these finely feathered cocks walking today - still on top? Still in first? Because if a gay, white, Christian, English-speaking man is second-rate, I want to know where that leaves my gay, black, Islamic, English-as-a-second-language girlfriend in the scheme of today’s great Australian social pecking order. We all know the class system doesn’t stop at two.
As a straight woman who actually believes sexuality and gender are concepts more fluid than fixed, I can understand where Kirby is coming from, to a degree. When we look for where men are today, we often see places where women are not. Women are still not as well represented in top boardrooms or political parties as men are. And, still, women do not occupy the same level of seniority in major religious organisations that men do. I’ve always been aware of this.
Yet I’ve also always been aware that if there is someone on top of me, I am probably then on top of someone else. Awareness of this prompts discriminatory behaviour and superiority complexes at worst; humility and a desire for positive change at best. Of course, if you’re born on top, and there’s nowhere to look but down, a place of common understanding can be hard to reach indeed.
Which brings us back to the question: who is on top? Who’s at the peak of our society today? Whose place do we covet, whose lifestyle do we most desire?
Surely the answer is no-one. For even the straight, white, Christian, English-speaking men have problems. Some may have more wealth, move in high-powered circles more naturally, and have greater opportunities than others. But others are in early graves, or in a crisis if their masculinity. Scores of Australian men today sit in sheds, turning wood, licking wounds, and talking shoulder to shoulder about deep pain and a great sense of disempowerment. Norm isn’t normal anymore. Is anybody?
Certainly it is normal to love other people. There should not be differences between the way straight, committed, consensual relationships are legally allowed to be socially expressed, and the way a gay equivalent might be. But this should not be inspired by a desire to elevate one relationship type to some sort of first-class standing enjoyed by another. It’s not really about a man and woman, or a man and man getting married because they love; it’s about people loving people, and societies built on equal footings.
For the sooner we realise we really are all in this together, the better. The sooner we stop looking at people as objects of suspicious difference, as things to measure our own lot against, the better. The sooner we promote culture built on common dignity and mutual respect, the better. Envious comparison and discriminatory judgement may be habit, may be ‘human’, or may be a product of this tough love country, but what good does it do? Who is it helping?
Kirby’s comments may have been about sexuality and marriage. But they’re also about discrimination and love. They’re about our culture and our values. They ask us to consider who we really are, as a people, as people, and on a very personal level.
Are we really the best we can be?