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Who's on top? Society's changing norms

Former High Court judge Michael Kirby.

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?

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kfeeney@fairfaxmedia.com.au

98 comments

  • Must be Friday.
    'Yet I’ve also always been aware if there is someone on top of me,'
    CK
    One would hope so.

    'inquiry into same-sex marriage'
    For why. There is no point in it. Ok, perhaps at times there is. Try again. There is no reason. The ceremony party if you like to party. But to register it. For why.

    Commenter
    Dave
    Date and time
    May 04, 2012, 8:13AM
    • OK - I am a white, male, straight, divorced Catholic lawyer and father of 3 who supports the Demons in the AFL. It's clearly all my fault and I hereby accept full responsibility. Phew, relief.

      Commenter
      Harvey Birdman
      Date and time
      May 04, 2012, 1:50PM
  • Kate

    Every person is both an individual and a member of a community / society. Simply, the person is the product of society, and (in part) dependent on it.

    Where a community fashions values and norms and a society formalises these with rules, the person becomes constrained. Today's topic is whether the values / norms / rules are sufficiently inclusive in this multicultural society. Implicitly, you are suggesting the apparent narrowness of values / norms / rules in Australia reflects a dominant group acting as a hegemony.

    For his part, an esteemed member of our society - who lives by and endorses all the rules but one - suggests he is marginalised because he seeks to undertake one practice that is outside the current structure.

    You respond by suggesting there are many people who are (also) marginalised by the current structure.

    These points 'talk' on a sociological level. And, sociologically it assumes a dialogue between society (the establishment) and the participants (people).

    I suggest there is another aspect from which this subject can be viewed. That is, from the perspective of the marginalised.

    More to come..

    Commenter
    Dalliance
    Date and time
    May 04, 2012, 8:40AM
    • continuing...

      So, how do the marginalised cope in a society structured to reflect the values / norms / rules of a dominant hegemonic group?

      For today’s topic, I suggest this is an important question as it also indicates how any person can cope with the pursuit of their ideals against a backdrop of social opposition.

      For many, they seek refuge in their cultural group - whether born into or adopted (ie Muslim, Gothic, etc). I suppose by switching off from the larger ‘mob’, they cope by living with their own.

      I’ve noticed in these CityKat columns some quite narrow opinions. Many of those opinions suggest the writer has an association with a small(ish) cultural group. For example, there are some rabid man haters expressing views. They are not lesbian as they admit to finding a certain type of man acceptable.

      I suggest these various cultural views contradict a view that the dominant values / norms / rules in Australia embraces the majority. This, then, suggests there is no dominant Australian society; rather, a collective of people with a diversity of cultural expressions and sentiments

      On an individual level, how do people cope with a (relatively) narrow structure of values / norms / rules?

      more still to come..

      Commenter
      Dalliance
      Date and time
      May 04, 2012, 10:24AM
    • continuing...

      So, on an individual level, how do people cope with expressing themselves when operating within a (relatively) narrow structure of values / norms / rules?

      My take is to cease looking for societal approval for one’s actions.

      I’m not suggesting becoming a hermit. Rather, to first accept that true validation for one’s actions ever only comes from within. And, secondly, to accept other people for what they are, not what society says about them.

      Back to topic... Does Justice Kirby need a marriage certificate? Only if he wants validation from society. Otherwise, continue as he has and enjoy his capacity to love.

      Cheers

      Commenter
      Dalliance
      Date and time
      May 04, 2012, 10:35AM
    • Dalliance,

      Many thanks for your extensive and well written comment.

      I can't help but think that you've somewhat missed the point. I get what you are saying that validation must first come from within, but if it never externally realised - a person begins to doubt their own internal self-validation (unless of course they are deluded and believe only in what they think without caring what others think).

      ALL humans seek external validation - with communication has come the need to know that we are not only heard but more importantly UNDERSTOOD by our fellow man.

      Justice Kirby makes the point of him being a second class citizen in the context of - why should he, a hardworking, tax paying member of society not be afforded the same rights as every other Australian citizen who happens to be STRAIGHT?

      It wasn't that long ago the collective Australian people didn't let Indigenous Australians VOTE. This topic is not so different, it is a matter of human rights.

      Tell the Aborigines from 40 odd years ago that their desire to have a vote was just a cry for external validation from society!

      I can't help but detect the slightest undertone of homophobia in your comment - let them be gay, but behind closed doors - we don't want to see a celebration of their love.

      We gays (yes I'm gay) deserve exactly the same rights as you and your straight counterparts. We pay the same taxes, abide by the same laws and live within the same borders.

      We want gay-marriage.

      All the very best to you.

      Commenter
      Adrian
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      May 04, 2012, 1:30PM
    • "I’ve noticed in these CityKat columns some quite narrow opinions. Many of those opinions suggest the writer has an association with a small(ish) cultural group. For example, there are some rabid man haters expressing views."

      "So, on an individual level, how do people cope with expressing themselves when operating within a (relatively) narrow structure of values / norms / rules?"

      Just the way you have done, I'm afraid, believe their opinions to be fact, when in fact they're formed being oblivious to our own assumptions.

      Commenter
      bornagirl
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      May 04, 2012, 2:30PM
    • @ Adrian

      First, be assured I am far from homophobic.

      As for 'validation', all humans are 'validated' as they develop - from learning to talk, their 'education' (formal or otherwise), their capacity to learn and develop skills, etc.

      What I was talking about is that the adult can choose to establish their own 'identity', measurement criteria, etc., and need not seek approval from others to validate their position.

      In respect to membership of the dominant hegemony, Kirby (and you) are saying that the norms / values / rules ought be accommodative of the (currently) non-conformist position.

      Analysing this, seeking to have a non-conformist position formalised is but a desire for the 'position' to be validated into the cultural structure.

      My hunch is the Australian non-gay society accept the fact of being gay but don't endorsed it as a mainstream practice (I may be wrong, but...). If so, accepting the fact of a gay (sexual) union does not in itself widen the scope of marriage as it is understood (in Australia). However, to ask the state to 'legalise' gay marriage suggests that while that may please a minority group, it may displease the majority.

      more..

      Commenter
      Dalliance in reply
      Date and time
      May 04, 2012, 3:44PM
    • @ Adrian...

      It is this majority / minority situation to which I was trying to elucidate - from the view of a minority. Reiterating the point. In our multicultural society there will always be minority (cultural) groups. Many comments on this topic focus on economic minority groups - I was not singling this aspect.

      So, recognising that one is practising behaviour consistent with a minority group, does one seek to change the norms / values / rules, or live with the dominant norms / etc, and seek personal credibility from within. I suggest the latter.

      - - -

      @ bornagirl

      Joining two disparate paragraphs together in a bid to advance a criticism shows both ignorance and a lack of integrity on the part of the communicator.

      Look again at what I wrote.

      I asserted that narrow opinions often reflect adherence to a small(ish) cultural group, and as such (in the next paragraph) challenges any view that the Australian set of norms / values / rules is embracive of the wide array of cultural norms / etc.

      I then went on - LATER - to ask how people coped in the context of a restrictive cultural acceptance in the dominant context.

      I suggest your attempt to conflate merely shows your inability to grasp ideas.

      Cheers

      Commenter
      Dalliance in reply
      Date and time
      May 04, 2012, 3:57PM
    • "@Dalliance: I suggest your attempt to conflate merely shows your inability to grasp ideas."

      You can suggest all you like. Free country.

      The fact that people do frequently conflate doesn't mean that two comments made in isolation CANNOT be connected.

      Suggesting there are rabid men haters posting is an opinion,not a fact. You form your opinion via your own bias (as do we all).

      Commenter
      bornagirl
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      May 04, 2012, 4:25PM

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