We hear a lot about big business lobbying government, about the influence in the halls of parliament of supermarkets and junk food manufacturers and hoteliers. But equally insidious is the increasing prominence of professional paternalists intent on moderating our private choices. Where there is an abuse of language, there is generally something unpleasant not far behind – in the case of grievance groups, they employ hyperbole to manufacture urgency. Increasingly, we see politicians susceptible to their lure.
Last month, a new advocacy group, Bully Zero Australia Foundation, launched a National Day of Action Against Bullying and Violence. “We should not ignore what is becoming an epidemic,” it stated, “with reports that 1 in 5 Australians are bullied.” But given the relatively recent emphasis on bullying, we do not have the comparative generational statistics to measure the urgency of those claims. Bullying researcher Dr Toni Noble has said “the incidence of bullying, particularly face-to-face style, is not increasing ... it’s just now more likely to be reported”.
The dilution of the word bullying has meant that robust criticism is often termed “bullying”, devaluing the term for serious instances of schoolyard or workplace intimidation and harm. It is too often now a false accusation used to shut down a debate, or paradoxically to attack an opponent. In order to have effective dialogue, there must be an opposing view. No one supports bullying, so groups such as Bully Zero have a free pass to make unsubstantiated claims – and the usual unspecific demand for “laws”.
And so we have opposition leader Bill Shorten endorsing its “48-hour digital detox”, helping to promote the idea that technology is inherently wicked, or that social media somehow leads to an unbalanced life. There is something bigger here. What paternalists are seeking, but not explicitly saying, is internet censorship.
In recent decades, we have advanced beyond the confines of religious authority to largely embrace secularism. The role of invasive moral regulation and censorship used to be driven by religious institutions or the religious sentiments of elites. Increasing secularisation and a hastening media cycle have produced the unfortunate residual consequence of a paternalism vacuum for moral hygienists to occupy.
We have moved into what most believe to be an unprecedented era of personal freedom, but retained wide acceptance of the notion that “when something has happened politicians must do something”. We have also regressed to an advocacy culture: “Something could happen – the politicians must do something.”
All ills must be diagnosed and treated according to the whims of the advocate: ban photography of children on beaches; filter the internet; mandate bigger, bolder, brighter warning labels on consumables, as though legislation is in and of itself an achievement. They believe their concerns must be our concerns.
Earlier this year, we saw unsubstantiated hysteria in New South Wales about alcohol-related violence after several high-profile but isolated incidents. The statistics showed “king hits” at their lowest level since 2002, but the legislation and the language were changed following sustained pressure from a number of quarters. Paternalists see the effectiveness of targeting symptoms rather than causes, while the phrase “coward punch” has ingrained itself uselessly into the lexicon of the proudly concerned.
One of the problems for those of us passionate about freedom and personal responsibility is in its articulation. The legislator thinks in terms of legislation: “ban this” is an easier concept with which to grapple than the less tangible concept of liberty. Quantification, too, is nebulous: the costs of burdensome regulation are difficult to translate into direct and meaningful figures.
The great 19th-century French political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville warned us that “absolute excellence is rarely to be found in any legislation”. Public policy by way of lever almost always causes unintended consequences, but given its propensity to conveniently shift statistical brackets, politicians are able to declare success. In most cases there is a shelf life to our outrage over restriction: in time, society tends to adapt and our outrage is tempered. The ability to adapt is no counterweight to the erosion of fundamental rights, granted to us not by government, but by virtue of our humanity.
The idea that we could live in a viceless or risk-free society is infantalising and devalues the human experience. It is a discrete entry into the science wars, perhaps overlooked by virtue of its timelessness: the idea that human nature can somehow be overcome. Human beings are highly fallible; indeed, this forms the basis of many of our greatest expressions of humanity, of art, literature and philosophy. The idea that fallibility can or ought to be domesticated at the expense of choice, responsibility and individuality is at best a sinister form of altruism. It must be confronted at every opportunity.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 19, 2014 as "Forbidden world". Subscribe here.