Memory is connected to prophecy. We use our memories to tell the future and inform the present. What we remember, and how, is full of salience for the decisions we make and the causes we support. Stuff that we don’t think is relevant to our current situation we forget, and then a memory can come back loudly when it needs to speak its prophetic voice to us.
Our prophecies may be wrong. Memories are selective and unreliable. Politics is partly an exercise in competing prophecies. The world that Trump followers fear is different to the world Bernie Sanders followers fear. Those who want to stop the boats are predicting outcomes that are different to those who want to let the babies stay. But these prophecies are powerful to each of us.
For some time I have been haunted by a particular memory with a particular message about our time. Is it true? I think it speaks a certain truth.
When I was in high school, about year eight or nine, each student was required to give a short speech. One student in my class gave a speech which told us that all gay people should be shot. I kid you not. The speech was allowed to finish and the class, the whole rest of the class it seems to me in my memory, clapped.
As a high schooler I was already a leftie. The talk, my teacher’s lack of reaction, the class’s applause for the speaker, all incensed me. Any protest I made was not received. Instead someone made a snide comment about me for dissenting.
Well, that meant it was on. For the rest of the class I winked and even blew kisses at the guy who had commented about me. He gradually grew angrier and angrier. He was smaller than me and that was probably why I focused on him. Finally he got up to hit me. I stayed calm but the teacher was no idiot and knew I’d been provoking the situation.
After class the teacher made me stay behind. I was in trouble and it was me who would be kept in at lunch. There was some sympathy from the teacher but there was also no doubt that she wouldn’t be taking any kind of recrimination against the student who gave the talk or the one who wanted to hit me. I was the one who needed to be brought into line.
The lesson is that rules are not designed, not in school at least, to be right or fair or to protect a loving view of the world from a hateful one. Rules are designed to minimize conflict. My teacher didn’t have to step in when a student said gay people should be shot because any gay people in the class were too in the closet for this to create immediate conflict. And when I made a conflict out of it, the teacher had a choice to try and affect the views of the whole class or to affect my behaviour. They chose the rational if perhaps cowardly choice to change the single student.
Today there are some religious people who believe that we live in an age of intolerance. We do, but as my memory reminds me it is an age without beginning and only an imaginary end. The intolerance these religious people claim is simply the force that I faced in high school – the desire of institutions to minimize conflict – a force they generally support when it is in their favour. As the world changes, the new minority, in many places, is the student in class who has a problem with homosexuality, who needs to make anti-gay jokes and who wants to make a point of a boy's effeminacy or a girl's machismo. The school fundamentally doesn’t care for who is right. The school will police that minority because they are easier to police than changing the rest of the school.
Now this may be unflattering to describe things this way but it shouldn’t be shocking to us. Consider a hypothetical program called “All kinds of families” In this program the notion of blended families, single-parent families, adoptive families, and families with divorced or separated parents are discussed. Does anyone think this program is interested in young Billy’s Roman Catholic views that divorce and remarriage is wrong? Is young Billy’s definition of family, with its problematising of assisted reproduction going to get a hearing? Of course not.
And here’s what the teachers are thinking. These teachers want to introduce this program for Sarah who has been sad ever since her parents divorced. These teachers note that every single piece of curriculum material from the picture books to the movies they show has two happily married people with their kids all born in wedlock. These teachers may have grasped this material with a real gratitude for it’s reflection of their own lives. For all these reasons and more, these teachers think “Billy can shut up.”
Now when “All kinds of families” was (hypothetically) introduced maybe someone wanted to include same-sex couple’s families. Maybe someone else wanted to include polyamorous partnerships and their families. Most likely if this hypothetical program was produced over a decade ago neither of those families would be included. Again this would not be because of what is right or wrong. This would be because of what stands inside or outside the majority acceptable culture. Excluding same-sex couples and their kids from the program's definition of 'all kinds of family' would minimize conflict up to recent times. Including them now might cause conflict in some places but not so much in others. That is the force that always controls school decisions. Polyamourous families are still out; Way too much conflict there.
To see how things have changed for same-sex families though we can look to Play School. The voice of those opposed to including a same-sex couple with kids on a show about diverse family types is firmly in the minority. What did the ABC think of the Australian Christian Lobby’s outrage about the issue? I reckon they thought “The ACL can shut up.”
In Victorian schools we now have the “Safe Schools” initiative. Some people are shocked that it will normalize homosexuality, bisexuality and transgenderism. In doing so they fear it will de-normalise their own ideas of sexuality in which non-heterosexuality is unnatural or just plain wrong. This, they claim, will simply shift who is ostracized from those who are gay to those opposed to gay rights. I suppose the answer to that is yes, it probably will. Can it do anything else?
Some people think it is possible for multiple competing ideas of what is sin and what should be celebrated to survive together in society. If we look at something like divorce and remarriage though I think we see that it isn’t particularly possible at all. Yes, conservative Catholics can choose not to recognize remarriages as legitimate. However nobody wants to hear it – at least not at school or in a workplace or on a publicly funded tv show for kids. Yes, the view is alive and well but is it tolerated? Outside of a personal view of how to live one’s own life it is barely tolerated at all.
This is the approach we can expect to take hold around gay marriage in the near future. That you will be required to recognize gay marriages is a reasonable prediction just as politeness requires you now to recognize remarried couples as married. Will you be permitted to add “I don’t agree with homosexuality” at the end of a toast in the staff room when two male co-workers tie the knot? You probably aren’t now. The reason is that conflict minimization is the priority in most workplaces as it is in schools.
This normalizing pressure is also the same reason that in many school environments today teachers still don’t mention homosexuality, and texts and films are all 100% heterosexual. In fact often there are no books in a high school library let alone a primary school one which include gay characters. As a teacher I have stopped my students from using “gay” as an insult but in this regard I am atypical. This is not a reflection of what these teachers or schools believe is right or wrong. It is just the priority of minimizing conflict.
Conflict is a real concern at the moment because views have been polarised by the pending plebiscite on gay marriage. We would expect the same polarization to be present if a plebiscite on anything else could materially affect that issue. We find this polarization present even in the religious communities which claim to be oppressed by a new intolerance from outside. If your church disapproves of gay marriage you might even be told you are not a Christian if you support it. Meanwhile in a church supportive of gay marriage it will be hard to imagine someone opposed to it being welcomed on plebiscite night. This will probably die down once marriage reform is through.
All this might seem terribly depressing. We want to believe that changes in society are the result of enlightenment and reasoning not some force of normalization with a priority of minimizing conflict. Changes in popular opinion might well be the result of good argument. Changes in the hearts and minds of people can also occur through relationships and connections. But policies are not people. Policies change to suit public opinion, after the fact, and in doing so they are always intolerant. They will always keep the minority in at lunch. It’s time we stopped acting like this was something new.
I have my beliefs about what are rights and what are privileges and would rather step on privileges to secure every child's rights. As a human who has know the sting of feeling abnormal for same-sex attraction I hunger for a time when that sting is not delivered. As a man who has found my gender roles stupidly limiting and uncomfortable I enjoy seeing young people play with or reject gender entirely. I am generally favorable towards the Safer Schools materials as a result. But I am not going to be surprised if in some classrooms some of the conservative fears of the program come true and kids who disagree with the materials feel constrained in speaking out.
I think the best thing we can do is to be transparent about the forces we operate under. I think we can invite debate about school policies while being clear that there is actual learning to be done and every student no matter their sexuality or their views on sexuality has the right to the best environment for that learning to happen. As a teacher I try to stop any lynch mob even if they are rounding up someone who I believe has been a complete dick. But at the end of the day something is probably going to be normalised and something else is not.