Democracy, Freedom and Swearing

After a lifetime of being privileged enough to indulge myself in education I receive a lot of begging letters from tertiary educations.

Recently I was asked by my first alma mater to contribute to a scholarship to promote a course promulgating “Human Rights and Democratisation”. Fairly appalled at the way it was assumed that these two concepts come packaged as intrinsically twinned, rather than as sometime interrelated, I put pen to paper expressing my concerns, but softened my outspoken negativity by enclosing a small donation. After all I do think the rights of all humans is a very important issue to which students should be exposed in many university courses. I am less certain, at the moment, about our democratic form or whether democracy as we know it is an exportable concept.

Much to my dismay I discovered that universities these days must be so tightly specialised that they employ numerate people to collect donations, not those with reading skills. The form “thank you” letter appreciated my support without even include a brief post script acknowledging that I had expressed major concerns.

But such is the way that we are sold democracy. Rarely (probably mostly by historians) are the conditions under which democracies have risen been considered, particularly the limitation to educated classes in the time of Socrates, to the nobility at first in the UK and, in more recent times, the strong link with free enterprise, party politics and (different types of) representative government in the western world. That democracy was originally concerned with freedoms and human rights is correct but whose freedoms? And one must look at which rights, in which country and against what particular conditions each struggle took place.

Looking at legitimate, democratically reached budget proposals in Australia, we see that democracy does not imply any sort of equality of human rights if this equality is not required by the majority of the voting public. Further, ICAC illustrates the means people will go to illegally to exercise what they feel should be their rights.

We are conned by our assumptions of freedoms. But what of our restrictions, by law and by tradition?

During the last NSW elections I decided to exercise my freedom not to vote. Of course this is a freedom we do not have by law. I had to go through the whole sorry court process coming into contact with some quite lovely people on route including the prosecutor and the Magistrate. But my and your freedom on this issue of voting in an inadequate democracy remains limited.

But very much more is silently limited by tradition. And this is nowhere more evident than in our views on education and class.

There is the tradition of class, and this was recently discussed so well by the eloquent Tim Winton in his recent essay in The Monthly, “Some Thoughts on Class in Australia (the C word)” that I can add no more.

Class in Australia can be somewhat altered by education. But access to education is not equal in Australia and it is, by the democratic process, becoming less equal.

This morning I awoke to read the passionate criticism in the Sydney Morning Herald of Noel Pearson by Paul Sheehan. I do not know Mr Pearson personally at all. I do know of him and admire that he is outspoken on behalf of Aboriginal people. Mr Sheehan condemns Mr Pearson as a “bully”. On close reading it appears that Mr Pearson stands accused of regularly becoming angry and swearing. And not only that, having the termerity to swear at (obviously terrified) groups of journalists, politicians and presumably their accompanying public servants. (Either I or Mr Sheehan overlooked any indication in this article that he swears at his fellow workers, underlings or people otherwise dependent on his good will.)

I am not a swearer. In my many years of life I have not found it necessary to swear. I am quite articulate and can speak for myself using other words. But I have often been sworn at in the years I was employed, and it hardly made a dint except for alerting me to the fact that the swearer was extremely upset about something. These are, after all, one set of words, where I would have used different words, perhaps to say much the same thing.

However, I must confess, my strongest temptations to swear have always been at journalists or politicians (and an occasional man of orders). I have never felt like swearing at a public servant.

The use of angry swear words is a little different from a studied, tailored, insult. Sometimes it is an indication of the language one has grown up with. Sometimes, as I expect in Mr Pearson’s case, it is to make a very strong point when he felt unheard.

But unlike a racial or sexual slur, discrimination which is targeted at a special group, swearing has been usually regarded much more as part of a democractic right to express oneself. Or is it? Is it just for the Pub? Does it depend on situations? Is it just when men are together? Is it only OK if no one is really angry? Does it mean we are not in the “ruling class” if we swear? Does it mean we are uneducated? Does it mean we do not fit the mould? If I say, “please begone immediately and get someone to indulge you in an activity of intimate congress”, is that going to be any better?

And the mould for democracy in Australia has become to be an educated, rich, entitled, male (if possible) person who has demonstrated the capacity and wish to put his shoulder to the wheel and make a quid and who admires and encourages only those who do. And who does not use coarse language! That is not a democracy that I want my grandchildren to think is their only choice. If the only way to be heard is to swear, and I am starting to think it is (I proved already that well phrased words on paper are not read) then there may be no alternative but to “go for it”.


About Anne Powles

I am retired from paid employment. During my working life I have been variously and sometimes contemporaneously, wife, mother of four, lawyer, teacher and psychologist. I have also been a serial education junkie. As are we all, I have been an observer of the world around me. Here I have recorded some of my memories, observations and theorisings.
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