How to dissent: Analysing three speeches in Australia

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It occurs to me that Australians, and perhaps members of other Western societies, do not know how to dissent. They’ve either never learnt or have forgotten. Instead, when they disagree with a position taken by a person or body in authority, they criticise, attack, blame. When not doing this openly, they do it covertly by taking up the role of victim. Casting oneself as the victim is not about being “weak” and fools nobody. It’s always about domination.

To dissent is to withdraw the assent one has implicitly or explicitly given to an “agreement”. We live in a network of agreements: legal, moral, societal, familial, personal. Many great leaders have used dissent as the means to create transformation including Gandhi and Martin Luther King. It is also the classic action used by every conscientious objector to war.

To dissent is simple and not easy. Hence, we do not see it everywhere, for it sorts out those who want to be courageous from those who are. It has this structure: it involves withdrawing one’s assent from position X and asserting position Y, and asserting it over and over again. It involves taking a stand for a new position; crucially, it eschews making the old position wrong.

There have been three speeches given in Australian politics in the last two years that show how to dissent and how not to dissent. Two were given by politicians, one by the Chief of Army.

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The first was given in October, 2012 by then Prime Minister, Julia Gillard. In it, she railed in parliament against the leader of the Opposition, Tony Abbott, and his supposed “misogyny”. The speech was lauded as a breakthrough for women, and for Ms Gillard in particular, and supposedly “went viral” around the world. I squirmed through every second of it.

What a monumental blunder! If she hadn’t already lost the support she so desperately needed, the speech finished off whatever hope she had. In one fell swoop, she made wrong a giant swathe of the Australian population. She attacked, criticised, blamed, cast herself in the role of victim, the whole shebang. She did not dissent.

The second was given this week by Greens Member of Parliament, Scott Ludlam. Like Ms Gillard, he attacked, criticised, blamed, and cast his state of WA in the role of victim. Again we were told the speech had “gone viral”, and again, despite appearances, he did not dissent.

The third was given in June, 2013 by Chief of Army, Lieutenant General David Morrison, AO, in response to allegations that members of the Army, including senior officers, had filmed themselves engaged in sexual acts with junior female members and had distributed the footage to other Army members.

This time there was no need for boosterism. Morrison’s speech was electrifying and 9 months later, has been viewed 1.4 million times on YouTube.

It’s useful to analyse what Morrison does differently to the politicians:

  1. The bulk of his speech is about asserting a new position: “If that does not suit you, then GET OUT … The standard you walk past is the standard you accept … It goes for all of us”. He does not focus on the old position. He raises it, expresses his disgust, and then puts it aside.
  2. He explicitly withdraws the assent of the organisation he speaks for – the Australian Army – from the agreement the behaviour of the offending officers might establish if it were to go unchallenged.
  3. He deals with what is so: ie, allegations of criminal misconduct. He does not make judgements, evaluations or stories about another person’s character or motives; he does not belittle or mock another.
  4. He listens his people and his audience as persons of integrity.
  5. He does not co-opt for himself, his organisation or any other person, the position of victim; he is impeccably overt and non-manipulative.

Consider that dissent is the one pathway to transformation. All else is force, and subject to entropy. The Lieutenant General knows how to dissent, and he does it. Watch and see for yourself.

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