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Sticks and stones break bones but names will never harm me

Sticks, Stones Break Bones, But Odd Names May Jail You

‘Martyr’, with its connotations of death, is not really the word I want but I’m hoping the reader will understand me when I write that Brendon O’Connell has certainly achieved martyrdom. I have posted elsewhere that I believe a court-of-law has more in common with the Shakespearian stage than with any concept of justice that we might hold; that a court-of-law is a place where the dramatist can feel more at-home than the legal practitioner. The task always is to mix law and theatre in just the right proportions.

Much as I detest the television program – turning the sacred act of eating into a blood sport – Brendon would have been a huge success on Master Chef. His recipe would quickly be out-of-print, such would be the demand. In the language of Games Theory the ‘penalty was the payoff’; a lesser sentence might be interpreted as failure. The strategist within Brendon would not have suppressed a smile when the judge and the jury turned in Oscar-winning performances.

I hope that Brendon sees the term of incarceration as nothing more than a temporary interruption of his career. Brendon may even agree with me that we need our schools to instruct in ‘How to Survive and Thrive in Jail’. With so many spectacular instances of wrongful conviction and imprisonment such tuition would hardly be inappropriate.

If the reader thinks I am being far too conspiratorial in my portrayal of the judicial system I invite the reader to contemplate the surprising number of terrorist plots that were either detected very early in their gestation or were stillborn (explosive devices that ‘malfunctioned’). With so much ‘good’ police-work reliant on informants and confessions I have difficulty believing that our detection agencies are that astute. The simple explanation might be that the world is breeding incompetent terrorists. I note that a lot of terror-wrists would benefit from more work-experience in the game of cricket.

Enough of the subversive preamble. I’ll turn now to the vexing question of comparative sentences, dealing first with the topic of physical injuries sustained as the result of assault.

When it comes to the plight of the person two things are operative: the ability of humans to empathise, and what is termed ‘The Illusion of Central Tendency’. As far as we know only humans have the ability to empathise – that is, to imagine ourself occupying the body of another animal, usually another human. Their experience becomes our experience. They break an arm and instantly we can imagine our life as one-armed. Empathy is what makes torture work, and why some of us can become torturers. It is claimed that the Inquisitors had only to show Galileo Galilei the instruments of torture in order for him to recant his views. So when we hear or read of a hotel “glassing” incident we can almost feel the blood gushing from our own slashed face. We can hardly feel otherwise. That ability to empathise is in our genes, part of our social anthropology. Part of being truly human.

But it’s The Illusion of Central Tendency that interacts with empathy to produce such a potent combination. From the moment of birth each of us views the world looking outward from our central vantage point. Each of us is the centre of the universe, and the world revolves about each of us. My imaginary broken arm becomes the reason I will not be able to drive, I will not be able to shake hands comfortably, and I will not be able to masturbate effectively. Notice how the focus is on what *I* will not be able to do, on how a calamity might affect *my* lifestyle. Paradoxically, with the possible exception of friends and relatives, the rest of the world couldn’t care less. They may even censor me for being careless! But the overwhelming sense of dread is that I, the Centre of the Universe, could be facing annihilation. Who will care for my spouse, my computer, and my chooks? It really is ‘Woe is Me!’ Little wonder, then, that this extreme personalisation should prompt calls for severe penalties for the perpetrator.

It is this ‘me-ism’ that I believe Mister Murray seeks to exploit; the plight of the personal. I don’t have any serious quarrel with that. That’s his job, as part of the commercial media. Just as it’s the job of news teams to hover their helicopter over burning houses and, inadvertently I hope, display a bit of schadenfreude.

Where we go wrong, I believe, is in placing our personal plight at one end of a continuum of severity. Nothing can be worse than what happens to each of us personally. In today’s world of individualism that outlook is perfectly understandable. Anything that does not physically impair us must therefore be of lesser severity and can be mapped toward the more tolerant end of our continuum, demonstrating that “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but names will never hurt me”. But that is NOT what judge and jury did in Brendon’s case. So what happened?

The first thing to strike me about the sentence imposed on Brendon was the lack of comparative cases. That bothered me a lot, as I’m a keen advocate of comparative studies – comparative religion, comparative habitats, etc. What might have been the sentence had the alleged target of vilification been an Australian Aborigine, a devout Muslim, an un-wed mother, or a lesbian? When I was employed as a public servant any attempt to achieve a higher salary inevitably degenerated into a dogfight to justify anybody’s salary in relation to all other salaries. But what happens when there is no object against which to make a rational comparison? The further I went into Brendon’s case the more I felt like the pilot who loses all visual reference and must rely on his instruments. But who calibrated those instruments, and what standards did they use?

One thing in aviation that will do you no good whatever is the altitude you put *above* the aircraft. Easing the Mooney’s nose upward I put ten thousand feet beneath me. It was like re-visiting 1986, when four from the Royal Aero Club flew a light aircraft across the Nullarbor to beat the great pilot strike of that year. Unbroken blackness below, clear mountain-free air ahead. There was time in which to think.

It did occur to me that my decision to climb was mimicking the trial judge opting for the “severe” – meaning higher – sentence. I have yet to decide on the significance of that parallel.

Had the trial judge been reaffirming a belief that the pen is mightier than the sword? Or, to put it in the context of the current discussion, a belief that the mouth is mightier than the mace? Possibly, but were Brendon’s utterances sufficiently widely known as to do the equivalent of bringing the crowds into Tahrir Square?

Or was it the bogeyman of all political parties, that ‘disunity is death’? I recalled the hypothetical example of my long-ago psychology lecturer, in which a misguided malcontent stood at the back of a Nuremberg rally and shouted (in German) ‘Hitler is a bum!’ He could equally well have embarrassed the fuhrer by seducing his mistress. He chose instead to balloon his discontent into the highly risky and less pleasurable tactic of fomenting disunity amongst the idolising masses. As my lecturer declared, he probably deserved to be shot with a ball of his own excreta. Was Brendon trying to disunite anybody? I couldn’t see it.

I thought of Ray Montgomery. Ray and I had been classmates in a higher education course at the then Western Australian Institute of Technology. Ray was also a successful – and highly controversial – umpire for the Western Australian Football League. Through many a long coffee break we had been enthralled by Ray’s stories of vilification he’d faced, both on and off the football field. And that was in the days when considerate patrons would throw empty, rather than full, bottles, and before cunning players realised they each had a blindspot which accounted for colliding with an umpire they ‘had not seen’. By today’s standards of sensitivity Ray could have made Perth the litigation capital of the world. But as far as I’m aware the taunts he suffered never motivated him to file a lawsuit.

Then it burst in on me, like the strobelight of a distant aircraft. It explained why Ray was never daunted by disparaging remarks. For Ray had managed to avoid what might be called ‘congenital victimitis’. A symptom of that disease appears to be a greatly enhanced sensitivity to criticism. Your senses become tuned to the slightest hint that somebody may be challenging the authenticity of your victimitis. The single voice must be attacked, lest it become a crescendo. Brendon was that lone voice.

It has occurred to me while I’ve been writing this that I have never heard the expression ‘pro-Semitic’. Semitism – or less-ambiguously Jewishness – seems to be synonymous with being the victim. I can appreciate the good historical reasons for that. But the scene turned sinister when the world decided – or was persuaded – to legitimise that victimhood. Israel could claim the right to exist but Palestine had no right to resist. Israel holds the world record for defying United Nations resolutions, with the United States of America always ready to improve that record. Countries make laws against denying the (Jewish) Holocaust, yet every four years scramble to participate in that most potent symbol of Nazism, the Olympic Torch Relay. The relay did not exist in the ancient Olympics but was introduced by Carl Diem in 1936 to promote Nazi ideology.

Getting the world to accept the legitimacy of Jewish victimhood was a huge triumph, albeit most likely a completely accidental victory. The world woke up one day and discovered that “victim rights” had no counterpart in “victim wrongs”. It was that discovery that enabled the trial judge’s Pavlovian response to “anti-Semitism” and that enabled Mister Paul Murray to transform an attempted expose of Israel into a battle for freedom of speech. As I have stated, I have no serious quarrel with Mister Murray’s article. He must produce what his employers can sell – or else seek employment elsewhere. We can hardly expect Mister Murray to educate us when doing so would be contrary to his financial interests. Only we can decide who to follow. But when a man is put away on the basis of a whim that has no foundation in comparative justice then we must suspect that the decision will not be an easy one.

It’s taken a lot of words for me to arrive at what must be blindingly obvious to any pro-Brendon reader. Where I’ve used dramatic metaphor it is because I believe that nothing great is achieved without enthusiasm. And there is no truer hallmark of enthusiasm than imagination. I have explored the readiness with which we identify with victims of physical assault and how our reactions to such assaults are both unambiguous and deeply rooted in our culture. I hope I have shown how Brendon’s “crime” does not belong on the same continuum as physical assault. What Brendon did was to tweak those most intangible things we call “attitudes” and “beliefs” and anybody who does that is risking an unpredictable outcome. But despite all the uncertainties and all the paradoxes I remain convinced that Brendon O’Connell engineered events to ensure that he got the last laugh. Goodonya, mate!

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