Friday, September 27, 2013

Living as the default

That article by Julian Burnside really triggered some light bulbs for me. Not so much the stuff about asylum seekers - that's no surprise - but the stuff about alienation and not feeling heard.
But there are many people in our society who have, at least in their own minds, disappeared. ... The more they complain, the more they are ignored; the more they are ignored, the louder they complain.
Burnside talks about people in specific circumstances feeling like they are not heard, but the interwebs are full of middle class white men (and women) yelling loudly, behaving very much like the people Burnside describes as having mental health issues, or problems not recognised by the law. However, the MRA people, the "Fuck off we're full" people, and many of the other "What about me???" folks don't have mental health issues or specific circumstances of the type Burnside describes. I think they may be suffering from living life as the default.

As a white middle class straight man, the standard discourse is about you. However, since you are the default, it doesn't mention you explicitly. Most of the voices you hear, day in day out, represent you. But since you hear them day in day out, you don't hear them at all any more. This is also true for white middle class women like me, on issues other than women's issues (and even then - women's issues are framed largely from my perspective).

As the default, you are defined by what you're not. You don't belong to any interesting culture (because you are surrounded by your culture - it's forced down everyone's throats, but you just don't see it). You're not gay (or bi, or trans*, or queer). You're not disabled. You're not a woman. All those people get a mention all the time. "Indigenous councils", "gay minister", "female politician", "disability advocates". Unless you are taught to see it, it never occurs to you that "marriage" means "straight marriage", that "politician" means "male politician", that "social values" means "white social values", that "employee" means "able bodied employee". Because you are the default. When no descriptor is added, we assume white, male, straight, cis, able bodied (and probably some other things too).

The strange result is that people whose voices are heard the most feel like they are not heard at all. I've felt it, and it's taken me years to recognise the bullshit that it is. The insight I gained from Burnside's article is the deep psychological effects of feeling unheard. Even though it's complete nonsense, the sense of feeling unheard is real. Part of the discourse needs to be to help people see how they are already heard (by other members of the default - this is not the job of the already unheard). To see the default they are soaking in. To say "Yes, you are being heard. Stop and listen, your voice is everywhere. It's not that your voice is invalid, or irrelevant, it's just that it's saturated the market." I've spent a lot of time dismissing people who yell like this, but that's only reinforcing their feelings of being unheard. I think perhaps I need to put more energy into listening to people, and showing them how much they are already heard. To help them see their visibility (as well as acknowledging any ways they, personally, might genuinely be invisible).

A large part of the reason this blog has been so neglected lately is that I've spent far more time online listening to other voices. A lot of what I've been interested in has been about race and LGBTQI issues (for no particular reason, it's just been where my readings have taken me), and I don't have much to say on most of it - it's all said much better by the people affected by the way the default treats them. It's frustrating to watch them being shouted down, and I don't mean this post to be some kind of apologetic to absolve those living as the default. There's still no excuse for not recognising the advantages you have in this world. However, it gives me a different way of thinking about approaching those people (of whom I have often been one), and I think that's helpful.


  1. Interesting post, Ariane. I've been neglecting blogging in favour of reading elsewhere too, lately. I like this way of thinking about engaging those feeling unheard while living as the default.

  2. Thanks TT. I read that article right after having a conversation about asylum seekers in which I completely dismissed someone in exactly that way. I very much suspect that was entirely the wrong thing to do.