In the backlash to ACTU Secretary Sally McManus’ comments on the 7.30 report, most commentators have grudgingly acknowledged that throughout history, it has been necessary and just to break the law to achieve positive change, and that indeed these instances are moments of immense cultural and historical pride.
The Eureka Stockade, the fight for Equal Pay, the protests against the war in Vietnam, the first Mardi Gras, Green bans, Apartheid boycotts, Wave Hill; all of these involved acts of civil disobedience, and defiance of bad laws. But even as commentators acknowledge this historical reality, they are quick to assert that we have “moved past” the days when laws had to be broken to achieve change.
How clever of us, the present generation, to be born at the exact peak of human history. How convenient it is that we will live our lives at the very moment that all injustice has been wiped from our society and our laws; that we have finally perfected social cohesion.
This view is perhaps best explained by the way historical protest movements are depicted in popular culture. In films and on TV there are “goodies” and “baddies” in social movements. The baddies hold extreme (racist, sexist, conservative) views, while the goodies see clearly the obvious injustice around them, and, after an appropriate period of hand-wringing, take unlawful (but in hindsight, quite reasonable measures) to fight oppression.
Hollywood films tell us that civil rights were won (and racism ended) when Rosa Parkes peacefully refused to sit at the back of a bus, that voting rights for women in the UK were won with largely peaceful rallies interrupted by a few moments of police brutality, and that Nelson Mandela and Gandhi won freedom from colonialism and racism with quiet resolve in opposition to black-hatted tormentors.
But the harsh reality of fighting for social progress is that your greatest opposition is not usually a single, British-accented oppressor, but a vast and unending landscape of apathetic bystanders who see no reason to upset the status quo. The kind of people who will concede, in a reasonable tone, that things were once bad, but that the time of great injustice is already in the past, and isn’t it time we just get on with our lives?
The reality of fighting injustice is being constantly lectured in the morality of your tactics by the majority of the population. The tide of public opinion begins as a trickle.
One of my favourite things to witness, as a union leader, is the transformation of everyday working people into “activists”. The look on their face gives it away – their concern and ambiguity melts away suddenly as they realise that the conflict between their values and their inaction can be resolved, simply, by taking action.
And despite the stoic staring into the middle-distance, there are moments of doubt for activists too. Not when being dragged from the picket-line, but when reassuring our mums and dads that yes, it is worth it, and yes, we are being careful. We don’t know the end of the movie yet; we don’t know for certain that history will vindicate all our actions. It’s challenging, it’s uncertain, and yes, at times chaotic.
So for the many thousands of people across Australia who have ever proudly called themselves activists, Sally McManus’ typically understated words that “if a law is unjust, I don’t have a problem with breaking it” was reassuring. At our helm we have someone who understands what it takes to make change. Indeed, her words mirror almost exactly Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s letter from Birmingham Jail: “One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”
Social activists are impressionist painters. We’re centimetres from the canvas, dabbing away at a picture of the world we can see in our mind but that looks, objectively, like a mess of paint obscured by sweat. A clear picture of the change we have won, and the injustice overcome, only becomes clear with time and distance.