Adrian Glamorgan. West Australian Regional Meeting.
Early Friends saw a commitment to truth and integrity as a necessary sacrifice: relinquishing the old dependence on a priest; rejecting material self-interest and strutting pride; seeking through experimental/experiential processes the deeper wisdom linked to God’s will, then submission in that direction. It meant effort: offering a fair price, fulfilling commitments, being open to an uncommon way forward. The testimony for truth and integrity shaped Quakers every bit as much as Friends’ recognition of peace, equality and community. What call is there in us today?
In a postmodern, post-Grand Narrative era, with multiple viewpoints, and celebrity excess, a humble commitment to Truth and Integrity might seem philosophically old-fashioned and politically irrelevant. However, the general crisis in public confidence in government and politics; the ample evidence of social and environmental irresponsibility by corporations; the destructive amorality of the market; and the elevation of material self-interest as sufficient justification, arguably makes it timely for Quakers to publicly advocate for stronger standards of truth and integrity in public life.
On SBS-ONE tv’s August 2012 special of Insight, hard-rock singer-songwriter “Angry” Anderson of Rose Tattoo, explained that he had spoken more strongly against “boat people” in order to “get the gig” in the second series of the docu-reality show Go Back to Where You Came From. His words at the commencement of that series were raw: “If you come here illegally, I don’t care about your story, first thing you do is you turn around and go back.”
But then something happened. After experiencing the extreme dangers of Kabul, Afghanistan, the performer said, “Now I’ve been here and spoken to people, I don’t want to turn away refugees, I don’t want to turn away people who need to be reunited with their families.” His emotions trembled close to the surface. “I don’t want that. Who would want that? I don’t want people to go on suffering needlessly, when we can give them somewhere safe to be. But I don’t want them to come to Australia in boats.”
Angry Anderson’s direct experience of people, hearing their real life stories, was transformational. His experiment with truth left Angry Anderson visibly less angry. The closeness to the experience and stories makes change of heart possible. He could no longer easily dismiss refugees as “other”.
Speaking truth in our daily practice involves cultivating a kind of conscious innocence or receptivity; a mildness to be developed daily. This discernment is free of any appetite for being right; neither is it swayed by the fear or sting of being found wrong. It has to be prepared to empty itself, before it can fathom what needs to be said.
Peter Reith also featured in the SBS series. During the 2001 “Tampa election”, Reith made unsubstantiated claims that children were being thrown overboard by asylum seekers. Despite being promptly corrected by Admiral Chris Barrie, Reith did not amend the public record for four more weeks during the election campaign. The select Senate committee majority subsequently found “Mr. Reith deceived the Australian people.” Nonetheless, Tampa changed the Australian psyche. From that time public attitudes to refugees became widely and more visibly hostile to asylum seekers; the re-elected government could be far more punitive in its policies; and noble international law seemed less than than sacrosanct.
If you view the SBS series, you will see evidence that the former Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party is a caring man, affected by the terror and awfulness of what he witnesses in Afghanistan. But for Reith, news of so many of these Nauru refugees being killed upon return and others left in mortal danger just highlights that “mistakes” will happen. Stories and experiences do not shift every heart. In the week of publicity, Reith called the children overboard event “a minor incident, long finished” and “a small thing.”
Smart Machiavellian politics may have short term gains in the polls, but long term it appears to be undermining people’s trust in democracy. Just as corruption on high trickles down, so too the steady spin, self-deception and hyper-criticism of oppositions and governments risks undermining trust in the system altogether. A 2012 Lowy Institute Poll found that only 60% of Australians say democracy is preferable to any other kind of government, and only 39% of 18 to 29 year olds. What are we to make of the Leader of the Opposition who in May 2010 told Australians not to believe everything he says? Only his written-down, carefully scripted words in speeches or policy could be relied on, not statements made in the “heat of discussion” or in response to questions at press conferences. Is this a path to what Quakers once esteemed as “peaceable government”?
As Friends we may be drawn into debates about refugees, or Guantanamo Bay. We might be affronted by a company trying to patent a Papuan New Guinean’s gene sequence. We might raise the alarm that uranium mined in Australia has now contaminated Fukushima prefecture and rendered large areas uninhabitable and un-farmable. These are all humanitarian or environmental matters. They are worth campaigning for.
But in such cases we are usually lending our support to those with the technical expertise. On this matter of crisis of integrity, Quakers could consider risking being the “lead witness” for honesty in public and private life: shining light on the prospects this has for developing character, discovering deeper personal meaning individually, and rebuilding community and trust in our leaders.
If not us, then whom?