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Simpson, Brian --- "Opinion" [2002] AltLawJl 62; (2002) 27(4) Alternative Law Journal 156

Don't fence me in

When the theme for this issue was being discussed we were in the midst of the debate about the 'children overboard' af­ fair, the outrageous allegations made against Justice Michael Kirby and community concern about how child sexual abuse was being handled by people in high (ecclesiastical) office. It seemed to us that in each of these instances the

'truth' seemed to matter less than 'belief', the demonization of difference and, at a crude level, pragmatic politics.

While we have at the same time witnessed a world which seems to be growing more and more frightened about the possibility of terrorist attacks the real problem may be the fear that it breeds. For it seems that much of the response to that fear has been to make it easier to label others as different, deviant or a terrorist. The result is that we are building a prison for ourselves, too scared to engage with the world around us. Too scared to face the 'truth'.

The fence is a powerful symbol of all this. John Howard's 'white picket fence' represents 'home' and all that is secure. Of course, this was only ever true for part of the population. For many homelessness, poverty or domestic violence turned that picket fence into a barrier which made it difficult for some to get in, or out, of that place.

The fence is thus a device which can protect privilege as well as contain difference. In Paris recently residents of a wealthy area erected a fence to keep residents of a nearby public housing estate from having access to their suburb. The justification on one side is that the poor have been causing disturbances which have undermined the 'way of life' of the affluent. But is the truth that each side of the fence represents difference and the fence marks the line where tolerance ends?

In Australia we have a long tradition of using the fence to keep out unwanted intruders. The dingo fence, the rabbit proof fence and the bilby fence are designed to protect native flora and fauna. But there is also the fence at Woomera and other detention centres, not to mention the fences we build around prisons, schools and even our own homes. Some of these fences may seem sensible to ensure that people serving prison terms remain inside for the duration of their sentence. But what is the point of fencing a suburban home other than as a symbol of ownership and control? Is the truth that calls for 'border protection' during the last election campaign would have had less resonance with the population if voters did not readily identify in their own lives with the need to mark the boundaries of privilege?

Perhaps many want clarity and certainty and that is where current calls for the 'truth' to come 'out' emanate from. Just as they may also want 'secure borders' in a world which is more and more insecure. As John Ralston Saul has written:

I've noticed that civilizations which are still attached to an animist reality have clearer access to memory as a permanent un­ certainty. Their reaction to great suffering is more sophisticated than ours within a Western tradition.

Think of how the aboriginals handle memory of what was done to them in Canada, the United States and Australasia. Or think again of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Com­ mission. There seems to be a clearer access to reality, which al­ lows people to both retain the memory and yet continue dealing with its repercussions over a longer period of time- what you might can a conceptual scheme within a context. Why is this? Again in both cases the approach resembles that of Vico. In place of the linear - fixed rigidly facing the future - there is a sense of circles and cycles. ·
John Ralston Saul, On Equilibrium,
Penguin, 2001, p.256

So perhaps we search for 'truth' because we cannot handle the uncertainty of the world around us. Just as we build fences to shield ourselves from difference. But the reality is that the uncertainty and the difference still exists. The challenge is to know how to celebrate it instead of fearing it.

Brian Simpson

Brian Simpson until recently taught Legal Studies at Flinders University. He now teaches law at Keele University in England.

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