The Real Danger in Extremist Polemic

Do you think that  allowing same sex marriage would usher bigamy and bestiality into our society? I don’t, but should it matter that someone else does – and receives a great amount of media coverage while stating their beliefs?

I recently mentioned Cory Bernardi, in the context of bringing some friends returning from overseas up-to-date with Australian current affairs. Bernardi is a member of the upper house of Australian Federal Parliament, a Senator representing South Australia. You can read about Bernardi’s views on his website, stamped with the slogan “common sense lives here” – common sense, that is, if you believe, for example, that “non-traditional” families raise more promiscuous and criminally inclined children; that wages are excessive, and that the fact that Australia’s government is secular (i.e. non-Christian) is responsible for our nation’s woes.

Today I want to share and expand upon the ideas put forward by Andrew Porter in his excellent article “The real danger in Cory Bernardi’s comments‘” which appeared on the ABC website on 7 January, 2014.

As Porter remarks, Bernardi’s comments linking same sex unions with bestiality and bigamy were not only “undoubtedly one of the most profoundly offensive contributions we’ve heard from a politician in living memory” but also alienated him from other conservative thinkers:

This was a bridge too far for some of his usual fellow-travellers, who range from the IPA to the always entertaining Australian Liberal Students Federation (who revel in being more idelogically “pure” than their Young Liberal friends) among whom Bernardi’s views on throwing off the yoke of the state earn him that most hallowed of Tory sobriquets, “sound”.

However, as Porter says, the real danger he poses is that “he shifts the goalposts on what we consider outrageous, and by extension, what we consider acceptable or unacceptable”.

Why am I writing about this in a blog usually dedicated to mental health? I believe that we need to be on our guard against such goalpost-shifting statements about mental health, both in the media and in our own discourse.

We, the mental health community, need to keep a weather eye on the way mental health issues are depicted online, on screen and in print. For example, if we watch a movie in which a person who is mentally unwell is demonized, let’s blog about it – share what we think was accurate in the film, and where we think it went astray. I heard some commentary about the movie “Shine” on Melbourne’s ABC 774 radio station along these lines this morning, which was wonderful.

We also need to take care when speaking about mental health ourselves. Now, I know many of us blog for therapeutic purposes – I’m part of that community! – and obviously I’m not speaking about when we are expressing our feelings, working through an issue, or sharing our experience of a crisis. However, when we are commentating on mental health, I believe we need to ensure we’re neither minimizing nor demonizing the realities we’re dealing with. We don’t want to become part of the stigmatizing machine; we want to be part of the cure, part of the reality check which will help others take mental health seriously.

Returning to Cory Bernardi: as you may have guessed, I’m not a fan. I believe his opinions are outlandish, dangerous, and do not have a solid basis in reality. Along with Porter, I believe that there is some danger in extremist polemic of that ilk. But do I believe he should be sanctioned for what he says? No. If there’s anything worse than a crazed conservative social commentator, it’s a martyred  crazed conservative social commentator.

What I do think is that faced with such extreme opinions, the rest of us need to speak loudly to counteract his influence, so that such views can be seen for what they are – so far beyond the goalpost of what is acceptable that they can be discounted.


Filed under Out, Up

2 responses to “The Real Danger in Extremist Polemic

  1. Fully in agreeance on this. When what is utterly outrageous becomes commonplace, whether we want to or not we have an easier time accepting it’s existence in that state.
    This is how we shift in positive directions, but equally it is also how we can shift backwards sliding away from human rights.

    This is how we go from employers supposedly just wanting to offer their salaried employees the option to work more than 5 days a week, to a point where people working 6 days or more becomes normal.

    I’ve never understood what people found so horrible about polyamory. or even swinging.
    As long as it’s between consenting adults, I’m all for people experiencing love and sex however they see fit.
    (Speaking as a totally monogamous person myself.)


    • It’s such a slippery slope, isn’t it, the slow swing away from human rights I’m seeing across a few nations right now? Apparently Australians, on average, work among the longest hours in the world – which is a far cry from our laid-back national image! But it’s not only expected, it’s almost necessary, if people aspire to a certain lifestyle (refer back to your post of a few days ago!). And it’s a shame, because the lifestyle they aspire to might not be all that excessive – just what would have been considered “comfortable” half a generation ago.


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