It’s about control; It’s about consent

December 7, 2014 § Leave a comment

It’s about control; it’s about consent.

About which latest (social) media scandal am I talking? Well, without being too reductionist, you can pretty much take your pick. For these two ideas, control and consent, currently characterize most debates on contemporary issues.

These two notions are at the crux of cornerstone questions people must be asking themselves when engaging in topics as far flung as feminism, animal rights, cultural or economic divides and queer politics. The two questions that need to be asked are: is someone controlling someone else? And, has this person consented to being controlled?

Inevitably, at the heart of almost any interaction, there lies an element of control; society functions as a series of power relationships, fluid and nuanced though they may be. Whether existing as familial relationships, romantic relationships, professional relationships or social ones, we all navigate these dynamics throughout the course of our everyday lives.

This is not a ‘problem’, but rather a necessity. An employee consents to being controlled by an organisation (and therefore his or her superiors) through a negotiated contract, with the added bonus of enshrined rights as established by law. A romantic partner consents to certain conditions on the relationship until the point the agreement no longer works and they split. As unromantic as that might seem, we all make concessions. So, wherein lies the problem?

When individuals do not, or cannot see or understand their own autonomy and feel coerced into being subjugated to another, there is no willing consent. The fact of the matter is that we do not know what is best for other people, even though at times we may feel as though we do. In fact, even if we do know what is ‘right’, it is not our place to force anyone to do, be or say anything they don’t want to do, be or say.

Of course there are exceptions to this and these agreed upon rules and regulations should be decided and debated by the public, within social, legal and governmental systems. This is not a treatise for the ubermensch. Nevertheless, we must ask ourselves questions about control and consent whenever engaging in public discussions, whether targeted at someone or not, and especially in implementing actions.

Take, for my first example, the Melbourne Cup. The arguments in favour of racing animals – when we ignore the erroneous commentary on industry, enjoyment, tradition and so on – comes down to ‘the animals like it’. The logic goes that if the animals did not want to race then they would not. Disregarding the obvious, which is that horses are trained and conditioned to race, thereby removing any modicum of what is natural about their life, we actually have no empirical way to ascertain if the horses consent or not. Therefore, we cannot impose our control over them. Any argument to the contrary belies a conviction that we somehow have the right to make these animals race, sometimes until their death.

My second example revolves around feminism and equality. This one is really very simple: don’t tell people what to do. And, it isn’t always about you. When someone makes a statement pertaining to privilege, it is not necessary to defend your entire sex, as we learned in the #notallmen saga. Even within the feminist movement there are disagreements and discrepancies, as we learned in relation to race. Some people are born with privilege and moving forward is not about defending yourself as an individual, it is about recognising how lucky you are and empowering other people to help themselves. The only reason to combat someone about a gender issue is to try and maintain control over him or her. And that is not an argument in favour of men’s rights, which are only established in order to retain power.

The third example is queer rights. The issue of gay marriage seems like a nonissue to me, however, for many it represents an incredibly important milestone to achieve. And it is not my place to tell these people that they are wrong. It is not society’s job to deny people this practice. The argument that gay marriage will force certain groups to perform rituals that they are not comfortable with is misguided. Every member of society submits his or herself to regulations and when a minority, in this case the queer community, wants to receive the same treatment as the majority, in this case dominant religious groups, the only real antagonism comes from the majority’s fear of losing control. Relinquish control and afford the minority the ability to consent: I do.

My final example revolves around indigenous Australians. Since settlement, that most defining event in our country’s history, when there was nothing but bush, we have declared that we know best: we being the colonisers, the majority. Operating from the point of view that we are infallible in our progress, we have continued to inflict solutions on, what is now, an intricate web of problems. By imposing these so-called solutions we continue to position ourselves in the seat of power, in control, over a population that has not consented to our actions. Instead, in order to truly move forward, we must recognise our position and empower those we perceive to be less fortunate than ourselves in whatever ways they deem necessary.

Naturally, there are exceptions, and we can debate subtleties; however, I maintain that these exceptions are often ones that prove the rule. Broadly speaking these debates can be understood in terms of control and consent. It should not be our place to defend our privilege for doing so exposes our desire to remain in control. And it is a control often imposed on others without their consent.

Instead, we need to listen, empower and change together. There are no quick-fix solutions to inequality; however, continuing to assert power over one another simply continues to perpetuate the inherent problems within the system. By understanding, educating and adapting, various groups in society can work together, strengthened by their differences, not oppressed by them.

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