By Chris Allen, Perth.

It was once fashionable to say Australians had a ‘tall poppy syndrome’ – that we undermine our best out of envy.   But it seems Australia does worse, because our community sometimes whips itself into in a storm of self-righteousness that shatters lives and sometimes totally destroys a victim.

We saw one of the worst examples when certain media figures triggered a rolling attack on a Governor-General, based on a thin claim that, years before, he mishandled a subordinate’s sexual misconduct.  That case showed all the features of the Australian lynch-mob; an ‘investigative’ media article contrives to create an air of impropriety, and others pile on to condemn the supposed actions without any chance of a fair hearing.  That Governor General was driven from office, his reputation unfairly smirched. There are too many cases – like past media firestorms against a prominent historian or a politician from a chip shop- that are dreadful embarrassments to the fair go. The ongoing moral crusade against paedophiles has just resulted in another dreadful suicide.

It is time to call vicious, undeserved prejudice for what it is.  In his opinion piece of 20 October 2007, the SA Director of Public Prosecutions tried to whip up this nasty emotionalism against his neighbours.  He heaps a storm of abusive language on his targets, he contrasts them with saintly police, doctors, mothers and children; he rhetorically joins his targets to ‘men of violence’. 

But this public official attacked the good and the just. The people he canonizes – parents, children, doctors, policemen – they include many of his fantasy’d ‘invective’-‘howling’ ‘part-time gunslingers’ ‘devoid of intellectual honesty and integrity’.   The decent Australian he heaps up contempt for, is denied his or her good reputation by the South Australian DPP. Worse, this is not isolated but reinforces wrong but widely-held views.

From 1996 on, these decent people got three years of media contempt, legal sanction and gratuitous denigration by institutions and individual Australians, and could not defend themselves.

Prejudice is rooted in two aspects of human nature.  The first is ‘projection’, where people assign evils (including their own) to groups seen as ‘outside’, and good (even undeserved) to their own ‘side’.  Human bodies deliver a rush of delicious brain chemicals when we attack the ‘other side’ - a psychoactive reinforcement of aggression. The reward comes whether or not you are just or truthful.  The more emotion, the better the reward for activists of every stripe.

The second is a ‘moral status auction’, where people feel they need to show they are ‘the right kind of people’ by bidding their opinions.  This is what is happening whenever political correctness exceeds the normal demands of courtesy.  This starts with nice people expressing their concern about a moral wrong, but quickly escalates in a vicious cycle of posturing.  One result is manifestly over-the-top laws like America’s past Prohibition; the phenomenon was also one of the roots of the White Australia Policy.

Now our dulcet-toned DPP seems to be all offended because he made a grandstanding bid on a moral status auction that isn’t taking bids at present.  When Reverend Tim Costello wrote a similarly intemperate screed in 1996, he was focusing a tsunami of public sentiment; but it seems this DPP has made his fancy play to an empty grandstand.