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December 3, 2021

Mandy Nolan’s Soapbox: Coming out of the Cave

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How do we rescue democracy? Perhaps the answer is in the story of the soccer team trapped in a cave.

‘It’s about generosity’.

That was the most surprising line from Rescue – the documentary about the 12 boys and their coach from the Wild Boar soccer team who were trapped deep in an underwater cave in Thailand. That was the coach’s reflection on what it took to save the boys everyone thought were lost forever. Not just bravery, not just expertise, but generosity. It was how the impossible was made possible.

It’s an unbelievable story. It was 2018, and in this crisis we witnessed the best that the world can be. We all watched in nervous anticipation as cave diving hobbyists from around the world became experts in a rescue never before attempted. It showed the power of collaboration for a higher purpose. It showed true courage; of the men who risked their lives in the complex underground maze of caves, of the boys who maintained the most incredible calm, and of the parents who never gave up hope.

Their coach took them through daily meditation.

Their mindfulness practice clearly saved them in this dire circumstance. They endured the unendurable, and they were 13 and 14 year old kids. One little boy was only 11. Their coach was just 25 – still a boy himself. It showed that we are better when we collaborate. This is the best of our humanity. It shows what we will do to care for the vulnerable.

Just over six months later, Covid hits. And suddenly we are all in a cave. Except this time we forget mindfulness, we forget collaboration. We forget generosity. We are not coming out.

We’ve lost our middle ground. The chasm that separates belief is getting wider. We stand on two sides of the river, with little or no compassion or understanding for who is on the other side. I say this from my side. I am one of the doubly vaccinated. Many of my friends who are not, stand on the other side. We don’t talk. We judge each other’s value based on our position. 

I am a very public leftie activist who, this time, has accepted the public health response as the best way forward. There are many who have never engaged in activism who are raising their fist in anti-government defiance for the first time. The extreme right wing celebrates the collapse of the narrative – where the left becomes the right and the right the left. They always wanted this. This polarisation that brings out the worst in our humanity. Divide and conquer.

We used to be able to live with our difference. Now it polarises us. Our choices come with an ideology that pushes us into unexpected conflict. It makes us ‘Other’ each other. It makes us two tribes instead of one. Perhaps the greatest threat of Covid is not the illness itself, but the separation. The loss of our middle; the place where we once could lay our picnic blankets and share food. The place where we danced together; different but united. The place where we found justice, and fairness, by caring for each other. The middle ground is a lonely place right now. 

Middle ground is the place of compromise. Compromise is essential to democracy because it puts the individual first but at the same time it ensures each individual is equal to all others. Few issues have two distinct sides. But this one does. Its binary nature means there is no grey. You will vaccinate or you won’t. There are no half measures. There is anger. There is choice. There is consequence. There is growing extremism. 

Democracy gives us upward control, political equality and social norms by which individuals and institutions are only considered acceptable when they reflect the first two principles; of upward control and political equality. So, very simply that means we expect good and just governance by the elected officials, who are chosen by the people to represent and unite their diverse beliefs and circumstance. That is the ethos that underwrites our process. 

It’s a bit like trying to take 20 million people to the cinema. You won’t get consensus on one movie, so you have to make sure there are a selection of movies playing. Unfortunately, right now we only have one film screening: Covid Canyon. And not everyone wants to go.

Australian democracy upholds faith in majority rule while at the same time provides an insistence on minority rights with an acceptance of the necessity of compromise. So how do we do this better?

We are in Aporia. That is the Greek term for a logical paradox – the impasse, that is the logical struggle where neither side is capable of winning or giving in. We are in a cave. What happens next is important. It is possibly the most important act of managing democratic consensus we will see in most of our lifetimes.

So how do we come out? How do we rescue democracy?

Perhaps the answer is in the story of the soccer team trapped in a cave.

The answer is collaboration. The answer is not violence or anger, it is generosity.

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  1. Nice one Mandy.

    Perhaps our democracy is diluted when large political donations are allowed,
    Perhaps ours voices get ignored when those in power allow their own greed and interests to have priority .
    Perhaps our perceptions get twisted by facebook’s algorithms of amplification so WE can no longer compromise or see from others positions.
    Perhaps we live in an age of hopeless tribalism ?

    Or just maybe we are passing through an inflection in human history where we will
    ( once we realise how miserable antisocial media has made us and our kids ) ) discard the online fractured world that more often than not dulls the uplifting wonderful human qualities…. generosity of spirit , kindness and compassion.

  2. Spot on , Mandy. Well said Sujay. The whole world is in on this because it’s what happens
    when just ‘one person’ has a go at walking on water. So much is un-doable with the loss
    of ‘control’ – just look at most of our parliamentary defenders. Time will tell. I do hope
    those fixated with power / right or left / beggar to thief understand how the ‘ending’
    belongs to them.

  3. As a non vaxed teacher, I would just like to go back to work. Simple as that. The right to work and to choose for my own body what I think is best.

  4. A neighbor asked what was meant by those not given a choice ‘to work’. Simply put…
    there’s no such option for the dead. ‘Death has no dimension’.


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