License to privacy is not restricted to political leadership. Twenty years before marriage equality, political smears against a gay judge on Australia’s highest court resulted in “uproar” from the legal profession, our Senate and a society unwilling to validate a “culture of prejudice.” The Australian pop star Kylie Minogue had an affair with a very married Jean-Claude Van Damme, and Australians were more curious about his ballet routines for her butt.
There have been decades of conscious social destigmatization — of divorce, abortion, sex work, mental illness, sexual expression and addiction — in campaigns and legislation. Here, a leader admitting to private struggle is more likely to provoke the sudden appearance of a sympathetic documentary crew than any permanent loss of status. It takes publicly urinating into your own mouth or simulating sex acts with dogs to end a football career.
Our forgiving egalitarianism is something that more hierarchical societies may not grasp. Generations of migrants and refugees arrived here enthusiastic for sanctuary and opportunity. Combined, you get what the Australian intellectual Donald Horne described in his seminal 1964 book, “The Lucky Country”: an overwhelming cultural belief that “everyone has the right to a good time.”
When that “good time” is threatened by crime — sexual misconduct, say, or malfeasance — popular disinterest transforms into bloodthirsty public hunger for justice. Of late, exposed corruption ends a political career within a day.
So maybe the Chinese profilers are trying to build leverage over people by gathering evidence of criminality? If so, it’s worth reminding them that democracies like Australia create transparent systems of monitoring and accountability — and retain a free press — so we can root out criminals for ourselves. Whatever can be scraped and gathered by a Chinese company online can — should, must — be done by journalists and investigators with access to resources. Foreign agencies can’t manipulate criminals when communities maintain the tools to expose them.
If there’s a relaxed, how-to-deal tone in the Australian response to the Chinese profiling, it’s because weaponizing shame doesn’t work on the shameless. The data of secrets doesn’t work if everyone knows what they are. In a new world of “information war,” liberal democracies have built-in defenses to manipulation by authoritarian states.
Nonjudgmental social policy. An independent press. Transparent, rigorous systems of oversight. You know — the defining traditions of liberal democracy.
Van Badham (@vanbadham) is a columnist for The Guardian Australia.
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