Privilege, power, patriarchy: are these the reasons for the mess we’re in?

I can’t put my finger on exactly when I first learned I’m not in control. My certainty broke gradually: the first crack when my body went rigid with a seizure and I convulsed violently into nothingness on a red-eye flight to Beirut; another splintering when the doctors found a “mass” in my brain that afternoon; the edifice barely holding as my partner and I clung to each other all night in a skinny hospital bed, waiting for a prognosis of life or death.

Even then, as the sun rose the following morning and tears streamed down my face, the terror was strangely numinous, almost thrilling. This would be an aberration, a story to spice up a dinner party. My lifelong sense of certainty – a deeply habituated need for order and control – was fractured, but still intact.

But a few days later, the seizures began to roll. As soon as I closed my eyes to sleep my eyebrow would twitch, and my right eyeball would pinball rhythmically in its socket. I would feel my brain untether from my spinal cord and float into an unknowable black.

During those nocturnal seizures, when I’d try and fail to will my brain back into place, I learned what it was to be out of control. Not just in that moment, and not just in my body, but existentially. In that little apartment in Beirut, I began to realise just how delusional the notion of control actually was.

But gosh it’s nice to have an existential crisis when the world around you is basically sane. Back in 2012, Obama was in the White House, nobody had heard of Isis, and Lebanon – a country I’d made my home – was defying the doomsayers by remaining peaceful. In Australia, the Gillard government had introduced the carbon tax, and it looked like finally we would incentivise industries to slash carbon emissions.

The big cracks in that charade – the one that had many of us believing the world ran on a badly flawed but at least fathomable logic – appeared in 2016, as suddenly as my first seizure. Hours after American women lined up to place “I Voted” stickers at the grave of legendary suffragist Susan B Anthony, Donald Trump was elected, and instead of celebrating America’s first female president, I was surrounded by young white men in Maga hats at Sydney’s most prestigious university cheering triumphantly, “Grab ’em by the pussy!” There was the shock of Brexit – another crack. Syria’s president gassing his own citizens with impunity – crack. Diplomatic silence on the internment of Chinese Muslims – crack.

But the edifice of public control didn’t truly shatter for me until New Year’s Eve 2019, when thousands of terrified adults and kids huddled under a dark red sky on the beach at Mallacoota in coastal Victoria. “It’s fucking chaos,” said a man in ski goggles sitting on a boat just offshore. “I’ve never seen anything like it.” For people without a boat, there was nowhere to go – more than 4,000 people were trapped between the ocean and a gigantic encroaching fire, engorged by 80km winds. It was 49C at 8am. As the sirens sounded, they prepared to get in the water.

I wasn’t on the beach that day. Days before, my family and I had left Lake Conjola as smoke blotted out the sky, and headed south along a Princes Highway bisected by charred and smouldering trees to Bega for Christmas with our relatives. A week later we fled back to Sydney, escaping with our two-year-old over Brown Mountain hours before the road out was closed. As the news came in about Mallacoota, our family in Bega was sheltering friends whose houses were expected to burn. I was scared for them – for all of us. It was then that I felt something inside me break apart. The terror of that scene on the beach – set against the utter intransigence of our on-holidays prime minister – smashed that already fractured edifice of order for me. Huge tracts of country unstoppably ablaze. Human control would not – could not – reassert itself. The people trapped on the Mallacoota foreshore were saved that day by a change in the wind.

A child sits in a boat offshore from Mallacoota in coastal Victoria as a bushfire rages onshore on New Year’s Eve 2019. Photograph: Twitter/Allson Marion

Standing on the headland at Coogee Beach that New Year’s Eve, I did my best to mirror my little girl’s delight at her first sight of fireworks. But really I just wanted to run away. To disappear. To forget the sight of kangaroos caught in fences and to stop thinking about the billion animals killed by fire. To wait until Trump was voted out. To wait until climate change was magically solved. To take my little family somewhere far away, where the skies weren’t choked with smoke. To hide until it was all over.

But there’s no running from it. “It” won’t ever be over, because “it” is not just one thing. It is not the catastrophic fires of last summer (or the ones yet to come), it is not climate change, it is not racism and police brutality, it is not the ongoing epidemic of domestic abuse and sexual assault, it is not Trump or Brexit or Bolsonaro, and it is not the coronavirus – though all are emblematic of the mess we’re in. None of them are it – they are all branches from the same diseased tree, and the real problem is in the roots.

The roots are old – dating back around 12,000 years – but what grew out of them is not an inevitable feature of human evolution; in fact, it’s actually threatening our survival as a species. “It” is, in short, the shift we made from societies built on the principle of balance to what we have now: a dominant culture obsessed with “power-over” and control.

There’s a neat little term for this culture of power-over: patriarchy. It’s a word that used to make people wince, but since Trump and #MeToo, it’s been invoked with increasing regularity to explain the mess we’re in. Its underlying principles are control and separation (which are romanticised as “autonomy” and “independence”).

Patriarchy positions all people on a scale of entitlement to power and control: men have power over women, some men have power over other men, white people have power over people of colour, heterosexuals have power over LGBTQI, rich have power over poor, adults have power over children, all people have power over nature, and so on. Within this system, it is not individual men who have the most value, but men (and some women) who embody patriarchal traits of maleness: control, logic, strength, competitiveness, decisiveness, rationality, autonomy, self-sufficiency, heterosexuality (and – critically – whiteness). Men who don’t embody these traits are assigned less value, and may be persecuted, attacked and shamed. That is how patriarchy polices men’s allegiance: through shame, violence and fear.

We see the apotheosis of patriarchal behaviour in the most dangerous form of domestic abuse: coercive control. There’s a moment when a perpetrator’s campaign to assert power over his victim reaches a point of apparent success: his victim has come to understand that open resistance is futile, that her survival now depends on managing the perpetrator’s need to feel in total control. Survivors talk of splitting into the role they play to survive – often to protect children as well as themselves – and the part of them they keep hidden, the place where they maintain their dignity. The perpetrator may allow this, or he may press into the furthest reaches of her being to snuff out any trace of her dignity.

Here is patriarchy taken to its warped extreme: a system of control so committed that it is prepared to choke off its own need for connection rather than allow a shred of territory outside its control. This is why it’s so hard for regular people to understand domestic abuse – it’s deeply unnatural.

Jess Hill: ‘My ancestors introduced a particularly virulent strain of patriarchy to Australia, supercharged with misogyny and racism.’
Jess Hill: ‘My ancestors introduced a particularly virulent strain of patriarchy to Australia, supercharged with misogyny and racism.’ Photograph: Yaya Stempler

We are born longing for connection, for tenderness; to love and be loved. Patriarchy seeks to override those natural feelings in boys – to literally sever their capacities for emotional connection – by rendering those feelings weak and shameful. Even parents who consciously raise their sons to be compassionate and tender may see their boys shrink those parts of themselves in the face of social pressure and develop contempt for traits considered “female”. The reward boys are promised in exchange for betraying themselves is something else they learn when they are young: that they are entitled to power. But even those who benefit greatly from the power and privilege bestowed on them do not emerge unscathed.

If you have been socialised to believe patriarchal hierarchies are natural, you may feel entitled to the special privileges they grant you. You may also feel entitled to subjugate and harm what is positioned beneath you. Most people won’t think of it as entitlement, or privilege; it’s just what’s necessary to protect your interests. This is as true of men who feel entitled to coerce and degrade their partners as it is of a white woman calling the cops on a black birdwatcher who asked her to leash her dog as it is of political leaders who install oppressive systems of surveillance.

Heading into the summer of 2019, Australians couldn’t have imagined the deep and painful lesson we were about to receive on the limits of our patriarchal system, our obsession with control, and nature’s indifference to it. In just a few months we lurched from the explosive horror of unstoppable infernos to pause in the relative relief of flooding along the eastern seaboard before emerging into what is possibly the most diabolical foe for anyone who values power and control: an invisible and untreatable pathogen creeping across borders, into our cities, into our homes, and, most treacherously, into our imaginations.

It’s little wonder we’ve seen the digital cult of conspiracy theories expand so rapidly during Covid-19, and that this has been weaponised by entities that profit from chaos and distrust. I can understand the appeal; it must be comforting to believe this pandemic is a fake and “evil” ploy perpetuated by elites for global domination rather than a phenomenon that is beyond anyone’s control.

The response to Covid-19 has shown us we can make huge changes, politically and personally. How that change looks – whether it is bent towards greater authority or greater equality – is up for grabs right now.

Can we imagine replacing a system of power-over with power sharing? Or are we going to double down on patriarchy and march obediently towards environmental collapse, towards a state surveillance culture designed to keep its “enemies” at bay, towards deeper impoverishment for the masses while the super-rich hoard their money? Having lost control, do we really want to go back to how we were? If we don’t change now, then when?

During this uneasy pause – as an untreatable pathogen forces us to shelter in place – we actually have a chance to look beyond the hour-to-hour dramas that consume us. From one perspective, we can throw up our hands and say everything’s getting worse: more corrupt, more autocratic, more ignorant, more dangerous. That’s all true, but there’s another perspective that’s just as relevant: we are living through an accelerated period of resistance. From the dogged exposure of paedophile protection rackets within the Catholic church to Occupy Wall Street to the Arab Spring to #MeToo to the student climate strikers and Black Lives Matter, we are seeing enormous people-powered movements resisting and overturning the paradigms of power-over, of subjugation – of patriarchy.

The needle is moving fast: a few years ago, it was unimaginable that we would be having mainstream conversations about patriarchy, or that “radical” ideas like redirecting funds from the police to the community – a core demand of the Black Lives Matter movement – would be seriously discussed on our public broadcaster. Who could have predicted, before #MeToo, that we’d see one of Australia’s most esteemed judges – a position long considered untouchable – make headline news for his predatory behaviour? This is fast and furious change.

A Black Lives Matter rally in Melbourne in June.
A Black Lives Matter rally in Melbourne in June. Photograph: Speed Media/REX/Shutterstock

But this project to undo patriarchy cannot truly accelerate in Australia until we have an honest reckoning with our colonial past and present. My ancestors introduced a particularly virulent strain of patriarchy to Australia, supercharged with misogyny and racism, that tried to destroy cultures that had survived and thrived for at least 60,000 years on the exact opposite principles of patriarchy: principles of balance, of sustainability – of power-with, not power-over. These phenomenally successful cultures – in which men and women were emotionally embodied and interdependent, children were raised gently, laws were not bent to suit the powerful, and care for Country was indistinguishable from care for self and the group – were viewed by European colonisers as “savage”. That many Australians continue to see First Nations people and culture as inferior is a symptom of our ongoing cultural derangement.

The project to emancipate First Nations people is not just vital and overdue; it is linked to our own emancipation. When we tell the truth about our violent past and present – when we truly affirm that black lives matter – we are led closer to the ultimate reconciliation: one in which we come to terms with Indigenous brilliance, and accept that in many ways, the cultural practices of First Nations people are superior to our own.

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The Black Lives Matter movement in Australia offers all of us a second chance. Even the devastation of the fires is an opportunity to learn. Here we have the oldest continuous culture on the planet; people who have developed sustainable practices over countless millennia. “These catastrophic fires that have just happened has woken this country up,” says Indigenous fire practitioner Victor Steffensen, who is now teaching fire services how to properly burn country to protect it. “Start looking after the land. Look after your rivers, your water. Burn your country the right way. If we see this through the Indigenous lens, then climate change is an exciting time, an opportunity.”

The original Greek word for apocalypse – apokalypsis – does not mean “end times”. It means “to unveil”. This is the apocalypse we are living through: a process of unveiling and revealing. Patriarchy is not inevitable. It is not sustainable. If we are to survive and thrive as a species, we must first reveal it, and then undo it: in our systems, and in ourselves.

• This essay will be part of the anthology Fire, Flood and Plague, edited by Sophie Cunningham and published by Penguin Random House in December

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