A few days ago I drove with a friend from Sydney to Leura in NSW’s Blue Mountains. We were heading towards a meditation centre and on the way shared views about social justice and most especially peace activism. As long-time meditators, we were tossing ideas back and forth about how we can most effectively align political activity – sometimes driven by outrage – with personal peace of mind.
That conversation had begun around questioning the value of opinions: offering them and also learning from them. Then a day later on social media I came across a quote from Bill Bullard: “Opinion is really the lowest form of human knowledge. It requires no accountability, no understanding. The highest form of knowledge is empathy, for it requires us to suspend our egos and live in another’s world.”
Holding that vision of empathy in mind as a possible truth (and not itself another opinion), I woke to the news that our Government has decided to unveil a new “defence export strategy” to propel Australia into the big league of global weapons exporters. And to do so without reference to any election policy or public debate or, indeed, any acknowledgement of the millions of refugees already displaced by wars.
Oddly enough, on the Blue Mountains drive my friend and I had discussed the weapons industries and the influence they have on the global economy. Their power to affect, even to drive governments’ policies, is immense. It is also profoundly undemocratic. Governments keep a tight grip on media revelations. The weapons world is “secret men’s business” from which the public is definitely shut out. My best sleuthing efforts came nowhere near discovering what this industry is really worth or who profits most from it in the private sectors. No wonder they call it the “defence industry”.
What we can know is that these are industries that depend on actual and perceived enemies, a fairly hysterical narrative around “terror”, and a disturbing acceptance among the public – and much of the media – of the inevitability of conflict and war. We can also know that the Number 1 exporter of major arms is the USA, followed by Russia. It was easy, too, to discover that between 2001 and 2014, reported global military expenditure rose from US$1.14 trillion to US$1.711 trillion. This is a rise, according to Amnesty International, of 50 per cent in 13 years. In a world ruled by greed and highly vulnerable to corruption, where wars and war readiness is so sickeningly “profitable”, what chance does peace have?
“This strategy is about job creation,” Prime Minister Turnbull assures us. His colleague, Christopher Pyne, Minister for Defence Industry (in a cabinet without a Minister for Science), already presiding over a submarine project set to cost us $50 billion, suggests that “tens of thousands” of jobs could be involved. These are opinions only. When tested, those politicians may be long gone. In the halls of accountability, there is a permanent vacancy. But the issue here is anyway far less about job creation than it is about the ideological drivers that determine which sectors will be supported to create or sustain employment, and which will not. This is where a government has huge power. It’s also where it most accurately reveals itself.
Frankly, I do not want to live in an Australia where investment in mining is supported over investment in renewables. And I most certainly do not want to live in an Australia where the weapons industries – lacking accountability, transparency, moral or social value – are supported over …well, almost anything we can imagine. The scientists, doctors and teachers receiving our highest honours barely a week ago offered a vision of innovation, progress and community, pointing to many sectors in our country that produce jobs and with investment could produce and sustain more. In land and agricultural regeneration alone, as well as high-tech research and manufacturing, in the arts, in community development, health and education, investment would pay employment dividends while simultaneously vastly accelerating our precious, irreplaceable social capital.
We are global citizens – or should be. We live in a century when more people are displaced by war and violence than ever before in human history. Those people include the asylum seekers abandoned by our Government in overseas detention centres, or living without certainty in our communities. It’s not hard to conclude that the greater the investment wealthy nations have in their “gains” from defence exports, the greater the losses will be of homes, countries, safety, future, peace and life itself for the world’s most vulnerable.
It is indefensible for a country like ours to “export death and profit from bloodshed”, as World Vision CEO Tim Costello has expressed it. Empathy – not mere opinion or craven ideology – requires us not only to suspend our egos but also to liberate our creativity. Our decisions affect other people. More, they create our moral future. They affect us inwardly as well as outwardly. They give hope or snatch it away. Empathy tells us that this is inescapable.
If “job creation” truly is our Government’s investment motive, then let them choose honestly. In one direction lie jobs that serve unceasing war readiness, certain misery, displacement and death. In the other direction are industries that can, right now, innovate, sustain – and create a future in which we could all be proud. That’s not just a government’s choice. It is also ours.
Reverend Dr Stephanie Dowrick is a writer and social commentator. Her books include Forgiveness and Other Acts of Love and Seeking the Sacred. http://stephaniedowrick.com/