This Tuesday Australia was again witness to the “race that stops a nation” – the annual Melbourne Cup. Amid the gaudy headpieces, peacocking men and drunken stumbling, another common tragedy struck: two of the horses died, one in its stall from a heart attack after the race, and the other put down for a broken leg after being spooked by the crowd. While horses often die because of racing (or are put down when they are no longer winning) this year’s events seemed to strike a chord with people, and there was an outpouring of grief on both social media and a huge amount of coverage in the press. This was not without backlash – some people reacted by highlighting the other human tragedies that happen every day, arguing with people along the lines of “why should we care about two racehorses when there are so many other things to worry about”. Indeed on the same day – and getting very little news coverage – it was reported that an Iranian refugee sent to the island nation of Nauru by the Australian Government, was stoned and then beaten, as tensions on the island escalated between locals and the refugees being forced to stay there.
But with horror happening all around us, what are we to do? Can we really ask people to stop caring about horses being tortured while refugees are too, as if caring about one thing is a callous distraction? I thought about this for some time.
I decided that it is a bit of a dick move to call people out for caring about another creature’s pain. What the outpouring of grief for the racehorses says to me is that people are capable of a great deal of compassion and that caring about one thing is not mutually exclusive to another. What we may even be seeing is a critical point where people are actually feeling emotional about the current state of affairs generally, which gets crystallised around strange and unexpected events such as this year’s Melbourne Cup.
American theorist Kathleen Stewart’s Ordinary Affects explores this very idea – that in daily life we are subject to an overarching and low-burning trauma, as we are subject to all kinds of pressures and misfortunes. We can get by most of the time without noticing these negative daily “affects”- sensations felt in the body – but sometimes they boil over into big and unfortunate events, like a pressure valve momentarily releasing everyone’s pain and struggle.
Another example of the kind of debate over “what matters more” happened after the murder of Australian journalist Jill Meagher in 2012. In an unusual case, Meagher was subject to sexual violence and was killed by a stranger, after walking home alone at night in the busy streets of Brunswick. With her last moments eerily captured on CCTV, many Australians were deeply moved by the case, and a week after her death 30,000 people marched down Sydney Road in her memory. While some responded by criticising the march for not focusing on the “real” issues of violence facing women (such as the fact that being subject to stranger violence is much less common than domestic violence), this kind of critique only served to alienate people who were experiencing grief and concern. I imagine for many people it was precisely the low-lying “ordinary affect” of fear that many women experience on a daily basis (especially walking home alone) that was being expressed in the march. The Meagher case was a nightmare made real within a broader context where women experience violence and sexism every day.
The lesson to take away from all of this is that when people demonstrate that they care about an issue, getting angry at them for not caring about something else isn’t going to work. Instead, it can be a good time to raise awareness of broader issues and how these connect up. After all, it is the same world that allows horses to be tortured for the benefit of billionaires, while refugees are used as political pawns. We don’t need to choose to have feelings about one thing and not the other. Perhaps we do need to think about the kind of world we want to live in, a world where neither of these things are possible – and how in fact we might get there.