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Extinguishing conscience

By Mishka Góra - posted Thursday, 1 December 2011

As odd as it may seem, there are things I miss about living in a war zone. Aid workers, journalists, and soldiers will probably smile to themselves reading this and think of the adrenaline rush, or the satisfaction of seeing children whisked to safety, or the assurance of having witnessed something with one's own eyes. More than all these things, though, I miss the clarity of war. While war itself may be inscrutable and bewildering, it leaves little room for philosophical abstraction, equivocation, or neutrality. Philosophical abstraction founders on the reality of refugees who need food and shelter, equivocation proves fatal when under fire, and neutrality is obscene when a gun is pointed at a child. War puts a spotlight on the things that fundamentally matter, it necessitates decisive action, and it forces us to distinguish right from wrong.

I'm not saying that war is a good thing – quite the opposite, in fact! – but it is salutary to recognise what good can be salvaged from the worst of situations. In a time of doom and gloom, consciousness should not only be of what's gone wrong but also of how best to deal with the situation. And whether we are optimists or cynics, it is that consciousness of the way forward that makes the difference between success and failure. However, it is not enough to be conscious, to merely be aware and informed. We must also exercise conscience. We must be able to make our words and actions conform to the beliefs we hold to be true. We must know ourselves, what we hold to be right and wrong, and stand by those beliefs in what we say and do.

The problem is that many of us seem to have lost the ability to think for ourselves. We have neglected to make a habit of introspection, rational evaluation, and reasoning hypothetically. Instead of asking ourselves what would be right in any given situation, we accept whatever is lawful. Instead of putting aside self-interest and choosing to do what is right, we reject change because it is inconvenient and might force us to accept responsibility. Instead of employing common sense and fairness, we bow to political correctness and the fear of appearing discriminatory. But in avoiding the discrimination defined by our morally relative and politically-correct world, we fail to discriminate between right and wrong. We fail to exercise our consciences.


Three recent instances of this spring to mind. On the 22nd of November in Melbourne, a healthy 32-week-old foetus was mistakenly aborted instead of its allegedly ill twin brother. This "terrible tragedy" hit the headlines and no less than three inquiries have been proposed into how such an awful mistake could have happened. Not one article I have read has pointed out the obvious fact that the only reason this was able to happen was because late-term abortion is legal in Victoria. One doctor commented privately to me that she couldn't understand why they hadn't opted for the less risky and more humane method of delivering both twins by caesarean section. This would have been the default course of action if late-term abortion were illegal. Furthermore, there has been no mention of an inquiry into how the twin brother was subsequently delivered by caesarean section and then "terminated" outside of the womb. Of course, there is no need for one by law, as this would constitute a "live birth abortion". Forgive me if I exercise my conscience and call it infanticide.

That same evening, the Senate considered a motion to provide those who were directly involved in the Maralinga and Monte Bello Island atomic testing with Medicare gold cards. The ALP, LNP and Greens united to vote it down (against the two votes of DLP Senator John Madigan and Independent Senator Nick Xenophon). The official line, as far as I can tell, is that these veterans weren't exposed to sufficient radiation. Sufficient or not, it demonstrates a refusal to accept responsibility for Australian servicemen and women who were involved in atomic testing on Australian soil, and it must be asked whether such shameful disregard would have been manifested in our Senate had any of the major parties' members exercised their conscience.

That same day, J-Wire reported that a "Melbourne Israeli Dancing group was dropped from participating in a Victorian dance festival after refusing organisers' moves to drop all references to Israel". Although not all its members are Jewish and other groups featured the names of countries, the festival organisers insisted the Israeli Dancing group change its name to "Jewish". The Chinese group was not asked to change its name to "Han" or some other Chinese ethnicity, and I doubt that if there had been a Belgian waffle stall that it would have been asked to rename its waffles to either Wallonian or Flemish. However, it seems the use of the word Israeli made the group "not suitable", and the organiser said she "would not be held responsible for [the] consequences" of that use.

I see examples like these on a daily basis, every time I access the internet and read the headlines. I am less concerned that these things happen than that so many of us fail to be outraged, to see the wrong being done, and to voice dissent. I am disturbed when the reaction to a baby being killed after birth is "it's her [the mother's] choice", or when exposure to atomic testing is dismissed as "part of the job", or when anti-Semitism is disguised as political sensitivity. Such failure to think things through and evaluate right and wrong is a fertile ground for totalitarianism. When we abandon the frequent use of our consciences, we relinquish part of what makes us human. We will never recognise the best way forward if we continue on such a path.

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Mishka Gora is a Tasmanian–based writer with a particular interest in the notion of conscience. Her article on 'Saint Thomas More's Conscientious Objection' is published in the current issue (Spring 2011) of Connor Court Quarterly.

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About the Author

Mishka Gora is a Tasmanian writer specialising in war, conscience, international justice, and the former Yugoslavia. She is author of Fragments of War, an autobiographical novel about the 1990s conflict in Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina.

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