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Social cohesion must be guarded against divisive political rhetoric

By Gwynn MacCarrick - posted Monday, 2 June 2003

In order to analyse the ties that bind a society the best starting point is to ask the question in reverse. In asking, "What are the causes of social collapse?" we can identify what a disconnected society might look like and satisfy ourselves of the elements essential to restore a sense of connectedness.

As I proceed to deconstruct the question of social order, I do so mindful that I am attempting to explain away completely and perfectly that which no one really understands ... until they are deprived of it. That is to say, our understanding of the functionalities of society is never so acutely and profoundly grasped as at that moment when dsyfunction and chaos render the social contract meaningless.

The question of social cohesion has been a preoccupation of mine throughout my professional career, in which I have journeyed through the depths of human depravity and the incomprehensibility of mans inhumanity to man.


I have waded through eye-witness statements detailing heinous crimes, pored over photographs of mass-grave exhumations and studied the personal effects of casualties of war that constituted material and forensic evidence for the prosecution of war criminals - and I have wondered what led to this insanity.

I have squatted with families, in refugee camps in Bosnia recording their chilling stories - and wondered at the capacity of humans to move beyond bitterness.

I have acted as defence counsel for a militia commander on charges that were offensive to the common conscience of the world - and wondered at the human condition.

I have stood among rioters and looters and watched Dili's infrastructure go up in flames. Disavowed of any romantic notion of anarchy - I wondered what separates us from savages.

I have worked in societies fresh from the scourge of war and breathed the suffocating air laden with residual feelings of hatred, spite, antagonism, prejudice, and defensiveness hanging oppressively over all - and wondered at the little acts of kindness obvious by the unexpected relief they brought in a community where rule of law was arbitrary, if existent at all.

I have proofed witnesses for war-crimes trials and listened to their explanations of how hatred was engineered through contrived vernacular - and wondered at the effectiveness of mob oratory in inciting blind prejudice.


I returned to Srebrenica with a busload of widows - and wondered at the futility of war in claiming countless civilians who probably didn't even hold an opinion about the politics that had claimed them as victims.

I have cross-examined an illiterate, unsophisticated, dying woman, a victim of war, propped up in the witness box gasping for air and wincing at the pain caused by a tumorous growth the size of a football on her left side. As she humoured my probing questions about the sexual violence occasioned upon her I couldn't help wondering what she stood to gain, save for the vain hope that history may document and generations be destined never to repeat.

All the while I have returned to an abiding fascination with the philosophy of Karl Marx, in particular his construction of a "utopia" and his concomitant belief in the perfection of man. At the very foundation of his teachings were two basic assumptions.

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About the Author

Gwynn MacCarrick is an international criminal law and environmental law expert. She is a Research Fellow with the Policy Innovation Hub, Griffith University and adjunct researcher with James Cook University. She has a BA (Hons) LLB Grad Cert Leg Prac. IDHA., Grad Cert Higher Ed., PhD.

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