Shattered. Fearful. Angry. Resentful. Saddened. Hopeless. How does one find the right word to describe the reaction to what our beloved country is going through right now? For what it has gone through already? For what could come? For me, it’s this word: heartbroken.
Watching flames rip through communities and tear lives apart across our rural towns, favourite holiday spots and beautiful forests, it breaks the heart to witness not only the destruction, but the pain. The loss. The fear that this could be the new normal.
It is particularly wrenching to think about the millions of animals whose lives were incinerated brutally and suddenly. Heartbreaking.
But I’m heartbroken for another reason too. For whilst the flames wreaked their havoc across our plains, they also revealed a country divided. Amidst that awful orange glow, festering, long simmering hatreds were laid bare. The fault lines of our political, social and cultural divides were exposed. The fires were and are ugly, but so were we.
While people scurried for their lives, others retreated to base camp. Conservatives pointed the finger at ‘greenies’, hurling abuse and stoking the flames of anger. ‘The greenies stop controlled burns.’ Cue outrage. Social media lit up, viscerally condemning environmental activists and greens MPs. Memes did the rounds. Australia still burned.
For others, the target was Scott Morrison, who became a metaphorical punching bag. While Australia burned, posts called for him to be thrown into the inferno. The more mild ones called for him to be sacked. For days, it almost became a competition to see who could spread the wildfire of hate directed at the prime minister further. Clumsy as some of his actions or words have been, it was heartbreaking to see a national leader treated this way, whatever their party colour.
There was more. The climate deniers and the climate believers tore at each other, squabbling over not only whether climate change was to blame, but whether it was real at all. Millennials and boomers continued their intergenerational conflict. The divide between rural and urban Australia was brought into sharp focus, none more so than when the Prime Minister visited the ‘forgotten’ town of Cobargo, reduced to rabble.
While Australia burned, we retreated into a crucible of division, rancour and hate. We squabbled, screamed and hurled abuse at the other. I too was guilty of this.
It is heartbreaking to know that even as people read this, they will shrug their shoulders and say that ‘the greenies deserve it’ or ‘Morrison should bloody cop it.’ Of course they will.
Thankfully, there’s also hope. For even in the darkest of times one can find light. The outpouring of generosity in our own community and across the world has been humbling. The indefatigable, stoic and selfless actions of volunteer firefighters have been a beacon of inspiration. The fact that charities had to call for a halt to food and supply donations is a testament to an Australia that is still, at its heart, good.
I just hope that we still have the capacity to disagree gracefully. To respect public office, even if we dislike the occupant. To look beyond outrage inducing material on social media and research facts from official and trustworthy sources. I hope this. After this last week though, I struggle to believe it to be true.
The problem with social media is that it encourages us to retreat into our prejudices. We find comfort in the bias confirming digital spaces that we create for ourselves and we scorn those who are not members of the club.
The coming weeks, months, years, will need the country to rebuild, and not just physically. One hopes, somewhat naively, that we will find ways to heal the fractures that so openly burst into the open last fortnight. We will of course rebuild the homes and towns. Forests will regrow, slowly. Yet will Australia grow together or continue to drift apart? I’m afraid of the answer.