Shedding the suspicions

We've changed, you know. It's happened in a few decades, blindingly fast in the history of society but slow enough to have arrived almost unnoticed.

People with a difference were called out for it almost as a sport, and nicknames were not always friendly.

If you aren't old enough to think back three decades you may assume that Australians have always been the way we are now, that we have long had the same attitudes, the same outlook, the same tolerances and intolerances, but those of us who can think back three, four and five decades will know that you would be wrong. Very wrong.

Science and the internet have created this time of probably the greatest change ever in lifestyle and its paraphernalia but the biggest change has been in us.

The same-sex-marriage survey is just a tiny indication of this, even if the nays have it when the count is done. The mere fact that Australians as a people would consider a man marrying a man and a woman marrying a woman as right for those who want to –  and as a right – could not have been imagined half a century ago.

Back then, in the 1960s, homosexual men were regarded contemptuously, envisaged by most as perverts who lurked in shadows, and if the existence of lesbians was acknowledged it was as a rare curiosity.

Difference of any sort was regarded with suspicion. And whether the difference was a matter of choice was irrelevant. People with a difference were called out for it almost as a sport, and nicknames were not always friendly.

A couple of months ago when I was telling a young fellow that I used to have hair as red as his, I asked if he was teased at school. Nobody ever mentioned the colour of his hair, he said, and I can tell you that was not my experience.

Some difference had, of course, a much greater social impact than did hair colour.

We have fat shaming today, I read, but it is not a patch on the insult and taunting of the generously proportioned 40 and 50 years ago. They were addressed by such names as fatso and fatty, whether they liked it or not.

Not so long ago when I referred to my daughter's well-fed cat Ralph as Fat Ralph an eight-year-old visitor to our home took wide-eyed exception. "That," she scolded me, "is not a nice word!" What is not a nice word? "Fat!" My wife tells me she would have been taught that at school.

As cruel as it must have been, disability was seen as an embarrassment or worse; people with a pronounced disability were regarded as cretins, to be kept from sight. While there were, I'm sure, exceptions, people with Down's syndrome were hidden away, perhaps to spare society what was seen then as the awkwardness or the family the shame.

These days we have programs to encourage people with Down's and other disabilities to participate in our community.

Migrants who looked like the great majority of Australians - that is, those who were white - were accepted readily enough, but those who were decidedly different were seen as from another world, perhaps even a hostile world. The concept of the world was limited to the world that was familiar to us, as in the UK and Europe and the US. Asia was not part of our world and so Asians were intruders with disgusting eating habits. An African on our streets moved within a circle of shock. It was only 44 years ago that the White Australia Policy came to an end.

The intolerance of difference, perhaps the contempt for difference, went beyond such majors as sexuality and race to what we today would regard as mere personal expression. A different hairstyle, different clothes, particularly in men, were likely to see you called out as a poofter. That was probably the most damning insult that could be levelled against an Australian man of the 1960s.

This need for sameness applied even to sport. All men followed the cricket, mostly because, it seemed to me as someone who didn't, that it was to be dismissed as not worthy of being Australian if you weren't interested in the score. These days cricket has gone the way of the White Australia Policy.

So what has created the change?

Exposure, I say. World travel that came with affluence, television that delivered the world to our loungerooms, the internet, multicultural immigration, and right up there among these has been the collapse of our society's greatest inhibitor, the mainstream church.

As we have become more exposed to the differences we feared so we have come to realise that these are merely differences, nothing to be feared, and sometimes we have come to see that the difference is not very different. And just this decade, I believe, we have moved from being tolerant of difference to being open and welcoming of difference. I don't know that we have more compassion but we certainly have more empathy. And we are a much better people for it.