Tuesday, July 5, 2016

So many points of no return.



Just before Australians cast their votes in our most indecisive election ever , the leader of the Liberal party and incumbent Prime minister gave an address to the National Press Club. The answers he gave to some questions touched on a theme of interest to me. It’s the theme that everything hangs in the balance or that we are at a point of no return.

A question from Catherine McGrath from SBS television about engagement with multi-ethnic Australia prompted a response that oddly was able to include this sentiment;

“Right across our nation, the choice on Saturday is clear - my team, a stable Coalition majority Government, with a clear national economic plan that will enable Australians in all of their diversity to realise their dreams.
On the other hand, the chaos, the uncertainty, the debt, the deficit, the higher taxes slowing investment, deterring employment, depriving Australians of those opportunities – that is the choice. It’s a clear one.”

A question from Catalina Florez for Network Ten about the Prime Ministers security in his own leadership was deflected with this idea;

“Catalina a win for the Coalition on Saturday is critically important for the future of 24 million Australians. It’s critically important for their children and their grandchildren. It’s critically important for the generations that are yet unborn.”

This could be considered standard political rhetoric. An incumbent government will always want to hype the risk of change, especially when it has only been in power for one term. Suggesting that voting for the other team will bring descending chaos is par for the course.

It is not surprising then to find similar sentiments from the main opposition party, or from minor parties. The issue might be the health system, public television, the environment or some vaguely racist Australian way of life but the tone is the same; everything hangs in the balance, this is the point of no return. Vote for me or we're doomed!

I am not writing this blog to scoff at this rhetoric. There are ways in which I consider the stakes high enough and the choices stark enough to make exactly such statements justified. The Great barrier reef is in very dire straits, possibly past the point of no return. The removal of protections for Aboriginal sacred sites in Western Australia will commit damage that cannot ever be undone. If we sign the TPP we will have shackled ourselves legally to support more rights for corporations than governments and cannot simply walk away. A line was crossed when we gave our immigration minister the capacity to remove people’s citizenship. We need a commissioner to investigate the abuse on Nauru before the perpetrators crawl under some rock and evidence is destroyed.

I believe everything I’ve stated in the above paragraph so I am not trying to mock claims that we face critical junctions. In fact I often suspect we are wired to dismiss catastrophic language out of hand. I think we might very well carry a sense of our own absolute importance and believe that this protects us, individually, nationally and globally from anything too bad. I remember a story of a musician who fell out of a second story window one day and only just survived. It was the moment when they realize they were not guaranteed a starring role in life; they could just be the guy who dies in the first act. Most of us don’t have that realization. Religiously there seems to be a similar sort of denial that climate change is really real, as if God would never let it happen to us. Nationally we want to believe that a mining boom was evidence of our hard work or national destiny, not a lucky streak we have ridden while our manufacturing has dried up and blown away. I don't think we are too special to  be doomed.

What I do want to do is ask, “What are the implications of a genuine belief that we might pass a point of no return on a matter of deep importance?” In life we must often cope with holding a sincere high stakes view of a particular choice and the awareness that we don't control how that choice will be resolved. This might be because we accept that we share that choice with so many others in a democracy. It might be because we see the world around us as largely idiots led by liars. Either way we know we might lose in a contest of ideas even when everything hangs in the balance.

One solution is to make personal choices and support causes that match our values, separate to the political process. During the election campaign our family came close to hosting a survivor of Nauru currently on a bridging visa who was stuck without housing in Bendigo. Bridging visa’s preclude housing services from being able to offer much assistance and a robbery had left him without means. He left Bendigo for work on the Murray instead which reflected his discomfort with taking charity (and probably not our messy house). Our name is now linked with Rural Australians for Refugees, as a potential site of accommodation. I’m not saying this to brag (we didn’t actually do anything) but because this, plus weekly tutoring we do for a family of Karen refugees, is how my family copes with having little political control over the high stakes matter of Australia’s refugee policy. Other people make the choice to foster, donate to services for the homeless, establish farmers markets, or fund-raise for solar panels on schools. Taking these actions can help us cope with fast approaching dooms we can't convince our leaders to care about.

Sometimes we refuse to tolerate our slide towards disaster. I can think of many times when I have admired direct action to oppose injustice despite the democratic will of the majority. My hear swelled with genuine adoration of the people who refused to allow a Quantas flight to take a refugee back to persecution in 2015. There is obviously a danger of elitism to this. How do I know that I am right to stand against the will of the majority. As any student of history shows however majorities don't just get it wrong as often as individuals they get it even wronger in more spectacular fashion. My last post which mentions the Heroic Imagination Project raised the very point that obedience to social norms is evils best friend.

What consideration should we show other people’s dread that something is a matter of extra-ordinarily high stakes and beyond their control. If we share their understanding of the issue we can lock arms around shoulders and cry together. But what if I don't agree with the weight they give the matter? I know people who felt the inability of midwives to obtain insurance for homebirths was tantamount to disaster. It just didn't rate like that for me but do I owe them any allowance for the grief and outrage that I understand in principle? And what if we are opposed to their view; do we owe them any graciousness even as we work for the very outcome they perceive as catastrophic? What graciousness could be meaningful short of a concession to their strong feeling?

This last question bears relevance to the matter of same-sex marriage for me. I support the removal of gender from the marriage act of Australia. I have increasingly been seeing it as a matter of less importance though. This is because as more and more other nations endorse same sex marriage we are increasingly culturally accepting the institution in advance of any legal change. A same-sex couple can say they are married in Australia and the response in many public spaces is that this is a "real" marriage. This response emboldens other declarations and before you know it gay couples are as likely to want you to look at their wedding photos as straight ones.

This current situation in which culture leads the law (rather than the opposite) actually appeals to the anarchist in me. There is something empowering about recognizing marriages in spite of the state's position although to be fair we have relied on other nations laws to get us there. Still I sometimes wish  we who have argued for legislative change never gave such importance to government opinion in the first place. Rather than feeling that a same-sex marriage which lacks government imprimatur is not a real marriage I feel like it is more real – more purely a statement by two people, fists raised together against the world. I’m a romantic in this way.

There are however people both supportive and opposed to same sex marriage who feel that marriage law reform is the paramount political issue of our time. There was an unfortunate statement put out by the Presbyterian church of Australia in the lead up to this election. It described passing marriage law reform as to “embed motherlessness and fatherlessness in public policy.” The sole mention of any other concerns was to rank them as less than marriage law reform.:
“The Presbyterian Church understands that the moral matrices by which each of us evaluates political parties are often wider than one issue and weighted differently. They include concerns about social justice, equity, and morality when weighing the common good. However, redefining marriage is a once in a lifetime issue, and it is our belief it should be weighed accordingly, and considered carefully.”

This was a relatively calmly toned piece. We can find hotter heads on either side of this issue if we try. The point is that in this statement the Moderator General of the Presbyterian Church of Australia spoke for many who feel that same-sex marriage constitutes a watershed moment for their politic. Assuming that eventually we will get there and same-sex marriage will be passed is not ridiculous. It regularly receives above 60% support in reliable polls. Do we who support marriage reform have any obligation to sympathy to those who oppose same sex marriage and fear that it will take us to a place of catastrophe?

The simplest answer is no. A sense of impending doom can’t be allowed to create obligations on those who don’t share that sense. Otherwise we create the incentive to manufacture such a sense of doom. Anyone who parents knows this. And if you don’t then I would like to tell you how critically I feel I need some chocolate. Very critically.

This answer however is insensitive to the way in which friendships and family connections reach across political divides. I have people close to me who do think that same-sex marriage is a mistake of epic political importance. As, culturally, same-sex marriage recognition is already here, due to international influences, and is likely to be introduced legally to Australia soon, its worth reflecting on how I would like those friends and family members to act towards me if they were winning this debate. How would I feel about their triumphalism if the poll numbers were reversed? I probably wouldn’t want to hear it.

One thing that can be done is to listen to specific fears and see if they can be mitigated. Some people think that the only time you should take your adult pants off with another adult person is if the two of you are married and whats under those pants is wildly different. Specifically they think there should be a penis and a vagina. Some of those people, but not all, also think you should only put those bits together to make babies and not do anything which makes babies unlikely. There are ways that these ideas are defended that breach standards of polite conversation  - calling women who live differently sluts for example or describing gay couples as narcissistic (you know because a man loving a man is like a man loving himself). But even there do we really want to use the law to make such speech illegal? I don't and would like to nut out some agreement about the reasonable freedom to articulate a variety of views about sexual morality. This includes some appreciation that what is ok in church is not necessarily ok in the workplace and what is forbidden in the workplace needn't be forbidden in church. People shouldn't fear that marriage law reform will lead to gulags for traditionalist Christians and that means challenging any rhetoric against their views that justifies that fear.

There are areas of potentially unsolvable conflict. I am not comfortable with descriptions of homosexuality as a disorder or mental illness or as sinful. I don't think any of those descriptions constitute hate speech but I don't think they constitute "health speech" either or "holy speech" if you like. I want to argue against these descriptions but I don't want to have those arguments in federal parliament. School policies, government tenders to service providers, the regulations of professions like social work and psychology are areas where the line between local argument and state control have always been murky. I am not sure how to resolve lines between free speech and therapeutic or justice priorities in these areas. I think we can avoid confusing these battlegrounds with marriage reform but I concede people who think homosexual activity is sinful are scared they wont be able to keep saying so and maintain public employment. I'm willing to investigate that fear and we should all interrogate our motives to see if that is actually our intent.

There will be celebration when marriage law reform finally happens. There should be. Marriage requires an element of public celebration after all. However I will try to be mindful that there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth as well and that this feeling is no less sincere than the feeling I have about the death of the Great Barrier Reef. Although can I just say, the Great Barrier Reef is dying within two centuries of white invasion after thriving under thousands of years of responsible care by several different Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander nations.... if we could at least not trumpet the supremacy of Judeo-Christian Australia so much it'd be great! Bloody hell.

Politics takes us past many points of no return. Life does too. We cope in different ways. Even if our fears of descending chaos are not founded it can be difficult to know that at the time. I think if we are to maintain the bonds of family and friendship across disagreements about matters of high stakes then we need to have some consideration of each others angsts. In terms of our own fears hopefully we have shoulders not only to cry on but that join in making our hand cart as just and fair as it can be on its descent to hell.





Thursday, June 16, 2016

Understanding Evil.

A while ago I wrote a series of posts in which I explored the Problem of Evil (or Eeee-vil if you like). This is a classic philosophical problem that atheists sometimes like to throw at theists. If God is all powerful and all good then how can there be evil?

My take on this problem was rather different. For one thing I consider the Problem of Evil to be one that does not merely belong to theists to grapple with. The Problem of Evil challenges all views of the universe in which right and wrong have some objective basis –whether that basis is theistic opinion, or reason or mental health. If right, for any reason, is able to be objectively distinguished from wrong, then we all have to wonder why we continue to do wrong at all. There must be some other drive or creative force to explain why even a million or so years of humanity has done little to shift the perennial problem of evil. This experience that evil persists ultimately obliges us to doubt the sovereignty of reason or the normality of empathy as much as the theist must doubt the sovereignty of a loving God.

I’d like to revisit the question of evil in this post but with a different focus. I’d like to ask the pragmatic question of how we can understand what produces evil. In doing so I will present two different views that try and understand wrongdoing. I’m going to avoid the tricky theodicy of evil mentioned above – anyone interested in that aspect can revisit those earlier posts – and focus on ways of understanding evil’s causation that throw up possible interventions.

Learning theory and developmental models.

When an infant cries in the night, waking us up, we do not consider this bad or wrong. We want our child to alert us if they are distressed. Likewise it is good if they are hungry that they demand food. We are not offended if they demand food while we are preparing it – how are they to know we are preparing the food for them? We are not, after a slow breath, offended even when our child spits out the food we have prepared, calling it yucky. We do want them not to swallow what tastes bad to them. It’s a useful self-preservation skill for someone who is still tasting the dog.

If our teenage child demands food while we are preparing it we might be frustrated and point out what they should have observed. If they spit it out, calling it yucky, then we might be righteously frustrated by their lack of tact but still we would not judge this incident in the same way as if a grown and fully able person was expected us to hurry up with dinner and then griping that it wasn’t to their taste. What is appropriate, even desireable, for a person at one age and stage is not appropriate in another situation.

This attitude to wrongdoing is really helpful when parenting. Is your kid pushing boundaries or testing limits? So they should be. You in return should respond in a way that is loving but also acknowledges realities that your child needs to understand ie. a banging pot in their parents ear is bloody annoying or your sisters artwork is not improved in her eyes by your scribbling on it. At an early enough age a kid pulls our hair or pokes our eye, not to sadistically enjoy causing pain, but in the same way that they might ring a bell. Through our reactions we teach children whether this is a good game or not. We advise them that there is a real person like themselves in this body holding them. We also show them what this means by compassionately responding to their own pain. The specific stage at which children develop empathy is hard to pinpoint but it is usually observable before age two (and arguably not perfected in this life). It’s development is the slow result of authentic and congruent interactions with others.

It can be difficult to apply a development model to older children’s behaviour. We may want to ascribe maliciousness to their actions when they disrespect us, they have more adult sized heads after all, but it makes sense to think of their actions developmentally. You are the unelected ruler of your child’s castle. Is it appropriate to lie to such a ruler? You might even be a little concerned about your child’s intelligence if they automatically took the rulers word that it was wrong and never had a go.

Younger children can’t lie but it’s a skill that we actually want all children to develop – we applaud it in actors for example who can pretend to be entirely different people. We simply want them to know when to use the skill and when not to. Developing that knowledge is usually going to happen by them trying lying out and us responding genuinely ie. by trusting them less. This is how they learn about concepts like trust and reputation and the consequences of lying. As children get older they can learn more and more hypothetically. They can imagine what it would feel like to be lied to for example, but we shouldn’t be surprised if they resort to testing their theories of right and wrong. Only through relationships with others are the nuances of ethical human behaviour worked out.

It would be wrong to characterize this idea of the development of moral character as simply being taught right from wrong. The emerging adult develops an understanding of the concepts that underpin right and wrong. This means the awareness that other people have feelings and that those feeling include such complex ones as feeling put down or put upon. Perhaps more importantly they experience being on the recieving end of genuine love. These understandings are put together so that the emerging adult can to some extent, draw their own conclusions about what is right and wrong. Specific conclusions can even be overturned from one generation to another: an honest butcher can father a proud vegan.

A learning theory or developmental approach to moral growth understands aberrant behaviour as coming from development that is missed or gone awry. Usually the further explanation for this incorrect development is a lack of appropriate authentic and congruent relationships in a persons life. Sometimes intellectual impairment or other neuro-biological factors are seen to be in play, such as high cortisol levels, the body’s stress hormone. The corrective intervention is usually seen as taking time and involves establishing the necessary relationships that the person has missed out on.  These relationships have to include consequences for negative behaviour but not simply as a punishment to change behaviour. Rather the consequences are ideally natural consequences. They are part of holding a genuine space for the other person to experience what they need to in order to develop a socially appropriate morality.

There is clinical evidence to support these kinds of interventions and thus the developmental model that they draw from. We know that many people diagnosed as  sociopaths or psychopaths will grow out of it in time. There are obviously no experimental studies to support developmental ideas of how people become inclined towards evil. It’s unconscionable to imagine controlled testing of different parenting models to see if they make one child into a villain and another into a hero. Schools are very interested in building empathy amongst students. Diverse interventions based on learning theory claim excellent results in schools but its hard to be sure of their data. When terrible acts of violence and cruelty are displayed in the media, our desire to blame improper development may have much to do with our hope that, by parenting well, we can avoid the fate of the perpetrator’s parents, who often seem bewildered by what their child has done.

Systems theory and social models.

Developmental models can tell us how people become “bad people” or fail to aquire what they need to be “good people” but they struggle with the problem of how supposedly “good people from good homes” with a history of authentic caring relationships, do bad things. This is a problem that seemed to have occurred when U.S. soldiers brutally tortured and degraded the inmates of Abu Ghraib prison in 2003. The U.S. Military at the time sought to blame a few bad apples for the mess. One of those bad apples enlisted, as an expert witness in their defence, psychologist Phillip Zombardo.

Phillip Zombardo has made a lifelong study of what makes people willing to comitt atrocities and is most famous for his deeply troubling study, the Stanford Prison Experiment. In this social experiment he showed how within only a few days, through dehumanization of their victims, uniforms to establish anonymity and socialization into authoritarian roles, ordinary people could act with terrible cruelty to their peers. The experiment began with socially adjusted participants but had to be shut down in six days because it had become dangerous to participants who were roleplaying prisoners. To use Zombardo’s own language, it was not bad apples that were to blame in the Stanford Prison Experiment or Abu Ghraib, but a bad barrel; a set of social conditions that enabled and normalized cruelty.

Zombardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment is an intense case study that is supported by the repeated experimental work of Stanley Milgram. His study in 1963 found that an overwhelmingly percentage of ordinary people would apply electric shocks to a stranger even if that stranger was screaming for mercy. All that was required was that they were asked to do so by a person in a white lab coat who promised to take responsibility for the act and that their involvement was introduced incrementally. Once again there is nothing to suggest that participants who complied with potentially murderous instructions were in any way developmentally impaired. They were ordinary people.

Looking at the barrel rather than the apple enables us to understand evil on the scale that was tolerated by Germans under Nazism, Whites under apartheid in South Africa and arguably Australians in relation to our off shore indefinite detention policies. In each of these cases near universal developmental impairments seems unlikely. Systems theory can seem at first despairing though. We can’t necessarily rely on our good character to ensure that we will not commit terrible evil. We might find ourselves slipping into it step by step until our capacity to recognize our behaviour as evil is severely diminished.

Critics fear that systems theory diminishes any personal responsibility for our actions. It is important to note that not every person capitulates and co-operates with systematic evil and that some personalities capitulate all too easily. Hannah Arendt, a German Jew herself, explained the Nazi Holocaust with the acceptance that many compliant Nazis were not sadistic or psychopathic personalities in their individual selves, no more than Milgrams study participants or the guards of the Stanford Prison Experiment were. Her understanding was that evil on that scale is committed, not by sadists so much as by nobodies, people who have forgone their moral agency to become the ultimate obeyers. Hannah Arendt was adamant that even under the most totalitarian systems people voluntarily obey or resist.  In her most famous quote from her book published in 1963, the Banality of Evil, she says;

[U]nder conditions of terror most people will comply but some people will not, just as the lesson of the countries to which the Final Solution was proposed is that "it could happen" in most places but it did not happen everywhere. Humanly speaking, no more is required, and no more can reasonably be asked, for this planet to remain a place fit for human habitation.

Phillip Zombardo is currently engaged in a project designed to cultivate and promote the people who can stand up to evil and the conditions they thrive in. These are the people who form the small portion who refused to electrocute strangers in Milgrams work, the whistleblowers who expose events like at Abu Ghraib, or the Germans who stood up to the Nazis. Contrary to what we usually hear from school programs wanting to produce positive behaviours, the Heroic Imagination Project views dissent positively. It views social conformity as the greatest enabler of evil. The crucial space needed to resist evil is what Hannah Arendt refers to as the conversation we can have with ourselves.

What use are interventions like the Heroic Imagination Project in preventing those acts of evil which are seemingly indifferent to the rules of society, even closed societies? Although rare, violence by “lone gunmen” who act in isolation and against expectations, does exist. It seems counter intuitive to suggest that such villains need to obey less and listen to their convictions more. Two responses come to mind. Firstly that the Heroic Imagination Project is right to focus, not on the abberant perpetrator, but on the aberrant but more important heroes in these stories. These people are far better role  models than the lone gunman and to some extent whoever we focus on will be a role model whether we call them the villain or hero.

Secondly, it is possible that aberrant lone gunman are not so aberrant or lone as they think. Often their choices are consistent with beliefs shared by others. While no more than a tiny proportion of men kill their partner we recognize that those who do are obeying social scripts that exist about men’s pride and women as property.  If a shooter targets dancers in a gay club as occurred recently in Orlando this is certainly consistent with a  range of social and religious messages. Even in these cases where the perpetrator of evil is clearly disobeying certain laws and mores it may be that they are simply obeying more fiercely other laws. Even if they might view themselves as some kind of tragic hero, they may have allowed themselves to be a nobody in a system of prejudice.

I began this post wanting to pierce the darkness around why people do evil. The Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando has been blamed on masculinity, Islam, U.S. Conservatism, internalized homophobia and easy access to weapons. Fingers have been pointed at the perpetrators family, the man himself has been called mentally ill and they have been treated as a symptom of their society. All of these are perfectly reasonable speculations. Early and contradictory reports from news sources with agendas can’t be treated as evidence of anything though. I felt a need to look away from that news cycle to get some perspective.

I've finished this post with a little more clarity and hope. We aren’t completely blind about what produces evil. We might even be on track to knowing how to reduce incidences of evil. That might not give us an easy explanation of an individual case like the Pulse nightclub shooting.  There are a lot of unanswered questions and a lot of untested ideas, in developmental models particularly, rushing to answer them. But as humans we aren’t entirely throwing our arms up in resignation either. We are challenging the fear that evil will always be a mysterious eruption from beneath an opaque surface. We are shining a light on where it comes from. We are planning to live in this world without the shadow of inexplicable destruction stalking our attempts to dance and have fun.




Saturday, June 11, 2016

Challenging Choice Without Creating Victims.


Many politically contentious arguments rely on the reality of choice; the idea that humans are able to weigh up and elect to follow one of a few alternative courses of action. Three relevant topics which come to my mind are debates about euthanasia, abortion and sex work in which the ability to make a choice for people who want to die, or have an abortion or engage is sex work is broadly assumed. Philosophically though, choice is a contested idea. There are diverse arguments that we don’t make our own choices because we are under delusion, driven by our unconscious, slaves to our desires or bound by historical paradigms. More mundanely we make choices within a set of possibilities we don’t get to entirely invent. If we consider freedom to be the capacity to make maximal choices, we can appreciate that having money, the invention of the airplane, and the state of conflict in Syria all decide how free we are to choose to holiday there. These mundane restrictions on our capacity to choose are what I want to focus on in this post.

What is motivating me to write this post is a reaction I have encountered when I question the reality of choice. The opposite of a belief in choice is often interpreted as the desire to overlook a person’s agency and to reduce them. especially amongst all creatures, to a victim of their circumstance. This is possibly a result of those arguments against choice which depend on saying a person is deluded or unconsciously driven. The reaction is righteously fierce because these arguments contain within them a core of arrogance. The person making the argument is claiming that they are enlightened enough to see the others choices as unenlightened while lacking any insight that this would be what a deluded person would think of themselves too. This fierce reaction creates a duality where in order not to cast a persons as a passive victim we must accept they are making completely free choices.  I want to explore a way past this duality where a person can have their choice respected as coming from a person who is, in no way especially, a victim (no more deluded than the arguer) but still the complete freedom of their choice can be challenged.

I’ll start with the innocuous issue of Sunday Trading. Bob is a hypothetical businessman who wants to open his supermarket on a Sunday in a small town with Sunday trading restrictions. Let’s imagine Bob’s costs are being covered by the other days of the week with enough profit to make the business worthwhile. A Buddhist might argue that Bob is oppressed by ignorance unless he is a Buddha and a Freudian may suspect some other driving force, but I can accept for practical purposes that Bob is making a free enough choice to open on a Sunday that we can call this his autonomous decision. But equally, Bob is not making an entirely free decision. Bob can’t also decide to fly his shop around town or to have a successful business selling only his toenails. Bob’s options are constrained by reality, and this includes economic realities.  That much is obvious, although Bob probably wouldn’t consider it relevant when defending the freedom of his decision to open on Sunday.

We should acknowledge that Bob’s acceptance of reality is of great immediate benefit to him. What purpose could be served if Bob allowed himself to constantly remain aware of gravity preventing him from soaring about with his supermarket? What kind of businessman would Bob be if he didn’t accept from the outset that the nature of doing business was meeting consumer demand? It seems better for Bob to simply incorporate these kinds of restrictions into his idea of freedom and enjoy or demand freedom only within their bounds. This practical acceptance of reality is entirely taken for granted by Bob.

But although Bob has been told that the reality of business in this town is not to trade on Sundays, he reads this as the result of other people’s decisions and not an unchosen state of reality. He doesn’t accept that not trading on Sunday is a boundary within which he can have all reasonable freedom – instead Sunday trading laws are a boundary running through his reasonable freedom like an unwelcome fence through his garden rather than a natural border around it. Bob is likely to be supported in this way of looking at his world by people who either agree with Sunday trading or don’t. If Bob was to bemoan his inability to fly his shop around he might face more opinions that consider him eccentric at best and insane at worst.

Bob’s (and our) acceptance of reality’s restriction raises concerns. There are a number of elements of Bob’s world which are just as clearly the result of people’s decisions and not an unchosen aspect of the world. Bob’s shop depends very much on people paying for the goods they want and if they don’t they must face some consequence enforced by the community. This is not some natural state – although a philosopher Locke might claim it is. Every iota of stuff in our world is bounded and owned in some way, usually with disregard for indigineous claims and certainly with disdain for the natural state of anything. Bob’s isolation of Sunday trading as if it was especially a rule running across the field of his freedom, rather than a natural limit around it, has no basis. Bob accepts other rules as just “reality” when they are just as apparently imposed.

We are not always in cultural agreement about what rules we consider realities that are beyond the scope of questions of freedom, and what we consider to be mere rules constraining freedom. Forgetting his failed toenail line for a moment, Bob might also have dreams of selling t-shirts in his shop. This too might be impractical because of an exchange rate which favors imports and a tax regime which encourages online purchasing. Should Bob accept these commercial limits as beyond the scope of what constitutes his freedom or should he perceive his freedom as extending beyond them and hampered by them? That is a political question. Are globalised free markets just base economic realities? Is freedom what happens inside these realities while these realities are not themselves restrictions of freedom?

This is the political world Bob lives in but it is also the world Bob shapes. Bob knows that a smiling checkout operator brings return business. Bob decides to hire and fire on the basis of who is the biggest grinner. Is this the sort of reality that Bob’s employees must accept (they are still free to smile or quit) or can they see losing their job due to not smiling as a limit cutting across their freedom? What if Bob wanted them to wear rabbit ears at Easter? What if they were required to work nude on Naked Gardening Day? At one point we might believe the people who are working there remain free because Bob’s demands are reasonable. Once they cease to be reasonable we may consider Bob’s workers’ freedom to be at risk.

The important thing to note here is that the person who has no problem smiling more for their job, just like Bob who has no problem opening on Sunday, is not a victim. Not especially. We do not have any justification to look down on them in any way. They are not delicate flowers that need protecting. We can accept that their decision is as much their own as any decision we would call our own. We might even want to think of them as braver, more confident and harder working than their peers. That doesn’t change if they are willing to wear rabbit ears or remove their clothing. We don’t have to think of them as poor victims of exploitation if they make these choices.

What we do need to consider is that their willingness to make those choices affects the realities of other peoples choices. If I am a particularly unhappy fellow I will not get a job at Bob’s emporium, while it is acceptable to smile one’s way to employment. I don’t need to see this as an incentive to be weak and join all the other victims of exploitation. I can see it as a simple trade off – I get to be guaranteed a smile when I shop but I need to smile if I want to work. It’s a trade off I might be keen to accept if I like smiling. I can choose to accept as a given economic reality the need to smile at customers, within which I am free to smile or not, or choose to perceive it as a restriction that curtails my freedom to frown. In fact I must make that choice. There is no objective way to decide the issue. There is no absolute definition of what is reasonable freedom and what is demanding a ridiculous amount of choice.

The mechanisms by which our choices affect everyone’s reasonable freedom are sometimes apparent. The most easy to see is the business council choosing to ban Sunday trading. Also fairly visible is if I accept, when applying for a job in a competitive marketplace, certain conditions, such as smiling. We can understand how this acceptance pressures other applicants to do the same. We can understand how through business competition, one business improving their sales in this way can pressure other businesses to do likewise, or even to imagine further expansions of what constitutes customer service. (Did you make the customer feel like a king today?)

My attitude towards sex work relies heavily on this sort of understanding. I don’t consider sex workers to be necessarily victims, or their work to be necessarily exploitative. The fact that sex work happens to be largely exploitative and workers are most often victims of trafficking around the world is possibly partially a result of its criminality. My concern is that arguments for sex work often contain extremely individualistic assumptions about the nature of choices. Engaging in sex work is seen as a choice which only impacts on the worker and their client and maybe someone the client goes on to interact with. In fact sex work legitimizes a type of service and doing this has an impact on all people who either provide services or want to or face expectations to. In other words, everybody. The fact that sex-work is a separate industry to Bob’s supermarkets is only a thin barrier. When someone is looking for a job they may well be looking at both industries, and businesses in both are competing for the same discretionary spending.

I am frustrated when I hear the argument in defence of sex work that one cannot tell a person what they can do with their own body. For one thing, this blurs the distinction between saying that a person cannot have sex and a person cannot obtain money for sex. Such a distinction is important for a range of situations. We ban the sale of human blood for example while encouraging its donation. Even if the owner of the blood wants to sell, genuinely preferring some money to a pint of easily replaceable blood, we prevent this transaction from being possible, while making no objection to them giving it away. Likewise we prosecute people for commercial surrogacy. We don’t do this because the exchange necessarily and always involves one party being oppressed. We likewise make every worker on a worksite wear a hard hat – no choices allowed. We do this because of how it shifts the realistic expectations which frame freedom for everyone, perhaps in the hope that less oppression (or head injuries in the case of the helmets) will result. Whether talking about helmets, or blood, there is no absolute autonomy for each person over their own body


Harder to understand is how the sorts of controversial choices of abortion or euthanasia affect what is real and acceptable for other people. I believe these choices still do. If a student has an abortion because having a baby would derail their studies, implicit in this is the idea that babies derailing one’s studies is a restriction that is beyond the scope of reasonable questions of freedom: one shouldn’t expect to be free to both study and have a child, one’s freedom exists only to make this choice. Likewise euthanasia can carry with it the presumption that certain health and lifestyle outcomes of illnesses or disabilities are not themselves to be railed against but are realities we must accept. Our only freedom is in how we respond to such outcomes. This is severely problematic for disabled activism which attempt to challenge the outcomes of disability that are determined by our societies prejudice and frankly monstrously ableist evaluation of peoples worth.

This doesn’t establish that sex-work, abortion or euthanasia should be illegal. For one thing individuals always have to make choices inside realistic expectations. We simply ought to acknowledge that on a broader level when sex-work, abortion and euthanasia are legal we are shaping those realistic expectations. I think it is possible to be entirely pro-choice in regard to abortion out of regard for women’s bodily autonomy while recognizing that under capitalism abortion serves a purpose. It is one way that women can be expected to remain the most useful worker unit without adjustments to workplaces or men’s lives. I think we should hold on to the sense that anyone encouraging a woman to have an abortion for “common sense reasons” is shifting the conversation around legitimate freedom. I would hope it is still taboo for an employer to make that suggestion to an employee for example.  I likewise am concerned that mainstreaming sex-work might require unemployed people to justify why they turn down a sex-worker position. I certainly wouldn’t want that to happen. It’s bad enough when the labour market expects everyone to smile.

For me there are still plenty of good arguments for the legality of sex work, abortion or euthanasia. I am not thoroughly convinced by them but I am certainly not convinced against them. I want to acknowledge that I’m not trying to engage with these arguments here. I am simply want to challenge the reality of choice as a basis for supposedly left positions. Across a number of previous blog posts I make references to myself as a big-ass lefty. I recently told a friend, tipsy on a couple of wines, that I am only interested in the left wing take on things because the left wing take is what cares about people. Hyperbolic as I was being, there’s a truth to that for me. I don’t think I have betrayed lefty principles by being critical of the individual choice rhetoric that is used to argue for the legalization of sex-work, abortion or euthanasia. In fact I think it is imperative for lefties to be critical in this way. Yet, uncritical belief in free choice rhetoric in these areas can seem like a measure of one’s progressiveness. Perhaps here is the difference between left and progressive and if so I am more left than progressive. 

Monday, May 23, 2016

"Fair Cop": Towards a Theology of Closeness.

Following on from my recent blog posts about closeness being valuable in ethics I’ve been pondering a question;
If I committed a crime and was convicted would I feel I would get a fairer sentence from a judge who knew me or one who didn’t?

Have a go at answering this for yourself. Don’t rush. Roll it around in your head for a day or two and then come back here and read the rest of what I’ve written. It will still be here but if you read on now you wont have the pleasure of your own thoughts first.

Seriously. See you tomorrow.


___________________________________________________________


Welcome back. I hope you genuinely enjoyed the question. I want to interrogate my own thoughts with you in the hope they are similar to your own but I’d also love to hear any unique thoughts you have in the comments. Firstly I wonder if your early thoughts were about the notion of bias. Is fairness a similar thing as unbiased? You may have asked this question with the assumption that, if lacking bias is what you mean by fairness in this situation, certainly the judge shouldn’t know you. To know you is to be biased towards or against you.

But is this always true? Aren’t there many people who are biased against Muslims for example precisely because they don’t know any? If you, as a Muslim, stood before a random Anglo-Australian on the street as your judge, you might suspect they would be less biased against you if they knew you as a person rather than simply knowing facts about you, like your religion. So maybe the relationship between being unknown to your judge and a lack of bias doesn’t exist anyway.

That would mean that a judge who doesn’t know you only really brings an impression of being unbiased. This seems an inadequate description of fairness. Given time I imagine the word fairness would give you more and more trouble. It can be a fuller, richer word than we first concede. Is it fair that Joe Bloggs goes to prison? Can we answer that only knowing what Joe’s crime was and what the sentence for such a crime usually is? Do we need to know Joes whole story from birth? Or is it something in between these extremes; A mile long walk in Joes shoes, whatever that means?

You may have felt a need to confess; maybe those who know me actually know me the least for it, maybe I fool the most the ones who know me the best. This is where we need to define knowledge. I’m not referring to a judge who plays golf with you, a judge who has been to your house or a judge who you used to do grafitti runs with – the kind of social knowledge that creates reciprocal obligations even between people who couldn’t provide a paragraph towards a eulogy for each other. I’m talking about accurate knowledge of your strengths, limits, foils and capabilities. I’m talking about the ability to not be fooled by you – to know when you really need some slack cut for you and when you are just slacking off.  This idea of knowledge also requires the knower to be miraculously immune to bias. If they distort what they know about you so that the picture they make from it is untrue this wouldn’t be perfect knowledge.

With this idea of knowledge in mind I believe that perfect knowledge is essential for perfect fairness. I would go further to say the more our judges knowledge of us approaches perfection the more fairness we can expect. This knowledge might not agree with our own self-perception. I can imagine someone else knowing me hypothetically at least better than myself. Certainly at times I can be very self-deluded, sometimes stuck in hopelessness and sometimes thrilled with confidence and an external mind can see that my situation hasn’t changed with my mood.

Perhaps like me you thought that maybe you don’t want the judge to know you even if fairness is the result. We might all rather be sent to jail by a stranger rather than lose a friendship over it. Maybe we don’t even want perfect fairness anyway. Fairness is kind of a terrible thing. If the judge doesn’t know you then you can say that the judge made the fairest decision they could but they didn’t know the whole truth. Nobody wants to be treated deliberately unfairly, that offends us, but accidental unfairness is not that. Perfect fairness robs you of the ability to grizzle at the sentence you receive in the end. Perfect fairness robs us of our self-delusions.

How beautiful does that sound though? To be robbed entirely of our self-delusions. The terror of it is overshadowed by a sense of relief. Pretense and self-doubt, born of being unknown, is a burden. If the price of this moment of being both perfectly known and given our sentence is the consequences of perfect fairness then I don’t see how we can refuse to pay. Imagine a community of people who willingly rejected this exchange. How empty would be anything they have to say about themselves and how qualified would their freedom be given its reliance on turning away from an opportunity to receive perfect fairness? By comparison there is something actually holy about the words “fair cop” uttered by the person receiving a truly fair but harsh sentence and how genuinely freeing would a pardon be if it was based on perfect knowledge.

This idea of perfect fairness from perfect knowledge was always a profound attractiveness of the Christianity of my youth. God who knows us completely will one day be our judge. Somewhere someone even told me of a picture of heaven in which everyone's sins were shouted from the roof tops. I can’t imagine this without cringing. I will never probably be brave enough to make this happen in my life, a mumble from my rooftop is more likely. This is despite my suspicion that you and I probably are the same long distance from perfection regardless of our fronts. But this is what Christianity offered – the chance to realize this suspicion one day and not only experience the perfect knowledge of God but to share in a community of people perfectly knowing each other.

To bring together this ethical value of closeness with Christian theology is to produce some interesting conclusions. A God who knows us is a better judge than a distant one. A God who judges from afar, first reading our name with incorrect pronunciation from a book on our judgment day, is pretty much ignorable. They might be biased against us or fooled by our suit on the day. But a God who travels with us and shares in all of our life, knowing our story from birth, offers us something precious in their judgement, something we never know if we can even give ourselves. Whether this seems feasible to us, it is pretty cool. It puts a different spin on the purpose of the incarnation even. It suggests that God must know what is to be a woman, a poor person, a rich person, a grieving parent, a spoilt child, an alcoholic, a sinner like the rest of us. It promises everyone that they will one day be able to say with all their heart, "fair cop."



Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Now or Later: Distance as an Ethical concept.



In my last blog post I tried to defend the legitimacy of saying that a behaviour “is mean”. I was arguing that saying something is mean (or unkind) is more than just the equivalent of blowing a fart on your hand and kissing it at someone. Saying that something is mean is saying something. In particular I argued that saying something  is mean is as legitimate if not more so than saying we shouldn’t do that thing for X or Y reasons.

In making this claim I assumed a range of the thoughts that have been a part of previous posts I’ve written. To make them explicitly:
1. Morality as a purely logical system of premises doesn’t work. There simply is no logical argument against “I don’t care”  which can be leveled against any primary premise. Concern is the root of all Morality and its a “leap of concern” as to why we should possess it.
2. Empathy is the particular type of concern I consider most relevant to any conversation about morality between people. Empathy-led ethics is my term for ethics which is specific and messy and values proximity to the subject. It doesn’t preclude looking at consequences or holding to ideals but it identifies these things up close with others. It doesn’t believe in working out consequences and ideals away from others.
3. Proximity and Distance. These are very important concepts in Empathy led ethics. Distance can be distance from the person and the situation but it can also represent the distance between a metaphor we are using and the actual act we mean it to refer to. An example of this is “you wouldn’t steal an old ladies purse” as an argument against illegally downloading a movie. The distance between the two acts tells us this is not an empathy led ethical argument. General ethical principles and rules allow us to maintain distance and the more general the rules, (a rule against all stealing rather than all downloading or even all illegality rather than all stealing) the more distance is enabled.
4. Distance can also be in regard to time and this type of distance was the key concern that motivated me to write the last post. The more consequential our moral reasoning the more distance we have from what is happening now and potentially the less empathy. We can justify behaviour we can barely look at because our gaze is on a distant future which makes it all right. This needs to be resisted.

This last point might be the most contentious. After all a person who doesn’t consider any future implications of their actions wouldn’t be able to make a coffee because what on earth would getting the cup out be for (and wouldn’t that be a tragedy my morning brain thinks). Even without going to such a logical extreme what drives anxiety sufferers to panic is living too “in the moment”. This is why the phrase “this will pass” can be a powerful cognitive tool to cope with stress.  We tend to place on a hierarchy from wise to foolish those who can think about the future to those who cant. Certainly the Ant, although a little dull, is considered more adapted to life than the Grasshopper.

But this type of morality has failed us over and over again in a way that I find particularly disturbing. We are all embroiled in perpetuating injustices which cannot be broken because of “what if” scenarios. The homeless are homeless because “what if” we just built homes for them. Countless millions are spent on submarines because “what if” we didn’t. Debts can’t be forgiven or, in the case of what Australia owes its first inhabitants, can’t be recognized, because “what if” we did. We are so constantly frightened of loosing anarchy upon the world that we are bound into obeying structures that we hate. In post after post I have tried to indentify this entrapment and seek its philosophical remedy.

My greatest loathing is reserved for when we make terrible compromises in the vain hope of future bliss. I make this statement despite knowing of studies that have shown that the capacity to delay gratification is a marker for both material success and happiness. The marshmallow test (see the above clip) is well worth a look, if only because kids yielding to sweet temptation are just too darn cute. Such cuteness is tempered however by the ominous predictions for those who can’t wait for pleasure: addiction, crime, divorce and early death. Better to work now and play later. Eat your veggies before your desert. Be the kid who saves.

I feel these mottos make their point by looking at the problem at too small a scale. When we pan back we see that delayed gratification is also internalized oppression. To accept justice delayed is to accept justice denied. The terrible promise of scientific and economic progress is a world of harmony and equality. What makes the promise terrible is that just one more period of unemployment, one more cut to health or education, just one more wall built around our diminishing prosperity, one more power to the surveillance state or one more war, is required to get us there. And then one more again. And then one more. Obviously one day we will have a world in which refugees wont live in cages but only if we build the current electric fences higher. Young people must be willing to work for free if we are ever going to solve their poverty. It’s insane.

Certainly it is possible to phrase many of our problems as not being future minded enough. We divide the planet now as if we won’t need to live on it in a decade. Even our detention of refugees doesn’t think ahead to what might happen if we became refugees. I could take this tack and trump those who claim to speak for the future with a bigger picture of the future than them. This is an interesting aspect of moral speech. We can find different routes to the same destination. If I sometimes take these different routes though, I find them unsatisfying, like a cyclist on the bus due to a flat tyre. I prefer to struggle to express all ethical considerations as a part of the immediate – that the possibility of us being future refugees can be experienced instead as the moral sense that we are the refugees now through a shared humanity.

Part of my reason for not wanting to rely on the future in ethical arguments is that hypothetically at least the future might not happen. If we imagine ourselves at the very end of the universe I think we should still be able to say putting a cigarette out on a childs arm is wrong. The wrongness doesn’t depend on the child being traumatized as an adult or any other future consequence. It certainly doesn’t depend on the idea that we might one day be vulnerable and defenceless as we age. If all those possibilities were certainly not going to happen this shouldn’t change the moral weight of our action.

Perhaps if I was a better philosopher I could distinguish between the sorts of consequences I think should inform our present moral choices and those I want to avoid. I think planting a tree next to your house needs to take into account whether the shade is in the right place and whether the roots will damage your pipes. That’s thinking of the future. But there is something deeply inauthentic to me about many applications of future thinking to our human ethics. Take the safe schools program. I can deal with arguments about whether the program will diminish or even increase bullying. I just can’t deal with the idea that we need to be concerned that bullying leads to anxiety and stress in adults. I’m sure it does but even if it didn’t bullying would be wrong. Otherwise where do we end things? Do we need to indicate some consequence of anxiety in adults before we care about that too or can we stop there? And would it be okay to bully if bullying actually “built character” in some positive way?

Still these logical challenges are besides my main point. Why I fear distance and praise proximity in ethics is pragmatic. Ethics in history has been a lurching from one authority to another. From heart to head we toss with the violent excesses of one Romantic revolution replaced by the death worship of Economic Rationalism. Neither guides us true. Fundamentalists rush in here and say they have the answer beyond our heart or head but history has emptied their claim of difference. They also have blood on their boots. Everywhere that peace has broken out it seems to me that getting to know ones enemy has been crucial. We may hurt each other when we know each other but I think it is harder to do so and much easier to live rightly by each other.

How does this value of proximity relate to whether its defensible to say that something is mean? Poorly perhaps. The example of spanking used in the last post was an example given to my eight year old to explain a conversation I was having with my partner about same-sex marriage. Is it meaningful to say that denying marriage to same-sex couples is mean? Should we accept that such language is unfair to opponents of same-sex marriage? I think we should resist any direction that consequential reasons, and general principles are the only types of legitimate moral speech. I think we need to try and stay within the immediate situation and consider what would happen if the opponents of gay marriage and a gay couple who wanted to get married knew each other. I suspect nobody would stop the marriage because it would too obviously be mean.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

"I think spanking is mean."


Long term readers of this blog will know I have a co-philosopher. For her privacy I refer to her simply as the kid. She’s eight now and despite her claiming to be a tween I maintain she is a kid still.

Recently I asked her, “What if I knew someone who loved their kids and who felt the best thing for those kids was to spank them, would it be ok for me to say to them “I think spanking is mean.”

I added that I did feel that spanking was mean so my statement would be an honest reflection of my feelings. After some thought the kid told me “It would be better to say, “I don’t think you should spank kids because…” and then give some reasons, because calling them mean will just make people feel guilty and bad.”

I asked, “Don’t I want them to feel guilty and bad? I want them to feel guilty about spanking so they won’t do it.”

The kid replied, “If they feel guilty they’ll probably still do it and they might even do it more because they’re angry.”

This is an eight year old so I am not suggesting we take her word as that of an expert. She has only just starting watching Dr. Who, and doesn’t even have any idea about Star Trek, so we can reasonably suspect her philosophy is shallow at best. However does she have a point? Or rather does she have two points:
1) Telling someone a behaviour is mean is not effective at changing their behaviour.
2) We can and should find arguments against behaviours other than just saying that they are mean.

This second point needs to be interrogated because, the kid failed to tell me how to finish her alternative to “spanking is mean”. This is no accident. Providing reasons for moral positions is not simple. Some people even argue it can’t be done: that moral language is essential a statement of preference. This can leave us able to make appeals to empathy, i.e. “You wouldn’t like to be spanked would you?”, but leaves us with little by way of logical premises to build an objective case. Pragmatically this dilemma makes too much of the possibility we won’t share some basic assumptions that we can argue from with other people. I do however concede that strictly logical ethical arguments don’t really go anywhere and I do believe that empathy is more crucial than logic to ethics.

My other concern with finding reasons not to spank is that we often mistakenly limit ourselves to certain type of reasons. These reasons are consequences, essentially a justification of one part of our life in terms of another. For example; It is good to exercise because it makes a person fitter. It is good to be fitter because you can be a better lover. It is good to be a better lover because sex is important to maintaining a relationship. It is good to maintain a relationship because this provides a stable place to raise children (or at least garden).  The reason for each choice is not contained in the choice but in some far off set of circumstances – nothing is ever done for its own reasons.

Is there any point in this chain of consequences when you felt a bit echh? Did you wonder whether having sex “for the kid’s sake” was the sort of justification that just might have you running from the bedroom? Or does it creep you out a little that the enjoyment of jogging is treated as secondary to the benefits of jogging to one’s relationship? I think there is a disassociation involved in constantly having these sorts of justifications in our head that constitutes a betrayal of the act we are committing. Does it make sense that we can betray or be disloyal to an act? An actor on the stage knows this is so. There is something tepid and dull about a performance that isn’t committed to. A life lived according to justifications that are never in the moment seems to me to have the same distracted quality.

In contrast to this saying that spanking is mean is riveted on the moment. I’m not saying “Don’t spank your kids because if you do they will hit other kids.” In fact even if spanked kids don’t increasingly hit other kids I’m saying don’t spank them. After all if your own kid’s pain is irrelevant why all of a sudden does some other kid’s pain matter? That other kid is not even real – merely hypothetical. The encounter with them may never even occur. So how on earth does whether they get hit have more value than the interests of the kid who is actually being spanked when the decision is actually being made?

There are two problems that stand out for me  however with the statement “spanking is mean”.  Firstly its unclear what I am referring to. Do I just mean the feeling of being a bad person? If so then being concerned with the meanness of any act is arguably quite selfish. This is possibly people’s biggest counter argument against calling behaviour mean or for that matter cruel. It can sound like someone is simply wanting to live in a fantasy where they are always liked and never have to say no to anyone. This doesn’t treat other people with any genuine concern, hence the saying “you need to be cruel to be kind”. Even that can be an overstatement of the contradiction. Sometimes my children’s “naughty” behaviour is a transparent ask for some limits where I can say “it felt cruel to put her to bed so early but I could tell she desperately wanted me to.”

If this feeling of being a bad person isn’t what I mean by “being mean” what am I talking about? It’s not easy to articulate without referring to consequences beyond the immediate situation which I want to avoid. I think there is something to “being mean” about failing to identify with the other person’s personhood. Not “being mean” means rejecting the notion that the other persons fear and pain are simply levers you can manipulate: the other person has a genuine mind which has to be engaged with. In particular, meanness is unconcerned with the other minds’ enjoyment of life in a good and healthy way. Meanness dismisses this as unimportant. Calling someone mean is calling them to respect this enjoyment – to share in it even.

The other problem with saying “spanking is mean”, and this impacts on its effectiveness, is that it just doesn’t correspond to the spanker’s reality. Here the spanker may be confusing meanness with cruelty. Cruelty relishes in the pain of its victims. Meanness not so much. However still the spanker may be behaving out of a sense of gruesome duty that goes beyond just avoiding being cruel. They may not be indifferent to the recipient’s pain and fear. They may deeply dislike causing this pain and fear. In that context even meanness seems a profoundly unfair sentence to pronounce.

If this is the situation then it might be properly characterized as everyone accepting that the behaviour is mean, even if using that language would not be good politics. At least everyone would agree that without any extenuating circumstances the spanking would be mean. This is when an argument might take place that seeks to disprove  those consequential reasons that justify the meanness. However this is not the same thing as producing consequential reasons not to spank. There doesn’t need to be any benefit to not spanking. The reason not to spank remains located in the moment: It remains that spanking is mean.

This is, according to my logic, describes where arguments over vaccination also belong. Although I am pro-vaccination and anti-spanking, vaccination would surely be as mean as spanking without any extenuating circumstances. It is just that to my mind the extenuating cicumstances make it alright. Does it make sense then to say that when I vaccinate my kids I am being mean, just with good reason? I’m not sure if I want to say it does. I have to admit that an anti-vaxxer who tells me I am being mean by vaccinating my kids has not led with a convincing argument. As my kid correctly guessed it is probably just going to make me angry.

Not politically then, but philosophically, I am disputing my eight year old’s claim that we shouldn’t say spanking is mean. This is despite being immensely proud of her for an attitude which is at odds with our culture. There is a lot of calling people mean on social media today and it sets the tone for other conversations too. Labeling other people as mean also seems to provide the license to not only be mean to those people but to be outright cruel. In this regard we need to really hold on to the difference between saying that an action is being mean and saying that a person is a mean person. Some are, but not all who spank are, certainly.

On the other hand maybe I’m wrong. Maybe all I’m doing is arguing for some sort of anti-rational romanticism, a rejection of the common sense that life shouldn’t be lived only for a moment at a time. I do think there is a time for irrational romanticism to be sure. The gut knows what the head can become confused over. As we’ve seen with Australia’s horrific detention camps supposedly saving people from dying at sea, consequential reasoning can justify anything. But equally following one’s gut leads to its own excesses. Heads often roll. So don’t let me have the last word, let’s have a conversation instead. Tell us your thoughts in the comments.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Partial solutions to the need to pee.

In my last blog post I wrote possibly the most positive press that postmodernism has received in the last decade. (That post backgrounds this one so I recommend you read it first.) Postmodernism peaked in the 90’s and early 2000's as a general search term but as the following graph shows it has encountered a steady fall in popularity since then.


I feel, despite its decline, that postmodern ideas can help out with some contemporary problems. In fact some contemporary problems remind me very much of a situation at university in my twenties when I felt postmodern ideas contained a way to approach an irresolvable conflict.

The problem back then regarded women-only spaces. This was usually a small lounge on a university campus which was reserved for women students. The rest of the university was only nominally a shared space. Men generally took up most of the public space as per our socialization. There were mostly men on the pool tables for example. It seemed to me that amongst the jocks, men dominated groups with casual ease, but I more often hung out with the card playing geeks, where guys hastily claimed every flat surface available to play on with their friends. I was then, and am now, a supporter of women only spaces on campuses, even though I am aware that women can be horrible to other women and that a tucked away lounge is not a substitute for equally shared space. A women’s lounge isn’t a perfect solution but it can provide an alternative organizing space for women to confront sexism.

Whether or not transgender women could access women’s only spaces like women’s lounges was and is a confronting issue. Some transgender activists  back then insisted they be welcomed in to women’s lounges while others pointedly didn’t. To those who opposed transgender inclusion, transgenderism was the colonization of the territory of women by men, with the women’s lounge a totemic example of that territory. There was a real hostility between feminists who supported transgender women’s inclusion in women’s only space and those who didn’t, partly because this was an issue that reflected other divisions - about how to understand sex-work for example. Some women’s departments seemed torn down the middle.

My stance on the issue was simple: This was none of my business. Even involved as I was in Queer politics, even spending some of my time in a dress as I went from class to protest, to cafĂ© and to pub I didn’t think the inclusion or exclusion of transgender women from the women’s lounge was for me to decide. I knew that I experienced significant male privilege – dress or no dress. In fact cross-dressing to pass at times (where a person basically fools the average joe they are the other gender) taught me there is a lot of misogyny in this world that many men just don’t know about. Dressed as a woman I had a ton of people grab my ass (arse?) and not in a good way. Friends did it, self declared feminists even did it. As a joke, it wasn’t particularly funny the first time and definitely not by the thirtieth. Nobody grabbed my ass when I was dressed as a bloke.

My own public experiences of wearing women’s clothes were mostly around the ages of eighteen to twenty. I was not always thrilled to be perceived as male and resented  the expectation I felt to embrace violence and insensitivity as a bloke. I felt able to escape those expectations by using clothes and mannerisms to appear female. I never identified as female or wanted to be female but then I don’t hugely identify as male or want to be male either. I did however want to be seen as female occasionally just as I imagine most people do. When women want to be seen as female it’s unremarkable however.

All presentations to the world feel like “drag” to me. I put on a suit for court, I dress in a nice shirt and tie for a job interview, I wear a t-shirt and shorts to work with young people in relation to substance use. None of these outfits are the real me. That would be ridiculous. It would mean that I couldn’t exist in some other time such as before the t-shirt's invention. Likewise gender can’t be the real me. Gender, expressed by long hair or short hair or any item of clothing or makeup can’t derive from an essentialist idea of self. These are patterns and they don’t have any more permanence than a style of music. We can feel like the real us is expressed by rap music for example but the us we mean by this is something separate from the expression, and might need other expressions too.

We must be very careful not to fall into the trap of thinking that gender is only self-expression however. We are not alone in society. Everybody else is expressing their views and values too. This is why there is a women’s movement and women’s lounge to begin with; not so much to express one’s own gender but to deal with the impact of other people’s understanding of gender on certain people’s lives. This impact is both externalized in people’s actions and internalized in our thoughts and feelings, so that our “own gender” is mixed up with everyone else’s. As trans-feminist Kate Bornstein describes: “women inhabit women only spaces to heal from the oppression of their number by the larger culture.” (Gender Outlaw, p82)

Each of our individual expressions of gender draw from and contribute to a wider culture (and sub-cultures) around gender. To begin with I have a limited extent to how I can talk about gender based on my imagination, and a part of what limits my imagination are the terms and reference points my culture gives me to begin with. On top of that my self-expression only makes sense to others if I limit myself to terms and reference points they understand. Finally there are real sanctions for deviating from norms around gender and rewards for living up to them. Gender may not be a real part of who I am but it is something I really do have to learn to navigate in the world.

Acknowledging these two sides to Gender is something modernism struggles with. Modernism sees language as essentially a practice of truth-telling: if I say I am a woman this must correspond to the reality that I am a woman. It’s a position that seems obvious. Modernists can critically examine what is meant by reality and recognize there are different kinds of real – all forms of feminism do this to an extent and so does Marxism and many other modernist movements. However Modernism seems to repeatedly fall into the error of talking only in terms of one level of reality and supposing that language should be as direct as possible a description of that reality and nothing else.

Postmodernism always questions what is meant by reality and recognizes that there are different kinds of real. This is inevitable given that postmodern views of language emphasis its many purposes other than truth-telling. Consider how often in our current election campaign we will hear some truth claims about global warming, unemployment, tax-evasion and union corruption from different parties. Even if none of these claims included any lies each party tells the truth they want to tell and glosses over other truths. The purpose of a given selection of truths is not to tell the whole truth but to scare, provoke, please and otherwise motivate voters in a particular direction.

Likewise whenever gender is spoken of there are more purposes than simply truth-telling going on. This cuts both ways. Feminists who want to exclude transgender women from the women’s room can’t rest their case by saying “they are not real women” and equally transgender women cannot claim a right to access women’s rooms because “we are real women” as if that was either clear or a key point. These statements talk about a construct – “real woman” – as if anyone could know scientifically or intuitively exactly what it is and as if that was the organizing principle upon which a women’s lounge was based anyway, a club for “real women”.

One way of differentiating postmodern from modern solutions to this matter is to consider time as a dimension of the problem. Modernist solutions are based on the idea that through truth-telling a solution will reflect a timeless reality. Therefore modernist solutions will be permanent and universal. This is why disagreements can become so high stakes. They are effectively winner-takes-all. Postmodern solutions are not intended to reflect reality but to engage with the circumstances which create the kind of reality that gender is. Therefore postmodern solutions are strategic solutions. Rather than cementing any solution in a constitution that would be difficult to reverse, a postmodern solution would be more willing to come up with policies with a built in sunset clause in recognition that the reality of gender will (hopefully if feminists have anything to do about it) change. A women’s room on one campus might also make a decision different to another women’s room elsewhere because they see their circumstances are different. Different histories and the alliances they have created would be relevant to local communities.

I call these kinds of solutions partial solutions. They are temporal – limited by time, and local – limited by space, and tactical – justified by temporal and local circumstances. A women’s department is itself such a partial solution to the changing problems women face around gender. The establishment of any women’s lounge never reflected a real and timeless right to a small room with couches and an urn regardless of circumstances. This isn’t to say they must be opened up to transgender women. To be transgender is itself to take up a partial solution to gendered culture rather than tell “the truth”.  Does this mean that the transgendered woman doesn’t possess a real and timeless right to the implications of their gender identity? I think it does because everything gender embodies is circumstantial rather than eternal. I also think this applies to cis-gender women too and anyone's gender identity.

The obvious correlation to the issue of transgender women in women’s only spaces is “the bathroom wars” currently raging senselessly across the U.S. Once again we would do well to recognize that the division of toilets into men’s and women’s is not intended to reflect a position on ultimate reality. In our own houses we don’t divide toilets that way because it would be impractical. At most gay venues there is a degree of freedom about women using men’s toilets which tends to share the toilet queues more equitably. Nobody is urinating on a scared binary when they use a toilet of any gender or no gender. Whatever policy is reached in any situation only a deliberately partial solution, local to circumstances, and sensitive to immediate needs makes sense. That’s what toilets are to the need to pee.

This is why the North Carolina law that bans any use of a toilet assigned for the gender not on your birth certificate is so silly. It makes a state issue out of what should have been resolved at the most immediate level and encourages everyone to take a winner-takes-all position for or against the law. We have the idiocy of people who look male being forced to use women’s bathrooms because of what’s on their birth certificate in order that women concerned about men in their toilets feel safe. We have the draconian need for women to present ID proving their birth sex to male police officers entering women's bathrooms. On the other hand making one rule for all to allow anyone to use whatever toilet matches the gender they identify with has its own problems. It can lead us with no capacity to deal with creeps like Mike Huckabee wanting to perv on high school girls  or put us on a fool’s errand to find the technical point at which transition from one gender to another is sufficient. Encouraging flexibility and sensitivity say at an individual school level would be much wiser. Not blowing up the issue on social media for the sake of outrage is probably too much to hope for.

This has been another puff piece for postmodernism in a way. If we are to avoid modernist solutions to problems we also need to properly understand why they are attractive to us. That means I need to talk about what they do well, particularly how we can use the language of rights to anchor socially just outcomes to timeless reality. That timeless reality might be a fiction but it's been fantastically beneficial to believe in it. Given the ridiculous length of this post however I’ll leave this to be explored in the comments or a future post.  I really would enjoy hearing your thoughts.