Sunday, February 21, 2021

What do wolves look like? : Reeling from Ravi Zacharias

Ravi Zacharias died in May 2020 and at that time was broadly lauded as a champion of the Christian gospel. In his life he founded RZIM, an international organisation with million dollar budgets in several countries, and personally authored or co-authored thirty-three books. He travelled in the circles of the most influential evangelical Christians whose eulogies assured their audiences he was now with his Lord and Saviour in heaven. Mike Pence, then Vice President of the United States heaped praise on him at his memorial service.  

These accolades came despite allegations of sexual abuse perpetrated by Ravi Zacharias. RZIM officially dismissed those allegations as being baseless attempts to tear down a man of God. A few dissented from this conclusion but they were in the minority. I myself, while having a low opinion of Ravi Zacharias as a writer and thinker, reserved judgement about whether he was an abuser.

Post his death there has been a full independent enquiry and it has revealed that not only did Ravi commit the few abuses he was suspected of, but that he systematically preyed on young vulnerable women.  The full report is well worth a read in order to grasp the magnitude of his actions. 

Evangelical Christians are well aware of this issue and within evangelical Christianity there are already a range of voices debating the implications of this. I am pleased to see that a number of evangelical commentators are taking this very seriously. In some cases labelling it unprecedented in “scale, scope, breadth, depth, persistence, and complexity” and calling for nothing less than a total honest facing of a pattern of abuse that we do not know the extent of.  

To give some idea of this extent, there were 200 different spa contacts, across the US and Asia, part of a network owned in indirect, convoluted ways by Ravi, that Ravi Zaccharias had in his phone. Sites in the US have been revealed as where Ravi conducted his abuse and none of the Asian Spa contacts have been independently interviewed yet about whether the abuse occurred there. Ravi’s manipulation and control over the young women who worked there used money donated to his organisation for charitable purposes in a global operation of abuse. After making women financially dependant on him, he used blatant spiritual abuse to weaken their resolve to escape or report against him.  He used confidences gained in his role as a Christian leader to build trust and render his victims vulnerable. He raped at least one woman and afterwards prayed with her to thank God for what they had done.

Perhaps unsuprisingly Martin Illes from the Australian Christian Lobby is among those who have missed the point. He makes a 9 minute statement on the matter after spending 23 minutes lambasting Dan Andrews. In his statement, Marin Illes describes Ravi’s behaviour as simply the outworking of the human heart, a heart bent on deception, and that looking at his behaviour as anything we are incapable of ourselves is foolish. Furthermore according to Martin we should be careful not to judge because we too have “sinners hearts”.  This should not be read as humility but a red flag to Martin’s followers. Ravi was a systematic and repeatedly unrepentant manipulator of the vulnerable who showed a pathological disinterest in the suffering of his victims. He crushed in the public sphere those who challenged him on this in his life and then continued to offend. If you do not think this is extraordinary for a Christian leader and you are in Christian leadership you should immediately step down and seek help.

I have read commentary that is even more disturbing, implying that Ravi was himself a victim of temptation. Some have gone so far as to still suggest that Ravi is being falsely accused. I don’t think these comments reflect the majority of those who were once Ravi fans. I think the dominant tone is one of betrayal sometimes blunted by the Martin Illes of the world and sometimes more unconditionally expressed. When Archbishop Pell was initially charged and later convicted for sexual abuse, only to have that conviction overturned by a higher court, there were Catholics who said his trials were just an attack on the church by those who would always hate the church. They were not reflective of the majority of Catholics I know, who can tell you the moment in the whole process they decided Archbishop Pell was suss. I estimate feelings here to be similar for evangelical Christians as a whole, as much as these two situations are comparable.

Are they comparable? Evangelical Christianity is not formally organised like the Catholic Church. It is harder to say what position of trust and authority Ravi Zacharias held than it is to state George Pells official status and thus harder to infer the meaning of his deciet. There are after all numerous independent evangelical churches. It is possible for evangelicals in one church to compartmentalise Ravi’s abuse as his own churches problem. But again this doesn’t seem to be what prominent voices on sites like the Gospel Coalition are doing. 

The reason for this is that Ravi was very much part of their evangelical tribe. By contrast Hillsong church is headed by Brian Houston who covered up his fathers abuse of children and Hillsong has recently had to sack Carl Lentz , its senior New York pastor for having multiple affairs but Hillsong is closer to the Pentecostal and even prosperity theology churches than the reformed sort of evangelicalism that the Gospel Coalition speaks from. To simplify, Hillsong is feeling-based spirituality which a respectable reformed evangelical knows not to trust. (Baptists are not historically part of the reformed tradition). Ravi was reason and argument which reformed evangelicals expect to be more reliable. He was logic and evidence. And he was a manipulative, fraud and serial abuser. That is a much bigger blow.

Time will tell whether Ravi Zacharias’ betrayal of trust will have any substantial effect and what that effect will be. I was pleased to see a Gospel Coalition article that pointed away from the Billy Graham rule as a solution. This rule, made somewhat famous outside the church by Mike Pence, suggests that a male church leader should never be alone with a woman other than their wife. This is a solution that only serves to entrench male only leadership because it is never enacted in a way that obliges men to step down or away from anything. Ravi Zacharias himself claimed to follow this rule and although this is now known to be just another lie it can be seen that invoking this rule offers no institutional protection.

For those of us more outside the church I wonder what we will take from this incident. I already do not trust a certain type of religious man who gravitates to positions of teaching authority. I have seen how on a local level they can make their churches accommodate their sensitivities without any explicit instruction as if they were children with the loudest tantrum. I am wary when, as authors, their names become more and more prominent on their book covers or their wives and children feature prominently in their bio as if part of their resume.  I don’t trust how they construct expert panels of likeminded peers. I am alert to when they put on a pastoral veneer and sit uncomfortably close to potential critics in order to counsel them. I anticipate how that veneer will slip and reveal a spiteful anger if they are challenged. I have spent a fair amount of time around evangelical churches and Ravi Zacharias is not a surprise. 

To say I don’t trust male religious celebrities or those who aspire to be one, is still to stop short of expecting betrayal from them. I was genuine when I said I reserved judgement at Ravi’s death about whether abuse allegations against him were true. My attitude to these people has been they may be good or bad and time will tell; When they are both conservative and certain, I am inclined to think they are uncritical thinkers, but I haven’t assumed that they will be abusive of their power. 

Ravi’s abuse, the cover-ups at Hillsong, all the global scandals of the Catholic church, the Mars Hill toxic culture, and on and on, however, cannot help but have an effect on me. I suspect I am starting to expect this kind of scandal from prominent religious authority figures especially whenever they are treated as anointed prophets like Ravi Zacharias was. I suspect I am making the same assumptions about people who act in a similar way in the smaller ponds of local churches too. That's not the genuinely humble and hardworking ministers I know who would probably blush at any thanks for their work but those who already have reputations they need others to be mindful of, as they are likely to be "going places". At some point it is hard to feel any shock when such stars end up catastrophically failing our trust. At some point it becomes natural to err in the direction of assuming the worst. We are way past fool me once territory here.


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Monday, December 14, 2020

Using the law to fight Conversion Therapy.

I was raised a Catholic and for a brief period of my life became a born again Christian. I left most of organised Christianity about the same time as I began identifying as bisexual when I hit university. I absorbed a bunch of unhelpful attitudes about sexuality and gender from both the wider culture and the Christian organisations I was a part of growing up, including clearly homophobic messages, but I never went through any form of conversion therapy to get me to identify as straight or to be more unambiguously masculine. By the time my churches knew this was my situation I was already out the door.

I mention this so that you can, if you want, disregard the rest of this post on the Victorian Government’s “change and suppression bill”. You might prefer to listen to the direct voices of survivors of conversion therapy, some of whom have been involved in developing this bill. I have felt conflicted in writing this. I feel I have a responsibility to comment which I explain at the end of this piece. I also feel I have a responsibility to acknowledge my lack of direct experience of conversion strategies and my lack of expertise in truly knowing their current reach. I hope I am doing the right thing in publishing this. 

The proposed Victorian law will penalise, with up to 10 years in prison, attempts to change or suppress peoples sexuality or gender identity, that result in injury. Injury is not defined in the legislation. It is fair to predict that injury is meant to include psychological injury as well as physical. It does not seem to matter if the injury was unforeseen or unintended and it definitely doesn’t matter if the victim was an adult and consenting participant. Certainly the meaning of attempt is intended to be as broad as possible and from the statement issued by survivors may even include excluding someone from a faith community, as well as informal prayer ministries and publishing “stories of supposed ‘successful’ instances of conversion”. The broadest definition of the law can’t be dismissed as impossible; that the bill will permit jailing any one who counsels someone against same-sex relationships if that person could say they suffered distress because of it, even if they actually sought out the counsel. It may be that this wont ever happen for less serious instances due to discretion at the prosecutor or judicial level but it remains within the scope of the law.

I want to to argue against a conflation that is happening with this bill. The Victorian Premier has called “suppression and change” practices bigoted, cruel and harmful. The victims of these programs know their harms first hand. What the government then goes on to also argue, with the support of survivors, is that people who practice conversion and suppression practices should be intimidated to stop with the threat of legal penalties. I want to state that, if suppression and changes strategies are as broadly defined as they seem to be, one does not follow the other. I consider, for example, a prayer circle held over a person to ask God to make them less gay, as a practice that is just wrong for multiple reasons (wrong about God and wrong about sexuality) and I want to end this practice, but I don't want to threaten the people organising or participating in this event with jail time. Because this is primarily a philosophy blog I am going to talk about this in terms of some general principles.

Life presents us with many things that will harm us. Some are performed by others out of malice or error. It is reasonable to think that the law is there to deter these harmful acts by making them crimes so that we can all have our best life. The opposing argument is that the law is simply there to reflect a universally true set of moral arrangements between people, even when those arrangements causes pain. For example, it is theft to take someone’s jacket out of their bin even if you are freezing according to the strict application of the law. The law’s primary function in this second view is to acknowledge our true rights and freedoms regardless of harms or benefits.

This classic liberal legal philosophy, that the law is simple a framework of rights unconcerned with outcomes, is just a lie. It chooses to forget the law exists between parties who are deeply unequal in power and who have historically been brought to be so unequal through obvious injustices. If you want to prosecute those historical injustices you will be told that would be too hard or cause too much harm. Likewise a robodebt for the rich who pay little tax is never as likely to be enacted as such a scheme for those on centrelink payments. You will see free speech advocates also prosecuting whistle blowers who expose corruption and pillorying anyone who criticises Anzac Day. In this and numerous other cases, the championing of rights and freedoms is unconcerned with outcomes right up until it impacts negatively on the powerful and their preferences. Then the same law makers are as pragmatic as possible. If the law was ever genuinely applied mercilessly across all classes it would be unlike anything we have ever seen.

I myself believe that the law has no exact job and we as a society might reasonably use it to achieve some things which another equally reasonable society might not use the law to do. There is no “pax-ratio” (peace by reason) here that tells us exactly what should be crimes and exactly where the boundaries of right to property or free speech lie. In saying this I reject the position of those who think the law must either always respect free speech or freedom of religion or the integrity of a person’s sexual orientation or the right to live as the gender of one's choice for that matter. In deciding what the law should do we must make choices about the society we want and the harms we are willing to inflict or overlook to create it. There are often competing values in play.

We can proceed by just imagining the world as we want it and then doing what we can to make it so. This was a legal philosophy I heard repeatedly from opponents to same sex marriage only recently. “Other groups are able to argue for the view of marriage they want so why shouldn’t Christians do the same.” is an actual quote from when I listened to a Bendigo Baptist panel on the same-sex marriage plebiscite. Likewise why not argue for chaplains in schools if you believe that Christians can bring a special something to the job, even if in practice this treads on norms about no religious discrimination in public sector employment. If you like the outcome that should be enough to pursue it and other sections of society can pursue their societal dreams too. It’s all part of a pluralist nightmare.

I say nightmare because in this scenario the only people restraining us from cultural totalitarianism are our opponents. We do not obligate ourselves to do so. We have seen such a cultural tyranny emerge in post ww2 western societies and queer people faced the pointy end of that stick. Jail time for being gay, murders of queer people overlooked, instant dismissal from employment and eviction from homes, loss of parenting rights, forced treatments, public hero worship of those who profess to have cured us…. Look to Poland and you can see it happening again. A few churches took a principled stand in their culturally dominant position and defended us. Others, along with all the lukewarm masses who follow whoever is in power, were happy to let disgust be the sole arbiter of the law. And queers disgusted them so why not use the law to eliminate us.

I want to address the queer movement in today's historical moment. I want us to consider what we are forming an alliance with in order to pursue the world we want. I don’t want us to step away from the hope we have. We should not be content that kids are being told they are broken in their sexualities. We should not be ok that God is being wielded as a weapon against queer people. But let’s notice that queer groups in Victoria are increasingly entering an alliance with government and state power. I don’t think anyone could look at the relationship between queer groups and the state and not think the state is the more powerful of the two but queer groups are obtaining certain victories even if they might eventually be pyrrhic ones. We see this in education and we see it in this change and suppression bill. The federal government is pretty much doing the same with conservative churches so I am not trying to make some argument about who holds more power here or who is willing to lie down with government more (it's still the churches). I am simply elevating our own activist strategy up for scrutiny.

I don’t think there is never a time for involving the state, the police, the judiciary and even prisons. If this legislation was about harms inflicted on people who did not consent or on children or if we were talking about people making false medical claims then I think it's much more justified to bring in the handcuffs. I don’t think though that prison is justified whenever engaging with adults we disagree with. We might even be disgusted by their homophobia and transphobia but that is not enough to lock them up. This is our cultural moment to show legislative restraint by restricting the scope of this legislation to cases where adult consent is not present.

It is also our time to repay those churches who historically defended us when they held cultural power over us. A defender is not an ally. They do not share causes with those they defend. They still want to win against those they defend in the argument they are having. A defender however refuses to concede their enemies humanity and rights. An example of a defender would be Catholic priest Father Paul Kelly who fought for the abolition of the gay panic defence in Queensland in 2008. I have no idea whether Kelly wants the same world I want in terms of queer issues but I feel confident in naming him as a defender and frankly a bit of a hero for his work. Less impressively, through the late 60’s and 70’s, several churches opposed the criminalization of homosexuality. In some cases these statements were qualified by reiterating that this would improve the chance of people obtaining treatment for their homosexuality. It was a long way from embracing their queer congregants and a queer agenda but they were limited defences of queer peoples basic humanity. 

I want Christians to rejoice in same sex relationships, to acknowledge their good fruit and pray for God’s blessing over them. I want them to listen and accept their transgender members insight and faith. I want congregants to stop listening to puffed up men who pretend to know God's will in ways that entrench their own authority. I want churches that shame and belittle those who challenge authority to empty. I would consider using the police, courts and the prison system to achieve only very limited ends in pursuing this goal however. That would include stopping treatments like electro shock therapy or therapies that lack adult consent. In other cases I would rather picket churches and disrupt services, or do the hard slow and frustrating work of conversation and relationship building, to elicit change. I think we need to step back from the suppression and change bill as it is proposed and rethink the long term strategy here in giving such a powerful role to the state to achieve our goals.

I come to this conclusion while acknowledging that a reasonable person may disagree with me. All laws trade off rights and freedoms to reduce harms. You may consider the conversion industry to be duplicitous and manipulative enough that a broad and harsh law is the only thing that will give its current victims any power. You may also not consider the rights of evangelical homophobes an issue that warrants your attention. There are many groups having their rights trashed by governments in Australia. The federal minister who signed off on Rio Tinto’s destruction of the Juukan Gorge caves is still in their job and the laws that permitted it are still unchanged. I could've written on that instead. I didn’t write this piece because what happens to Christians with a problem with homosexuality and transgender identity is my biggest concern, however. I wrote it because I have higher hopes for queer activism and my concern is with its direction.

Monday, July 13, 2020

Life is Not a Game.

I love games. I play them, make them and find their history fascinating. I don’t mean computer games, which I don’t mind. I mean board games where computational engines of dice and cards and human interaction tell stories straight out of the box. While I could easily write pages about how much games help us understand economics, politics and more, I want to explain how games are not the model we really want to help us understand life. Life is not a game.

Albert Camus, the existentialist philosopher, wrote that whether or not to commit suicide is the only really serious problem of philosophy. The rest is conversation. I would disagree and say that all of ethics matters and that suicide is only one of the mistakes we can make. It is not trivial to ask if we should be vegetarian or join an army or be kind to strangers or any other number of ethical questions. However for many people contemplating suicide is the most profound ethical debate they will ever have with themselves and games are the wrong tool for preparing us for that discussion.

Again, I want to say that games are great. I feel about games the way movie buffs enjoy film. But the movie buff needs to remember that life is not a movie, in that it is not something you just watch unfold. Likewise the game buff needs to remember that life is not a game in that it is not something you win or lose. In games with win conditions it is sometimes possible to see how the game will unfold well ahead of its conclusion. With several turns to go with only widening distance between first and last players it is normal for players to lose interest. The winner slogs their way to the end with the promise of glory but even their joy is lost. The loser drifts away from the table or increasingly looks at their phone. When that happens in regards to real life, suicide or self-destructive behaviour is one result; anything to disrupt the march to a foregone outcome.

This is what makes chess an excellent game by the way. No matter how poor your board position is you can still sometimes force a stalemate if not steal an actual victory from your opponent, almost to the very end. Even more importantly the culture around chess is that winning is not the point. People play out games in order to learn from their losses. This is a cultural norm that is firmly taught to new players and is a stroke of conceptual genius. For chess players, chess is always just a game. Defeat in chess does not mean anything beyond the game. And victory does not make you a better person.

As I say this about chess you might be thinking that seems false. In pop culture chess is not talked about as if it was just a game but stands as a metaphor for business, international conflict and depressingly for some people interpersonal relationships. Historically people thought chess made them better at being real generals and historically being a good general was winning at life. The cold war made chess matches between Russia and the US act as tests for their respective ideologies. Perhaps it is in reaction to this that local chess clubs strenuously teach the art of losing well while people who aren’t familiar with chess are often reluctant to learn simply because they think losing will make them look destined to lose at life. Despite the actual cultural embrace of losing by serious chess players, chess metaphors are exactly the sort of poorly borrowed mentality of win-lose gaming that are a horrid way to understand life.

Victory conditions in games are clearly defined. There are notable exceptions to this I’ll mention later but the statement is true for 9 out of 10 products you’ll find boxed at a game store and certainly true for chess. Rules are fixed at the outset and provide a maximum scope for your play. Your turn consists of moving one piece for example. In other games you must reveal hidden information when instructed to. Rules often have the assumption that players will be pushing the limits of what they can do in order to win and only the rules hold them in check. Does this remind you of how businesses are expected to operate? Does this define the legitimate behaviour of landlords or traders or taxpayers? What if a corporation is capable of lobbying politicians to rewrite the rules? This too becomes part of the game. Fair play is defined as pushing the rules as far as they go and winning is as simply determined as possible. In fact could anything be more like the generic victory points found in many games than money? It doesn’t matter if you made your money selling crack or singing ballads, it’s still X number of points towards victory.

Perhaps the most stomach turning example of what I mean is Neill Strauss’s “The Game” and other treatises of pick up artists. Here dating is reduced to trying to win more sexual victories and this is the sole measure by which strategies are evaluated. Does “negging” sap a person’s confidence, tap into their insecurities and manipulate them into looking to you for fulfilment they don’t actually need? Maybe but if it gets you laid that’s a win. From this source we have “incel” culture in which people are encouraged to identify as losers in the dating game, and from this identity the risks of violence against others and self are very real. Why bother playing when you are so far behind those in the lead? This is economics applied to dating after economics has been converted into a game.

2020 has been a year when a great many people have been going backwards in their personal economic game. Before the pandemic the bushfires in Australia destroyed many people’s property. Before then many people were brutalised by a Robodebt scandal that hasn’t cost a single minister or public servant their job. Before then average real wages have been declining while wealth has been increasing for a small minority for some time. Suicide and COVID-19 are going toe to toe for who can kill more people and COVID-19 is a highly infectious disease which has turned our way of life on its head. High rates of suicide is tragically both the old normal and the new normal. The only solution our governments have is to restart the game and get people back to their losing positions at the table.

It is worth noting that no civilisation has ever lasted while running their economy and society in the particular game-like way that we do. Radical egalitarianism is imposed in the longest continuous cultures like Australian Aboriginal culture or that of the San people in South Africa. In urbanised Ancient Egypt workers’ rights were strictly protected and debt was regularly cancelled. I’m not saying that playing competitive games will create a suicidal culture. We can play the most brutal games, if we remember they are just games not metaphors. If we play our society, economy and dating culture in the same way though we shouldn’t be surprised that suicide is as common as it is. When I look at policies like Robodebt I have to consider that this is a possible intention.

To end on a more positive note I mentioned there are games where victory conditions are not clearly defined. Role playing games of which there are many variants are not so much about winning as about playing out a character. I have yet to play "Fog of Love" but when Shut Up and Sit Down reviewed the game they made it look like something that might really represent relationships for people who aren’t pick up artists. Please watch their review. It shows that its possible to strive for one outcome without seeing a different outcome as a loss. It shows that every relationship and every persons story is unique. Also when my friends and I play our board games we play to win but we sit down at the table to have a good time. We choose the game that will make the whole experience the most fun, fixing the rules for everyone’s benefit. That way everyone wins. Imagine if we build society in the same way.


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Friday, July 3, 2020

Who are the police? Part one of many.

There is no doubt that there are good police. But a good police officer is no reason to have the police.

There is no doubt that there are bad police. But a bad police officer is no reason to get rid of the police.

Consider the vexing issue of clergy. This issue is only vexing if you care. So if you have left behind caring about the issue of clergy I invite you back to church for this issue alone.

There are good clergy. And bad clergy. But whether we have the clergy is the question of whether the good priests or the bad ones are the aberrations, or whether the good clergy might be better people if they weren’t clergy at all or if the people in the pews might be better served by there being no clergy.

And all these sorts of questions are perfectly normal sorts of questions. And some churches do alright with clergy and some do alright without clergy. And sometimes when there are no clergy some people just start acting like clergy. And sometimes when there are clergy the clergy keep that from happening while they themselves are not particularly acting like clergy either, which means that in some places having clergy feels more like there being no clergy than in other places where there actually is no official clergy.

And we can talk about all these things. We can talk about clergy and the problems of clergy. And whether or not clergy should have guns that fire smoke grenades and tear gas cannisters. What the hell are neighborhood clergy doing with tear gas - that can only be used against crowds. Its not like they are gonna use tear gas to take down a single gunman is it? And those fire crackers they fired at everyday people with the journalists just standing there. What are those fire cracker things? I don’t think we should have any clergy with those at all.

And choke holds. Zero choke holds.

And clergy who kill people. They should go to jail.

And clergy who use undue force. They should not be allowed to keep being clergy.

And it shouldn’t just be clergy who decide this. It should definitely not be just a group of clergy deciding whether or not a clergyman has to go to jail when they commit a crime.

And it absolutely shouldn’t be clergy who investigate other clergy, who have to decide between betraying a brother or obeying the law. That shouldn’t be on them. It mustn’t be on them.

And we can talk about all of this. We can ask these questions. We are not being naughty to make these points. For we are all priests in the universal church of humanity.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

The Virus is not a moral beast.

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It is not wrong to learn from events in our lives. If we carry a heavy box and drop it on our foot it is reasonable to see this as a lesson to ask for help with heavy loads in the future. We have experienced what might happen if we don’t ask for assistance. The distinction between this “looking for the lesson” in unfortunate events, and treating unfortunate events as a moral message from nature, the universe, or God must be made. This is especially so with diseases like COVID-19. We must not ignore the amorality of the virus’ behaviour, the amorality of solutions to the pandemics spread and the consequent responsibility we ourselves have, to insert morality into the choices we make in response to the pandemic.

When I stress the amorality of COVID-19 this should be obvious. The virus infects people with no right or wrong to it. It doesn’t seem to be as easily caught by children, but not because it recognises their innocence or views their deaths as any kind of greater tragedy of lost opportunities. Likewise COVID-19 will cause death and calamity among the poorest people far worse than for wealthier groups who can afford to isolate and who have greater access to clean water and medical care. But COVID-19 is not in favour of the rich. It is not opting to be crueler to people of colour who have a greater risk of death from the disease and a harder time avoiding it. Neither is it concerned about not being racist or concerned about treating people of disparate wealth fairly.

We need to note the amorality of COVID-19 because there are powerful psychological forces encouraging us to give it a moral dimension. We ask ourselves, “why is this happening now to this generation of humanity?” and for those of us lucky to live far from epidemic epicenters “why am I spared?” and the immediate answers are not particularly satisfying. Viruses are a part of this planets evolution. The periodically move from other species to us, particularly at the intersection of wild animals and humans. This virus spreads through human proximity and the modern world is a crowded place with extensive movement between nations. Human population density and travel within and across countries produce, from the virus’ perspective, a connected web of habitats over the earth. Spreading is inevitable.

But spreading is also not inevitable. A society which housed its homeless, encouraged workers to use their universal sick leave and had a strong responsive health system would drastically reduce the spread of the virus. We could say the virus is telling us to reform our society or suffer the consequences. We could say the virus is a wake up call that the health of everyone depends on the health of the least of us and our economies should reflect that. Except there is a problem with this conclusion because it is also possible to conclude that a society which normally restricts human movement, tracks who you talk to and forbids gatherings of ten or more people, while incarcerating the homeless is also protected from any future diseases. The virus might be a wake up call that we cannot tolerate certain human liberties.

Attributing either of these moral conclusions to the virus is what existentialist philosophy calls an act of bad faith. There is a choice to be made as to what lessons should be drawn from the pandemic and the choice belongs to us. When we attribute that lesson to the virus, to fate, God or the universe it conceals our moral choice and responsibility. We think this leaning on the virus as authority strengthens our arguments but it simply locks us and those who disagree with us in positions of polarised difference. By trading facts about the virus as if they were themselves political arguments about how society should be, we politicise the facts or at least what they mean and we hide our own biases. I don’t think we should hide a bias against death camps and for public housing myself – we should argue that bias explicitly.

Such biases are necessary because nature is not designed for us. Sunsets are not beautiful to amuse us. Leaves don’t fall in piles for us to play in. We can find sunsets beautiful and play in piles of leaves but it isn't their intent. If nature is attacking us, in the form of the virus, it therefore does not mean that we have done something wrong. We have not necessarily acted incorrectly. It is true that there are generally patterns of co-operation in nature as much as there is competition, if not more. It is true therefore that when the world becomes more inhabitable for any reason we should check our own interactions with the world for causes. But it's also true that what is incompatible with accommodating nature is not necessarily bad. It might make life harder for our species if we extend human life regularly beyond sixty. It might create vectors for viruses in immune compromised senior citizens. It doesn’t make it wrong.

A particularly dangerous type of bad faith is when the virus is attributed to an angry deity. When this is done any motivation that suits the speaker can be ascribed to the deity; it doesn’t even have to relate to how the virus behaves. After all, God could send a plague of locusts for completely unrelated crimes and their priests would be required to tell us the meaning of the catastrophe. I listened to a lengthy Christian sermon expounding how God is displeased with impiety and irreverence and especially liberalism in the church and has therefore sent the virus as a broad chastistement and reminder that they, with a view that corresponds to the preachers own, are to be heeded. Of course this interpretation comes from people who thought that acknowledging Jesus as God, complete with conservative affiliations, was a good idea before any pandemic. I suspect if I listened to the sermons and speeches of people of all manner of beliefs I would find someone in each case saying COVID-19 is a call to plead to their God for mercy and align oneself with their Gods views. The virus enables the speaker to pretend the message is not from them.

When this bad faith is criticised we shouldn’t expect critics to be able to answer “Why couldn’t this be God saying something?” Proving a negative is nigh impossible. Why couldn’t the virus be a coded message from aliens? Why couldn’t it be an ex-partner trying to get me personally? Why couldn’t the pandemic be something I willed into being with my own psychic powers when I thought I might get sick? Such a question shifts the focus of the conversation. If the critics doubt that the virus came from God this can be labelled a refusal to permit God to act freely outside the critics own definitions of morality. That refusal and its theological arrogance becomes the new topic for dissection. Meanwhile the bad faith act of using an amoral virus to claim a moral message from God (in support of the speakers own views) escapes scrutiny.

We are all tempted to tolerate bad faith speech when it supports values we agree with. If you tell me that this pandemic is nature encouraging us to slow down and smell the roses I might think a death toll in the hundreds of thousands to be an extreme way to communicate this but I still like the sentiment. As I scroll my social media feed I might be tempted to give that idea a thumbs up, even more so if you think that the virus is a call to look out for the vulnerable in society or to cease the trade in wild animals. I am more likely to recognise bad faith claims when they disagree with my values. If the virus is used to push values I like however then I have opened the door to it being used to communicate all manner of ideology.

It's true that we should learn from this pandemic. We don’t want to be here again. We don’t want to repeat scenarios where a UK nursing home has a secret room for bodies and lacked PPE for staff or see the levels of panic and distrust that leads a man to try and crash a train into a hospital ship docked in New York. Or watch footage of Iranians licking surfaces because of their faith in Allah to protect them from the virus while the elderly just collapse in the street. There is a lot to be proud of our response to the pandemic and quite a bit that we need to reassess. All I am urging is that we own the choices and values we bring to that conversation rather than claiming they are revealed in the pandemic itself.

You could conclude from all I’ve said so far that God has no place in this conversation. Certainly a God who speaks to us in storms and whose wisdom is divined by priests should be dismissed for the puppet they are. For one thing, why did they fail to warn their priests about the toilet paper shortage? But the people who are stitching face masks for front line health workers include people inspired by their faith as well as atheists and agnostics. Just like the Sikh foodtrucks during the bush fire crisis there are people whose God urges them to volunteer and to advocate for others in the midst of this pandemic. Such a God is not one whose morality is reflected in the pandemic but one whose morality must be inserted into it. Such a God resembles and inspires our own creativity and invention and ultimately our moral responsibility. I tip my hat to them and their followers.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Our lives are worth more.

There is a plan to save something very important during this pandemic we are experiencing. Lives will be lost in order to save this thing; my life possibly, hence my keen interest. Governments who love fiscal tightness will deliberately enter deficits largely by borrowing from the private sector so that this thing survives. The right and the left are united in calling for this thing to be rescued in some way. But I don’t know if the economy is worth saving.

Our governments tend to be elected or thrown out almost entirely on how they manage the economy and why wouldn’t they? When the economy is strong, indicators of this are full (or fullish) employment, which is people making money and investor and consumer confidence, which is people’s hope they will make more money in the future. When you hear the ka-ching of money landing in your opened hands from the fountain of the economy and when you look up and see so much more money potentially on its way to you it feels good. Good enough to want to re-elect a government despite their open corruption. That lovely money is pizza and fixing your car and getting your sore tooth looked at and it’s a Charles and Di wedding anniversary set of Celine Dion reads the Koran.  It’s choice. It’s control. It’s power in the marketplace in your hands.

Then the real magic of a strong economy happens. You take that power and give it to your dentist. They now have the power to hire a secretary who has the power to pop over to yours and pay you to walk their dog. That’s power back in your hands again. You’re not losing anything. You and everyone else is just getting more done from that kitchen refit to that tattoo they always wanted. The tattooist and the carpenter and you all benefit.

But economies don’t match the dream. In addition to increased income and spending another indication of a strong economy is inflation which is the reduction in actual value of any of that money that’s landing in your hands. That undoes the relationship between the ka-ching and the market power. Also not every body even gets to stand under the money waterfall. Some people stand under other people and catch what (if anything) spills out from their hands.  Those dregs they get will, due to inflation, be worth less in real terms. Anybody who gets the same amount of golden coins as they received before the economy blooms is actually facing a reduction in marketplace power. They can’t go to the dentist anymore. The dentist has to sack the secretary. Your dog walking business goes nowhere.

Lastly that circular effect of economic spending doesn’t always even happen when wealth increases. When you spend money you could be just pouring your money into some corporate conglomerate who sells tech products made for the cheapest labour costs in the world and pays no tax and whose overseas warehouse just sacked every employee but the unpaid intern who oils the robots. When this happens economic growth can’t achieve momentum. The extra pizzazz of a charged up economy is siphoned off into the same deep pockets who can’t seem to find a need for a twelfth bum wiper and so that economic power doesn’t return to you. But the recruitment officer does thank you for your enthusiastic application.

Somewhere buried inside a strong economy is a “general lift in living standards” but its not a given that you in particular will be part of the generally benefiting at all or that even more than a few will. It’s still considered, illogically, by governments, as a general improvement in living standards if Mr. Burns buys an island while his whole workforce can’t afford their rents anymore. This is because by the power of averages its as if everybody got a coconut from the islands palm trees. Utilitarians however would largely agree that concentrated wealth is worth less than distributed wealth in terms of pleasure “points”. The value of a meal to a hungry person is more than the value of a better cut of steak to a well fed person and certainly worth more than the second steak the tycoon can’t even finish. The rich person may whinge louder than seems possible from an adult, when they lose their luxuries, but as we used to say over beers in my student lefty days you’ve got to learn to filter out the wealthys tantrums as a non-concern because they’re bullshit.

For some time our relatively strong economy has been a horror for many of its participants. Rampant wage theft; No real wage growth despite corporate profits growing; Entrenched long term unemployment; Scandalous harassment of people on unemployment benefits, and disability and parenting payments; Robots (and I like Astroboy, he’s one of the good ones) are taking our jobs. In a number of countries student debt is growing astronomically. Good Old Boy Joe Biden was one of those who voted to prevent US tertiary students who couldn’t pay their loans ever declaring bankruptcy locking them in permanent financial servitude.  In Australia we have a housing crisis that means people can’t afford home ownership while rents keep them in anxious poverty. On the other hand global yacht sales including super yachts have experienced steady growth above 4% so it’s not all doom and gloom.

I am a teacher in a secondary school. I will work with kids because I value their education and I value them as people and because I am a part of preserving human knowledge across generations. I will work with kids for additional hours (call me up these pending holidays if necessary) to free up medical staff who need to work on fighting this virus. I will do this even though schools are impossible places to strictly impose infection controls, although we could do better than we are currently, especially if we have less kids attending and threw some more money to hire more people to our overworked cleaners. But I am not risking my safety, the safety of my kids and your kids in my classes, in order to save the economy from going under. We are seeing endless energy from this government for squeezing the tits of the poor, and zero energy cracking down on wage theft. Hospitality workers lost penalty rates recently. High income tax cuts have not been cancelled to save the surplus but the underfunding of the NDIS and public schools is supposedly acceptable to get us to one. Nobody I know has got a super yacht.

I say lets dump this economy. Let’s do something different. Something better. Something where everyone gets paid sick leave, where wage theft is taken seriously, where we have an anti-corruption commission with actual teeth, where nobody is homeless because housing is a right, not a way to make money. And if a teacher, a nurse or the staff at the supermarket checkout dies from this virus we can give them their own Viking funeral in one of those yachts.

Thursday, March 5, 2020

The Good Place reminds us of the offensiveness of afterlives.

Note: This post contains spoilers for the Good Place. They are pretty incidental to the piece so you wont need to watch the show to understand anything but if you are planning to watch the show then come back and read this after you’re done. I loved the show myself and the twists in the show are worth not spoiling.

Recently the series “The Good Place” came to an end. For most of the series audiences seemed happy to laugh along with it as it depicted a flawed system of determining who dies and ends up in the bad place, the good place or somewhere in between.  “The judge” character came closest to some kind of God for the series and they were pretty much an object of good humoured ridicule but this was still not a problem for theists I know. The final episodes however rankled some commentators. I think this was because the whole series, despite being ostensibly set in the afterlife, played like its plot was a continuation of life. The real afterlife, meaning that which happens after the drama of life is complete, is only glimpsed at the very end and, as I’ve titled this piece, descriptions (and depictions) of the afterlife have the capacity to offend us.

Afterlifes are often but not always systems of reward and punishment. When they are set up like that what they reward or punish is potentially offensive even if we don’t believe in the afterlife. If you were sitting down your children and telling them that only the eldest would get into heaven and the other would go to hell I would be offended by the injustice of this and as a second child some of that offence would be personal too. It is as if somehow I was going to go hell because of what you said, even though I don’t actually believe I will. My thinking here is not foolish. Even if I only believe in this mortal world the impact of such an afterlife description on your second child is real in this world. Calling it emotionally damaging seems too slight. Spiritually damaging seems fairer. I am right to be somewhat offended.

This offence of injustice can work many ways. We can be offended if justice is too soft so that the experience of victims means nothing. Versions of an afterlife in which George Pell flies to heaven on the basis of his recitation of the Apostles Creed would fit such a description. We can be offended if the circumstances around a persons life are not taken into account so that a person who steals out of hunger is treated as someone who steals out of greed. We can be offended if justice is arbitrary or cruel such as punishing same sex relationships that bring joy to all involved. We can be offended if justice is so complicated, that everyone is set up to fail and face an eternity of "spiders up the butt", for drinking cows milk, or soy milk, and twice as many spiders for almond milk. This is the system that the characters in the Good Place must challenge and eventually overturn.

In its final season The Good Place replaces that punitive system with what is essentially a therapeutic model. Instead of the old bad place, people go through scenarios run by rehabilitated demons in which they grow past the reasons why they caused harm with their lives. Its not so much punishment as it is treatment for human toxicity. The conclusion is “universalist” in the sense that everyone eventually gets into the Good Place. As we hear Brent arguing with his spiritual coaches we realise though that this is a longer journey for some than it is for others. Nobody is being tortured though. Nobody is forever excluded from the Good Place either. Judgement isn’t behind those participating in this system.

Christian Universalism is a belief within Christianity that everyone will be reconciled with God at some point. While it has a very long history in the church it leapt into prominence again in 2011 with the publication of Rob Bell’s book Love Wins. Due to influential commentary on the book Rob Bell gained the title of heretic in some circles and was bid goodbye by people who act as guardians of the evangelical faith. Universalism seems to me to offend people’s need for good to be seperated eternally from evil at a singular judgement point. As I don’t have that need I don’t fully understand it.

Perhaps the anxiety is that Hitler will be given a house in heaven under this system that they don’t deserve – the offence of too soft justice. However no universalist afterlife (and certainly not the one in the Good Place) suggest this is possible without Hitler first transforming into someone who any Jew would be happy to live next to. I think more likely it is offensive to people trying to get others to turn to salvation right now to suggest that there is no absolute deadline to secure salvation by. Evangelism in particular loses its bite if our death itself doesn't bring on our final judgement.

Issues of injustice centred around punishment and reward are not the only ways that afterlifes can offend us. The offence that the Good Place provoked in some commentators in its afterlife was the final obliteration of self-hood in the souls journey. At the very end of all things (serious spoiler alert...) the individual ceases to be the individual. The selves we came to know as Eleanor, Tahani, Chidi and Jason concluded their stories as they met their need to grow past self-interested survival or petty competition or paralysing doubt or simply an inability not to combine matches and petrol when left alone with them. They then, after all the time they need and by their own choice, end. This idea of an ultimate end to our self is as offensive to some people as an unjust afterlife.

Like the offence of universalism this is not an offence I particularly understand. I take solace in the line from Take this Waltz by Leonard Cohen: “Take this Waltz, It’s been dying for years.”; as a reminder that I am familiar with my own ending. The two year old me is in my past. The six year old me is in my past. The 20 year old me is in my past. And so on.  They ended and so too will I. I’ve been dying for years. One day finally the last me will die but by then they will probably be unfamiliar in many respects to the me of today.

Is this sad? Sometimes I find it terribly sad. Not only will I end but all the wonderful people I love will one day have no more versions of themselves in this world. You’d better believe that’s sad. But is this bad? I don’t think so. I come down on the show creators side that death, including ultimate soul death, is essential to valuing life. It is why “every human is a little bit sad all the time, because you know you’re going to die. But that knowledge is what gives life meaning.” (Series 4 Episode 12). I accept though this may just be a rationalisation of an unavoidable reality that I and others will die. If someday we can actually cure death or if an eternal afterlife actually exists I will be interested to see if that does actually turn life into a prison (with or without harps). I do think it might.

Recently I listened to a podcast in which two very different Christian spokespeople both agreed that from a Christian perspective death is bad. They argued that biblically death is not a part of the world until sin wrecks it and that the right way for the world to be is without death. Therefore they believed all death should be railed against and a world without any death at all should be longed for. From this perspective it is actually an end to the soul that is unnatural. This belief in our eternal identities is not always extended to people who go to hell. Their eternal existence is supposedly tortuous and given that non-universalists hold out no hope for their redemption, essentially pointless.  Some therefore conclude that denizens of any Bad Place will be annihilated rather than barbarically burnt without dying for ever (a theory called Annihilationism) but that those who are saved by God will live for ever.  Whether annihilationist or not the idea is that we are supposed to be eternal and an afterlife with a positive ending of ourself is a depiction that offends against that idea.

There are any number of additional ways that an afterlife depiction can offend us. I suspect the Trumps of the world would be offended by an afterlife in which there are no walls between rich and poor. People who have prided themselves on knowing theology will be offended by the lack of a doctrinal entrance exam at the end. The Good Place showed us that it is a topic people are interested in enough to devote ourselves to four seasons to. It also showed us that even when nobody is pretending its the truth the afterlife can still offend.