Sunday, March 3, 2024

Return from Randomland

Credit: Jack Kirby

It had long been considered a verifiable fact, that randomness was merely a god of the gaps, in a strictly determinist universe. This had been evidenced by how often randomness as an explanatory power had been defeated simply by gaining knowledge of previously unknown factors. Enough defeats and randomness was dead.

But then it was discovered that black holes produced random energy and fed it into this universe. Black Holes were not merely one way portals. They were like sinkholes where organised rule-obeying matter and energy are sucked away while chaotic random energy bubbles up.

It was concluded, after much debate and over so many, fallen, alternative theories, that it is not only knowledge that tames randomness in our universe, not merely the improvement of data that pushes randomness back, but in fact this universe itself. Our universe was self-ordering with a very low tolerance for casually disconnected events. Hence almost instantaneously what randomly comes in through Black holes loses that randomness and perhaps the inverse happen to what goes where black holes lead.  The new settled fact became that our universe exists in symbiotic or parasitic or who can say what sort of relationship, with other universes that are more random. Perhaps even one which was completely random.

Most left it there, as an interesting research paper topic. Myles did not. They could not stop imagining a completely random universe. It was the only interesting scientific question in the world, in their mind. They dreamt about it. Their best friend encouraged their passion. They had not seen Myles this excited in a while.

So Myles built a machine, and they built a suit, and they stepped into it and they disappeared. And nobody could say whether they had simply stopped being altogether or whether the suit had worked and they were alive in a random universe or whether the suit had not worked but they were still somehow alive in a completely random universe. No one could say what would actually happen to a person who stepped into the machine. But several agreed that the maths checked out.

Myle's colleagues hid the machine away so that nobody would do anything terrible with it. Until one day, Myles returned. They were randomly changed, with random energy flowing through their body. And their decisions were able to navigate our world in ways people struggled to understand. A whole field hospital was built for Myles treatment and study. 

Scientists gathered outside in their thousands  waiting for Myles first interview. Drones flew over the hospital, broadcasting images to a world newly catholicised, waiting for their Pope. Those first words are yet to be understood if there even is any sense to recover from them. Over weeks Myles was able to order their actions enough to speak in response to a question, but “word diamonds window butterflies swarming” is to date their most coherent sentence.

The world found new ways to divide into those who think we should decipher Myles speech now as if it possesses some internal logic or whether we must simply wait for a logical sentence to come and those who don’t care either way and those who think caring about this question is the most important thing you can do. Myles recovery remained newsworthy for almost two months but there was never a satisfactorily robust discussion of the physics for some. Our general societal disregard for the theoretical sciences and the impact this has on funding came up, which predictably led to more people switching off.

Voices were raised that "Anything Myles has to say can't lower the cost of living or repair the environment anyway." Those two existential threats continued to rise in perfect tandem, in the last pattern that we are allowed to consider random.

All of which is why it was sweet and probably for the best, that Myles loving partner, their best friend, eventually liberated Myles from hospital. The two are said to be exercising a greater tolerance for randomness on their holidays.

Friday, November 19, 2021

Hegel's Split.

Are you a reasonable person? A faithful, humble and patient servant of reason? If so let me tell you about something that should delight you; a Hegelian split. We’ll wade through some philosophy to get there but I think it’s worth it.

Hegel was born in the Duchy of W├╝rttemberg a reformist hold out from Catholic France, in 1770 and died only 61 years later in Prussia having seen the rise and fall of Napoleon. In my opinion, Hegel is a far more influential philosopher than he is given credit for. Given that he is already super famous I’m making a bold claim here. I think a lot of the ideas of the 20th century across most of the world, both good and bad, can be traced back to his way of thinking. Marx for example called his ideas dialectical materialism and he got the dialectical part from Hegel. I’ll leave it to you to put Marx in the good or bad column.

Hegel’s dialectic is a type of reasoning. You might be thinking “there are types of reasoning? Well that’s no good.” because it does somewhat undermine reasons promise to discern truth, to think that two reasonable people mightn’t even follow the same process. Such is our human condition, I guess.

Moving quickly on from that grief, let’s remember what reasoning is. A lot of reasoning helps us determine between two mutually exclusive theories. Either the butler killed Mr. X or they didn’t. Either God exists or they don’t. Either the cheese toastie is healthy due to its calcium or the doctor was right and it’s mostly fats. This sort of reasoning produces conclusions from premises and those conclusions either must be right or must be wrong or if our reasoning is inconclusive may be right or wrong. Generally we use reasoning to sort ideas into those three boxes ; necessary, impossible or possible. A successful run of our internal reasoning program will complete this sorting process.

Hegel’s dialectic describes a process when two ideas that both contain some good and some error bash up against each other and what emerges is a new idea with the good from both and the error from neither. This process tends not to produce any sort of definitive answer. The old answers and the new answer are all called theses. The new thesis has it’s own errors revealed by the emergence of it’s own anti-thesis and the dialectical process continues.

Hegel saw this dialectical process as the process by which history occurs. Hegel also saw society in terms of ideas rather than individuals or even nations. For Hegel, Napoleon represented a set of ideas particularly about how society should be run and Napoleons’ real opposition was therefore other ideas about how society should be run. Through the dialectical process it was unlikely that one idea would crush all others with it’s absolute truth. Rather Hegel expected that society would vacillate between opposing ideas until it resolved that ideological conflict, probably by absorbing insights from both into a new concept and then history continues from a new floor so to speak.

A few things are worth noting. While Hegel was disillusioned by both the excesses of European Romanticism and Napoleons’ dictatorship he was still optimistic to the point of arrogance by today’s standards. As a citizen of reformed, enlightened Prussia, Hegel believed that his society was much further along the progress of ideas than that of “primitive” people around the world. Post World War 2, the rise of Stalin and the collapse of the Soviet Union, and with human extinction a real possibility from climate change, it is a lot harder to have Hegel's upbeat view of human progress, especially one which views European society as superior to all others. Secondly, Hegel had no access to the ideas of evolution. Hegel’s idea of human progress was towards a transcendent truth that drew us towards it and the relative relativism of a society adapting to its conditions like an organism evolving, just wasn’t an idea Hegel would have contended with.

Thirdly, Hegel was pessimistic about our ability to use a dialectical method to predict or imagine the step beyond us. For Hegel, we stand in our time and place belonging to a certain set of ideas. The synthesis of our current ideas and their opposites is not available to us as a thought and certainly the dialectical outcome of that new concept and whatever anti-thesis to it that emerges is completely unfathomable to us. We might be able to guess that the next fashion trend will be a combination of small badges and large earrings or French-Korean fusion cuisine served in bamboo boxes but we’d mostly be lucky to get that right and what comes after that is anyone’s guess. Hegel was not a futurist, rather he thought the sole purpose of the dialectical process was to uncover the past history of ideas. By using the Hegelian split, a good natural philosopher, could uncover the ideas of the past that produced our own.

A Hegelian split is a division of an idea so perfect that everything on one side of the cleave is on that side and everything else is on the other side. I wonder if you are thinking, “That’s nothing special.” and I really don’t know if I have the words to describe the sheer delight of a genuinely perfect cleave in the realm of ideas. Let’s look at the example of liberty as a political concept.

Freedom is a political idea that is banded about a lot. The people who demand freedom as a political good don’t usually mean total freedom. They might for example want the freedom to discriminate against others which impacts on those other people’s freedoms. Or they might want to be free to marry who they want but happy to obey the speed limits while driving. They might want to be free to smoke but able to compel doctors and nurses to treat them if they get sick. If we want to understand the type of thing they are talking about and that we ourselves might mean by freedom we can separate the idea into two competing opposites.

On the one hand there is total absolute freedom. On the other hand there is restraint, control and regulation. The freedom that people demand in our politics is a synthesis of these two ideas; a sort of freedom that incorporates a level of restraint that is itself regulated and subject to correction. This isn’t to say that everyone is arguing from this synthesised idea of freedom. Some people generally might mean that they want zero restraint while others might want for a system where those in control are never questioned. But if we want to have a more sophisticated conversation about the freedom most people are talking about we need to see it in the dialectical process from which it emerges and we do that by uncovering its preceding ideological opposites.

When we make a Hegelian split we end up with everything on one side or another. Lots of distinctions are much more messy than that. European and U.S. culture is not a neat split. A character like Charlie Chaplin’s hobo is both quintessentially U.S. and arguably French in every way but geographically. Talking in terms of European and American cultures will throw up numerous messy overlaps like trying to cut a pizza so that one slice only has ham and the other only pineapple. We can name this “a shitty distinction” and point out how a phenomenon may lie across this distinction rendering it useless in its regard. Hegel encourages us to keep looking for the better distinction.

I am not entirely sure Hegelian splits are real things. They live in the realm of ideas and belong to a model of history that has it’s own robust anti-thesis at it’s throat. One thing I desperately want to express is the intellectual pleasure of them. For that I should probably just link to similar pleasures like watching things perfectly fit. Or if you want to know what I think a perfect Hegelian split audibly sounds like then enjoy Wu Tang Clans’ Da Mystery of Chess Boxing. You don’t have to own an authentic katana to know what I am talking about but I do think anyone who does will be nodding at this point.

The other point I want to mention is that by making this perfect split so central to doing philosophy and history well, Hegel does something very important. Hegel values precision of language. In a way this is a critique of all reason because precision of language is not simply present or not present. Instead we are only ever more or less precise. To speak in idioms, precision is an art rather than a science. (What a shitty distinction that is by the way; art and science.) We feel pleasure when we achieve some measure of precision and we lack that pleasure when our distinctions are sloppy and incomplete but solving a lack of precise language is not something that running a logical program in our heads can overcome. We may even lack the words in our current language. The frustration this creates only amplifies the sweetness when we find or coin the words to make the slice perfectly.

Full confession; I'm not a Hegelian scholar. This blog post draws on vague recollections of having read very little of  Hegel's writings and other people's descriptions of his ideas. I may have misrepresented him terribly and I'd appreciate comments that describe his ideas differently. Googling Hegelian split doesn't indicate anyone else on the internet using the term. I didn't invent it just for this blog post though. It's a concept that I have valued, rightly or wrongly as Hegel's, for a very long time.

Sunday, November 14, 2021

Who's winning?

A poster with Culture War in large font rests against a wall, promoting an event people are lining up for.

I am on Facebook. If you are not I suspect you have much more of your humanity intact than I do and I don’t want to encourage anyone to follow me into the beast. I mention this merely to lead into how one page I subscribe to on Facebook is titled “We have murdered satire and sit on it’s throne”. It’s a repository for news mostly from the U.S., that sounds like it should be satire but isn’t. Often these are reports of obvious racism or homophobia. The sentiment is very “If I saw this in a script it would be unbelievable but here it is and yet they tell you there’s no white or straight privilege anymore.” Commentators on these stories have been trending more and more over it and angry and less just smug face-palming. Why wouldn’t they when, just like me, their Facebook feed is full of how people often motivated by fundamentalist religion and self-entitlement are making life drastically worse?

An example of the sort of articles featured on this page include the decision by a Virginia school board to remove LGBTIA books from public school libraries. The boards greatest outrage is reserved for a book which they say promotes a relationship between an adult male and a teenage boy. That refers to “All about me” in which the author recounts how at 17 they had a brief relationship with a 24 year old boarder at his fathers house in 1980’s Italy. I haven’t read it but the reviews are great. Saying it promotes what sounds like pedophilia is like saying the gospels promote divine child rape because Mary is barely 15. More importantly though, “why do I care?”. I’m not Virginian. Sure I’m angry about censorship of 1980's closeted queer experiences but it’s fair to say I do seem to be wolfing down that rage with a spoon if I have to go to Virginia, U.S. to find it. It’s just, you know, these conservative Christians seem to be raising their blood soaked crosses everywhere. Poland is even worse. So my “research” tells me.

Meanwhile the winner of the Australian Christian book of the year award in 2021 (you can evaluate its bona fides for yourself here) is a book about how Christians face oppression and exclusion in official and unofficial ways across what once was Christendom. It’s a sermon preached to the choir because increasingly Christians who are plugged into the conservative and evangelical media sphere are convinced that they are the ones on the back foot. The sort of phrasing you can find from the winning author, Stephen McAlpine, is that the “sexular culture” is “hunting” for them. This same culture that is getting its books banned in Virginia, U.S., is actually more commonly, prosecuting and punishing everyday Christians who express doubt about our post hetero-sexist social norms. While the Australian federal government still preserves religious chaplains in public schools this can only be a stop gap measure until working in public schools requires an acceptance of gender diversity and homosexuality at odds with Christianity. That is the overwhelming direction of culture the book illustrates.

This world view is reinforced once you enter the worlds of right wing facebook and twitter. Orthodox Christians are cautioned not to think they can maintain a private faith quietly. Publicly they should expect to be fired without recourse from an increasingly “woke” world. Those against them are called “elites”, “cultured despisers” or some other handy pejorative that inflates their power. Politicians suggest that just calling yourself a Christian is under threat from these apparatchiks. The LGBTIA movement in particular is a monolithic monster that knows no limits and can’t be trusted on any level. Christians who question these statements are accommodating the culture. They are collaborators and suckers.

Even if we accept that some of this is a propaganda war we desperately want to know who is actually winning. Is it the Queer movement? Is it Conservative Christianity? Who is the oppressor? Who is the underdog? Each side fearing no mercy from the other makes a pre-emptive strike against the others freedoms. That strike is held up as proof of how horrible they are by their opponents justifying an overreach in return. I wonder if the people in Virginia sat down to read about the politician in Finland who has been investigated for hate speech for traditional Christian views about sexuality before they return voted to ban gay books. News that confirms our biases is not limited by mere geography for either side. Your favourite site will hoover it all up for you and leave contradictory evidence behind. I honestly believe, without wanting to suggest that these are not important issues, that this is how they are getting us to ignore climate change. This culture war is the preferred topic for elections by the true moneyed elites.

I had a go at disrupting this march to war. I held a talk at my church (my old church I guess) about Queer History. It was both an unfortunate and a wonderful experience. I had someone come to my house pretending to represent more official consensus than they did, to make sure it wasn’t promoted beyond the church and to stress their discomfort if anyone who wasn’t an adult came. I still hear in my head how others let that happen because the topic was “fraught” after all. Fraught was where I thought we walked. It has shattered my illusion that this church is non-hierarchical or even that it can put listening for God before the churches inter-church reputation. This is hard for both sides. Christians judge Christians as queers judge queers, who are soft on the enemy. Am I this churches enemy? Are they mine? I did not think so.

I’ve let covid lockdowns give me the excuse to stay away from church. It had stopped being a place I could go with my guard down and started being just one more cultural battlefield. I guess despite all the good works it does, it didn’t feel like God was there. Or it felt like it was going to be harder work than I thought to find God there. Maybe it was fraught work? Maybe I also don’t really do fraught. Facebook doesn’t ask me to that’s for sure. There I never have to see any indication of my sides power and every indication that we are the true rebel alliance.

The Queer / Conservative Christian conflict is not the only space this is happening in. I have seen articles, and YouTube videos, in my Facebook feed that tell me Kyle Rittenhouse’s trial is rigged for him and against him. So, depending on what side your feed is on and the verdict, you will either be sure some racist cracker judge let a murderer off or that woke liberalism chose to ignore clear facts because it didn’t suit their narrative. Maybe one of those sides is true and needs to be told in which case not paying attention is a moral crime. Maybe both are true and false equally and the deeper truth is we are all being played, in which case not paying attention is the only righteous act. Probably something is true but its more complicated than we think. Seriously how would I know? Maybe I am ultimately being encouraged to switch off and watch endless superhero based entertainment instead and staying rage filled and “informed” is my civic duty. I don’t know. Remember this is a criminal trial in another country. Or forget that because that's not important. I don't know.

I do believe that anyone who refuses to acknowledge the power they wield either alone or in concert with others is destined to abuse that power. Atheists, Buddhists, Baptists, Jehovah Witnesses, Non-binary punkrockers, adult male bronies, socialist feminists, any of these groups can pretend to be only holding underdog cards in their hands. Always on the back foot and always righteously defensive is good for survival. It’s terrible for accountability.

We have also been rendered powerless in the path of a simple virus. We have compromised in our homes and made concessions with those in our bubbles assuming we have had secure housing and other people in our bubbles. The great soft food of capitalism is on sale this Christmas again with its promise that we deserve something; an overdue holiday, a new car, a reward for all our sacrifices. Somehow this deservedness is only deepened if we profited through this pandemic like God's nod to the winner of a coin toss. Forget if we were incredibly lucky. We are tired, we are scared, we are lonely, we are good people. Don’t tell me I have power when I feel so crushed. Tell that to them. Your them of course. No point, it seems, in being fraught.

Thursday, October 21, 2021

Hello after some time.

 I want to...

There are so many things I want to say on this blog. But I have lost the discipline of both reading and writing substantive texts. It is so hard to arrange my thoughts into the sorts of words that make up a blog post. 

I do not see this blog as the space for short and pithy writing like on Facebook or wherever you tweet your instas. I don't say this to claim this blog is qualitatively different.  This blog itself is part of a google empire in which content feeds interaction which feeds you to advertisers. The consumption is not in the direction we imagine. The distinction is merely that this is long form content. I like how it forces me to think in longer form. 

I will try and keep paragraphs to one point, which is one of the best rules anyone ever came up with, but I am not able to easily see what is one point or two or three points anymore. I have mostly conversed with people through "chat" for the last few months. That's a weird sort of dialogue. Often you're halfway through a long thought and someone else writes in. I have forgotten how to communicate properly. I always try and communicate properly on this blog. 

I want to communicate properly, also both precisely and accurately (which are not the same thing exactly). And honestly. As honestly as I can.

Honestly I think we're in big trouble. We need to act.  We need to get our shit together. Seriously. There is a Behemoth in the land and its name is Stupidity. And the first real rule of Stupidity is that nobody gets to talk about stupidity. Nobody gets to talk about its violence, nobody gets to talk about the thousands of deaths thanks to willful stupidity we are wading through. And the thousands more ahead. The orphans of that; Are they safe? Will they fall in among the 20 million people kept in slavery today? Why is it always time for tax cuts and cuts to government spending? Whose pushing this? Whose telling you its ok; the problems with society aren't in that direction. Don't follow the money. Look at the sin of vanity more generally. Aren't we all a little vain when we lust after money, to use the original meaning of the word vain - to hunger only for that which is fleeting. And all the anger and the rage flows out of you and you feel calmer and saner and more able to cope but less able to do anything else but cope. The continual criminal murder of the poor by the rich that is enacted before us. How is it possible? How is it happening? How long has it been happening? Why can't we get that history straight?

And all of  that in my head is a single point, like a giant lump of poorly cooked pasta. I have others, equally pressing, equally loud. We're all going to die. I have anxiety around airborne pollutants. I build my kid the craziest stuff to climb in the backyard. There are lots of physical dangers I shrug off. I don't jump away from spiders. But fumes, pollution, and it turns out airborne viruses are scary to me. We were in the Eyre Peninsula, in S.A., during the big fires and thank God for that. I am not sure how I would have coped knowing my kids just breathed in the smoke that shrouded some places for weeks. Now we're opening up and covid is in the community and I just need to transition to coping. Our protections; my partner's and my waning vaccine, my oldest kids antibodies still underdeveloped from her recent second shot, my youngest, her age.

What are you coping with? I tell myself you probably have it worse as if that is supposed to help either of us. I think what I'm trying to do is to stop myself whingeing. We tell people every sadness matters but we know that isn't entirely true. Some people are sad that they didn't get a second desert. Some are sad that they don't have a home free of perpetual violence. I am reluctant to write in case it sounds like I am whingeing when others have it much worse. Lets focus on those others then. Let's be disturbed by homelessness rather than my sugar cravings and lack of things to watch on telly. 

Because somehow we are building nuclear submarines instead. We haven't even got a second fire fighting helicopter. We used to borrow a second from the US but now our fire seasons are overlapping. I don't know if we can reengineer the submarines to squirt water out of their periscopes but that's still only a coastal solution. We laugh. We have to laugh. It's all just so absurd. The National Farmers Federation is pleading with the National Party, the party ostensibly for farmers, to take climate change seriously. It's endlessly varying runs of the theatre of catastrophe. It's exhausting to watch.

What we need are stories and a plan. There are probably a few other things but stories, about the real capacity of humans to do amazing things, or that uncover the real problems we are facing, are important. A plan is tough. I have ideas.

I am also reminded of the wisdom of Chun-Tzu. Sometimes we do need useless thought. Thinking about the origins of the universe for example, if universes have origins. Perhaps they have oranges instead. It is sometimes when we meander down those paths we take the breaths we never even realised we needed. There is nothing directly relevant to all the catastrophes of our immediate context in this lecture about Apes in Science Fiction, or this one about the politics of Eve, but they are well worth listening to. If nothing else they help by organising our thoughts. Paragraphs with a proper TEEL structure painted in precise sentences is a step in the right direction.

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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