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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If this post raised any issues of safety for yourself please call Lifeline or reach out to those close to you.
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Lifeline Australia

Please add your own countries relevant hotlines in the comments.


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.
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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.


Thursday, February 27, 2020

Who can we count on?

Recently I got into an argument. I suggested there was only a minority of people who would economically discriminate against same sex couples if emboldened by a government that permitted them to, but that they existed. When pressed on exactly how many people I thought there was who would do such a thing, I said perhaps more than 5% but less than 10%. I was told I was being ridiculous to think there was so many.

Since that argument I have been pondering. And pondering. When I was in my all boys high school about 30 years ago, a student gave a talk to the class. It was in legal studies and they had to argue for a law that should be changed. They argued that we should be allowed to murder gay people. (Little did they know that the homosexual panic defence as it was called, virtually gave them that licence back then.) The class applauded and the teacher did nothing. I got in trouble for provoking the student who spoke when I blew them kisses as an act of juvenile trolling. It’s a story I’ve told before and it sticks with me. It affects my estimates of the world around me.

I believe that every student there wasn’t really a killer at heart. Most will have forgotten the event all together by now. Some will be leading happy lives as members of the LGBTIA community. Even the homophobes probably wont want to see gay people murdered. But such belief is not certain. All the evidence I have is my memory of that day and the few students who I have kept up with since then or met long afterwards (and they are fine). Based on that day what percentage of people would actively discriminate against same sex couples if they had a chance? Upwards of 80%. But I believe without evidence that that high an estimate would be ridiculous.

We all carry around in our heads similar sorts of estimates about our peers. The Security chief at ASIO recently said that organised right wing violence in Australia is a growing threat. But how many people are really neo-nazis in Australia? When Australia exported that shooter to New Zealand we were partly shocked that they came from here and we were partly, sadly, not shocked at all. Egg-boy spoke for the majority of us when he egged the Senator who suggested the victims of that massacre were at fault. But that Senator spoke for some people. What percentage? Go on, have a guess.

Sometimes we get to know people as reasonable, likable and intelligent and then we discover that they think gay people shouldn’t be near kids or that #Metoo is an over-reaction or that the massacres of Aboriginal Australians didn’t happen. We wonder whether our radar that tells us how many people around us think these things is on the blink. We are left suspicious that we are assuming too few people we already know are homophobic, misogynistic, racists. We think we should adjust our estimates upwards.

This has happened to me recently. I am still processing the details and while it would benefit me to write about them I am not yet ready to. Does it mean that I should dismiss my own estimates of 5-10% homophobes as an over-reaction to recent events? Does it mean that my previous low estimates of homophobia, misogyny and racism  in the community around me were too low?

People who hold homophobic, misogynistic, or racist opinions aren’t even necessarily going to act in those ways. Holocaust denial doesn’t exactly equal a willingness to commit anti-Semitic violence but the two are linked. One is a stepping stone to the other. A boss that thinks #Metoo has gone too far is  more likely to let their workplace become unsafe and traumatic for female employees. A community that uses the phrase gay-agenda a lot is more likely to treat a gay person with hostility. At least this is what I think. I rely on this but I don’t know this. This theory of attitudes linked to behavior builds my estimates of who is likely to act in certain ways. I hear homophobic comments from about 5% to 10% of the population so I think about that many people might discriminate against same sex couples.

This question of what percentage of people are likely to be perpetrators of horrible acts (discrimination right up to murder) is too important to answer in this haphazard anecdotal inferred way. But we just don’t have good research to turn to instead. Consider sexual harassment. Most women have experienced this. In fact I am probably being overly cautious by not just saying all women have experienced sexual harassment. Many men have experienced it too. But what percentage of people, by gender as that would be relevant, commit sexual harassment? Or have committed it at least once? We have much better statistics and research answering how many people have been victims than questions about the number of perpetrators.

More than one in 20 Australians have been physically attacked because of their race. That is a shocking statistic and comes from the Australian Human Rights Commission. In 2019 the ABC Australia Talks survey found 75% of respondents thought Australia was racist. But being racist isn’t necessarily physically attacking and how many Australians did those people mean were racists? Consider a specific pragmatic question; If someone was perpetrating racist violence I think 99%, maybe 99.9% of people could be relied on to support the victim in some way (call the police, if not intervene). I think we should be shocked by anyone choosing to support the perpetrator. But I am guessing. I am not basing this on any facts.

If I was one of those one in 20 Australians who had copped an assault based on my race, guessing that most people around me aren’t like my assailant (even if they are a little bit racist) is a tough ask. Someone who hasn’t experienced such violence certainly shouldn’t be insisting upon such an attitude. It might even be that those of us who haven’t experienced such violence have a very false sense that the willingness to support such violence is rarer than it is. I don’t really know.

Christian thinking is sometimes quite pessimistic about human nature. When the traveler in the parable of the Good Samaritan lies wounded, three people pass before one stops to help. Some Christian thinkers have gone on to claim humans by default are inherently rebellious and selfish. In other places though the Bible assumes basic human goodness. “Which of you,” Jesus asks rhetorically, “would give your child a stone when they ask for bread?” Psychology offers us better tools for understanding whether people have a dominant tendency for good or ill but the answer is complex and dependent on many factors. Sometimes evil is just people fitting in with the crowd, like those high school boys who applauded that legal studies talk 30 years ago. And the crowd can go either way.

We are all guessing in the dark about how scared and how trusting we ought to be of each other. So here is what we can do; we can advertise where we stand. Returning to the original discussion which was about the Australian governments religious discrimination bill, if Churches want people to know that they have no interest in discriminating against same sex couples, stick a rainbow flag in your window. Its not novel. I'm a little over rainbows graphically speaking. But people know what the rainbow flag indicates. If you don’t want to do that don’t get all huffy if people who have experienced homophobia from churches are suspicious of you. You can’t even put a sticker up.

Likewise if a boss wants their employers to know that sexual harassment is not tolerated then this should be said. It should be said a lot. Of course words must be followed up by actions when harassment occurs but lets not assume that victims know their bosses are on the same page as them. How would they know? Likewise for schools that want Aboriginal families to know their culture will be accommodated and celebrated; stick a bloody poster up saying exactly that. No that’s not the last thing to do but its an obvious start.

You will hear online a lot of criticism of “virtue signalling” when people advertise their progressive attitudes in lieu of doing anything else for others. But virtue signalling is only that when it is fake and hypocritical and when its purpose is to make the speaker feel good even at the expense of the experiences of victims. Advertising where you stand is something valuable when it takes into account the needs of victims for reassurance. It relieves those who have the most to lose from doing some of the initial mental work of figuring out if they can count on you.

True story: I knew someone who was very white. He shaved his head because he liked having a shaved head. Then Romper Stomper, the movie about racist white skin-heads in Melbourne, came out. He noticed people were anxious around him especially anyone who looked Asian. So he bought a t-shirt that showed someone binning a swastika and bore the slogan “No Racism”. He was a very wise guy.

Thursday, January 30, 2020

The World We Resist.



A long time ago I went to a wedding. As I recall it, the minister who officiated stood aside for the sermon to let a younger hipper minister take over. Although we were Catholics by upbringing on the grooms side and the bride was an evangelical Christian I guess they presumed that many in the audience were un-churched or de-churched or in some way not particularly Christian. This young hip minister knew exactly how to reach us though. The gospel was relayed to us using the timely (this was back in the 90’s) analogy of Liz Hurley and Hugh Grant’s split.

Now if you have no idea about that split spare yourself the details. It’s just celebrity gossip and now terribly dated as well. I mention the story because it represents a misunderstanding that can occur in church cultures about the irreligious or even just those they think are slightly less religious.  People can think we are into the most superficial crap they can imagine. Celebrities. Selfies. Not having babies so that we can have fame and material success. They presume we are both very casual about sex and yet obsessed by it. We are secular culture or sexual culture even.

To understand this we need to look at the underlying myth of “the world.” The world, from which we get the negative descriptor of worldliness, has a particular meaning in Christian thinking. It is not merely the same as the earth – a planet we live on. The world is human society but not exactly. Human societies can be distinguished by their differences. Human societies have conflicting values across time and place and even in the same time and place. The world is either a reduction, or a projection, of diverse human societies into one consistent phenomenon shaped by inherent selfishness and a desire to rebel against God.

Let me explain what I mean by a projection. By projection I’m allowing for the possible meaning of the world to be a potential future or even a primordial past that is present as either destiny or cause of human society but is not the sum total of what human society is presently. With this description it is still possible to recognise both the good and bad and diversity of human societies because all present societies are becoming either more or less like the world and potentially in different ways.

I want to be as fair as possible to the Christian concept of the world. In doing so I must also note that there are echoes of this concept in all heroic imaginings. The rationalist who views critical thinking and hard evidence as the cornerstones of progress will contrast their own cause with a world that is shallow in its thinking, motivated largely by the pursuit of comfort and conformity. Although they might not use the term they are saying something similar to “the world” when they describe the Dunning Kruger effect or confirmation bias. Here the rationalist may view themselves as having escaped the world fully but the more critical will be aware that they share its weakness and try to police them.

This rationalists translation of the Christian world however might be better called psychology. Like the Buddhist idea of the human dilemma there is no sense that walking away from crowds will diminish the problem of mind the rationalist wants to overcome. By contrast the Christian notion of the world is social. For the Christian there might be a human psychology (or inherent sinfulness) that cannot be withdrawn from, that recreates the world, but there is also a sense that the flaws of individual psychology are amplified in the world or that the world manufactures flaws that a solitary human could not.

This resembles more closely Marxist ideas of how people are alienated within economies and how dominant ideologies in society become paradigms that we can’t even see. For example everything is reduced to property under capitalism so that perceiving land without an owner (even a state owner) becomes impossible. When such a system produces injustices it can be difficult to identify anyone who is responsible. Certainly the landlord who rents a house at unaffordable rents is not held responsible for homelessness when they are simply following the market rate. Neither is the train station guard who tells the homeless person that they can’t sleep in the doorway they’ve chosen. Everyone is simply complying with the dictates of property. This sounds very similar to the Christian concept of the world ; a totalising cultural phenomenon that is hard to resist. The world can be a useful concept for naming the “water we swim in” culturally.

As much as the world can help us bring to light unseen cultural trends it can also be a concept that goes sour very easily. This occurs when the world and the church are understood as two distinct spaces in their current form. The church then becomes code for us (if you are a believer) while the world is them. Us and them. So let’s look at the ways that Us and them thinking about the church and the world goes wrong.

1. It misses a call to deeper difference with the world.
Churches which hold to us and them thinking about the church and the world need to focus on superficial matters where they can draw clear distinctions. Once upon a time they might have used divorce or sex before marriage as a mark of distinction but increasingly they can’t because there are unmarried and remarried parents in their pews. Instead now they might talk about hook up culture or porn use or acts of piety like church attendance. Meanwhile the church and its’ members accumulate property, and otherwise live as parts of the political economy just like citizens of the world. On average church attendees give more to charity but as they pursue political and economic power and security with the excuse that they have the right to like any other group, the way they distinguish themselves from the world is a missed opportunity for challenge.

2. It at least appears to be astonishing in its ignorance of church failure.
Our Prime minister, Scott Morrison, made a big deal of his Christian faith in the lead up to the election. He is defending the most blatant practice of pork barrelling by any Australian government as I write this. Of course child abuse in the church has been a national scandal with our highest profile sex abuser, Archbishop Pell, being defended in character by our most well known Methodist, Ex-PM John Howard. The notion that the church and the world in their present forms are the contrast between Gods way and the highway cannot be believed. I believe Christians who make that sort of claim generally mean the Church as it should be rather than how it is, but if this is not made clear the effect is to seem blind to injustice enacted by their own tribe.

3. It is astonishing in its ignorance of what is happening outside the church.
When Church voices draw a distinction between church and world as two separable places in their current form they have to paint the secular world as devoid of hope and virtue. This is the concern that prompted my writing. I am so tired of people in church talking about secular people as “the selfie generation” without any irony. It honestly feels like the authors of those comments caught an ad for a mainstream television reality show and figured that’s what everyone outside the church is like.  Their benchmark for assessing popular culture is the Kardashians. But if you are generally concerned with opposing vapidity in culture how is it that you haven’t found any of the allies in all the spaces outside of church? Just talk to young people themselves and you will find many who don’t want mobile phones or are unimpressed with social media and celebrity culture. In another example every Christmas there are numerous voices from Christians and non-Christians wanting to simplify and move away from consumptive consumerism, and seeking to make the season kinder to planet and the poor. But to hear some Christian speakers use of the world, its as if secular society is all lining up for the sales while in contrast Christians reflect on the incarnation. What a missed opportunity for alliances.

Even worse is the attribution of millennial frustrations to selfishness and cultural priorities. Why aren’t non-churched people having kids? It would have to be a desire for fame, fortune and freedom instead... and a lack of hope. It couldn’t be a decline in real wages and a housing market that is an investors playground. Could it? OK Boomer.

4. It’s vague as all hell and can easily be an excuse for blind bigotry.
The call to be unlike the world can be misapplied to suggest that any compromise of rigid fundamentalism for compassion or common sense is a compromise with the world for worldly gain. Zippers on pants instead of good honest buttons? Contraception? “Secular” movies and music? Women priests? Blessing same sex relationships? Anything can be worldly if you don’t like it.
If a person wants to argue against those things then they should develop arguments unpolluted by just labeling something worldly.

Worse still the term worldly can be used to dog-whistle one’s prejudices without actually having the courage to express them or to sound like you mean different things to different audiences for maximum appeal. The hypocrisy of this frankly cowardly approach to preaching is that it uses the rhetoric of radical bravery as it makes supposedly challenging calls to reject the world. Meanwhile everybody gets to decide what that means for them while looking down on others who decide differently.

I hope some of what I’ve written inspires the Christians I know to challenge how the concept of the world is used in their own and their peers rhetoric. To non- Christians reading this please know many Christians are not actually like the preacher from Footloose, there are Christians I know who are ACDC fans, avid board-gamers, into musical theatre, or complete nerds about anime, but it can be hard to confront how the world is used negatively by Christian leaders and teachers particularly when it is all dog-whistle and lack of detail.

Lastly this isn’t just a problem for Christians. The idea of the world can take many forms. From my own left wing perspective I should be critical of what I see as the path capitalism paves for our culture without needing to think every participant in it is corrupted by it and that every product of capitalism is entirely destructive. The four errors I mentioned above can easily be made  by me. In a sense the world is always both present and being resisted at the same time and moving beyond simplicity is necessary for us all.