Thursday, April 28, 2016

Partial solutions to the need to pee.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Postmodernism: A tale with two chapters - and a third chapter with a problem.

Imagine that human history can be broken into three chapters. These chapters are distinguished by three different attitudes to authority, knowledge and progress. These attitudes, which we will call Pre-Modern, Modern and Post-Modern, are dominant in their respective eras but certainly not exclusive. There is a bit of the Premodern attitude in the Modern era and even a bit of the Modern attitude in the Pre-Modern era but between eras there is a shift in ascendancy. This makes it impossible to date these eras neatly. Even within people there is voices from all eras lingering. However someone like Moses or Mother Theresa is firmly Premodern, someone like Mary Wollstonecraft or Karl Marx is firmly Modern and someone like Derrida or Batman is Postmodern. That’s not a joke. Whereas Moses and Marx are proposing plans to fix their societies, Batman, from his position as a criminal, can only achieve partial remedies to Gotham. We will see that this is a hallmark of the Postmodern.

We can’t really say that either Pre-Modern, Modern or Post-Modern worldviews are entirely good or bad. Hitler is modern but so is Martin Luther King. You could say Pre-Modern, Modern and Post-Modern worldviews are suited to their times however they are so pervasive that it might be fairer to say the times become suited to their attitudes. They are broader than what we usually call “philosophies”. Instead they equip us philosophically. I want to get to the point where I can discuss a specifically Post-modern equipped response to some contemporary social problems. Before we can do that I need to try and broadly describe these three world-views.

In the Premodern world-view authority comes from above and beyond ourself. Humanity learns and knows through encountering revelation. Revelation is exactly what it sounds like, something or someone is revealing the truth to us, peeling back the curtain from ultimate reality. A key intellectual virtue of the Premodern era is patience. Faithfulness is also important as the payoff for any revelation is not always immediate. It might even be generations from the time of revelation to when it is proven true. In the Pre-Modern world view there is also no guarantee of positive progress. Sometimes there is even a view of the present as less than the past because we are now further from a moment of revelation or creation in which truth was truly known. More often time just isn’t evaluated as a simple straight line based on human social happiness; prophets arise in our darkest hours while prosperity brings its own corruption and all seasons have their purpose.

In the Modern world view authority is a term with a changed meaning. We are not waiting for a message from an author of the world. We are able to speak with authority ourselves. The basis of our authority is adherence to a process – rational thinking, logic, the scientific method, evidence based practice, reflective practice, client-focused systems, democratic processes and so on. All of these from pre-enlightenment concepts to contemporary buzzwords are processes which are seen as enabling humanity to be like Gods, to speak with authority. Within modernism there are arguments about which process are best and which are broken but there is a fundamental belief that a process is sufficient to guide progress in the right direction – not revelation from beyond. A key intellectual virtue of the Modern world view is therefore rigour – strict adherence to protocols and constraints. Other values which become important are precision and objectivity. There is an unshakable faith that some process will enable the future to be better than the past and the past is generally considered worse than today for not having access to the processes we have.

In the Postmodern world view there is a recognition that this way of breaking up history into three phases puts the postmodern in the literary place of the punchline at the end. Postmodern attitudes will therefore need to have all the answers, complete all endings and supercede both the modern and the pre-modern before it. Postmodernity tries to resist this fate for two reasons – one is that the postmodern world view doesn’t believe in itself in the way that the Pre-Modern and Post-Modern attitudes do. In the Modern world view the Premodern ideas are dismissed as myths and stories, unlike its own beliefs. The Post-modern world view doesn’t just consider that the Modern and the Pre-modern ideas both are myths and stories it accepts this as a fair characterization of itself. The whole shebang of the three world views is a myth! Postmodernism itself is an element in a story. You could consider this hyper-critical response to be a continuation of the Modern into the Post-Modern. On the other hand the way in which this criticism destroys the idea of progress – reflected in Postmodernisms refusal to take the throne as our stories ultimate winner – is an element we find in the Pre-Modern.

The other reason that Postmodernism tries to resist being the stories final answer is to be found in the way that postmodernists, premodernists and modernists are not fundamentally different. Most of them would rather have a full stomach than an empty one, would rather children laughed than cried and would rather not see the tiger go extinct. All of them want to be right and want to be right in order to see the world be better, pre-modernists through faithfulness and patience and modernists through rigour and objectivity. The problem for Postmodernists is their awareness that the desire to be right and pursue what is best for the world has historically been a justification for terrible cruelty. As modernists believe pre-modern conviction is delusional, and pre-modernists think modernist conviction is hubris, postmodernists agree with them both. Conviction is problematic in the postmodern, particularly conviction of a particular type referred to as belief in a metanarrative.

A Metanarrative is the idea that there is one large story for all. For Christians there are many different stories in their church on any given Sunday – Bob is there to thank God for forgiving his adultery, Sarah is there because she finds the company wholesome, Martha is there because she wants to connect with her families heritage, Nick is there to put on the armour of God in his crusade against whatever Nick is fired up about. Each of these stories however are subsumed under one large story of Gods engagement with their creation in which the differences between congregation members are irrelevant. There is not a million different reasons why God sent his son to earth in Christianity, for Bob’s forgiveness and Martha’s traditions and so on, but one reason that defines everyone’s relationship to the story. That’s a metanarrative.

The Christian Gospel is only one example of a metanarrative. The idea that being an atheist will improve people’s lives – not just Bob and Sarah’s lives but everybody’s lives and in some basically similar way – is a metanarrative too. Most if not all feminisms are metanarratives. Capitalism and communism both spew out metanarattives. We find less metanarratives in the premodern era – particularly when we see Gods localized to the degree that we have the God of the Israelites with a story only for them. Traditional African religions don’t operate by metanarratives either – each person has their own spiritual quest. The metanarratives zenith was Modernism, which makes sense given the modern valuing of consistency and theory, while Postmodernism tries to avoid metanarratives all together.

In this regard Postmodernism is always failing. We are stuck in our three world view story. The moment Postmodernism gains any kind of definition as a philosophy, including the definition that Postmodernists reject metanarratives, then we complete the three world view story and we have a metanarrative containing Postmodernism. All of history becomes expressed in a tale with an implied should to it – you too should avoid metanarratives. I think of this as the contamination of postmodernism by the Modern era. It seems impossible for Postmodernism to break free of Modernism’s production of metanarratives – it seems impossible to speak at all without speaking for everybody.

Modernists wants us to reject postmodernism for this failure and inevitable contradictions but why wouldn’t they? This would after all ensure the modern era continues unchallenged and unchallengeable. The Pre-Modern is a foe already on the ropes. Postmodernism has several strategies to resist completely failing (and completely succeeding which paradoxically is the same thing) in separating from Modernism and the chief of these is acceptance. Acceptance is a virtue in the postmodern akin to patience in the Premodern. Postmodernism accepts that it contains contradictions, it accepts that it has to rely on the pre-modern and the modern and can never fully replace them, it accepts that philosophical problems are not solvable. Authority for example is a huge point of conflict between world views. Pre-modernists poke fun at the self-referential nature of moral authority in modernism. Modernists argue that the transcendant in premodernism is simply a God of the gaps and also must be justified by circular logic. Postmodernists accept that living with authority and living without it are both ultimately untenable and therefore any answer to questions of authority has to be tentative and partial, temporary and moderated. The Batman needs Comissioner Gordon who needs the Batman, even though both contradict each other as vigilante and lawman.

“Hi, I’m a Postmodernist” is not a particularly great way to introduce oneself at parties. Partly its because postmodern texts can be chock full of made-up words and elusive content. Reading Post-Modern theory can lead us to feel a combination of stupid and angry that someone is trying to make us feel stupid. There are well publicised cases of people using postmodern language to publish gibberish that no-one dared criticize in case it actually meant something brilliant – a sort of intellectual Emperors new clothes. Once exposed these confidence scams drew ire down on the whole enterprise. In it’s wordy posturing postmodern theory can also seem to encourage a superficial involvement with reality; postmodern Nero doesn’t so much fiddle as he engages in “musical hair-splitting”, while Rome burns.

In it’s defence I don’t think philosophy has been able to talk directly about itself with much clarity for some time. The hyper critical nature of postmodern philosophy in which language and philosophy themselves are being interrogated makes describing this world view directly with language and philosophy terms a fools task. We are better off demonstrating postmodern philosophy in characters set in fiction. Star Trek Voyager is far more postmodern than previous Star Treks for example. The crews preparedness to break their own protocols in order to act responsibly is contradictory. What are they responsible to without those protocols? Elsewhere the Guardians of the Galaxy leave us with the question of whether they will do something bad, something good or a bit of both at the end of their film, never resolving the contradiction of goodies and baddies. Acceptance, partial solutions, imperfect answers are everywhere in our stories. They are not always demonstrated fatalistically and tragically in moral tales that reinforce a need for modernism or the pre-modern. Sometimes we cheer uncertainty and are happy our protagonists are left with the tension of continuing choice.

Postmodernism also gets into trouble because of mistaken identities. Sometimes people hear of French Postfeminism and confuse it with American post-feminism. French Postfeminism is a feminist attempt to construct the self post all the assumptions of gender. This is reasonably associated with post modernism in the field of ideas. American post-feminism by contrast is the claim that feminism’s work is done (by gaining women the vote for example) and we can let liberal capitalism progress now without further feminist critique. This is not post-modern but very modern instead. Likewise there seems to me to be nothing particularly postmodern about Francis Fukuyama's The End of History and the Last Man with its view that the end of human political evolution has been reached by both liberal democracy and capitalism. American post-feminism and the End of History myth both get lumped under a post-modern banner which the left then forcibly reject. But what they are rejecting are clearly metanarratives that fit perfectly inside Modernism.

Another case of mistaken identity is when conservatives reject post-modernism because they see it as promoting moral relativism. In a way they are right but equally they are wrong. Postmodernism rejects one size fits all solutions and this includes moral relativism as an absolute truth in the way that a modernist might use it – to discount all moral speech as nonsense. The arguments that conservatives use to argue against moral relativism – that it will lead us to a position where no evil can be confronted at all – is met with postmodern acceptance. Postmodernists agree but hold this alongside the awareness that outrightly rejecting all moral relativism is just as problematic. Alternatives that postmodernists explore include local truth in which consensus around meaning might be developed differently in differently settings and the idea that language is tactical and collegial rather than strictly truth telling. This is not the same as saying that language is just individual expression.  I hope I can explore these concepts further on this blog.

This is not an official guide to Postmodernism. I have never heard anyone else use the word acceptance as an intellectual virtue in any context let alone in a breakdown of these world views. You should consider that when writing an academic paper or answering a trivia question. No liability is recognised if you lose a million dollar prize or get a D from quoting me. It’s a profoundly relevant question to this topic to ask how you would establish the authority of this blog post. If your answer is a little bit of this method of verification and a little bit of that method, with a degree of uncertainty never fully dispelled you just might be postmodernist.

For a more mainstream discussion of this topic check out this lovely fellows lecture.

Monday, April 11, 2016

My classroom, my values, of course. - a discussion of the safe schools program.

The furor over the safe schools program has died down. The Victorian Government is retaining it in my home state with absolutely no changes. The Federal government is proscribing changes that will lower its profile and independence, depoliticize the program and restrict some parts of its information to the discretion of counselors. These are matters of concern for the programs supporters. Likewise conservative Christians in Victoria are resenting the complete lack of changes in this state. Oddly the effect of these two polar opposite positions in an area of overlapping jurisdiction is something like a local truce. The chatter and protests over the program are dying down. I doubt very many people will even be switching their votes over these Federal Liberal and State Labor positions that play to each of the parties bases.

This abatement of political rhetoric is a welcome relief as much as the settlement leaves nobody happy. The climax of the Australian Christian Lobby’s attack on the program became an attempt to trip up Malcolm Turnbull by the disgruntled conservatives in his party. Their victory may not have even been as substantial as was crowed for the cameras but LGBTI people saw in this that their lives were still legitimate political footballs. For same-sex attracted and gender diverse adults the campaign raised angry memories of powerlessness that many just want to put behind them. This is admittedly selfish given the ongoing nature of the issue for today’s queer high school students. It also reflects that possibly safe schools isn’t the program everyone would choose to fight for.

For one thing the safe schools program took a position on gender and sexuality that was hardly Marxist despite that characterization being thrown at it. Marxist views on gender and sexuality wouldn’t describe identity as totally self-knowable and primarily about individual expression. Marxist views on sexuality and gender would emphasis how these identities are manufactured by our material circumstances – the means of production we are engaged in, class interests and so on. At best Marxists would say that dominant views of gender and sexuality can be subverted by individuals and communities but that not even our “rebellions” are entirely free or natural.

To give some examples of what I mean; Under the safe schools program it feels very much like if almost every boy in class preferred sports to dolls each boy would be able to conclude this is a natural expression of themselves. The advance made by the program would be that boys who felt differently would also see their feelings as a natural expression of themselves. Some queer theorists would prefer to talk about socialization and market forces involved not only in shaping our preferences but in framing our choices as dolls vs sports or as buy vs buy in most cases. Likewise if someone said they preferred blondes to brunettes a typical Marxist position would be to find this an unsurprising product of racism. A Marxist analysis might also note that the importance of hair colour revolves around the importance of a relationship as a status symbol and therefore want to look into how sexuality in late stage capitalism is often about displaying itself and its “success” to others. The safe schools program could silence criticism of a preference for blondes under a banner of “you can be and like anything you want.” Marxists are just much more dour predictors of how society shapes choices than this.

There was very little space in the heat of the safe schools program debate to make these comments or any other criticisms without feeling like a betrayer of gay rights. In my last post I discussed how overwhelming history was in deciding people’s positions in support of safe schools. I’m not the first to argue we humans are too comfortable moving with our intellectual tribes and listening to what leaders tell us to think. However rather than simply decry this as foolish I hope my last post tried to explain some of why this is the case. Tribalism exists and is rationalized when people feel under attack and that barricades need to be maintained. Trust between LGBTI people and conservative Christians has never been spectacularly high and the safe schools “debate” mired in half truths and distortions thrived on that distrust. I still wonder if any criticism I make of the program will simply be seized upon by people who want to make all mention of non-heterosexuality taboo in high school. That isn’t my position, in case I need to say so.

This Queer/Christian battle line isn’t the only fault line that the safe schools program sat upon. It was simply the most easy one for the media to portray. The Marxist/individualist clash of paradigms I described was never going to lead the nightly news. One other point of conflict over safe schools did gain a small public hearing however; the safe schools program asked us to consider what if any role public schools have in adopting moral or political positions around sexuality. Bizarrely evangelical Christians argued against the program with the language of liberal philosophy; that education should be largely value neutral by avoiding any mention of what is or isn’t normal/healthy/right or wrong. Meanwhile it was the other side who seemed to tolerate explicit teaching of values in order to normalize same-sex attraction and gender diversity. This reflects a wider trend of conservatives casting themselves as champions of pluralism around sexuality – religious freedom fighters – which remains at odds with their defence of school chaplains and heterosexual only marriage. Likewise LGBTI politics embrace of the state to promote health outcomes is a willingness to wield cultural power that usually only a conservative philosophy can justify.

I find this fault line between teaching values and supporting pluralism fascinating as a philosopher and a teacher. The challenge of teaching lies right across it. We are not supposed to use our classrooms as a platform for our moral and political beliefs. I have personally helped students prepare speeches or write essays that argue directly across my own views in line with this. It is ludicrous to suggest that any teacher presents “all the facts” however. I had less than one class to discuss all the politics of genetically modified food with my year nines last year. What would “all the facts” look like on that issue? I chose the story of Golden Rice in the Philippines to humanize the issues for them. There are a hundred alternatives I could have chosen instead but this one struck me as picking up on the most important issues based, frankly, on my values.

A teacher who has no values at all simply couldn’t teach. This is why we don’t simply sit kids in front of the internet in classrooms. We very deliberately provide twenty to thirty of them at a time with a person who hopefully cares deeply about the world, about truth and about human suffering. Our discussion about genetically modified food was in the context of looking at food shortages and food security. Do you want someone teaching kids about those issues who doesn’t have an opinion on whether worldwide hunger matters? Do you want  someone who doesn’t feel a loss over the replacement of the majestic Amazon with soya plantations and who can’t also empathize with poor locals motivation to clear jungle to farm?

Teaching is only superficially valueless. Often I instruct kids to identify stakeholders –a core skill in the humanities. If a student ranks the views of the animal rights activist, or even the chicken themselves, to be unimportant in comparison to the chicken farmer looking to increase sales or the consumer looking for cheap eggs then I have still done my job as a teacher . I have done my job as a teacher if they draw a different conclusion. In this way I can seem to have no values. However on a deeper level by placing the recognition of stakeholders at the core of my teaching, I am promoting what I consider to be a geographers value set – consideration of others, a sensitivity to complexity and the integration of multiple layers of meaning over the same event or location. At the heart of what is good or bad high school geography is not the possession of a set of unchanging facts but a value based relationship to the facts. You could even say that any given set of facts are a product of having a value based approach to the question at hand.

This illustration of the value based heart to teaching in geography describes a scenario in which the victims –Amazonian farmers and damaged chickens  - may not be in the room, although indeed some hungry families may well be represented. The expectation that teachers hold values increases when the subjects of discussions are actually sitting in the class. This isn’t an expectation I see particularly coming from parents or even the school system. Instead it is students themselves who expect their teachers have a moral interest in what they are teaching and even more so when it directly relates to who they are teaching.

This expectation was readily apparent when we looked at groups in Australia who experienced food insecurity. Students were asked to hypothesize why this might be the case for Aboriginal people, young people and the homeless in particular. In doing so they needed to demonstrate an awareness of what are the elements of food security. At the start of this class I spent considerable time talking through the level of maturity and sensitivity people were expected to bring to this topic. Food insecurity is not foreign to every students life and I relayed that some teachers had cautioned me against opening up this discussion because of the relationship between poverty and stigma and thus the opportunity for abuse. I mentioned briefly my own experiences of unemployment and poverty, low paid jobs and housing insecurity so as to destigmatise these conditions.

Some students felt that poverty was connected to laziness and that people without food and on benefits just needed to work harder. They shared these views with me however not to seize some barbed advantage in class but because this seemed plausible to them and they felt I had missed this in my introduction to the task. I didn’t need to correct them The final task was to see whether their hypothesis was reflected in the research. In a way it didn’t matter whether they left class feeling that people were choosing to go hungry due to a character flaw. I would have still taught them about speculation from correlation in the social sciences and introduced them to professional and rigorous explanations of causality. But, and this is a very important but, I don’t think anyone could have accused this class of being valueless or even not having any prejudice. Humility, empathy, generosity, caution and respect were values that informed how the class undertook some basic social science.

Would I have challenged a student if they made a statement that was blatantly racist or included racist generalizations? While that is a question which I thankfully didn’t have to face, I probably would have challenged this. I could have done so in many different ways including inviting another student to provide a different perspective. If a racist comment was made in order to grandstand and treat the classroom as an platform to indirectly bully I would have shut the student down forcefully. I don’t put up with that kind of garbage in my class. If the comment was put forward as genuine opinion, especially with some thoughtfulness about how it might offend others, I could have simply encouraged the student to interrogate their conclusion with further questions. My awareness of the broader reality of racism and the presence of affected students would require me to be more pro-active in challenging racist ideas in class than just any idea I disagreed with.

Returning to the matter of same-sex attraction and gender diversity I don’t think there is an easy answer to say what values a teacher should bring into the classroom and what they should keep to themselves or how biased  a discussion on these matters should be. If a student wanted to grandstand their homophobia in my classroom that is unacceptable but if a student is sensitively critical of same-sex attraction or transgender identity that is not the same thing. The latter student might seem to me to be as misinformed as the first but I would handle it differently because of the core values the latter student is adhering to. I may challenge them gently or not at all even. I don’t see that nuance in the safe schools material.

I disagree philosophically with the idea that I can ever teach without values. This doesn’t mean I have to see every student leave class parroting what I think however. In fact the very best questions I have ever asked a class – “Should Bendigonians have a say in what happens to the Barrier reef?” for example– have been questions where barely any two students have agreed but where all students have considered each others point of view. There seem too few of those sorts of open questions in the safe-schools materials.

There are also other perspectives –that a bit of bullying is just a lark for example – that I would strictly control any discussion over and where students would know my opinion strongly. And there are other ideas - that anglo-australians are superior to others – that I just laugh down if  I heard them. The opinion that same-sex attracted and gender diverse young people should keep their feelings and relationships to themselves is something safe schools materials is and should be biased against.  A proud public position of acceptance of same-sex attraction and gender diversity by schools strikes me as a good thing. Not every opinion is equally tolerable. But I do wonder if the safe schools approach is insufficiently grounded in core values of empathy and respect and too worried about the surface value of the opinions students express. That isn’t where I think teaching values should be at.