Monday, May 8, 2017

We need fair micro-credit solutions.

I have friends who, when bad luck strikes, have been forced to take out credit card loans. Every single article I have read or consumer advice show I have watched has warned me this is a terrible idea. Those friends however are disinclined to accept any direct financial assistance from my partner and I instead. I get that there are solid cultural reasons for this. I believe we can overcome, or maybe circumvent such reasons, with positive micro-credit systems.

We view direct transfers of money between friends as problematic. If your mate helps you out with a lift you might give them money “for petrol” as a way of diminishing the act of payment. If they help you fix your door (which friends have done for us) then you’ll often have a better chance of paying them with food or alcohol than you will putting money in their hand. The exchange of money can transform a relationship into employer/employee or service provider to customer. Those relationships can overlap with friendships but they also come with their own kinds of expectations. We are friends with our mechanic. But when he operates as our mechanic we expect a certain standard of service and he expects prompt payment.

The problem is sometimes we need money. In such situations we are culturally predisposed not to solve our problems in our communities with our closest allies. Instead we go to banks and when we lack the collateral to secure a bank loan we take out credit card loans, hoping we can pay them back before the above 20% interest rate kicks in. And we pay high fees for the privilege. When for some people repayments become difficult the crippling debt and fees serve to dig an impossibly deep hole, for others credit cards just add to the cost of living – not killing them but making life significantly harder.

The alternatives to credit card companies are worse. So called payday loans which provide instant short term loans of amounts like $6000 without credit checks, are loan sharks with fancy marketing. People end up with real interest rates as high as 68%, face late fees for not meeting repayments and end up facing constant harassment from debt collectors. Here are some resources that make for harrowing reading:
http://www.abc.net.au/triplej/programs/hack/whats-up-with-payday-loans/7794806
https://peterpilt.org/2014/03/03/exposing-nimbledumb-little-loans-deceptive-little-company/
https://peterpilt.org/2016/01/12/financial-rape-of-australians-by-wallet-wizard-cash-converters-and-loan-ranger-peter-pilts-thoughts/

The ultimate lender of last resort is the pawn shop. Cash converters is the most famous. They are an unwitting but not unwilling fence of stolen goods half the time. Even when they pawn legitimately owned property that business model is based on undervaluing goods to those who bring them in. I remember seeing an elderly man being told how worthless his wedding ring was by some young punk in a Cash Converters Polo-shirt while I waited to check if they had any of my stolen property. That’s the ugly face of capitalism they keep out of the brochure. In addition Cash converters joins in the payday business with a lack of scruples that makes the other players in that industry look good. In  2015 they were reached a settlement to refund about 37.500 customers after charging them real interest rates as high as 633%!

If you are wondering if there is a solution you’ll be pleased to know that there sort of is. All the small dodgy lenders we’ve mentioned (like Nimble and the rest) can be considered micro-credit or micro-finance agencies. They are ways to provide small amounts of credit – anywhere between less than a 100 dollars to a few thousand. NILS, the No Interest Loan Scheme, administered by Good shepherd, is showing how micro-financing doesn’t have to be exploitative and can serve as a crucial step in staving off deeper poverty. For want of a grand for example a person may not be able to repair their car and thus can’t make it to work.

The NILS program is restrictive. The loans can’t be used for ongoing costs like rent or bills. This is so as not to put a loan in the hand of someone who might be able to obtain emergency rental assistance or defer their bill payment – better options really than a loan. It also ensures the loans aren’t simply bandaiding a problem that will re-present in a month. The size of the loans are also very small between $300 and $1200. That no doubt ensures the program helps the most people but there would be many people who need more than that. For example, purchasing a roadworthy car for less than $4000 is nigh impossible.

Participants also need to be on low incomes and healthcare cards. This ensures the program meets the deepest need however even people off health care cards can face the need for credit with a real uncertainty about when or if those circumstances will turn around. The Health care card cut off is reached with an income of about $500 per week with an allowance of $34 dollars per dependant child. Two bedroom dwellings in Bendigo ( a regional Victorian town) are at their cheapest at $220 per week, while in Fawkner (a once outer suburb of Melbourne and traditionally very working class) they sit above $300 (which is still more than $100 cheaper than a basic single person apartment in Carlton). (https://www.realestateview.com.au) It is easy to see how a family might be on an income above the Health care card cut off and still be in financial stress after rent.

We should also consider that it doesn’t make economic sense for people to focus on mere survival. Living beyond our immediate means can be good economics. A person might reasonably build or purchase their own home, or undertake study or obtain a bee hive and a couple of chooks, or get that sore back properly looked at or buy a push bike. These are all investments in a more sustainable personal economic future which lines of no interest credit would make a lot easier. The NILS program of the Good Shepherd might service only some of these occasions. Its not meant to replace exploitative micro-credit agencies all together. For that we may need to consider other options.

Crowdfunding can be a way forward. Peer to peer lending is specifically a type of crowd funding which aims to emulate the banking system with lower overheads. The outcome is both lower interest rates for lenders and higher returns for investors. In addition peer to peer lending can give investors more control over how their money is loaned out. One positive aspects of peer to peer lending is how it draws loans from a very broad range of investors thus reducing the impact of a single loan default on any one person. The platforms also provide anonymity to lenders and borrowers overcoming our cultural problem with money and friends. Peer to peer lending however is profit driven perhaps precisely because of that anonymity enabling us to make a profit off simply loaning money to someone. I hope peer to peer lending does bite into the major banks business but I also don’t expect it to fundamentally challenge the banking business model so much as run it more efficiently.

The other extreme are crowdfunding sites through which people give money away like  GoFundme and to a lesser extent Pozible (which has some rewards for givers). Theses sites don’t fully escape our cultural taboos about asking friends for money. There are people who, in financial stress, still wouldn’t use such a means of asking. On the flipside because the money isn’t officially loaned people may put a higher standard on why they would give it. Perhaps a car that needs repairing wont be enough to garner support.

I did say Pozible and GoFundme don’t officially loan money but they can still be understood as forms of credit. If I fund you when you need money and when your situation recovers you fund someone else and so on, including the possibility that I will one day be funded myself, then the gifted money acts just like a no-interest micro- credit scenario would. Money moves around to meet need and keep people away from loansharks.

There are other ways donations can form a kind of bank. Free Wheeling Fun in Bendigo takes in old bikes, fixes them up and then provides them for a donation to anyone who needs a bike, This concept of free-cycling minimizes expenses and waste at the same time. Baby gear; prams, cots, high chairs, clothes and toys , even non-disposable nappies; all are perfect for free cycling. They just take up space  once outgrown but they will be a real boon to someone else. What makes this sort of giving away into a form of micro-credit is the reciprocation. Upon giving away a cot, get a kids bike for a donation, then give that back because your kid is grown and ask a stuff-sharing community for a cot because its second child time. Or something like that. What doesn’t make this like a bank is that giving or taking is not tracked. While this means people may exploit the situation I suspect that doesn’t happen as often as feared. Rather I worry that people would be concerned about looking like they were exploiting the system and despite the opportunities in free-cycling will only turn to it after exhausting less savory options.

The enemy of positive, generous and non-restrictive micro-credit alternatives is a cultural view that we all must stand on our own. Nobody does stand on their own of course. We are supported by family and friends if we are fortunate. Less positively we are a part of histories of oppression and theft in Australia. For good or ill, any employment we have is embedded in a whole society that makes that employment possible. In so many ways the cliché call to stand on our own (in addition to conjuring an image unfair to people without use of their legs) is never accurate. If we can accept that, we can instead invest in fairer ways to help each other. Anything has to be better than interest rates that contribute to our growing income inequality.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

A Theological Response to Child Abuse in the Church.

Jesus loves his church.
There are many articles about the institutionalized abuse of children in the Catholic church. The scale of the problem in Australia alone has been phenomenal. At least 1,880 offenders. Over 4,440 victims. And this is only the Catholic church.

One article in particular struck me as a telling example of the churches response from a mainstream (perhaps a little to the conservative side) Christian site. In it a Catholic theologian outlined a practical response, a procedural response to the issue of child abuse. I actually recommend the content of that article for what it was trying to be. The article, by a theologian, also illustrated to me the absence of a specifically theological response from the church to this issue.

Theology is the discussion and study of the divine. It is the considering and contesting of all that can be said about God, or even whether anything can be said at all. The epidemic of child abuse in the church is shaping how God is understood and affecting what statements about God are believable. There is a lay theological response to this issue even if it seems like church theologians are largely focused on the pragmatic. I want to try and articulate how I see that theological response developing in this article.

It is important to distinguish a theological response from one which looks for blame or solutions. There are many different contributing factors to blame for child abuse in the churches. These may include theological factors – that is people’s understanding of God may have enabled and even justified the abuse, but other factors include institutional self-preservation as well as explanations that are better rooted in patriarchy and a broader social devaluing of children. The purpose of a theological response is not to push theological faults forward as if they alone explain what has happened but to look for how to positively understand the divine in the mess of this matter. The end result of a theological response is a set of statements about the divine that can co-exist with the abuse that has transpired.

The first reflection that must be made is of God’s weakness. I say that to deliberately confront a particular notion of God represented by the statement, “God will not be mocked.” This notion of God is represented by the stern disciplinarian who stands above us with strap in hand, swift punishment befalling those who disregard their authority. Whether or not the divine cares if it is mocked, it has had no recourse when it is so thoroughly debased and disgraced as to be used to cover child abuse. I am not blaming the divine. I am postulating that it has been grossly misrepresented, but I am noting it could not prevent that misrepresentation.

To an extent this is simply the classic “problem of evil” that is used to disprove a God who is all loving, all powerful and all knowing.  Child abuse is a clear evil and a God who has all three of those characteristics is not consistent with a world in which child abuse occurs. There are answers to this problem – the importance to God of free will being one of them – but those answers don’t really do much other than insert a “because” in the statements at least in terms of the God we experience. God must allow evil to occur and thus cannot be experienced as all powerful over the world because of the importance to God of free will.

The problem of child abuse in the church, however, is not simply a crisis of God’s power over the world. It is specifically a crisis of God’s power over their representation. The result of this crisis, regardless of the “becauses” that we insert, is that God cannot be experienced as in control of their representation. This means that whatever logical solution we come to that preserves Gods existence in the presence of evil, the connection between God and their representation in the world must cease to be a special relationship different to their connection to the world at large.

This is huge for some churches. For other churches, not especially. The Quakers have a strong distrust of people speaking for God in any way and believe in our capacity to experience God directly through silence and stillness. At the other extreme the Catholic church holds that it is specially instituted to represent God on earth through the authority of the Pope and their Bishops. The idea of a God who has the power to do that simply does not survive the child abuse scandals of the church. God can grant no special protection from corruption or falsehood to any institution standing in their name.

This is not just a problem for Catholics. Generally Christian denominations have relied on two sources of authority to support their doctrines. The traditions of the church and scripture. These two strands are not distinct. The specific texts which were included as scripture in Christianity were chosen by a series of early councils of the church which relied on tradition to determine inclusion. Tradition is also why these decisions are seen as enduring. Meanwhile the Catholic church, which could be said to have emphasized tradition over scripture, bases its authority to do so on a passage in scripture. Importantly both tradition and scripture rely on some notion that God has some capacity to bless their correct representation in the world. Christian scripture is not the writings of an incarnated God but writings about that experience by others and is deemed to be specially protected from falsehood by God. 

This reliance on protected representation only becomes stronger as we head back into Christianities past and the books of their Old Testament. There are Christian schools of thought which contend that meaningful theology must be restricted to uncovering the truths revealed in either these books or the New Testament writings. This is to say that  Biblical representations of God are all that can be trusted and evidence from beyond them is unsafe to depend on. This is how deeply held the notion of a special relationship between God and their representation by the church (in the broader sense of the word) is for some forms of Christianity. Such ways of theologizing cannot survive the child abuse scandal rocking the churches.

I should note that there is strong evidence, at least in the Catholic church, that the proportion of offenders in positions of authority exceeds that of the general community. However, this isn’t necessary to justify the claims I am making. Nor is it necessary to prove this isn’t simply because more trust over vulnerable people was historically placed in the churches hands or due to a hands-off approach to the church by secular authorities that would have failed any organisation. Regardless of cause the evidence that there is no special difference favouring those purporting to represent God over secular organisations is enough to disprove a special relationship between God and their representation in terms of power over evil.

If no special relationship exists between God and their church then this is not all negative. Freeing the divine from possession by its spokespeople (spokesmen mostly) emboldens other theological claims. The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses into Child Abuse that is exposing the abuse in the churches is the work of the non-churched, the religious and the ex-churched. If the divine is free from a special connection with the church we can see the divine in this work. The work of the commission can be viewed as divinely inspired even as it exposes and potentially weakens the church.

Much of Judaeo-Christian theology has God massively concerned with their representation. They are, in story, outraged by heresy and idolatry both of which get God wrong. If God is incapable of protecting themselves from misrepresentation this idea of what angers God seems foolish. It would be a futile anger. We might be better off considering the divine as a spirit radically unconcerned with their representation, happy to work through atheists or Catholics in order to get the job done as in the work of the Royal Commission. This picture of God seems more consistent with a world in which we are saddened and inspired by different aspects of human society with no pattern as to whether they can be associated with one religion or another or none.

There are many more diverse theological responses to this issue than I have covered here. There are victims who simply put to one side questions of God’s power and find a place for God as a companion in their suffering. There are others who dismiss entirely the usefulness of the idea of any divine spirit. These both seem like legitimate responses to me. The picture of God that is no longer viable is the God who can guarantee to be known through their representatives, by ensuring that the lies that happen outside the church are kept from happening within.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Marriage - Something old, Something new.

I’m currently reading “Love Wins”. Not the much hyped Rob Bell book about the non-existence of hell but a book by Debbie Cenziper and Jim Obergefell with the same title, about the court battle to establish marriage equality in the U.S. It’s a fascinating story so far with clear prose back grounding the plaintiffs and lawyers pivotal to the case. The differences evident in the book between the U.S. situation and Australia’s has led me to undertake some historical speculation. We are currently at an impasse in the progress towards marriage law reform in this country. Could we have taken a different path?

In 2011 Julia Gillard as Prime Minister of a minority government, opposed same-sex marriage. As parliamentary leader of the Labor party she negotiated that a conscience vote on the issue of marriage reform was Labor’s policy rather than a binding vote in support. At the time this was seen by some as protecting Labor backing amongst religious conservatives. Catholics are a significant Labor constituency with historically socially conservative views. Those views are changing however with opposition to homosexuality now largely living in more Liberal voting evangelical churches. This was one reason why the politics of Gillard’s decision led to many scratched heads. Was it really necessary?

Even more confusing was that Prime Minister Gillard herself was an open atheist in a defacto relationship with no (public at least) intention of marrying. Why was she personally aligned with the “marriage defenders” on this issue? Gillard didn’t just broker a deal on the conference floor she spoke openly about not wanting to change the marriage act to include same-sex relationships. For atheists who take a strong pro-secular position the chance to remove John Howards judeo-christian inspired stipulations about gender seemed like a no-brainer. If it wasn’t politic to do so, this could be understood, but to go on the record as not wanting to change such a blatant elevation of religious concerns? As an atheist? Bizarre.

Gillard however gave us her preferred solution. Straight couples and same-sex couples alike should embrace civil unions. Leave marriage to the churched. I imagine that Gillard might have also felt that she represented the ultimate victory in regard to marriage – a person holding the highest office in the land without needing a ring on their finger to prove their substance, a woman in public office who didn’t need to express pining for her day in white taffeta. From this perspective making marriage relevant again by broadening it to same-sex couples looks like a gross step backwards.

I’ve been wondering, what would it have taken for Gillard to have been right? For our circumstance then to have been the Lefts cultural victory in this matter, sans any change to the Marriage Act would have needed Australians to embrace a perspective that wasn’t popular even then.  Marriage equality has gained momentum since that time and is now the only solution for the cause of same-sex relationship recognition in the popular imagination.  It would have taken a very different Australia to have ended this conversation with Gillard’s solution in 2011.

Crucially, we would have needed there to be a stark split between those who marry and people in the LGBTI communities and their allies. If those groups were separate then the rhetoric of “leave marriage to them” would make sense in the LGBTI community. “Them”, the marrying-kind, as distinct from those in same sex couples or their allies, would be a sensible category. For some people this is their reality. The adult children of people who never married, whose parents have no expectation their kids will marry can feel marriage belongs to “them”. Such people may see marriage as irrelevant to their life – not only are they unlikely to get married, but they are unlikely to even get invited to a wedding. Occasionally someone in their circle of friends or family surprisingly falls in love with one of the marrying kind and a wedding invitation appears in the mail.  Attending the wedding is like attending a bar mitzvah when one is not Jewish. The food is great, the music as well, but nothing makes perfect sense. You just roll with it as a curious exotic adventure.

Likewise the other side of the divide, the marrying kind, would need to be profoundly separate from members of the LGBTI community and their allies for Gillard’s position to be comprehensible for them. Again this is some defenders of traditional marriage’s reality, betrayed when they use slogans like “choose your own word, leave marriage alone.” For these people same-sex couples are not a part of the tradition and history of marriage. They are like goyim at a bar mitzvah who liking the look of the thing decide to have their own. The belief is that same-sex couples have no historical claim to this ritual.

Although some people live lives as described above with few connections to their opposite, my own society is not like this at all. I have one sibling who is married, one engaged, one who probably never will get formally married, and my self who married only after having my children. In our extended family there are atheists, Catholics, Anglicans, Evangelicals and a bunch who are open to a range of religious positions. Friends and family include same-sex couples. Marriage is our word, our cultural heritage, although none of us are treating it exactly like our parents and some of us are either rejecting or radically reinventing it.  It seems perfectly plain to me that same-sex couples who want to get married, and whose families and friends want to celebrate their weddings, do so because this is a part of their traditions and cultural heritage. It is what their parents did and what their siblings have done. It is their word too.

There is something gloriously socialist about the construct of the civil union. Or perhaps a better description of its tone would be the perfect rationalism of the French republic with its proposed ten hour days and ten day weeks. By sweeping away the traditions of the past and replacing it with something that lacks such baggage we can provide a purely functional answer to state relationship recognition. Marriage can continue in churches, including gay affirming churches too, or synagogues or mosques or wherever really but as a separate institution, left on the law books as an anachronism. Or in true French revolutionary style we can even expunge marriage from the law books altogether and make it a private arrangement.

Bluntly this isn’t how the world works. The French Republican Calendar was abolished after twelve years. Esperanto, developed in 1887, to replace European languages with a logical grammar, hasn’t caught on. Legacy systems pervade our culture: you might argue because of a failing of vision and ambition. However partly at least we want those legacy systems to remain as a connection to the past and our shared heritage. Far more than Gillard realized and far more than those who want same-sex couples to leave marriage alone we all have a shared heritage that includes marriage. What we are trying to do is to share it better. 

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

So many points of no return.



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





Thursday, June 16, 2016

Understanding Evil.

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

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

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

Learning theory and developmental models.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Systems theory and social models.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Saturday, June 11, 2016

Challenging Choice Without Creating Victims.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Monday, May 23, 2016

"Fair Cop": Towards a Theology of Closeness.

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

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

Seriously. See you tomorrow.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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