Monday, 18 April 2016

The social justice case for a sugar tax

There is currently a proposal before the New Zealand Government to put a tax on sugar as a public health measure. I’m afraid it’s unlikely to fly. Not only is it both a tax and a public health measure, neither of which will endear it to the National Party, but sugar and sugary products are imported goods, which means (since we’ve signed the TPPA) that if we do implement the tax we will be sued, most likely by Coca-Cola, to make us un-implement it again. Anything can be a “disguised restriction on trade” if you have good enough lawyers.

I’ve recently discovered Stephanie Rodgers’ blog Boots Theory. I put it on my reading list because I mostly find her perspective on New Zealand politics illuminating. However, as my regular readers both know, when I write it’s almost always because I’ve found something I disagree with. And I disagree with Rodgers on the sugar tax. Unfortunately, Boots Theory is a Wordpress blog, and as I’ve had occasion to mention before, I can’t comment on Wordpress blogs for some reason.

In a recent post, Rodgers did what I just did a couple of paragraphs ago and inserted a snarky little aside on one issue into her argument on another:

When we’re against slut-shaming but say Kim Kardashian should cover up; when we’re against government policing poor people’s choices but think a sugar tax will force them to “make better choices”; when we’re totally pro-choice but think three abortions is way too many...

I do understand how a sugar tax might be seen as “policing poor people’s choices”. I get what Rodgers is saying. Thing is, though, poor people don’t have many choices to start with; that’s what being poor means. They buy junk food and fizzy drinks because that’s all they can afford, not because they don’t know what’s good for them. When I was getting sent to “get a job you lazy bludger” workshops at WINZ, this was a point raised by other attendees who, unlike me at the time, had had jobs before and then lost them. They could feel their health deteriorating from the cheaper food they were having to settle for. I’ve noticed the same myself since, whenever I’ve had to cut back temporarily for one reason or another.

This is exactly the sort of thing that Rodgers is otherwise strong on. Her own blog’s title, Boots Theory, is derived from a Terry Pratchett quote that sums it up:

The reason that the rich were so rich, Vimes reasoned, was because they managed to spend less money.
Take boots, for example. He earned thirty-eight dollars a month plus allowances. A really good pair of leather boots cost fifty dollars. But an affordable pair of boots, which were sort of OK for a season or two and then leaked like hell when the cardboard gave out, cost about ten dollars. Those were the kind of boots Vimes always bought, and wore until the soles were so thin that he could tell where he was in Ankh-Morpork on a foggy night by the feel of the cobbles.
But the thing was that good boots lasted for years and years. A man who could afford fifty dollars had a pair of boots that’d still be keeping his feet dry in ten years’ time, while the poor man who could only afford cheap boots would have spent a hundred dollars on boots in the same time and would still have wet feet.
This was the Captain Samuel Vimes “Boots” theory of socio-economic unfairness.
Terry Pratchett, Men at Arms

The Vimes Theory answers another question that’s been raised lately – whether we should introduce a Universal Basic Income to replace welfare benefits. The answer is yes, because it would help get people out of the shoddy-goods poverty trap. Well, I contend that it also applies to the sugar-tax proposal. Poor people stay poor partly because they’re spending money mitigating the impact of illnesses such as Type II diabetes, coronary heart disease, and runaway dental caries, all caused at least in part by cheap, unhealthy food. We need to undercut the unfair advantage that sugar (and saturated fats, but one thing at a time) have at the checkout.

The idea goes like this. If you put a tax on sugar, businesses that sell sugary foods and drinks will have to put their prices up on those products. Then people will buy less of them. That means less money for the business, and businesses like money, so to bring their customers back they will drop the prices of other foods that aren’t subject to the tax. Hopefully these foods will, at least on average, be healthier.

Now, granted, it’s unlikely the prices on those healthier foods will drop all the way down to the present price of junk food. But this is where the health benefits come in. I’ve argued before that we should implement a rating scheme for rental housing, because what people will pay extra in rent they’ll make back in lower rates of childhood asthma and rheumatic fever – just as, when toilets were made compulsory a couple of centuries ago, the poor made back their increased rent costs in not dying of cholera.

Cholera is caused by faecal contamination of drinking water; asthma and rheumatic fever are caused by cold, damp, overcrowded housing. What diseases are caused by sugar? Well, dental caries to start with, which is painful, disfiguring, severely harms your chances in a job interview, and has never been adequately covered by public health funding for no better reason than that many people (including politicians) don’t like dentists. Untreated caries can spread into the bone, and these infections are sometimes known to trigger cancers or get into the airway or the blood-sinuses of the brain and kill.

Sugar is connected to atherosclerosis, hypertension, and Type II diabetes. This may be where Rodgers’ sore point with the sugar tax arises, because these conditions also correlate with body fat (especially the diabetes), and Rodgers rightly takes a firm stand against shaming people for their body fat. Fat-shaming, quite apart from being a nasty thing to do, emphatically does not “motivate people to do better”. In fact it discourages them – who’s going to want to jog or go to the gym if everyone’s giving them grossed-out looks? People in the real world have gotten fatter as people in advertising photos have gotten thinner.

Human nutrition is one of the less firmly-established health sciences, because it’s hard to do randomized controlled trials with your participants’ entire diet. Nevertheless, such indications as we do have all point in a consistent direction. We can’t say that obesity causes all these illnesses, but it definitely looks like what causes obesity also causes the illnesses, and one of the causes is nutrition. (No links because I got this from health science lectures, not websites – many separate health science lectures.) That’s one major reason why it’s the poor who suffer first, the other probably being that a work-week on the minimum wage doesn’t typically offer many opportunities for exercise. So no, I don’t accept the formulation that the sugar tax is about “forcing the poor to make better choices”. It’s about making better choices available.

But the point about the financial burden is well made; it will take time for retailers to adjust their pricing of other foods, and their first response will likely be to cheapen fatty ones like butter or chips. Therefore, rather than bring in a new sugar tax, I have an alternative suggestion. What say we remove, from foods made without sugar (and with a low saturated fat content), the 15% Goods and Services Tax (GST) that New Zealand currently levies on all retail products? Then we would have a sugar tax and we would have made things easier for people, not harder.

Oh, right. I forgot. We have a National government. Making things harder for poor people (to “motivate” them) is the point.

Friday, 8 April 2016

What really happened to Jesus?

Easter came early this year, which is my excuse for why this blog post about it is late. In accordance with tradition, I made hot cross buns on the Friday and waited until Sunday before consuming any Easter eggs. You might think that I wouldn’t have much time for a tradition based on something I no longer believe, but somehow the buns and eggs both taste more meaningful this way. Also, this semester I’m taking notes for a New Testament Greek class, who are reading their way through the Book of Revelation. So I can’t help speculating, from time to time, on what may have really happened one Passover in Roman Jerusalem to inspire the world’s most popular faith.

Thanks to my personal history, I know a lot of people whose sense of self-worth and identity hangs on the answer to that question. Indeed, they themselves would go further – their eternal destiny hangs on it. That being the case, my putting forward an alternative answer might be seen as something of a red rag to a bull. What do I hope to achieve by doing this, except to make those people angry? Well, for one thing, I don’t think I should have to shut up about my own opinions just because they differ from other people’s. Like I said, personal history. I researched this for over a year in my early twenties, not to annoy people but because I needed to know the truth. I wrote it up rather hurriedly and incoherently and put it on my first website, which may or may not still be knocking around somewhere. It’s important to me too.

I no longer believe in either God or miracles. This necessarily implies that I think people who do believe in God and miracles are wrong. It does not imply, and I want to be very clear about this, that I think those people are fools, or dishonest, or cowards. There is a school of thought among atheists that religious people will sooner acknowledge the wrongness of their beliefs if we just mock, belittle, and insult them enough – the beliefs, not the people, but that distinction blurs all too easily, especially on the internet. I think those atheists are also wrong.

However, that doesn’t mean I hold with the opposing school of atheist thought either – that we should never criticize religious beliefs because they are so important to the people who believe them. Speaking as a former believer, that’s a deeply patronizing attitude. “Oh, of course we who are mature rational adults can handle the world without gods, miracles, or an afterlife, but these poor little lambs couldn’t cope with the nasty truth. We must be gentle with them.” That might apply to anyone in limited circumstances, such as bereavement; as a classifier, it’s insulting.

Atheists of the first school are often referred to these days as “atheist fundamentalists”. Mostly, I don’t think this is helpful. Often it seems “fundamentalist” means nothing more than “anyone who thinks it’s a matter of fact whether God exists or not” (or any other religious proposition), which tars an awful lot of moderate religious people with the “fundamentalist” brush.

That being said, there is a cast of mind I remember from my Christian past and recognise in some atheist discourse now. It’s related to what has recently been dubbed “virtue-signalling”. Basically, you take a question that your group takes a firm stance on, and you take a slightly further-out version of that stance, and you proclaim it loudly so that if your fellow group-members disagree they look like a bunch of compromisers. Then someone else steps still further out, and of course you have to agree or you look like a compromiser. And so on.

Humans are human regardless of our beliefs, and this behaviour is common to us all. From the outside it looks either competitive – “I’m more Christian / atheistic than you!” – or fawning – “I really do belong in the Christian / atheist club with you guys!” But from inside it’s often prompted by sincere enthusiasm, with a wash of pity for those unlucky enough not to have seen the light. I see it just as often in groups that I happen to agree with as groups that I don’t. I presume I indulge in it myself more often than my own (equally humanly common) self-serving cognitive biases allow me to recognise.

Among atheists (this is where all this becomes relevant to the Easter question) this insidership-signalling sometimes takes the form of a conspiracy theory. Not only was Jesus of Nazareth not the Messiah, the Son of God, the Saviour of Mankind, the Prince of Peace, the King of Kings, or any of the rest of it – he didn’t even exist! He was made up out of whole cloth by the early Church, or St Paul, or the Council of Nicaea, or some such. Take that, Christians!

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

Flags

New Zealanders are currently voting in a referendum on the national flag. A lot of us are not happy about it. Last year some of us voted (I didn’t) to pick one of five replacement flags, and now we’re voting on whether we want to go with the replacement flag or stick with the old one. After much thought, I have decided not to vote. I hate them both. I think there is one clear best choice, with more apt symbolism and a greater weight of tradition behind it than either, but it was never on the ballot. I’ll show you what I’m talking about at the end of this post.

The story of the flag begins with St Andrew, one of the Twelve Apostles, who tradition has it was crucified on an X-shaped cross at his own request because he didn’t want to upstage Jesus. A similar story is told of St Peter, who to this day enjoys heart-warming loyalty in the Goth crowd – he was crucified upside down. Given what we know of the mechanics of crucifixion, both stories were probably made up in the Middle Ages to sell hagiographic icons. But anyway, that’s the tradition.

Fast forward to 9th-century Scotland, when the Picts and Scots were trying out the idea of merging their kingdoms for mutual defence against nasties like the Vikings and the English. The Pictish King Óengus II prayed to St Andrew for victory on the battlefield. Why St Andrew in particular instead of any other saint I’m not sure. A cloud in the shape of a diagonal cross appeared in the sky and Óengus’s forces were duly victorious. From then on the Cross of St Andrew became the national symbol of Scotland. It looks like this:

The “blazon” or heraldic description for this is Azure a saltire argent – that is to say “Blue, with a white diagonal cross.” Heraldry is a much-overlooked chapter in the history of Western art and graphic design. If you’re unfamiliar with it, think of the House sigils on Game of Thrones and you’ve got the general idea. I remember finding a comprehensive book on heraldry in the library at my high school and being captivated by all the archaic words and images. Here was a system, centuries old, for capturing complex images in a verbal formula which could be repeated exactly and used to reproduce them.

England also has a cross emblem belonging to a saint from the opposite end of the Roman Empire. St George is of course best known for saving a maiden from a dragon, a story likely derived from the Greek legend of Perseus and Andromeda. The detail of the dragon’s demand for sacrifices in return for access to the town’s only well was almost certainly added to the story during the Crusades to stand for the Saracen tax on Christian pilgrimage to Jerusalem. The red cross on white was the prime symbol of the Crusades, and it’s not surprising it became associated with St George, though exactly when and how or what either one has to do with England isn’t clear. The Cross of St George’s blazon is Argent a cross gules.

Wednesday, 9 March 2016

My submission on the TPPA

New Zealanders have one day left, as I write, to enter submissions on the TPPA to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. This is mine. As you’ll see, I have been very, very polite about some of the crazy ideas the TPPA contains. And I certainly haven’t covered everything. Go on, make a submission. Speak now or forever hold your peace.

I submit that the Government of New Zealand should reject the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, hereinafter referred to as the TPPA.

I believe in international cooperation. I believe that all people have the same fundamental rights. I firmly oppose any suggestion that the rights or freedoms a person enjoys, including economic freedoms, should depend on that person’s nationality. I acknowledge that trade and international agreements have been major contributors to the historic decline of interstate war since 1945. The TPPA’s own Preamble affirms several laudable goals of just governance which I gladly endorse, as when the Parties resolve to

strengthen the bonds of friendship and cooperation between them and their peoples;
recognise their inherent right to regulate and resolve to preserve the flexibility of the Parties to set legislative and regulatory priorities, safeguard public welfare, and protect legitimate public welfare objectives, such as public health, safety, the environment, the conservation of... natural resources, [and] the integrity and stability of the financial system...;
recognise further their inherent right to adopt, maintain or modify health care systems;
affirm that state-owned enterprises can play a legitimate role in the diverse economies of the Parties;
promote high levels of environmental protection, including through effective enforcement of environmental laws, and further the aims of sustainable development, including through mutually supportive trade and environmental policies and practices;
protect and enforce labour rights, improve working conditions and living standards, strengthen cooperation and the Parties’ capacity on labour issues;
promote transparency, good governance and the rule of law, and eliminate bribery and corruption in trade and investment;

and

recognise the importance of cultural identity and diversity among and within the Parties.

I reject the TPPA as a whole because I believe its provisions undermine these goals.

Sunday, 28 February 2016

Whoever the “naked judge” is, I support him

I’m a nudist. It’s not something I’ve made much of on this blog, though I do mention it from time to time. But I am. If you see me with clothes on, it means I’ve made a compromise with either you or the weather today. I have very little liberty, most of the time, to live the way I would prefer. Even in my own house I have to hang net curtains in the windows if I don’t want complaints from the neighbours.

At least one other person in this country who shares my preference in this matter is a District Court judge. All I know about him beyond that is that he’s male and that he frequents the Pineglades Naturist Club near Christchurch, because those are the only personal details given in this Herald article.

Someone took a photo of this judge at Pineglades. Someone uploaded the photo to Pineglades’ website, apparently without his knowledge although he had given them written consent to use the photo – I’m not sure how that works but it isn’t the point. Someone else saw the photo and laid a complaint against the judge.

The Herald is keeping quiet about the identity of both the judge and the complainant, but the wording they report is suspiciously close to Rodney Hide’s opinion piece on the matter. Hide used to be the Parliamentary leader of the Act Party, who present themselves as champions of personal liberty. Of course in practice what they champion is personal liberty for rich white men, but judges tend to be those, so Hide’s hypocrisy demands further explanation.

Hide opens with the concession that nudists ought to be free to do as we wish as long as we do so in private on our own private property. But if you’re a judge, he says, you mustn’t appear in photos practising nudism. If you do that, you can’t do your job any more.

How... does he sit in judgement on sex cases, public indecency charges, or rule on the acceptability of pornography to minors?
To make a concrete example: how can he preside in judgement over a man accused of exposing himself to children?
Isn’t that exactly what he has done?

Um... no. No it isn’t. But this is a typical New Zealand attitude. We like to think we’re easy-going, tolerant, unprejudiced folks who accept people’s differences, who live and let live. We’re not.

Sunday, 14 February 2016

Bring back free education

Recently, for the first time in my life, I considered voting for the New Zealand Labour Party. Oh, they’ll have to smarten up a long way if they want me to do more than consider. The Greens are still far and away the best option on the table. But after a thirty-two-year love affair with neoliberalism, Labour are finally returning to the sort of policies that a Labour party ought to be built around. They’re offering free tertiary education.

Well, to a very small and limited degree compared to what everyone in this country had until 1989. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that Labour were the ones who first charged students fees for their education. The National Party were elected in 1990 on a promise to remove those fees, which they did – and then cut funding to universities and polytechs so that they were forced to charge much higher amounts to stay afloat.

When I started university in 1996, paying for education was still a new and shocking thing. Many families had been blindsided, with no chance to save up for it, so we all had to borrow massive amounts of money to get through, and that became the norm. National set up the student loans scheme, which has become an ever bigger asset on the government books with each year since. We student activists fought back with marches and occupations and letter campaigns and various other tactics.

In 1999 we sent delegations to every political candidate meeting in town, not to disrupt them in any way but to make sure that education always got a mention at question time. That, along with the protests, helped push education from #6 to #2 in the “issues of concern” polls, and I think that had, well, more than a negligible effect on the election that year, when National was voted out and Labour in.

Issue #1 was taxes. National MPs went about that year with tears in their eyes for the skilled youth of New Zealand, who were apparently leaving in droves for other shores due to financial hardship induced by taxes. They called it the “brain drain”. I was one of quite a few people, I think, who pointed out to them that student loan repayments were a bit more oppressive, and a bit more specific to skilled youth, than taxes. I had the satisfaction of flummoxing Bill English with that one.

Apparently National did take heed, because now that they’re back in office they’ve introduced legislation – such is National’s compassion for skilled youth in financial hardship – to detain people who go overseas and skip payments. Obviously they can only do that when the people come back to visit, and a couple of weeks ago the law claimed its first victim.

As if to demonstrate what neoliberalism does to a culture’s soul, the first comment on my Facebook feed was “No sympathy for the dude who didn’t pay his student loan.” The general feeling of the conversation was that if we have to work so hard to pay for our education, then how is it fair that some people get it handed to them for free by swanning off overseas? There have been similar remarks about Labour’s proposal. I guess I can understand that. But I think the indignation is misdirected.

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Can’t we just ban misogynist trolls?

Content note: misogyny, rape advocacy

The next post was going to be about who should pay for tertiary education in New Zealand, since that question has come up in the news in a couple of different ways. But then I heard that “Roosh” Valizadeh, of Return of Kings fame, is planning meet-ups of like-minded men in New Zealand, including here in Dunedin. To add insult to injury, they’re scheduled for 6 February, that is to say Waitangi Day, a day when New Zealanders remember that civilization is built on agreements and kept promises.

It’s hard to tell how much of Roosh’s platform he genuinely stands on, and how much is intended to make people angry so that he can feel important. The “Kings” have argued that women shouldn’t be allowed to vote and that men should be allowed to rape them, as long as it’s on private property for some reason. They value women by their bodies and men, Roosh claims, by their capabilities; I strongly suspect that the male value scales are weighted so as to make Roosh himself the world’s greatest man.

I don’t like Roosh or his ilk – perhaps you can tell. I must confess the thought of his pathetic followers turning up at their meeting point only to be marched off to the police station in handcuffs is amusing. But is the power of the state justified in this instance? It’s a rule too often forgotten on both sides of politics: before you grant the government a new power to interfere with people, imagine that power in the hands of your bitterest opponents.

Fine, let’s imagine it. I don’t want the police to be able to go around intimidating people for disagreeing with the government, something they have recently done. Of course, Roosh et al. don’t just disagree with government policy; they want to perform illegal activities. (Rape is still illegal here, despite ominous precedents.) But they’re not actually gathering to commit rape, they just want to change the law and make it legal. Well, I want certain illegal things to become legal too – cannabis and public nudity spring to mind – and I’d rather the police didn’t harass me or others who get together to push for those changes. Roosh’s political ideals call for major upheavals to society’s power structures, but again, so do some of mine.

Are there any kinds of speech that should not be tolerated? Of course there are. There’s fraudulent speech, where you make a false statement for money or other gain; that’s not relevant here. There’s slanderous speech, where you make a false statement that harms someone else’s reputation. There’s threatening speech, including incitement to violence. And then there’s hate speech, but that’s controversial. Many self-styled free speech advocates make a lot more noise about protecting hate speech than, say, political protest. But OK, I admit, there is an argument to be had.

“Hate speech” does not of course refer to statements like “I don’t like Roosh or his ilk”. Nor is it quite the same as offensive speech. As I use the term, “hate speech”, meaning the kind of speech I would be happy to see banned, is simply a form of the kinds of intolerable speech I’ve already mentioned: slander (of a group, such as women) and incitement to violence (against a group, such as women, where violence includes rape). Well, there you go. Roosh’s little cadre are outside the pale after all.

However, just because we would be within our rights to call the police on him doesn’t make it a good strategy. Roosh wants to make a splash and be noticed. We don’t want him bragging to his sympathizers “Look how important we are! We’re so threatening they felt the need to arrest us!” which is pretty much what he’s after to be holding these meet-ups in the first place. We don’t need to play his game.

New Zealand social justice activists have bigger fish to fry. The present government, with its usual attitude to democracy, are hosting the signing of the disastrous Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, also just in time for Waitangi Day. This weekend we need to make a big statement about who we are, what we aspire to, and how different that is from what’s being foisted on us. That could certainly include a few sidelong dismissals of Roosh’s little gatherings. We surely don’t need to dignify them with more of a response than that.

Because – Roosh, in the unlikely event that you’re reading this – you don’t deserve any more of a response than that. You’re a sad little man who thinks bringing other people down will make himself bigger. Your odious philosophy, were there any chance of it being put into practice, would ruin men’s lives as surely (though more subtly) as it would ruin women’s. I’m embarrassed to share a gender with you. You do not speak for me.

EDIT: About an hour after I posted this, Roosh cancelled the meet-ups.

Sunday, 24 January 2016

A better analogy

Content note: rape, victim-blaming

So we’ve had yet another terrible article, and surprise surprise it’s in the New Zealand Herald, telling women that when they get raped it’s their own fault for being fall-down drunk. Rather than link to the original and give them oxygen, here’s a DoNotLink. The only thing even slightly novel about it is the author, Liz Holsted: not only is she a woman, but she’s a member of the Sophie Elliott Foundation. Sophie Elliott was murdered in 2008 by a man she’d just broken up with; the Foundation’s stated aim is “to prevent violence against women by raising awareness about the signs of abuse in dating relationships.” Apparently Holsted thinks this goal is advanced by statements like the following:

Wise up, young women. You, and only you, have the ultimate responsibility to keep yourself safe, by behaving in a manner that signals that you are precious, special and deserve a man that is appreciative of you and your unique character. Please, you beautiful young women, do not downgrade yourself by behaving in a trashy manner – because you will attract trash.

You catch that? Not just “You have the ultimate responsibility to keep yourself safe” but “You, and only you”. Not the men to whom a few square inches of skin is a liability waiver and an unconscious woman is an opportunity. Not the men who think they’re owed something if they paid for the meal, not the men who think their own feelings of attraction give them usage rights over another person’s body. Not them. They’re not responsible, not according to Holsted. They may be “trash”, but they’re not responsible. That burden falls on “you and only you”.

Well, I guess it’s refreshing, in a way, that Holsted is being so direct. Most people making this kind of argument try and weasel their way out of being victim-blamers by using what’s now a rather tired analogy: “It’s just like advising someone to lock their car against thieves. Of course the thieves are doing a bad thing and of course it’s their fault, but locking your car is still sound advice.” The main problem with this analogy is that women are not cars. Women are people. And no, that isn’t missing the point of the analogy. Let me explain.

The reason why you lock your car boils down to this: it’s an inanimate object. If someone other than you opens it, it won’t know. It won’t make a fuss. Your belongings might be taken without you knowing anything about it. That’s why it’s an opportunity for theft. What’s more, an unlocked car looks the same as a locked one, unless you’re actively looking in the windows (and why would you be doing that, unless you’ve already decided to steal something?) It’s not putting out any kind of “signal” to “attract” thieves. The natural moral of the “Lock your car” analogy isn’t “Stay sober and dress modest”, it’s “Wear a chastity-belt”.

If you want to make the point Holsted intends to make – “Don’t put yourself on display or someone will take advantage of you” – then your analogy needs to be to something else that someone might display. Businesspeople, keep your goods safe from shoplifters: stop putting them on shelves where people might walk in and nick them! Well, it’s true. Sometimes people do that. And yet no-one, no-one, shakes their head and tut-tuts over the foolishness of the shopkeepers. Now that I think about it, that’s a much better analogy. Why do shopkeepers put things on display on shelves, despite the risk? Because they do actually want people to take them – with consent.

In retail, of course, the condition for consent is payment, but don’t get stuck on that. Lending libraries also display their goods on shelves so that people can take them consensually, but this time the condition for consent is that they’ll bring them back. Again, a few people don’t. Again, no-one calls the libraries foolish. Art galleries display goods and don’t consent to their being taken at all. No-one calls them foolish either. Consent is the critical point. Lack of consent is what makes theft theft. (Granted, some shops and galleries put physical barriers up to make theft difficult; but, as with the car analogy, that’s because their goods are inanimate and can’t object to being stolen.)

Holsted makes a distinction between nice men, who appreciate women’s character, and “trash”. The implication is that nice men are more particular than “trash” as to what kind of woman they’ll want to hook up with. As a man myself, I don’t think this is true. My sexual feelings quite frequently prompt me to do “trashy” things like stare at women’s bodies or make suggestive remarks. I don’t act on these promptings, not because I’m fussy about who I might wake up next to – I have an exclusive partner, I’m not in the market at all – but because I have learned that women are human beings and don’t deserve to be treated like that. And what’s more I know this is true regardless of how said women are dressed.

If men who commit sexual assault do so because they feel strong physical attraction towards people whose humanity they have no regard for, then they probably won’t be very picky, at the time, about their victims’ attire and comportment. Strong desires do that. But that has the opposite implication to what Holsted thinks. It means that no amount of “modesty” is going to dissuade them. You know who it will dissuade? People who take care to read other people’s signals, that’s who. People who respect other people’s boundaries. People who care about consent.

Not very long ago, the societal standard for sex was not “Is it consensual?” but “Are you married?” While the wedding ceremony as such no longer has quite this significance for most of us, there’s still a widespread attitude that a woman going out looking for casual sex is doing something disreputable. Maybe that’s what these supposed anti-rape warnings are really about; that would make more sense. Modesty won’t curb rape, but it will put a damper on casual consensual sex. But if that’s your ideal, then please have the honesty to say so.

Friday, 15 January 2016

Is there such a thing as “timeless” music?

Every New Year I go out to the Whare Flat Festival of Music and Dance, I think its current official name is, just outside of Dunedin. I think most attendees still call it the “Whare Flat Folk Festival”. It’s held at a Scout campsite and, though there are a few cabins, nearly everybody sleeps in tents. Which reminds me, I must see if I can find the receipt for the tent I bought a year ago and see if I can get the broken pole replaced.

I’m also in a small classical choir called the Southern Consort of Voices. We perform four or five concerts each year, the next one being with the New Zealand International Early Music Festival. We sing pieces from a wide range of periods, but I think if you were to tally them up over a couple of years you’d find that modern settings of sacred texts predominate. Last year we did a children’s concert, which was a surprise hit, so I’m guessing we’re going to do more, but no promises.

Once upon a time, all music was either folk or classical. Classical pieces were written in a single canonical version by a known composer, and were learned and played from printed scores; folk tunes existed in multiple related versions, their origins usually forgotten, and they were passed on from musician to musician by ear. Then sound-recording was invented, and a third division of music arose: contemporary music, in which the canonical version is the original recording.

An aside, because this is one of those little ironies that fascinate me. Photography has taken the creation of realistic visual images out of the hands of highly-trained professionals and made it something anybody can do. Sound-recording has had exactly the opposite effect on music. Once upon a time, if you wanted music you had to make it yourself, and so everybody learned to sing and whistle, if not to a high standard then at least enough to carry a tune. Nowadays most people think they “can’t sing” because they don’t sound like professionals – though of course many genuinely haven’t learned to carry a tune, because they’ve always had the radio.

Folk music does routinely get written down now, and there are a lot of well-recognised songwriters, but the basic difference in attitude persists. In classical music you’re expected to obey the composer’s instructions to the letter when playing their music. You’re allowed to deviate if you want to, but then you’re playing an “interpretation” of the piece rather than the piece itself. You so much as suggest any such pedantry among folkies, and you’ll have people muttering about “the folk police”. And of course in contemporary music, if you play another artist’s song at all then it’s not their song but your “cover” of it.

I’m a confirmed pedant myself, but I’m also a folkie, and I wondered for some time why classical musicians feel it’s so important to stick to the original composer’s instructions. Eventually, I came up with a metaphor. A classical piece is a time-portal that allows you to have a conversation (one-way, alas) with an identifiable person in another century. If you muck about with it, you’re snarling up that miraculous connection and talking over the person you should be listening to.

A folk-song, by the same analogy, is a time-tunnel, a long chain of singers and listeners stretching back into the mists of the past. That’s not something I’m making up – there are actual songs about the singers gone before us who’ll be singing once again when we sing the songs they sang. Each link in the chain is supposed to embellish the music a bit, to leave their own little mark in that long rich history.

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Why eugenics wouldn’t work

Further to my previous post, my friend Wolfboy wrote this in the comments:

I also detect a leftover whiff of eugenics in this line of thought – the idea that people who are “bad” represent a taint we need to clear from the gene pool. That seems to be in conflict with modern understanding of how genes work. I may be wrong here, but my understanding was that modern research showed that genes get turned on and off by environmental stimuli. If that’s the case then any genetic predisposition to be an awful person is better handled by stopping it from being triggered (by looking after people better in general) than by trying to breed it out.

Eugenics. That is presumably why the original inquiry was about the prevalence of sterilize-bad-parents views specifically “in the atheist / rationalist community”. Eugenics, the idea of breeding humans for qualities like intelligence or athletic performance, was proposed by Francis Galton as a practical application of the theories of his cousin Charles Darwin. Darwin himself went along with the idea, although never enthusiastically, and with reservations about the social justice implications. The support it enjoyed for the next seventy-odd years came from places all along the left-right political spectrum, but almost entirely from the atheist-materialist side of the religious divide. That is quite possibly the basis for the (otherwise absurd) notion that the Nazis were a scientific and rationalistic bunch.

The Nazis showed the world what it would take to actually implement a eugenics programme, and since then the idea has been anathema among people of conscience. And rightly so, but when a problematic idea or practice becomes unthinkable within a culture, it doesn’t get cut out cleanly. “Not only will we not do this any more,” people decide, “we won’t even go near it.” The classic example (see Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature, and yes, I know I cite that book a lot) is the odd little superstitions that have grown up around knives in European culture, such as not eating with them. Europeans used to use big sharp knives for all sorts of things, notably settling arguments. In Māori culture there are several prohibitions, like “never sit on a table”, which put together underline the point that people are not food. And in modern political discourse, ever since World War II people have been unduly chary of applying genetic science to Homo sapiens.

Sunday, 6 December 2015

The state has no business sterilizing people

Recently someone asked this in a rationalist Facebook group I follow, and I thought I might have enough to say about it to fill a blog post:

I’ve come across some rather scary views on how to deal with child abuse and want to test how widespread these policy views are in the atheist / rationalist community. So please tell me what your thoughts are on the idea that the state should sterilize people who have been shown to be bad parents. I think that we need to come up with less extreme ways to combat child abuse such as having a social worker come into the home every month for the first 10 years of a child’s life to check up on the home environment and to make sure there is no abuse going on.

For starters, it gets scarier than that. Sterilizing people who have been “shown to be bad parents” is, in fact, a toned-down version of the idea you often hear, which is that every woman should be sterilized who is on a government benefit. Or – and this has been suggested by certain Members of Parliament – that the benefit should be made contingent on the woman’s use of contraceptives. (Why yes, these remarks are always directed at women.)

My instinctive response to this is a mental wail of despair at the inhumanity of humankind. What kind of person looks at a suffering child and says “You’re costing me money, your mother needs to get her tubes tied”? Apparently, an alarming proportion of New Zealanders. It may be relevant that the “bad parents” who get thrown into the media and spark these kinds of conversations are almost always Māori or Pacific Islanders – way out of proportion to their actual presence in the child abuse statistics. When right-wing columnists, cartoonists, or bloggers pour scorn on “ferals”, that’s who they’re referring to.

At the root of this attitude is a thoughtless misdiagnosis of the motivations of people at the bottom of the social heap. No, women on benefits are not indiscriminate sex maniacs, nor do they have babies so as to get more money from the government. Childbirth statistics around the world paint a very clear picture. People choose to have fewer children when (a) women are empowered, (b) contraceptives are widely available, and (c) the few children they do have are certain to survive. Women pump out baby after baby when they have no choice, when their only hope of gaining respect is in the role of a mother, or (especially) when they know their children are going to be the only support network available in their old age.

Ironically, that point about family as support network may also account for the higher rate of child abuse among the poor. I admit I’m speculating here, but most kinds of violence are reduced when people see each other as fellow human beings with their own feelings and rights. If you are depending on your children to support you when you are old, on the other hand, then their independence is a threat to your future well-being. What if they find a job and a partner in another city and you are left all alone? Better to instil habits of obedience and dependence on you from an early age.

I’d better wrap this up before I go off on a tangent in areas where I really don’t know what I’m talking about. One of those areas is how you can take an abusive parent or partner and turn them into someone who is not an abusive parent or partner. But in this era when everyone has a different theory of what’s good or bad parenting, giving the state the power to perform non-consensual surgery on people deemed to be bad parents is surely one of the worse ideas around.

Funnily enough, the same people recommending sterilization for “ferals” are often the ones most angry at the Government for clamping down on the use of force in parental discipline. Do they realize that a government with the powers they want to give it would use those powers first on the same “strict but loving parents” they champion?

Monday, 23 November 2015

Reason is not the property of the West

The University of Otago’s second semester ends in October. I knew there were Summer School classes in January and February, because I’ve taken notes in them. I never knew there were also classes in November and December. But here I am. Turns out there’s a five-week course on titled “Introduction to the Māori World”, and one of the students taking it wants notes. My first class was last Tuesday. The lecture was about fundamental concepts in Māori culture, such as tapu and mana, and the polytheistic cosmology which underpins them.

A quick summary of that class. Tapu is of course the origin of the English word taboo, but it’s pronounced differently – both syllables are short and the stress is on the first one. Tapu is the presence or influence of an atua, a god. The gods are present everywhere, and one must treat them with deference and caution. But sometimes it is necessary to lift the tapu so that we humans can go about our ordinary lives without having to worry about it. Then, it becomes noa, which is simply the converse of tapu.

Which gods? On Tuesday we were introduced to four: Papa-tū-ā-nuku, Mother Earth; Tāne-mahuta, god of light and life and the forest; Tangaroa, god of all water, including the water in people’s bodies; and Ranginui, the Sky, Papa-tū-ā-nuku’s lover, who was separated from her by Tāne-mahuta to create the world of light. The gods are the ancestors of all life, including human beings. Most iwi (chiefdom-nations, though the word is usually translated “tribe”) trace their genealogy back to Tāne-mahuta. The chiefs belong to the elder line in each case.

Tangaroa’s dominion over water seems to be responsible for the tapu of blood, which in turn explains why women have a special power over tapu. A man can lift tapu by saying an incantation (a karakia) or using water, but a woman can lift it simply by virtue of being a woman, because women handle blood every month. When you enter or leave a marae – the space built at the hub of every Māori community to house formal gatherings – you pass through a gateway that symbolizes a woman’s legs, so that you don’t bring in any tapu you may have picked up on the outside.

Having just come back from Japan, I can’t help noticing the parallels with Shintō. There again, the kami are immanent in water, earth, and forests. Again, the kami are ancestors rather than creators of the human race, and the Imperial Family is the elder line of descent. And again you have that detail of the symbolic gateway, the torī in front of the shrine, through which you enter or leave the presence of divine power.

But there’s also a big difference. Japan is much more centralized than traditional Māori society, and you might expect to see that reflected in their religions – that Māoritanga would have lots of local spirits and Shintō would have a few big, important gods, like the pre-Christian Greek or Norse pantheons. In fact it’s the other way around. Each mountain, lake, river, and ancient tree in Japan has its own personal kami, but in tikanga Māori it is Tāne-mahuta in every patch of bush and Tangaroa in every body of water.

Mana is the other Māori word, besides tapu / taboo, that has been borrowed into English outside of New Zealand. Both syllables are short, so that to a New Zealand English speaker it sounds like “munna” – “monna” to an American. It’s been appropriated in crap fantasy books and games to denote a limiting resource for magic-users, like pixie-dust but slightly more badass. In fact mana is prestige, charisma, honour, dignity, authority; social power, not magical power. It’s about one’s standing with the gods. Duties and privileges in Māori culture are doled out entirely according to who has what kind of mana.

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

What are we escaping?

If you’re wondering why you haven’t heard from me in a while, it’s not the usual reason (i.e. procrastination plus Nearly Finished Syndrome) this time. It’s because I’m in Japan on the last day of my first ever overseas holiday, and I didn’t spend much of it sitting in hotel rooms typing. I have picked up enough of the language to compose a few simple sentences and say them, but I still need a lot of help understanding what other people are saying to me. So far I have not experienced anything like what people call “culture shock”. Maybe this is because, with my social disability, I have never found that my own culture makes all that much sense either.

I guess it’s the same principle as learning to pronounce other languages. People have commented with favourable surprise on how quickly I master the pronunciation of Norwegian and Finnish – my choir had a Scandinavian-themed concert recently. The secret is quite simple: English is not the centre. The sound of the Norwegian word meg (“me”), for instance, is halfway between the sound of the English words may and my. It is quite comfortable there. It is not trying to be one or the other, as if English vowels were the underlying structure and Norwegian vowels had to be propped up between them.

I’ve been here two weeks now, which obviously isn’t enough time to have gained any deep ethnographic insight into Japanese culture. Still, superficial as they are, I have found the cultural differences I’ve observed quite easy to adapt to, simply because I wasn’t assuming that the way things are done in New Zealand is the most sensible or obvious way to do them. For example, in Japan, aesthetic and artistic sensibilities aren’t felt to be unmanly. Why should they be? In New Zealand, a real man drinks crappy beer, watches rugby avidly, and is disgusted by any form of entertainment that requires more than a kindergarten education to understand. This is presented as a “low-key” or “easy-going” or, of course, “un-PC” way to live; in fact it’s aggressively policed with homophobic ridicule.

But it’s not a difference between Japanese and New Zealand culture that’s really grabbed my attention this last couple of weeks – it’s a similarity. New Zealand and Japan are both modern countries, with advertising and traffic lights and shopping malls and, in Japan’s case, public transport. And both have that quintessentially modern phenomenon: abundant fantasies about not being modern. In amongst its narrow high-rise boxes, Japan has magnificent temples and shrines and old market areas, all clearly preserved with close attention. In New Zealand, of course, an “old” building is at most Victorian, but we made the Lord of the Rings movies, and we like to go out into what little remains of our wilderness areas and pretend we’re conquering undiscovered territory.

Sunday, 11 October 2015

Cut the crap and give me my country back

(Shout-out to my friend Steve King, who wrote the protest song I’ve nicked the post title from.)

So last week, our beloved leaders signed up to the TPPA (Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement). They were always going to, of course. Since this National Government was first elected in 2008 there have been three clear, consistent patterns to their behaviour. One is dismissing objections to their decisions, as with child poverty, charter school outcomes, river pollution from intensive dairy farming, and the revelations that the GCSB has spied on New Zealanders. Another is favouring business in any way they can, as in asset sales, tax cuts, 90-day “trial period” no-fault firings, and the various formerly protected parcels of land and seabed now opened to mining. And the third is undermining democracy, as with Environment Canterbury, students’ associations, tertiary education governing bodies, and the number of times they’ve used Parliamentary urgency – i.e. skipping the pesky “public submission” part of the legislative process – for controversial but non-urgent Bills.

All three of these patterns are perfectly embodied in the TPPA. Dismissing objections: the text of the TPPA has been kept strictly secret, which means nobody can object to anything specific (but Trade Minister Tim Groser gets to call us all “ignorant” and “fools” for not knowing what we have been expressly prevented from knowing). Favouring business: what we do know about the TPPA is that it’s about removing tariffs and price controls imposed by governments, while extending intellectual property rights. Undermining democracy: the TPPA will allow corporations to sue governments for imposing laws or regulations that hurt their profits.

It turns out that, despite all Groser’s prior reassurances, New Zealand actually gets a pretty crap deal out of the TPPA. The best we get is a small tariff reduction on dairy – dairy being the one great super-product that two successive governments have bet New Zealand’s future on, the thing we’re destroying our rivers and lying to the world about it for. All the rest is what Idiot/Savant over at No Right Turn calls “margin of error stuff”. Danyl McLauchlan at The DimPost notes that “the TPP will deliver the equivalent of a couple of months of growth in ten years time.” And yet we went ahead and signed it anyway, because it’s better than not being in a secretive trade partnership that could sue the crap out of us, right guys? Right, guys? What this tells me is that the cynical view of National’s motives is wrong. They’re not amoral manipulators just out to score cash for their CEO cronies; if they were, they would have turned this down. It’s much worse than that. They’re true believers with an ideology. No matter the evidence, no matter what actually happens, the way forward is always to boost business and remove impediments to it. No other option is on the table.

Friday, 2 October 2015

Obsessed

Dear Adam Ford, we need to talk about one of your recent comics.

Well, no, we don’t need to. But I’ve been struggling to come up with blog posts lately and you were an easy target. As a webcomic artist I know you understand.

No, I’m not talking about any of the recent ones where you’ve breached the Ninth Commandment and borne false witness against thy neighbour, thy neighbour in this instance being Planned Parenthood. I’m talking about this one:

Cartoon strip, three panels: a dialogue between two people, one wearing a T-shirt saying “Culture”, the other a sweatshirt saying “Christian”. “Culture” is surrounded by posters, and holds a megaphone in one hand and several placards in the other.
The mouse-over text at Ford’s site reads: “Agree with me, you intolerant savage! demands Culture, gun trained on Christian.”

“Culture”: SEX IS LIFE!  Every kind of sex!  All kinds of sex!  Having sex with lots of people is pretty much the meaning of life, you know!  The only people who are not promiscuous are weird sad losers!  Woo yay sex!  And porn!  Love it!  More porn pls!  Also, homosexuality!  It’s like the greatest thing ever, period end of story!  Gay gay gay gay yay for gay!  And transgenderism!  So beautiful!  So heroic!  So perfect in every way!  Don’t you agree with everything I’m saying?  DON’T YOU?  Oh wait you don’t have a choice!  LOL! —Signs read: – SEX – SEX!  Every imaginable variety!  All up in ur face!  All day every day!  Woo! – [partially obscured] ...hyperse[xual] homosexual transsexual – [Picture of bald bearded face] Say this is a woman.  Say this woman is beautiful.  Do it now. – Roses are red.  Violets are blue.  You should have sex with tons of people.

“Culture”: Sex is life! Every kind of sex! All kinds of sex! Having sex with lots of people is pretty much the meaning of life, you know! The only people who are not promiscuous are weird sad losers! Woo yay sex! And porn! Love it! More porn pls! Also, homosexuality! It’s like the greatest thing ever, period end of story! Gay gay gay gay yay for gay! And transgenderism! So beautiful! So heroic! So perfect in every way! Don’t you agree with everything I’m saying? Don’t you? Oh wait you don’t have a choice! LOL!
Signs read:
SEX
Sex! Every imaginable variety! All up in ur face! All day every day! Woo!
[partially obscured] ...hyperse[xual] homosexual transsexual
[Picture of bald bearded face] Say this is a woman. Say this woman is beautiful. Do it now.
Roses are red. Violets are blue. You should have sex with tons of people.

“Christian”: I, uh, I disagree with you.  About that sex stuff.  I don’t agree.

“Christian”: I, uh, I disagree with you. About that sex stuff. I don’t agree.

“Culture” [ugly angry face]: Ugh why are Christians so OBSESSED with sex???

“Culture” [ugly angry face]: Ugh why are Christians so obsessed with sex???

Well, you’re upholding the proud old tradition of substituting visual stereotyping for argument, but there’s an element of that in most editorial cartoons so I won’t dwell on it. I picked this cartoon because I have a keen taste for irony. Why does the majority culture think your particular subculture is obsessed with sex? Largely because of the bizarre hallucinations your subculture promulgates about the majority culture’s sexual ethics, as demonstrated in your first panel.

Let’s start with the most minor point and work up from there. I’m sure you’ve seen those lists of terms for different sexual and gender identities that queer advocacy groups put about. I’m sure, because you tried to copy one – that placard at the back that says “hypersexual, homosexual, transsexual”. Did you realize you didn’t get even one of those words right? Nobody says “hypersexual”. Nobody. And for the other two, the words are “gay” and “transgender” in queer-friendly parlance. “Homosexual” and “transsexual” are words used by people who aren’t au fait with sexual or gender diversity. Already I’m getting the impression you couldn’t be bothered taking two seconds to Google anything.

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Identity politics and its limits

First up, sorry it’s been so long between blog posts. What happens sometimes is I get a post past the planning stage and I think, OK, I’m nearly done, I’ll have it finished tomorrow. Only the next day it’s not done, but it’s so close to done that I know I’ll have it finished the day after that, no big drama, no need to find something else to post about while I’m working on it. Sometimes, and this was one of those times, this can go on for weeks. And then just as I was finishing I came down with an unusually virulent upper respiratory tract infection, which kept me at home, away from the internet, for nearly a week. Content note: I discuss racism, homophobia, and ableism below, including repeating some slurs.

If you ever need confirmation that there’s more to politics than Left versus Right, utter the word “transphobia” in a reasonably broad left-wing forum and stand back and watch. (I’m not sure what the equivalent would be in a right-wing space; libertarians and conservatives take different views on how many gender identities and sexual orientations are legitimate, but they seem to agree that oppression only counts if it’s the government doing it.) If you do try the experiment, you can probably then count down under your breath how long it takes until somebody starts muttering about “identity politics”.

I don’t know. Maybe this was more of a thing five or six years ago, at least in this country, when the Left was still busy looking for something to blame the Right’s then-recent victory on. One thing a lot of people fixed on was the prominence of queer and feminist interests in the broad Left portfolio, which many claimed was a fatal distraction from the real troubles of the poor and the working class. Because, apparently, only bourgeois women mind being hit on by creepy men, and only the bourgeoisie ever feel attracted to their own gender or identify as a gender that doesn’t match their genital anatomy at birth.

But I think that was one manifestation of a wider political trope that goes: “Social justice struggles A, B, and C were about equal rights for everybody, but social justice struggles X, Y, and Z are about special rights for a bunch of whiners.” Struggles A, B, and C aren’t always in the past tense, at least not among the Left, but that’s the usual pattern. The “special rights” part is where “identity politics” comes into it. The idea is that the social justice movement gives people special rights according to their identity as women, or as people of colour, or as queer people or as trans people or disabled people or whichever one it might be today. And that, say the critics, isn’t justice. Lady Justice wears a blindfold.

Yes, but Lady Justice also carries a pair of scales. If one person misses out on a benefit that others are enjoying, when they’ve made no less effort to deserve it than those others, then that’s unfair. If the benefit is a basic human right, then that’s injustice. And if lots of people are missing out on it because of some aspect of their identity – be it cultural identity, gender identity, sexual identity, whatever – then Lady Justice’s blindfold has slipped. Fixing it will be measured by whether people of that identity are still missing out, and if you didn’t realize they were missing out then fixing it will look like “identity politics” to you.

Sunday, 16 August 2015

An atheist reflects on death

I’ve mostly tried to keep my personal life out of this blog, because that’s what I use Facebook for. But this post was prompted by the recent, unexpected death of my friend Brent. Brent had cerebral palsy, which in his case limited his movement to his head and one arm, slurred his speech, and also affected his cognition. (I never heard the official diagnosis until his funeral on Wednesday.) We met through a volunteer outfit called FriendLink about eight years ago; since then we’ve had a weekly appointment to visit museums and art galleries and libraries in town to look at art or books together. I think he preferred the art, which allowed us to move around and meet people rather than sit in one place as we would with books. Brent was a sunny, sociable person who would say “Hi” to just about everyone we passed.

But he was also sensitive. He could tell if someone had had a bad day, and it would distress him. He would worry, if I coughed or sneezed, that I was “sick”. He commented on death and dying from time to time. Once I remarked that my cat was at the vet, and this reminded Brent that his dog had not long since gone to the vet and then, as he put it, gone to Heaven. He cried. Sometimes, he had questions I couldn’t answer. This past April there were WWI-related exhibits everywhere, and Brent asked me two or three times “Why do they have wars?” I doubt I’m the only person who’s been stumped by that question. Museum displays are often about people who lived a long time ago, and sometimes it would bother Brent that they were dead. He would say things like “I’m sorry to hear that,” or “Oh no, that’s terrible,” or “How did they die?” – the way one speaks of people who have just recently died, who still have people mourning them.

He was right, of course. Most of us partition off the people of the distant past in our minds. They were people, obviously, but we don’t think of them as people people. Well, when I say “we”, it differs between cultures – the dead seem to be much more present to Māori than they are to Pākehā, if my limited cross-cultural observations can be trusted – but there comes a point when we shrug it off. That was the olden days, what do you expect? But the reality is that every name fading in a dusty genealogical manuscript, every fragmentary human skeleton dug up from under two metres of sand, had someone somewhere who grieved over either their stilled body or their absence. Everybody has somebody to say goodbye to them. (Fortunately the dead cannot suffer from our dehumanizing them, making this probably the most benign instance of that disastrous human habit.)

The last time I saw Brent he was in hospital, but that wasn’t all that unusual given the impact his disability had on his health, so I was not remotely expecting the phone call the following morning telling me he had succumbed to a suspected stroke or heart attack some time between eleven and midnight. This kind of bad news takes a long time to go into your head. For those first few minutes I couldn’t tell you what I was feeling, because Brent’s departure left a gap in my mind that no feeling filled – though it did gradually fill up with grief over the rest of the day. I guess when people say they’re “blindsided” or “dumbfounded” or “numb” in the wake of tragedy, that’s what they’re talking about. And there is some part of my mind that still doesn’t quite believe it, thinking of things to talk about when we meet up as usual on Thursday. After all, that’s what I promised him the last time I saw him.

Thursday, 30 July 2015

A plague o’ both your houses

Years and years ago, I earned a bachelor’s degree in cultural anthropology. I thought at the time I might end up in academia, but graduate study didn’t work out. This past couple of weeks, I’ve taken a couple of sociology lectures for another note-taker who was away. Most of my classes in the last three years have been in dentistry or other clinical sciences, so I found the sudden familiarity a little jarring, like Temuera Morrison’s New Zealand accent in that Star Wars prequel. And kind of embarrassing, actually. Blimey (I thought), we humanities students really think we’re all that, don’t we?

Lest you think I’m solely ragging on sociology: last semester, I took one of the two weekly lectures in an economics paper, to which I had much the same reaction, although there it was more comfortable because, as a former humanities student active in politics, I have a long-established habit of looking down my nose at the Commerce Division. And Health Sci too, now I come to think about it – “medicalization” is a favourite tut-tut word in certain academic circles. Well, Commerce deserved it, Health Sci didn’t, and we in Humanities really weren’t holding the high ground we thought we were.

Let me try and explain what it’s like. When I was a kid, one of the many books knocking around our house was a shabby little paperback from about the 1960s entitled “100 puzzles for kids” or something, and I remember it because it actually had 101 puzzles but the last one was a trick one that didn’t have a proper answer. A hotel has fifty rooms, and one day fifty-one people turn up wanting accommodation. The hotelier thinks for a bit. He puts the first guest in the first room, then takes the second guest aside and says “If you could just wait here while we get this sorted out.” Then he puts guest number three in room number two, guest number four in room number three, and so on until guest number fifty-one is placed in room number fifty and the hotel is full.

Now this was one of the first hints I had that my brain doesn’t work quite like other people’s. According to the book, most people are bamboozled – they know there’s a flaw somewhere, but they can turn it over and over in their heads for hours before they suddenly go “Of course! The second person hasn’t got a room!” But to me, reading the puzzle, it was so obvious that the second person hadn’t got a room that I turned it over and over in my head for hours wondering what the mystery was supposed to be.

In economics and sociology, it’s not a guest who hasn’t got a room; it’s a foundational concept that hasn’t got a basis. You introduce that concept, and proceed to derive the rest of the course from it. It becomes a sort of base-camp assumption for the students’ thoughts, like mass-energy conservation for physics students or Darwinian natural selection for biology students. By the end of the first semester, it’s become so familiar that they assume anyone who questions it is simply ignorant.

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

The Kiwi bloke is an environmental hazard

It’s winter where I live, and it’s a doozy. We’ve had snow to sea level and frosts like I remember from the 1990s, and this year New Zealand’s annual 100-year flood happened to hit my town – I have the good fortune of living on a slight rise, but less than a block away people were wading. Naturally people are arguing this shows global warming isn’t happening. Of course that gets it all backwards. If you’re standing outside a tramping hut in the mountains on a sunny morning, and a shovelful of snow falls off the roof and goes down your neck, you end up colder, but it’s because the roof is warming up (and melting the snow). The roof in this analogy stands for the South Polar Vortex, where the air around Antarctica gets so cold in the winter that it slams down, walling off the polar weather from the rest of us. Usually. Up until now.

Recently, we found out that New Zealand is a world front-runner in climate change denial. The good news is it only takes 13% to be a world front-runner. But I guess this is where we finally kiss our vaunted “clean, green image” goodbye. Though admitting how we’re actually doing on the environmental front would instantly lose us our world market for dairy products, tourism, and filming locations, which put together are nearly our entire national income, so maybe not. Actually shaping up is, of course, out of the question. That would cost rich people money.

I’m not going to rehearse all the evidence that human industry is driving climate change; that would take far more time and energy than I have, it would be too wordy to hold any denier’s attention long enough to convince them, and there are plenty of other sites that do it better than I could – here are three. I will spare a brief word for the idea that humans are too puny and insignificant to affect the cycles of Nature. That’s an intuitive percept rather than an evidential argument, so it needs an intuitive answer.

I’ll confidently bet that practically all my readers are reading this in a built-up environment of some kind, or at least a farm, not out in the wilderness. Well, Earth was all wilderness until humans came along. The last thing that changed the surface of the planet as much as humans have was the emergence of the first land plants and animals back in the Carboniferous Period. For hundreds of millions of years the world was forests, deserts, plains, savannah. Then suddenly, in less than a ten-thousandth of that time – farms, buildings, quarries, mines, roads, towns, reservoirs, aqueducts, cities, railways, landfills, sewage outfalls. Is it really so hard to believe our activities might have had unintended environmental effects as profound as the intended ones? No, we aren’t big enough to chop down the entire tree of life on Earth, but we could easily break off the branches holding up our own treehouse.

But I don’t think that’s the main reason why New Zealanders don’t believe in climate change. I think the main reason looks like this:

Blogger Cameron Slater sneering at the camera

No, I’m not accusing Cameron Slater of running New Zealand’s denialist platform singlehandedly, though he does have disproportionate influence for a blogger (which is why I’m not linking to his blog; Google “whale oil” if you want to find him). It’s the expression I’m talking about, and the attitude underneath it. I am quite familiar with it; this is the look on a playground bully’s face right before he hits you. This face is what comes to my mind when people wax poetic about the good old sports-loving, beer-drinking, do-it-yourselfing, supposedly-maligned Kiwi Bloke. Because this is also the face of a New Zealand male when someone tries to alert him to a problem that doesn’t, as far as he can see, affect him personally.

It’s not just climate change. The Bloke Sneer is the standard response to a precaution recommended against any harm that hasn’t so far materialized in the Bloke’s own life. Boating safety measures, for instance. Hence (I surmise) why New Zealand men drown at such high rates. That might be considered grist for the Darwin Awards, but often it’s other people’s safety that gets sneered away – we have a higher rate of workplace injury than most OECD countries, as employers Bloke-Sneer at the health and safety regulations. And it’s not just a matter of harming people negligently; New Zealand schools have a chronic bullying problem. I think that’s a root of the Bloke Sneer problem as well as a fruit of it, insofar as surviving in that environment forces you to develop a highly-tuned scorn reflex. Anything you are seen to genuinely care about can be used to hurt you.

I suspect the Bloke Sneer is also the main reason why New Zealand isn’t as religious as the United States. I must admit, it does bear a certain superficial resemblance to scientific scepticism. However, the Bloke Sneer yawns at evidence and snickers at reason. Being primarily an emotional reflex, it’s not going to form a completely consistent philosophy; but if you were to write down its underlying logic, the epistemic component would read “Anyone coming at you with an agenda – of any kind – can be dismissed without a hearing”.

It’s perfectly sensible to be wary of people with axes to grind, of course. We humans instinctively set the evidentiary bar lower for propositions that suit us than for propositions that don’t, and a prudent sceptic will adjust for their informants’ biases. But the sceptic should know to take especial care to adjust for their own biases, and the Bloke Sneer does the opposite. An “agenda” just means something you want or hope for, and are prepared to work for. And if you see a real problem looming in the future, you’re going to want to change it, aren’t you?

Logically, therefore, “All agendas should be dismissed” is functionally equivalent to “There is no such thing as a problem”. The Bloke Sneer is a sign not of tough-mindedness or scepticism, but of the woolliest kind of wishful thinking.

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Why we don’t celebrate “straight pride”

A few days ago, around when the US Supreme Court made marriage equality constitutional, an old friend posted this on Facebook:

Straight Pride — Funny thing... I’ve seen others post this and they are attacked viciously.  Apparently it is now intolerant and bigoted to be straight and proud in this upside down, politically correct society we live in.  I invite everyone who is straight and unashamed to post this on your wall.

The quickest way to see the problem with this is to take the word “straight” each time it occurs in the image and replace it with “white”. There’s nothing wrong with being white any more than there is with being straight, but the phrase “white pride” is disturbing nonetheless, and for good reason. See, “black pride” and “queer pride” both have a history behind them: a history of disempowerment, marginalization, humiliation; a history of being “lesser” in the eyes of society. The “pride” movements are about defying that humiliation and that disempowerment, about refusing to be “lesser”. They’re about raising oneself up to the level of the white or straight majority and demanding to be treated like a fellow human being. Now, the white people and the straight people are already on the higher level, being treated as human beings; if they raise themselves higher than they already are, the result is that we once again have a two-tier society, with white / straight people on top and everyone else a step down. That’s why “straight pride” is a bad thing, even though being straight isn’t.

It’s entirely possible that this simply didn’t occur to my friend. It happens. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve hurt people or crossed boundaries without meaning to, I would be cringing in retrospective shame in a much fancier house. But intention, as I’ve been told a couple of those times, isn’t magic. Harm done by mistake is still harm. If someone stands on your toe completely by accident, it hurts just as much as if it was on purpose. You’ll still probably yell out in pain and ask them to move their foot. It’s not that whether they intended to hurt you doesn’t matter, but that it matters because of how it drives their response to your pain. Let’s suppose someone’s trodden on you; you’ve yelled “Ow! You’re on my toe!”; and they make one of the following possible responses. I think you’ll agree with me that only one of these is acceptable.

  1. [hastily removes foot] “Oh! I’m so sorry! Are you badly hurt? I hope I haven’t broken anything. Can you walk? If it’s serious I’ll take you to the emergency doctor. I’m so sorry.”
  2. [still standing on you] “Well, I didn’t do it with the intention of hurting you. It’s not my fault your foot got in my way. How dare you accuse me of being the kind of person who stomps on people’s toes on purpose! Maybe you need stronger shoes.”
  3. [silence, aims another stomp at your toes]

Now let’s switch roles: you’ve stood on someone else’s foot by mistake. It’s natural to want them to be very clear that you are not in category C, so even people who are genuinely in category A usually mix in a lot of “I didn’t mean to!”s with their apologies. But if that’s your primary concern, and especially if you think that your innocent intentions excuse you from the effort of repairing the harm you’ve done, then – sorry – you are in category B.

Only I’m not sure that’s what’s actually going on here. Look again at the wording on the Straight Pride image: the writer thinks the widespread rejection of “straight pride” shows our society to be “upside-down” and “politically correct”. In discussions of sexual diversity, these are red flags that someone is in category C: that is, they act harmfully towards non-conforming genders and sexualities, if only in terms of public expression. Well, there are highly specific situations in which an otherwise harmful act is an appropriate response, and it’s my bet that the writer thought the Supreme Court decision was one of them. Some examples might be

  • smacking a toddler away from a hot stove
  • performing the Heimlich manoeuvre on someone who’s choking
  • amputating a gangrenous foot

These acts all have something fairly obvious in common: a context of imminent, severe danger, which justifies drastic steps to counteract it. Imagine smacking a toddler away from a harmless cupboard, or doing the Heimlich on someone who’s not choking, or amputating a healthy foot. It wouldn’t be enough to plead that you sincerely believed there was danger; you have to have a compelling reason to believe there was danger. Precisely because you’re trying to do the right thing and help somebody, it’s crucial to get the facts right. Granted, a “straight pride” meme doesn’t do very serious harm compared to some other things people do to those who don’t conform to gender norms; but those other things are motivated by the same attitude, which therefore needs to be confronted wherever it appears.

Only, when I say “attitude”, you’re picturing someone nasty, right? My mental image is of the boys at my schools who called me “poofter” and “fag” and various other synonyms (pretty sure they weren’t detecting my actual bisexuality, which I was in ironclad denial about; I just fit their stereotype of what a gay person was like). But there’s a reason why no-one admits to being one of the Nasty People, and it’s the paragraph above this one. Occasionally, harmful acts are genuinely justified by the context – and the sincere belief that one of those occasions has arrived is the state of mind in which approximately 90% of violence is committed. Mostly, when people hurt other people, it’s through trying to do the right thing. Hatred, from the inside, feels like “I am a good person and this has to stop.”

Which is why I am not remotely impressed by this webcomic, which also crossed my Facebook feed in the day or two after the Supreme Court decision. A guy called Adam Ford is opposed to gay marriage, and what’s more he thinks gay sex is evil, but he wants gay people to be very clear that he doesn’t hate them, he loves them. What really gets me is when he insists that he is not trying to do this:

“My way is better than your way!”

but rather this:

“God’s way is better than our way!”

See what’s wrong here? Ford, here represented by the guy on the left, believes certain things about God – at minimum, that (s)he exists, that (s)he disapproves of gay sex and gay marriage, that her/his approval is a sound basis for moral judgement. The generic gay person represented by the guy on the right presumably disbelieves at least one of these things. Ford presents no argument whatever in favour of any of them. So the second cartoon still amounts to no more than “My way (of thinking about God) is better than your way.” As the comic proceeds Ford starts citing the Bible, but again with no explanation of why the Bible would be a better moral guide than, say, the works of Shakespeare. His claims still don’t exceed “My way (of assessing the value of the Bible) is better than your way.”

For all his self-professed love of gay people, Ford offers no assurance that they will not be stigmatized, dehumanized, or made “lesser” if they stop having sex with the people they’re attracted to, like he wants. All he has to offer is a feeling. Here’s the thing, though: I don’t think love is the ultimate social value. I think trust is. I only need a dozen or so people in my life to love me; I need to be able to trust everyone I meet. I need to be sure they won’t harm me. If their interests clash with mine, which is what happens when you put independent individuals in a space with finite resources, I need to be able to enter a rational conversation with them to resolve the clash. There might be a good reason why they should get their way and I shouldn’t, but if so then both of us will be able to see that reason, because the truth is the truth for everybody. Whether it’s a selfish reason or a selfless one isn’t the point.

We humans have evolved part of the way to understanding the importance of trust. That’s where our moral instincts come from in the first place. Unfortunately, we’re adapted for survival in the world of the first 90% of human existence, which was like The Walking Dead with animal predators instead of zombies. You live in a small group of close friends and family, and if you meet strangers you can never be certain they aren’t planning to kill you and take your stuff – or on a hair-trigger in case you were planning to kill them and take their stuff.

We therefore have a flaw woven into our moral sense, which says that only people who do things our way deserve full respect as human beings. Except we don’t think of it as “our way”, or we’d see what an unjust attitude this is. We think of it as the “proper” way, like the three-year-old who, told to say “Spasibo” to a Russian visitor who was giving her an apple, haughtily replied “No. I will say ‘Thank you’ properly.” And sometimes, we can become morally outraged when people do things “improperly”, and harm them – all the while thinking we’re being especially upright. This is not conducive to mutual trust. Morality must be rational, or it is prejudice.