THE SANCTITY OF IDEAS

This post was published in Catalyst on the 30th of October, 2013.

It should be a point generally recognised that, someday, in the not-too-distant future, our society’s dominant paradigms will have changed significantly. How could they not? A cursory glance over the history of Western civilisation shows dominant moral codes and philosophical discourses to be in states of constant flux; evidently, it would be myopic in the extreme to imagine that our current understanding of the world is immutable.

In the meantime, diverse political ideologies abound. All promise a kind of utopia: if not a perfect society, something approaching the best one imaginable for its constituents. This is as true for neo-liberal capitalism as it is for revolutionary socialism; as true for fascism as it is for libertarianism. There is no inherent virtue in sticking closely to the mainstream, for what are today’s dominant paradigms but amalgamations of views that were, sometimesomewhere, considered radical?

Roughly speaking, there are two possible ways of interpreting all this. The first is that our changing moral codes are merely deviations from some sort of ideal; something that we either have intuitive access to or that needs to be dictated. Proponents of this view are likely to point out that certain principles, such as prohibition of murder, seem present in all societies. There is truth in this, but only insofar as societies require these basic regulations in order to function. The fact that few restrictions have historically been placed upon the killing ofsoldiersdissidentscriminals and those of other tribes or classes shows that murder laws are not in any way evidence of fundamentally ‘moral’ intuitions. Other conceptions of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ differ so dramaticallyacross cultures – altering our perceptions of ‘conscience’ and ‘guilt’ accordingly – that any assertion of moral universalism must be looked upon suspiciously.

A further problem for this position is its dependence on a higher authority. In the absence of belief in mythical deities or adherence to dogma, all that remains to serve this need is an appeal to nature. This, in principle, is the concept that there is something inherently ‘good’ about the natural world; conversely, that immorality is derived from ‘unnatural’ states or behaviours. This is rightly dismissed as a fallacy for two reasons: firstly, that it usually depends upon a romanticised view of nature (and, oftentimespre-agrarian human societies) that ignores its essentially violent, Darwinist qualities; secondly, that it makes an arbitrary demarcation between natural and unnatural. As Homo sapiens is itself a product of the natural world, consisting of natural material, so are its inventions, wholly constructed from natural resources. How can that which is natural produce that which is unnatural? If we are to equate morality with natural processes, then, we have no alternative but to claim that all that has happened and ever could happen is ‘good’ – a tautological conclusion that renders the entire discussion of morality void.

This leads us to the second possible conclusion: that morality is purely relative. In many ways, it is the only viable one. If we reject the presence of a higher moral authority – as we logically must – we are left with the conclusion that there is no objective ‘right’ or ‘wrong’; just an array of ideas and actions with varying consequences.

Why, then, should we protest human rights violations, fight climate change or vote for progressive political parties? The answer is found in the fundamental motivation leading any organism to do anything: pursuance of self-interest. Just as it is in our own interest to breathe and eat, so it is in our own interest to interact favourably with those of our kind. Because we are happier and safer in groups, it is beneficial to us to make society the sort of place we would want to live in.

This is not a moral concept, but a rational one. Rationality is recognising that living harmoniously and kindly with others is more personally satisfying than amassing possessions; that having some of our immediate desires curtailed for the good of the many is better than being socially ostracised. The key, then, is to rationally identify what ultimate goals best suit our collective self-interest and finding the most effective means of achieving them.

In order to do so, we must have as open and unfettered discourse as possible. Anything less serves to hinder this process. Ideas, and the ability to communicate those ideas, must be constantly protected; likewise, they must always be open to vigorous criticism. It is through this interplay between free expression and the critical approach that intelligent consensuses can be achieved.

It would be naive to presume that such freedoms are completely safe. Here in Australia, for instance, subservience to foreign superpowers is economic and political reality; the fact, then, that the dominant superpower in our region currently takes a dim view of free expression and political protest ought to be of some concern. Furthermore – as I have written elsewhere – the rising power of the commercial sector threatens to assault freedom of speech from another angle; that of PR and the withdrawal of sponsorship money. Free speech may make society a better place, but the threat it poses to centres of power ensures that ways will always be sought to curtail it.

There is much to be thankful for in this society. Democracy, a welfare safety net, centralised health and education, advanced scientific research, separation of church and state, a mostly consequentialist legal system and the ability to consume and create art of all disciplines are all qualities that make our lives more fulfilling and satisfying. We should not take these things for granted, but neither can we afford to let them lead us into complacency. We also live in a society in which many Indigenous people are disadvantaged and disenfranchised; in which people are shamed and discriminated against because of their weight, appearance, cultural background or sexual orientation; in which international mass murder and exploitation occur on a regular basis. There are many things that we can and should aim to change for the better both at home and in the wider world. Dogma, taboo and censorship will do little to aid that process; free, rational and fearless argumentation very much can.

I hope that, with this blog, I have contributed a little to that discourse. If this series of posts has helped you gain a new perspective on certain issues, provoked you into pondering or writing rebuttals, or simply fostered your pleasure in challenging the status quo, then it has achieved something. These freedoms are valuable; so long as they exist, let us make use of them.

ON VICTIM-BLAMING AND DENIAL OF CAUSALITY

This post was published in Catalyst on the 23rd of October, 2013.

One of the more challenging aspects of taboo is the limiting effect it can have on discourse. Because people are naturally loath to talk about uncomfortable topics, dogma of some sort or other tends to dominate. If one examines the way much of the subject matter explored in this blog is dealt with in popular media and the blogosphere, a similar trend emerges: even where opposing views are given space, they tend to be a little less nuanced than usual; a little more strident.

This is particularly evident when it comes to the subject of rape. Its taboo status is perhaps at least as much due to the wider stigmatisation of sex as it is to the trauma experienced by victims (and accompanying need for sensitivity); whatever the case, it is a topic that those not toeing an established ideological line engage with at their own peril.

Many such sanctioned viewpoints could be said to fall within the broad domain of feminism. Given the movement’s strong focus on rape – perhaps the ultimate form of masculinised violence against women – it is understandable that it has devoted so much attention to changing the societal discourse on the issue; and, as a result, achieved significant results. In many ways, this shift has produced useful discussions: the poisonous and increasingly condemned phenomenon of slut-shaming, for instance; likewise, acknowledgement of the role patriarchal societies play in perpetuating ‘rape culture’.

Amongst these discourses lies the concept of ‘victim-blaming’. In its literal form, the term deals with the particularly pernicious phenomenon in which rape survivors are blamed for their own victimisation (or, worse, seen to have deserved it). Although this view is thankfully uncommon, it is quite rightly condemned by most reasonable people.

Like all ideologies, however, activist feminism is capable of overreaching. When it comes to the matter of victim-blaming, it has done so spectacularly. For many anti-rape campaigners, it appears to be deemed no longer sufficient to castigate those who chide survivors for not having done more to prevent assaults; rather, the imperative has shifted to denying any causal role in the victim’s behaviour whatsoever.

That may seem a subtle difference, but it is a significant one. First, it is simply incorrect that one has no agency in avoiding crime. Just as locking the front door reduces the risk of burglary and avoiding some parts of King Street on a Friday night reduces the risk of being physically assaulted, it should go without saying that self-defence techniquesdiscretion in selecting sexual partners or awareness of surroundings may in some cases help prevent rape.

If this is so, it would seem reasonable for authority figures to sometimes offer cautionary advice accordingly (particularly in specific situations; for instance, if a crime spree has occurred). It may be superfluous; it may, in some cases, be misguided; nonetheless, it would be entirely wrong to conflate this practice with victim-blaming. This, however, is exactly what much in the way of contemporary mainstream feminist discourse does.

The most prominent example of this was the ‘SlutWalk’ marches of 2011, rallies devised as a response to a Canadian police officer’s suggestion that “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized”. While this comment repeated the erroneous perception that choice of attire has a significant correlation with prospect of being raped – and, perhaps, offered insufficient support for the rather crucial right to wear what one likes – the primary focus of the organisers lay with what they saw to be institutional support for victim-blaming.

This was a strange conclusion. As ill-judged as they were, the officer’s words could not in any sense be seen to imply that women who dressed in a certain way deserved to be assaulted or that they were to blame for anything that might happen. How, then, could this widely-quoted comment have been misinterpreted by so many people?

The problem, it seems, lies in the confusion of causality with culpability. In Australian law, as with most Western jurisdictions, the culpability for a criminal act almost always lies solely with the offender. The fact that all victims play something of a causal role in their victimisation – from deciding to get out of bed in the morning onwards – does not at all imply a share in responsibility. Indeed, there are many legitimate activities that may play a causal role in victimisation, up to and including not following safety advice. This fact does not mean that we share in the blame for any harm that befalls us; nor is it likely to be a mitigating factor in the courtroom for our assailant. The right to go about our lives without being assaulted is fundamental and must be protected.

As this is so, many argue, the focus would be better placed on policing rape and better educating potential offenders. “Tell rapists not to rape” is the oft-suggested alternative to preventative advice. But this is, to some extent, a non-sequitur. It cannot be reasonably said that we live in a society in which rape is tolerated: by and large, it is considered to be an abhorrent crime. Even if this were not so, informing potential rapists of the error of their ways can only go so far. If all that the eradication of crime required was for society to no longer endorse it, the world in which we live would be quite unrecognisable. The fact that no culture has ever successfully eliminated the occurrence of any crime – despite every effort to the contrary – suggests that education and stigma can only go so far.

As long as serious crime exists, it is necessary to find any means possible of preventing it. If we are close to exhausting our capacity to reach potential perpetrators, what else is left? Clearly, the acknowledgement that we are all potential victims of crime and can all do things to minimise our potential victimisation has to play some role. If we are serious about preventing rape, making preventative information accessible to the public should, if anything, be encouraged.

Whether that will continue to happen is another matter. If the backlash against the Canadian police officer’s statement has achieved its aims, health professionals, counsellors and teachers may begin to feel a little less willing to offer such advice. Some will see that as progress of some form or other, but at what cost? And will we see this logic being extended into the discourse surrounding other crimes?

Rather than advocating self-censorship, we would do better to foster a more open dialogue. Feminist anti-rape campaigners have much to contribute to that debate, and their defence of the rights and dignity of survivors is something that all reasonable people should support. Nevertheless, we should be wary of all arguments that abandon common sense in favour of dogma. There is way too much at stake.

A DEFENCE (AND CRITIQUE) OF NEW ATHEISM

This blog post first appeared on the Catalyst website on the 16th of October, 2013.

Rationality is a concept enshrined in our society’s structures. Just as we expect politicians to govern according to principles of logic and common sense, it is understood that the laws they enact are best when derived from expert advice and scientific consensus. One of our culture’s most sacred public institutions, the education system, teaches children and young adults to think logically and critically. It is hard to imagine how else a decent society could function.

Such a conclusion may seem rather obvious, but that does not necessarily render it immune from critique. “Many movements defame theory itself as a form of oppression,” 20th century German philosopher Theodor Adorno observed, “as though praxis were not much more directly related to oppression”. Although he was here primarily concerned with anti-intellectual tendencies in the radical left of his day, his contention – that, without sufficient theoretical justification, action will always be regressive and harmful – can be applied far more broadly; after all, the contrast between theory and spontaneous action is akin to the contrast between rationality and irrationality. Just as Adorno argued in favour of the intellectual’s place in progressive political activism, it follows that public policy not founded upon reason and logic has little chance of success.

If we can accept the importance of rationality in shaping our society, we may well ask ourselves this: how should we treat irrationality? Is it something that ought to be harboured? Should we tolerate it at all?

On an interpersonal level, the answer to both is clearly ‘yes’. While we would all undoubtedly be much better off if we were to act in a more rational manner at all times, we cannot realistically be expected to do so – indeed, there is reason to believe that some degree of personal irrationality is inescapable. As such, the right to make mistakes and act stupidly – within limitations – is fairly fundamental.

When it comes to irrationality being practised at an institutional level, a slightly less charitable response may be required. The Western atheist view has long been that organised religion is a case in point. Where they differ from the ‘New Atheists’ – loosely, the group of scientists and writers including Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, the late Christopher Hitchens and a handful of others – is that some are inclined to live and let live, so long as religion stays clear of law and scientific research. New Atheists offer no such concession. Scientifically dubious organisations such as religion and alternative medicine are, in their view, founded upon myth, superstition and manipulation; nevertheless, they carry sufficient cultural clout to mislead the public. Protection of these institutions, in the New Atheist view, leads to a public far more susceptible to irrationality (and thus, by extension, faulty decision-making).

It is understandable that some of these figures take a less than tolerant view. Dawkins, for instance, has seemingly devoted as much of his professional life to exploring the mysteries of evolution as he has tocombating the alarmingly persistent view that the Earth was created in six days. Over 150 years after the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, he might well wonder why this is still considered a matter for conjecture.

Religion, though, has rarely sought much in the way of scientific credibility. It is, by its very nature, outside the realm of empirical observation; despite the best efforts of theistic philosophers, beyond logical deduction. With little external authority beyond dogma and intuition, it is certainly prone to more than its fair share of irrationality. While that can be relatively harmless, religion’s all-too-common fundamentalist manifestations can make it genuinely terrifying.

For all of religion’s (sometimes overstated) evils, it would, however, be wrong to ignore its positive attributes. The role that religious organisations play in charitable and humanitarian work is significant, and one could reasonably question whether or not its absence would be so easily filled. Likewise, the positive impact belief sometimes has on individual lives cannot be discounted.

The issue of whether religion causes more harm than good is, however, only one aspect of a much broader problem. To left-wing critics of New Atheism, the specific value of religion is far less important than the right of social groups to act out their cultural identities unhindered. In the context of post-2001 anti-Muslim sentiment in Western countries, New Atheists’ intolerance for Islam is often seen as mere bigotry masquerading as intelligent critique. Hitchens’s support for the Iraq War (along with some atheist groups’ ill-considered advocacy for dog-whistle politics such as burqa-banning) only serves to aid that perception.

While New Atheism’s left-wing opponents would do well to look more critically at a few of their own allegiances, there is validity to many of their criticisms. Dawkins and his peers are right to call out dangerous irrationality where they see it, but they need to take care that their advocacy does not lend support for oppression. One of the many painful lessons from the Iraq War is that one cannot impose cultural values – no matter how objectively beneficial they may seem – upon an unwilling populace. That is as true at home as it is in foreign lands: in a democracy, one must rule with the consent of the people. Targeting a minority may win elections, but the long-term consequences are conflict and disenfranchisement.

Here, there is another lesson for New Atheism: fundamentalism may cause conflict, but no less so than nationalism, bigotry or marginalisation. If Dawkins et al are serious about making society less violent, they should give aggressive policy aimed at religious groups a wide berth. There is little rationality in the alternative.

ON PAEDOPHILIA

This blog post first appeared on the Catalyst website on the 9th of October, 2013.

It is not yet known what causes paedophilia. Despite well over a century of research, it is still unclear whether persistent sexual attraction to prepubescent children is a condition brought on by genetics, social development or some combination thereof. What we do know for certain is that nobody chooses this malady for themselves. As with any disorder, one either has it or doesn’t. It can’t be turned on or off like a switch.

What may be rather more variable is the tendency of paedophiles to act on their desires. We should have no doubt that such variation exists: the gap between impulse and action, after all, is an essential part of the human experience. It is within this gap that compassion, shame, fear and other motivating and inhibiting factors operate. Just as most of us do not go around smashing shop windows and making off with consumer goods, it is not necessarily the case that we will react to frustrating situations by lashing out physically. Neither, despite the powerful nature of the sexual urge, do we necessarily cheat on our partners because we are attracted to somebody else. If sexual desire can be so easily repressed, it surely goes without saying that there must be – given the significant deterrents at work – a statistically significant subset of paedophiles who have never sexually abused children.

For now, however, the specific numbers remain unknown. It shouldn’t be surprising that this is the case; after all, the current climate is hardly conducive to such people seeking treatment or confiding in family or friends. Given the profound shame that would tend to be associated with these feelings, one can only guess at the rates of clinical depression and suicide.

It is, after all, difficult to think of a more despised figure in our society than the paedophile; even violent criminals seem to be granted moral superiority. Perhaps there would be a little less vitriol if the mainstream media made more effort to separate the medical condition from the actual crime of child abuse; as it is, the word ‘paedophilia’ is more or less used interchangeably. This is despite the fact that about half of these crimes are committed by non-paedophiles (that is, adults who are not primarily sexually attracted to children). The term is also, to confuse matters more, oftentimes erroneously used to describe sex with or attraction to teenage minors.

The terminology may leave a bit to be desired, but public outrage is a long way from unjustified. Child sexual abuse can have severe, long-lasting consequences for its victims, not limited to mental health issues, low self-esteem, sexual problems and, in some cases, future continuation of the cycle. Given the respective power roles involved, it is right that these acts are seen as a serious betrayal of trust and prosecuted accordingly.

Some of the discourse on the matter, however, abandons rationality altogether. Tabloids shamelessly fuel hysteria and vigilantism to the extent that sheer brutality seems to become the only acceptable way of engaging with the topic. Usually, our criminal justice system serves as a sensible counterpoint to media sensationalism; on this particular issue, however, it lets us down.

In modern justice systems, sentencing usually entails rehabilitation. When it comes to paedophilia, however, the lines are blurred. The state sex offender registers hamper freedom of movement and severely decrease employment opportunities. In Western Australia, a government website offers visitors access to images and whereabouts of released offenders. In parts of the United States, on the other hand, they’re simply not released at all.

Child pornography law is another area in which punishment almost seems targeted at the illness itself. It is, of course, vital that the international child pornography trade be policed and producers be brought to justice, but it nonetheless seems strange that passive viewing warrants custodial sentences – a paradigm not applied to, say, footage of terrorists beheading journalists. Indeed, as cases involving literary works and cartoon images show, successful prosecution doesn’t even require actual abuse to have occurred.

Some will argue that, given child pornography access suggests existence of the condition, locking these people up may prevent future child abuse. There may well be truth to this, but let us not forget that paedophilia is far from the only disorder that correlates with harmful behaviour. It is hardly a crime to be diagnosed with a behavioural disorder; instead, it is generally considered the domain of the healthcare sector. Why should that not be the best place to deal with this issue?

Indeed, given the high cost of sexual abuse, one would think that our society would already be prioritising early intervention and counselling aimed at helping non-offending paedophiles manage their condition. At the moment, however, this couldn’t be further from the case. Rather than offering public support to the very few organisations that provide such services, conservative state governments seem intent on using them as cheap political fodder – an approach exemplified by the Western Australian Liberal Party’s decision to cut funding to SafeCare in 2008.

Not only does this kind of reactionary decision making cast at-risk individuals adrift, it robs us of the opportunity to increase our understanding of the condition. There is still so much that we don’t know about paedophilia. As researchers in the field are quick to point out, much of the available data is sourced from convicted abusers – it is unsurprising, then, that observed traits tend to mirror those of typical criminal populations. Although it is unlikely that a cure will be discovered, effective treatment of any kind will require a wider data sample. Until more non-offending paedophiles are given the opportunity to safely seek out long-term counselling programs, that will be an impossibility.

Paedophilia is, of course, a profoundly difficult and uncomfortable topic. Nevertheless, it is crucial we accept that open, frank discussion is essential to learning how best to treat this condition as well as figuring out how to prevent as much child abuse as possible. Clearly, we have a long way to go.

ON INHERITANCE TAX AND THE POLITICS OF ENTITLEMENT

This blog post first appeared on the Catalyst website on the 2nd of October, 2013.

In December 2012, after years of criticism from the right-wing press, the Greens abandoned their support for an inheritance tax. Given their position on the rather limited Australian political spectrum – essentially, the most left-wing party with any real influence – one could be forgiven for inferring that this former policy was more than a little radical. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

In Australia, inheritance tax was an established part of the framework until the late ‘70s. Then, mostly as a result of mass rorting by upper income earners and the prospect of retirees fleeing the southern states for the latest tax haven, Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser decided to follow the lead of the ultra-right-wing Queensland State Government in abolishing the levy. Since then, the concept has been political anathema.

Elsewhere, the story is quite different. In the United Kingdom, currently under a Conservative Government, all estates worth over £325,000 are taxed. In continental Europe, policies such as these are the norm rather than the exception. Even in the more libertarian United States, there is an upper limit on bequests that can be passed down without levy. Although a few criticise these policies on pragmatic grounds, even conservatives tend to concede that it is good economic policy.

The logic behind the concept’s overseas longevity can be seen in the basic structure of societies like ours. It goes like this: in a functional social democracy, most able-bodied adults are employed. All citizens are granted a minimum quality of life through a strong welfare network and national minimum wage, but sufficient financial incentives exist in order to encourage the unemployed to re-enter the workforce and those engaged in menial jobs to achieve promotion. Whilst permitting wage inequality, such a system places a high value on equality of opportunity – that is, the concept that all citizens should be given the chance to be as productive as possible.

In the meantime, working citizens contribute to the overall maintenance of society by having some of their earnings taken by the state as taxation. In most countries, it is accepted as the norm that these amounts should differ depending on income; that those who have more to spare should contribute more (but not so much that incentives are damaged). In theory, at least, this makes for an efficient, fair economy. In reality, however, obscene inequalities persist; not least through the phenomenon of inheritance.

There is no need to be indirect about this: inherited wealth is, by definition, wholly unearned. If we put to one side the individual’s contract with the state – the individual works and pays taxes; the state provides infrastructure and a safety net – we are left with varying quantities of surplus cash, distributed arbitrarily according to family name. This money might be the difference between one’s child being able to attend a private school as opposed to a public school; between being able to afford a university education and remaining an unskilled labourer; between having the resources to start a business and never getting the opportunity to do so. In some cases, being a beneficiary of unearned wealth can mean never having to do any serious work whatsoever.

In a country as wealthy as ours, the principle of equality of opportunity should mean that all citizens have access to a decent education, decent prospects of employment and a decent standard of living. When one considers the important role tax revenue plays in maintaining that principle, the unregulated flow of old money starts to look like sheer waste.

One might wonder why, given the fact that we accept tax on earned wealth as a fact of life, tax on this kind of unearned wealth is considered in any way controversial. Most likely, a good part of it is simply due to popular antipathy towards new taxes – John Hewson’s calamitous GST proposal being one of the more obvious examples – though another part may well lie in the way we treat taxes in general.

If one sees taxation as merely part of the social contract, the maximum expectation ought to be that it does not interfere with the pursuit of a reasonable quality of life. That is a relative concept, of course, but it is hard to see how anyone could seriously think that the acquisition of McMansions, multiple sports cars or expensive designer handbags qualifies. Such stockpiling is, once more, pure waste; money that would, objectively and unarguably, be far better spent on government services.

Not everyone, of course, sees taxation this way. For some, it is a burden that frustrates the freedom to regulate one’s own financial affairs unhindered. The ability to spend one’s money how one likes is, of course, important, but that is no reason for the state not to restrain it. Unfortunately, as our progressive parties seem to have discovered, greed is a powerful political force. Thus, we get the popular narrative of levies on bequests constituting a ‘double tax’. Although the purveyors of this rhetoric seem to forget that it is hardly unusual for income to be taxed each time it changes hands – consider the process of employees being paid from company revenue, for instance – it remains a popular view.

Besides the strong culture of entitlement, the concept of family security plays a significant role in opposition to inheritance tax. In some respects, it is a throwback to older societies without welfare safety nets, in which hoarding money was still somewhat necessary in order to ensure the wellbeing of descendants. This concept persists, but has long ago outlived its usefulness. In a society such as ours, we do far better by our children by fostering a healthy work ethic and giving them access to a quality education. The fact is that nobody – apart from actual dependents, who are already accommodated by our societal framework – should need to depend upon the fruits of other people’s labours in order to get by. This should not be taken for granted; indeed, we should strive for even greater social wellbeing and equality of opportunity. Those are goals that require a fair, rigorous taxation system.

If the Australian political status quo is anything to go on, these are unpopular sentiments. For the time being, billionaires will continue to pass on absurd amounts of untaxed money while children from lower-income families receive a substandard, under-funded education. For some, such inequality of opportunity is not at all problematic; simply, an acceptable consequence of wealth concentration. “God helps those who help themselves,” the saying goes. Perhaps God could charge a small fee for his services.