IN DEFENCE OF IRRESPONSIBLE SOCIAL MEDIA USAGE

It’s indisputable that the emergence of social media has changed the way we communicate. Once a privilege of a certain profession – and often of a certain class – the phenomenon of the public statement has become democratised, opened up to anybody with an Internet connection and keyboard. Even the most mundane public online comments are now held in perpetuity; searchable and retrievable. A change of heart cannot erase what has been thought and what has been said.

An inevitable consequence of this new technology is the concept of ‘responsible’ social media usage. The rationale is simple: if what you have written is permanent, then it is a good idea to be careful about what you say. It is this widely held paradigm that I wish to critique in this essay.

First, let us consider that statement in further depth. The key word here is ‘careful’. ‘Careless’ writing is an expression of pure id; stream-of-consciousness writing with no concept of censorship, self-restraint or conventions of sentence structure. The alternative is to edit, to repress, to self-censor and to be aware of potential consequences.

These restraints have existed in some form or other since language began, and they operate upon nearly every social media post, too. A social media posting, however, is unlike ‘real-life’ conversation. That is not to say that conversations do not take place online, and that these conversations do not follow familiar conventions. These all have a beginning point, however, and they are more often than not an undirected broadcast; a remark made to oneself, to everybody, to nobody.

Where else have we seen anything like this phenomenon? The most obvious comparison is the private diary; but, unlike diarists, most Internet users don’t think to keep their blogs or social media accounts private. The second comparison is the pulpit, or the political leader’s soapbox; but one must be granted access to such positions. A third comparison is artistic expression, but this – at least, in its conventional forms – is the most carefully constructed of all modes of expression.

In contrast to all of these, social media platforms are typically public, unrestricted to anyone with Internet access and relatively spontaneous. Thus, it can be said that public speech has never been so unfettered or instantaneous as it is now – never provided such a direct link between thought and expression.

This poses an immediate threat to conservative power structures. Conservatism, after all, is entirely dependent upon social stratification, unchallenged traditions and a self-censorship that goes above and beyond the normal restraints on human communication. For an authoritarian, the equation is simple: new forms of expression necessitate new forms of control.

One might expect the authoritarian backlash to come from governments; however, a long tradition of Western distrust of government has gradually blunted that drive. Democratic governments nowadays are too fixated on retaining their own fleeting periods of power to get too gung-ho about cracking down on freedom of speech (though they still take every chance they can get).

They hardly need to, in any case. In a society in which employment is a requirement, the citizen’s contract with the government – that is, the legal system – is not the only negotiation of power to be made. Our employers also make demands; demands that increasingly stretch beyond work hours. It is no longer sufficient for an employee to spend eight hours a day under a business’s jurisdiction; many codes of conduct insist that behaviour outside of the workplace must not bring the employer into disrepute. This is the reasoning behind the creation of corporate social media policies: they act as a protection of the brand against negative associations; against the notion that it might harbour fallible individuals.

Whether or not a company’s reputation actually depends on the public perception of its employees’ private virtues is hard to say. Certainly, it seems that most people are capable of distinguishing between professional ethics and personal misdemeanours. Even if this is not the case, it seems creepy – not to mention unrealistic – to expect that all of the employees of the business one supports (or, for that matter, the political party one votes for) will lead morally unimpeachable lives outside of the workplace.

To many people, though, these policies are perfectly reasonable. “Don’t be stupid,” they argue. “Don’t post anything that might get you into trouble.” If you do, this attitude implies, you deserve what you get – after all, the policies were clearly spelled out in the contract.

Is it such a huge sacrifice to make, just to keep your employer happy? Perhaps not, if one sees social media as something trivial. But to many of us, social media platforms have become a huge part of our lives; of the way we interact with others. For our employers to dictate that this or that topic or opinion or mode of expression is unsuitable is to place a limitation on freedom of speech.

It’s possible that there are few more misunderstood concepts than free speech. It is not, as some libertarians characterise it, the right to say whatever you like without consequence. What free speech is – and the reason that it is so important – is a means of ensuring that dissenting political and artistic expression are protected. Ironically, this is exactly the sort of speech that employers are most likely to crack down upon.

Imagine, briefly, a society in which every conversation you have ever had – whether in the work environment, during a family dispute, or in bed with a lover – is publicly accessible. What precautions would need to be taken to ensure that nothing is said that might cause reputational damage down the track? What rights would need to be demanded to ensure that citizens could still live functional lives?

This may seem a far-fetched scenario – or once would have, in the days before data retention – but it is one that mass social media usage takes us closer to. For, if the gap between thought and expression is closing, then our need to be protected from authoritarian restrictions has increased. That must start with defending – whether through the unions or state legislation – the same fundamental freedoms that we expect as citizens.

Using personal social media accounts ‘irresponsibly’ is not stupidity, and neither should it lead to sanctions from our employers. When no laws are broken, it is simply an exercise in free speech. If we are to maintain a free society, then that right must be protected.

TOWARDS A PROGRESSIVE MEN’S MOVEMENT

“Indigenous Australians are very much over-represented in Australian prison populations”: so goes the depressingly familiar refrain on the Australian Institute of Criminology website. Staggeringly, 40% of those imprisoned for violent crimes in this country belong to a group comprising just 3% of the total population. To some, this is evidence of institutionalised discrimination, a claim that may have some grounding in fact. Even the most ardent conspiracy theorist, however, would have to concede that the primary factor here is a much crueller phenomenon: socio-economic disadvantage.

To anyone who knows a thing about sociology, this will hardly come as a surprise. The correlation between crime rates and poverty is well established, and ethnic minorities tend to present its most visible demonstration. It is entirely justifiable that crime figures are so often cited as evidence of disadvantage, for there are few more potent symbols of dysfunction.

Given that, what can we make of the fact that more than 9 out of 10 Australian prisoners are male? This is a disorienting comparison, for claims regarding specific male disadvantage are rare in progressive circles—they are usually the domain of conservative ideologues and paranoid ‘Men’s Rights Advocates’. How do we reconcile this seeming inconsistency? Is it possible that the near-fundamental feminist concept of male privilege has caused us to overlook something important?

In order to answer these questions, we need an understanding of what the terms ‘privilege’ and ‘disadvantage’ refer to. The first of these is relatively easy to explain: it is a state in which one social group is (usually unfairly) advantaged over another. Hence, when the slave trade was still active in the United States, being born into a white family as opposed to a black family was a significant privilege: it entitled the child to a life of freedom, human dignity and ability to pursue wealth and comfort, all rights denied African-Americans of the day. In modern Australia, a simpler example might be the fact that heterosexuals are permitted to marry their lovers while homosexuals are not. It is a privilege denied them; an example of institutionalised disadvantage.

If there’s a serious weakness with the contemporary discourse surrounding these terms, it’s the presumption that they are somehow monolithic. It’s certainly, in many cases, an understandable conclusion: in what way are Indigenous Australians privileged over their Anglo-European counterparts? Certainly, nothing obvious comes to mind (however much reactionaries might complain about Indigenous welfare and educational assistance, these are clearly equalising measures aimed at reducing the substantial gap between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal standard of living; to label them ‘privileges’ would be cruel and absurdly narrow-minded).

Privilege does not, however, always necessarily function this way. It is possible for one group to generally dominate over another without necessarily dominating in all facets; furthermore, such complexity can consist of far more than a few minor concessions going the way of the oppressed.

Perhaps it would help at this point to return to defining what I mean by ‘privilege’ and ‘disadvantage’. In the Marxist tradition, the key metric seems to be wealth. This certainly gives us part of the story, but not all of it: those living in absolute poverty aside, does anybody but the most brazen capitalist believe that earning power is the chief measurement of quality of life? Is money really the end to which all else is merely a means?

Clearly, something fundamental is being overlooked here. Wealth is certainly an important measurement, but it is really little more than a medium for something else. There may be philosophical disagreement on what that greater goal is, but simple ‘utilitarian happiness’ is a near-enough approximation.

How is this so? Let us consider the case of Gina Rinehart, Australia’s richest individual. In terms of wealth, she clearly suffers little in the way of disadvantage. Yet, both publicly and privately, she has been the victim of a constant onslaught of bigoted and dehumanising rhetoric regarding her size and appearance. Is that not a significant form of oppression? As any Western victim of racism or homophobia will tell you, it is not economic disadvantage that hurts so much as the denial of human dignity. What is most centrally being undermined here is, as the American constitution puts it, “the pursuit of happiness”. When we speak of group privilege and disadvantage, this is worth keeping in mind: disadvantage is institutionally-derived unhappiness.

So, is it possible to be both institutionally privileged and disadvantaged? One particular third-wave feminist discourse that seeks to resolve this problem is the theory of ‘intersectionality’. This is a concept that attempts to improve on the radical second-wave ‘all men oppressing all women’ notion of patriarchy by adding the complicating variables of ethnicity, sexuality, gender identity and so on. The problem with intersectionality is that it still insists upon categorical privilege: thus, straight white cis-men are privileged over straight white cis-women, but straight white cis-women are privileged over straight black cis-women, and gay black cis-men and straight white transwomen encounter differing forms of privilege and disadvantage relative to each other, etc. Privilege is reduced to a sort of card game, without any regard for the fact that the categories themselves might be complicated.

Where instersectionality argues that one can be disadvantaged despite belonging to a ‘privileged’ group, what seems clear is that one can experience forms of disadvantage because of belonging to such a group. One may be rich and famous, and consequently lose all right to privacy. One may live in a modern industrialised country, and therefore grow up with a much poorer sense of community, identity and kinship than that experienced by hunter-gatherer societies. One may be male, and therefore have a much greater chance of spending time behind bars.

Gender relations provide what may be the clearest example of this phenomenon, and there’s a reason for this. Something most traditionally oppressed groups—First Australians, the LGBTI community and the disabled—have in common is sheer lack of numbers. A significant part of their disadvantage is derived from their minority status. Their interests are often neglected because the majority choose to—and can afford to—overlook them.

The same can’t be said for women. Not only do women make up roughly half of the population, they actually outnumber men. Some point out that women still comprise a minority group of sorts due to their relative lack of representation in positions of power, but this is somewhat of a misrepresentation of what a minority group is. An equal voice at the ballot box is no small entitlement: it ensures that women’s issues cannot easily be dismissed. This alone indicates that gender inequality is not a typical oppression dynamic.

Women do, however, still encounter significant disadvantages. The average wage gap between the genders suggests that subtle (and not-so-subtle) forms of gender discrimination persist in the workplace. Popular media, cosmetics and the fashion industry relentlessly reinforce subordinate gender roles and attack female body image. Certain crimes such as sexual assault and domestic violence are experienced much more frequently by women than by men. Lesser exposure to these incursions is, indeed, a male privilege.

Are there also specifically male disadvantages (and, therefore, female privileges)? Imprisonment figures certainly suggest this might be the case, but they are just the tip of the iceberg. It is well-known that men on average are more likely to commit suicide; have much greater difficulty coping with depression; and tend to have poorer access to emotional support networks in difficult times. Some inequalities may be more obviously structural, such as the fact that men are still often expected to financially support female partners; that they are far more likely to be expected to take on dangerous and physically demanding work; or, that, in case of divorce, they are less likely to be granted custody of their children. Cultural prejudice, too, may be experienced: men are viewed in some contexts as inherently sexually predatory, while gendered media representation can tend to demean everyone. However one quantifies such challenges, it is clear that all is not well with Western males. While it is probable that male disadvantages are still outweighed by those faced by women, these struggles are far from trivial. They are not zero-sum games.

Feminists generally acknowledge at least some male disadvantages, but tend to claim that they are all part of the same problem. To some extent, this is correct: some male problems (e.g. misogyny itself) can be directly attributed to historical oppression of women, whereas many more are by-products of the same social norms that feminists fight against (e.g. gender roles). Therefore, those who claim that “the answer is feminism” are partially right.

They are also partially wrong. While all men who are serious about social progress would do well to embrace feminism, it should be remembered that it is—by its very definition—a women’s movement. We should never be afraid to assist other people’s fights, but to some extent one has to take care of one’s own backyard. As feminists are wont to point out, privilege can have a blinding effect—a consequence, perhaps, of the ubiquitous phenomenon of human self-interest. A female-dominated movement primarily concerned with women’s rights cannot realistically be expected to be the last word on issues of male disadvantage.

So, what’s the alternative? Contemporary men’s movements exist, but these are generally little more than fringe reactionary groups. Their misogyny, virulent opposition to feminism and general paranoia do their cause far more harm than good. To be fair, some strands of feminism are equally unhelpful. If there is one thing such groups share in common, it is the erroneous presumption that men’s and women’s movements are somehow incompatible. Nothing could be further from the truth. Sincere, non-partisan commitment to gender equality can only help everybody.

A feminist-friendly men’s rights movement need not be a contradiction in terms. As with any argument, the test should always be this: will it make society a better place? When it comes to combating disadvantage—male or female—the answer would, without exception, seem to be ‘yes’.

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.

ON ABORTION AND THE RIGHTS OF THE FOETUS

This blog post first appeared on the Catalyst website on the 26th of September, 2013.

In December 2009, 32-week-pregnant Brodie Donegan from New South Wales miscarried after being struck by a car. The driver was charged with causing grievous bodily harm to the mother, but the death of the unborn child prompted no additional penalties. This was not an unusual verdict: under State law, a foetus is not considered to be a human being in any meaningful sense. At best, it is considered to be a form of property; up to a certain stage, lawfully permitted to be terminated at will.

Needless to say, this is not the case for newborn infants. Killing a child, no matter its age, is deemed a heinous act in both legal and cultural terms. Although many countries, including Australia, have included postpartum depression as a valid defence against murder charges, base penalties are on par with standard homicide sanctions.

Biologically speaking, this is a curious state of affairs. Members of the human species do not ‘begin’ at birth any more than lizards or aphids do. While one might have been forgiven for thinking so in less scientifically developed times, we now know that the preceding period of gestation is merely the earliest of several stages of development in an organism’s life-span. Any suggestion that either ‘life’ or ‘personhood’ happens to coincide with one’s first unassisted breath is, thus, something of a semantic game.

Two significant factors, however, further complicate this issue: first, the foetus’s dependence on a human carrier, who must sacrifice her bodily autonomy in order to sustain it; second, the necessity of making arbitrary demarcations of some kind or other.

It is the former consideration that has historically dominated the abortion debate, and rightly so. No serious discussion on the matter can ignore the fact that the significant burden of pregnancy and childbirth – while gladly accepted by some – is not something that all women wish for or choose. The idea, then, of legally forcing a woman to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term can never be anything but problematic.

It is too glib, however, to dismiss the alternative as less so. Whilst it is unfortunate that anti-abortion rhetoric tends to be dominated by the Christian fundamentalist right, the concerns raised by that movement deserve to be taken a little more seriously. Despite feminist rhetoric to the contrary, the desire for patriarchal control over women’s bodies seems strangely absent from pro-life groups. In their eyes, they are fighting for human rights. We can and should reject their claims about the existence of a soul or some kind of divine right to existence, but it would be wrong to characterise their whole fight as frivolous.

At the moment, the battleground is the New South Wales parliament, and the bill in question is “Zoe’s Law”. Named after Donegan’s unborn child, it seeks to grant limited personhood under law to wanted foetuses at a late stage of development. It is perhaps a sign of the success of the pro-choice movement in Western society that any potential impact on abortion law is off the table, although the usual suspects are nonetheless hovering: the anti-abortion lobby, who see the bill as a possible step forward for their cause, and their opponents, who see it as the beginning of a dangerous slippery slope.

In some respects, this is characteristic of the abortion debate: two sides very much arguing at cross purposes. Their preferred designations – pro-life; pro-choice – exemplify that. It would perhaps be productive for each side to recognise that their opponents are, in one way or other, fighting for the same long-term goal – that is, human rights. For those of us not already invested in the debate, that is how the discussion ought to be framed.

It is important, however, to keep in mind the consequences of these positions. Firstly, it should go without saying that the rights of the mother need to be preserved as much as possible. It is deplorable that societies of the past forced women with unwanted pregnancies into dangerous unsupervised abortions (a paradigm that still, shockingly, seems to persist in parts of the developed world). Similarly, the accompanying social shame – fostered and tolerated by a moralistic society – has no place in a developed society. Any legislation aimed at protecting the rights of the foetus would have to be extraordinarily carefully-worded lest mothers face prosecution for no longer wanting to carry a child.

These caveats need not be an impediment to reform. If, however, pro-life advocacy is to gain more credibility, sensible, realistic goals need to be ascertained. Clearly, a fundamentalist interpretation of human rights – i.e. beginning at conception – is unworkable and likely unwanted by all but the most extreme pro-life advocates. That leaves two options: to either adjust the marker to some arbitrary point (of which birth might well be as good as any) or to adopt something of a sliding scale. The latter is an area oft-explored by Peter Singer, whose conclusions – that young post-natal infants may not warrant the legal protections offered to adults – have proven uncomfortable and highly controversial. These, however, are the discussions we need to have if we are ever to comprehensively get to grips with the topic of abortion.

The status quo view, reflected by Western law, is that it is absurd for the rights of a barely sentient organism to be made equal to those of an adult human being. Most reasonable people would agree with this. There is, however, a catch here: the modern paradigm of human rights, as we understand it in the post-enlightenment age, allows for little discrimination between individuals based on metrics such as intellectual capacity, sensory development or physical autonomy. It is not considered more of a crime to kill young children than infants, and it is certainly not considered less heinous to murder an eight-year-old than it is to do the same to an adult. Compared to these, the difference between a newborn and a late-term foetus is relatively insignificant.

Clearly, there is something more at stake here. In our society, our worth is not merely judged according to our productivity or ability to get the most of out of life. For better or for worse, we take care of those who cannot protect themselves. While a newborn baby may not have much in the way of personhood, we recognise that it is a growing human being that ought to be cared for. An eight-month-old foetus is, arguably, very much in the same camp.

Of course, exceptional circumstances aside, abortions are generally not conducted at such a late stage; that, however, is no excuse not to legislate on the matter. While many pro-choice advocates will vehemently disagree, the fact is that there is nothing that a society such as ours doesn’t legislate on. Silence constitutes permission. While it may seem a noble conclusion, declaring the future of the foetus to be purely a matter of the mother’s preference is a rejection of its rights. That may be a reasonable conclusion, but it is a legislated conclusion.

The most unsettling consequence of this debate may well be that a fundamentalist defence of the human right to life may no longer be viable. In a utilitarian society, such as the one Singer advocates, this is a feasible conclusion. Indeed, with public support for euthanasia growing, we may well be headed in such a direction. Hand-wringing from religious groups aside, that is and will be an enormously challenging issue.

The debate over “Zoe’s law”, then, should be a welcome one. As much as the workings of our democracy may disappoint us, we should have a little faith in our lawmakers’ ability to work through complex issues without reaching fundamentally unreasonable conclusions. The progress of our society’s treatment of the matter – from the backroom abortions of the 1950s to Roe v Wade and beyond – ought to give us some hope. Considering what’s at stake, we may well need it.

ON BESTIALITY AND THE MATTER OF ANIMAL RIGHTS

This blog post first appeared on the Catalyst website on the 18th of September 2013.

In February 2013, the German parliament declared bestiality a criminal offence. This was not, needless to say, a controversial ruling; indeed, laws of this kind are now the norm in most Western social democracies. What might come as more of a surprise is that, a little less than half a century ago, many of these countries were legislating in the opposite direction; archaic ‘sodomy’ laws swept away as the sexual revolution of the late ‘60s began to reach the halls of parliament.

It was not that these lawmakers considered animal welfare to be an irrelevance; indeed, cruelty to animals had been punishable in some jurisdictions since the mid-19th century. By the 1970s, most Western countries – the former West Germany included – had laws of some kind pertaining to the treatment of vertebrates. What the repeal of sodomy laws exemplified was a societal shift away from regulation of personal morality and towards something more closely resembling utilitarianism. Wanton cruelty remained proscribed, but acts of non-harmful human/animal sexual interaction were no longer considered legally punishable.

For animal rights groups, this was far from sufficient. The central problem with the status quo, they argued, was the inability of an animal to offer meaningful consent; as such, bestiality was viewed to be somewhat akin to statutory rape. Over the past few years, their arguments have been upheld in jurisdictions as diverse as Norway and the Australian Capital Territory.

This view, however, throws up something of a quandary: if animals cannot consent, how is it that sexually mature animals engage in mating behaviour with each other, or even – in admittedly rare circumstances – initiate sexual contact with humans? Furthermore, why even consider consent in this area when it is denied to animals in so many others? Animals, after all, are given no say in whether they are slaughtered for meat, tested upon, culled, euthanised or kept in captivity.

Clearly, there is a much more fundamental question at stake: what rights, if any, can human society afford creatures from other species? What should we be aspiring to?

What is clear is that discrimination on some level will always be necessary. It is probably unworkable for the act of stepping on ants to carry manslaughter charges; likewise, few would advocate allowing the needs of many to outweigh the needs of one in cases where exterminating parasites is required in order to cure human illness. These may appear to be extreme hypotheticals, but they sufficiently illustrate the point: by prioritising human lives over less complex organisms, we must concede some form of favouritism.

How far that favouritism ought to extend is another question. Until the 19th century, belief in human exceptionalism – the view that humans and the rest of the animal kingdoms existed on entirely different planes – was the scientific and cultural norm. Although folk concepts such as the human soul have ensured that that viewpoint retains some currency, developments in evolutionary biology have shown that the human species is far less distinct than we once thought it to be. This is not to say, however, that belief in human superiority is entirely unjustified – discrepancies in areas such as intelligence, competence and ability to communicate make it somewhat unavoidable.

That acknowledgement has shaped human views towards animals for as long as legal codes have existed. Where laws regarding animal welfare have existed, they have always been enacted in service of human interests. Animal cruelty laws, primarily designed to maintain a ‘civilised’ society, are no exception. So long as animals are denied a voice in how society is ordered – and, due to the rather large communication problem, it’s hard to see how this could ever not be the case – laws will always reflect human needs and desires.

That does not mean that progress in animal welfare laws won’t occur. As the science behind food production develops, meat and other animal products will become more easily simulated or replaceable. Given our modern tendency to be distressed by unnecessary suffering, it is near-inevitable that exploitative industries will be phased out. Likewise, stronger regulations may further police our own day-to-day interaction with pets and wild animals.

Some, then, may see the new wave of laws against bestiality as a step in that direction. While that’s clearly the intention of animal rights lobbyists, modest regulations regarding other aspects of animal welfare suggest that legislators may have a rather different agenda.

As Peter Singer notes in his short essay ‘Heavy petting’, the concept of human exceptionalism still contributes significantly to views about bestiality. One need only turn the Bible – still something of an influential text, needless to say – to the Book of Deuteronomy to find provisions for dealing with such crimes. “If a man has sexual relations with an animal, he must be put to death,” a passage decrees. “And,” it goes on, “you must kill the animal”. The message is clear: this is considered to be less an act of exploitation than of indecency; the real crime being one of self-debasement. That paradigm, it seems, remains as strong as ever. For those concerned by the legal system’s encroachment into matters of personal morality, there may be cause to treat these new laws with scepticism; for those concerned with animal welfare, they may yet prove a false dawn.

ON THE PITFALLS OF EGALITARIAN DEMOCRACY

This blog post first appeared on the Catalyst website on the 11th of September 2013.

Oz has elected a bigoted air-head to drag them backwards into mean prejudice and vainglorious chauvinism” – Paul Flynn, UK Labour Party MP

It’s not goodies versus baddies; it’s baddies versus baddies.” – Tony Abbott on the Syrian conflict

For those dismayed by its results, the most galling aspect of the 2013 federal election is not that the conservatives won. Neither, for those of us removed from the partisan hysteria of the ALP, is it the spectre of prime bogeyman Tony Abbott becoming prime minister. Rather, the most frustrating thing is the way that the election has been decided, fought on simplistic arguments about national debt, asylum seekers and the carbon tax.

Certainly, the departing government was far from perfect. Four leadership spills and two changes in prime minister over the course of six years gave the ALP a deserved reputation for internal instability; a few failed schemes from the early stages of Kevin Rudd’s stewardship contributing to a perception of ineptitude. For conservatives, Julia Gillard’s much-misunderstood promise not to institute a carbon tax was seized upon as clear evidence of deceit; for progressives, Rudd and Gillard’s aloof conservatism was trumped only by their willingness to throw refugees, same-sex couples and civil liberties under the bus for the sake of right-wing votes.

For all its faults, however, the Labor Party can claim to have governed competently. This includes, most significantly, having assisted the country to emerge from the global financial crisis relatively unscathed; likewise, successfully negotiating the difficulties of a hung parliament. By most objective standards, they have left the economy in an excellent position, with national debt and unemployment figures kept in check. The Gonski education reforms, introduction of the National Broadband Network and National Disability Insurance Scheme are all policies that, if maintained, should have long-lasting positive effects on Australian society.

Given that, it is ironic that the opposition chose to wage their campaign primarily on supposed Labor incompetence. These claims were, with few exceptions, highly dubious: that refugee boat arrivals had reached unmanageable levels; that the country’s debt was significant, and attributable to government profligacy; that the carbon tax, a fairly unexceptional market-based scheme for addressing climate change, was an extreme policy whose annulment was worthy of being the “first priority” of a new government.

Confronted with arguments such as these, a highly-educated populace would not only have remained unconvinced; it presumably would have severely punished the proponents at the polling booths. The fact that the exact opposite has occurred, therefore, is profoundly troubling. Certainly, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Australian voters are too easily manipulated.

Such is democracy, though. Educated opinions on science, economics and foreign policy are and always have been considered secondary to the construction of a good narrative; a three-word slogan given more weight than a dozen peer-reviewed papers. No higher authority is required for a mandate than mere popularity. We might well ask ourselves whether this is the best possible method of running a country.

Egalitarian democracy is founded upon the premise that all adult citizens deserve an equal say in electing representatives and, by proxy, creating laws. As such, it is arguably the freest, least oppressive, political system ever adopted on a national scale. It is a privilege that we should neither take for granted nor question glibly. That does not, however, mean that our current system ought to be considered above critique. There are, after all, few more fundamentally important topics of debate than the way in which a society should be organised.

Given that Australian democracy appears to be decidedly imperfect, we might ask ourselves the following questions: is the election of substantially inferior candidates merely an unavoidable drawback of an otherwise ideal system, or is it a problem that can be satisfactorily resolved? If the latter, how might we go about it?

The most apparent problem is that there are people in our society who are far more adept – through intelligence, level of formal education, personal experience or political engagement – at judging what might constitute a better government than others. If one accepts that premise, it is at least superficially true that giving such people more of a say would lead to a better-run, more intelligent society. If we accept that the latter is a worthy aim, the challenge is to propose an appropriate way of achieving it.

Firstly, removing suffrage from groups or individuals is clearly undesirable. It would be hard to see such a move as anything more than a one-way ticket to oppression and social stratification. Furthermore, on a purely pragmatic level, setting a bar at a certain level would inevitably lead to mass disenfranchisement and, quite possibly, social unrest. A slightly less problematic alternative might be ‘weighting’ votes according to various metrics, although it goes without saying that such a process could potentially open up new avenues of corruption as well as significant logistical problems.

Perhaps, though, this is the wrong focus. Rather than entrenching inequalities by advocating elitist electoral policies, we would do better trying to work out how to build a more intelligent, educated and critically-minded body politic. That is a point that we should surely all agree on.

People cannot always be expected to know what is in their own best interests. That will always be the case. Unless we can find a workable means of improving the system – and we should not be inhibited from trying – we have to work within its parameters. Until then, it is a truism that an important part of the education process is learning from mistakes. Let us hope that, this time around, the lesson is not too painful.