Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Defending Free Speech, Weather Permitting...

You know those friends who are all joy and happiness until trouble comes along? The ones who are always there to have a good time, and tell jokes, and hang out, and be merry, right up until the point where they encounter a tiny bit of resistance or inconvenience? These are known as Fair Weather Friends. The original idiom was 'S/He is a fair weather sailor'--meaning that as long as there are no stormy skies or rough seas, this person is an expert over water. Once the chop agitates and the white horses rear up, however, they crumple, or disappear. 

A surprising amount of people are Fair Weather Sailors across a range of different issues. People are all on board with stopping animal cruelty, for example, until it comes time to declare themselves vegetarian. I'm not excluded from this. I eat meat, I know that the means of acquiring it aren't fantastic, and yet I can't stop. I'll loudly speak in favour of animal rights but, when the chips are down, the speed at which I will scoff down scotch fillet is limited only by the dilation of my throat. I am a fair weather supporter of animal rights.

The list goes on, seemingly forever, and encompasses almost everything. There are fair weather political activists, fair weather religious folk, fair weather atheists, fair weather LGBT supporters, fair weather feminists...pick an ideology or issue. They're there, and, unfortunately, they're the majority.

There is one particular issue, however, that seems to attract the most strikingly clueless fair weather supporter. It's a sneaky one, because a lot of people don't realise when it is being challenged, or indeed even what it is.

I'm talking about Freedom of Speech, and specifically the lack of it, in Australia. 

Let's Not Be Too Sensationalist...

I don't give the media any quarter over their penchant for the sensational, so let me dial my own back a bit. 
Free Speech doesn't technically exist in this country, it's true.  It never has. At least not in the sense that it exists in the United States. A great amount of confusion over the issue of free speech stems from the fact that we are not America, and do not have the same enshrined liberties and freedoms as the citizens of the US (PRISM notwithstanding). The United States has a Bill of Rights, which specifically codifies and makes enforceable laws pertaining to the freedom of expression and speech. Oddly enough, it enshrines that right in the same breath as it guarantees religious freedom, making for one of the most spectacular schizophrenic bits of law ever conceived. That, however, is a topic for another day.

Australia has no such thing. There is an implied right in the Constitution of this country that the Parliament may make no law inhibiting political communication. That's not the same thing. It has to be stated clearly: Freedom of Expression by the citizenry of Australia is not in any way protected by law. 

It's lucky, then, that it exists by default. It is assumed by lawmakers and nearly all people living here that a right to free speech exists, even if it isn't written down somewhere. It's extremely rare that this unspoken principle is violated. For everything that I'm going to say beyond this point, I want it known that I am not taking the position that the government of Australia is a tyrannical, Orwellian juggernaut of suppression. Nor do I think it even possesses the potential to become one. All in all, we have it pretty good here, and none of the issues as I see them would be instantly resolved by the implementation of a Bill of Rights. This is not a lobbying post for that Bill, so you can take back that sardonic eye roll right now, law and politics students. I am a font of nuance.

What I am arguing is that our freedom of speech and expression is being trodden on by institutions that should not have the right to do so. We have a right to be angry about that, and we ought to be. Convincing people of this?

That's a bit of a struggle. 

But Mitch, do I even know what freedom of speech is

No. Probably not. 

In all honestly, you don't know. You've got a vague idea. Maybe even a really honed idea. It's still very likely wrong. This is where three quarters of the problem lies, and it is one of the reasons why the world sorely misses Christopher Hitchens to sort it out so that nobody else has to. His amazing scotch-and-cigarette scented breath now spent, however, it falls to the lowly amoung us to do what we can.

When I say freedom of speech or expression, I am talking about precisely this and nothing else: 

The Government may not intervene in matters of communication between two entities unless the content of that communication is shown to be illegal or directly harmful.
I am not  talking about this, which is the definition that Google throws at you:

The right to express any opinions without censorship or restraint.
Bugger that. That isn't correct. Forget everything about that. Freedom of Speech in that  sense can be limited in any number of ways for very legitimate and (mostly) economic reasons. The disparity between these two definitions accounts for much of the confusion about what does and does not violate free speech conditions.

I'll show you. 

The Fair Weather Free Speech Brigade

Eddie McGuire makes a gaffe on air and is threatened with being yanked from radio. This gaffe is monumentally stupid, even he acknowledges so, and sections of the community want him off air. The immediate response across the web is as follows (Verbatim quotes are taken from Facebook, Comments Sections and Blogs that I won't link to. These people didn't sign up for a pillorying on some silly blog):

Isn't one of the greatest things about being an Australian is having Freedom of Speech? Now we can't take the mickey out of people because they're soft AND we have a Freedom of speech within an approved shortlist of words....


It was conversation, lighthearted in its intent, and a consequence of what we used to call free speech. As a defender of same...
Go after real racism not what someone perceives is racist.I thought there was free speech in Australia apparently not.
Elsewhere in Australia, Howard Sattler asks the Prime Minister if her husband is homosexual on air, making a mockery of her relationship (already the subject of undue criticism) and offending just about everybody, not the least of which being male hairdressers who are not gay and gay men who dislike ancient stereotypes. He was pulled from the air. The only-too-predictable reaction:

Where has free speech gone?  Howard Sattler is a radio DJ, he was interviewing Julia Gillard.  If his question was offensive then she should have just passed on it.
Free Speech in Australia just died a little more yesterday with Sattler's sacking by 6PR. As the old saying goes "I may not like what you say, But I'll defend to the death your right to say it". Australia now a joke of a nation under Gillard, who wants us all silenced.

It seems like Shakespearean fools could get away with much more freedom of speech in relation to their rulers, than was allowed to Howard Sattler in this incident.
These are merely recent examples. You can also look into Miranda Devine claiming that protests against an anti-islamic politician were the death knell of free speech in this country. Or peruse the rabid frothings of the media when they thought limiting free speech was the same thing as restructuring media ownership
What you are witnessing in each of these cases is a fundamental misunderstanding of what free speech actually is. It is the confusion of the second definition with the first. It's the assumption that free speech means getting to say whatever you want whenever you like, and that everyone else must sit there and remain silent as you do so.

These people believe they've identified an injustice. They want to shout from the rooftops about it. 'This country used to be great, but now I can't even use racial slurs for fun and I don't know who I am anymore!', is what they're saying. Some of them will even have the prescience to go high-concept with it. 'I don't agree with what they're saying, but damn it, they have a right to!'. 

They have numbers. They see someone being 'censored'. They think the fight will be easy, and so they speak up. The weather is fair, my friends, so let's all pile on while there's no chance of getting wet. 

First of all, Free Speech Stops Where Private Enterprise Begins

Howard Sattler is sacked from a radio station. Sections of the community campaign to remove Eddie McGuire. Catherine Deveny is fired from her job over a tweet. 

In every case, these people absolutely had the right to say these things. Nobody took away their right to say these things. 

But they do not  have the right to continued employment in the wake of their broadcast free speech. That would be up to the employer. And when you impugn the intimacy of the Prime Minister's bed chamber to her face before an audience of thousands, you're not likely to have put up a barnstorming case for yourself as an asset to the radio station. 

Private enterprise may summarily hire and fire you for just about any non-discriminatory reasons. If you go out and get drunk and disgrace the company, you're gone. If you say something that offends half the country, also gone. Companies, businesses and corporations are not bound by the laws of free speech even if  they existed, which they don't.  

In most cases where people are decrying infringement of free speech, there has been no infringement. They're simply indignant that an offensive opinion has drawn such a reaction as to unseat someone from their job when they likely share that opinion. It's really, really easy to defend it when it hasn't even come under attack.

Second of all, Where the hell were you? 

The same people who will stamp their feet about free speech when it suits them are deathly silent when there is an actual case of infringement of freedom of expression. When the police were called to remove Bill Henson's photographs from an art gallery because they offended some patrons, they were unwilling to speak in his defence. When a film is banned for having extremely explicit or controversial content, they are silent.
The skies are cloudy. The seas are choppy. They don't want to get involved with actual free expression issues because, damn it, they aren't sick pervs! And only sick perverts would fight to get a film about Murdersex made available to the Australian public! Or defend artwork containing images of naked children, no matter the artist's long history of integrity. In almost every case, this is how it goes. Content banned for its controversial content doesn't exactly draw a unified chorus of support from regular folks.

But that's not all. 

Free Speech isn't so cut and dry as defending avant-garde cinema from the sensibilities of conservatives. It's also about defending horrid conservatives from the sensibilities of hypersensitive liberal types. 

I'm imagining a lot of people are with me 100% until I mention that Andrew Bolt has been unfairly censored by the government. In one of the only  examples of government intervention of free expression of a journalist in this country, he was found guilty of breaching the racial vilification act, which includes a clause about causing offense to racial groups. 

That clause should not exist, and I'm happy to throw my support behind Bolt. Bolt, who I consider one of the worst people to have existed in the media landscape. Bolt, who I'd love to sit down to a glass of draino with. Bolt, who doesn't deserve a fraction of sympathy. But, unfortunately, Bolt, who deserves to be able to publish his views with the permission of his publisher without being censored by the Government.

The Government does not have a right to legislate against offense. It doesn't get  to determine what is and isn't appropriate for people to write OR read. As long as it isn't illegal, it is publishable. The loophole being that the vilification act is a piece of legislation. A piece of legislation that oversteps the mark to the detriment of us all, including the racial groups that it exists to protect.

In any case, I bring this up because it highlights that you cannot simply be a fair weather sailor on the other side of the fence. I can't just hang about with my left wing mates, espouse my hatred of people's misuse of free speech, and then say 'but because I don't like Andrew Bolt, I'm sure he deserved to be censored'.
He didn't. I have to stand apart from popular opinion because I know it isn't right. I claim the right to say so. You can't stop me. I have an assumed right to freedom of expression.

A right that protects me if I decide to launch into a verbal attack on the most antiquated and draconian of institutions. Which is lucky, because I'm about to do just that.


All material made for mass distribution to the public for entertainment purposes must be classified into one of a few categories: G, PG, M, MA15, R18 and X18 . These categories are meant to be used as a guideline for parents who wish to keep mature content away from their children. This is an admirable goal, and I believe the system is valuable.

But a loophole exists whereby a film or video game may be 'Refused Classification'. That is, the content is deemed so wildly inappropriate  for people under the age of 18 that nobody over the age of 18 may purchase it or view it. A film or game cannot be legally sold or viewed in this country without classification, so refusing it one is as effective a ban as you can get.

This is where the front line of free speech infringement is. It's just a shame that nobody's interested.

The Front Line is Ignored

And here, in the chopping list of films edited and banned for Australian censors. 

And here, in the list of banned video games.

As recently as last week, two video games were refused classification in Australia, which means they are banned from sale. Adults in this country cannot purchase Saints Row 4 and State of Decay, despite the content being perfectly legal.

A decision is being unilaterally made for all adults that they are unable to handle the content of these games. We need not determine for ourselves whether these games or movies are appropriate for our own personal consumption -- we have been unburdened of that responsibility. 

It is a responsibility that we did not give away, and it is one that I do not bequeath to anyone. I do not give the Australian Classification Board permission to rule on what is fit for my precious eyes and ears.  That's the end of it, right there - if it isn't illegal, I get to make the choice.

Except that I don't, because now possessing one of these games or viewing one of these films is a crime. Even if it's just me. On my own.

I'll rephrase: the content of these games and films is not illegal, but the government has declared that no Australian citizen may view or obtain them.

It is a textbook infringement of freedom of expression, and nobody cares .

So? They're Just Video Games

Oh, you did not  just think that. 

If you did, then you're such a fair weather supporter of free speech you're at risk of getting skin cancer. If your mind instantly wandered here, then you aren't just part of the problem. You are  the actual problem. You can't just pick and choose which aspects of life free expression applies to and which aspects it does not. It's not in your interests, and by that I mean your personal interests. You have a personal stake in Saints Row IV, and I'll tell you how.

If you don't want to identify and speak out against the free expression violation made against Saints Row IV, you are tacitly in favour of censorship. That might be fine while it's just these two games and a couple of movies that you've never heard of, but that's an horrifically short sighted way to look at things. 

What about in future, when the censors come to get their hands on something of yours? What are you going to say when they arrive to take it away? You already let them have Saints Row IV. You agreed that they are the ones who get to make the decision about what is appropriate for everyone , including you. Once you've agreed to that, how do you go about taking that responsibility back if you feel the censors have overstepped the mark?

Who are you going to look to for help? If you don't care about video games or films, who do you imagine is going to care about your niche *thing*, whatever it happens to be? Maybe you're a religious person, and the censors are coming to tell you that your holy book offends too many people and must be removed. Maybe you have an alternative point of view about a mainstream issue, and you are being utterly silenced by a government department that won't tolerate anything but the national narrative. Whatever it happens to be, how on earth are you going to convince people that it matters? They sure as hell didn't have a problem with the Saints Row IV thing. 

It's just you, fighting a battle all on your own, trying to have your tiny point of view heard amongst a sea of louder, more indignant voices who just do not understand. 

Well, maybe not just you. I'm there, too. Hi. We're suddenly the best of friends, eh? 

Defending Free Speech, Weather Permitting

How did it get to the stage that free speech is a catch-cry only of the casual racist and the irate shock jock? How did it become that free speech is so ill-defined by most people that it is almost universally misunderstood? Why do people only want to talk about this kind of thing when a newspaper confuses threats on its market share with the fundamental right of all human beings to communicate without government interference?

We have a nation of fair weather free speech crusaders, and that should worry us all. These people cannot be relied on to defend free speech in the event that it actually comes under threat. They're likely not to even notice when it comes under threat.  

I don't know what can be done about it, either. I'd argue for better education and a heightened national awareness of what it means to have freedom of expression, but that will not happen. People don't care. The weather's either so fair that they aren't required to do anything, or so turbulent that they dare not do anything. 

All I can do is ask the fair weather defenders where the hell they were when I wrote this post. The next time I see someone screeching that they can't slander all homosexuals and 'whatever happened to free speech', I'll ask them what they thought of the Saints Row IV debacle. Or if they were outraged about Ken Park.

If you take nothing else from this post, try this: Free Speech is yours. You own it. It cannot be taken from you by the government, that is the nature of it. When someone does attempt to take it away from you, you can and should get angry about that. When someone attempts to take it away from someone else, even if you are in no way affected, you should feel equally as outraged. Even if it isn't your cup of tea. Even if it makes you ill. Even if you abjectly oppose the speech being suppressed.

Just remember, you might be next.

And your decision to stay silent will condemn you. 

Monday, 1 October 2012

Alan Jones, Free Speech and the Things They Have To Do With Each Other

You've all heard it by now. Alan Jones said, whilst unaware that he was being recorded, that the Prime Minister's father died of shame because his daughter is a liar. Disgusting, right?

Most of Australia thinks so.

Most of Australia is happy to tell him so.

Alan Jones himself acknowledged, in his own weaseling way, that what he said was wrong and shouldn't have been said.

Many people were not content with this and began campaigning to have companies that advertise with 2GB pull their sponsorship. If enough of them do, 2GB may be obliged to remove Alan Jones from air lest their station begin losing money faster than it can pay its debts.

At no point did the Government step in and arrest Alan Jones. At no point did the government direct any advertisers to remove their ads from 2GB. At no point will they insist that any advertisers remain at 2GB.

What I have just described is the process of Freedom of Speech and Capitalism working in perfect harmony, exactly the way it should.

There is nothing about what I've said that involves limiting anybody's free speech, nobody has been 'silenced' in any way, and absolutely nothing untoward has occurred with regard to transparency of the legal process or intervention from government agencies.

I can't say it any more clearly.

The system is working perfectly.


Alas, no matter how many times one goes to the effort of pointing out the process of free speech in action, there will always be people lining up ready to completely miss the point. Some examples:

In case anyone has forgotten, free speech is sacred in this country, and Nicola Roxon, Bob Carr and Craig Emerson should certainly look towards their own attitudes....

...the most disturbing thing about the incident is the readiness of government ministers and leftists to attempt to shut down free speech by demanding that 2GB sack him.

If 2GB sacks him, it will be another nail in the coffin of free speech. 

WHETHER or not we like what Alan Jones said, I believe that according to the principles of free speech he had the right to say it... If we were to silence everyone that might make "unacceptable" comments, no one would be able to say anything.

[All excerpts from comments found here].

It can't be said any more clearly. If 2GB decides to sack Alan Jones (which they most likely won't), it will be a commercial decision. That commercial decision will have come about because thousands of people, dissatisfied with the nature of Jones' comments, made their voices heard to the people who have the power to make a difference. The public exercised its freedom of speech right back at Alan Jones, who was exercising his right in the first place.

If Jones is removed from 2GB, it will be an incredible victory for free speech. An example of the system working exactly as it should work. Being told that you're costing a radio station more money than you're making and being shown the door has nothing to do with limiting freedom of speech and everything to do with the commercial nature of the media.

I don't get to say that, because this blog post isn't being broadcast to an audience of thousands by a popular radio station that operates on the basis of profit, that my free speech is being limited. Nor does Alan Jones. Easy, right?

Well apparently not, according to this article. The most telling quote from which is as follows:

The second aspect, which cuts the other way, is the extent to which free speech in Australia remains negotiable against what is deemed acceptable by a political correctness brigade now fortified with social media.

Don't listen to this kind of attitude. Anybody that would discount social media as a single entity with an agenda does not understand social media. Social media is simply a means for thousands of people to exercise their freedom of speech in a way that actually impacts on people such as Alan Jones - something that he, and clearly his listenership and cheer squads, are not used to.

Welcome to the world of real freedom of speech, where everyone has a chance to make their voice heard. Nobody is entitled to 'more' free speech than anyone else. It's not a shield from criticism anymore. If people don't like what you say, they will let you know about it.

And the system will carry on working like it's supposed to.

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

The Hitch-More Principle

This week, a woman committed the unthinkable crime of getting pregnant out of wedlock.

Elsewhere, a man heinously and recklessly supported gay marriage on his facebook page.

In the first case, that woman was a teacher at Caloundra Christian College in Queensland and she lost her job.

In the second, that man was a teacher at a language school for international students and he was arrested on the insinutation that he is a paedophile. Later, it was deemed justified to close down the entire school until it could be purged of his influence.

The cases have two things in common:

a) both involve an employee deemed to be in violation of 'lifestyle agreements' or found to be holding views 'incompatible with their employer', and
b) both employers cite religious freedom as a defense of their incorrigible actions.

Error 404: Tolerance Not Found

Imagine that you turn up to work tomorrow and find that details of your private life have made their way into the hands of your boss. Let's say she has discovered what you did in bed last Saturday night. Whatever that activity was - and be honest with yourselves -, she finds reprehensible. Maybe you were alone and she won't work with socially awkward losers. Maybe you slept side by side with your husband or wife and your boss is a hard line polygamist that will not have monogamy in her organisation. Maybe you shagged a cat and your boss is more of a dog person. Really let your imagination run wild here.

You are shown the door, unceremoniously, to the relief of the people that you, up until moments ago, worked with.

You might, at some point, feel the slightest indignity at your private life being dragged into your working life like this. There is a reason it's called your private life, after all. You're under no obligation, in normal circumstances, to divulge any of this personal information to your employer. I'll put it another way. Whatever you did on Saturday night in your own bed, it's my sincere hope that you weren't fretting over what your boss might say about it on Monday morning. (Unless you were in bed with your boss, in which case, *high five*. I'm sure you were great!)

Such is the case everywhere except for religious institutions - particularly faith schools.

The people that work in these places have to be very wary about what they do in their beds on Saturdays. The tiniest miscalculation about the gender, marital status or religion of the people that they invite there could have real-world consequences between 9 and 5 in a work week.

Jess Davidson - from case 1 - forgot to get the correct paperwork signed before she became pregnant. Fired. Keith Paulusse - from case 2 - accidentally didn't demonise what other people do in their beds on Saturdays. Fired.

The religious nature of these schools require that certain standards be met - infallible standards set down by the one creator of the universe - if one is to teach properly. How on earth are you supposed to deliver a quality lesson on mathematics, for example, when you seem to under the impression that (one baby) plus (one mother) minus (one husband) equals (Acceptable)??

Astute readers will have spotted my sardonic tone by now and will have guessed what I think about all this.

It's all a bit silly, really, isn't it? Silly enough to write a tongue in cheek blog post about, for sure. Enough to make you laugh.

Until I remind myself that this bit of silliness has cost two people their jobs.

Then I get a bit mad.

It reads like a paradox.

"If you don't let us discriminate against anyone we like, you are in fact discriminating against us. And we claim protection from such."

This famous cartoon is so cuttingly correct that I often find it difficult to believe anyone but the most strident theocrat could fail to grasp the message. There seems to be a double standard, does there not? A man's ability to discriminate against whoever he wishes seems to come down to the manner in which he wields his cross.

The response to public outrage in both cases that I'm talking about here has been predictable. The most clear response was given by Principal of Caloundra Christian College, Mark Hodges. I've copied and pasted it here.

"As a Christian college we require all staff have and demonstrate a faith and lifestyle consistent with the Christian beliefs taught here," [Mr Hodges] said.
"These beliefs are set out in college policies and documents, including the agreement under which all staff are employed."
He said these employment processes "are in line with Section 25 of the Anti-Discrimination Act 1991".
And here's the worst part. He's right. Section 25 of the Anti-Discrimination act says that institutions may not discriminate, except when there are...
Genuine occupational requirements
(1) A person may impose genuine occupational requirements for a position.
Examples of genuine requirements for a position—
Example 4—
employing persons of a particular religion to teach in a school established for students of the particular religion.

What a disgusting blight on the Australian legal landscape that we have to suffer such insipid cases of special pleading like this. Worse still, that we are told exceptions like these are in fact morally superior to a system that would not allow a pregnant woman to be dismissed on blatantly discriminatory grounds. I would invite anyone who believes that to kindly examine their definition of the word 'moral'.

Here I go again, inventing terms that probably already exist

It's a testament to Christopher Hitchens that he can still make salient arguments about current events from beyond the grave. That's exactly what happened today as I listened to a speech that he gave in Canada some years ago. In it, he cited this passage from the play and film 'A Man For All Seasons', in which an ambitious prosecutor (Roper) expresses his outrage that Thomas More would give equal protection to everyone under the law.

William Roper: So, now you give the Devil the benefit of law!
Sir Thomas More: Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
William Roper: Yes, I'd cut down every law in England to do that!
Sir Thomas More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned 'round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man's laws, not God's! And if you cut them down, and you're just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake!
A bit literary, I know, but you can read between the lines. The point that Hitchens was making through Thomas More was that the law is a blade that cuts both ways. When you throw out laws that are designed to protect you for whatever your convenience du jour happens to be, you cannot expect the protection of those laws when the situation is reversed.

For the purpose of the post, I'll call it the Hitch-More Principle.

The religious 'freedom to disciminate' seems like the most blatant illustration of the Hitch-More principle you'll ever find.

"You must allow us the freedom to discriminate against others," they say, "or else you are discriminating against us. We claim protection from that discrimination. And what's more, we claim it by the laws you say we are violating."

The words 'your move', and the accompanying slimy smirk, are often left unsaid but very much understood.

If I'm trying to make a point in this post, let it be this: that claim is fallacious. It is wrong. The confidence and smarmy satisfaction with which that argument is offered is completely unfounded. The religious institutions that make this claim cannot be allowed to continue thinking it is perfectly valid, because while they do people are losing their jobs and livelihoods. And did I mention, they're wrong?

It's time these institutions realised that what they are really facing is the devil, turned 'round on them.

One may not discard the fundamentals of anti-discrimination so readily - so piously - in the way that religious institutions do and then expect to be protected by them. You can't smash the windows out of anti-discrimination law and then complain when a cold wind chills you! You want to discriminate against gays, women, single mothers, other religions? Then answer this: Who will you look to for protection when one of those groups finds traction and opposes you? Historically speaking, it's inevitable.

This is the Hitch-More principle. If you don't abide by the law, don't expect protection from it. The respect that one accords a law ought to dictate how that law is, in turn, applied back to them. Nothing so repugnant as a 'freedom to discriminate' should exist without it's corollary - a freedom for others to discriminate against you. And yet here we are. Two Thousand and Twelve. In Australia.

Turning out pregnant women for being pregnant. With the full endorsement of law.

Mind what you do in bed this Saturday night, lest you wind up jobless on Monday.

If you'd like to read more about the case of Jess Davidson, Chrys Stevenson is well across the issue over at Gladly, the Cross-Eyed Bear.

You can also 'Like' the I Support Miss Jess page on Facebook if you're of a mind to stir some outrage.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Subject Zedding

Criticism of the 2012 Global Atheist Convention has been, on the whole, pretty mild. Most of it has come from commentators who werent there, which is a benign sneer that one is kind of obliged to find adorable. Dave the Happy Singer tweeted a lovely, punchy comment about it:

So naww, thanks everyone that didn't go because 'lol, celebrating belief in nothing? RIGHTO THEN!'. You've made your point. Thinking too long about things hurts your brain.

I did, however, come across a few articles from convention goers who have bothered to blog about their experiences. They ranged from those that seemed to make a genuine effort to understand to those that were just looking for an excuse to put the words 'So-Called' in front of terms like 'Freethinking' as many times as they could. And then, there was 'Daniel Survives'.

Please, go ahead and read it. It's ... beautiful, in its own way. It is a piece that really shows off David Palmer's Academics Degree from the Presbyterian Academic Academy of Academics, majoring in Academia. Something that none of us Atheists can boast, because, as he quite rightly takes note, there is ...

Certainly no Richard Dawkins Atheist Academic Academy. -- David Palmer, OnLine Opinion, 2012.
Criticism of something like the Atheist Convention comes in two forms. The first is honest, well-reasoned disagreement with the content of that convention. That's something that any atheist, freethinker or skeptic will gladly accept and spiritedly debate with literally anybody that wanted to. This kind of criticism is welcome, and not only welcome, but welcome in italics. When an article says 'Lawrence Krauss was interesting but here's a counter argument', then fine

The second kind of criticism is what this blog post is all about. I'm in a bit of a unique position in that I've come across it before in other sectors of life, so I'm fairly confident that I can recognise it when I see it. This kind of criticism involves building up a false notion of the thing that you'd really like to criticise and then blaming it for not filling your expectations. It's a deceptively reasonable-sounding form of criticism, too, in that it asks seemingly reasonable questions about the responsibilities and priorities of an interest group. The trouble is, those responsibilities and priorities are the domain of other groups, not the one being criticised. The formula looks a bit like this:

'Why does Group A always talk about Subject A? Why don't they ever mention Subject Z?'

From here on out, I'll call it Subject Z Criticism, and I'll try to give some examples.

A friend of mine, while doing her PhD, spent two hours in a classroom arguing about queer rights with her fellow doctoral candidates. The mood was generally supportive, she assures me, and consensus was made on several topics. One of the criticisms that they all universally arrived at of the queer movement was that, while their cause was just, they spent a lot of time talking about queer issues and not so much time talking about other important things, like climate change or whatnot.

Being a gay gent myself, this is a criticism I've heard before, and it is a prime example of Subject Z Criticism. I've actually written about it before in this post titled 'The two most irksome objections to gay marriage that even intelligent people make'.

The logical flaw with this argument is apparent after only a few seconds of thinking, but those few seconds are very rarely ever invested because the original criticism sounds so reasonable.

People involved in the Queer Movement do talk about other things, like climate change, like asylum seekers, like atheism, all the time. It's just that when they do, they're not a part of the queer movement any more. They're a part of the green movement, or the industrialist movement, or the new atheist movement. One is not obliged to declare 'I'm queer and I'm here to save the whales', one needs merely to declare 'Save the Whales'.

Asking those involved with the Queer Movement why they don't do more to stop Climate Change is Subject Z Criticism. 'You focus too much on Queer issues, why don't you concentrate on Subject Z instead.' The essence of Subject Z Criticism is a bait and switch to make a group look like it is self-centred, arrogant, or selfish. It is to declare that a focus group should feel bad for focusing on the very thing it is centred around.

Think about it. One does not approach the Breast Cancer Trials Group and say 'You know, you guys are always banging on about breast cancer. It's like you don't even care about the carbon tax.'. Nothing says that a person can't be an advocate of Breast Cancer Awareness and be concerned/supportive of the carbon tax.

All those people at that huge youth music festival over there? Why the hell aren't they developing solutions to the housing crisis? Shut down that damn music festival right now. I can't believe alt rock fans hate the homeless so much. What's the world coming to?

Group A was formed to focus on Subject A. It would be freakin' weird if they spent a bunch of time talking about Subject Z.

The only thing to be said for Subject Z Criticism is that it means that the criticiser can't really find much wrong with what you're doing. All they want to talk about is what you're not doing as though that were some kind of indictment against the fact that you belong to that group in the first place.

Atheist Conventions - and atheism in general - is a rife target for Subject Zedding. Here's a quote from the 'Daniel Survives' article:

      The point I want to make on the evidence of what I heard at the Convention is that Atheists are not morally serious. Atheists judge their goodness in terms of their support for human rights, i.e. other people held at a distance. So they support things like the feminist cause, equality for homosexuals, they are against racism, they are for the Palestinians but against Israel, and so on.
      But what did they have to say about the issues that touch people closer to home. In the 1960’s we had the cultural revolution which brought with it cohabitation, no fault divorce, freely available abortion, all generally to the disadvantage of women and their children. We live in a society today with multiple broken relationships, failed marriages, children being fought over, boys without fathers modelling what it is to grow into manhood. We have unprecedented crime levels so that we lock doors, install alarm systems, drive children to and from school, install cameras on trains and in shopping malls, every public space covered in graffiti.
      Did the Atheist Convention address any of these issues?
      Did we hear of the philanthropic interests of Atheists? Well, we did hear of a school for 200 students in Uganda, but that was it. Certainly no Richard Dawkins Atheist Academic Academy.
First up, you need to forgive a number of flaws in these paragraphs before we can continue. I don't know any two atheists, for example, that agree precisely on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. The list of 'closer to home' issues that the author is so very worried about is entirely unsupported and subjective (in fact, all evidence indicates that we are living in the safest and most secure time in human history, ever). And of course, Richard Dawkins does have an entire philanthropic foundation (that, it was mentioned, raised over half a million pounds for Haiti after their troubles there). Does it go without saying that 'Academic Academy' is a tautology? I hope it does.

Once you get beyond all of that, you can see that we're dealing with a clear case of Subject Zedding here. Nobody at the atheist convention mentioned the problem with graffiti on public surfaces, ergo atheists are not morally serious. That is the way of it from just about every source. We didn't deal with the specific issues that one commentator had imagined we should, hence the Global Atheist Convention proves that atheists are not morally serious.

This year, I went out with a bag on Clean Up Australia day and cleared away rubbish from a park near my home. If there had been a graffiti clearing task force on that day, I'd have happily joined it. I would not have taken the time to explain to the organisers of that task force that I was doing this because I am an atheist, and I want it known that my efforts vindicate the morality of all godless folk everywhere.

Then again, even if I had, that would just mean that the queer movement didn't take public order and cleanliness seriously, wouldn't it?

Readers, don't ever fall for Subject Z Criticism. It's not a good argument. It's not even a bad argument, it's just a false attribution of responsibility. If you're doling it out, I will call you silly.

It's fine to criticise things, but please have a care to do it in a way that is defensible. That's the beauty of criticism - it gives you a chance to respond, refine and prove your argument in the face of contrary evidence. The entire Global Atheist Convention was a celebration of that principle. Fight us on the issues at hand, don't invent ones that are beyond the mandate of the group and judge us on our failure to deal with them. We aren't psychic, after all.

Nobody is.