She said I’m going use my teeth and my claws… An open letter to @marrowing

Dear Eleanor,

How are you?  If you are well, then I am also well.

Congratulations on your excellent article in The Guardian on intersectionality.  It was a joy to read and, at the very least, has stirred up an interesting conversation.

This has been an open letter a few weeks in the making.  Indeed, the first outline started shortly after drinks here in Canberra.  As it seemed that I’d disturbed Adam somewhat with an open letter to him, I figured I’d be more careful in the composition of this one.  Despite the failure of that one to hit its mark, I still think that the format can be used for the powers of good.

After a few rounds of thought, your article in The Guardian — or, rather, the comments you received in response — inspired a bit more thinking about the question of academic feminism and the prevailing attitude in society that feminism is something that is supposed to be easy.

Continue reading “She said I’m going use my teeth and my claws… An open letter to @marrowing”

Don’t you ever say I just walked away… Celebrity endorsements of the feminist brand

As a young conservative, I’m not sure that anybody cares — or should care, for that matter — about my views on feminism.  Back in 2011, I wrote that men can’t be feminists:

There’s no way for a guy to not think like a guy.  We’ve been socialised to do it.  Feminism requires non-guy thinking.  It’s the external critique to show us that the things we think are ‘normal’ or ‘obvious’ or ‘default rational’ aren’t.  That critique, that discourse, can’t happen if we’re on both sides of the fence. […]  Guys can’t be feminists.  Not really, at least, because merely by interacting with the world, we’re taking advantage of all the privileges we don’t need to acknowledge.  We won’t understand what it’s like to be women and, frankly, the guys who describe themselves as feminists are sort of pretending that they do.

The word ‘feminist’ occupies a strange space in (male) popular language, along with ‘communist’ and ‘socialist’.  It’s a pejorative.  Feminists are those transgressive individuals who don’t really fit into (male) society and are a nuisance and you need to be careful what you say around them or you’ll get sued.

This framing of feminism seems to be the pervasive assumption behind M&C Saatchi’s ‘The Modern (Aussie) Man White Paper‘ released this week as part of the Peter Dutton-endorsed ‘International Men’s Day’.

Stepping around the feminist minefield that stops academics, politicians and everyday men from saying what they really think, this research says what every man is thinking. Through their words and perceptions.

It is unsurprising that many people do not feel comfortable self-identifying as feminist.  If the goal in life is to be social, happy, and loved by a guy, what incentive is there to make people suspect that you’re disruptive and threatening to men?

Continue reading “Don’t you ever say I just walked away… Celebrity endorsements of the feminist brand”

Still you feed us lies from the tablecloth… On privilege by the privileged

Discussing privilege is probably one of the most difficult conversations currently in play.  It’s highly emotive.  It’s extremely personal.  It’s one of those conversations which strikes right at some fundamental aspects of society, and it’s therefore threatening and discomforting.

Human society only works because we hold various assumptions in common, assumptions which it is socially unacceptable to challenge or question.  The differences between societies can often be understood in terms of those assumptions.  We are a society which assumes that people have inherent rights and people are entitled to particular things.  We came from a society which assumed that monarchs were cosmologically necessitated.  That followed from a society which was highly legalistic and dedicated to tradition.  And so on and so forth.

What we note is that these foundation assumptions are often a kind of fiction — in the sense of culturally constructed narrative, the opposite of veridical fact. The word ‘fiction’ is problematic; we often think it means ‘false’ or ‘fake’ or ‘unimportant’.  We also tend to suspect that anybody who discusses ‘culturally constructed narratives’ and ‘fictions’ is afflicted with post-modernity.

It is in this way that we can start to discuss privilege.  As a straight white guy, I can ‘win’ these discussions in two ways.  First, I can simply refuse to engage with them.  Somebody’s saying something that makes me uncomfortable?  I can ignore them.  I have the ability to pick and choose conversations which suit me in a way that marginalised people can’t.  More than that, I can instigate conversations to an increased degree than marginalised people can’t.

Second, I can further marginalise people who try to raise these conversations.  Are you saying something which confronts my intuitions about the world?  I’ll mock you and make you a figure of ridicule rather than engage with your ideas.  Checkmate, Holmes.

I’m usually more guilty of the former than the latter for quite a sad reason: I am increasingly disgusted by people who mock intelligent people.  Douglas Adams wrote about feeling betrayed by comedians who mocked intelligent people: the comedian quipped that they should make aeroplanes out of the same material with which they made black boxes.  While the audience laughed, Adams knew the reason was because the material from which they made black boxes wasn’t light enough to make aeroplanes:

I began to pick at the joke. What if Eric Morecambe had said it? Would it be funny then? Well, not quite, because that would have relied on the audience seeing that Eric was being dumb — in other words, having as a matter of common knowledge the relative weights of titanium and aluminium. There was no way of deconstructing the joke (if you think this is obsessive behaviour, you should try living with it) that didn’t rely on the teller and the audience complacently conspiring together to jeer at someone who knew more than they did. [Source: The Salmon of Doubt, quoted here]

One of Douglas Adams’ heroes, Richard Dawkins, uses this approach regularly.  When he doesn’t understand something, he mocks it — and then admonishes people for mocking things that they don’t understand.

Don’t get me wrong.  If somebody is saying something stupid, I’m usually first in line with the sharpest invective.  But there’s a difference between ‘saying something stupid’ and ‘saying something with which I disagree’.

Another aspect of this is the (mis)use of terms to marginalise.  A person who tries to challenge social ‘fictions’ and ‘narratives’ might not be post modernist, but the slack jawed positivist can deploy the term to shut down the discussion: ‘That’s just post modernist nonsense.’  We see the same thing with the word ‘feminist’ (or, if the person doesn’t want to seem sexist or whatever, will refer to it as ‘[adjective] feminist’: they have nothing against feminism, per se; they just don’t think that there’s any merit to radical feminism, or third wave feminism, or lesbian feminism, or adjective feminism).

But am I any better by simply refusing to engage with ideas?  I have some friends and acquaintances who are extremely passionate about these issues.  I, on the other hand, am extremely conservative and have a manner which tends to make people feel patronised (both are — I understand — hideous flaws).  Instead of engaging with them on the subject, I have the option to stay quiet and move the conversation to less contentious grounds — and it’s the option I usually take.  Although I love a good argument, those conversations are just too difficult and too personal.  Too emotional and too confrontational.  They are discussions that matter and I have a hard and fast rule of only digging into esoteric, academic, pointless debates.  Thus, manners and civility kick in and we go back to ‘socially appropriate’ conversation.

I characterise this approach as ‘debating on my terms’.  We can only have the debate if I — the straight white male in the room — feel comfortable during the discussion.  It’s a dynamic problem.  The conversations can only take place if the privileged people feel uncomfortable, but we are taught from a very young age not to make people feel uncomfortable.  When we’re taught to mediate problems, for example, we are told to ensure both parties feel comfortable.  We take the confrontation out of the dispute.  But these conversations rely on confrontation and they are, by nature, confrontational.  The person who wants to question the ‘rules’ of social engagement can only do so by breaking the ‘rules’ being questioned.

Thus, no dialectic.

More than that, it affects the discussion in other ways.  Morons are more likely to mock and marginalise because they’re oblivious to how stupid they look (cf. Dawkins).  The people who are most likely to respond to the confrontational conversation are those who appear to get some kind of sexual gratification from confrontation: trolls. Advocates of the discussion learn to associate any disagreement with them as trolling, reducing the likelihood of the non-trolls engaging with the discussion.  Most advocates have a lot of practice dealing with trolls, but not a lot of practice in dealing with non-trolltastic opposition.  Further, the advocates of the conversation are not immune to infestations of bozos either (it’s a sad truth that conservatives don’t have a monopoly on nitwittery).  Thus, the loudest conversations end up being between people who have a vested interest in increasing the conflict and people who have no way to cope with the conflict.  Everybody else is left rubbernecking the resultant trainwreck.

We could talk about this in terms of ‘reward’: for me — a person who could, I imagine with more than a waft of hubris, participate in that conversation — there is no reward for entering into those conversations.  Unfortunately, this looks an awful lot like: ‘Poor straight white guy isn’t getting a cookie for doing the right thing.’

But it’s a bit more than that.  If I participate in good faith, I run the risk of looking like a troll (because only trolls disagree with the advocates) or (worse, from my perspective) I run the risk of legitimising the trolls.  This is one of the reasons why I’m invariably more vitriolic towards people who agree with me but use stupid arguments to get to my conclusion (see my interaction with Internet atheists, for a classic example).  If I shut down the morons on my side of the fence first, it’s easier to demonstrate that I’m not legitimising their imbecility.  Perhaps it’s self interested?  I look better if everybody who agrees with me used a good argument to come to their conclusion.

But it’s even easier to not engage at all.  Do I undertake those risks, or do I just continue to live in my little privilege-bubble where I avoid criticism?  A battle avoided cannot be lost, after all.  And thus we’re back at the start.

I’m not even sure what the solution is.  A few people have asserted that the only correct response from the conservative sector is to just shut up and listen.  Although I’m in a position of privilege, I think this approach means that the ideas being floated aren’t being tested adequately if one side of the conversation is just passive.  There are attendant problems with this position, of course, but they’re problems to be negotiated rather than avoided.  Further, if the idea is to get the privileged side of the conversation to adopt the narrative of the radical side of the conversation, ‘Shut up and listen’ won’t facilitate that.

But reaction, which is what conservatives do best, isn’t an adequate response either.  Many people — most people — seem to think that the opposite of ‘shut up and listen’ is ‘bark maniacally’.  Reaction isn’t engagement, it’s just an autonomic response.

For those of us on the conservative side of the fence who aren’t brain dead, it’s difficult to know how to respond.  We need to get the weed whacker out on the loudest noises gushing out from our side of the fence, while simultaneously mounting an intellectually credible response to the challenges presented.  Until we get that response right, do we continue to marginalise the conversation by refusing to engage?  I really don’t know.

Let’s raise the bar and our cups to the stars… Why Disney Villains are better role models

While most of Gawker media’s outlets have deteriorated significantly in quality (I’m especially looking at you, io9 — although I still swoon over Esther’s articles), Jezebel is still worth reading.  On Saturday, they posted an article, ‘Screw Princesses — Disney Villains Are the Real Role Models‘.

Princesses are usually defined by their sexuality and fascination with pretty objects and cute baby animals. White Disney princesses wear puffy gowns with petticoats (Snow White, Belle, Cinderella, Aurora) and non-white princesses dress the same way sorority girls do for questionably-themed parties. (Jasmine, Pocahontas, even, to a lesser extent, Mulan.) I didn’t want to be saved; I wanted to drive the plot rather than be pushed into a happy ending.

So instead, I was fascinated by villains, particularly Maleficent, the self-proclaimed Mistress of All Evil. She’s cunning, she’s ruthless, and she has a sick wardrobe. Not to mention: DRAGONS. Maleficent demands respect, and I expected the same, which is why, as a four year old, I refused to answer to anything other than “Maleficent” for months. [Source: Baker, ‘Screw Princesses — Disney Villains Are the Real Role Models‘, Jezebel]

The article is great and discusses the Baker’s (the author) desire to grow up like a Disney villain instead of a Disney princess.  It’s great stuff.

But it also got me thinking.  Having had quite a bit of practice at reading waaaaay too much into things and a lifetime of mansplaining, I thought: ‘Why do we see the villains as villains in these movies?’

You might respond: ‘Mark, old buddy, there’s no extra level of meaning here.  Grimhilde tries to kill Snow White.  Maleficent tries to kill Sleeping Beauty.  Ursula tries to turn people into wormy things.  These characters are evil because they do bad things.  Open and shut.  Get back to doing real things.’

But I think you’re wrong.  You sort of knew that Grimhilde was evil long before she went all ‘Time to eat Snow White’s heart!’  Maleficent is clearly the villain of the play from the second she appears in an explosion of green smoke, long before she gave Aurora a pretty shitty birthday gift.  While Ursula is a bit more of the ‘Muahaha, I’m evil!’ type of villain, her big crime isn’t that sinister: allowing Ariel to enter into a contract when she’s clearly a minor.

I clang on a lot about the necessary laziness of storytellers.  For folklore and fairytales, you sometimes need shortcuts to point out to the audience who is the evildoer.  All too often, this requires the audience to fill in the blanks with their prejudices.

Thus, in an underwater world of slender Caucasian women, Ursula is clearly the enemy because she has darker colours and a BMI greater than 18.5.  Although having tentacles and two nasty looking eels doesn’t help her win friends, her legalism is also a sort of unnatural evil.  Resorting to contracts and legal negotiations is no place for a woman — even one with tentacles and ugly eels.  Women should be interested in thingamabobs, whozits and whatzits galore.  The final demonstration of her evil is that she wants King Triton’s symbol of power — the Trident.

And why freaking not?  Nowhere in The Little Mermaid does Triton explain why he’s the rightful ruler of his soggy kingdom.  But we take it on trust that he’s correct; after all, Ursula has darker colours, is a woman, and is a darker fat woman.

Maleficient also struggles against conceptions of the correct colour skin, but also against the idea of how women should behave.  Here are the fairy godmothers:

Sleeping Beauty movie image Walt Disney

Pinkish skin.  Pastel colours.  Not at all sexually intimidating.  Compare and contrast with Maleficent:

sleeping-beauty-disney-movie-image-maleficentA very different picture.  Green skin.  Black clothes.  Menacing looking bird for good measure.

The plot of Sleeping Beauty links again with these ideas of a woman being evil if she moves outside her designated space.  Sure, cursing an infant to die on her sixteenth birthday is a bit of a jerk move, but compare her with the heroine of the story, Aurora, and you start to wonder if Maleficent wasn’t doing her a favour.  Aurora is betrothed to some boneheaded prince for the purpose of uniting a kingdom which, for all you know, has a policy of stomping on kittens.  The movie plays on our intuition that unified kingdoms are Good Things and anything which jeopardises that Good Thing is a Bad Thing.

In seriousness, why do we think the kingdom is so great that an arranged marriage is necessarily a good thing?  Because the non-threatening little women in the pastel colours are in its favour?  They are here in support of the arranged marriage.  Their gifts are to be pretty and have a great singing voice.  These are hardly the feminist icons or progressive philosophers.

Maleficent is clearly a utilitarian, viewing the removal of one person (the infant) as a necessary step in dismantling this insane feudalistic backwater where women are property to be traded for geopolitics.  That, of course, is really why she is evil: she sees Aurora as a means to an end rather than as an end in herself, and all consequentialists are evil or ignorant when you think about it, and Maleficent does not seem ignorant.

But back to the comparison with Aurora.  Maleficent has awesome powers.  Aurora is pretty.  Maleficent has ambitions.  Aurora wants to fall in love.  Maleficent gets shit done.  Aurora falls asleep and is awoken by a sufficiently aristocratic suitor.

But Grimhilde from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves was the first and set the template.  All Grimhilde needed to do was look in a mirror and we knew she was evil.


Where Maleficent was all about breaking down the power structures of an oppressive kingdom, Grimhilde is in the position of tyrant (implied to be an illegitimate hold on the power).  In many ways reflecting the attitude of some women in senior positions towards younger women, Grimhilde is trying to kill off competition.  Even before she gets out the box and hires a woodsman, Grimhilde is considered vain, has the trappings of power, and — most importantly — is not in the company of men.  Snow White, in comparison, sings about finding true love, hangs out with cute animals, and ends up hanging out with seven men as their maid.

This gets us back to the Jezebel article:

Villains are goal-oriented, while princesses are content with a puffball dress and Ken doll beau. Villains don’t put virginal love on a pedestal. One could even argue that villains provide an opportunity to teach your children about making the right choices. (For example, don’t be covetous/kill Dalmatians. Also, chill out if you don’t get invited to a party! That was Maleficent’s chief issue, which I’ll admit is a tad superficial, although I’ll argue that there’s way more going on beneath the surface. And DRAGONS.)

Princesses are only princesses because of who their parents are or the man they marry. Villains don’t get it that easy. Villains shape their own lives. [Ibid.]

Looking at these three examples and seeing the similarities: they are transgressive characters, they are active participants in their story arc, they happily trash gender norms when it suits them, and happily utilise them when it suits (further, they have three entirely different understandings of attractiveness).  More than anything else, they are intelligent — much more intelligent than anybody else in their films.  If I had a daughter, these are the sorts of traits that I wish she’d emulate — not the vapidity and vacuity of the protagonists.

I’d tell my daughter: ‘They’re not considered evil because they do bad things.  They’re considered evil because ordinary — very ordinary — people don’t like women being anything other than mediocre.’

I’d hide the spinning wheels, though.

I recoil in horror from the foulness of thee… Why Dawkins is wrong on #abortion #atheism

Head.  Desk.

It must be really difficult to be Richard Dawkins.  Each morning, he wakes up absolutely certain of things.  He is absolutely certain that the world around him is real and that anything for which he cannot find empirical evidence is not.  He is absolutely certain that only verifiable statements have truth values (except, of course, for the statement: ‘Only verifiable statements have truth values’ but that would just be obscurantist philosophers being silly).  He is absolutely certain that there’s a thing called secularism and that you need only be a wealthy, white, straight male in order to distinguish the secular from the religious.  He is absolutely certain that there’s nothing racist about hating on Muslims, nothing misogynist about excluding female perspectives if they do not accord with ‘strict logic’, and nothing to be gained in exploring the social sciences of hard sciences.  You theists should only engage with the best available science, but if you ask Dawkins to engage with the best available theology, you are mocked.

Of course, all of this assumes that Dawkins is even aware of the intellectual quagmire into which he’s been sinking for the better part of a decade.

Increasingly, I wonder if I have given Dawkins too much of the benefit of the doubt.  He recently took to Twitter to mansplain abortion to everybody and, well…

It didn’t go so well.

As is usual, the appropriate opening: I am pro-death.  I think that women have complete control over their bodies all the way through the process and there is no legal justification in protecting the baby from the mother at any point.  Late term abortions?  Go for it.

I am very much wedded to virtue ethics, spiced with a bit of good old fashioned Kantianism.  Morality is objectively true.  &c., &c.

Now let’s get to Dawkins.

With respect to those meanings of “human” that are relevant to the morality of abortion, any fetus is less human than an adult pig.

Oh…  Okay…  Whut?!

This makes absolutely zero sense.  Part of this suggests that there’s a spectrum upon which something might be considered ‘human’ and, upon this spectrum, is an equivalent position where one would find an adult pig.  Which spectrum is this?  Where does one find a copy of this spectrum?

Any sensible person would say that a pig is not at all human, yet a foetus is at least something like a human.  ‘At least something like a human’ is more human than ‘not at all a human’.

Dawkins (as we will see in a moment) is playing obscurantist word games with the word ‘morality’.  The definition of ‘human’ in his tweet is not a biological definition, but a moral definition.  Is there a moral definition of ‘human’?  No.  There’s a moral definition of ‘person’, but that wouldn’t be as trolltastic and Dawkins is nothing if not an attention-seeker.

The other word to look at here is ‘any’.  Any foetus is less (morally) human than an adult pig.  Dawkins will quickly back away from this claim into a weirdly pro-life position.

“Human” features relevant to the morality of abortion include ability to feel pain, fear etc & to be mourned by others.

Remember the word ‘any’ in his first tweet?  We are fairly certain that late term foetus are capable of feeling pain and fear.  When they are miscarried, they are mourned.  So we know of some foetus who are ‘more human’ (seriously, what?) than an adult pig.

But from where is Dawkins pulling this definition?  Why are those features relevant to being ‘morally human’?

The answer: Dawkins has stacked the deck.  We know medical conditions where people are incapable of feeling pain (CIPA) or sensing fear (certain damage to the brain).  But Dawkins doesn’t want a free-for-all on those people with atypical neural processes, so he includes the backdoor argument of ‘to be mourned by others’.  What this does is connect the individual to the social community.  You are ‘morally human’ if somebody will mourn your death.

Crazily enough, this opens the door to all kinds of vegan weirdness.  ‘My cow can sense pain, fear, and will be mourned by me.  It’s unethical to eat cows.’

Dawkins starts to suspect he’s burying himself in crazy, so sends in more crazy trains as cover.  First, he tweets a strawman about miscarriage.  It’s a nonsense tweet.  Then he brings out the big gun:

Yes, anything can be mourned.  If you are going to mourn your fetus, you are free not to have an abortion.

Mansplained like a boss, yo.  ‘You are only free to have an abortion if you are not in any way emotionally connected to the foetus.’

There’s an obvious counter example.  I think it’s morally permissible to abort a foetus if the child is disabled.  I can imagine being in a horrible situation where my partner is faced with the choice of keeping a foetus to whom she has grown extremely fond and of aborting the foetus because she does not believe it’s ethically correct to give birth to a child who will suffer the disability.  Dawkins is telling her that she is not free to have an abortion if she’s going to mourn it.

We should stop here for a moment.  I think Dawkins has half understood a conversation he’s had with A.C. Grayling and is trying to repeat it.  Dawkins’ buffoonish attempt to construct an argument really does sound like an undergraduate at the pub trying to appropriate their lecturer’s words.  Dawkins has not presented even a remotely sane argument here.

Further, it says nothing about duty to protect which Dawkins himself has used on a number of occasions in his theodicy: ‘God could prevent a murder but He does nothing to stop it.  Therefore, God is not omnipotent or God is evil.  Therefore, God doesn’t exist.’  Dawkins can’t pull that munted rabbit out of the hat and then abort it the second it’s inconvenient.  What is the moral duty of the community to prevent murders?  If we know that a murder is going to happen, do we have an obligation to do something to prevent it?  This is a problem for Dawkins (and not for me) because Dawkins has said that preventing a murder when you can is intuitively a moral obligation but wants to turn the act of abortion into a private matter between a woman and her foetus.  If you are pro-life, you are not just pro-life for your own foetus; you are pro-life because you think that all foetus deserve protection.

Back to Dawkins’ tweets:

My criterion for “relevant to morality of abortion” is standard consequentialist morality.  Opponents follow absolutist morality.  Simple.

The opposite of ‘consequentialist’ is not ‘absolutist’.  Dawkins is attempting to smear opponents: ‘Oh, you’re just an absolutist.  My absolute nonsense is anti-absolutionism.’

Further, it’s not ‘standard consequentialist morality’.  If that denotes anything, it denotes ‘rule consequentialism‘ which Dawkins has not described.

First, ‘human’ is not a moral category so ‘my definition is standard consequentialist morality’ is completely nonsensical.  It’s like somebody saying: ‘My definition of “tennis” is standard quantum physics.’

Second, we’ve already seen why it wouldn’t be ‘standard’ consequentialist morality.  Although I think consequentialists are incorrect, I don’t think consequentialists are stupid.  Dawkins’ criteria are stupid.

Worse, a non-absolutist consequentialism can result in a pro-life stance.  Indeed, a lot of pro-life arguments are consequentialist, examining the overall utility and good in protecting defenseless foetus against being terminated.  We see this often: ‘Abortion stops the foetus from maximally enjoying their life.’  No absolutism needed.

Confusingly, Dawkins’ argument relies on an absolutist definition of ‘human’ (by which we should all think he means ‘person’).  A human is a creature which can feel pain, experience fear, and will be mourned by others.  Why are these the criteria?  Because Dawkins is using an absolutist definition of human/person.

The next dozen tweets or so are old man crazy ranting.  He returns to the land of coherency with this strange nugget:

Unlike many pro-choice friends, I think that fetal pain could outweigh woman’s right to control her own body.  But pig pain matters too.


Dawkins’ argument is contingent on our understanding of foetal pain not changing.  If we discover that you don’t need brains in order to feel pain — or, rather, if we discover that you don’t need a brain in order to feel pain on the same level as an adult pig… wtf — then Dawkins’ batshit argument leaves open the door for abortion to be morally impermissible.  Further, Dawkins’ argument explictly excludes the right of a woman to have a late term abortion, which is cray-cray.

A woman is eight months pregnant.  She is in a loving relationship with a man whom she intends to raise the child.  A freak accident results in his death and she has a severe mental breakdown.  It is flatly immoral to say to the woman that she cannot terminate the pregnancy just because Richard Dawkins thinks that the foetus’ ‘pain’ outweighs the mother’s quality of life.

Any good argument in favour of abortion will not be contingent on quirks.  We simply do not know how a pig experiences pain.  We don’t know what it’s like to be a pig.  We hazard a guess that the experience is similar to our own, but there’s no real evidence that it is.  You can’t see subjective experience on a brain scan.  An adult pig might experience fear and pain in ways far beyond our own capacity — it would be odd if Dawkins thought that this meant it was okay to start killing other people willy nilly.

In short, he doesn’t know.  He’s making it up.

But it sounds sort of sciencey.  Like ‘evolutionary psychology’, it has all the right words there to make you feel like this is a rational argument.  ‘Yeah, I’d eat pigs.  Pigs are less morally human than me.  Foetus are less morally human than pigs.  Abortions are great.’  But there’s no coherence to the argument.  How could something be ‘less morally human’?  Why do pain, fear, and ability to be mourned matter?  Why is it a private affair and not something which should concern the moral community?  Why do women lose control of their bodies?  Dawkins doesn’t have an answer to any of this because Dawkins hasn’t really thought about it.  This is him looking at the world and deciding that whatever he intuits must be factual.  You know, like a lay-theist does when they look at the world and see that it’s ‘designed’.

In conclusion, pop-atheists really need some new role models.

Quick Post: No, seriously… What is this ‘Open Letter’? #atheism #misogyny #wtf #racism

I’m writing up a post on another issue and happened to come across this ‘open letter from the secular community‘.

Long story short, pop-atheism has a serious problem smack bang in the middle of the ‘movement’ (in the bowel sense).  Because pop-atheism relies so heavily on intuition and the assertion of a particular viewpoint as the default rational perspective, it absolutely cannot deal with the concept of plurality.  Plurality is anathema to pop-atheism.  There’s One True Rationality, One True Logic, and, therefore, One True Culture — a secular culture.

But nobody can work out what a secular culture is, so we get ‘Take our current culture and delete anywhere it says the word “God”‘.

Feminist philosophers, of course, have a lot to say about this sort of buffoonish stupidity.  Even the fundamental concepts which pop-atheists consider default rational: the building blocks of logic, for example, aren’t value-neutral.  When this is pointed out, a lot of very angry white guys who are pathologically incapable of grappling with criticism lash out.  Pop-atheism is openly misogynistic and definitely not a safe space for anybody who’s a white guy.  I’ve been in face-to-face conversations with pop-atheists where I have been very fortunate to have several thousand years of privilege behind me — it’s much harder to shout down somebody who is quite accustomed to living in an ivory tower.  I know others from different backgrounds who just straight up refuse to engage with pop-atheists.

Thus we get to the ‘open letter’ which is… strange.

The principle that women and men should have equal rights flows from our core values as a movement. Historically, there has been a close connection between traditional religion and suppression of women, with dogma and superstition providing the rationale for depriving women of fundamental rights. In promoting science and secularism, we are at the same time seeking to secure the dignity of all individuals. We seek not only civil equality for everyone, regardless of sex, but an end to discriminatory social structures and conventions – again often the legacy of our religious heritage—that limit opportunities for both women and men.

Unfortunately, the discussion of these issues has suffered from the same problems that plague online discussion in general—although arguably to a greater extent. Some blogs and comments actually exhibit hatred, including rape threats and insults denigrating women. Hatred has no place in our movement. We unequivocally and unreservedly condemn those who resort to communicating in such a vile and despicable manner.


Here are some things that we plan to do to make our online secular community a place where we can exchange ideas and views instead of insults. We hope that others may also find this approach useful.

Here are some things that we plan to do to make our online secular community a place where we can exchange ideas and views instead of insults. We hope that others may also find this approach useful.


Go offline before going online: pick up the phone. 
When you hear that an organization or member of our community is doing something that you think is wrong or bad for the community, call and talk with them, find out what they are actually doing and why they are doing it. If you don’t have a phone number, send a private email and arrange a time to talk. So much of the time there’s more to the story, and talking to another person on the other side of the issue can help us more fully understand the situation. Plus, a phone call makes it easier for people who are making mistakes to change course, because they aren’t on the defensive as they would be after being called out publicly.

Wait… what?  Just what?  So if you’ve got somebody being a misogynist jackhole, the correct response from the woman being attacked is not to respond with anger, indignation, or any of the other perfectly legitimate responses; she should consider how the jackhole will respond to being criticised.  We need to make the community a safe space for jackholes.

Dial down the drama.
It’s tempting to overuse inflammatory and derogatory rhetoric. It gets attention. We should be cautious about using this tactic within our community because of the long-term damage it does to relationships and morale. When critiquing people within our community, everyone should remember that our goal is to persuade our allies to see our perspective and modify their opinions. Insults don’t change opinions; they harden them.

There’s some weird definition of ‘insult’ being used here.  If I call somebody a racist jackhole, is that an insult?  What if they are being a racist jackhole?  What if I point out their racism without using the word ‘jackhole’?

As it turns out, insults do change opinions.  Ad hominem (in the sense of ‘insult’) is a powerful and important pedagogic tool.

Help others along.
We should remember that we weren’t born knowing the things we know now. To get to the reasoned conclusions that we’ve reached, we learned by reading, thinking, and talking with others. When we encounter someone espousing a view we think is based on lack of knowledge or experience, we should remember that we have all held ill-informed views. We should cultivate patience and try to educate instead of condemn.

There we go.  Don’t condemn the racist, misogynistic mouthbreathers in the atheist community.  We all need to sit down very patiently and explain to them why being racist, misogynist mouthbreathers is a bad thing.  And if they don’t listen, then we need to try harder.  It is our role to educate these halfwits and to consider how it must feel to be an ignorant spunkerchief.

Importantly, there is no declaration within the letter that the responsibility not to be a turd rests with the turds.  This letter is not about making it a safe space for everybody: it’s to render the natural, sensible, and appropriate response to such cockery as illegitimate.  Pointing out the nasty underbelly of the atheist community is divisive and there’s no room for divisiveness.  It’s similar to Andrew Bolt’s: ‘People of colour are being divisive when they declare that they are people of colour.’

Seriously.  These pop-atheists are just the worst people.

That is my reasoned conclusion.

The birds and the bees they hum along… Should @FemFreq mention female-positive games for ‘balance’? (Answer: No).

Feminist Frequency was the subject of a disappointing Kickstarter drama last year.  Wanting to produce a series of analytical videos about gender issues in video games, Anita Sarkeesian began a Kickstarter campaign to bankroll it.  Of course, a large fraction of the gaming community can’t handle the thought of women expressing views about gender, so the Kickstarter drama was more about the influx of trolls rather than the subject of women in gaming.

Fortunately, the drama might draw attention to her videos which (despite some tiny quibbles about presentation) are first class.  Here’s the first episode:

The reaction from the gaming community was predictable.  ‘Silly girl with your HARDCORE feminist friends, you have completely ignored all the examples of positive role models for girls in video games!’  Indeed, so common was the response that a friend of mine (an avid gamer) even threw down this magic card, using the word ‘balance’ to justify the position.

The view seems to be that the only way to tell if women are objectified by video games is to list all the games which objectify women and all the games which don’t — if the Good List is longer than the Bad List, then there’s no problem in the gaming community.

This is a rubbish view for two reasons.

The first is obvious: we shouldn’t be ‘balancing’ the two lists to determine the extent of the problem.  The problem is that the ‘Bad List’ exists at all.  As a straight white guy, I can’t think of a single game where my character analogue is anything less than a triumphant hero.  If we’re balancing the lists for single white guys, the Bad List is practically non-existent.  Yet when we discuss women in video games, we can’t criticise the Bad List without doffing our caps to the Good List?

The second is less obvious and something to which Sarkeesian alludes but doesn’t hit squarely on the head: guys are really bad at spotting gender issues.  The idea of comparing two lists of female representation assumes that we can objectively identify which representations go on which list.  Thus, one internet blowhard (who even went on to argue that Sarkeesian was censoring guys’ responses by disallowing comments to her posts…) listed Ms Pac-Man, Super Princess Peach, and Borderlands as examples of games Sarkeesian should have mentioned if only she’d done more research and wasn’t such a HARDCORE feminazi.

Ms Pac-Man, as we are all aware, is a complicated and multi-layered story about a young woman who eats giant dots and bits of fruit.  Women identify with Ms Pac-Man because, like them, they wear a red bow in their hair, have beauty spots, and wear red lipstick.  Here she is standing up against the objectification and sexualisation of women on the original arcade machine:


Snark aside, ‘female Pac-Man’ in the gaming community meant ‘sexy Pac-Man’.  Further, the ‘Ms’ element is what we call in Aristotelean terms an ‘accidental attribute’ rather than an ‘essential attribute’.  This essential vs accidental issue is a complicated problem at the heart of representation issues in culture.  We see straight white guys as the norm, with each step away from that norm being a quirky twist.  Captain Smith is a hard-edged, no-nonsense leader of a group of space pirates… oh, and she’s a woman!  That’s what makes this series different to the others!  Woman!  President Jones is a kindly, gentle leader of the Free World… oh, and she’s a woman!  How will she cope with all of her women’s periods?

In the case of Ms Pac-Man, this was literally the case.  They needed a character who was different enough from Pac-Man to avoid a lawsuit but similar enough to be part of the franchise: thus, Pac-Man got some lipstick and high heels.

This might be dismissed as a trivial issue, but it has ‘real world’ implications (beyond telling the non-male gaming community that their identity is a quirky deviation from male greatness).  There are court cases where people have tried to argue that the judge was biased because they were not a white male.  White males are default neutral, anything else looks like bias.  Does popular culture have a responsibility to change attitudes?  Yes.

Super Princess Peach follows a similar argument but, this time, we’re talking about the story rather than the character.  Here, Princess Peach is the protagonist and must save Mario.  What reveals the gender issue lurking beneath the surface is that this is treated as a novelty.  ‘Hey, guys.  I’ve got this crazy idea for a new game!’ said one of the game developers, no doubt.  ‘What if it were Princess Peach doing the rescuing instead of Mario?!  Wouldn’t that be hilarious?!’

Super Princess Peach doesn’t mitigate the problem of gender in video games; it exists because of it.  If gender issues didn’t exist in gaming, nobody would have thought to make this game where the object of the series transgresses against conventions to become the subject of a game.

Finally, Borderlands.  My brother plays this game.  Here’s a woman from it.


Time to call it a day, Feminists.  Borderlands has clearly demonstrated that women are represented accurately and in a non-sexualised manner in video games.  If those breasts don’t scream ‘progressive’, well…

Let’s go for another recent example of this (and one that I’ve already written about).  In Batman: Arkham City, Batman is aided by a paraplegic woman who communicates through radio, by a woman who breaks social conventions to become a sort of villainous hero, and by a woman with complicated links to one of the key antagonists of the game.  One of Batman’s adversaries is a fanatical woman who acts out of a perverse love for the Joker.

Although Batman allows guys like me to play out their power fantasies of being Batman (plus, Batman is the world’s greatest conservative hero, so I’m totally on board with playing as him), he’s put into a world where there are lots of opportunities for female characters to be on a near-equal ground with our hero.

Instead, the script — written by Paul Dini — turns Batman into more than a bit of a pig.  When receiving advice from Oracle, Batman acts like a jerk and rather unkindly reminds her which of the two is the Batman.  Catwoman, on the other hand, does little but make vaguely raunchy remarks.  Talia al Ghul, a woman who is presented to the viewer as a person Batman turns to for advice and guidance, is also presented to the viewer as a sexualised object.  The game takes on an aggressively hostile attitude towards women, with inmates (who, admittedly, are bad guys) frequently commenting on how various female characters are sexually desirable or bitches.

Nowhere was this attitude towards women more notable than in the transformation of Harley Quinn between Batman: Arkham Asylum and Batman: Arkham City.

Here she is in Ayslum:


Sure, she’s probably not going to win The Germaine Greer Award for Feminism, but it’s still a garden mile ‘better’ than her appearance in City:


The new Harley had even fewer clothed on than before.  This, by the way, was the original appearance of Harley Quinn in the cartoons:


That’s from the original Batman: The Animated Series.  The more recent Batman had her looking like this:


Unless you count the face paint, neither version reveals any flesh at all.  Yet in order to be acceptable to the gaming community (and, fair’s fair, the comics community) she had to bare skin.

What we see is game designers pandering to what they think the market wants: scantily clad women.  In the case of Harley Quinn, Catwoman, Talia al Ghul, &c., I still recognise powerful women, but I’m encouraged to look at the characters as objects of titillation first.  This is the problem we face when we ask guys to identify the good female role models for women: we have normalised the sexual component — fictional women are of course created for our visceral pleasure — so we can say with a straight face that these women are powerful, liberated role-models for women.

This, by the way, is but one of many reasons why I don’t think men can be feminists.  Admittedly, as a straight, white, conservative male, I’m not sure why anybody would care about my definition of ‘feminist’.

So let’s wind this back up to the start.  When we hear the complaint that Sarkeesian doesn’t acknowledge all the great female role models in video games, what we are actually hearing is the complaint that Sarkeesian isn’t viewing video games as a guy.  When she is confronted by images of women being objectified, we claim that her reaction is misplaced and that she should instead think of all the women guys claim aren’t objectified (like Ms Pac-Man).  What we are also hearing is that people like Sarkeesian have no right criticising males unless she acknowledges all the good things that guys do, like create novelty games for women such as Super Princess Peach.  In short, if Sarkeesian doesn’t play by our rules when she discusses video games (the rules which make guys feel better about themselves), then we simply aren’t going to enter into a discussion about her point.

The balance argument is particularly noxious when we consider Sarkeesian as something of a pathologist.  Here she is diagnosing a problem at the heart of gaming, yet her critics argue that she’s ignoring a perfectly healthy appendix.  Her patient (the gaming community) says, ‘I refuse to accept your diagnosis of my diseased heart, Dr Sarkeesian, unless you praise me for what a healthy appendix I have.’

I, for one, am looking forward to further episodes of her webseries.  I just wish she’d stop using French phrases followed by their literal English translation.  Seriously, it’s my one quibble.  If you need to translate the phrase immediately, then you don’t need to use the phrase.

Wait, they don’t love you like I love you… The confusing messages of Arndt #auspol #feminism

There are some conversations we can’t have.  The conversations are complex and tempt us towards uncomfortable thoughts — thoughts we suspect we ought not to have.  The conversations are nuanced and intimidate us with subtlety — subtlety we can avoid by sticking to our safe, black and white views of the world.

Do we really have rights?  Is the death penalty morally superior to life imprisonment?  Is procedural justice morally just?  Should unsustainable indigenous hunting practices be protected from change by western countries who are committed to protecting endangered animals?

These discussions are far too quickly hijacked by megaphones who fear a society which plays in greys.  It is easy to be absolutist about things.  It is difficult to accept that other people can disagree with us with sensible, reasonable arguments.

I think Bettina Arndt has situated herself in one of these discussions.  An Australian sex therapist, her articles and books have stirred controversy for decades.  In the 1980s, she was a cause for concern to the religious right for claiming — shock, horror — that there’s this thing called sex and it can be enjoyable.

Today, she upsets the left for claiming — shock, horror — that there’s this thing called sex and it can be enjoyable.

Ah, I’ve taken all the subtlety out of the leftwing and rightwing positions in order to ridicule them.  Everybody can see that.  What a poor analytical tool.

And yet this is precisely how I read most of the recent criticism of Arndt.  Don’t concern yourself with what she writes; she clearly means the opposite.  When she says that nothing excuses the poor treatment of women, she actually means that men have a right to treat women poorly… Or something.

The latest controversy surrounds an article written in the SMH: ‘Busted: the politics of cleavage and a glance‘.  The article uses a few anecdotes to stir a conversation about men in an environment of increased sexual liberty.

That’s the context that makes the constant just-out-of-reach titillation men now face confusing, irritating and even insulting. Yet many men are still trying hard to get it right, listening to their partners about why they hate men’s ogling. [Source:]

It’s an interestingly subtle argument.  We have a culture which has moved in favour of sexualisation.  Television shows, advertisements, movies, music, &c., &c., all declare that only a sexy woman is a competent, healthy woman.  At the same time, the message to guys is that their reactions to a sexualised world are negative and make it more difficult for women to succeed as equals.

Arndt has published a few articles and books around this theme.  In What Men Want, Ardnt discussed the importance of sex to a relationship and the importance of getting both people on the same page when it came to expectations.  Her argument was that guys felt they couldn’t talk about sex openly with their partners.  Men receive the messages that their sexual desires were harmful and wrong, and should be repressed.

It’s not an outright silly thing to say.  At the same time, it’s not an unproblematic thing to say.

One of Arndt’s suggestions in her book for couples was for the less sexually interested partner (unfortunately identified as the female but, in a public lecture, she indicated that it could be either) to have sex even if they didn’t feel like it.  The point was to highlight the sexual needs of both partners and, too frequently, the partner who didn’t want to have sex ‘won’ by default.  This argument was characterised by the local women’s group as ‘Men have a right to sex’.  While it’s clearly not Arndt’s argument, Arndt doesn’t express herself precisely enough to defend herself against these claims.

Arndt is discussing an otherwise healthy relationship, with the lack of sex considered a dysfunction.  Is a lack of sex a dysfunction?  It’s not analysed.  Arndt is not discussing unhealthy relationships (or pseudo-relationships).  Nor is she claiming that sex should be non-consensual.  The question for her is how to get both parties to enjoy sex, and she sees not having sex as an obstacle.

But back to the ‘Busted’ article.

We see the same reasoning assumptions.  Women are buying into a sexualised culture which associates sexiness with success, but acknowledgement of that sexiness by men is discouraged.  Arndt’s argument is that a healthy society would provide a way for men to acknowledge sexiness without a) being creepy or b) feeling creepy.

From my perspective (straight, conservative, single guy), I can sympathise with that a bit.  If I’m out for drinks or whatever and I meet a woman I find interesting, intelligent, and attractive, I feel creepy if I acknowledge that she’s physically attractive.  It is far safer to keep my mouth shut.  Arndt suggests that in a healthy society, I wouldn’t keep my mouth shut, but would have a way of discussing the fact that I find somebody physically attractive in the same way that I can discuss finding them intellectually attractive.

But this is discussing a relatively healthy situation.  What it’s not discussing is the culture of objectification in unhealthy situations.  If you ignore the caveats throughout Arndt’s article, it can be read as justifying men’s reactions to women dressing provocatively.

But when young women stand in front of mirrors on a Saturday night, adjusting their cleavage, seeking ever greater exposure, maybe they need to think more about what they are doing. While there are women who claim they dress sluttishly just to make themselves feel good, the fact remains that, like the protesters, the main message sent is about flaunting women’s sexual power. [Ibidem]

Arndt chooses words poorly.  ‘Flaunting’ is particularly egregious.  Despite all the comments that she’s discussing healthy attitudes towards sex, her words lend support to ‘slut-shaming’ and ‘nice guys’.

If Arndt wants to discuss subtle, nuanced problems like unhealthy attitudes towards sex inside normal, otherwise healthy social interactions, she needs to be more careful with words.  Personally, I think she’s saying something important and prompting interesting discussions about healthy attitudes towards sex. It’s a shame it’s wrapped up so tightly in troll-bait.

Let’s talk about sex baby… And contractual theory (a response to @katgallow) #auslaw

It’s rare for somebody to begin a blog post with ‘I’m probably incorrect but I can’t work out why…’ and yet here we are, folks.  Here is a bit of contract theory where I’m sure I must be wronger than wrong and yet I can’t work out why.

On Sunday, Kate Galloway wrote about the NSW Supreme Court’s decision in Ashton v Pratt.  The details of the case are pretty much of the ‘Lifestyles of the Rich and the Famous’ kind.  The story goes: Richard Pratt is fabulously wealthy and travels about the place sans his wife.  He meets an escort, Ms Ashton, and — in a supposed exchange read into the decision which definitely needs to be poorly acted by Home and Away starlets — says to her: ‘If you stop being an escort and “concentrate on my needs and wants” (mistress), I will give you a swag of cash.’

The best line of that exchange: ‘after all, I am Richard Pratt, one of the richest men in Australia’.

The court found:

Ms Ashton’s case in contract fails – although the terms of those arrangements were not too uncertain and incomplete to amount to a contract – first because Mr Pratt and Ms Ashton did not intend to enter into binding and enforceable legal relations, and secondly because public policy denies enforceability to any such contract as alleged. [At 88]

The second part of this decision is what interested Galloway:

Although the Court found there were insufficient indicia of a contract (ie the arrangement lacked intention to create legal relations) Brereton J nonetheless turned his mind to whether such an arrangement could theoretically be enforceable, or whether it would be against public policy. The public policy in question was rendering void and illegal, contracts that are ‘sexually immoral and/or prejudicial to the status of marriage’.  [Source: Galloway, ‘Sex & Immorality: The Court’s Take

Public policy is a weird bit of contract law.  It basically says that there are some contracts which would be repugnant to community standards to enforce.  Ordinarily, public policy problems shouldn’t arise because people don’t really make a habit of entering into contracts which offend standards of decency.

It’s such a weird area of contacts that I had to go back to the textbooks to make sure I had all my ducks in a row.  There are some great quotes about public policy because the idea of courts being able to determine whether a contract was, when it gets down to it, immoral spooked a lot of judges.  In an 1824 English case, Richardson v Mellish, Burrough J calls public policy ‘a very unruly horse, and when once you get astride it you never know where it will carry you’.  Public policy takes away the autonomy of people to enter into agreements which they find accord with their moral values and surrenders that decision to the courts.  Over time, judges became so spooked by the idea that they halted its development in common law.  In another English case, Janson v Driefontein Consolidated Mines, Halsbury LC rejected the view that ‘any court can invent a new head of public policy.’  This reasoning led to a decision by an Australian judge, Windeyer J, in Brooks v Burns Philp Trustee Co Ltd:

The House of Lords has said that it is not for courts to create new heads of public policy.  […]  The proposition continues to excite controversy among those who doubt whether the fertility of courts in the 19th century has now given way to sterility, resulting from senility, in the common law.’  [Source: Brooks v Burns Philp Trustee Co Ltd (1969) 121 CLR 432; quoted in Paterson, et al. Contract: Cases and Materials]

And yet here we are in 2012 with a case which shows public policy considerations are alive and well.  In this instance, the contract was considered unenforceable because it was sexually immoral.

Galloway argues that prohibiting contracts which are deemed sexually immoral by the courts is problematic.

A feminist reading of this case might identify that the Court framed its inquiry around the ‘social’ and sexual (ie private) nature of the arrangement. In positioning Ms Ashton’s claim as private, it existed outside the law. This reveals how contract law privileges the so-called objective, rational, autonomous public face of the market place – for it is these arrangements that will be enforced by the law while others within the domestic or social sphere will not.  [Source: Galloway, op. cit.]

But I’m a bit worried by this reasoning.  There’s already a shaky understanding in contract law that courts don’t like to mess about in family matters: Balfour v Balfour ran with this idea that, because a contract is formed when the parties intend to create a legally enforceable agreement, agreements between spouses (and, by extension, family members) weren’t obviously contracts.  If I say to my brother, ‘Hey, Ian.  You can crash on my floor when you visit’, I don’t expect him to sue me if, for whatever reason, it turns out that him crashing on my floor is impractical.  When I go about my social interactions with my family, I don’t think that it’s obvious I’m creating all kinds of legal obligations.  I might create moral obligations.  I might be considered to be a terrible person if I let my brother down by forcing him to stay at one of the many Canberran hotels when he comes to visit.  But I don’t think I’m a legally culpable person.

At the heart of this, I don’t like the idea of my life being reduced to legal interactions (in the same way, I worry when libertarians tell me that my life is merely a collection of economic interactions).

In The Hidden Gender of Law, Graycar and Morgan cite Atkin LJ: ‘Each house is a domain into which the King’s writ does not seek to run, and to which his officers do not seek to be admitted.’

But people disagree with this idea.

Again in Graycar and Morgan:

[T]raditional feminist arguments raise concerns about the private sphere as notionally unregulated, for example, in suggestions that ‘the legal system’ has traditionally failed to respond to violence against women in their homes.  Not only has this approach meant an over-reliance on an analytical tool that fails to encompass the experiences of many women […] but Lacey suggests that some feminist critiques imply that privacy ‘has nothing to recommend it to women.’  [Source: Graycar and Morgan, The Hidden Gender of Law, p 20]

Unpacking the gist of the argument: if there’s an area of social interaction ungoverned by law, then there’s an area of social interaction where the socially disempowered have a means of redress for wrongs.  This seems to be where Galloway’s argument is heading here:

The law reveals its gendered nature in presuming that a person will delineate their life in a work/home dichotomy. In contrast, in the private sphere a person might see work and family as mutually defining. This would however fall outside the consideration of the law. In this way, the processes of contract law subtly privilege that which inhabits the public domain to the exclusion of inhabits the private.  [Source: Galloway, op. cit.]

As I’ve mentioned at length elsewhere, I don’t identify as a feminist.  Although I can see Galloway’s point — that people in the private sphere might have a need to seek legal remedies to problems, and that the law does not empower people in the private sphere to overcome differences in power — I’m still not sure legalism should creep into private interactions.  Then again, I might just be intuiting this because I’m in a privileged position as a conservative white male.

But more to the point, are we sure we want to argue that contracts which establish ‘mistress contracts’ should be enforceable in the courts?

In this example, Ms Ashton would have benefited from the contract being enforced.  She was the mistress and held up her end of the contract; therefore, Mr Pratt’s estate should fulfil its end.

But what if Ms Ashton did not benefit from the contract?  The agreement between Ashton and Pratt didn’t include an exclusivity arrangement, but it might have.  The agreement might have been: ‘I am Richard Pratt, one of the richest men in Australia, and I want you, Ms Ashton, to be my mistress.  When I’m in Sydney, you will provide me with sex.  You won’t have any other partners beside me.  In return for sex and exclusivity, I will give you a swag of cash.’  It would be strange if Pratt tried to have the contract enforced if Ms Ashton had extra-extra-marital affairs.  It feels like it would offend basic norms of morality for the court to enforce the contract.

Because the contract seems to favour Ms Ashton in the original example, we might be tempted to think that the court is imposing its ye olde morality into contract law.  But I think we would be appalled if the contract didn’t favour Ms Ashton and Pratt’s estate were trying to have it enforced by the courts.  I think it’s the same revulsion we feel when people try to restrict access to divorce to permit ‘at fault’ divorces only: it’s not really the court’s role to get involved in people’s sex life.  These ‘mistress contracts’ invite the court in for a ménage a trois of contractual bondage.

I quite like that last sentence.

I feel as though something is wrong with my reasoning.  Am I relying too heavily on my intuition of the private as a justifiably unregulated space?  Am I too quick to think that mistress contracts are repugnant, and that more people would agree with me if the contract disadvantaged the woman?

If nothing else, am I correct that the ‘fertility of courts has now given way to sterility, resulting from senility, in the common law’ quote is really awesome?

You said you’d stand for every known abuse… Pro-lifers? In my feminism? It’s more likely than you think #MTRsues

The Melinda Tankard Reist v Jennifer Wilson debate is reaching its inevitable telos: vitriol.

The latest manifestation is a series of Tweets informing readers that the ‘debate’ isn’t between pro-lifers and pro-choicers: it’s between pro-choicers and anti-choicers.

Meanwhile, the attacks on Melinda Tankard Reist are getting more personal: if she’s anti-abortion, can she really be a feminist?  Really, really?  Has anybody seen her feminist barcode tattooed to her neck?

The first issue sheds some light on the latter, so let’s start there.  By way of disclosure, I’m a white conservative male who doesn’t identify as feminist and who is pro-death.  I don’t have a horse in this race.  I disagree with MTR’s pro-life stance and I also disagree with the increasingly vitriolic, personal attacks against her (particularly the: ‘Ignore her arguments; remember she’s a Christian!’ rhetoric).

The way we talk about issues shapes the way we think about them.  It is notable that both sides of the ‘debate’ refer to themselves as ‘pro-something’.  More than that, they both refer to themselves as ‘pro-something-everybody-should-be-pro’.  The language is to reassure the advocate: they are on the side of angels, defending things which are worth defending, be it choice or life.

But the language we use is also a way of posing their side of the debate as default rational.  Of course you should be pro-life; are you anti-life?  Of course you should be pro-choice; are you anti-choice?

As such, the labels we use are shorthand for thinking.  Condensing a complicated argument down into 140 characters means resorting to snappy, emotive caricatures of our opponents.  With issues as deeply personal as abortion, it seems almost inevitable that we’re going to demonise our opponents.

As said earlier, I’m pro-death.  I’m fine for a woman to terminate her baby right up to labour, and for parents to issue doctors with Do Not Resuscitate instructions for their newborns.  I can understand why people wouldn’t agree with my position.  In today’s intellectual climate, it seems rather extreme but it’s founded in the idea that not every life is worth saving, that medicine is about quality of life, and that parents should be able to decide whether they want to undertake the burden of raising a child with severe health issues.

It also sits comfortably with my conservative views: some life isn’t worth saving.  Quality life is worth preserving.  Who decides the threshold for quality?  The people who are living it.

I understand the argument against my position.  I have a lot of sympathy for it but I’m not convinced by it.  I understand that there are some moderate pro-choicers who are uncomfortable with the idea of post-natal abortion.  Being honest, I suspect that they’re in the clear majority.

It would be absurd for me to declare them ‘anti-choice’ just because they disagree that post-natal abortion is a morally acceptable choice.  It would be absurd for me to demonise them.

And yet that’s what the main players in the debate do to each other on a daily basis.

It is not difficult to understand why a pro-lifer sees a similarity between abortion and murder.  It’s the deliberate ending of a life.  It’s the deliberate ending of a human life.  Many vegetarians and animal rights activists argue that we should extend the right to life as broadly as we possibly can.  Logical conclusion: unborn human life should be protected.  We might disagree with the idea, but it’s not pants-on-head stupid.

Characterising people who disagree with us as ‘anti-choice’ trivialises their position.  Weirdly, people on the pro-choice side of the ledger tend to have the most ridiculous assertions.  Consider the ‘If you ban abortion, women will have backyard abortions’ argument.  It’s clearly absurd.  The anti-abortion advocate is obviously against backyard abortions as well.  It’s not inconsistent for the anti-abortion advocate to champion better services for women to reduce the need for backyard abortions: better family planning, easier access to contraceptives, campaigns to reduce shaming of out-of-wedlock pregnancy, free education for women, &c., &c.

And it’s here that we crash into the ‘Is Melinda Tankard Reist a feminist?’ question.

If you believe that prohibiting abortion is a means by which males control female bodies, then feminists cannot be pro-life.  But this isn’t the only valid concept of anti-abortion.  If you believe that a feminist is a person who champions the endowment of women with the maximum scope of rights, but do not consider access to abortion to be a legitimate right as it infringes on the rights of the unborn baby, then it is not inconsistent for a anti-abortion champion to also be a feminist.  Similarly, I don’t think it’s the case that you have to champion my pro-death, maxi-choice position in order to be a feminist, even though my position extends more rights to women than most pro-choicers.

So if I’m not pro-life or feminist, why throw my hat into the ring?  Because I think it’s illustrative of a problem which does affect me: a problem I call ‘Positionism’.

Positionism is when a person tries to determine which political label applies to a person based on the positions held by the person and not the reasoning behind the position.  To the positionist, a person is left wing if they affirm a series of sentences.  You care about the environment, homosexuals, asylum seekers, women, and poor people?  You’re left wing.  You care about the privileged, corporations, and stomping on kittens?  You’re right wing.  You care about equality of women?  You’re feminist.  You don’t think women should be allowed to have abortions?  You can’t be a feminist.

It puzzles people that I, a conservative, can agree with left wingers on a variety of topics.  When I go through the various positions and show that they can be reached by two, diametrically opposed ways of viewing the world, they seem shocked.  (I always take advantage of their shocked state to induce post-hypnotic aversions to supporting the Greens)

We need to get away from this kind of tribal political discourse.  Not only is it stupid, it’s damaging.  It encourages group think (which has almost completely destroyed the atheist community) because to maintain the self-identification with a label, one feels the need to advocate a particular set of beliefs rather than employ a particular set of reasons.  Stating that MTR can’t be feminist because she’s pro-life is to completely ignore the reasons why she advocates her pro-life views and to privilege dogmatically a particular conception of abortion.

More than that: perhaps it’s just time to stop treating everybody who disagrees with us as being too stupid to operate their brain properly.  How I long for that day.