I tend to stick away from conversations involving abortion because it is such a sensitive subject. It’s a conversation which is routinely trolled and is intensely personal. I can’t think of a legislative issue which has similar stakes.
As a guy, the subject is at arm’s length and I struggle to know the extent to which I can engage with the subject. There’s an intellectual, emotional, and lived distance between myself and the subject to which I need to be sensitive.
At the same time, as a piece of public discussion, I find it extremely interesting to explore the issues and what they mean for me and how they accord with my other political views. As a piece of politics, I find it interesting to see the ways in which the issue is framed and to see the way language is used to control the way we think about the issue.
Take the following four scenarios.
A woman discovers that she is two months pregnant but does not wish to be.
A woman is eight months pregnant and her partner dies. She does not wish to continue with the pregnancy.
A woman is eight months pregnant. She and her partner decide to end their relationship. She does not wish to continue with the pregnancy.
A woman has gone into labour. During childbirth there is a medical complication. The doctors inform the parents that the child has been severely brain damaged.
In all four of the above scenarios, I do not consider it ethically wrong to terminate the child. I believe this qualifies me for the label ‘pro-choice’ (even ‘pro-death’) but various people — including Van Badham — have informed me that I am actually pro-life (and anti-choice).
Why? Because I also think the principle behind Zoe’s Law is a good one.
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.
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?
There’s a positivistic view of the world — dominant in popular discourse — that everything should come down to evidence and reason. Evidence and reason are mixed together in the cauldron of the mind to produce Facts. You either believe in Facts or — it is asserted — you’re a creepy post-modernist who doesn’t live in the Real World.
We have a whole host of slogans about Facts. You’re not entitled to your own, for example. And we’ve popularised scientists as being the Prophets of Facts. If a scientist says it’s a Fact, then it’s a Fact. But sometimes marginalised scientists on the fringes of academia are being persecuted (like Galileo) and so those scientists are the True Prophets of Facts and the mainstream scientists are False Prophets of Facts.
In the ideal world of the Enlightenment, disagreements simply should not exist. Differences of opinion would mean that somebody is factually incorrect. Two ordinary people, possessed of all the Facts, will agree. If they disagree, then somebody is mistaken, lying, or trolling.
Language is important. Over at AusOpinion, I’ve argued that claims of ‘neutral’ and ‘apolitical’ language are dangerous lies (link broken). There is, in fact, no way of describing something in completely neutral terms (whatever ‘neutral’ may mean).
As part of my set up to discuss something even more interesting than language — images — I made a quick mention of the asylum seeker debate.
The Government — perhaps inspired by Genesis 2:19 — has begun a process of renaming the policy issues formed of the air, land, and sea. Under the ‘Call A Spade A Spade‘ policy, ‘asylum seekers’ (already a contentious term — are all people who arrive by boat seeking asylum?) will be called ‘illegal entrants’ (a term the minister assures us is analogous to ‘stolen goods’). Shadow Immigration Minister, Richard Marles, complained about the terminology, stating that it was ‘language being used for a political purpose’ which ‘clouds the debate and it acts to work against trying to achieve bipartisanship in the area of immigration policy.’ He didn’t explain what he meant by implying that language could be used for a non-political purpose, or why bipartisanship was the most important goal of immigration policy. [Source]
One day, I’ll learn my lesson and be sufficiently wise to leave well enough alone. That day’s not today.
Many people are — entirely understandably — outraged at the new terminology. They believe — entirely incorrectly — that other words and phrases are more ‘neutral’ or more ‘correct’. Blinded by outrage, they don’t see that the change in terminology provides an excellent opportunity for asylum seeker activists to change the course of the public discussion.
Despite having a fraction of the population, Canberrans consume art like a major city. I’d heard the statistic before — Andrew Leigh uses it to make a fascinating argument about the value of community — but this time I was hearing it in a different context: Jack Waterford, editor-at-large of the Canberra Times, was framing a conversation about the role of the critic. If Canberra has such an appetite for the arts, where are the critics? What is their role? How do they link artists to audiences? And — perhaps most strangely — why does Canberra lose its critics to the larger cities, Melbourne and Sydney?
If you ever get the chance to hear Waterford talk, take up the opportunity. Even when he’s dead wrong, he’s engaging and thought-provoking. I’m still mulling over ideas and it’s now several hours since I saw him talk as part of a panel hosted by the Childers Forum here in Canberra: The Role of the Critic.
Over on AusOpinion, Preston Towers suggests a new political party called ‘The Link’ (link broken):
The Link would be a wholly more positive and welcoming name for a new party with a new approach to advocating a progressive line of thought.
The policies of The Link would be unashamedly “leftist” and be unfettered by the compromises and pragmatism that parties like the Greens and the ALP have had to negotiate over the past few years. I can’t imagine The Link would ever go into a coalition with a Major Party in the way the Greens have in Canberra and Tasmania. That would help their policy purity considerably. [Source]
‘Unfettered’ by ‘compromises and pragmatism’. Right. Because that’s what we need, yet another party ‘unfettered’ by ‘compromises and pragmatism’. Over on Twitter, he qualifies the merit of his new party:
But within this short sketch of a proposal is a problem that reflects broader issues within Australian politics. What does it mean to be ‘unashamedly “leftist”‘?
Whenever I try to write about something that’s potentially fraught, I dispense with my usual custom of quoting song lyrics. Once again, we’re in the territory of discussing something that invariably results in somebody getting really upset and everybody feeling worse off for the experience.
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. [Source]
Following the revelation that the Secular Party is a racist ‘Ban the Burqa’ party in disguise, I cast my mind to the peculiar social phenomenon regarding pop-atheist critiques of Islam. It runs something like this:
Pop-atheist identifies an unpleasant aspect of Islam which has a direct comparison in non-Islamic society.
Pop-atheist damns Islam for having the unpleasant aspect.
The word once had quite a specialised meaning limited to a particular sort of disruptive behaviour, but it has now become a catch-all term to describe any behaviour that some journalists and editors deem inappropriate. Their responses to what they call “trolling” often seem less about combating abuse than reasserting their role as gatekeeper, to restore to themselves the right to decide who gets to speak in public and who doesn’t. It is what US academic Susan Herbst calls “the strategic use of civility”. [Source: Dunlop, T. ‘How the word “troll” has been redefined by the powerful’, The Guardian 16 August 2013]
Dunlop has — for a number of years — concentrated on the social world of communication through the lens of the media. What is the relationship between changes to the front page of the media (in whatever form the ‘front page’ takes) and the change in the public’s way of discussing issues. It’s due to this background that Dunlop misidentifies the (ab)use of the word ‘troll’. This is the journalists and editors taking its cue from common discourse — not the other way around.
Following my post about Dawkins’ strange take on what constitutes racism, a friend asked me why Islam was a major target of New Atheists. The answer is strangely complicated but, fortunately, overlaps with one of my projects to map out a history of New Atheism.
Before jumping to the complicated answer, we have to show why we should reject the simple answer: Islam is a major religion; New Atheists criticise all religions; so therefore New Atheists criticise Islam.
Of the four largest world religions, Islam and Christianity are the two which are routinely attacked by New Atheists. The next two largest religions, Buddhism and Hinduism are rarely mentioned. This isn’t an equal opportunity hosing down of religions. There’s something else that is making Islam and Christianity the major targets.
Christianity is easiest to explain: historically, it is the religion which has attracted the opposition from atheists. Indeed, it’s difficult to understand the centuries-long history of atheism without reference to Christianity. (SPOILERS: By the end of this blog post, we’ll see that New Atheism isn’t actually engaged in this history.)
But Islam doesn’t have a similar history. From the example of Christianity (the reasons are socio-political and historical), we should expect the reason for New Atheism’s response to Islam.
To uncover that reason, we need a solid understanding of what New Atheism is and how it works. We can then see what features of Islam cause it to be of particular interest to New Atheists.