Madness? This is Sparta… Do 300 bills make a good government? #auspol

This post is about two parts to the same story: is there any room left in political discussion for debate?

Like many, I’m not terribly enthused by the Gillard Government.  I find it difficult not to see them as dysfunctional.  If they’re not trying to assert their brand of populism against those of the Greens and LNP, they’re bickering internally.  I feel like they are poor communicators.  Even when I bypass the ‘mainstream media’, I get confusing messages from them.  Rally cries rather than reasons.

I don’t know what they stand for.  I don’t know what sort of vision they have for Australia.  I don’t know how they would respond to various issues because I find their positions on issues to be inconsistent and, generally, reactive.

As an engaged but disillusioned political junkie, I feel like the only thing the ALP has in its favour is that it’s not the LNP or the Greens.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve seen the same response over and over again to the above.  Recently, it was made by @Gwillotine:

SO the 300 or so pieces of legislation that have all gone through parliament have all been spin have they? [Source]

The idea seems to be: ‘If the Gillard Government is so terrible at governing, why has it been able to pass over 300 bills?’

Does this follow as an idea?  Why the number of bills a government passes an indication of good or bad government?  If the ALP had only managed 299 bills, would this be an indication of abject failure?

The idea seems to be that, as there is a hung parliament, 300 bills indicates the ALP’s ability to negotiate and facilitate a functional government.  The assumption here is that, if the wheels haven’t completely fallen off the train of government, the ALP is doing a great job.

Clearly, it’s faulty reasoning.  A government might be great at passing lots of legislation, but be utterly rubbish at other — perhaps more important — areas of governing.  For example: the ability to lead, to share a vision, to communicate effectively with the electorate.

Good luck having that conversation with anybody.  When I suggested that the quality of the bills passed might also be an indicator of whether a government was doing a good job, the Political Sword’s Bushfire Bill entered into the discussion with:

Can disagree with SOME of 300, but how else to view Coalition’s 0/0? [Source]

The assumption here is that it is illegitimate to criticise the ALP because, regardless of how we understand success, the LNP is dreadful.  The Coalition — with neither the resources of government or agreements forming loose alliances with the Greens and independents — ought to have passed some legislation in parliament.  Because they haven’t, they are terrible and the ALP is great.

I’d hate to be accused of misrepresenting Bill’s argument, but I can’t understand how Abbott’s performance tells us anything about Gillard’s.

When I asked how the number of bills passed indicates the quality of a government, I was told:

I think you need to do some homework [Source]

Honestly, you don’t need the media to tell you how to think [Source]

I like you but as I said bills passed are the measure [Source]

We no longer focus on skills of persuasion or rational engagement.  Our assumptions and assertions about the world must be correct and, if you question them, you are an outsider.  This is the sort of groupthink rhetoric into which political discussion has fallen.  You’re either on our side of the fence, or you’re dumb, deceived, or delusional.

The problem with this line of argument is that it’s routinely hijacked by troublemakers and trolls.  People saying outright racist things, as a matter of course, respond with: ‘Stop calling me racist.  I’m just expressing my opinion.  Stop marginalising me and excluding my views from the discourse.’

So how should we engage in political discussion so that we leave the door open to people who disagree with us, but not so wide open that all the crazies come and gatecrash?

Part of it has to be self-reflective.  Are the views I hold falsifiable?  What evidence could somebody present to me to make me change my views?  Further, could I justify my assumptions to somebody who is rational, charitable, but who disagrees with my views?

I wonder if the reason so many of us are rubbish at discussing our views is that we so rarely keep serious company with people who disagree with us.  Many of my friends see me as their token conservative.  By and large, people’s social circles are made up of like-mindeds.  Our social framework is geared towards echo chambers.

This, in a nutshell, is what I see as the problem.  We need to learn how to foster debate instead of rallying troops.

[[Sources broken: Twitter webpage seems to have collapsed… I’ll fix them soon]]

That’s great, it starts with an earthquake… Adam Brereton and the unexamined secularism

In my previous post, I outlined the problems which arise when you just assume slogans such as ‘Separation of Church and State’ and ‘We should have a secular nation’.  These problems multiply exponentially when the target of your attack is unclear.

Take, for example, Adam Brereton’s piece in New Matilda:

One of the more controversial policies announced by the Treasurer in the recent budget was the decision to pledge $222 million to the National School Chaplaincy Program. The scheme has been dogged byclaims chaplains have been proselytising to students, and critics argue the money could be better spent on trained counsellors if pastoral care is at stake. [Source: Brereton, ‘Keep the Proselytisers Where They Belong’, New Matilda]

Just an aside: until there’s some actual evidence rather than fourth- and fifth-hand stories, ignore the ‘claims’.  It smells a bit fishy that the ‘claims’ are all coming from the usual group of attention-seeking fringe-dwellers — and I’ll write something up about Leslie Cannold’s recent atrocity in the name of reason soon.

So the question at play is whether public funding should go to supporting chaplains in schools.  It’s a complex question about the role governments have in supporting communities, about the role of religion in society, and about whether we agree with the policy goals (if there are any).

[B]ut, distasteful as it is, the last 50 years of state sponsored religion in schools should indicate it’s not an aberration. We have no constitutionally entrenched separation of church and state, and outsourcing state functions to religious institutions has been, for the last half-century, a stronger tradition than secularism.

In 1962, Goulburn, a town in NSW notable only for its giant, betesticled concrete merino, was the site of a general Catholic school strike that led to the first state compromises with the religious establishment over education. [Ibid.]

Wait… what?  Did I turn over two pages at once?  Are the chaplains going to be performing some educational role?

Despite the debate not being about religious education, Brereton outlines the history of public funding for religious schools.  We even get an irrelevant history lesson about Constitutional Law:

Secondly, the court played its traditional role, reading the constitution narrowly to find that section 116 did not amount to a separation of church and state provision, and was a mere “denial of legislative power to the Commonwealth” — meaning the Commonwealth could not legislate for a state religion, but otherwise had no distinct “wall of separation”. This precedent does not bode well for the current High Court challenge on essentially the same issue. [Ibid.]

Right… so back to chaplains, I guess?  Nope.

Current commentary on the Gillard government’s decision to continue funding school chaplaincy has missed the historical point that Australians are loath to draw bold lines between secular and religious education, because secularism as a value is not enshrined in our constitution, and there have always been more votes from travelling with religion than fighting against it. [Ibid.]

And this is where a bit of a stocktake would have been good.  The article began as a criticism of the proposal to fund chaplains in school.  Ideally, we would understand why the government has decided to fund chaplains in schools (let’s face it, we’re not going to be shocked when the funding was motivated for cynical, poll-driven reasons).  We could then question whether or not chaplains in schools meets those policy objectives.

Instead, we seem to be caught in a discussion about the history of public-funding for religious schools.  But that’s not what’s at play here: 3,500 chaplains for state schools.

We get further confusion when Brereton leaps from this debate into:

Bob Carr, former NSW Premier-turned ALP revisionist, has recently slammed the $222 million pumped into the scheme, which is delivered almost exclusively by sole operators like ACCESS Ministries and Scripture Union. He says it’s “resulted in breaches of what should be a very thick wall between church and state” and that it’s naive to expect chaplains not to proselytise. [Ibid.]

The article to which he links makes no mention of ACCESS Ministries or Scripture Union.  The article to which the article links makes no mention of ACCESS Ministries or Scripture Union.  The blog to which the article to which the article links makes no mention of ACCESS Ministries or Scripture Union.  What’s going on?

We’ve had a slide from chaplains in state schools to public-funding of religious schools and now we’re sliding to religious volunteers teaching in state schools.  And we’re not done there…

In the pompous, nebbish style for which he has become famous, Carr doesn’t take another step and dare to consider that religious vilification laws, school chaplaincy issues, and any number of other teacup-localised storms might be solved by levering church and state further apart — the whole point of secularism to begin with. Might the debate be reinvigorated by a well-regarded and purportedly secular ex-premier? Yeah, and we have an atheist PM — pull the other one. [Ibid.]

‘Religious vilification laws’?  Where the devil did that come from?  What could he possibly even mean?  Also note the use of the word ‘purportedly’: whenever one atheist says something which goes against the collective atheist groupthink, it’s important to question whether they’re actually an atheist, or an evil Christian in disguise.

Brereton seems incapable of distinguishing between the issues at play.  Instead of seeing a list of separate issues, Brereton sees only religion.  And any religion is bad religion.  Check out the final paragraph:

This is why secularism is a virtue. It prevents all of us — religious or otherwise — from having our tolerant society smeared by this kind of rubbish. Churches and secularist groups alike should take up the battle to change the Australian settlement’s historical muddle and keep the proselytisers where they belong — in church. [Ibid.]

What kind of rubbish?  ‘Tolerant society smeared’?  Le whut?  What’s tolerant about: ‘Get out of my public debates and back into your churches, where you belong‘?  We will tolerate you so long as you’re suppressed in public.

As noted in my last post, the confusion arises because ‘secular’ isn’t well understood.  Should we prefer secularism (where religion is suppressed or rendered invisible) over pluralism (where there’s a multitude of voices in public debates and public policy), for example?  Brereton seems to want the former.

And because he wants religion suppressed/invisible, he can’t distinguish between issues.  All religion-in-public instances are reprehensible and should be denounced.

Despite being an atheist, I’ve made the case that religious education is important (especially for atheists).  In that piece, I also showed that keeping religion in the public sphere was important to reduce extremism.  Australia funds ‘moderate Islam’ schools in Indonesia for good reason.  As they are incompatible with Brereton’s position, either preventing extremism in this way is abominable or Brereton is incorrect.  It’s not looking good for Brereton’s case.

And then we can add all the other issues relating to the ‘separation of church and state’ that I mentioned.  Do we want to live in a country where religious groups have several immunities from legislation?  Do we want churches to be a safe-haven for extremist views (SoCS works both ways, after all)?

Atheists like Brereton need to sharpen their analysis beyond ‘religion bad/secularism good’.

We’ve got the land but they’ve got the view… Patrick’s Unfallacy

Last week, Bruce of Thinkers’ Podium took issue with my ‘execrable garbage’:

Now either Mark Fletcher is [sic] to use his words, particularly stupid or odious […] or he’s undertaking a brilliant project lampooning the stereotypical, bumbling, envious, aspiring fool-author.  [Source: ‘Patrick’s FallacyThinkers’ Podium]

Being the thoughtful and considered person that I am, I took a few days to think about his complaint and whether his armchair psychology diagnosis had any merit.

Before we get there, we need to look at Bruce’s overall argument.  It revolves around a concept he calls ‘Patrick’s Fallacy’:

It works like this. Your opponent makes an analogy between one thing and another thing, purportedly showing how they are the same in a particular way. You then find a different trait one of the things possesses, and declare that it is utterly horrible to analogize a thing with that trait to the other thing. [Ibid.]

I have trouble with the idea of the ‘fallacy’ in informal logic.  Nine times out of ten, it’s an attempt to normalise rules of discussion in favour of a privileged mindset.  Invariably, people who invoke ‘fallacy’-talk characterise their own position as default-rational and, more concerningly, values-neutral.  ‘No, it’s not me trying to dominate conversations with my preferred frameworks.  It’s just logic and rationality.  You’re being illogical and irrational when you say that you don’t trust my armchair psychology because I’m not a psychologist.  That’s an ad hominem.  I win this argument.’

Long story short, fallacies are rarely universalisable and invariably render invisible the power structures of language.  Unlike formal fallacies (e.g. affirming the antecedent), there is no structure underlying informal fallacies.  They are merely cultural constructs and are often too imprecise for practical work.

But it’s not fair of me to merely dismiss Bruce out of hand for getting confused by basic logic.  Maybe, despite his reliance on informal ‘fallacy’-talk, he has a legitimate claim that I am particularly stupid or odious.  Let us turn to the content of Patrick’s Fallacy.

Let us imagine Bruce and I are the best of friends (and I certainly hope that, in some future state of the universe, this might happen).  One day, Bruce and I are boarding a flight to attend a conference in Lithuania about the social project of atheism.  The following conversation happens:

Bruce: Ugh.  They want my passport.  This is just like Nazi Germany.

Mark: Say what, old chum?

Bruce: Identification documents.  This is also totally like apartheid South Africa.

Mark: You think a comparison of our current situation in an airport to a grand scale genocide and a national programme of racial segregation is appropriate, just because they share the common attribute of ‘Had identification documents’?

Bruce: Shut up, Mark.  You and your confected moral outrage really annoy me.  You know full well that you are committing Patrick’s Fallacy.  It is perfectly rational and reasonable for me to compare these things to each other.

Mark: Are you for real?

Bruce: Of course I’m for real.  I’m always for real.  It’s valid of me to compare these things because they share at least one attribute.  It in no way trivialises the horrors to which I’m connecting our current situation.

Mark: I’m sorry, we can no longer be friends.

I can understand situations where Patrick’s Fallacy might be reasonable.  For example, imagine the Australian Government started cleansing the Earth of New Zealanders.  Imagine somebody said: ‘Oh, hey.  This is scarily like Nazi Germany.’  I think it would be extremely foolish for someone to reply: ‘Don’t be so stupid.  Nazi Germany was about exterminating Jews.  We’re exterminating Kiwis.  It’s totally different and how dare you compare these atrocities.’

But anything short of that, and I don’t think it holds all that well.

So what’s the underlying problem with Patrick’s Fallacy?  Usually, I can work out what the underlying reason is behind informal fallacies.  Take, for example, the ad hominem.  Basically, it’s trying to say that (for ordinary propositions, at the very least) authors are not truth-makers.  P is true or false independent of who utters P.  The principle doesn’t hold for more complex cases or for where we’re stretching out of logic into epistemology (and justifications for beliefs).

What’s the deal with Patrick’s Fallacy then?  If two events contain at least one attribute in common, it doesn’t hold that these events are positively comparable.  My telephone and your artwork contain atoms; it doesn’t hold that my telephone and your artwork are anything alike.

The thrust of Patrick’s Fallacy seems to be that people make tenuous leaps to moral outrage.  Somebody might make the claim that draconian censorship laws are just like Soviet Russia’s.  It would be pretty dumb for somebody to complain that the censorship laws aren’t alike because Soviet Russia had a 5-year plan and these censorship laws don’t.  Maybe.  Do people even do things like this?  Surely the correct answer would be: ‘This is nothing like Soviet Russia.  Go read a book.’

What is far more common is for people to make tenuous links between their current situation and atrocities.

That brings us rather neatly to Bruce’s criticism of me.  Way back when I started going through The Australian Book of Atheism, I commented on an essay by Chrys Stevenson.  Stevenson, not known for being a class act, had this to say:

History is political.  The portrayal of minority groups in mainstream histories, or their omission from the national chronicle, resonates through our sense of national identity […]  It is no surprise that a key strategy of any social or nationalist movement is to reclaim the past — to seek out actors, events, and influences which have been omitted or downplayed in mainstream histories, and to stake a claim in the nation’s future through reference to the contributions of the past.

An early advocate for African American civil rights […] argu[ed] forcefully that African American contributions to America’s history ‘were overlooked, ignored, or even suppressed by the writers of history textbooks and the teachers who use them.’  Racial prejudice […] was the ‘inevitable outcome of thorough instruction to the effect that the Negro has never contributed anything to the progress of mankind.  (As atheists, our historical contribution has been similarly dismissed.) [Source — Stevenson, C. ‘Felons, Ratbags, Commies, and Left-Wing Loonies: Atheism in Australia, 1788-2010’; emphasis mine]

What does she mean when she says ‘As atheists, our historical contribution has been similarly dismissed’?  I read it as Stevenson making a comparison between the treatment of atheists and the treatment of African Americans.  This would make use of the words ‘similarly’ and ‘dismissed’.

I said in that post — and I still maintain the position — that this is ludicrous.  Atheists have not suffered the same (or even similar) treatment as African Americans.

To substantiate my point, I noted that lots of atheists (who were also known to be atheist) feature prominently in Australian history.  You could find textbooks of Australian history in which atheists featured.  This is in contrast to the treatment of African Americans.  ‘African American History Month’ was established to counter this problem.

In response, Bruce says this:

Anyone bothering to read The Australian Book of Atheism with any appreciable level of comprehension will notice that in no way does Stevenson compare ‘suffering’. She’s comparing the similar tactics used by majorities in two different contexts, and you can even see this for yourself in the portion quoted in Fletcher’s own post. [Source: ‘Patrick’s FallacyThinkers’ Podium]

What sort of argument is that?  Oh, she’s comparing tactics?  How does this change the meaning of my post?  How does this mean I’ve inaccurately represented her argument?

To show this, let us imagine that Bruce is correct.  If the tactics were similar, then atheist contributions to Australian history ‘were overlooked, ignored, or even suppressed by the writers of history textbooks and the teachers who use them.’  This would have had ‘ the effect that [atheists] has never contributed anything to the progress of mankind’.

But, as my original article showed, this isn’t the case.

Clever readers would have noticed that Bruce hasn’t provided an argument for why I’m incorrect; he’s merely stated that I’m the victim of ‘envy and poor comprehension’.  I’m sure we all agree the extent to which Bruce has made a persuasive and rational case.

I think what he was trying to do was give examples of Patrick’s Fallacy.  Given that Patrick’s Fallacy doesn’t hold up under scrutiny, this attack fails.  My response to Stevenson’s offensive suggestion that atheists and African Americans have experienced similar oppression (with regard to acknowledgement of contribution to human history) seems to be sound (though I’m open to rebuttal).  If Bruce thinks that it’s an example of some hastily-invented ‘fallacy’, this probably says more about his critical reasoning skills than mine.