Monday, 1 October 2012

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

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

Most of Australia thinks so.

Most of Australia is happy to tell him so.

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

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

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

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

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

I can't say it any more clearly.

The system is working perfectly.


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

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

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

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

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

[All excerpts from comments found here].

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

The Hitch-More Principle

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

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

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

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

The cases have two things in common:

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

Error 404: Tolerance Not Found

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then I get a bit mad.

It reads like a paradox.

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

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

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

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

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

Here I go again, inventing terms that probably already exist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Subject Zedding

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nobody is.

Monday, 16 April 2012

Ideas Evolve

The Christianness of our past is constantly brought up as an argument in favour of our Christianness of our present. Here's a pretty recent article that does just that.

If you don't have time to read it, let me highlight what I think is the crux of the argument:

To acknowledge the religious heritage of the modern world is to say nothing about religious ''truth''. But while our age may be secular, it is, at the same time, still a deeply Christian one. If atheists feel they must rip up everything that came before them, they will destroy the very foundations of that secularism.
 Chris Berg has a good head on his shoulders, so it baffles me why he'd make a claim like that. The origins of an idea matter very little, especially in this context. The basis for the idea has completely changed. The entire notion of human rights has evolved, to divert to the parlance of Biology, and no longer requires 'foundations'. Ideas aren't like buildings. They're far more like a living organism.

I can't imagine, for example, the same logic being applied to meteorolgy. We no longer believe that performing a certain kind of dance can bring on rain, nor do we believe that human sacrifice will reap a good crop of food. That does not mean that, when faced with somebody who does believe those things, we have to put on a polite veneer and make meek noises about disagreement-with-no-hard-feelings. We might call them foolish for putting their faith in a dance-weather relationship, or at least use our outdoor voices when condeming their penchant for killing their fellow man. To call Twelver Shi'a Islam dangerous because it believes that the Twelfth Imam will return amongst nuclear fire is not to destroy the very foundations of algebra, a concept developed by an Islamic mathematician.

It doesn't matter where the ideas came from. We have a better basis for them now. We have evolved the concept beyond its original purpose and have very well-reasoned, well-accepted notions of why we ought to value them.

Heinrich Heine put it pretty neatly. a pitch-black night a blind man is the best guide; he knows the roads and paths better than a man who can see. When daylight comes, however, it is foolish to use blind, old men as guides.
Respect the origins of an idea by all means, but don't pretend that the originator deserves ownership of that idea in perpetuity. There's a large difference between knowing where ideas come from and dispensing with the baggage that brings.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

When Free Speech Costs A Bunch Of Money

It has reached the point where it would be irresponsible of me to not write about this.

I wasn't going to, because I wasn't familiar enough with the story. But now I've brought myself up to speed, and this is what's going on:

Anti-Porn Crusader Melinda Tankard Reist is threatening an internet blogger with an expensive and lengthy court proceeding because of comments made on her blog. The blogger, Jennifer Wilson of No Place For Sheep, summarises the situation impeccably here.

I'm not a legal expert, but it seems to me that Jennifer is covered by at least three complete defences to defamation in the form of Truth, Honest Opinion and Triviality. That is irrelevant, however, to the larger issue.

What we are seeing here is bullying. Melinda Tankard Reist is using her means and public profile to silence a single internet blogger over trivial (and that is my Honest Opinion) comments about her religious background, and her refusal to elaborate on them. Never mind that these comments were completely fair. Never mind that I, along with several thousand others, would never have found out about these comments if MTR hadn't decided to wave the big red litigation flag. The principle at stake here is free speech, and who is entitled to it in this country.

According to this, only the people with the money to drag a defamation case through court.

You see, you can't tout your commitment to free speech if you're going to stick a price tag on it so big that no ordinary person can exercise it. That's like saying that America does have universal health care, it just costs hundreds of thousands of dollars to get access to it.

Go ahead, the Australian Legal System says. You can say whatever you like. But if someone doesn't like it, even if the comments are fair and just, you'll be put through a process so time and money consuming that it will ruin you. Oh, did we mention that this process can be initiated by anyone that has the cash? There's no means test, or protections, or Prima Facie requirement that any satisfactory result may come of this process? Because that's a thing. So go on. Say those things. We fucking dare you.

This isn't the country that I want to live in. I'll be writing more on this, but for now it would be great to see this passed around to as many people as possible. Melinda Tankard Reist isn't immune from inquiry and comment and criticism. Don't let her bully you in to thinking that she is. If any legal action is taken against Jennifer Wilson, I'll be chipping in to help with the legal costs.

It's the least we can do to defend people's right to speak.

Edit: I can't believe I'm doing this...All content here represents my own honest opinon on the topic and as such should be exempt from a defamation claim. Honest Opinion is a complete defense to defamation claims.