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Criticising the Other

29 Apr

I will have in an undergraduate class, let’s say, a young, white, male student, politically-correct, who will say: “I am only a bourgeois white male, I can’t speak.” In that situation – it’s peculiar, because I am in the position of power and their teacher and, on the other hand, I am not a bourgeois white male – I say to them: “Why not develop a certain degree of rage against the history that has written such an abject script for you that you are silenced?” Then you begin to investigate what it is that silences you, rather than take this very deterministic position – since my skin colour is this, since my sex is this, I cannot speak. I call these things, as you know, somewhat derisively, chromatism: basing everything on skin colour – “I am white, I can’t speak” – and genitalism: depending on what genitals you have, you can or cannot speak in certain situations.

From this position, then, I say you will of course not speak in the same way about the Third World material, but if you make it your task not only to learn what is going on there through language, through specific programmes of study, but also at the same time through a historical critique of your position as the investigating person, then you will see that you have earned the right to criticize, and you will be heard. When you take the position of not doing your homework – “I will not criticize because of my accident of birth, the historical accident” – that is a much more pernicious position.

In one way you take a risk to criticize, of criticizing something which is Other – something which you used to dominate. I say that you have to take a certain risk: to say “I won’t criticize” is salving your conscience, and allowing you not to do any homework. On the other hand, if you criticize having earned the right to do so, then you are indeed taking a risk and you will probably be made welcome, and can hope to be judged with respect.

Gayatri Spivak (1990) The Postcolonial Critic: Interviews, Strategies, Dialogues. Routledge: London, pp. 62f.

I don’t agree entirely with this. But it’s thoughtful and makes a sound point.


Conflating Sciences and Morality

28 Jun

The conflation of the knowledges of sciences and social sciences with moral and social duties is an inevitability, yet we act and write as if this is not so. We pretend, for all intents and purposes, that a resolution of a science alone justifies a moral imperative. That in a secular world, virtues can be taken from science.

Take, for instance, this article on “fat activism”. The social pressure to maintain a particular body shape is a glorious example of this phenomenon. Medical advice such as being fit, not smoking, or avoiding germs is apt to quickly become a social imperative, as is evidenced by the neurotic disgust at the idea of germs or smoking and the severe social pressure not to be fat in developed societies. The article well demonstrates the social pressures not to be fat, but the most interesting part of the article is that the author herself falls victim to the meddling of scientific claims with moral claims in her defence of the overweight:

 “Overweight” carries an inherent judgement: “over”, above what you should be, thus the implication of a particular normal weight.

“Overweight” indeed carries an inherent judgement: that one’s weight is over that which is healthy. But the author uses the presence of this judgement to decry the social judgement that she perceives to exist in the word, without accepting that it could be possible to have a medically inadvisable weight while having a socially acceptable weight were social attitudes different. Indeed, she goes to preposterous lengths to try to demonstrate that being overweight is not particularly unhealthy in an article intended to address regrettable social attitudes towards being fat. All she really needed to do was show that one’s health is one’s own business and is no more deserving of scorn than not treating ingrown toenails.

She goes on to breathlessly declare that she has witnessed even feminists — of all people — eating healthily! She knows “socialist feminists who don’t shave their legs yet count calories”! This “fat hatred” and “self-loathing” is a “human rights issue”. Did it occur to the author that there might be a difference between not wanting to be overweight for the sake of being healthy and for the sake of conforming to expectations about body shape? No; for in her mind, as in the minds of most people, the two are conflated and cannot be divorced. One of the comments summarises this propensity well: “Fat has become a moral, cultural and aesthetic issue. This is what has become conflated with the health issue.”

But this habit transcends not only obesity or even the natural sciences. Across the social sciences we see a spectrum, with strict econometrics on one side, having the best claim to objectivity, albeit specious, and gender and cultural studies on the other, which makes no such representation. The same spectrum sees inadvertent social judgements arise from the first end, the most right-wing, of the spectrum, and explicitly subjective moral judgements made on the other. For instance, on the economics side, we would once have seen condemnation of excessive spending as lavish fiscal impropriety, while today excessive spending is seen as prudish in light of a focus on the mode of consumption rather than the mode of production. Conversely, the most liberal end of the social sciences unashamedly decries various sorts of prejudice.

Of particular peculiarity is the notion that it is morally reprehensible not to work. Economics, like other old, conservative social sciences and humanities such as history, makes a claim to actually represent the truth of the world. It recognises the negative effects of unfavourable unemployment rates or participation rates. But this is conflated with moral judgements in a logical connexion that is not obvious in the slightest, socially condemning worklessness in the process. This is why it is strategically favourable for Gina Reinhart to “[castigate] her children for not working full time“.

Indeed, the mining rich are prone to such assertions — consider Andrew Forrest’s winging in the infantile rag The Daily Telegraph on 3 May 2012 with the headline “Work is the key to living free of the curse of welfare and shame.” He offers us such gems as “a job…leads to dignity and self-respect” and “to work [is]…their duty”. Exemplifying the way in which he treats an economic issue as a moral one, he proudly declares that “this is the biggest moral issue facing Australia”.

This attitude is a distinctly Protestant, as Max Weber explains in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Australian values, insomuch as they exist in any coherent way, are predicated on Protestantism, which permits the accumulation of wealth (luckily for our friend Twiggy) but condemns idleness and the work shy, and is eager to moralise endlessly on all sorts of economic matters. While the idea of redemption is quite religious, the idea that one can redeem oneself through work is especially Protestant. Compare this to Ancient Greece, where not working was a virtue. Employment — especially when one worked for another — was analogous to slavery; one sees a similarity with Marxism. The Greek philosophers and aristocrats disparaged working and saw work as an interference with one’s duties as a human and a citizen of a democratic polis. Aristotle explained:

A state with an ideal constitution—a state which has for its members men who are absolutely just, and not men who are merely just in relation to some particular standard—cannot have its citizens living the life of mechanics or shopkeepers, which is ignoble and inimical to goodness. Nor can it have them engaged in farming; leisure is a necessity, both for growth in goodness and for the pursuit of political activity.

There was no special moral status to work and the aristoi of those societies, unlike Reinhart and Forrest, would not consider deigning to work.

Such conflations of morality and science are an inevitability; they are a simple but unavoidable association of a descriptive account of the world with a prescriptive account of how the world ought to be. But we would do well to be conscious of this tendency, for prescribing behaviour to others is a very different matter from assessing how people behave.

The New South Wales Curriculum

21 Oct

Michael Stuchbery’s arguments in favour of curriculum reform are at best populist, and at worst flawed. No doubt we have a crowded and imperfect curriculum, but when one clamours to have the curriculum amended claiming it does not prepare students for the real world, one ought to at least get one’s facts right.

As a Higher School Certificate student, I can attest to the existence of misconceptions in Mr Stuchbery’s polemic. Take English, for example — despite Mr Stuchbery’s contention that students ought to study just a “few great texts” and not the swathe of texts they study now, an average HSC English student will spend hours a week for a year only three to four texts, along with a handful of texts of their own choosing studied at home. The great works of the English canon are by no means omitted. Coleridge, Keats, Orwell, Donne, Blake, Dickens, Shakespeare and Austen join Emily Dickinson, George Bernard Shaw and William Butler Yeats on the current English prescriptions as possible texts to study for the HSC. Students might also study influential Australian authors, directors and poets such as Baz Luhrman, David Malouf, and Tim Winton.

Stuchbery also seems to think that students learn only a story in history, suggesting that more historiography be taught. Every HSC Ancient History student learns about an ancient society and a historical period, each of which includes the study of “relevant historiographical issues”, as well as an ancient personality and a study of Pompeii, each of involves learning how interpretations of the historical record have developed. After a year of Ancient History, I can discuss what modern writers such as Rawson, Hoyos and Syme think of Caesar, or what Aristotle, Plutarch and Xenephon wrote about Sparta in antiquity. A shortage of historiography is a product of Mr Stuchbery’s imagination, not a flawed syllabus.

Mr Stuchbery’s suggestion that students be obliged to learn mathematics shows an understanding of what is taught far removed from reality. I am a perfectly capable student and the twelve years of maths preceding Year 12 no doubt provided me with all the mathematical skills I will ever need. Given that I do not intend to pursue a career that involves calculus, conics, or polynomials, studying mathematics in Year 12 would be hours of study wasted on student who neither needs nor wants such knowledge. In suggesting that each HSC student be compelled to study Life Skills Mathematics, Mr Stuchbery is seeking to compel students to study a course intended to provide post-compulsory schooling opportunities to students with intellectual disabilities. One does not need to explain how that is a poor appropriation of the course’s purpose.

It is fortunate how ineffectual years of political bickering over what is taught in schools has been, and how far it is removed from reality. However well-constructed the arguments from each side of the debate might be — whether objective, factual, traditional education or contemporary, progressive education is being championed — one is always impressed at how little characterisations of the curriculum represent reality.

Hate Speech and Free Speech

8 Oct

In 2006, seven members of the far right-wing Westboro Baptist Church* undertook an anti-gay protest at the funeral of Albert Snyder’s son, who had died earlier that year serving in Iraq as a Lance Corporal for the US military. Mr Snyder filed a civil claim against the Church, after which he was variously awarded damages or had the matter dismissed, depending on the court. The case appeared today before the United States Supreme Court, where the First Amendment rights of the Church’s founder and pastor, Fred W. Phelps, Sr. will be put in opposition to Mr Snyder’s tortious claims. During the proceedings yesterday, judges hinted that although they disapproved of the actions of Mr Phelps and his posse, they would have little choice but to find in his favour.

Westboro Baptist Church Protesters

Meanwhile, some 6195 kilometres away in Amsterdam, the trial of controversial anti-Islam Dutch MP Geert Wilders has begun, wherein he is facing charges of inciting hatred and discrimination and giving religious offence to Muslims. Mr Wilders, who is the beneficiary of 24-hour police protection due to public anger at his populist policies, is liable to receive up to a year of incarceration or a €7.600 fine if convicted. Amongst other things, he has likened the Qur’an to Hitler’s Mein Kampf and described Islamic culture as “retarded”:

“I have had enough of Islam in the Netherlands: let there be no more Muslim immigrants. I have had enough of the worship of Allah and Mohammed in the Netherlands: let there be no more mosques. I have had enough of the Koran in the Netherlands: let us forbid that fascist book. Enough is enough.”

As a result of these views, his new role in the Dutch coalition government has led to it announcing plans to halve immigration and ban the burqa. Previous complaints in relation to his iconoclastic and racist statements have not gone to trial as the Netherlands also provides for freedom of speech in its constitution. As Mr Wilders declared:

“[I am] being prosecuted for believing there is something uniquely Dutch under attack that’s worthy of being preserved. The same could be said about that which is Italian, British, German, Spanish, Danish, Swedish, French or American. That [I face] trial for this belief shows [that] some aren’t willing to have this discussion, but all countries will face it eventually. Western tolerance shouldn’t be a suicide pact.”

Paradoxically, Mr Wilders has announced that he is exercising his right to silence during the proceedings, much to the annoyance of the trial judge, despite the fact that his case rests on his right to free speech.

Geert Wilders on trial

Each of these cases demonstrate a dilemma in the legal system of western countries. In endeavouring to protect the rights of the people, a legislative body must determine to what extent somebody’s right to free speech impinges on another’s right not to be the subject of speech that is clearly offensive or incites either hatred or violence. This was described by Rodney Smolla as “the most intractable and difficult problem in speech theory” in Free speech in an open society. Critics of hate speech law cite what John Stuart Mill called “the tyranny of the majority”, arguing that it is the opinions of the majority rather than purely objective views that are imposed on everybody. Mill argued in his treatise On Liberty that unorthodox ideas must be permitted in public discourse for the sake of debate, as without such ideas one could not ever conduct complete discussion. He claimed that individual expression was akin to thought in that it should be afforded special protection from government regulation.

In contrast to this, international agreements such as the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination have induced hate speech statutes in many jurisdictions, although the presence of a right to freedom of expression in that Convention abated the extent to which these laws affected freedom of speech. The United Nations Human Rights Committee has made it clear that the right to free speech does not extend to “racial or religious hatred”. Although most developed countries have enacted hate speech laws, they are rarely in the constitution, Bill of Rights or similar law (including the Human Rights Act 1998 in the UK) whilst the right to freedom of expression is frequently included therein.

There is little doubt that the rights to free speech and not to be subject to hate speech are competing interests that must coexist for the sake of society. The means by which this is to be completed and the extent to which each right should exist is a problematic and ultimately a highly subjective one. Multiple countries, including Canada, provide that expression must intend to cause harm in order to qualify as hate speech, which is a more moderate approach than is employed by many other jurisdictions. The imbalance inherent in the fact that only South Africa has provided constitutional provisions relating to hate speech and how it relates to the right of free speech indicates that free speech is still considered a priority, perhaps due to its history as a right extending back to ancient Greece. Despite this, law around the world is gradually changing to reflect the developing view of societies that hate speech cannot be tolerated in modern and multicultural communities.

*Note the creative URL


27 Sep

With the Greens preparing a bill that would repeal a ban on the Northern Territory legislating to allow euthanasia, the positive effects of having a minority government control the lower house of the 43rd Parliament have become apparent. Bob Brown aims to allow the Northern Territory to re-enact the voluntary euthanasia laws that it passed in 1995 (The Rights of the Terminally Ill Act 1995 (NT)) and were overruled by Federal Parliament two years later. Despite this, the Northern Territory Chief Minister and Dr Phillip Nitschke have each made comments suggesting that they believe the Territory will not reintroduce euthanasia legislation in the near future. The government of Tasmania and a government MP in Victoria have each expressed an interest in examining the issue. Most Australian states have rejected euthanasia legislation, including South Australia which has stubbornly rejected it five times since 2000.

The debate surrounding euthanasia is difficult to conduct. It is one that is heavily influenced by demagoguery, religion and personal experience. The vast majority of countries do not allow euthanasia of any sort; the practice is legal in parts of Europe, some States in the US and Japan. It is no longer legal in any part of Australia. Despite this, it is widely practised by doctors in a tempered form through the excessive use of painkillers on terminally ill patients to shorten their lives.

Those who support euthanasia cite the widespread unofficial use of painkillers to induce a faster and less painful death in dying patients, saying that such practices should be regulated and reviewed. Others claim that this would only legitimise a technique that should not be permitted. Some 80 – 85% of Australians support voluntary euthanasia, for it is surely just to allow somebody in terrible pain, with no discernible quality of life, to choose to die. The “slippery slope” argument, which claims that allowing voluntary euthanasia would soon lead to allowing involuntary euthanasia, is frequently employed by anti-euthanasia groups. Christopher Pyne justified his stance on euthanasia in the same way on the ABC’s Q and A on the 20th of September:

“…in the communities where they had introduced euthanasia, like Holland, there were many examples, and 1200 at the last count, of people who were involuntarily euthanised. So once you open the door to voluntary euthanasia you can’t be certain where the boundaries will actually end.”

This strange statistic seems to have come from the vile Australian Christian Lobby. It is indeed true that the Netherlands is more or less the only jurisdiction to allow non-voluntary euthanasia, and even then it is of an indeterminate legal status. The Netherlands tolerates the euthanasia of children where parents, doctors and social workers have approved it. In the past seven years, twenty-two cases of euthanasia performed on children were reported – a far cry from the 1200 Pyne discussed. In each of these cases, the suffering of the subject was incredibly high and could not be alleviated. In most cases, the victim would have had no ability to communicate whatsoever and would have been entirely dependent on a hospital’s facilities to keep them alive. It is these cases, and similar cases in adults, where not allowing euthanasia is nothing short of cruel. Counter-arguments cite the inherent value of life and the effects of euthanasia on relatives, but rarely acknowledge that the patient, rather than the legislature, is ethically and practically better placed to consider these factors. Ethicist Leslie Cannold supports euthanasia:

The point is that if you pass a law that says, “My values, which is that I believe certain things about life and you ought not to be taking yours,” that impedes my capacity to follow my values. Where if you pass a law that says everybody has a choice, you can do what you believe is right and I can do what I believe is right.


This baby, which suffers from Hydrocephalus, could be euthanised only in the Netherlands