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Falling for Story

Many years ago, fourteen if I remember correctly, I wrote a book called Falling for Science, which attempted to look at the difference between science and storytelling, and specifically at the way the two interact. Were I to rewrite that now, there is no doubt much I would change, but the basic principles I would remain the same. We as humans do two interrelated yet in an important sense vastly different things when we attempt to comprehend our world. We build models of the world which allow us to make predictions about what is most likely to happen next, and we tell stories about this world, which imbue it with purpose and meaning. It is these stories which allow the emotional and spiritual engagement with existence, which provide us with our motivations, our values and, crucially, our sense of self worth. In the wee small hours, when our confidence shrinks to its smallest, most compressed self, what is it we can say with confidence about the life we live? What gives us cheer, hope and the will to move forward. What allows us to access our joy and our enthusiasm? The answer is story.

In Falling for Science I focussed mainly on the way we have misunderstood the link between science and storytelling, and the danger of thinking we are doing science when in fact we have slipped, unnoticed, into storytelling mode. That’s an important point, I think, particularly in an age so given to facile reductionism, but were I to write the book now my focus would be much more on story itself. What are the dominant stories in which our young are being raised and what is this doing to them? And from this, what is the responsibility of the storyteller, and perhaps most important of all, how can we deliberately and effectively change the stories we tell ourselves?

This is not the time for a philosophical diversion, such things tend to hijack useful discussions, but it is worth noting quickly that the problem in part is that people have become dismissive of stories. ‘It’s just a story’, ‘it’s not really true’, such statements are hangovers from the age of logical positivism, a conviction that there really are true facts about the world, and the stories we tell are simply whimsical decorations added for                          entertainment and diversion, but in some sense insubstantial. There is a belief that if only we understood the facts of the world, the truths, then there is no place for story. This is nonsense on stilts, for at least two important reasons. First, in philosophical terms, the idea of truth and fact is nowhere near that simple, and the idea that we can draw any neat sort of distinction between facts and stories is very hard to justify; it is for this reason that I am a pragmatist, philosophically speaking, convinced that the only helpful criteria we can apply to any model of the world is ‘how useful is this model to me?’ It is not that truth is irrelevant, but rather that this appears to be the only way we can usefully speak of truth – as a measure of helpfulness. On the psychological front, the idea that we simply have to understand the facts of the world massively misunderstands the nature of the human mind, and the way we go about making sense of the world. Most of the situations we encounter are too messy to be accurately modelled (we can’t predict how a coin toss will fall, but we really think we can rationally plot the progression of a relationship?) What’s more, even when we do have a strong sense of what is likely to happen, our response to the situation is still massively influenced by our emotional attitude towards that set of circumstances, and the stories we tell ourselves about our world play a huge role in driving that response.

This year, then, as a teacher, I want this truth of the world, the way we shape our stories and the way they shape us, to be a central understanding that my students move towards. We are currently experiencing an international surge in mental health issues amongst the young. I am of the opinion this is in part a result of the stories they have grown up surrounded with. Clearly it’s not the whole deal, but it feels like an area where we can at least make an immediate and positive contribution. I’ll give you just a couple of examples which may clarify my stance. The psychologist Martin Seligman has a lovely phrase, Post Traumatic Growth. He contends that the normal response to trauma, citing a figure of 90%, is, in time, personal growth. We are knocked over, it is completely devastating, we feel lost and experience despair, but we move through it, and come out the other side stronger. Mostly. Yet, if we look at the dominant mode of storytelling, intended to gain audience by being as ‘gritty’ ‘real’ and ‘shocking’ as it can possibly be, we see stories where trauma leads  almost inevitably to devastation. What’s more, because devastation sits at the heart of these stories’ appeal, devastation itself, the inability to carry on, becomes glamorous, and there is the danger of a culture of competing towards the most suffering credibility by falling the hardest. Because we aren’t surrounding kids with stories of overcoming devastation, because we are not making heroes of those who soar above, we potentially create a world where the young miscue their responses to pain, believing that now it is their turn to slowly sink, to join the ranks of the inevitably despairing. Psychologists speak of the ABC model, where it is not actions that have consequences, but rather our beliefs about actions. Is it possible that by surrounding the young with stories of hope, and by explicitly communicating with them the truths of not just survival but recovery, and giving them the power to redraw their own stories and deliberately reframe their beliefs, we can make them more emotionally resilient and hopeful? Many researchers in the field believe we can, and I can’t see why I wouldn’t want to try it. If Seligman and co are correct, then it is a perfect example of the way our experience of the world is determined largely by the stories we tell ourselves about the world. I can’t protect my students from trauma. Terrible things will happen to them during their lives. Of course.  Wonderful things will happen too. But what if I can change the expectations they have about how those terrible things are going to affect them?

My second example is to do with purpose. What our purpose in life is, is inevitably the result of story. Existentialists found this a very challenging fact and so were prone to collapse into a pit of despair, saying odd things like ‘there is no meaning, it’s all invention.’ Actually there is plenty of meaning, as much of it as we want. That it is all invention is not a bad thing, it’s rather a wonderful opportunity (why oh why are there not more pragmatists?) We get to decide what our life is all about, and in this we will be constrained by our culture and our nature. So, given the kinds of folk we are, and the kinds of world we live in, what kind of purpose should we choose? This too strikes me as an excellent question to pose to our young. The thing I want my students to consider is that, if they do not explicitly address this question themselves, the world will provide any number of answers. What makes me valuable? Well, how about how I look and how others judge my appearance? How about how much money I have, or how influential I am, or how many friends I have, or how smart I am, or how much cool stuff I own, or how funny I am, or how many people I have sex with? There is a completely overwhelming cultural narrative spinning a thousand different ways of enslaving ourselves to forces beyond our control. I can’t really change how I look, it takes tremendous effort to change what I earn, making more friends only makes it more difficult to sustain the friendships I currently have, and in the end it’s the friends who will choose as much as I will. The singular danger of so many of the purpose narratives is the way they disempower, urging the young developing mind to seek external approval as a way of feeling worthwhile. And here is where one of the most ancient understandings of purpose has such wonderful power. For what if the primary purpose in life, the way by which we should most judge our worth and sense of self, is kindness? It accords well with our nature, all the research suggests being kind makes us feel good, and wonderfully it is also entirely within our own control. In a given day we will face a hundred tiny moral choices, opportunities to be either kind or selfish. It is the very fact that it is up to us how we proceed, that we are not constrained, that makes these choices moral. So we get to choose whether or not we are kind, the world doesn’t judge and label us on this one, most acts of kindness will go unnoticed, we get to make the call. And that is the definition of empowerment. The difference between trying to be kind and trying to look hot is twofold in this respect. First, the external world judges our looks, we judge the quality of our decisions, and second, hotness tends to be competitive. It’s not that everybody can look great, because looking great tends to be defined as looking exceptionally great. It’s a stupid road to mass misery. So too being wealthy, smart, influential or popular. These are all games which you have very little control over and which only a few, by design, can win. They’re stupid games. Kindness by contrast is not comparative. If you set your worth by being kind, then the kindness of others does not diminish you. Rather is raises you all up. This before we even consider how it’s good the person receiving the kindness.

So, again, here is a story we get to tell ourselves. Buy into a story that kindness matters, that your moral qualities define you, and you give yourself tremendous power when it comes to flourishing. The stories we tell ourselves about what makes us valuable profoundly change the way the we experience the world. Maybe there are better examples of kindness, ancient wisdoms identify a range of virtues worthy of consideration, but it strikes me as a good place to start.

Here’s to the power of storytelling, and the realisation that no storyteller will ever influence us more than the one residing inside our own heads. If I ever write a follow up book I shall have to call it  Falling for Story.

 

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Mudita

Schools these days have value statements, an attempt to distill that ethereal sense of what it is they are about, what they believe in. The idea is that these values become a touchstone in the decision making process, in the way resources are allocated, the way conversations conducted. More often than not these statements are odious things, more store front slogans than meaningful attempts to engage with a philosophy of learning. Nevertheless, when we get it right, when we frame for ourselves a set of values that we believe in and which have the capacity to enhance the lives of our students, to allow them to flourish, they can become useful levers in the ongoing war against the ambitions of mediocre spirits.

I was delighted then, properly joyful, when my school chose as one of its four value pillars the virtue of kindness. Imagine, for one moment, what education might look like if its primary goal was to guide its young charges on the path to living with proper kindness. Actually, imagining such is no easy task, for moving from the abstract to the concrete is essentially a process of begrudging compromise, and while it is easy to speak of the value of kindness, it is far trickier, I think, to pinpoint what it is that best allows this value to flourish. What’s more, my personal suspicion is that kindness, like creativity, gratitude, hope or enthusiasm, is carved slowly from life’s granite, accumulating as habit through the application of a thousand conscious practices. One thing I am sure of, however, is that any serious attempt to embrace this value would constitute a radical departure from much of our current practice. This is the fact that will quickly sort the slogan from the deep seated belief. A great deal of my teaching energy over the last few years has been given to exactly to this question, how does kindness become a normal part of the everyday life in a school, and there are days I despair of ever getting closer to the answer. Other times though, little stories occur that convince me it is all worth the effort. So, as the year draws to an end, let me offer one of them, a beautiful act of joyful generosity from one of the finest classes I have ever taught.

This was a year 13 Drama class, one of two in the school. They were preparing for their end of year production, a piece of theatre which essentially signs off their five years in our drama programme. They tend to have proper passion for this project, instinctively understanding how the success of their final play together will colour and shade the memories carried of all the years preceding it. Their piece, a tricky play that zapped in real time between two rooms, with the audience split between the spaces, and then seeing the play run a second time in the same night, from the other perspective, was all that it needed to be – a properly joyous celebration of the talent, energy and capacity for caring these particular kids naturally possessed. The audience had a ball. The kids felt a million dollars. But that is not the story.

It is the easiest thing in the world to seek to celebrate our triumphs as exclusive, comparative occurrences. ‘We were amazing’ slips so naturally into ‘we were the best show this school has ever seen’ ‘our class is particularly talented etc.’ Indeed, human beings find it very difficult to conceive of their own worth in any but comparative terms. It is also a lousy and limited lens through which to view the world. So, our class had finished their play, meanwhile the other Year 13 class was, in the following week, to offer theirs to the world. The piece could not have been more different, still where ours had been kinetic, contemplative where ours had been comedic, abstract where ours had been naturalistic. I spoke to my class, although in fact they needed no  such prompt, of the virtue of mudita, that experience of joy detached from ego, the ability to feel proper and profound happiness at the achievements of others. We felt great this week, I said, and now the very best thing we can offer is for the other class to have the opportunity to feel even better. That’s an easy concept to get once you consider it, once you explicitly acknowledge the stupid human tendency to need to feel better than others, that stupidity that fuels jealousy, competition and performance anxiety. The kids had no trouble understanding. So here’s what they did.

They went out to dinner together before the other class’ show and then, en masse, missing only one student who was terribly sick, they attended the other class’s show and provided as generous an audience as I have ever seen. Their laughter was authentic and giving, their spellbound silence in the moments of poignancy palpable, and when the show was over they raced forward to hug, analyse and congratulate. They created great art in that moment of looking back, by talking it into existence. And what they experienced was not the diminishment of their own prior achievement, as they might have anticipated, but rather an extending of the collective concern. They experienced the pure and unmitigated joy of giving a shit, and with it they learned the most valuable of lessons about kindness – your achievements don’t diminish me, indeed my celebration of your achievements raises me up. They learned a little of the reflexive stupidity of our culture, with its emphasis on paranoid competition, borne of the myth of limited resources. Nothing that is worth having in life is lessened by the consumption of another. Rather, it is the joyful presence of the other that makes life worth living.

I loved that class, the way they responded so well to our theme this year of hope and gratitude, and the easy grace with which they shifted the focus from their own talents to the strength of those around them. When we get education right, when kindness really does matter, it can be the most wonderful thing to behold.

 

Yesterday’s Schools

2019 will mark my thirtieth year as a secondary school teacher, and in that time I’ve worked for ten different principals and had dealings with a great many more. Like all of us, principals come in all sorts of flavours, with their own strengths and weaknesses, but it strikes me that there is one test that will tell you a great deal about the quality of leadership within a school and I mention it now because it has become publicly pertinent.

Some principals are loyalists by nature, intent on making the school they lead the very best school it can be. They think primarily in terms of community, relative achievement and reputation. It is very clear whom they serve, it is the school itself, they believe in the identity of the school as a meaningful thing. They are ultimately tribal in their thinking. These are the principals who openly revel in their successes on the national stage, their sports team victories, scholarship pass rates, the triumph of their school choir, whatever.

The second type see themselves not as serving their school, but rather the education system more broadly. They seek to contribute to the wellbeing of all students, and take no joy in their school outperforming another, for that speaks simply of the loss of students elsewhere. They understand that education is a zero sum game in this regard, that for every champion there is a runner up, and a thousand also rans who also enjoyed the game. They understand that reputation building is a terrible waste of resource, and they instinctively get that a little kid running barefoot around a field is gaining just as much life affirming pleasure from their game as the member of a national champion squad. They understand that the very finest achievements of humanity are those which do not come at the cost of another. They eschew  competition in favour of co-operation, and celebrate the quotidian. They see the function of the school as that of serving students, rather than seeing students as a means of enhancing the standing of the school.

Obviously, it is the second type I admire. I mention this because a taskforce led by Bali Haque has just reported back on the Tomorrow’s Schools experiment, and has argued that the competitive model has come with significant costs. The group have recommended that we do away with local community management of what are essentially bureaucratic functions (managing buildings, for example) and they have proposed a model whereby schools fundamentally re-imagine themselves as parts of broader educational communities. Of course, there will be all kinds of fish hooks in the nuts and bolts implementation, but the very fact the report has been written fills me with great heart. Our school system has been deeply compromised by the competitive model and every day I am saddened by the sheer stupidity of an educational model that seeks to celebrate the elite and in doing so misses the far more valuable qualities that can be nurtured in all. This is the system that oversaw large scale white flight out of schools, that has fostered an ugly rise in adolescent anxiety, has endorsed massive levels of over assessment and has gutted the curriculum of a genuine love for learning. It has created a system hugely vulnerable to lurches in fashion, and so generated unspeakable waste in the endless rush for the latest promise of educational revolution. Most crucially, it has underpinned the great rift between the haves and have nots, and has seen far too much of the resource base jealously guarded by those schools that need it least.

I can not speak adequately then, of my contempt for those school principals who are speaking so aggressively against the proposed reforms, talking of the destruction of our education system and threatening to march on parliament in defence of their right to put the interests of their privileged communities ahead of those of the nation’s children. If you are considering schools at the moment, and wondering how to judge the quality of its principal, asking what they think of the proposed reforms would be a good place to start.

And on that note, all power to the Minister Chris Hipkins, in standing strong against these little empire builders. There is huge potential for good here, and it is to be hoped he is not frightened from his course.

 

Are New Zealand schools really racist?

Words change over time, of course. Gay, mood, literally… take your pick. Meaning has never been fixed and nor should it be. Often these changes in usage are of little consequence, and tracing the way their meaning has shaded over time is little more than a parlour game. Other times though, the way words change matters very much. In education over the last  two or three years I have noticed changes in the way we are using a particularly important word, possibly you have too. That word is racism, and the term racism is loaded with such emotion and moral judgement that changes in it should be carefully scrutinised. This change is interesting in that my perception is the new usage began on the left of the political spectrum, and now is being cynically exploited by the right.

Alwyn Poole is the latest to get in on this game, calling New Zealand’s education system racist, as part of a bizarre article in which he continues his tedious attack on teacher unions whilst at the same time promoting himself as the saviour of New Zealand education. The nature of his arguments in both cases were essentially self rebutting and I’ll waste no time on them here, but the use of the word racist, reflecting as it does a broader trend, is worth examining.

Poole’s stated case was that New Zealand’s education system is racist because certain ethnic groups (primarily Maori and Pasifika populations) underachieve within it. That’s a really unusual definition of racism. Consider for instance the field of oncology. Maori have far higher rates of death from lung cancer than non-Maori in New Zealand. Very few would argue that this in and of itself means that oncologists are racist. The fault in this case lies more broadly with a social history which sees, predictably, tobacco industries preying on vulnerable populations. Now, it may be that when it comes to accessing health care, there are barriers for Maori: financial, cultural and geographic. Likely this is true. But even this would not, in old language, make the health system racist. It would make it racially biased in terms of delivery, just as education to some extent also is, but not racist.

Racism’s old meaning was a tremendously important one, and there will be important implications if we lose the use of this word, because it describes something we must always be on the guard against. Losing this definition will in time trivialise something that must never be trivialised. Language is powerful in this way. Old racism was a belief that particular subsets of our population were both less capable and less worthy than others, and that this quality was a function of their race. Certain groups just wouldn’t succeed, racists believed, because they were biologically limited. It wasn’t, therefore, worth helping them. This belief system, which misunderstood biology, and undervalued diversity was an ugly and self serving feature of self-appointed messiah cultures and we must make sure we oppose it wherever it appears. An education system, then, is racist if it is peopled by those who believe that certain students underachieve because of their race. A system where people, consciously or otherwise, lower both their expectations, and the time and resource they offer, based upon the colour of a person’s skin. That undoubtedly exists to some degree in New Zealand’s education system (racism isn’t binary), old ugly ideas die hard, and a great deal of it is at the subconscious level. All teachers, regardless of our perceived sensibilities, regardless in fact of our own race, need to critically self monitor the way easily read markers (race, class, gender, religion etc) affect our expectations and interactions.

The trouble is, this is by no means the only reason why a particular group might underachieve within an education system, and there is good evidence that within the New Zealand system it is by far the least powerful influence. If, then, we call an education system racist simply because we are not seeing equal outcomes, we are falling for what we might call the oncology fallacy. This matters both because the   casual use of the word racism is inflammatory and divisive, but also because it will misdirect resource and attention to those factors we need to fix.

There is a relatively simple test we can apply to see to what extent racially biased attitudes are responsible for educational underachievement. The trick is to attempt to compare like with like. If Maori students, for example, are underachieving because teachers, upon seeing a Maori face, lower their expectations, or because the way we teach is more difficult for Maori students to access, then statistically speaking this effect will show up once other, non-race based factors are allowed for. We call this multi-factor regression, and a good way of thinking of it is in terms of predictive capacity. How well does a certain piece of information allow us to predict a particular outcome? So, for example, if you give me two students who are similar in every way, beyond the income level within their home, does this single difference tell me much about their likelihood of succeeding in school? The answer is yes, it does, household income is a strong predictive factor of educational achievement. So too mother’s highest educational qualification (moreso than father’s apparently), number of schools attended and so forth. There is serious inequality in educational achievement in New Zealand and if you want to predict where to find it, the best clues to follow are socio-economic. This is true the world over, although in New Zealand the affect is somewhat magnified and there is interesting work to be done trying to  discover why that is – socio-economic factors are in themselves very rough and ready measures of something far more complex, and our history appears to have allowed the particularly brutal eroding of social capital. Our economic reforms in the 1980s were, by international standards, especially unforgiving and it would surprise me not at all if that were a crucial factor.

The point is, if we take two students with as much identical predictive profiles apart from race (so for example a Maori and non-Maori with same income levels in the home, same gender, same education level of parents etc) that residual achievement difference predicted by race, that we can properly attribute to the way schools view and treat race,  is a relatively small factor. We do, undoubtedly, have a degree of racism in schools, of course. The remnants of that are everywhere. But to link achievement outcomes directly to this is plain silly. We still have massive racial inequality in education, and we still need to do something about it, but naming the problem racism in education is very unhelpful, because it misidentifies causes and therefore quite possibly solutions (although here we must be careful, for causes and solutions are not necessarily linked in the way we imagine. For example, a problem caused by social inequality can sometimes still nevertheless be solved by good education. As ever, the real world is more complicated than Poolean rhetoric would have us believe.)

I said at the outset that the new fervour for blaming schools for outcome disparities has a whiff of the right wing politic about it and I think that’s a very important part of this story. In New Zealand, over the last 35 years, we have pursued a set of economic policies which have shamelessly disregarded the needs of our most vulnerable. Once we prided ourselves on being one of the most egalitarian societies on the planet, in terms of economic opportunity and reward. Now poverty is accepted as an inevitable cost of doing business. In 1991 Ruth Richardson cut benefit levels in a move decried by opposition at the time as inhumane. They were right. Since then successive governments of all persuasions have come and gone, but benefit levels were never restored. There just weren’t votes in it. There is solid evidence that the financially stressed are incredibly disadvantaged in education, that this is both causal and reversible (changes in economic fortunes very quickly translate into changes in educational performance). New Zealand’s history, like that of so many countries’, is steeped in racist exploitation and exclusion and it is no surprise then that we have racially identifiable subsets of our population that have been effectively shut out from meaningful participation in our economy. Fixing that should be an absolute priority, and returning benefits to at least their pre-cut levels in real terms is a no-brainer. An extended, more generous, no-fault benefit system would do more to address educational inequality in this country than tinkering with the way we deliver in the classroom. Selling the lie that education can be transformative in this way takes the pressure off exactly the reforms that are needed, and as such is something of a darling of the political right, because it diverts attention from economic crimes which could much more properly be called racist.

None of this is to argue that we shouldn’t, in schools, do everything we can to help the disadvantaged. Poole has written well on the urgent need to divert educational resources towards lower decile schools, and do this on a massive scale. He is right. And we have an absolute moral duty to celebrate diversity, and make every student feel like there is a place for them in our schools. It’s our job to become comfortable using languages not our own, to examine the way our own practices might make students feel they do not belong in our classrooms. As teachers in New Zealand we have an obligation to play our part in the meaningful expression of bi-culturalism. And always and everywhere we must guard against letting our expectations be coloured by, well colour. But, you know what, we’re trying. Schools are full of good people who care desperately about the plight of their students. Calling us racist for no other reason than to inflate one’s own importance is a stupid thing to do, not to mention an unhelpful abuse of language. A self proclaimed educational leader should know better.

 

More plays

Just to let you know there are another four play scripts available here to be downloaded and used in whatever way pleases you. It’s been another delightful year for my school drama. Along with touring Two Nights about the place, Talking to a Stranger, Three Nights and This is not a Love Story were all new pieces for me. It’s a special privilege, being able to work on a script and then have it come to life within a couple of months. having access to a theatre, a ready made audience and a constantly evolving and revolving cast of beautiful actors is such a treat. Admittedly, it does keep me away form writing novels, but you can’t have everything, and from my perspective it feels like I got the better end of the deal here. School theatre is always about something more than the work itself; at heart it is about a community coming together to celebrate the courage talent and tenacity of their sons, daughters, grandchildren, friends… That the audience is entertained, provoked, moved is in the end peripheral, yet still important. What we are able to do, in the end, is bring people together in a spirit of hope and in the end I’m convinced that’s what good stories always do. This another argument, I’ll develop it at a later date, but might we not have had enough of introspective bleakness in our collective narrative? Can’t we, in this age of endemic anxiety, make room for a little more celebration of the fact that we are here, alive together, our capacity for growth apparently limitless? I say yes, on both counts.

Time for boys to step up

Last week, in his column for the Sunday Star Times, Sports journalist Mark Reason wrote a piece about the response at Serena’s Williams’ outburst at the US Open, his thesis expanding from the framing of the subsequent debate in terms of gender to a wider look at the way, to his mind, women have increasingly been given permission to denigrate men in public. Given that he cited a debate I participated in as part of his evidence, I feel somehow obligated to respond. And as it happens, it’s something I feel rather deeply about. It’s very hard to spend three decades teaching adolescents and not become vitally interested in the playing out of gender politics.

On one level, Mark’s point is important. However we proceed in creating a society where gender does not determine advantage, we need to proceed together. Somehow, and this is no easy task, we have to come to understand that gender inequality is everybody’s problem. And that is why I found the inevitable anonymous bluster in the ensuing Stuff comments section so depressing. For, irrespective of the way the original article was constructed, the keyboard warriors who jumped on board simply wanted to shout out their simple minded and frankly offensive message… ‘yeah, women, leave us alone. It isn’t fair. We hurt too. Look at male suicide rates. You’re all so nasty to us…’ And when a handful of determined female voices attempted to point out just how thoroughly disturbing the male tendency to want to block out any possibility they still need to change is, it was overwhelmingly voted down (what a ridiculous format this thumbs up thumbs down thing is).

So, briefly, here’s what I think the problem is. Yes, it is absolutely true that there are a great many fine young men out there, and you know what, we are slowly getting better at working out that our collective humanity matters far more than our gender, but… man we have a long long way to go. I invite anybody who doubts this to visit a secondary school and carefully observe the way young men and women interact. It is still far far too hard for young men to grow up gentle and respectful in this country. The laddish, bullying, foul mouthed, aggressive and competitive culture is alive and well and the vacuous boom box of modern culture only amplifies it. It is still far too hard for young women to gain any sort of attention without sexualising their presentation to the world. Safety in relationships is not improving any, the careful gains wrestled from the world over previous decades being steadily eroded by pornography’s framing of sex in terms of violence, visual assessment and conquest.

Just this week a colleague spoke of watching a class at a shared lunch, the boys tucking in to the food on offer with joyous abandon, whilst every single girl in the room approached the offerings with the guilty nervousness of the calorie counter, their relationship with food already poisoned by the inescapable fact that as a woman you will be looked at before you are listened to.

I look at the way my colleagues ascend the employment hierarchy, and the compromises they must make to gain the approval of their peers. I see they way the assertive woman is dismissed as angry and strident, while their male counterpart is lauded for their fair minded authority. I see the way the body of the man in leadership escapes scrutiny, for the business suit is kind to time’s decay, while the woman’s choice of clothing allows no such luxury, and every curve and accumulation becomes a matter of moral judgement.

I see the way young women still express their opinions as questions not statements, the way they instinctively open their point of view to refutation, lest they should, God forbid, cause offence. I see their fine line in inherited self-deprecation, and I see the young boys suffering too, walking about lost with tangled armfuls of feelings they are not allowed to examine or express. I see young people trying desperately to connect, to be accepted and valued for what they are, wanting nothing more but to be able to relax in the company of others. Young men who want to be able to let their guard down, be goofy, kind, gentle and loving, without the opprobrium of their peers, and young women who want to be engaged with as something more than a collection of body parts, who want nothing more than to escape the prison of body culture that has ensnared them, who just want to be taken seriously as human beings.

And seeing all of this, it is impossible not to want to see the world change. I have three young sons and I want them to grow up free of the confusion, anxiety and ultimately self-hatred that flourishes in a world which doesn’t take gender inequality seriously. I want them to understand how one casual throwaway comment about the way a woman looks can follow her for life. I want them to understand just how diminished their experience of intimacy will be if they do not learn to see the human first and the sexuality second. I want them to be able to embrace the feminine virtues, just as I hope their female peers will feel as free to embrace the masculine. Most of all, I want them to understand with proper weight the brutality of objectification, how completely the relentless reduction of women robs them of their humanity.  And that is a mountain to climb, for we are a long long way from that.

I am not surprised women are pissed off about this, and that their voices grow increasingly strident. You know what, they’ve tried just smiling and passing the plate for countless generations, and it really hasn’t worked. Rather than taking offence, we men need to step up and take on a little of the mahi ourselves. Yes, of course men are suffering too. But this is the whole point, it’s all part of the same problem, and so we all need to be part of the same solution. Therein ends the sermon.

 

Is pornography doing us damage?

Over the last week I’ve been pondering our Two Nights project, the play Anna Flaherty and I are taking around schools as a way of giving young people permission to start talking about pornography openly, and also as a way of challenging what feels to us to be the misguided complacency of the dominant narrative. As the discussion broadens, we’re increasingly being asked to defend the stance we’ve taken, and that’s a good challenge to face. The last thing the world needs is more uninformed polemic, and it’s quite valid to ask, what’s all the fuss about?

A good way of thinking about this is in terms of two competing narratives, not so much binary opposites as two ends of a continuum. At one end is the argument that actually pornography is fairly benign; just a form of escapism and stimulation that users recognise as removed from the world of real experience, and at the heart of this hypothesis is the claim that constant exposure to such material as a means of stimulation doesn’t alter the way intimacy plays out for us in the real world. Or as a character puts it our play ‘I play Grand Theft Auto, but that doesn’t change the way I drive my car. Why would it?’

The alternative hypothesis is that pornography use is changing the way we behave. It’s changing the way we think about one another, and about the way we express ourselves sexually. And, for those of us who believe this is cause for concern, there is the added claim that these changes are in many cases anything but benign. Put simply, it’s my belief that there is a direct line of causation between pornogrpahy consumption and sexual abuse. That’s a big claim, and one many would dispute, and so I’ve been thinking about how I might go about justifying this stance. How do I know this isn’t just my prejudice running amok?

The first thing I’d say is that we’ve thought about this pretty carefully, and have spoken to a lot of people, from the chief censor, to the Ministry of Health’s chief advisor on sexual and reproductive health, to counsellors, teachers and teens, and we’ve read a bunch of research as well. And while this is a massively difficult area to get a firm fix on, in part because it’s very hard to get people to offer honest accounts, but also because we’re talking about social mores that are influenced by complex array of factors, there are still some things I feel we can be confident about at this point. Here are some of things that have most swayed my thinking:

I was surprised ot learn that the pornogrpahy industry is controlled by a very small number of people (sometimes expressed as ‘ten men control the bulk of the world’s pornography). Perhaps more surprising is that their particular field of expertise is computer algorithms. Which is to say, success in this industry relies upon a real  time feedback cycle of knowing exactly who is accessing what and for how long, and then constantly refining the product in response to these evolving tastes. This has the obvious potential to create an automated race to the bottom, so to speak, if it turns out that it is the shocking and transgressive that is most likely to capture the attention (for how quickly today’s shocking becomes tomorrow’s everyday).

Next is the clear evidence that something of this type is happening. Research consistently suggests an increase in the prevalence of violence, coercion and abuse over time, to the point that such is now the dominant presentation of sexual activity within pornogrpahy.

Take those two points, the changing, and unmanaged nature of the material and add in the next rock solid fact we have – young people are accessing an awful lot of this material. Unless surveys around the world are consistently off the mark, we can say most teenage boys are looking at this stuff most days. The rise of the smart phone appears to accelerated this trend. And so, we can say without fear of contradiction that we now have a world in which our young men in particular (there are females accessing pornography too, I don’t want to give the impression otherwise, but the numbers still skew heavily towards men, and the power dynamic within heterosexual relationships makes this focus all the more important) are having their first impressions and experiences of sexual activity dominated by interaction with images of violence and abuse. To be blunt about it, and I apologise for a kind of crassness here but in this case it is central to the point, our young men are typically experiencing some years of masturbating to violent, coercive and degrading images before they enter into their first sexual relationships.

Now, maybe the complacents are right, and this will have no impact upon their ability to sensitively and respectfully interact with their partners. Maybe it will have no impact upon their ability to engage in the joyful expression of their sexuality. But that’s a hell of a bet to be placing I think, and the precautionary principle in this case asks that the burden of evidence lies with those who would claim there is nothing to worry about. What’s more, even if you are so inclined, I think I have evidence that might sway you. More of that soon. One other short digression though, because it’s important. These kinds of arguments are very often built upon gut response, and one gut response many of you will have is ‘people are scared of pornogrpahy because they’re scared of sex in general. They’re just prudes.’ And here I would caution against binaries of this type, because it seems there is something going horribly awry at the point where we conflate being comfortable with sex and comfortable with using sexual abuse as entertainment. In fact, I would argue the two are diametrically opposed.

So, do we have any evidence that pornogrpahy use is altering behaviour? I think we do. Here’s a thing you might not know. Some young men in schools openly trade naked images of their peers. They collect them, in the way youngsters once collected photos of their sporting heroes. Where did that culture come from, do you think? Here’s another. If you talk to health professional they will tell you of a rise in injuries to young women that coincide with the pornography industry’s fetishising of particular activities. If you talk to counsellors they will tell you of young women increasingly speaking of the pressure they feel to engage in types of activity they are uncomfortable with and again the pattern is reflective of trends in pornography. If you present to young people, as our play does, scenarios in which a young man manipulates his partner into believing there is something wrong with her if she won’t engage, young women will come up after the show to recount their own experiences. Actually they don’t need to, for the moment of recognition that ripples through the audience in that scene is palpable.

At the end of our play we sometimes ask, does the scenario we present here, where young women are being pressured and manipulated into a kind of sexual engagement that is fuelled by pornogrpahy exposure, feel real to you? We offer a continuum of responses and the sad thing to report is they tell us, yes, this is the world as we experience it.

That’s not slam dunk evidence of the kind that assures us of the inverse square proportionality of gravity, for example, but it’s enough to suggest that those who claim pornography is mostly harmless, or at least act as if this is their belief by conveniently ignoring the issue altogether, have a case to answer. For my part, I don’t think the statement ‘the pornography industry promotes and enables sexual abuse’ is hyperbole. And we’re all against sexaul abuse, right?

And to tiptoe a little beyond the horizon of solid evidence, I personally think the problem runs much deeper. I think the greatest danger lies in the way behaviour becomes normalised, such that the victim of the abuse ceases to even believe they are being abused (but do not cease suffering, sadly). Young people aren’t born with knowledge of what makes for a satisfying, or even just psychologically comfortable, sexual experience, and truth is that we as a nation are lousy at telling them. Entering into their first sexual experiences they are fragile and uncertain, just as we were, and eager to please, terrified of being judged poorly. The historical record tells us that cultures are perfectly capable of convincing young women that fear, discomfort and feelings of worthlessness are just their lot, to be expected and hence not complained about. Once disempowerment is normalised, in the way pornography is currently normalising it, it becomes very difficult to shift. People don’t complain because they don’t believe they have a right to complain. Talk to women of any age and very quickly you will discover a narrative of people uncomfortable with their partner’s use of pornography but feeling unable to raise the issue with them. When I was growing up, many of the mainstream churches were complicit in just this kind of misogyny, teaching women it was just their lot to suffer a discounted and at times brutal version of sex. Today it is the pornography industry that is picking up the baton. That might seem a strange association, old style conservative religion and pornographers, but both share an obsession with baseness and a vested interest in the disempowerment of women.

Too often people feel the urge to stay quiet on the issue of pornogrpahy for fear of harming their liberal credentials. I would argue that there is nothing liberal about supporting an institution that continues the timeless tradition of sexaully imprisoning half of the adult population.
*Scroll down a few entries and you’ll find another piece entitled ‘Pornography – 13 Reasons Why Not.’