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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 than 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.

 

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.’

Oh for God’s sake, Mister Folau

There exist a handful of highly dependable provocations when it comes to engaging young people with philosophy. Do we really have free will? (Yes) Is it reasonable to believe in God? (Sure) and, Where do our moral values come from? (Tricky, this one.) Those with not taste for formal philosophical diversions will often dismiss the whole game as a kind of intellectual chess, amusing for some but ultimately purposeless, but I’m unconvinced. Rather, I think important philosophical ideas take hold in populations often unexamined, and the resulting cultural and behavioural shifts are profound. I argue that developing the tools to examine the ideas we otherwise unthinkingly adopt is a crucial part of education. And over recent weeks an excellent, concrete example of this has been in the media. The extremely gifted Australian rugby player Israel Folau has caused a huge stir by publicly expressing his religious belief that practising homosexuality will earn you a place in hell. Local rugby players Brad Weber and T J Perenara have publicly denounced this stance, well done those men, while by and large the rest of the studiously apolitical playing fraternity have stayed quiet. (Ritchie McCaw, you want to be a genuine leader? Here’s your chance.)

Now, it will surprise nobody that I think Israel Falau is completely wrong. Wrong in his beliefs and wrong in his desire to express them publicly. And hence I find it completely and gobsmackingly wonderful that both Weber and Perenara have spoken out, and in particular think Weber, an up and comer with plenty to lose by taking a stand, and also the man who stood up first, something of a hero. New Zealand rugby culture is clearly homophobic (still waiting for our first openly gay All Black, what does that tell us?) and the Folau incident has been one of those key moments where a private conversation has become public and the reactionary forces within suddenly realise that time has moved on them, progress has been made and they can either change or be left behind. The mainstream public reaction in New Zealand has been heartening. We’re, in the main, proud of our open and welcoming stance when it comes to difference, and looked on in bemusement at the Australian contortions over same sex marriage.

But, here’s the interesting thing for a philosophy geek: if Folau is wrong to hold his views, then on what grounds? It surely can not be simply because his views are no longer those of the majority, for nobody wants a society in which minority voices are silenced. Nor can it be because we believe his views are harmful. For, to be fair, he undoubtedly believes our views are harmful, too. Not wishing to put words into his mouth, but presumably if a person holds a genuine conviction that a particular behaviour will lead that person to eternal suffering, then we who are encouraging such behaviour are doing immeasurable harm to a fellow human being. So the difference can not be one of motivation, for if we are to take the most charitable stance, both sides are motivated by a desire to help our fellow human beings. Nor can it be a case that a person should not be able to express their religious convictions, for in the end we all have meta-narratives in which our meaning is embedded, and so it is in some sense impossible to have a conversation about moral imperatives without bringing a metaphysical framework to the party, no matter how vigorously some rationalists dispute this point. We can not even dismiss the point of view on the grounds of coherence, for once the initials assumptions are accepted the case is not particularly incoherent.

If we wish to show a public figure like Folau is wrong to speak in this way, we are going to need to be able to claim a moral framework that is accepted by all those within the conversation. In a perfect world it will be accepted by those who hold these religiously-based anti-homosexual views, because if it is, then there is a genuine opportunity for conversation. The alternative approach is not to attempt to win over the converted, but rather to move the centre ground, such that young people growing up in a faith at odds with these values feels increasingly marginalised and out of step, and are more likely to abandon their belief set. I have two problems with this approach. The first is, it places too much faith in steady moral improvement, and allows the mood of the times to go unexamined, thus wrongly equating change with progress. I think an examined and critiqued journey the better option. But second, it uses conflict as a weapon and the chances of that backfiring (creating for instance a hardened core of resistance to change) seem high.

What, though, can be used as our framework? What, in other words, is morality to be founded upon? Clearly there are any number of competing ethical frameworks which all purport to do the job, and it is beyond both my scope and expertise to adequately analyse them. What we can see, however, is that in a case like this one, Folau’s heartfelt response falls into a category which would broadly be described as command ethics. That is, what is right and wrong is not reasoned towards, within a given framework, say a virtue, utilitarian or Kantian approach, but rather divined by way of a set of sacred teachings. To echo Socrates, we can ask, ‘Is the thing good because God wills it, or does God will the thing because it is good?’ In other words, for those who believe in a higher power, is discovering what is good simply a matter of working out what that higher power approves of, or is goodness reachable by independent means? Can we trust, for example, our moral intuitions, or think in terms of observable pragmatic outcomes for those affected by the decree? A great number of traditional religious approaches would endorse the latter viewpoint, and a good deal of religious scholarship concerns itself with discerning that which is good by means of reasoning. Hence, rather than seeing this as a difference between religious and humanist impulses, as many have been tempted to do, it is better to cleave the world into those who are drawn towards a command theory of ethics and those that aren’t. In this case many, if not the majority, or religious thinkers would sit squarely in the anti-Folau camp, and the problem, if we are to claim one, is not an adherence to religious teachings, but rather an adherence to religious teachings that do not allow that the good is discernable by human inquiry.

From here I would argue that the command theory of ethics contains a singular danger: that the good is not conducive to genuinely open conversation or inquiry. It precludes then the possibility of personal and collective growth through open hearted consideration of the views of others, and is sadly toxic to compromise. If we take as the aims of an ethical system the flourishing of humanity (and one mustn’t necessarily see this as the aim, but it is an aim that accords well with majority intuition) then this inability of the system to deliver up a peaceful manner of co-existing in a pluralist society is to me a fatal flaw. So, I would argue that there is something wrong with command ethics of all flavours, in that they encourage adherents to hold dear beliefs which are ultimately inscrutable, and when these beliefs then seek to export themselves out into the world, affecting the way others are able to live their lives (and make no mistake, a sporting hero effectively telling young homosexuals they’re going to hell brutally affects those young lives) that flaw is to me insurmountable. I have absolutely no trouble with people pointing out to me the way my behaviours and stances are hurting others or indeed me in demonstrable ways. Having them claim that my actions are hurting others in a way only discernable through the mechanism of their particular faith stance leaves me no place to turn. If I can not adopt that faith stance, then we two are implacably opposed, with no means of arbitration available. What’s more, as the world changes on such adherents, they are prone to feeling isolated and victimised, and their efforts to maintain their righteousness in a progressive society become increasingly stubborn and dangerous. The only riposte left them is the belief that we, the progressive majority, are evil – violence lurks in the shadow of such a world view.

Our responsibility then is not to decry the beliefs of Israel Folau because they are religious, but rather to clearly articulate the difference between those forms of religious belief which are at their heart peaceful, and those which are not. Folau, and those who would support his stance, is wrong because he would tolerate the harm of human beings whose existence can not be sanely questioned, in the name of benefit accruing by way of a metaphysical reckoning that can be neither challenged nor verified. In fact, the very notion of hell carries exactly the kind of punitive violence that opposes peace and forgiveness. Little wonder that even the Pope is losing his conviction on this one. There is hope.

Phone stoned

Late last year a survey of youth mental health in New Zealand suggested there’s been a  huge increase in the proportion of young people presenting as being at high risk of developing significant issues. What’s worse, the increase is recent and rapid (from 5% of 15 – 24 year olds showing a high risk profile 5 years ago, to over 11% now). One doesn’t want to be alarmist about such things, but if the trend is real then that’s a catastrophic social failure. Other countries have shown similar increases over the same period, although it’s not uniform, but there’s enough to suggest causal factors common across many countries. Given the time frame, many of the usual suspects (poverty, family stress etc) don’t appear to fit. In the New Zealand context they’ve been entrenched problems for decades now. The increase in a general ferment of anxiety and dissatisfaction accords with our experience in schools, where counselling networks report being overwhelmed, and in the classroom there has become a distressing normalisation of such suffering as part of the backdrop. There’s a clear and urgent need to identify causes and then think about how to deal with them.

This is one of those situations where immediate response is needed, but getting solid answers as to what is going on will require a much longer time frame. Times like this, too strict an adherence to evidence-based practice can be detrimental. If we can find at least probable cause, then there’s an argument for experimenting with interventions before all the data is in. One strong suspect in all of this is the changing face of the digital world. It fits the timeframe well: in particular, wifi is now ubiquitous (schools have felt obliged to show how progressive they are by providing this service at significant cost) and smart phones are so everyday that the term itself has become antiquated – it’s just a phone. What this means is that our young are now connected, 24/7, to the world of social media. They carry the world’s incessant, churning view of themselves in their pockets. In class, the compulsion for them to constantly access this highly modified and curated conversation is evident. The term phone-stoned is not hyperbolic,and the fidgeting, restlessness of the addict is on easy display, as are the calming, stupefying effects of connection. That we have given our kids easy access (indeed encouraged access) to this digital drug, is inarguable. Whether its consumption can be blamed for rising mental health problems is less clear.

Here I have to own a complete lack of expertise, having been a careful avoider of social media since its inception. Last week, however, needing to get a sense of the structure of a social media platform for the sake of a novel I’m working on, I ventured into the remarkable world of Facebook. Suffice to say it took me less than twelve hours to disable my account, having seen in that time all I needed to and more. What struck me, as an outsider looking in, was a deep sense of gratitude that we didn’t have this particular outlet when I was growing up, because I would have been an avid user (what choice does a young person have?) and it would have damaged me. Here, briefly, are some of the things that I sense could be causing that damage:  

It is incredibly well designed for addiction. As the creators of pokie machines worked out a long time ago, it is the nature of the reward that keeps people coming back, a reward sufficiently irregular that it can not be predicted, yet sufficiently frequent that ‘maybe next time’ remains a credible belief. Here the deluge of coins is replaced with the infinitely more alluring prize of being noticed and approved of. This in turn leads, of course, to the constant curating of the online self, the onerous task of presenting, not just in the moment, but in this more lasting format. Seeing the great care with which otherwise balanced adults (the folk the great monster suggested I might befriend) had taken in presenting themselves visually to the world was somehow shocking. And this presentation in turn, of course, creates an echo chamber of endless joy and success: photographs of idyllic holidays, successful diets, marvellous meals (seriously, photos of food, I thought this was a piss take, not so much). Think how oppressive this must be for the young, whose default setting is fear of inadequacy.

The relentlessly visual nature of the format is also somehow terrifying, the stuff of communication now an image, the endless mapping of every detail of the external shell. That old fashioned mode of communication, of framing thoughts and feelings with words, of reading and responding in the moment to the nuance of gesture and facial expression, to listening with heart and mind both, seems to have given way to an ever more detailed analysis of skin pores, fat distribution and fashion choices. Hard to believe kids might find that difficult to cope with. Along with the comic book shallowness of the picture and caption world, there is also the very nature of the network, to connect as many people as possible, so that a kind of flattening out occurs, where the attention of the masses is prioritised over deeper connection with the few. And the more lives we are exposed to, the more naturally rises our fear of missing out, the more carefully we must attend to maintaining the interest of the world. For the young this means staying awake at night far past an hour conducive to mental health, and by day living with a constant, anxious awareness of this netherworld of judgement, ever the parcelling out its attention. And, as every generation apparently must now relearn, there is a world of difference between the intemperate comment that dissolves into the ether, and that committed to permanent record. (Didn’t we work this out with Nixon?)

All of this is obvious, I know; it is hardly news that this level of connection makes the young incredibly vulnerable to a sudden torrent of disapproval. When things go wrong socially now, this false connectivity has a devastatingly amplifying effect. I still can’t quite imagine what it would be like for a young person to have their world turn on them in such an overwhelming manner. The capacity too for anonymous, or at the very least distant, commentary, allows the perpetrator to be removed from the damage they do, and this along with the seductive pull of the pack leads to a critical failure of empathy. Then there is the very language used, the Friends, Likes, Feeds, Sharing… this reductive infantilising of human interaction which somehow feels provides a metaphor for the greater problem.

And yes, undoubtedly social media does a number of brilliant things, reconnecting old friends, allowing families to stay in touch when geography conspires against them, providing unfiltered information flow for the disenfranchised, and letting deeply positive social movements cohere and grow. If there were not such incredible benefits, the thing would hardly exist. And Facebook is hardly the only culprit here, it’s just the format I took a look at. But I can not escape the feeling that we have unleashed upon the young a kind of madness they never asked for, and that it’s now hurting them in ways we’re only beginning to see and understand. There’s no turning back the clock, but as always, we can surely be much more active in the decisions we make about using technology, rather than having it use us.

Finally, I must tell of the delightful parting interaction with the connection monster, for upon choosing to leave the service an automatic menu is insisted upon the user, asking to tick the box to best describe their departure. I ticked ‘Isn’t useful to me’ and came back the robotic reply – perhaps this would be more useful if you had more friends. Would you like to stay connected and make more friends? The reply I wished to give at that point was not, unfortunately, offered to me. At least it let me leave with a smile, and without a backward glance.

Pornography – 13 Reasons Why Not

Next week we have our preview showing of a play we’ve been working on all year at the school, Sex and Sudoku, looking at the way easy access to pornography is reframing our notions of intimacy, and the widespread damage that is doing. The more I’ve talked to people about this, guidance counsellors, friends, researchers, the more the scale of the problem has become apparent. And yet, somehow, the public discussion remains politely muted and, I suspect, embarrassed.

The following document, 13 Reasons Why Not, was put together in preparation for the writing of a final  duologue in the piece, and represents, as best I  could express it, why our silence is no longer good enough, doing as it does such a grave disservice to our young people, who deserve to be guided with much more love and confidence towards a healthy and joyous expression of their sexuality. Excuse the switching point of views, in this case all part of the creative process.

13 Reasons Why Not:

1 Objectification

I want to say this to you, my friend. I want to say that you and I can not imagine what it is to be a woman. To be looked at before you are listened to, if you are listened to at all. To be judged not by the energy you bring to the world, but by the extent to which you are willing to submit to its will. To be taught from your first breath that your role in life is to make others happy, to resist always the urge to assert your own needs, your own point of view. To be dissected by the glance of a stranger, to be reduced to a mere collection of body parts, to have to choose every day, in every moment, between being seen as a prude or a whore, so that no matter what your response to the sexual, the world’s assessment of you will be made on exclusively sexual terms. And what you do, every time you visit this world of complete strangers reduced to flesh, arranged for your instant and fleeting pleasure, you say, I’m okay with this. I’m okay supporting this last enduring form of slavery, this casual dismissal of all that is good in my fellow human beings. I will not be the man who stands up for what is right, history will not count me amongst those who made a difference. Because right now, I’d rather just draw the blinds and play with myself, like some bad parody of primate at a zoo, dispirited, disconnected, disappearing ever inward. It says I’m okay looking past the human being because, for the shortest of moments it fills me with a sensation that is not unpleasant. And every time you seek to justify this habit of yours, you tell other people it’s okay to do the same. Pornography is wrong because objectification is wrong, because it takes one half of the human race and strips them of their humanity.
2 Abuse

The problem with pornography is that it is leading to abuse. Maybe not for every user in every circumstance, but that’s not an argument worth crediting. Because it increases the odds. Sex, in the end, is a private activity, and when two individuals engage with one another alone and out of the world’s sight, the only thing that keeps them safe is the steadfast and determined goodness of the one they are with. They are kept safe by the respect the other shows them, by the shared understanding that neither is a means to their end but rather, however it is they choose to be with one another, it must raise them up and not diminish. And none of this is easy. People feel vulnerable, and confused and frightened, because our shared discussion of and depiction of sexuality is a complete and embarrassing disaster. And in those moments, they will cling to the thing they know, they will paddle blindly to any hint of a life raft, and I’m saying, in a world where the only open discussion of sexuality is had by pornographers, they’re some pretty fucked life rafts. I’m saying, if you legitimise this shit, even if it has no impact upon your own behaviour, then you increase the danger for others, by increasing the opportunity and predilection for abuse, by increasing the odds that this will be their go-to reaction in moments of fear and awkwardness. By signposting most clearly the path away from restraint and respect, you are inviting us all along the road to abuse. And who gives you the right to do that?
3 The industry as evil

Pornography is not just a random collection of images created by our collective consciousness, it is the considered work of an industry interested only its own continued existence. There are no moral decisions made along the way, no considerations given to the harm of the user, nor the harm of those involved in its production. Indeed, it is the very act of harm that ensures its success, for it is by breaking the user, disconnecting him from the real world of connection and love and intimacy, sucking him into a mire of loneliness, shame and regret, that the industry creates the addict, coming back for more of the same, that they may feel worse about themselves, and more in need of temporary respite from their self loathing. Just as the fast food industry has no interest in providing us with nutrition, for it is precisely the sensation of being both over caloried and simultaneously malnourished that keeps us hungry for more, the pornography industry has no regard for the state of our emotional arteries. Look around you, it is not the healthy and the happy, the emotionally contented and self assured, that are this industry’s target. They look for the weak, the young and the fragile, and they break them into pieces that they may be more easily consumed. And that’s you, or if it isn’t yet, it will be. So man up and walk away, while you still can.

4 Loss of intimacy

This isn’t complicated. You get to choose how to express your sexuality. If you want to, you can aspire to the kind of connection that enriches your life, where your sexuality is an expression of your affection and appreciation and gob smacking gratitude for this bond you have formed with another human being. It can be about being honest and vulnerable and it’s hard work is the truth of it, getting to that place, but the rewards are a celebration of your shared humanity, the rewards are a place to be in a world, a place of comfort, and of pride. The reward allows the body to flourish, and the spirit too. Or you can do the easy thing, and reduce your sexuality to a mere function of the mechanical, a set of urges to be satisfied, responses to be experienced, images to be accessed in the name of arousal. Urges to be satisfied by strangers, or two dimensional abstractions. And it is a choice. One doesn’t get to turn a switch on and off, this moment intimacy, this moment pornography. The responses are not rationally chosen, rather they are conditioned over time. Continued mental physical association between the detached image and the aroused state in time becomes a block to experiencing proper intimacy. It becomes a block to flourishing in the company of others. It dehumanises it. The choice is ours.

5 Isolation, loss of connection

Loneliness isn’t the state of being alone, it is the state of being disconnected. What you want as a human being, what we all want, is to draw close to the other. You want to listen and to be listened to. You want to laugh, to celebrate, to share your dreams and your fears. You want the warmth of another’s embrace, and of their concern. That’s the prize, and it takes an effort. It’s hard work. It’s the hard work of learning to trust, of taking risks and of making sacrifices. In the normal course of the world, some of our urge to move close to people is motivated by the sexual impulse. People feel desire for others, they are attracted to them, they fall in love with them, and in this state they are compelled to take risks, to draw close and to make sacrifices. The sexual is embodied in the intimate, and the reward is closeness. The reward is secrets shared, burdens unloaded, impossible dreams made possible through co-operation and love. The reward too is security, the ability to relax into the self, secure in the knowledge that you are loved, and capable of loving. Sever these ties, turn the sexual urge instead into something the market can attend to, and just as the food industry has subverted our base desire for nourishment in a way that makes us sick and unsatisfied, taste and convenience without nutrition, so the pornography industry subverts the sexual desire, cutting it loose from the desire to know and be known, and attending only to the most urgent but ultimately least nourishing of our needs. Pornogrpahy, and the casualisation of sexuality, harms us, by misdirecting us towards the wrong solution to a problem we no longer understand.

6 Normalisation, legitimising of the extreme

No one’s arguing a slippery slope. It may well be true that all you’re consuming is mild by most standards, perhaps you might say that there has always been within art a tradition of sexualised aesthetic appreciation, that you are doing nothing more than admiring the naked form, and perhaps you can even argue legitimately that in terms of how you see the world, and interact with women, it no more poisons your relationship than the fact of watching grand designs poisons your relationship with your own home. That in some sense you are perfectly capable of distinguishing between the fantasy and the reality, in the same way that a child watching a violent cartoon is quite capable of abstracting the image from the world they inhabit (some interesting research on this, as an aside). And even if all of this is true, the fact is that the pornography industry exists along a continuum, and your patterns of consumption and your apologetics for the industry give it legitimacy. This indeed is the favourite cover of any industry that seeks to exploit, the hunting rifle becomes the cover for the military weaponry, as the middle class wine connoisseur is offered up as cover for the servicing of the needs of the violent alcoholic. Overpowered cars are sold as toys for the responsible user of track days but are marketed to over-testosteroned and inexperienced drivers. Every industry that makes its dollar from the exploitation of unhealthy over-consumption works very hard to ensure the existence of a visible population of moderate consumers, that the blame can be shifted from the product to the way it is consumed. And so the liberal instinct to support the moderate legitimises an industry which has no interest in moderation. That is the way industry works. The very fact that you do not consume extreme material makes you the perfect marketing tool for the extreme. You must take responsibility to the problem to which you are contributing, even if no immediate harm from your actions can be established.

7 Slow creep, death by a thousand cuts

It is an inescapable truth that part of the lure of pornography is the accessing of the forbidden. Part of the thrill of access, evidenced that this is indeed a largely private activity, is the fact that it is a departure from the publicly normal. One study of patterns of internet searches with regard to pornography shows a strong cultural pattern in terms of the types of material being sought, and these patterns reflect established taboos, or rather those things that sit just on the edge of taboos, that exploited within the culture for titillation. And here is the problem, the more a particular product is consumed, the more it becomes normalised, up until the point where it can eventually slip out of the hidden and into the mainstream. Yesterday’s pornography is indeed today’s mainstream television, and as such loses some of its power, having less of the power of the transgressive. In other words, why, having gone to the trouble of secretly accessing this material, often at considerable social risk, would you then seek out that which is already readily available publicly? There is therefore an internal progression to the development of pornographic material, and research suggests we are seeing this now with an increased tendency towards narratives of violence and coercion. The thrill of transgression becomes part of the addictive nature of the product and so in making the decision to consume, one steps not into a forbidden room, but rather onto a conveyor belt, moving always toward the more brutal and dehumanising. There is no such thing as soft pornography, for pornography is a shapeshifter by its nature.
8 Programming unhealthy responses

Perhaps you need to think about what it is you actually do when you look at pornography. This is not an anthropological study, nor is a simple escape into entertainment, in the manner of watching a comedy or listening to a piece of music might be. Men who watch pornography do it largely as a masturbational aid. This is using the images of strangers, engaged in acts presented in such a way as to specifically engage a physiological and sexual response. And it’s worth questioning why this might be necessary at all. What exactly is it about these images that replaces the simple act of touch, for example? And the answer is surely this, one is exploiting a pre-existing tendency for response to the visual, and to the narrative of the forbidden, and exploiting that purely because it suits those who would benefit from your consuming of their service. The visual is the most efficient transmission mechanism of a detached service, provided by people who have absolutely no interest in your well-being. And in using it, you train the visual response. Sexual response is not a pre-wired condition. It is engaged by the mechanism of narrative. A hand brushing casually against your own is not in itself a sexual act, nor does it provoke of itself a sexual response. Jostling into another’s body moving onto a crowded train, or backing accidentally into a stranger at the supermarket, these are not arousing. Yet, the lightest touch of another’s finger against your own, when there exists between you the possibility of a connection, as yet unspoken, the breathlessly held future a tingle between you, is electric. Where does this difference come from then, for two events that are in terms of sensory information identical, yet in terms of sexual response, could not be more removed? The answer is narrative, and trained response. And pornography both provides and trains a narrative, that of arousal as the result of explicitly sexual visuals. Pornography no more presents sex than movie fighting represents violence. In both cases what is presented is an artfully conceived caricature, designed to maximally present the stimuli that will evoke the audience response. Sex moves from an activity of inherent closeness, where the biological details are by nature inaccessible to the camera, to something altogether more abstracted. The obsession with presentation of mechanics and body parts then creates a conditioned response not to sex, but to body parts, disembodied and disconnected, devoid of personality or narrative. And, through repeated exposure coupled with arousal and release, you create in an entire population not just an association with, but a reliance upon, the visual.  In time, sexual stimulation becomes dependent upon this form of removal and disembodiment, and so sexual activity itself becomes insufficient for arousal, and the user visits upon their partner a vision of disconnection. It is to just that the partner goes unloved, and both are deprived of loving connection. It is the partner is subjected to a process by which they are reduced and dehumanised. And this by the person they have chosen to love. It is a devastating thing to visit upon those who in their goodness choose to trust us.

9 Pornography as educator

The problem of pornography is not just that it represents an important voice on the nature of sexuality, but rather that it often represents the only voice. Young people don’t know what to expect of sex. It is a minefield of unwieldy physiological responses, psychological fragilities, social expectations and hidden rules, not to mention the mechanics themselves. All of this takes a lot of negotiating and getting used to, and in its formative stages is frequently awkward and frankly disappointing. It’s hardly the only aspect of our lives that has this quality, but there is one stark difference, the activity being largely private, the information the young person can get hold of in the public realm is minimal. So closely aligned are attitudes to sexuality with other cultural touchstones like morality and religion, that even the best meaning adults find it difficult to freely offer advice and guidance. And there is a natural and universal coyness associated with sexuality which makes young people unreceptive to the intervention of adults in these matters. In this context, a world of freely available and unmitigated pornography is disastrous, because it shows none of the reticience of any other stakeholder. Pornography gives detailed, luridly so, depictions of sexual activity, and in doing so creates a picture of what is normal, and indeed what is expected. So not only does the industry create a set of sexual responses to unhealthy activities (here think coercion, violence, distancing, objectification) but it also creates an expectation that this is simply what sex is, and that expectation creates a burden on those young people attempting to negotiate an already impossibly complex landscape. People who have put themselves in a situation of such intimacy generally wish to please the person they are with. And this becomes a form of coercion even if nothing is directly asked of them. Where once western women were subjected to the brutal expectation that sex for them would be unpleasant, and was simply to be endured, they now face an even more demanding and demeaning narrative. Neither men nor women asked for this redefining of our sexuality, it was visited upon them by an industry devoid of moral purpose. And, for the young and uncertain, those least able to engage in careful and open communication, the possibility of sex as an act of warmth and connection is lost.

10 The shallows of instant gratification

If there is one truth we should wish to pass onto our children, it is surely this: every thing worth having takes work. Finding satisfaction in your job takes work. Creating a home where people love one another and feel safe and supported takes work. Establishing positive relationships with your work colleagues takes work. Being healthy takes work. Understanding the world we live in takes work. Relaxing, truly relaxing, satisfied in the knowledge that you are living a worthwhile life takes work. So too lasting friendship, and so too intimacy. It is an important truth to own because with its knowledge comes a new kind of attitude to the world. The world is not benevolent, but nor does it mean you harm. The world just is, and we must move into that world with a willingness to do the work, to roll our sleeves up, uncomplaining, and get on with it. We must embrace the virtues of patience and service, we must resist the urge to feel  put upon of disadvantaged. We must be prepared to play the long game, two steps forward and one step back, accepting the setbacks as an inevitable part of the journey. The alternative is to simply seek instant gratification wherever we can find it, consuming our fried chicken by the bucketful, finding entertainment through digital distraction, valuing our friendships by number nor quality, and seeking sexual release not by way of hard won trust and intimacy, but by pre-packaged pixelation. Pornography is a crucial cog in a bigger machine of destruction. Pornography is embracing of the sort of laziness and lack of aspiration that breeds a lifetime of self-entitled disappointment. It encourages us to paddle forever in the shallow end of the pool, that we may never experience the sensation of floating free. It is the unambitious yielding to the animal instinct of the now, capitulation to the great lie of modernity, that you can have it all, right away. And in this child-like rush to satisfy only the needs of the moment, we lose sight not just of the other, but of the future self. The true act of kindness to the self is the valuing not of the life of the moment, but of the life yet to be. It is a determination to make  tomorrow better through the sacrifices of today. It is the willingness to climb the mountain for the sake of the view, but also the self respect that comes from having taken the harder road. Real sex is fraught with difficulty and responsibility, is a scary, grown up act. Pornography offers reward without effort, and everywhere and always such reward is both fleeting and ultimately illusory.  

11 The imprinting problem

You don’t get to choose what arouses you. Or at least not exactly. Sexuality is largely an imprinted phenomenon. What we come to think of as desirable, what is most able to elicit sexual responses, is a function of the things we see, experience and think about during our adolescence, or so goes imprinting theory. We can see in comparative anthropological studies both universals (modesty, jealousy, long term bonding…) and tremendous variances. Culture has the ability to determine a great deal with respect to sexual mores. Who we find attractive, the social context within which sex occurs, the degree of responsibility towards one’s partner, gender equality, all these things are modifiable via culture, and one of the strongest transmission mechanisms appears to be imprinting through adolescence. So, again, pornography doesn’t depict actual sex, it is contorted for the purposes of the camera, and for the purposes of its consumers (who seek mostly short term arousal assistance). Yet, if this is what adolescents are being exposed to, the problem is not just in terms of warped and harmful expectations (for the activities presented are unlikely to satisfy) but also of programmed sexual responses. It is entirely possible that in time these become necessary components of the sexaul response for the early consumer. Sexuality becomes then increasingly visual, and hence increasingly about objectifying of the partner, reducing them to the physical presentation of their bodies (as if body image isn’t fucked up enough already). And, increasingly, we may also be programming into our youth a need for some form of aggression as a sexual trigger. Could this industry be any more damaging if we designed it to be so?
12 The infantilising of sexuality.

Children love routine. In it they find security. Returning to a familiar holiday spot, rushing into the arms of a loved grandparent, sitting down to their favourite meal. Their  world is awash with the new and the confusing, and every day they are being asked to cope with novel and frightening situations. Their instinct is to shy away from these challenges when they can, to seek out the adult to guide them through the unknown. For a child with a limited skill set it is a sane and cautious approach. Then, as we mature and develop a wider range of skills, we gift ourselves with new levels of independence. We go out into the world, meet new people, take risks, try new things. We enrich our lives by trusting ourselves to adapt to the challenges of a shifting landscape. This openness to the world in so many ways defines adulthood. And yet there is an argument that, given the opportunity to regress to the behaviour of the child, we will turn to a sort of laziness and let these challenges that so reward us pass us by. Think of the cliche of the British tourist on holiday in Spain, eating fish and chips on a beach, bought with a warm beer from their favourite British style pub, holding loud sunburnt conversations with their British friends with whom they holiday every year, complaining about the locals. The franchise model of retail plays to this fear of the unknown, offering shoppers in every corner of the globe the comfort of knowing how to negotiate the menu, where to sit, even where the toilets will be. Capitalism appeals to our laziness, and so makes eternal children of us all. Even the challenge of conversation has been circumvented, witness any gathering of the young, each studiously attached to their phone’s screen. And pornography is simply the apex of this dismal phenomenon. It allows us to experience our sexuality suspended in childhood, freed from the messy obligations of social interaction, of reading motivations, showing vulnerability, of losing control. The viewer of pornography is the epitome of control, or as Seinfeld would have it, master of his domain. He is removed, can start or stop any depiction with a single click, is hidden from view, will neither be seen nor interrogated. Everything is safe and familiar. Repetition becomes a watchword. And so this area of limitless riches, this experiencing of love and hope and letting go, is bypassed by the childish urge to be safe, protected and unchallenged. Like mass produced clothing, fast food and over-produced music, pornography sucks the colour from our lives by offering the excuse we need to never grow up.

13 Addiction

Pornography makes addicts of its users, and addiction hollows the life from the inside out, its true damage apparent only when collapse is imminent. Dopamine release is considered a key factor in the creation of addiction. This pleasure hormone, released as a reinforcer of behaviours, nevertheless contains within its receptors a desensitising mechanism. Awfully, with over-exposure, not only does the impact of a hit lessen each time, but the craving for the next hit intensifies. This double whammy underpins the pattern of addiction and explains why in time it will become so destructive. Be in gambling or gaming, pornography or ecstasy, the addict must in time seek more of it and more often, to satisfy the physiological need. So, while the early feeding of the habit may be socially manageable, in time the need for more money, more time, or more extreme stimulation will push the user outside society’s bounds. The addict becomes a pariah, or more often lives in constant fear of being found out and cast as one. Shame is the constant companion, and with it, anger. The human beings surrounding the addict become a means to the greater end, or an obstacle to achieving it, and so in term those we know and love become strangers to us, dehumanised in the shadow of the greater god of satisfaction. The pornography addict (and while not all users are addicts, every user runs the risk, and viewed from the outside, it is a risk without an attendant reward, a dumb bet if ever there was one) finds themselves on a path to ever darker material, and ever darker demands. To hide their habit, they seek to appear sexually functional in the real world, but their view of sex is by now so distorted that any attempts to imitate intimacy run the risk of descending into abuse. It is an ugly place to end up, and because of the secretive nature of pornography consumption, the user can not turn to the normal social controls and constraints to mediate their behaviour. In any behaviour that is secretive the risk of escalation is magnified. And because, unlike many other addictions, there is not even a financial barrier to engagement, (or in the case of gaming, a temporal barrier) usage can spiral very quickly. The true addict is sexually and socially dysfunctional, and capable of bringing tremendous harm to those about him, for their mind ultimately is not their own. Pornography and its modern delivery mechanisms are designed to provide maximal risk of addiction. Why then are we not outraged by its glib acceptance?