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The end of a foolish superstition?

There have been any number of things that feel heartening about my country’s response to the challenges presented by Covid-19. We’ve seen a sense of community spirit and a calm, pragmatic approach to the business of politics. People have generally accepted that letting health experts guide public policy on this one, in return for a fair amount of transparency from our leaders, has been a sensible move. Although, like anywhere, we have our fair share of flat earthers and anti-vaxxers, there’s been little room for quirk and superstition in the public discussion, and that’s as it should be.

And now, joy of joy, it seems as if there may even have been a small crack opening up in the superstitious world of economic policy. Maybe it’s too early to get excited, but after thirty five long years of a weird sort of collective puritanism when it comes to monetary and fiscal policy, a little mainstream common sense has arrived by stealth on these lonely islands. Now admittedly it’s a while since I completed my economics degree, but over the ensuing decades the fundamental realities haven’t changed. The basic mechanism by which Governments and central banks operate, while different in detail, remain recognisable in the broader picture. And, as anyone who’s studied economics will tell you, there are options when it comes to  funding public spending. We can raise revenue through forms of taxation, or earnings from government enterprises. We can borrow, in order to finance longer term capital projects where the benefits also accrue long term, or to smooth out economic growth  cycles, spending more in hard times and less when the going gets good. And, whisper it quietly, the government can just create more money. That’s right, the central bank can simply honour the government’s spending commitments by putting more money into the system. Technically this will show as a transfer of 0% interest government bonds, but the effect is funding through money supply.

But what, you cry? That can not be true. Why then raise taxes at all? Why not just enjoy a glorious and endless flow of government largesse? The answer is that in economics, to employ the favoured cliche, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Such policies as monetising government debt, as we now prefer to call it, have flow-on effects, two in particular. One is seared in the public consciousness, the other less so, but both are potentially important. Reckless disregard for economic conditions when you pursue this policy can lead to inflation, in the same way as reckless disregard for physical conditions when eating can lead to obesity. This, note, is not an argument against eating, just a caution to eat well and happily and be aware of the trade-offs. Oh, if only economist commentators possessed some degree of common sense. For a small trading nation like ours, the other danger is to do with our balance of payments. Amp up spending too much and as people’s incomes rise, they spend more on imports. If exports don’t rise at the same time, there can be some ugly  adjustments further on down the line.

So there you go, printing money is a brilliant way of raising funds in some situations, just so long as you’re not in a situation where you’re close to capacity and new demand will be inflationary, or where the tradable sector is going to blow out. And so, all around the world, mainstream economists and political operators have advocated the cautious use of this approach to fund some government spending. As you’ll likely have already spotted, it’s particularly apt in times like ours where a calamity has tanked the economy or destroyed the capital base (like after a war, or a major earthquake). Because you’re attempting to boost lagging demand, there’s no need to fear inflation, quite the opposite, and similarly, because this is a short term measure designed to pull us out of a recession, it will not in and of itself threaten our balance of payments. Tourism has taken a mighty hit and there’ll be a new equilibrium to be found there, but that’s another matter. And, sort of perfectly, this is spending that is not going to be built in to future budget cycles. It’s one-off funding for a variety of support and restart projects, and  if you think back to the genesis of state housing in New Zealand you’ll understand we’ve done that before, and with great success.

And yet, and yet, just wait for either the meek capitulation of government behind the scenes, so that the option doesn’t even appear on the table, or the baying howls of ‘remember Germany before the war?’ from the high priests of market purity who for some reason have a free pass to spout superstition in this country and not get called on it. I know this will happen because after the Christchurch earthquake the Greens suggested exactly the same idea and the backlash was so aggressively orchestrated that they lost their nerve and backed away from a perfectly sensible, middle of the road economic suggestion. I don’t even think it’s self interest on the part of the market worshippers; nothing so venal. I think it’s just deeply embedded ideological superstition, as always aided and abetted by commentators who are terrified of appearing ill informed.

But at least we’re talking about it, and make no mistake, the alternative is  awful, a sustained period of unnecessary austerity that, as always, will disproportionately hit the vulnerable and the marginalised. You know, I don’t mind superstition. Whatever gets you through the night. Until it starts hurting other people. At that point ignorance needed to be named and shamed, and bullies outed. In my perfect world, this would become an election issue. I’m allowed to dream, right?

The Myth of Online Learning

Our schools have been closed for over a fortnight now, and we, like families all over the world, are confined to our homes. It’s been a lovely (mostly) time to watch my three young boys whiling away the hours. As I type one of them is on his iPad, making an animated movie, another on the piano, hammering away something tuneless, and the youngest (four) is putting a load of washing on – we all need an obsession. As the day meanders on they will laugh, draw, explore, fight, eat, hide, sulk, run, bounce back from dark moods, read, ask what’s for dinner (ten or twenty times each), argue passionately over small nothings and watch movies. They are doing what children naturally do, given the time and space and support. They’re learning about their world. It’s sort of glorious.

Next week ‘schools’ are back, only the online version, announced with a certain level of pride from the Minister of Education yesterday. What this means, in essence, is that the older of my two children will be pestered with tasks designed to both make the teaching community feel useful, and interfere with my children’s learning. Tasks that will add friction to what is already a difficult time for parents, and which will add precisely nothing to the learning trajectory of our children. It will demonstrate conclusively, for those still in any doubt, that online learning is kind of a waste of time.

Thing is, all the things I most need schools to do, they can’t do for me in an online environment. The first, and most crucial service a school provides is babysitting. It is the existence of schools that allow parents the space to be adults in the world. To work, to hold grown up conversations, or just to have a few moments of peace in the day.   In other times this would feel like cynicism, but we’re starting to understand it now, right? It’s a key and worthy part of our social fabric, this keeping of children safe in such a cheap and efficient manner. And you can’t do that online.

Next thing you need schools for is the context in which social skills can be developed. The really difficult things to learn like being patient when there are lots of other people who need attending to, or dealing with betrayals and disappointments, or sucking it up and hiding your mood from your peers, developing the discipline to shut up and get on with the task at hand, reading the moods of others, learning to listen, express your opinion respectfully, apologise and make things better when you screw up; all these things are well learned in the school environment – for teachers and students both. None of them can be adequately learned online, and yet can we think of anything more important to learn?

The third reason you’ll have anticipated, for it’s all very well to speak of the richness of learning in the home environment but that’s a very middle class luxury – dear God I’ve already mentioned a piano, an iPad and a front loading washing machine. But, more than that, these are kids not exposed to violence,  overcrowding, drug addiction or instability. This is the third great pillar of state provided education, a small but important contribution in the battle against inequality. Schools, at their best, provide for some of our students the only safe and stable environment they know, the only possibility of their background stress ever getting low enough for meaningful learning to occur. And for that you need the safe space to exist. Online can’t get that done either.

Further down the list, we find the academic virtues. Learning to write essays, or computer code, or manipulate algebraic expressions. Skills that for the great majority are of marginal value at best, but which for a small portion of the population (and for society in general) are absolutely crucial. We need epidemiologists and we need vaccine creators, people with highly advanced abstract thinking skills who will go on to be our leaders, our inventors and our intellectuals. Always will, and when education gets that right, it’s glorious. And this part we can contribute to online, although there will never be a substitute for meeting the mentor who inspires you, fuels your love for the subject. Turns out though, we also really need truck drivers, supermarket shelf stackers and farmers (and don’t really need merchant bankers, corporate lawyers, boards of directors,  market researchers or consultants). Hell, turns out we really need Netflix too. But most of the work that comes through the wifi over the next few weeks is going to be crashingly irrelevant for most of the students receiving it. And an awful lot of it will exist to serve not the needs of the students, but the needs of the teachers and administrators. So, you know, nothing changes.

The power of story

In this world of lockdown and virtual everything, I’m having to communicate with my classes by video. Here is a wee lecture I gave on the power of story, a topic dear to me  that I rant upon often. Might be of interest to some of you.

Hoping all is well in your locked down corner of the globe.

It’s gender, stupid.

 Two nights ago, fittingly enough, our talented troupe of young actors performed our play Two Nights to an audience of parents and students, with the aim of making it easier for them to start discussions about pornography, and the role this is playing in shaping our intimacy culture. Clearly, having spent three years with this play now, taking it around schools and facilitating discussions with thousands of students, I have an opinion on this issue, one that has become stronger as time has gone on.

 One might characterise the response to pornography as falling broadly into three camps. This is a necessarily inaccurate characterisation, but for my purposes it will do. The first is the ‘what’s all the fuss about?’ camp. These folk will typically argue that the problem is either overhyped, non-existent, unavoidable, or unsolvable. I’m not much interested in addressing their arguments here. Suffice to say I think they’re wrong, and in other entries on this blog I’ve done my best to explain why. It’s the distinction between the other two camps which interests me more, because here there is an argument about the best way to respond to the changing landscape, and given I’m actively pursuing solutions in schools, I have an obligation to get my head around this dispute.

 One school of thought is that the answer is to promote what is sometimes referred to as critical engagement with pornography. That will take many forms, but it asks us to engage young people in a discussion about types of pornography, how it’s consumed, how the sex portrayed differs from real sex, why some people object to pornography, what ethical pornography might look like etc. It essentially says, given this stuff exists, isn’t going anywhere in a hurry, is easily accessible, and is being viewed by young people, let’s talk to young people about what they’re viewing and let them make informed decisions for themselves about the material. It’s akin to an approach to drug education which aims to give young people as much information as possible about recreational drugs, be it legal aspects, purity, possible side effects, typical experiences and so forth, so that those who do make the choice to use drugs (as many young people will) do so with better information and hence a better chance of protecting themselves. 

 The opposing school of thoughts is concerned that this approach, by sending what is essentially a value free message (we’re not telling you what to do, we just want you to be aware of the consequences), sends a tacit signal about values nonetheless. And the value message we send is – actually, there’s nothing wrong with this per se. Just be aware of what you’re getting into. Be a well informed consumer. And that value, goes the argument, is exactly the wrong one to be promoting, as it lets us off the hook, allowing us to grow complacent in the face of a problem that is both real and pressing.

 For my part, the last of these arguments is the one I endorse, and I want to try to explain why. I think the critical consumer model is absolutely a product of the neo-liberal model that has dominated much of our economic and social thinking over recent decades and is specifically designed to suit the needs of corporations. I think it ignores the way people actually make decisions, and I think it ignores the way value systems are woven into the social fabric. It is essentially falling a back on the parody of human nature upon which neo-classical economics was built, and it appeals precisely because it relieves adults of the messy responsibility of owning and promoting ethical positions. 

 Fast food is an excellent example here. In New Zealand our health system labours beneath, and this is only going to get worse, the massive burden of dealing with diet related diseases, most notably but by no means exclusively, type-two diabetes. That portion of the food industry that has grown massively rich on the back of the simply trick of finding new and imaginative ways to package salt sugar and fat together in attractive packages, runs a very appealing line it its defence. It’s not the food that’s the problem. All things are fine in moderation. We just need people to make more sensible choices. We need to inform and educate, we need to make them critical consumers. There is simply no evidence this approach works. This is because we’re not particularly rational when it comes to the consumption of foods that provide   instant hits of gratification. We go for the accessible, the cheap and the addictive. And it’s really dangerous. But society sanctions it, glorifies it, promotes it, and in the face of this message, critical engagement is sort of useless. This is not to say there is some easy solution here, but at the very least finding the courage to stand up to the industry and say, actually your product is crap to the point of being immoral, is a blight upon our ability to flourish, is a good starting point. That stance allows the strong unambiguous messages, and on the back of these, the strong and unambiguous social and political action that can start to turn back the tide. 

 There are any number of groups you can substitute for the food lobby, and in each case the tactic has been the same. Tobacco pioneered the whole approach (and haven’t they done well with vaping, or ‘ethical smoking’, shall we call it. A whole new generation are being lured back into the inhalation culture and profits are recovering.) The fossil fuel industry is fighting a brilliant rear guard action as the waters rise, the alcohol industry, the gun industry, all of them make clever use of the critical consumption model. It takes real courage, from people who will inevitably be called out as alarmist lunatics, to stand up and say, actually no, to hell with my liberal instincts to let others make choices: semi-automatic weapons are designed for murder, carbon consumption is screwing the ecosystem, the cost of alcohol and drug consumption is borne disproportionately by the poor and the dispossessed, and the pornography has effectively put the aspirations of gender politics back twenty years, and that’s all bullshit. Young people don’t just want information, they want the bigger picture of social aspiration, of belief systems, they want the narrative of value and of hope, they want to believe that the world they have inherited does not represent the sum total of choices available to them. They desperately want the adults they interact with to have opinions about the business of being human. They don’t want to be told, ‘well different people have different points of view on this and they’re all valid in their own way’. They want to interact with adults who actually give a shit. 

 There are a great many reasons pornography should be seen within this context, and look up my entry ‘13 Reasons Why Not’ if you want the fuller version. But if I had to boil my motivation in this area down to one argument, it would be this: 

 Human nature is defined by its plasticity. Culture plays a huge role in defining our norms, especially when it comes to social and sexual interactions. There is no natural sexual equilibrium to which we naturally tend. The Victorians told us women couldn’t enjoy sex and we’re still untangling the mess of that stupidity. Countless societies thought homosexuality was wrong and far too many lives were made too miserable or too short by this ignorance. Only a few short decades ago in this country, the law considered there was no such thing as rape in marriage. Female genital mutilation still exists in the world, otherwise sophisticated people are still weird about discussing menstruation in public, and young pre-teen girls are dressed by their mothers in the manner of sexual prizes and paraded before strangers in various forms of dance competitions – and the audience find it all thoroughly sweet. 

 Young people absorb the lessons of the norm. They look to the behaviour all around them and this becomes their truth. Given our nervousness when it comes to discussing sexuality with the young, they turn elsewhere for their social cues. Pornography is easily available, and shows them, in a constructed world devoid of social context, that sex is a series of acts performed by men on women, who exist as bit part players (in every sense), extras in the playing out of frequently violent male fantasises. Allowing an algorithm driven industry to set the sexual agenda in this way is so clearly ridiculous to me that I find it tremendously easy to take sides on this one. Yes, of course we want to give information. Of course we need to make sure young people do not withdraw from the conversation through guilt and shame. Of course we need to be subtle and clever in the way we engage young people. But not by refusing to own a value position in the debate. That’s precisely what the industry wants us to do.



 I recently enjoyed an excellent online discussion between professional philosophers Massimo Pigliucci and Daniel Kaufman. They were talking about the modern habit of reducing everything to a physical explanation, and the philosophical errors involved in doing this. It’s a potentially technical topic, but I want to see if I can convey a somewhat simplified (reduced – yes, I get the irony) sense of it, because to me the implications of this mistake are profound. Indeed, to draw a slightly long bow, I want to suggest that the error is in some important way contributing to what appears to be a sharp spike in anxiety disorders. That’s perhaps a stretch, but compared to John Marsden’s recent attempt to put the blame at the feet of anxious parents, it is at least reasonable.

 So, to the philosophical misstep. Here’s a metaphor I’ve used before that I think gets to the essence of the argument. Imagine I’m watching a favourite old tv show on my computer. A friend walks in and asks what I’m laughing about and I tell them Donna’s just been lured into a televised conversation with a guy in a chicken suit. It’s a funny moment and I’m amused. The friend looks confused. ‘But there’s no show there, not really. You’re actually just looking at the pixels of the computer screen, and their cleverly co-ordinated flashing is creating the illusion of a story.’

 This clearly makes my friend an idiot, albeit a technologically aware one. Their mistake is to do with this business of existence, or rather what we mean when we say something exists or is real. There can’t really be a television show on my screen, that has to just be an illusion, because really what’s going on is just this pixel business (and the vibrating of the speaker, for without the dialogue Sorkin’s masterwork would be decidedly ordinary). Actually the pixel thing is real, and so too is the show. There really is a show and this show is enabled by exactly the technology my friend has identified. And when I say they are both real, I mean it in an important sense. There exists a number of qualities that I am affected by, that I experience, that can only be explained in terms of the show: its characters and their circumstances and motivations. The experience I am having, my investment in and response to the genius fiction before me can not be explained, even in principle, by the physics of the computer, nor the  physics of my brain. To explain what I am experiencing, you have to speak of the human world being represented. There is information about the world, in other words, that is only accessible at the higher level of explanation, the level of motivation and perception. And to say ‘there isn’t really a story unfolding on your screen’ is simply to deny the reality of something that, well, exists.

 In technical terms, we say that these two realities require different ontologies to describe and explain them. The mistake is to use a physicalist ontology (a thing exists if it can be described in terms of its position in time and space) to describe a teleological phenomenon (the existence of narratives and intentions).

 Now, at this point you may be wondering what all the fuss is about. Nobody ever walks into a room and speaks as my imaginary (yet conceptually real) friend does. What we do all the time however, or rather what modern philosophy and modern commentators do all the time, is play the ‘what’s really going on here’ card with a smug air that for many is compelling. And in doing so they privilege one kind of reality over another. Two fine examples are the fields of neuroscience and evolutionary psychology, and here I am not suggesting the disciplines themselves are bogus, but rather that their more enthusiastic supporters fall for this error hard. I’ve sat through professional development courses where ‘brain experts’ with slide shows full of scans have used ‘the latest science’ to  explain to us what’s really going on for the teenagers we teach. Considered as one perspective in a multi-layered explanation of behaviour, there can be useful insight here. But when the viewpoint is implicitly privileged (you think they’re frustrated that the teacher hasn’t noticed they’re had their hand up for the last four minutes, but actually what’s happening is a misfiring of the fight or flight response… etc etc) we become weirdly uncritical. Take for instance the received wisdom that teens are just out of control because of the chaotic state of their rearranging brain. I’m happy to accept that their physical brains are in a remarkable state of flux, but it’s not the only thing that’s going on for them. Nor is this fact in itself deterministic. The great majority of students I’ve taught over the decades are calm, restrained, thoughtful and quite capable of exhibiting a finely tuned understanding of action and consequence. They put up with a schooling environment which is loud, repetitive, and frequently incoherent and do so with remarkable good grace. I have seen no evidence that they are any more prone to foolish and rash behaviour than my adult colleagues, (would that it were so) and yet the myth of the irrational teen is more firmly rooted than ever because we are so easily swayed by the ‘hard science’. We fall for the ‘of course, what’s really going on…’ line and are distracted, at least for the length of the dreary seminar, by the existence of the pixels. Yes, brain states enable experience and behaviour, but they do not define it. Not by a long shot. More importantly, the best way to assist teens to further develop the insight, restraint, generosity and kindness we hope to see blooming in them is to understand them not as biological machines but as independent, motivated souls, seeped in personal narratives. It’s at the level of their individual narratives that we properly understand them as people, and connect with them in a way that has lasting impact.

 The excesses of evolutionary psychology arguments are legendary, and perhaps no better exemplified than in the Sam Harris style writings on free will. An inordinate amount of excitement is generated by the observation that our brain states have physical antecedents and in this sense our behaviours are all explicable in physical terms, which in terms can be captured within an evolutionary narrative (it feels as if you are writing a story in order to express a creative urge, or tease out an idea that has been puzzling you, but actually you are subconsciously being drawn towards a public display of your intellectual capacity in order to make yourself more attractive to potential mates). This ‘what’s really going on’ business, when it comes to fundamentals like free will, does more than simply misdirect our energies. At its very worst, it strips us of our essential humanity, and denies that which is most precious. This is perhaps what George Bernard Shaw saw when he responded to his first encounters with evolutionary theory writing: 


There is a hideous fatalism about it, a ghastly and damnable reduction of beauty and intelligence, of strength and purpose, of honour and aspiration. 


He certainly wasn’t saying evolutionary theory was incorrect, but rather warning of what happens if we see this as the ‘real explanation’ of life, rather than the  best explanation for a particular level of analysis. Yes, natural selection is real. Genes are real. Biological imperatives are real. But so too are beauty, honour and purpose. They are realities with their own ontologies, and their own demands and rewards.

 The flashing red light in all of this is the word ‘illusion’. Free will is just an illusion. Consciousness is an illusion. Moral truths are illusions.  There exists a kind of intellectual framework that, by privileging a very specific kind of scientific ontology, seeks to make us feel a little foolish when talking about things like love, hope and story. We are are the children, still clinging to our mythology, because cold hard reality is just too frightening to us. We lack the courage to stare into the abyss. This is nihilism, pure and simple, and it rests on an ontological error. Reduced explanations are not more real at all. If they were, then we’d be in significant trouble. For we can not draw upon biological explanations, resting as they do on the ontology of purpose – hearts don’t really pump blood, that’s just an illusion, really they’re just collections of atoms colliding, bonding and exchanging energy. And then an atomic explanation is not good, because atoms themselves are just constructed metaphors attempting to encapsulate our murky understanding of the quantum world, and maybe that just reduces to information, but then information itself is surely a metaphor… And, to get really picky, the whole argument rests on, well, the validity of arguments, which rest upon the rules of inference, which themselves are only valid within their own specific and irreducible ontology. 

 The point is that there always have been and always will be many different ways of knowing and each of these ontologies will have their own set of rules for deciphering and interacting with the world. To consistently privilege the materialist ontology when considering the non-material world (so, for example, the human world, defined as it is by intention and story, or the mathematical world, defined as it is by its axioms and rules of engagement) is to do something more than be misguided. It is to actively promote a world where there is room to be cynical about the things that are not only most real to humanity, but most precious. I speak here of our value systems, of Shaw’s honour, purpose and aspiration.

 And, to make good on my promise, I suspect that it is the sense of purposelessness, our lack of confidence in the promotion of  higher values, that encourages the inward focus on self, and the shallow virtues of status and recognition. I think it is the subsequent feeling of emptiness, the lack of connection with a community that extends beyond the mirror, the lack of opportunity to serve freely the needs of others, that allows anxiety to slowly creep into the modern psyche. I think the modern malaise has an awful lot to do with the narcissism that emerges when we are allowed to believe that shared values are illusions, and the self is the only reliable reference point. Because it is such an anaemic  world view, so inherently unsatisfying, that anxiety is the only rational response. There must be more to it than this, whispers the soul. I must be missing something. What am I missing? What am I missing? Cue more pointless purchases, more vain attempts to be noticed, to be measured as acceptable, more disappointment (inevitably) and so the anxiety rises. 

 And, as I contemplate the elected leaders of the old world order, the Donald Trump, Boris Johnson debacle, I think there’s an equally dangerous corollary in the public sphere. I think this is what nihilism looks like: politicians who are judged not by their substance, their honour, their purpose and their aspirations, but by their self regarding ability to draw attention. Toddlers in suit, endorsed by the people, ruling the world. Now that does make me a little bit anxious.


The bigger question

 I spent yesterday with a bunch of young actors, a Year 13 drama class, and a colleague rehearsing what will be their final piece of performance at our school, a play called Arrival. As is our wont these days, we’re trying to create a story of hope, one that lifts the collective gaze. It seems to me to be the most powerful gift we can offer the kids who pass through our care, the chance to believe that life can be good, that the years ahead are littered not just with things to suffer and survive, but also with those moments of joy and connection that will make their lives worth living.

 We can add only a small amount to their worlds in this way of course, for each marinates in their own set of stories, through their friends, their home lives, the movies and the television they watch, the conversations they happen upon, the websites they visit, the social media they consume. And yet, we are inescapably part of their worlds too, as adult role models we teachers stand as one of the options before them, one of the available ways of being a grown up in the world. And as writers and directors in drama, we give our young charges intimate access to the stories they tell; not only will they absorb them as an audience, but they will live them as actors, trying on the emotions, experiences and points of view of another. And then their immediate community, their family and friends, will gather to absorb the story in that atmosphere of immediacy and warmth that school theatre does so very well. They’ll remember the performance for the rest of their lives, many of them; it will become a part of who they are.

 With Arrival I’ve wrestled with the usual story telling difficulties. The demands of a school production are many, for as well as creating a narrative to hook the audience, there is also the need to produce a piece where every role is meaningful, that no actor is left feeling their contribution is not significant. Ensemble pieces are the rule of thumb then, in this piece we have ten actors on stage pretty much all the time. That in itself is a writing challenge. Then there is the need to match the resources of a school. Simple, spare sets work best for us, for it is all we can afford; our lighting rigs are minimal, our budgets non-existent. And finally, to properly test the acting craft, I demand of myself that these stories leave the kids not with one more gloomy tale of suffering and trauma, in a culture where they so easily slip into thinking that it is trauma that will win them attention and prestige. 

 This last challenge is the greatest of all from a writing perspective, which should be obvious but somehow isn’t. Tragedies, from a narrative point of view, are easily constructed. People make errors of judgement and as a result ill befalls them. Problems grow, snowball, and the narrative trick is simply to find ways of connecting the cause and effect of turmoil. This is not to say the art of writing tragedy isn’t complex and beautiful. The difference between a work of nuance and searing insight, and one produced by a plodder, will always be a chasm, and much great art is indeed tragic, but from a narrative point of view, it’s just easier. A tragedy poses a problem, a story of hope poses a solution. Which of those two is simpler, do you imagine? To build a house from the ground up, or to tear one down?

 Because there is a tradition in literary analysis to pretty much ignore the merits of narrative, there is a strange snobbery that has evolved in favour of the grim, with the mistake being made of equating misery with profundity, which says more about the lives of academic critics than it does about the world in which we live. But that is a whole other issue. For now my point is simply this – writing stories of hope is difficult, from a narrative point of view particularly so. Not only does a solution to the problem raised have to be proposed, but it must be made dramatically powerful (tricky, as in the real world the best solutions are usually gentle and are constructed slowly) and also credible. Hopeful stores are the means by which we make the young a promise that the world they inhabit can be lived in with peace and joy. We do not shy from the fact that this will be hard work, perhaps the hardest work of all, but stories capture the imagination, and help us believe it is work worth doing.

 It is an interesting question what are the defining components of hopeful stories, and one I’ve been dwelling on a lot over these last few years. It is central to the job I do. There will never be a checklist, or some binary criteria such that stories fall into the categories of hopeful or hopeless. But there will be certain elements that, when they are allowed to blossom, make our stories more hopeful.

 The most controversial of these, I suspect, and the most complicated, is that hopeful stories tend to eschew the morally ambiguous, that relativistic pose that so often dresses itself up as sophistication, and instead put a stake in the  ground within a given context and say ‘no, this is what goodness look like.’ At a basic level, hopeful stories take as their premise the fact that goodness exists, that words like better and more desirable, within a moral context, make sense. On the surface this is not controversial, we are as moralistic as we have ever been (witness the moral fervour with which we turn our attention to the environment and the threats posed to it) but beneath these instincts lurks a deeper and more difficult question which the modern world has little taste for discussing: What are the belief superstructures that must be in place before the notion of goodness can be made both credible and compelling? Must we speak of the spiritual, to make sense of these values, or is there a way of making these notions equally powerful and grounded within a materialistic context? I don’t wish to dodge that question here, but it deserves its own post, perhaps many more posts. Spoiler alert though – the truth is I’m not really sure of the answer.





‘Not a gender thing.’

The All Blacks’ coach, Steve Hansen, has just been quoted as saying domestic violence is ‘not a gender thing.’ Possibly he was misquoted, but looking at the context of his comments, probably not. He was bumbling his way towards making a remarkably foolish, ignorant and harmful point, by means of justifying the inclusion of Sevu Reece in the All Black squad. Yes, the man assaulted and injured his partner in a fit of uncontrolled rage, but, the line goes, he’s remorseful, and rugby is making him a better person. He was discharged without conviction and now we forgive and help him forge a better life. Okay, I’m all for forgiveness and rehabilitation, it’s got to be part of the solution to our appalling track record with violence against women, but Steve Hansen, a tremendously influential public figure, just said domestic violence is not a gender thing. And that makes him an idiot.

See, he knows it’s a gender thing. He knows that the victims of domestic violence are disproportionately women, because it’s kind of impossible not to know that. More than 1 in 3 New Zealand women will experience domestic violence in this country. Women’s Refuges exist for a reason. A dismal, shameful reason. The causes are complex, sure, but in part we’re just not angry enough, ashamed enough, motivated enough as a society to do something about it. To do something about poverty. To do something about breaking the cycle of violence in homes. To do something about the ridiculous male culture that celebrates acts of violence on the sports field. To hold people to account.

The argument that Reece can become a better man by being an All Black falls down on its own premise. The case is made that Reece is already remorseful and his involvement with The Crusaders (let’s not start on the name – how did they not change that in a heartbeat? Cowards) is helping him on a path to a better, gentler life. Okay, excellent, so being in The All Blacks is hardly a necessary part of his path back to righteousness, is it? We’re not doing it for him. But what it does do is send a crucial message that somehow it’s not that big a deal. If he’d assaulted a child, he wouldn’t be an All Black, because we actually, collectively, believe in our bones that is a truly shitty thing to do. If he’d professed religious beliefs about who is or isn’t going to hell, he might well be on the outer too. But drag your partner to the ground, injure her, bring her into your ugly world of intimidation and terror, well we’re not really that appalled, are we? ‘Cos, you know, not a gender thing.

Yeah, it’s a gender thing. It’s about we men refusing to call one another on our caveman behaviours. It’s about our lack of refinement, of restraint, of self-respect. It’s about us not caring enough. And only men can solve this. Men in positions of influence and authority have a special responsibility. On this issue, Steve Hansen needs to grow a pair.

There was an opportunity here for New Zealand rugby to send an important message to its largely male following. A message that says, we no longer tolerate this in our society, we are better than this. New Zealand cricket could have done the same thing, taken a serious stance on rape. Both institutions chose not to, and history will judge them poorly for it. I’m rather hoping both teams fall over at their respective world cups now, for both sports are clearly led by dickheads. Sort of literally.


Power in a Union

This week secondary teachers meet to vote on whether to accept the government’s new pay offer and, unless something very weird happens, we’ll accept it. I’ve had a quick look back over teaching salaries for the last forty years, and the figures provide an interesting window on our recent economic history. The figures below show the value of the top of the teaching pay scale over time, as expressed in 2019 dollars. It’s a slightly rough and ready conversion, using the Reserve Bank’s CPI figures, but gives a sense of what the teaching salary has been worth over time.

1980         96,000

1985         98,500

1990         70,000

1995         67,000

2000         75,000

2005         78,000

2010         80,000

2015         78,000

2020         85,000

A bunch of things stand out to me. The first is just how brutal the reforms of the Douglas/Lange government were. The election in 1984 saw an initial big boost for teachers, to catch them up with the losses to inflation in the previous five years, but that was quickly eroded by further inflation and a fanatical commitment to slashing spending and ‘reforming’ the economy. In many ways teachers were the lucky ones, we at least kept our jobs, but an almost 30% drop in real incomes is a great reminder of just how viciously working incomes fell during that period, at a time when the fortunes in the financial sector were soaring. The transfer of wealth from the productive sector of the economy to the speculative financial markets was real and in the New Zealand context remains curiously unremarked upon.

I entered teaching in 1990 and became a union rep the next year. Incomes at that point were historically low but our time and energy was largely taken up with other battles. The Richardson/Bolger government introduced the Employment Contracts Act which sought to break union power and in schools we were pushing back against Bulk Funding, which would have undermined forever our collective bargaining power. It wasn’t until the second half of the nineties and the beginning of the twenty first century that we saw a rise in real teaching incomes. During this period there was also a restructuring of teaching pay, with an increase in discretionary management payments so the top of the scale from this point on is probably an understatement of the average teaching income. These gains were not easily won, and the largest round of industrial action I’ve been involved in, including wildcat actions from feisty branches and serious divisions emerging within the union, played a large role in refocusing negotiations on real rather than nominal gains.

Following that stoush and its subsequent pay jump, a consensus of a kind emerged, with negotiations beyond that point taking inflationary adjustments as an agreed starting point. The result was more than fifteen years of relative calm, from the 2002 to this latest round of action, and during this period secondary teaching incomes remained stable. The current proposed settlement then, represents the second significant step forward in my thirty years of teaching, and once again come son the back of a round of industrial action. This time round we’ve benefited greatly from the lead of the primary teachers’ union, who put in three strike days to ramp up the pressure, and it is wonderful to see that a meaningful return to pay parity across the education sector is a key part of this deal. Although the proposed settlement won’t bring us back to the pre-reform levels of teaching income it is heartening to think that over my teaching career real incomes have risen by over 20%, probably more like 25% when unit payments are factored in. That hasn’t happened by accident, but rather represents the gains that only a powerful national union with a membership committed to action can achieve.

Strikes raise the ire of the public, who are quick to see us as self serving, lazy and entitled. But there is a better way of seeing this, I think. Without effective unions, fair pay rates are impossible to defend and work becomes quickly casualised, with workers forced to compete with one another for a decent and sustainable standard of living. The neo-liberal market reforms of the late twentieth century ripped the living standards and lifestyles of our workforce to piece sin so many instances. Every example we have of a union resisting the forces of diminishment and inequality should be celebrated, as a reminder that an effective economy doesn’t just generate wealth, it also champions participation, stability and dignity. I’m proud to have played my part.


In Praise of Islam

New Zealand received a lot of good press in the wake of the Christchurch shootings, some of it deserved, some of it weirdly self-congratulatory. That our government acted decisively on arms control is no small thing and must be applauded, so too the way our prime minister led the way when it came to acting with proper respect and empathy. Not everybody behaved well, of course, witness Brian Tamaki objecting to the broadcasting of an Islamic prayer for goodness sake, or the threats of violence received when an RSA suggested a similar prayer at an Anzac Day ceremony. So we have idiots in our midst, who knew, but by in large there was a proper focus on the value of tolerance and the celebration of diversity. But whether that’s to be lauded, or rather falls better under the banner of ‘not being a complete arsehole’, I’m not so sure. If any group deserves particular praise and admiration following the attacks it is  surely the local Islamic community. When these things escalate, it is because the victims get all het up and masculine and go seeking retribution. Remember the US response to 9/11? What we didn’t see in New Zealand was any overt show of anger or appetite for vengeance from those who’d suffered most. Rather we heard words of love and peace. We saw a real openness to the wider community, and we saw a tremendous degree of grace and patience. If anything stands as an antidote to Islamaphobic bigotry it is the behaviour of New Zealand’s Muslim community over recent weeks. If that’s the value set and living example they bring to our country, then lucky us.

Tolerance, of course, is an easy word to use, almost to the point of being rendered meaningless, and a tricky one to practise. Witness the predictable explosion of public vitriol following rugby player Israel Folau’s latest post suggesting most of us, one way or another, are going to hell. His inclusion of homosexuals in the list of the damned was bigoted and hateful, no doubt about it, and speaks of a faith genuinely held but in need of change if we are to move quietly forward to a more inclusive and peaceful future. How to gently pull cultures in that direction, rather than simply alienating them with our admonishments of secular piety, is the bigger question.

What is striking, as journalist Mark Reason recently wrote eloquently of, is the level of righteous indignation we seem to be able to muster in specific cases, while conveniently ignoring what appear to be far worse transgressions elsewhere. Fair to say Rugby culture has a long way to go to earn its right to call itself inclusive when it comes to sexuality, and while the calling out of Folau is in some sense a step forward, and it’s been great to see the high profile players repudiating this point of view with force and passion, there’s something slightly dodgy about the whole holier than thou thing too. Reason points to Australian rugby’s airline sponsorship, owned by a state where homosexuality is not exactly celebrated, and it’s a fair point. It’s also  worth asking whether the fact that Folau has Pasifika heritage has anything to do with our response. Would this issue play our differently with a pakeha All Black, I wonder. I like to think not, but then again, anyone who has read of the Scott Kuggeleijn trials will understand that you can indeed do far worse than express a hateful opinion and have it have no bearing whatsoever on your sporting career. Maybe the difference isn’t race, and our sporting culture just doesn’t like women much. Either way NZ cricket’s behaviour was shameful and that they were not called on it by the general public astonishes me. We do indeed selectively choose when to indulge in the guilty pleasure of judging others.

There is difficult difficult journey ahead if we are to genuinely attempt to help the likes of the Destiny Church lunatics who recently attempted to make their protest outside a mosque to a softer, more inclusive version of belief and celebration (dare I say, in the cases of Tamaki and Folau, a more Christian version?) But New Zealand’s Islamic community have provided us with a timely reminder that there is a way forward, and that when the conditions are right, and the support is heartfelt, the moral arc of the universe can indeed bend towards justice.


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.