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?


Dear Greens

So here’s the thing, I voted for you. A fair number of us did. Perhaps not in relative terms, but enough to get you up over the 5%. Enough to make you relevant. And here’s what I hoped for when I voted for you, that you would use your influence in parliament to fight for the things you believe in. I liked your approach to climate change and implementing a carbon tax. I applaud your desire to make polluters pay. And I have a certain taste for your socially left leanings too (although any party that has signed up for NZ’s version of fiscal responsibility is surely centrist at best). Indeed, your determination to raise benefit levels and implement a no penalty policy for beneficiaries is righteous and humane and I would have supported you on that stance alone.

But here’s another thing. I didn’t vote for you because I hoped you would be zealous in your commitment to the tribalism of party politics. I did not vote for you to refuse to use your leverage on the grounds that it might force you to work with a political party you don’t wholly approve of (they don’t wholly approve of you either, grow up). Nor did I vote for you because I hoped you would bow to the whims of your party membership (yes, I know you have a constitution, but your leadership could at least have the courage to put up a fight).

This is a very very good time to be negotiating with National. They need you right now, for they otherwise have no prospect of a long term coalition partner and in this environment that is fatal. And so they will surely be prepared to contemplate some major concessions. The very concessions the people who voted for you wanted. If you are a Green party, dedicated to the principles of justice and sustainability, then please dear God use this gift that has befallen you to pursue exactly that goal. If however, you are more concerned with your own self-importance, and your thinking is yet to mature past the us and them mentality of the school playground, then your inability to make a positive contribution to New Zealand’s political environment will be clear for all to see. And a great many of us who voted for you because we liked your policies, and rather hoped that given the chance you would be inclined to fight to have them implemented, will not, I imagine, make the same mistake again.


Going Green

I must say I’ve found the run of leaders’ debates on television helpful when it comes to how deciding how to vote. Specifically, after watching the leaders of National and Labour go head to head three times, I’m pretty sure I’ll be voting for the Greens, although the Opportunities Party are not yet entirely off the table, and if I thought Labour were sufficiently politically competent to do a quiet deal to ensure The Maori Party remain strong in Parliament (why aren’t Labour standing aside there?) then The Maori Party wouldn’t be out of the picture either. What I’m fairly confident of is that neither National nor Labour are deserving of my vote this time around. Both, to my mind, present flaws that are ultimately rule them out from receiving my vote.

National’s weakness is clear. They are the incumbent Government and if there are things one genuinely cares about, upon which insufficient action is being taken, then there’s precious little credibility to a Government of nine years telling us they’re on to it now.  For me, that includes the environment in general, and climate change in particular. It also has to involve inaction over housing, they were simply far too slow coming around to the idea it was a problem at all, and it certainly includes poverty (which is now being distastefully marketed by all parties as ‘child poverty’, as if the poverty endured by adults is somehow more acceptable). There are other charges we could lay against National, including an opportunistic and unplanned approach to immigration, being happy to use population inflow as a substitute for sustainable drivers for economic growth. And their approach to education has in general been appalling, with National Standards being the perfect metaphor for all that is wrong with their thinking.

In general, they are now paying the price for John Key’s poll-driven approach to policy making. At first, soaring house prices made house owners, National’s key constituents, feel wealthy, and encouraged debt financed consumption, so the government ignored it (as did the government before them). Climate change, as Bill English says, is not the first thing on most people’s mind when they get out of bed in the morning, so the government ignored it. Parents, if left unguided, will tend to get themselves into a paranoid ferment about their children’s educational progress, and so the government pandered to their psychological weakness by offering up comparative progress measures in primary schools. The poor had been there for a while, ignored for the best part of thirty years now, so it felt safe to keep ignoring them. At some point an articulate opponent would come along and call National on their inaction, and that’s exactly what has happened. Probably National will lose this election, and it will be on the back of a complete lack of desire to do anything other than keep a narrow majority of voters sufficiently docile and content to return them to office.

This is not to say all National has done has been bad. In fact they’ve been a steady government, sensible if not inspiring economic managers who negotiated the Global Financial Crisis well. Ironically enough, Bill English is far more committed to the country’s welfare than his predecessor ever was, and his approach to welfare targeting is, I think, well worth a look, and I hope elements of it will be adopted by the incoming government. But he will be judged on track record, and the deficiencies are plain enough to see.

Why then not vote for the party now calling him on this lack of vision? That’s where the three leaders’ debates come into it. That’s been a fair few hours of speaking time for Jacinda Adern to convince voters her party have, during their long years in opposition, developed a set of coherent and imaginative policies to deal with the very problems she’s exposed. And I have to say the results have been underwhelming. Labour have had the very great luxury of setting the agenda in these debates. The media, captivated by the image of a young, fresh new leader defying the odds and effecting a meteoric rise in her party’s fortunes, have made Labours’ issues the election issues. So they’ve talked clean rivers, housing crisis and child poverty, endlessly it seems, all areas where Labour have identified a weakness in National’s performance. And yet, what have we seen offered by this government in waiting? Well, an awful lot of something called vision, and a few policy details, many of which appear either ill focused or contradictory. It’s a mess.

Take housing. Do Labour want to see house prices fall? Apparently not, according to their leader. But she’d like to see them stop rising. Excellent. Only, they sort of have. So what is the crisis they’ve identified? Well, it’s unclear, but it’s got something to do with the desire to have a working party on a capital gains tax, although they’ve already extended the bright line test out to five years, so what else are they after, and why? They can’t say, because they don’t have policy on it yet, but they will have a working party. Then, bit by bit, they rule out certain conclusions from the potential working party. No tax on family homes, then later, no tax on property (but this clarification was a long time coming), and no new income taxes. So, there is a crisis, but there isn’t (no desire to see house prices fall, which I find gob smacking) and there will be potentially new taxes, but we can’t say what, or even why, because that’s over to the experts. After nine years to get this ready, that’s a shambles. There is a plan to build an awful lot of new houses, but the strategy for ensuring we have the resources to do that (builders say) is sketchy at best, and the accusation that this is contradicted by their immigration policy seems to have some merit.

How about child poverty, and the desire to redistribute wealth? Jacinda Adern made the point during the debates that the biggest leap in child poverty came in the nineties when benefits were cut. This was being slightly cute, by the way, for the eighties were the time when inequality really began to cut in, but she is right, the single simplest thing that could be done (and international experts agree on this) to reduce poverty would be to increase benefits. Only, that’s not her party’s policy. Only the Greens have committed to a significant rise in benefits. How dare any politician take the moral high ground on poverty and have no intention of returning benefits to their already meagre pre-cut level? Labour had an awfully long time to do this under Helen Clark, and instead turned their attention to working for families, in order to lure middle class votes and ensure a third term. At the bottom end it reduced poverty, but it was poorly targeted, missing beneficiaries while rewarding others who were by no means poor but who had votes to offer. Nothing to be proud of there.

Here The Opportunities Party are worth a shout out. Both their tax plan, which is a radical re-imagining of taxation and wealth redistribution, and their universal youth payment, would do much to alleviate poverty, and it’s been refreshing to have their ideas in the debate (although unfortunately they’ve rather been drowned out by the media’s excitement with the Adern narrative).

Clean rivers is also a weakness for Labour, in so much as their headline policy, taxing water use, is about rationing supply, rather than preventing waterway pollution. The way to prevent pollution is to make the polluter answerable, putting in place financial incentives to get it right, and financial punishments for getting it wrong. Again, this is Green policy. Labour are talking up the idea of swimmable rivers (which is transparent vote trawling, people respond emotionally to rivers, in fact there are many bigger environmental issues to consider) but again, their policies don’t shout out that they’ve thought this one through. National’s response, of course, that encouraging people to do the right thing is better, is ludicrous. We don’t just encourage people to do better then it comes to drink driving, although that’s clearly part of the solution. We also put in place some pretty large and clear disincentives. Of course polluters should pay, how’s that difficult?

Jacinda Adern called climate change the nuclear weapons issue of her generation (how this generational talks bores me, aren’t we all in this one together?) and yet, where is the front and centre climate change policy? What exactly is being done to move towards a carbon neutral economy? Where is the urgency? Where is the leadership? Nope, thought not, rather it’s been sound bite, move on. And people, apparently, are loving it. Sigh. The Greens could do much better on this too, much much better. They have the policy outlines and commitment, to be sure, but their own message has been far too diverse, and this time around undermined by infighting, and for those not curious enough to dig deep into their policy pronouncements, it’s almost possible to believe Climate Change isn’t their number one priority either. How I would love to see them talk environment, environment, environment at every opportunity. There is hubris at the heart of the Greens’ weakness, they are unable to see themselves as a small, single issue suport party (something the Maori Party have been very good at). Rather the Greens wish to see themselves as a viable ruling party, which they will never be, and so have developed far too wide a focus to be an effective promoter of environmental sustainability. We saw this with their refusal to position themselves as a support party for National (what good things have happened in education under National have been at the urging of the Maori Party, who seek only to serve their constituency and reason for being. The Greens could learn a lot from them).

Nevertheless, Labour at this election remain a disappointment, not yet sufficiently organised nor focused to provide genuine leadership. Under Andrew Little, this was the general narrative, and the polls reflected our disillusionment. Under Jacinda Adern, the narrative has changed completely, but not the policy, it seems. And so, the Greens present as the party whose policies are most closely aligned with my values and aspirations for my country. Although, as I say, The Maori Party are making an important contribution, and in many ways are more politically savvy and hence effective. And it is sad that TOP have been effectively excluded from the debate this time around, and sit languishing in polling oblivion, because they’ve consistently brought the most interesting ideas to the table. Much as I resist the idea of not voting for a party because that vote will be wasted (it is this thinking that makes it so hard for fresh voices to emerge) if TOP stay at 2% or below I can’t imagine I’ll consider them. So, it’s down to two choices. The Maori Party look like they’ll win one or two of their seats. If they win a second, a party vote for them (they’re just over 1%) would be similarly ineffectual. If only Howie Tamati makes it, however, a party vote might make all the difference there. So that’s still tempting.


Vote of Confidence

The election is approaching and I don’t know who to vote for. This is not unusual for me, I find voting difficult. Occasionally there is an election where the implications of one outcome over another are so clear that voting becomes a simple matter, but mostly I find the opposite to be true. It’s tremendously difficult, or so it seems to me, to work out exactly what the impact of one vote or another will be.

One way around this difficulty is to indulge in what the psychologist Daniel Kahneman refers to as problem substitution. When faced with a very difficult decision (which party’s stance to the Reserve Bank Act is most likely to help low income workers in the regions?) it is not uncommon for the human being to substitute a much simpler problem (which of these two leaders’ smiles do I find most engaging?) The remarkable thing about problem substitution is not that we do it, but that we do it without realising. Talk to any of the very great number of voters who have apparently returned to Labour in recent weeks and they will concoct any number of respectable reasons why they have shifted even though, despite Labour’s protestations, very little has changed on the policy front. They’re still substantially the same party, offering the same solutions, to be implemented by the same personnel. The thing that has actually changed is the thing those people who designed the new billboards understand very well. A huge shift in the ‘would I like to be friends with that person?’ instinct. And that’s fairly depressing.

The other way around the difficulty of judging political competence is simply to think tribally, aligning oneself with that group who most feel like your kind of people. This is the ‘shares my values’ test also much exploited by political operatives. It works best if one is prepared to stick doggedly to cheap stereotypes (The Greens hate progress, Act hate the poor, National don’t care for the workers, etc). We then find some easy term of dismissal for the groups we don’t like (neo-liberals, socialists, fascists  eco-freaks etc) and rest secure in the knowlesdge that ours is a vote for  righteousness. The problem is readily apparent to anyone with even a passing interest in New Zealand politics. So-called conservative governments have supported progressive social agenda (yet are never accused of nanny-stateism), so called workers’ parties have been responsible for the greatest rise in inequality and so forth. As a school teacher and union member, it has always been easy to believe that teachers are better supported  by Labour than National governments. However, plot real teaching incomes over the last five decades against flavour of government and the results are challenging to say the least. Tribalism, along with personality politics, are clearly useless guides to pragmatic outcomes, and one can argue that a disaster like Trump is possible only because of the popularity of these two approaches to vote choosing, and yet how else is one to decide?

It is easy to pontificate on the importance of policy, and how we should be having informed policy discussions in the lead up to an election, but as one who has spent the last little while attempting to locate and analyse various political parties’ policies, I must report this is much harder than it looks. In the case of the incumbent government, I have a fair idea what their policies look like, because they’re doing them. I know roughly speaking where their spending priorities lies, what their approach to education and health provision is, the way they want to target welfare spending and so forth. Some of it I like, much of it I don’t, but I know what I’m getting at least.

But wander into the oppositions territory and it’s not hard to discover what their leaders look like (on a good day, in favourable light, with their chin up) or which tribe they seek to engage. Had enough? asks Winston from his billboard. Enough of what, exactly? Let’s do this, urges Jacinda. Okay, do what? The Greens were great together, but now they’re not, and so forth. Finding out what they’d actually do is less simple. I fully understand that not every small party has the resource to flesh out policy on all fronts but if you think of something as basic as fiscal policy, those mechanisms for raising and distributing funds  from which all government policy ultimately flows, then I do actually expect at least a sense of where they stand, and what they’d do. The Greens are clear on some things they’d like to spend more on (the bulk of which is social rather than environmental spending, fair enough, I support that, but it does suggest why they find it hard to solidify their support base.) What I can’t find, beyond a pledge to fiscal responsibility, is exactly where the money  for the initiatives come from. I’m prepared to accept theymay  have worked out the nuts and bolts of a wealth tax, or capital gains tax, or transaction tax, or they’re interested in relaxing monetary policy or whatever. They may have a plan. But I don’t know what it is, and if it’s on their website, they’ve made the detail hard to find. So is it okay to vote for them because I agree with their priorities, when I don’t know how they’d achieve them? I’m not sure it is.

Labour have had nine well-funded years in opposition to come up with an approach to fiscal management. So, where do they stand on capital gains tax? We don’t know, because they say they don’t know. Seriously, their idea is to have a working party on it after the election. They can’t say what its recommendations will be, nor whether they’d follow them anyway. Is it okay to vote for that plan? I’m not sure it is. It seems to me, if you can’t get policy together during a nine year stint, it’s reasonable to worry about your ability to  function on a day to day basis. This isn’t a one-off. Their policy on National Standards in primary schools is similarly vague. Yes, standards will go (or least won’t be compulsory) but may be replaced by something, not sure what.

Gareth Morgan got in trouble for making this policy point about Labour (and indeed he was being typically and unhelpfully belligerent in his choice of metaphor) yet his point is a good one. Voters do want a sense of what might happen under a particular party. And, for all the things there are to grumble about with TOP, I must say their website was the most informative. There’s plenty to criticise there, for sure, but that’s because there’s plenty there. The broader point is this. It’s all very well to lambaste the media for not focusing on policy, but in many cases it’s because the policy simply isn’t there.

Just as frustrating as the difficulty with discovering policy, is the fact that even with the best of intentions, parties still need to choose their headline policy acts. That means that the things an individual voter might care most about might simply never appear on any policy statements. As a teacher I have grave misgivings about a number of social directions we’re taking. Our cultural endorsement of alcohol addiction is a blight, the rise in anxiety illnesses in adolescence speaks to an complete inversion of values within our education system, the casual and widespread acceptance of the pornification of society to my mind threatens our capacity for intimacy (and so social stability), the enthusiastic embrace of all things digital in education strikes me as dangerously misguided, and so it goes on. But, because none of the political parties have a policy on education or youth that even vaguely reflects my values or aspirations, no matter how interested in policy I am, it won’t help me in the election in this regard.

The other element to consider is that policy isn’t the only game in town. If government is likened to a sport, then policy is essentially the team tactics. And one can have the best tactics in the world, but without the skills to implement it, it’s worth nothing. Politics occurs against an ever-moving backdrop of social and economic circumstance, and a great deal of what politicians actually do in power will be about reacting, and inventing solutions on the hoof. A government with excellent policies but bumbling practitioners is a disaster. So, while it is true that personality is overrated in politics, it is not necessarily fair to say the same of character. Calm, smart, hard working, fair minded folk with control of their egos are exactly the people we want in government, and it’s entirely irrational to care about that just as much as policy detail. Again, as is the case in almost all arguments in 2017, Trump stands as the perfect warning against paying too little attention to character.

So, who to vote for? I really have no idea.