Thursday, 4 October 2018


So it turns out the Otago University Proctor has been burgling student flats and nicking people’s bongs. There was a big protest against him last week, which I sadly couldn’t attend due to a class. I remember a time when the student libertarians could make common cause with us campus Lefties on cannabis decriminalization, if nothing else, but all the right-swinging commentary I’ve seen on the issue this week has been of the bog-standard cookie-cutter “if you think this is abuse of power go live in North Korea” variety.

It is morally wrong for a person in authority to break into people’s private spaces and remove things unless their authority is specifically and publicly constituted to grant them the power to do that, and the Proctor’s is not. This follows so straightforwardly from the trust principle that I can’t be bothered laying it all out. It is equally clearly morally wrong to constitute any authority to give its bearer the power to break into people’s private spaces and remove things unless the things in question pose sufficient risk of harm in that space to outweigh the breach of trust occasioned by the break-in. Any law which grants (for example) the police such powers is an immoral law and ought to be both changed and, until it is changed, resisted. Again, taking the trust principle as the basis of morality, which I do, that follows as night follows day. And I’ve argued the trust-morality connection over and over again on this blog, so I shall skip over that too. The only remaining question, and the topic of this post, is: does cannabis pose a risk of greater harm than is caused by arrests, seizures, prison sentences, and permanent criminal records?

The answer to that question is as follows:


Well, that was easy. See you next ti—

...oh, all right. Here, have a graph. If you click it, the link will take you to the data behind it.

There are exactly zero confirmed cases of death from cannabis use – in stark contrast with alcohol and tobacco, both of which are legal. For addictiveness it’s roughly on a par with caffeine. It is associated with the same sorts of respiratory injuries that tobacco is, but that’s (as far as researchers can tell) because it’s delivered as a smoke and so comes along with tars and similarly harmful products of combustion. Hence if your drug laws are to have any semblance of logic or consistency, either you must allow cannabis or you must ban alcohol and tobacco. And if you’re thinking about the latter option, the United States already tried that with alcohol and it was a disaster.

Cannabis does bring a heightened risk of developing schizophrenia if it’s heavily consumed in adolescence. That, I’ll grant you. And it is reasonable to ask how, once legalized, it would be kept out of the hands of teenagers, given that the surest way to get teenagers to try something is to tell them it’s for adults only, as the tobacco companies know to their tremendous profit. But I’ll tell you a big secret: prohibition isn’t keeping it out of the hands of teenagers either. If you sell a substance legally, you’ll probably think twice about selling it to under-age people because that’ll get you in trouble. If it’s a prohibited substance you’re in trouble anyway, so why narrow your market?

The damping effects of cannabis on motivation are much better-known than the medical evidence for them actually warrants. Part of the problem is that people assume the cause upon seeing the effect. I have long hair that I can’t seem to get the knots out of, and I don’t wear shoes much, and so I have often been asked by complete strangers where they can score some pot in Dunedin; whereas you probably wouldn’t make that assumption of an internationally successful scientist and author like, say, Carl Sagan. On the handful of occasions when I have smoked pot, I’ve found my motivation increased rather than lowered – one time I stayed up all night writing.

I won’t deny there are people who take up cannabis and proceed to lose all interest in life; but, as is typical with other substance dependencies, I suspect you’ll find this is a sign of underlying stressors like an abusive home life or an unsustainable work or study schedule with no other way out. And if someone is having substance problems, it’s easier for a legal supplier than an illegal one to refuse their business, as G. K. Chesterton long ago pointed out with regard to alcohol. Perhaps this is why Portugal has experienced such a drop in drug-related social problems since they legalized all recreational drugs there.

There are of course many wild claims out there about the health benefits of cannabis; if you believe some people, it’ll cure everything from cancer to the common cold. It’s hard for researchers to find out which of these claims have substance on account of, you guessed it, prohibition. I mean, sure, a government can license a pharmacology institute or whatever to do controlled experiments, but they can’t exactly license the entire supply chain so the institute can get hold of enough of the stuff to run anything with a meaningful sample size. Nevertheless, it’s pretty clear that cannabis is an effective painkiller, and last I heard there was some evidence – at a “not sure yet but worth following up” level – that it might slow the progression of some cancers.

Even if you want to be cautious about recreational cannabis, there is absolutely no justification for keeping it from being used as a medicine. Obviously it wouldn’t come from the pharmacist as a cigarette, since smoke and tars do so much damage to your lungs. And it’s a bit slow to get working when taken orally, hence why people sometimes get into trouble the first time they try edibles, eating more and more just because it hasn’t hit yet. The fastest form of delivery might be a nasal spray; your smelling nerves take in molecules from the air because that’s how smell works, and they’re a direct channel to the brain because that’s how nerves work. For people with impaired olfactory function, an inhaler might be a second option.

Actually I started writing this a few days before the protest. I was editing some lecture notes in a university library a couple of tables away from the door to a videoconference room, and three students went in and proceeded to hold what was evidently the Nay side of a video-link debate on the legalization of cannabis. The male one of the three had a particularly loud and annoying voice, but all of their arguments were so stupid that I must, in charity, suppose that they had been roped in to argue the Nay side without believing a word they were saying. (This is why I’ve never done competitive debating.)

Their worst argument of all was against medicinal cannabis. We don’t need it, said Mister Loud Voice, because we’ve already got painkillers. Maybe if I hadn’t had so many pharmacy lectures in the last few years that wouldn’t have sounded quite so head-smackingly silly. Yes, we have other painkillers. We have paracetamol (what North Americans call acetaminophen), which is safe unless you have liver disease. We have non-steroidal anti-inflammatories like aspirin and ibuprofen, which are moderately safe unless you have stomach ulcers or acid reflux. We have corticosteroids, which do nasty things to your bones if taken for any length of time, and we have opioids, which right now are killing Americans in record numbers as the cohort who got addicted to them en masse in their teens enter retirement. A lot of elderly people have both liver and stomach trouble and can’t really afford to make their bones any weaker than they already are. What possible justification can there be for denying them a safe, effective painkiller?

Close behind was the bit where they said their main concern about cannabis was that it might lead people on to other, more harmful drugs. Yes, I’m sure that happens. But do you know why it happens? It happens because once you’ve got into cannabis, well hey, you’re already breaking the law and thumbing your nose at a disapproving society, so why not go for a harder-core experience? The same happened with alcohol when that was prohibited. Once again, legalization would lighten the problem, not worsen it.

All the same, that argument does illuminate the cultural mindset that hangs like a ball-and-chain about the ankles of the legalization movement. The basic problem is one of our mental categories for hazardous substances. Some substances are filth and some are poisonous and some are medicines and some are chemicals, but the troublesome class here, the one cannabis has been put into, is the class we think of as Drugs! (The exclamation mark should be pronounced as a horrified gasp.) I can’t just call them “drugs”, because that word, like “chemicals”, has an application which is scientifically meaningful, morally neutral, and vastly broader than the colloquial one. Drugs in the scientific sense do include cannabis, and also alcohol – the phrase “drugs and alcohol” makes about as much sense as “vehicles and cars” – and caffeine, and nutmeg, and St John’s wort, and moisturizers, and anything else that has a dose-dependent effect on the human body or mind.

Drugs! as a subclass of drugs share no common attribute but that they are illicit. But because they’re a culturally recognisable category, it’s easy to think of them going together. Thus, to Mister Loud Voice and millions like him, cannabis goes naturally with heroin and cocaine and methamphetamine because they are all Drugs! The government in its infinite wisdom has recognised that people should not use Drugs! and so has passed laws against them. If you let people use one kind of Drugs! then you are declaring that Drugs! are OK after all, so of course they’re going to move on to other kinds of Drugs! as well. In case you haven’t guessed, I think the very concept of Drugs! hinders rather than helps us in developing rational drug safety policies. But that’s by the by.

So if there’s nothing wrong with cannabis, why is it illegal? I don’t think Mister Loud Voice used that particular argument, but others certainly have. The answer, of course, is that most law-makers think that way too. But why did it become illegal in the first place? Recreational marijuana, previously the most popular legal alternative to alcohol, was banned in the US just when Prohibition was lifted and all the enforcement officials were looking for new jobs. Medical cannabis followed in the 1970s as a casualty of Richard Nixon’s War On Drugs. And the US has enough clout internationally that a lot of other countries still think it’s an example worth following. I’m chary as a rule about Big Bad Government conspiracy theories, but in this case we have a paper trail and a confession:

The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the anti-war Left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.
John Erlichman, Assistant to President Nixon for Domestic Affairs, speaking to Harper’s Magazine in 1994

And nowadays of course you have the private prison industry in the US, which has threatened to sue several states if they legalize cannabis and thus reduce the prison population with its convenient supply of cheap labour and legal inability to vote. So in summary, the Proctor of Otago University has committed burglary against the community he is tasked with serving in order to uphold a legally-sanctioned societal prejudice known to be based on fifty-year-old racist lies. I would have joined in the protest if I could. Consider this my contribution.

Thursday, 23 August 2018

In defence of multiculturalism

“This is the future that liberals want”: a woman in full-face hijab sitting next to a transgender woman on public transport

Though this blog could very well be retitled Stuff I Disagree With, I try not to argue with the same person two posts in a row, especially when it’s someone who is mostly on the same side as me. So I’m sorry to have to pick on Chris Trotter again. But his recent Bowalley Road post “Checkmate In Two Years?” needs a response. I’m not debating its major thesis – I don’t know whether the present media flap over free speech for “alt-right” bigots will or will not blow up into an electoral defeat for Jacinda Ardern’s Labour-Greens government in 2020. I can’t see it myself, but Trotter has historically been better at predicting New Zealand election outcomes than I have. But I have some things to say about the points Trotter raises along the way.

Let’s start with this:

There’s a saying, often attributed to Voltaire, which declares: “To learn who rules over you, simply find out who you are not allowed to criticize.” The free speech controversy, by identifying multiculturalism as the concept Kiwis are not allowed to critique without drawing down the unrelenting wrath of its state-sanctioned and supported defenders, has caused many citizens to wonder when and how “nationalism” and “biculturalism” became dirty words.

Do I have to pull out that xkcd cartoon again? When did Southern and Molyneux get arrested? Because I don’t remember seeing that bit on the news. People protested against them, yes. That is to say, people criticized them loudly and angrily. There’s a saying, often attributed to Voltaire, which declares—

OK, cheap shot. Again, I’m not here to rehash my previous post. I’m here to talk about “multiculturalism” and “nationalism”, and in New Zealand that means giving biculturalism a look-in as well. Trotter’s post makes as good a springboard as any.

First up, either Trotter or I must be confused about what “nationalism” means. Trotter says

A country whose elites have signed up to an economic philosophy based on the free movement of goods, capital and labour – the three fundamental drivers of globalization – is more or less obliged to adopt multiculturalism as it core social philosophy.
Old fashioned New Zealand nationalism, and its more recent offshoot “biculturalism”, were products of a country which saw itself as offering something uniquely and positively its own to the rest of the world. It is probable that a substantial majority of Kiwis still subscribe to this notion (although a significant minority still struggle with the concept of biculturalism).
What the free speech controversy of the past four weeks revealed to New Zealanders was that too forthright an expression of cultural nationalism can result in the persons advocating such notions being branded xenophobic or racist – and even to accusations of being a white supremacist, fascist or Nazi.
The battle for free speech cannot, therefore, be prevented from extending out into a broader discussion over whether or not New Zealanders have the right to reject the downsides of neoliberalism, globalization and multiculturalism. Is it any longer possible to advance the radically nationalistic idea that the nature and future of New Zealand is a matter which New Zealanders alone must decide, without finding oneself pilloried on Twitter or banned from the nation’s universities?

Abstractions are always fuzzy around the edges, and “nationalism” shades into “racism” along one edge and “patriotism” along another. Still, Trotter is here giving the term a usage that I do not recognise. As I understand the word, the central concept of nationalism is to connect political sovereignty within a given state to membership of some particular ethnicity, understood as being the rightful owners (in some sense) of that state. Foreigners and immigrants, except for expatriates of the favoured ethnicity, are to be excluded from the political process. Typically this exclusion is to be accomplished by exclusion from the territory, sometimes with the alternative option of cultural and linguistic assimilation into the favoured ethnicity. It is not about “offering something uniquely and positively our own to the rest of the world”. It’s about keeping something uniquely and positively our own all to ourselves and the rest of the world can naff off.

What does Trotter mean by “the nature and future of New Zealand is a matter which New Zealanders alone must decide”? Is the “New Zealand” whose future is being decided exactly the same entity as the “New Zealanders” doing the deciding? Is there a concern that the New Zealand electorate might start accepting votes from citizens of Sri Lanka, Ghana, or Luxembourg? Or does the sentence mean “People of Pākehā and Māori ethnicity have a special right to exert political control over the lives of anyone, of any ethnicity, resident in the territory governed from Wellington”? (That’s insofar as “Pākehā” is a distinct ethnicity, of course. I’m not clear what we white New Zealanders have, as Pākehā, that’s “uniquely and positively our own” and couldn’t just as readily be found among, say, white Australians or English-speaking white South Africans.)

A lot of the opposition to global neoliberal capitalism is framed in terms of the threat it poses to the “national sovereignty” of individual countries over their own economies and ecologies. If this is where Trotter is coming from, then my only quarrel with him is his choice of words. I don’t like the idea of land or other local resources being owned and controlled by people who don’t live or pay taxes or buy goods and services in the area. But I also don’t like the “national sovereignty” framing. It doesn’t bother me that the people who own the farms or mines or whatever aren’t New Zealanders; it bothers me that the feedback loop between cause and effect is severed, that a small group of powerful people can wreak extensive damage on the landscape and economy without experiencing any consequences to discourage such behaviour. If some corporation is polluting rivers in Otago, it’s not important to me whether their headquarters are located in Auckland or Beijing.

But at least Trotter does offer some explication of his use of the term “nationalism”, however incomplete. That gives me some idea what he’s talking about. Not so “multiculturalism”. That word he never unpacks. It is evidently associated with “neoliberalism” and “globalization”, but more than that is hard to discern. So I genuinely don’t know whether what I will defend for the rest of this post under the name “multiculturalism” is the same thing as what Trotter is opposing, or at least lending support to the opponents of, under that same name. Bear that in mind as we proceed.

Thursday, 26 July 2018

Don’t let fascists steal free speech from us

Two “alt-right” speakers from Canada, Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux, have decided they will, after all, go ahead with their visit to New Zealand (temporarily cancelled) where they will espouse their views. The venue is, as I write, being kept secret. Previously, they wanted to speak in an Auckland venue called the Bruce Mason Centre, but were denied that opportunity at the instruction of Auckland Mayor Phil Goff. This has raised concerns about freedom of speech in New Zealand, and not just among those who agree with their position. Chris Trotter, New Zealand’s most respected Left blogger, has taken up the cause in several recent posts on his blog Bowalley Road.

I’ve been drafting this post for two years now; the issue keeps coming up and going away again, and I have to change the bits where I relate it to current events. It’s a bit bigger than I can really pin down in one post. I’m going to skip out some things I originally planned to say about particular progressive concerns that some believe constitute assaults on free speech – trigger warnings, safe spaces, cultural appropriation – because they just make the whole thing too unwieldy. I may devote more blog posts to them in future. Today my topics are: What is the ethical basis of the right to free speech? What sort of policies do we need to build around it? And what are its limits?

Political discussions frequently open with assertions of rights that the disputants hold to be incontrovertibly inviolable – endowed, in the famous words, by the Creator. But what makes a right a right? Why is it that some good things you might want are your “right” to enjoy, while others are merely privileges? What makes the difference? And what if one of your rights can’t be granted without breaching someone else’s rights? What do you do then? This sort of question is why I like to go back a bit further, behind the concept of rights to their basis in ethical philosophy.

In case you’re a new reader, I’ll just quickly run you through my basic moral philosophy. Morality isn’t something objective, not if by that you mean it’s something “out there” in the universe, independent of our minds. You can’t logically prove a “should” statement from an “is” statement without at least tacitly calling in another “should” statement, and if you try to prove that second “should” statement you just go around the circle again, and so on forever. And perhaps that’s just as well, because if morality was something “out there”, then any intersection between moral facts and human well-being would be coincidental. Appeals to moral authority, even cosmic moral authority, don’t help: “You should obey the authority” is just another “should” statement and another trip around the circle.

Hence, morality is subjective. But “subjective” is not the same as “arbitrary”. To call something “subjective” just means it’s an experience that people have rather than a thing in the universe – it’s “in here” rather than “out there”. Sweetness is subjective, but no-one disagrees as to which is the sweeter of maple syrup and grapefruit juice. You can justify a “should” statement; you just have to back it with an “I want” statement. (I want to be healthy, therefore I should exercise more than I do.) As a social species, pretty much anything we want requires cooperation with other people, and cooperation requires trust, so we evolved moral instincts to allow us to trust each other. Therefore, in my view, trust is the basis of all morality.

To earn trust, your actions must fulfill three conditions. They must be benevolent; they must be consistent; and both of these facts must be clear to other observers. Benevolence alone is not quite enough. Pure benevolence, the greatest good for the greatest number, is the moral philosophy known as utilitarianism. The harmonics of cold calculating efficiency that cling around that word somewhat misrepresent the idea; “utility” in the philosophical sense includes beauty and joy as well as usefulness. However, the “calculating” part is bang-on. Utilitarian philosophers spend a lot of time balancing harms and benefits and fretting about whether they’ve left something out. And I don’t know about you, but that makes me nervous. I can’t help worrying that they might end up putting the things I care about on the “sacrifice for the greater good” side of the equation.

When you factor in the consistency and the clarity, utilitarianism gives way to a couple of other moral schemas. One of them is virtue ethics – if you practise being a good person until it becomes habit, your actions will be clearly and consistently benevolent. This isn’t particularly relevant to today’s topic, and I mention it only for completeness. The other one, however, is the answer to our question: the origin of rights. To be clearly and consistently benevolent is to commit to doing some good things all the time for everybody while refraining from doing some bad things ever to anybody. When a society makes such a commitment, whether in law or custom, it thereby grants its members the right to enjoy the good things and the right not to suffer the bad things. That’s where rights come from.

And that helps us answer our other question. When you have to choose one right over another, you should honour the one that best serves the principle of trust. Suppose you’re a surgeon, and you have in your hospital five people urgently needing different organ transplants and also a healthy young person who’s come in for a sports injury. A utilitarian calculus might prompt you to at least consider killing the young person to harvest their organs, sacrificing one life to save five. But of course if you did that, no patient could ever trust you again not to kill them for their organs. The trust principle would therefore accord with what (I sincerely hope) your moral instincts tell you and render such a course of action unthinkable.

Since the seventeenth century most of the questions vexing Western political theorists have been variations of “What is the right balance between peace, justice, and freedom?” When you find yourself facing a trade-off between the three, how do you choose which to preserve and which to sacrifice? (This is not quite the same as the question actually driving social progress, which is “How many crumbs do we have to give these annoying poor people before they’ll shut up and go away?”) What’s often not noticed is that peace, justice, and freedom all have the same end-goal, i.e. not having to fear violence any more. Peace means you don’t have to fear violence from strangers. Justice means you don’t have to fear violence from your neighbours. Freedom means you don’t have to fear violence from the state.

But you can never have complete freedom in any society, because freedoms are necessarily in tension with each other. If you are free to do some particular thing, that means I am not free to stop you from doing that particular thing, and vice versa. So, for instance, you are free to play irritating contemporary music and there’s not much I can do about it, but I am not free to walk around in public wearing the amount of clothing I feel physically comfortable in. If I call the police and complain about your music I’ll be ignored, unless it’s very loud; if you call the police and complain about my nudity I’ll be arrested. Conversely, if I try and cut the power cord on your stereo I’ll be the one in trouble, whereas if you threaten me with assault unless I put some clothes on the authorities will probably agree I had it coming. (As you see, legal freedoms tend to get skewed towards majority cultural groups and away from, in this case, those of us who have autistic sensory issues.)

Now we can narrow in from freedom generally to freedom of speech in particular.

Friday, 1 June 2018

Against enforced monogamy

The issue of sexual violence has never gone away. The #metoo movement is just one more response to it, though so far one that’s been getting more notice than many. In the last, I don’t know, month or so, the media at large has at last started to notice the well-established connection between misogynistic violence and mass shootings, and the word “incel” – involuntarily celibate – has achieved a greater currency than it had before. I gather “incel” was first coined to describe the experience of being queer and unable to find someone of the gender you like who likes people of your gender, but it has now unfortunately been very firmly appropriated as a self-identifier for that subset of men who (a) aren’t getting sex and (b) believe they are owed sex. And this of course has led to suggestions that maybe mass shootings would be averted if more women would “take one for the team” and have sex with incels. Because, apparently, some people aren’t content with being horrible human beings in the privacy of their own homes.

I have seen it claimed, mind you, that incels aren’t real because it’s not actually hard to find someone to have sex with and these men must be just being needlessly picky (or obsessive) about their choice of partner. I can’t hold with this. For some people it may be easy to find people to have sex with, but there are many circumstances which make it difficult for others. One, as already noted, is being the only queer person in your offline circle. Various disabilities – physical and social – have similar effects. It’s not the not getting sex that makes incels horrible people, it’s the belief that they are owed it. Men who believe they’re owed sex are horrible people whether or not they’re getting it, which brings this digression nicely back to the point.

A couple of weeks ago a guy walked into Santa Fe High School in Texas and shot people, killing ten of them. Following an excellent suggestion that’s been passed around Twitter and Tumblr, I’m going to refer to the perpetrator as “Shooter #101” (this was the 101st mass shooting in the United States this year). The mother of one of the dead, Shana Fisher, has claimed that her daughter was repeatedly harassed by Shooter #101 for a date and ultimately turned him down publicly in front of the school, and that she was the first person he shot. Several articles on the incident have used this for a lede. Apparently it hasn’t been corroborated by witnesses – which is bad enough, but I’ve worked in journalism in a very small way, I can understand going ahead with the article on the assumption that the mother knew what she was talking about. What’s not forgivable is that this was how they framed this element of the case:

Spurned advances from [Shooter #101] provoked Texas shooting, says mother of girl killed (NZ Herald)Texas school shooter killed girl who turned down his advances and embarrassed him in class, mother says (LA Times)

And these are far from the worst. You see the narrative being put forward here? Men (overwhelmingly) do the shooting, but never fear, we can always find a way that it’s ultimately a woman’s fault. Women are put on earth to meet men’s needs, and men go astray when women fail to fulfill that function. Men’s sexual and romantic yearnings give them a proprietary right over women’s bodies, attention, and time. Most commentators would recoil from this position if it were stated openly; the danger of framing male violence as the headlines above do is precisely that this narrative sneaks under the radar as a tacit premise instead of being exposed to challenge as an explicit proposition. To men who do believe that women owe them sex, this subtextual confirmation helps that belief fit just that little bit more comfortably into their picture of the world.

Monday, 23 April 2018

Science belongs to every culture

I submitted this to Stuff Nation after this piece by one Bob Brockie, complaining about the New Zealand Royal Society’s choice to officially acknowledge the Treaty of Waitangi, came across my Facebook feed. They haven’t published it, so I guess I’m free to put it here.

Bob Brockie thinks that the Treaty of Waitangi is irrelevant to the scientific endeavour, and the Royal Society of New Zealand ought therefore to ignore it. I think he’s wrong, and I’ll show you why.

First of all, while the phrase “the principles of the Treaty” does sound worryingly vague, its twenty-year history in legal usage has pinned down its precise meaning. I don’t think Brockie is aware of this. The principles of the Treaty are often summed up as: partnership; protection; and participation. Partnership would mean granting Māori people and Māori institutions equal say with Pākehā in decision-making around science, such as what areas of research should be given priority over others. Protection would mean respecting Māori cultural sensibilities just as much as Pākehā ones in ethical deliberations over research on human subjects. Participation would mean ensuring that Māori and Pākehā have equal opportunities to become scientists and to benefit from science and technology. I can’t imagine that Brockie would object to any of that; so I presume he just didn’t know what “the principles of the Treaty” are.

Second, Brockie is simply wrong to assert that, in the humanities, “everybody’s opinions or beliefs can be of equal value and should never be challenged.” Of course, many humanities academics make the equal and opposite error of claiming that the sciences do not teach critical thinking, and therefore the humanities ought to be in charge. Nor are science and the humanities “parallel universes” with little to say to each other. To take just a couple of examples: history and archaeology greatly enrich each other, while literature and the arts contain a goldmine of long-term information about the human mind that can benefit psychology.

Personally I would go so far as to say that the humanities themselves constitute a science as rigorous and empirical as any other. As geology is the science of rocks, and astronomy the science of stars, the humanities are the science of meaning. I do share Brockie’s suspicion of postmodernist ideology, which in my opinion has greatly hampered progress in the humanities. But other scientific fields have also had their fads and fancies, such as behaviourism in psychology, or group selection in evolutionary biology.

Finally, while Brockie is strictly correct that traditional Māori belief “has its roots in the supernatural and vitalism”, he is mistaken if he thinks that this in any way distinguishes it from traditional Pākehā belief, with its heavens and its hell, its angels and devils and immortal souls, and its fixed Platonic or Aristotelian essences. I think Brockie here falls prey to a common confusion between two related, but distinct, meanings of the word “science".

If by “science” we mean any systematic endeavour to understand the world through strictly empirical investigation, then I quite agree with Brockie that this is the only source of reliable knowledge. But “science” in this sense does not exclude the knowledge of non-Western cultures, of which the traditional navigation methods that brought the ancestors of the Māori across the Pacific Ocean to these shores are a shining example.

If on the other hand by “science” we mean the body of knowledge that the West has gradually accumulated since Francis Bacon and Copernicus, then of course this tradition has drawn more heavily on European thought than on other cultures’. But “science” in this sense has no especial claim to be more reliable than other systematic, empirical traditions of knowledge.

I don’t claim to know very much about traditional Māori lore, and yet I can name four points on which it beat the West to the scientific punch off the top of my head:

  • Western tradition gives the universe an eternally pre-existing God; Māori lore states that it began from nothing (Te Kore).
  • Western tradition has God create plants and animals in separate kinds from the beginning; Māori lore acknowledges the familial kinship of all life.
  • Western tradition puts the seat of consciousness and will in the heart; Māori lore puts it in the head.

And on a more mundane but practical note,

  • When Western doctors were still cross-infecting patients left, right, and centre, Māori practitioners had long been guarding against sickness by washing their hands after dealing with blood.

I imagine it’s this sort of thing that the President of the Royal Society had in mind in recommending that scientists “embrace the research methodologies of multiple knowledge systems”, as Brockie complains. I can report that pharmacists are only now beginning to investigate traditional Māori healing practices (rongoā); an initial study found that many of the plants used contain pharmacologically useful substances – and that’s as far as they’ve got.

Obviously more progress needs to be made, and obviously it won’t be made by uncritically accepting whatever cultural traditions tell us. But it won’t be made by uncritically throwing them out either. Nor will it be made by walling off the different fields of knowledge from each other. “Sticking to one’s knitting” is not the way to go.

Wednesday, 21 March 2018

What economic and government systems do you think function best?

Last week one of my Tumblr followers asked me the above question. I wrote down as many things as I could think of in the time I had, which wasn’t everything. I started putting down justifying arguments for each point, but found that this was making it far too long for a Tumblr post. So I’m repeating my answer here, with a few more points and some argumentation to back it up and hopefully a bit more coherence (but you be the judge of that).

I try to keep my thinking grounded in empirical evidence, but I only have so much time for doing research and what I do find is inevitably biased by being filtered through my own perspective, which is not neutral but was formed through many years of political involvement. I began my political life in 1996, at the age of 18, in a protest against Otago University raising tuition fees. It was a big protest, because at that point New Zealand tertiary institutions had only been charging tuition for a few years and it had caught a lot of people by surprise. So there were a lot of dedicated protesters involved. Many of them were Marxists, so I started off as a kind of Marxist camp follower leaning towards anarchism of sorts. I still feel loyalty to this crowd, and there are some social values that I still think Marxism captures better than most other politics. But looking at the empirical evidence I am unable to endorse the prototypical Marxist plan for achieving those values.

In particular, countries that remodel themselves from the ground up with armed Marxist revolutions always end up as repressive, poverty-stricken dictatorships. I know of no exceptions. Some are worse than others – if I had to choose, I’d much rather live under Fidel Castro or Muammar Gaddafi than Pol Pot – but none of them have ever produced the communist paradise, or even the socialist interim state, that Marx envisioned. In a few places in the world you can see a Marxist regime and a liberal regime side by side, with the same geopolitical and environmental conditions, and compare their socioeconomic outcomes; the liberals (West Germany, South Korea, Botswana) always do better than the Marxists (East Germany, North Korea, Zimbabwe). And really, Marx should have known better, given that the prime real-life event he used to exemplify his theories was the French Revolution, which had exactly the same effect in installing the Napoleonic Empire.

The Koreas from space at night

Empirically, the systems which function best, in the sense of facilitating human life, health, knowledge, freedom, prosperity, and equality, are those known as “mixed economies”, like those of Scandinavia and Japan and formerly New Zealand. These combine open but well-regulated markets with stable democratic government, progressive tax systems, state-owned infrastructure, and high public expenditure on social welfare, health, and education. But of course there are still a great many areas in which I believe progress could be made. And here they are.

Monday, 26 February 2018

Is the writing on the wall?

At the top of this page, for the last five years, my blog header has announced that my job is to take notes in lectures at the University of Otago on behalf of students with disabilities. This is still the case this year – but it may not be next year. I love this job and I want to come back to it as long as I can, but I’m not sure there will be anything to come back to. I think the University (not the Disabilities Office but someone higher up) is trying to stealthily disestablish my position.

In mid-2012 when I started working here, I was given nine lectures a week – nearly twenty hours of work, since I have to edit the notes after I’ve taken them. Then from 2013 to 2015 it was more like fifteen or sixteen classes, dominated by dentistry, over thirty hours. Not quite full-time, but enough to save money for a holiday in Japan. In 2016 the hours dropped off a bit and I started an expensive course of dental treatment and my savings carried me, narrowly, through the summer. But then last year the bottom fell out of the student enrolment for the service I provide. From fourteen or so note-takers the Disabilities Office went down to two, of which I was fortunate to be one. Most concerningly, every one of the students enrolling had been enrolled in previous years; not a single one was new to the service. This year I’m back down to nine classes and, once again, all the student names are ones I’ve seen before. Sorry, let me rephrase that. Once again, both the student names are ones I’ve seen before. I gather I’ll have a few extra classes from a couple of additional students, but not every week. Something has gone wrong.

Apparently, according to my supervisor, the University’s official position is now that we shouldn’t be providing notes for people who don’t absolutely need them, because no-one’s going to be taking notes for them out in the real world and they need to practise doing it for themselves. I’m still not sure how that translates to absolutely nobody new signing up for note-taking; I suspect, but don’t know how I could find out for certain, that the University has stopped mentioning the service in their marketing or at Orientation or wherever my clients used to hear about it before. That means that when my current students graduate and leave, I – like a couple of hundred other Otago service staff members so far – will be out of a job.

(The other option, as I’ve been reminded since I first wrote this post, is peer note-taking, which is when the University pays another student in the disabled student’s class a lot less than they pay me to hand in a copy of their own notes. This has helped me out on occasions when I’ve fallen ill and not had time to arrange a swap with another professional note-taker. But it’s not going to be the same quality as what I do, because they don’t have the training I’ve had, they mostly don’t have my typing speed, they won’t have developed a good system of digital shorthand like I have, and being busy students they don’t have the time I do to devote to editing. Also, I’m told – I can’t substantiate this – if the disabled student and the student note-taker don’t get on, it’s not unheard-of for the note-taker to do bad notes on purpose to hand in while keeping the more accurate version to themselves. Hiring professionals does make a big difference. Switching to purely peer note-taking would still constitute a huge downgrade to the service the University offers.)

I know, I know, mine is not a neutral viewpoint. As both an employee whose livelihood depends on this service and a disabled person myself, I am obviously not going to feel very good about this. But frankly, the University’s reasoning is bullshit. It’s the same tired justification that’s always trotted out for denying accommodations to disabled people: “Take away the crutches and they’ll learn to pull themselves up by the bootstraps.” Well, see, the thing is, those are actually rather apt metaphors, but not the way their users intend. Taking away someone’s crutches and pulling people up by their bootstraps both, if you were to demonstrate them literally, have the same effect: the victim falls flat on their face.

But isn’t one of the goals of education to allow people to integrate freely in society and thus live life to the fullest extent of their capabilities? Absolutely. But taking away accommodations does the opposite of that. It’s true that the world outside the tertiary education sector doesn’t have many note-takers, but I would venture to suggest that that’s because the world outside the tertiary education sector doesn’t have many lectures. Dentists don’t have to type for hours every day, but dental students do. The University’s new policy will mean there’ll be people who couldn’t follow their dream career in dentistry because they couldn’t type; which, given Otago has the only Dental School in the country, is a gross dereliction of duty.

Some disability advocates declare that disability is “socially constructed”. This is neither false nor nonsense, but it’s so misleading as to leave people less enlightened after they’ve heard it than before, unless they’ve taken a cultural anthropology course or similar and learned what this progressive-intellectual shibboleth actually means. It emphatically does not mean that disability is all made up. It emphatically does not mean that people are only disabled because everyone around them treats them like they’re disabled. In fact, it’s pretty much the opposite. Let me explain.

The word “disability” is often used as a synonym for “impairment”, but there’s a subtle distinction which is worth highlighting. Impairments are not socially constructed in any meaningful sense. An impairment is what you physically can’t do with your body that most people can, or can only do with great effort that most people can do easily. (I’m including your brain as part of your body, obviously.) A disability is what obstacles your impairment poses for you as you participate in society – as you work, as you study, as you socialize, as you consume entertainment, and so on. An impairment cannot be removed at will, or it wouldn’t be an impairment. To remove the obstacles to social participation that constitute a disability, society must accommodate impairments. People with impairments are disabled because society doesn’t acknowledge the impairments enough.

An example to make the distinction clear. Short-sightedness, long-sightedness, and astigmatism are all visual impairments. But only very severe forms of these conditions are disabling in our society, because the accommodations for the milder forms – eyeglasses and contact lenses – are accepted without question as normal. If your bank made you take your glasses off “so we can see your face properly” and then made you fill out forms in tiny print without them, then you’d be disabled. If you had to take them off to get your driver’s licence photo and then weren’t allowed to wear them while driving so law enforcement could match you to the photo, then you’d be disabled. If all eyeglass-frames came in one ugly, ill-fitting style, and the people selling them told you you should be grateful to have glasses at all, then you’d be disabled. If strangers and casual acquaintances came up to you in the street suggesting you’d be rid of the need for that contraption on your head if only you would try the new eye-strengthening course they’ve been doing (it’s called Sight Naturally, it’s based on ancient tribal colour lore, you never see the tribespeople in National Geographic wearing glasses, do you?), then you’d be disabled.

There’s a confusion here, by the way, which applies especially to mental and intellectual impairments. Lots of people say they’re in favour of helping people with such conditions. But when they say that, they’re picturing treatments which will wipe away the impairment and turn the patients “normal”. Failing that, they’d rather mentally impaired people disappeared behind institutional doors than be out and about on the street where decent people might bump into them (think of the children!) At a disabilities conference that I, yes, took notes for to earn a bit of extra cash last year, one speaker described dinner party conversations where she would mention that she worked in a mental health facility. “It must be hard keeping them contained. Was the woman who killed herself one of yours? You’d feel sorry for them if they weren’t such a drain on society.” Then she would reveal the truth – that she was paid to test the facilities in the capacity of a client. “Oh, but you don’t seem like you’re about to stab us!” “No, but the night is young.” The goal of mental health treatment, as of all disability accommodations, isn’t to turn the client “normal”. It’s to give them their life back.

From all this it follows that, if you remove a disability accommodation that was previously available, you are creating disability. You are disabling people who happen to have impairments. That stain will be on the University’s hands if my job disappears next year or the year after. I hope their lavish new landscaping project is worth it.

Meanwhile, I have the rather urgent concern of finding an alternative source of income. Because I’m disabled too. I’ve previously mentioned the social anxieties which make applying for work a terrifying ordeal for me. But that terror is upon me. The writing is on the wall.

Monday, 29 January 2018

Economics, the evidence-free discipline – from the horse’s mouth

If economists wished to study the horse, they wouldn’t go and look at horses. They’d sit in their studies and say to themselves, “What would I do if I were a horse?”
Ely Devons, British economist

Ever since I started working in a job that periodically puts me in economics lectures, I’ve noticed that economists have a very different idea of what constitutes evidence for their statements than what scientists do. And when I say “noticed”, I mean it’s been thunderingly obvious. The health sciences, in particular, spend hours upon hours drumming into their students’ heads how much it takes to call your practice “evidence-based”. In economics lectures I’ve heard lecturers say outright, “If your analysis of the data disagrees with economic theory, trust economic theory.” Economics is at about the stage medicine was at in the mid-nineteenth century, when blood-letting and cold showers were the go-to treatment for every ill because physicians knew how the body worked, damn it, and didn’t need jumped-up empiricists coming in telling them how to do their job thank you very much.

A nineteenth-century physician practising bloodletting

But I don’t think nineteenth-century physicians ever proudly declared that their theories were evidence-free and thought it a mark of superiority. Yet I encountered economists saying exactly that, in an article from only a year ago, in a debate with a libertarian on Tumblr recently. I’m referring to the Mises Institute’s “Ten Fundamental Laws of Economics”. The list includes some uncontroversial items, but also contentious ones such as “Productivity determines the wage rate”, “Labour does not create value”, and “Profit is the entrepreneurial bonus”. It ends with Law 10: “All genuine laws of economics are logical laws.” This is explicated as

Economic laws are synthetic a priori reasoning. One cannot falsify such laws empirically because they are true in themselves. As such, the fundamental economic laws do not require empirical verification.

Which basically translates to “Anyone who disagrees with us is wrong by definition.” This is not about economics being a “soft science” rather than a “hard science”. This statement makes economics as practised by the Mises Institute not a science at all.

The phrase “synthetic a priori” is, in this context, pure bafflegab, but unfortunately it’s going to take a bit of unpacking. The philosopher Immanuel Kant divided truths along two lines. First, they can be “synthetic” or “analytic”. An analytic truth is basically simply a definition of a word: the usual go-to example is “All bachelors are unmarried,” which is true because being unmarried is part of the definition of being a bachelor. A synthetic truth is one that can’t be derived from the definitions of words alone, such as “I have two cats.” Second, truths can be a priori or a posteriori – Latin for “from before” and “from after”, respectively. An a priori truth has to be true in any conceivable universe; you know it is true before you go investigating. “One plus one equals two” is an a priori truth. An a posteriori truth is one that might or might not be true, and that you therefore can’t know is true until somebody investigates, such as “I have eaten the last of the cheese.”

Two lines of distinction potentially divide a set into four subsets, in this case analytic a priori, analytic a posteriori, synthetic a posteriori, and the one we’re interested in, synthetic a priori. Three of these are uncontroversial. All philosophers agree there is no such thing as an analytic a posteriori truth, and most philosophers agree there are analytic a priori truths and synthetic a posteriori truths. The big disagreement over Kantian philosophy is over whether there is such a thing as a synthetic a priori truth – whether there is anything that has to be true in any conceivable universe, but that can’t be reduced to definitions of terms and logical deductions from such definitions. The Mises Institute puts economic principles in this category. What would this mean?

Kant himself populated the synthetic a priori category with mathematical truths like “One plus one equals two”. Personally I’m inclined to the school of thought that mathematics is in fact analytic. There are arguments to be had on both sides, and I won’t go into them. I suppose the four-colour map theorem might count as synthetic a priori – no-one has ever created a map that needed more than four colours to fill it without any two areas of the same colour touching, and somebody has proved that this is indeed impossible via a computer program, but the proof is too complex for a human mind to comprehend. The point is that no-one can even imagine such a map. It’s inconceivable. For the Mises Institute’s “laws” to be synthetic a priori, it would have to be the case that no-one could even imagine a world in which productivity did not determine the wage rate.

The Mises Institute might respond that someone who thinks they’re imagining a world in which productivity doesn’t determine the wage rate is kidding themselves, just as someone who thinks they’re imagining a five-colour map is kidding themselves (your mental picture is just a vague squiggle; you aren’t filling in the details). But it is not at all difficult to imagine a shareholder-profit-maximizing corporation deciding to funnel 100% of the profit margin from a productivity boost into shareholder dividends instead of wages. Nor is it hard to imagine every other firm in the market doing the same, thus leaving no competing employer to whom the employees could defect. The Mises Institute is committed to the claim that this scenario is not merely implausible but unimaginable. Either that, or the phrase “synthetic a priori” in their statement is bafflegab.

Of course, if economic principles are not synthetic a priori, then what the Mises Institute is doing is making up excuses for why their beliefs shouldn’t be exposed to empirical testing, and if you find someone doing that then they’re up to something dodgy. My Tumblr correspondent claimed that societies organized according to these theories could produce and distribute goods and services “way more [efficiently] than any Marxist or Keynesian society can.” Well, that’s an empirical question. I have sat through more than enough economics lectures to be well aware of the theories as to why the free market is meant to be the most efficient means possible of maximizing production and optimizing distribution of goods and services. But only empirical data can tell us whether it is the most efficient means possible. Any attempt to put it beyond the reach of empirical investigation, such as the Mises Institute is here guilty of, suggests that its proponents fear it would disappoint them.

And before someone asks, yes, for all the respect I have for the Marxist community for the work they do in activism towards social change, I do have to concede that Marxists are equally prone to shielding their theories from the possibility of being refuted by reality. I have written about that elsewhere on this blog, if you care to go looking. But Marxist theories don’t at present dominate the global economic system. Capitalist ones do. The point is that only reality can tell you what’s true. Nineteenth-century medicine wasn’t dislodged by some other theory-driven approach; it was corrected by recourse to empirical evidence. In economics as in medicine, when the “experts” cling to their pet theories over reality, people die. We need evidence-based economics and we need it yesterday.

Monday, 8 January 2018

I support Madeline Anello-Kitzmiller

There’s a news video from New Zealand going round the world at the moment. It was taken by a casual attendee at the Rhythm & Vines Festival in Gisborne for the New Year. Two women, one of them topless, are walking through a casual crowd; a man watches them pass, then sneaks up behind the topless woman, gropes her, and runs away. Both women turn around, walk over to the man, and hit him. The women are Madeline Anello-Kitzmiller and her friend Kiri-Ann Hatfield. The man who assaulted Anello-Kitzmiller hasn’t been named.

Why am I just telling you what happens in this video, instead of showing you? Because I wanted to show you Anello-Kitzmiller’s statement on the incident instead. I’ve never previously seen the ethical core of naturism and body-positive feminism stated so comprehensively and so succinctly.

...I would like to point out that I had that body art done at the festival. There was actually a stall selling the “glitter tits” get-up, and I paid to have it done, as well as many other girls I saw walking around with it. In addition to that, the waterslide at R&V was handing out $50 to the first man and woman to go down the slide naked, and another $50 to the next man and woman. I saw plenty of naked men that day getting absolutely no harassment for revealing themselves. There were naked men in the mosh; my best friends got naked and ran through the crowds; I saw plenty of guys walking around with no shirt on and a handful of girls as well.

So I want to ask you, what is the difference? Both men and women have nipples, although men’s nipples are seemingly useless and my breasts are there to feed children, should I ever choose to have them some day. The difference is that women have been over-sexualized for way too long and it needs to stop. I wanted to share my body because I think it’s an important step to normalizing the naked body and desexualizing [it]. The more often people see nudity, the more they realize... that it’s nothing to gape over. Nudity at festivals helps erase pornstar ideals of what our bodies “should” look like. My breasts are not sex toys. They are not an invitation. My body is beautiful, and no matter who says otherwise, it cannot and will not demean my own self-worth. Nor should it for anybody else.

I’ve been accused of “trying to turn New Zealand into America” in a few comments. This is a narrow-minded accusation. Besides, the similarities are there regardless. The amount of naked people running around at Splore in New Zealand would be severely overwhelming for those of you who couldn’t handle a few bouncy “glitter tits” at R&V. I will say that the majority of New Zealand has seemed to be more conservative than Portland, Oregon, but sexual harassment happens everywhere, all over the world. I have never experienced so much hostility at a festival before, but I don’t doubt that there are festivals in the States where the crowd is also less free-spirited than others.

I have been accused of “asking for it” too many times to count. It’s disappointing that people really believe that what you’re wearing has any connection to what you actually want. Comments stating that I was “asking for it” or that I “had it coming” are promoting rape culture. When you say something like that, you are justifying that man’s actions when he violated my rights to my own body, and you are telling other like-minded people that, should they ever want to sexually assault or rape another human being, it’s OK. It is never OK and we are never “asking for it”.

...The cool thing about being able to get naked at festivals and like-minded events is that you don’t have to get naked if you don’t want to. Do what you’re comfortable with and only do what makes you happy. I personally love being naked because it made me realize that I am indomitable. Nothing anybody says about me or my body could ever wound me. At Rhythm & Vines both men and women came up to me and told me that I was disgusting, that I should cover up, that I [should be] ashamed, that I was a slut, but I kept my top off all night and I danced until 6am and I had the best time of my life regardless.

On “trying to turn New Zealand into America”, I’m surprised that such an accusation was ever made, because I was under the impression that it was more the other way around. It’s American censoriousness in particular that nudists tend to blame for the restrictive nudity rules on social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram. The recent movement to banish breastfeeding from public spaces – a bizarre bit of prudery unheard-of even in Victorian times – is as far as I can tell very largely American, and doesn’t seem to have taken hold here. I think the truth is that the United States contains both the most and the least nudity-friendly places in the English-speaking world; Portland, Oregon, is evidently among the former.

[EDIT: A Tumblr mutual informs me that the last part of that sentence is sadly not true. However, the United States does contain San Francisco, where public nudity was temporarily legal, and Brattleboro, Vermont, where it still is. Also, I’m ashamed to report that my attention has been drawn to a recent incident in Auckland where a woman was evicted from a bus after a fellow passenger took offence at her breastfeeding. I still think this is far from the norm in New Zealand, but I can’t in all honesty maintain that it “hasn’t taken hold.”]

While New Zealand sadly doesn’t attain Brattleboro standards of body acceptance, our nudity taboo is far from absolute. My town hosts a nude rugby match most years, though they’re not doing it this year; the Kawarau Gorge bungy-jumping station used to let people jump naked for free until they found they were losing too much money; and the whole country had a “National Nude Day” (mostly pubs offering specials to naked customers) for a few years about a decade ago. I used to belong to a group that went walking nude in the bush around Dunedin, and most people we met responded positively. And, as Anello-Kitzmiller points out, nudity is at least tolerated at many New Zealand summer festivals – a tradition going back to Nambassa in the 1970s – and was specifically encouraged at Rhythm & Vines. Which means that everyone who’s commented to say her toplessness was “inappropriate” is simply wrong.

That is, however, a minor error compared to the premise that, if her nudity had been inappropriate, then it would have been OK for the man who harassed her to do what he did. Of course, personally I think that nudity ought to be acceptable everywhere it’s physically safe. But even given that we can’t snap our fingers and wish for society to outgrow all its repressive norms overnight, there is no way sexual harassment is an allowable means of enforcing those norms. If female toplessness had been banned at Rhythm & Vines, then the proper response would have been for a security team member to bring her a towel or spare shirt and explain their standards. The assailant would still be no more justified in his actions than a truck driver is justified in killing cyclists who stray into the wrong lane.

The other argument is of course that old chestnut “He’s a man, he couldn’t help himself.” There were half a dozen other men in that video and they somehow managed to help themselves (although they didn’t help Anello-Kitzmiller by doing anything like intervening). And it wasn’t as if he took one look at her breasts and zoned out or something; he waited until she had gone past and then made his move. The assault was a deliberate choice on his part. If he had genuinely been unable to help himself, then he should have been under restraint or at the very least in the care of a minder. Since he was able to help himself, deterrent action such as Anello-Kitzmiller and Hatfield took was the appropriate response.

Frankly, I think “He couldn’t help himself” and “Her nudity was inappropriate” are both smoke-screens for our society’s ugly underlying attitude. Both are nonsensical on the face of it, but both make sense if you make one abhorrent ethical assumption: “Men may act on any sexual impulse they feel towards women.” Then everything falls into place. Skimpy clothing becomes inappropriate anywhere sexual activity is inappropriate. The assailant couldn’t help how he felt about Anello-Kitzmiller’s breasts.

And no, you can’t take gender out of it by restating that as “People may act on any sexual impulse they feel towards anybody.” Our society does not condone women acting sexually, nor men acting sexually towards men. Accordingly, men are granted much broader freedom with our bodies in casual contexts like music festivals. The festival I go to at New Year’s doesn’t encourage nudity, yet there were plenty of men going shirtless in the heat this year. If I, a bisexual man, had sneaked up behind one of them and groped him, and he’d (rightly) hit me, how many people do you think would have defended my actions on the basis that he was “asking for it”?

(In case you’re wondering why I, a nudist, go to a New Year’s festival that doesn’t allow nudity, it’s partly a shortage of options down this end of the country but mainly about the music. I love traditional folk music and I have bigger autistic sensory issues with loud thumpy contemporary music than I do with clothing even in the summer heat. And I wear a kilt, which helps. And for the hottest days there’s a small swimming-hole upstream of the main one where hardly anyone goes.)

The same assumption again must be behind the frequent rejoinder: “Men are turned on by breasts. How do you intend to change that?” There’s no need to change men’s feelings. What needs to change is how men consider themselves entitled to act on their feelings. Suppose you’re hungry in the supermarket – I’ve used this analogy before – and you walk past a big bulk bin full of chocolate chips or something. Do you dig your hand in and grab? Not if you’re over the age of about four. Do you stand there staring and drooling? Not if you have any self-control at all. And chocolate doesn’t even have human rights. The problem is not that men think breasts are nice; the problem is that men think breasts are permission.

Which gives us good grounds for hope that men can change. Men do seem to have evolved to like the look of breasts – I’m afraid there’s not much evidence for the idea that this response is created by society or culture. But society and culture do determine what constitutes an acceptable or an unacceptable way to behave. Our culture needs to change, and it can change if we put in the work. I salute Madeline Anello-Kitzmiller for her contribution to that work, both by displaying her body and by penalizing that man for disrespecting it. Whether you join her in the former effort can only be your own personal choice; but we all need to contribute to the latter. Let’s build a zero-tolerance policy for sexual assault and harassment at every level of society we can influence, starting now.

Wednesday, 6 December 2017

TERFs are wrong – why that’s a problem for the Left

“TERF” stands for “transgender-exclusionary radical feminist”. The term is very, very familiar to anyone who follows LGBT and feminist issues on social media, and probably quite obscure elsewhere. For what’s supposed to be a network for mutual support and protection, the online LGBT community spends an extraordinary amount of server space debating who belongs in it and who doesn’t. Nowadays it’s generally accepted that transgender people do belong; the big debate, online, is over whether asexual people do. But “generally accepted” isn’t the same as “universally accepted”, and the ones who don’t accept it can get pretty nasty sometimes.

TERFs don’t accept transgender people’s identifying gender, and in particular they don’t accept that trans women are women. Like other transphobes, TERFs read transgender women as “men pretending to be women” – a misframing which does real harm (an identity is not a pretence), but fundamentally a matter of perception rather than of fact. What distinguishes TERFs from other transphobes is the motive they ascribe to transgender women for this alleged pretence, namely “ they can rape lesbians.” That is a matter of fact, and the facts are clear. Transgender identities are not motivated by a desire to rape lesbians. TERFs are wrong. I’m not debating this point any further. I’m not going to waste space rehashing here what I’ve already written about gender identity, when trans people are far more worth listening to on the subject than I am; and the rape accusation is preposterous, but the people who need convincing of that aren’t likely to listen to me.

So why am I writing this? Because, preposterous as it is, TERF ideology is a necessary logical consequence of three propositions which the Left today holds dear. Since TERFs are wrong, one or more of the three propositions must be false. We need to find out which one and stop using it – even at the cost of having to mince words like moderate liberals instead of making bold sweeping proclamations about overthrowing oppressors and remaking society. The three propositions are

  1. Feminism. Women do not yet enjoy basic rights equal to men. This is due to men’s actions, and social structures upheld by men’s actions.
  2. Social constructionism. Most, if not all, things we perceive as enduring realities are in fact products of societal roles and institutions – gender most pertinently.
  3. Dialectical materialism. Institutions such as the state exist to allow powerful classes to exploit powerless ones. Classes are distinguished by having divergent material interests, and individuals act in their class’s interests, so the exploitation can only end if the powerless class overthrow the institutions.

See what follows when you put these together? Men, the powerful class, materially exploit women, the powerless class, by impregnating them. A woman is someone who can get pregnant and a man is someone who can make a woman pregnant; those are the material interests by which alone the two classes are meaningfully distinguished. Any other distinction is merely a gender role, socially constructed to maintain the power of men over women. If someone who can make women pregnant adopts womanly roles and calls themself a woman, it must be somehow a subterfuge to advance the interests of men, and the only way that makes anything remotely resembling sense is if they are trying to infiltrate the ranks of those women who have refused to act as brood-stock – i.e., lesbians. Hence TERF ideology. If we agree that the conclusion is preposterous (and if you don’t, please take the debate to a different post) then one or more of the premises must be false. Our remaining task is to find out which. Let’s examine them one by one.

Friday, 20 October 2017

I thought I would feel better about this than I do

As of when Winston Peters finally made up his mind who to go with yesterday, Jacinda Ardern is now Prime Minister of New Zealand, in a coalition government formed of Labour, New Zealand First, and the Green Party. I have mixed feelings about this. There was no big surprise in the special votes; as commentators evidently better-informed than me predicted, they took two seats off National and handed one to the Greens and one to Labour. And, as any New Zealander with half a brain could have told you, the prospect of a National-Green coalition (raised in all seriousness by some pundits evidently lacking that endowment) was a chimaera.

The good part of my mixed feelings is obviously that we’ve got a new government, which – if not for the presence of New Zealand First – would have been the left-most one of my lifetime. In concrete terms, this country’s decades-long trajectory towards Dickensian inequality and poverty might actually go into reverse. We might get a liveable minimum wage. We might get housing for homeless people. We might get unions strong enough to make a difference. We might get an economic strategy that doesn’t depend on turning our rivers into sewers and lying to the world about it.

The bad part starts with New Zealand First. I don’t think we’re in for a three-ring circus like the National-New Zealand First coalition government of 1997, because this time Winston hasn’t brought in a cadre of loudmouths with egos as big as his own. Jim Anderton’s old gibe, calling the party “Winston First”, is even truer now than when he made it in the 1990s. But I don’t know, and I’m not looking forward to finding out, how much of its left-wing promise the Labour-Greens bloc has had to concede in order to secure Winston’s support.

I do know, as I’ve said on this blog more than once, that Winston’s anti-immigrant stance is a cynical façade put on to garner votes. I also know that Winston is 72 years old, and likely to retire within a decade – possibly by next election, depending on how well his health weathers old age. What happens to New Zealand First then? Will it crumble, leaderless, into irrelevance? Or will Winston be succeeded by one of his many sincerely racist admirers? And then will New Zealand have its own Brexit, its own Trump, to deal with? These questions scare me.

Also not comforting is the fact that National still has two more seats than Labour and the Greens combined. I’m not confident enough in my expectation of a stable coalition not to worry about what that will mean if it does fall apart; and I’m bamboozled, frankly, by the fact that it happened at all. How does a government preside over as big a social and economic crisis as this one has and still attract more votes than its competitors? What does it say about my country’s soul that nearly half of us are prepared to shrug off the child poverty and homelessness we’re seeing now as long as the men in suits get to hang on to more cash come tax time? Are we all clones of Cersei Lannister?

I don’t like not understanding these things, I honestly don’t. It’s a cheap rhetorical trick to claim to be mystified by your opponents’ stupidity and malice, and more to the point it’s purely performative. It makes a good show if all you want is to assure people on your own side that you’re one of them, but it doesn’t budge your opponents an inch except to confirm their belief in your stupidity and malice. And if you really care about your political ideals, it’s your opponents you want to be shifting. The fact that I don’t understand what motivates people to vote National means I have no idea how we can motivate them to vote more leftward. Maybe that’s the real reason why this election result brings me so little joy.

Friday, 6 October 2017

Mass shootings are not a mental health problem

A few days ago, an old white man fired a lot of guns into a crowd of people at a music festival in Las Vegas. Apparently he also shot at a nearby fuel storage site in a failed attempt to cause an explosion. You can find his name on the news sites; in the distant hope of setting some kind of example with the ultimate goal of cutting off the notoriety that motivates others to emulate these killers, I’m not going to repeat it. He killed 59 people, I think the current count is, and wounded a number estimated at over 500. Some people are calling this the biggest mass shooting in US history, which of course has prompted others to bring up bigger ones, like the Greenwood Massacre of 1921 and the “Battle” of Wounded Knee in 1890. Perhaps they mean the biggest mass shooting by a single shooter.

Last month I said the following about the politics of climate change in the hurricane-torn US, and it goes treble for gun control and mass shootings:

More often, however, “Don’t politicize this problem” means “Your politics offer a better way of fixing it than mine do, and I’d rather people didn’t figure that out.” I can sympathize with a preference for peace over contention, but politics can be operationally defined as the set of problems which are more important than not being contentious.

Gun control laws work. They don’t prevent every single possible shooting, but they cut them down dramatically. Here in New Zealand, we have civilized gun laws. You cannot buy a gun in The Warehouse here like you can in Walmart in the US. You can’t open-carry in New Zealand. Nobody keeps a handgun for “protection” – you don’t need one, because you know other people don’t have them either. The last time anyone shot and killed members of the public here was in 1990, when I was twelve, at Aramoana north of Dunedin. (There have been a handful of incidents since when angry men shot their family members.) In Australia thirty-five people were killed at a place called Port Arthur in 1996, so they tightened up their gun laws and the government bought everybody’s guns off them, and they haven’t had a mass shooting since. You can Google other countries and their gun laws and mass-shooting prevalences for yourself. You’ll find the pattern holds.

Yes, there have been scary incidents in my life when I was exceedingly grateful that the person confronting me wasn’t allowed a gun; and no, they weren’t carrying guns illegally. Turns out our firearms licensing laws actually do make it difficult for dangerous people to get hold of them. So not many people in New Zealand want American-style gun “freedom”. But I’ve met one or two who do, enough to have figured out what’s wrong with their arguments. First up: no, America, you do not have more freedoms or better-functioning democracy as a result of your guns. New Zealand has the same freedom of expression that you do, rather better freedom of religion in practice, a much more representative electoral system, far less gerrymandering, automatic voter registration, and vastly more time to vote when elections roll around. Your idea that your guns keep dictatorship and corruption at bay is a peculiarly American fantasy.

The guy I’m thinking of reckoned the whole problem with American mass shootings was that they let people have guns without taking a mental health exam. He was recommending target-shooting as, he said, a tremendously calming sport. Apparently it’s meditative to squeeze a trigger and see a hole appear in the centre of a target. I told him this wouldn’t work for me because I have terrible, terrible aim. I can’t skip a stone over a lake or win a game of pool against a three-year-old or get past level 1 of a first-person-shooter video game. I didn’t add that I would fail his mental health criterion, that I have exactly the same psychiatric diagnosis as the guy who killed six people in Santa Barbara in 2014 – and also, at his age, the same difficulties with romance and sexuality that he was so enraged about.

Now if you’re wondering, no, I’ve never killed anybody, and no, I don’t think I would have done if only I’d had access to a gun at age 22. Which just goes to show: mental health is not the problem. Though hyperbolic, Michel Foucault’s assertion that mental health diagnoses are primarily a method of social control isn’t completely off the mark. I’ve seen an otherwise pleasant-seeming person try to get library security to eject another library user who was making a bit of noise, not because of the noise primarily but because – in a harsh, horrified whisper – “She’s a handicap!” As a funny-looking person myself (my fashion options are basically “deliberate eccentric” or “aimed at normal and missed”), I occasionally get things thrown at me in the street: usually water-balloons, once an egg, once a lighted cigarette. One acquaintance, when I mentioned this, responded with sympathetic incredulity “I guess some people just have mental problems.” No. This is how people treat people with mental problems. This is the behaviour of a mentally normal human being towards someone they feel entitled to disrespect.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t concede that like most laws, in practice if not on paper, gun restrictions disproportionately target people of colour. That has certainly been the case in New Zealand, from 1869 when selling guns to Māori became a crime to 2007 when armed police stopped traffic and raided people’s homes and arrested seventeen people, most of them Māori, on dodgy charges under the Terrorism Suppression Act. It’ll be the tenth anniversary in about a week, and I don’t think we should let them forget. But to suggest that Americans of colour are better off with their on-paper right to bear arms would be a joke in very poor taste. Ask Tamir Rice or Philando Castile how that worked out for them.

There’s always a lot of discourse about either race or mental illness after mass killings, depending on whether the killer was white. You don’t hear so much about gender, despite the fact that it’s a better predictor of deadly violence than either. I know of only one mass shooting by a woman ever, that being the one that inspired the Boomtown Rats song I Don’t Like Mondays. What does seem to come out repeatedly when people analyse these killers’ backgrounds after the police have shot them dead is anger, hatred, possessiveness, and entitlement, and especially towards women. It’s entirely unsurprising to me that people remember the Las Vegas killer pushing his girlfriend around.

Anger and possessiveness are going to take a lot of time and work to expunge from the culture. In the meantime, the quickest way to make a difference is to prevent these people from getting their hands on the means to kill dozens from a distance. In the longer term I can’t help thinking that the American sanctification of the right to bear arms – that is, the right to have the power to kill – itself encourages the attitude that deadly violence is an appropriate response to perceived social wrongs. Either way, America, you’re never going to fix this problem you have without gun control.

Tuesday, 26 September 2017

We don’t know how our election went yet

I shouldn’t think anybody gets their news about New Zealand from this blog and has been waiting on tenterhooks. But in case my last post left you wondering, I had to go back to hospital again and it turned out to be a kidney stone rather than the gastrointestinal issue I was diagnosed with at first. Oh, the election? How did that go? Who’s going to govern New Zealand for the next three years? The answer, I can reveal, is: we don’t know either.

No party commands a majority in Parliament. On the votes so far counted, the neoliberal National Party has several more seats in Parliament than the edging-towards-social-democratic Labour-Greens bloc. But the key phrase there is “so far counted”. I’ve seen several media commentators jumping the gun at this point and talking about what happens next as if the count was over. It isn’t. New Zealand electoral law allows for people to cast what are called “special votes” before election day, if they’re not going to be in their home electorate on election day, or if they’re not enrolled to vote yet and want to cast a vote at the same time that they enroll instead of waiting, or there’s a few other things, I think. (Lately we also allow people to vote early just because they want to, but those don’t necessarily count as special votes.) The point is, special votes aren’t counted on election night. They’re counted over the next couple of weeks, since a lot of them have to come in from New Zealanders travelling overseas. So we don’t have them yet.

Special votes often swing one or two seats – generally not enough to upset the election result. This year, however, there was a record number of special votes, amounting to about 15% of the ballots. Before the election there were predictions of a “youthquake” driven by the rise of Jacinda Ardern. Some commentators are saying that didn’t happen after all. Those commentators, I hereby confidently predict, are going to end up with egg on their faces when the special votes come in. Elections across the Western world have been going quite differently, the last couple of years, from what pundits have predicted; it’s a good bet that the “youthquake” and the record special vote are the same thing. I’m not counting chickens.

Unfortunately, unless the special votes are wildly out of kilter with the other 85%, it won’t be enough to change the practical outcome of the election, which is that either bloc will have to make nice to Winston Peters and his New Zealand First party in order to gain a majority. This is the third time he’s held this position. In 1996, having campaigned on a promise to get rid of the National government, he supported National, who made him Deputy Prime Minister. In 2005 he supported Labour, whose then leader Helen Clark made him Minister of Foreign Affairs – but that time arguably there was a real risk of a Left government forming without him, if only Clark had had the stomach to reach out to the Greens. Now he’s back in the kingmaker seat again. Whether the final distribution of votes between Left and Right will influence his choice remains to be seen.

I’ve had occasion before, on this blog, to talk about what kind of a politician Winston Peters is. With apologies to those of my readers who don’t watch Game of Thrones: back when Metiria Turei resigned from the Green co-leadership, a Facebook friend of mine compared her to Ned Stark and National to the Lannisters. (Another objected that Lannisters always pay their debts.) On that analogy, Winston Peters is Littlefinger, playing off all the parties against each other and thriving on division – if Littlefinger, instead of being a preternaturally cunning manipulator, were a cynic who’d happened to find a single unvarying tactic that, depressingly, always worked. Think of Donald Trump for a moment (sorry). Remember how a lot of people last year were pinning their last desperate hope on the possibility that he was just faking it for votes? Winston is like if Donald Trump had been just faking it for votes. He runs the same campaign every three years, like clockwork, blaming immigrants for New Zealand’s troubles; then he gets voted back in, shoots his mouth off a lot, and does nothing whatsoever about immigration.

He does, nevertheless, do considerable damage to New Zealand political life by keeping open and inflamed the festering sore that is anti-Asian racism in this country. It’s 2017 and we still can’t have a sensible conversation about immigration policy without scads of conspiratorial rubbish about clandestine Chinese takeovers – asinine comments on the level of “Asians aren’t bad people but there’s too many of them.” To give credit where it’s due, National no longer pander to this particular prejudice, which is not to say that they’ve repudiated racism in general. I have lived to see the Left-Right cultural divide in New Zealand turn into a question of which kinds of racism we have to tolerate: racism against Asian and sometimes Jewish people, or racism against Māori, Pacific Islanders, and Muslims. No wonder it’s difficult raising political enthusiasm in young progressive types these days. And no wonder the electorates with the largest Asian populations were those which saw the support for National rise. I blame Winston.