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Is Struggle Street poverty porn?

7 May

Struggle Street

SBS aired the first episode of the documentary Struggle Street last night, amidst the kind of publicity and controversy media outlets dream of.

Briefly, the program follows the daily lives of families and individuals who live in Mount Druitt, a suburb in Sydney’s far west where unemployment and poverty are rife, and all the complexities created by lack of opportunity and marginalisation serve to oppress, in some cases, beyond endurance.

In this erudite review in The Conversation the program is described as “poverty porn,” created by the entitled for the entertainment of the entitled. It’s worth noting the author of this piece had not seen the program before writing his review of it. Always a mistake, in my opinion.

An alternative perspective can be found here, written by a journalist who has, thankfully, actually watched the documentary.

For the first ten minutes I found Struggle Street almost impossible to watch, so palpable was the pain, confusion, frustration and sorrow of the people involved. There seems to be an inevitability about the trajectory of their lives: the possibility of a happy ending, or an even slightly improved ending seems severely limited, not because the people involved are inherently undeserving or morally lax, but because of circumstances so complex that unravelling them requires skills and resources that are simply not available, and that authorities are unwilling to make available.

It is convenient to cast people in such situations as being entirely responsible for their own misfortunes, ignoring the vast web of circumstances created by the more privileged sectors of society, circumstances that inevitably create an underclass whom the privileged then have the satisfaction of despising.

To be poor is to be surveilled in a manner entirely alien to the middle class, where the possibilities of concealment are many and varied, and to whom “privacy” and the right not to be offended or embarrassed is a privilege enshrined in law.  It could be argued that the documentary is yet another form of surveillance of the marginalised, ostensibly entered into voluntarily, to which the middle class would never subject itself. It could also be argued that the privileged creators and viewers who perhaps voyeuristically consumed the program last night found moral gratification, if they needed to look for it, in the abyss between the them of Struggle Street, and the us of the entitled gaze.

For me, what fought its way through the grim despair that haunts the daily lives of many of the participants in this documentary is their humanity. The love of a father for his recalcitrant offspring who steal from him to buy drugs. The determined attempts to create, from nothing, a party atmosphere for small children. The yearning of a young woman, homeless for two years owing to family disruption, to return to learning and thus make something of her life. The ongoing adversarial encounters with authorities such as Centrelink and the police that are part of the daily grind that must be faced and endured. People keep struggling to love, to make things better, to stay alive, all against the overwhelming influences of forces beyond their control.

Struggle Street is not, to my mind, poverty porn, though there are those who will choose to view it as such. This says more to me about them, than it does about the program and its participants. There will be the righteously self-congratulatory who measure their success against the apparent failures of the residents of Struggle Street. That can’t be avoided, however, that they need to make such a measure speaks volumes, and not about Struggle Street. What I would hope is that this documentary will confront us with the ferocious inequalities in our society, and the inhumanity of political authority that refuses resources and care to those who most need it, opting instead to blame and punish and marginalise. Mount Druitt does not exist in a vacuum. If this series demonstrates anything, it ought to be that reality.

PS: And the Guardian agrees with me.

Truth, employment and freedom of speech.

2 May

President of the Australian Human Rights Commission, Professor Gillian Triggs, yesterday proffered this analysis of the sacking of SBS sports presenter Scott McIntyre, after he posted a series of tweets that suggested, among other things, an alternative and previously unspoken view of the actions of the ANZACS.

In her piece Professor Triggs refers to the case of Banerji v Bowles (2013) in which Department of Immigration former employee Michaela Banerji was sacked after tweeting criticisms of detention centres, the Prime Minister, and the Minister for Immigration. Ms Banerji used a pseudonym for her Twitter account, and argued that her comments are “constitutionally protected by her right to freedom of political communication as an indispensable incident of representative government.” The Federal Court rejected this view.

Ms Banerji has now replied to Professor Triggs’ observations on her case here.

I know there are readers of Sheep who are as intrigued by legal forensics as am I, and the arguments made by both parties are of significant import to anyone who is employed and uses social media. I won’t add my comparatively ignorant voice to those of Professor Triggs and Ms Banerji, rather I’m interested in Trigg’s observations on the use of social media and Truth.

Triggs begins her piece with a quote from John Milton’s Areopagitica in which the poet passionately opposes censorship, arguing for freedom of speech. “Whoever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?” he asks.

Triggs argues that “today’s near universal access to social media challenges the idea that freedom of expression ensures truth will be victorious over falsehood.”  The poet Milton could not have envisaged the extent of free and open encounters awaiting society in its future, and made his observation at a time when only the privileged had access to a public platform.

There are a couple of assumptions in Triggs’ argument that ought to be noted. In claiming that universal access to social media dilutes the possibility of Truth triumphing over falsehood, Triggs, inadvertently I’m sure, is claiming not only that Truth is, as it was in Milton’s time, defined and controlled by a particular demographic who enjoy freedom of expression due to their privilege, but that this is still a legitimate manner in which to determine what is Truth.  Now the masses have unprecedented access to public platforms that democratise freedom of expression, Truth will inevitably be vanquished by the freely expressed opinions of these masses. Whatever is publicly expressed by those other than the privileged and entitled will inevitably be falsehood, is what her argument implies.

Truth is a tricky concept, fluid in the extreme, determined by the orthodoxy, enforced by the state and its agents, and religion and its agents. Social media offers the most expansive and democratic opportunity for the contestation of what Foucault calls “regimes of truth”  that has ever existed in human history.

Truth, argues Foucault, does not exist outside of power:

 on the contrary, truth “is produced by virtue of multiple constraints [a]nd it induces regulated effects of power”. This is to say that “each society has its regime of truth”, and by this expression Foucault means: (1) “the types of discourse [society] harbours and causes to function as true”; (2) “the mechanisms and instances which enable one to distinguish true from false statements” and (3) “the way in which each is sanctioned”; (4) “the techniques and procedures which are valorised for obtaining truth”; (5) “the status of those who are charged with saying what counts as true” (Foucault 1976, p. 112; 13).

Therefore, “truth” is “a system of ordered procedures for the production, regulation, distribution, circulation and functioning of statements”; it is linked “by a circular relation to systems of power which produce it and sustain it, and to effects of power which it induces and which redirect it”. 

It is the function of social media, exemplified most recently by the tweets of Scott McIntyre, to contest truth regimes produced by systems of power that control and sustain what comes to be normalised as “Truth.” Scott McIntyre, Michaela Banerji and countless others have used social media to contest the constructed regimes of truth, to their cost. Whether these challenges to the orthodoxy are accurate or not, the point is they must be made and in a liberal democracy the people who make them ought not to be punished.

There is absolutely no correlation between freedom of expression and what we might, at any given time, consider to be Truth. The very best we can do is, as Foucault recommends, constantly question the origins of our current regimes of truth, by whom are they determined, whose ends do they serve, what techniques and procedures are valorised for obtaining truth and by whom. Our most powerful weapon for contesting regimes of truth is social media. Professor Triggs is quite wrong: today’s near universal access to social media ensures an unprecedented freedom of expression that in turn ensures an unrelenting contestation of truth claims, and herein lies its power, and its threat to authority.

Freedom of expression has never ensured Truth, not in Milton’s time and not in ours. Social media is a powerful tool for the examination of regimes of truth established by the privileged and entitled, regimes that all too often have little to do with what is true, and far more to do with what is advantageous to those who declare it to be true.

Foucault: Regimes of Truth

 

When abuse is just another news story

16 Apr

 news

I was driving home from my appointment with my shrink, with whom I’m attempting to unravel the mystery of how events of the past inescapably determine the present (“Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” George Santayana. Remember it) when I heard on ABC Radio National’s The World Today this report of evidence given at the Royal Commission into Institutional Child Abuse.

The report was preceded by a warning of “disturbing” content.

The content is disturbing. It might make you weep. It might make you remember. It might make you rage. It might make your heart break.

But what is even more disturbing is the manner in which this disturbing content, like all other disturbing content, is transmogrified from a heartbreaking, terrifying, rage-provoking account of one man’s childhood into nothing more than another news story in a busy news cycle, the majority of which is comprised of disturbing content of one kind or another. In other words, as soon as this disturbing event is reported we move immediately onto something else, as is routine, as is expected in a media-drenched world where news is barely considered interesting unless it’s disturbing. The need of comfortable people for the thrill of vicarious disturbance should never be underestimated.

What we should have had after Mr David Owen’s story is a minute’s silence. What we should have had is a minute to absorb the magnitude of his suffering. What we should have had is a minute to reflect that Mr Owen’s story of childhood sexual abuse is repeated and repeated and repeated, perhaps a billion or more times around the globe.

What we also should have had is the opportunity to reflect that while it is on the one hand a “good” thing that these matters are now public, it is also possibly a “bad” thing that they are treated as one more story in the news cycle, and that as a society we are becoming so inured to disturbing content that we can be momentarily appalled then move on, within seconds, to the next piece of news without as much as a moment to catch our breaths and reflect upon what we have just heard.

Everything is a damn hashtag. Everything.

It is unrealistic of me to want a minute’s silence after reports such as that on Mr Owen’s childhood suffering. Yet I was outraged by the manner in which his account of the details of his abuse was slotted between other items of interest to the ABC’s midday audience, and I was infuriated by how we are expected to lurch from stories of such atrocities to something Tony Abbott said with nary a second to catch our breaths. How can atrocity become anything more than wall paper when it’s doled out on the hour in sound bites? And what is this doing to us?

I don’t know what purpose was served by the ABC reporting Mr Owen’s evidence, in all its aching detail, in little more than a sound bite. Fair enough if some time is dedicated to the topic. Fair enough if some respect is accorded to the man, and to his experiences. But to sandwich it between Abbott and the jobless figures is a step too far.

While everyone ought to know what happens to far too many children, and the aftermath, it isn’t a sound bite. Mr Owen is a man of tremendous courage and resilience. His story isn’t fodder for the news cycle.

The question for Good Friday: What is truth?

3 Apr

 

orwell truth

Yesterday, human rights lawyer George Newhouse won his defamation case against News Corp blogger Andrew Bolt. A confidential settlement was reached, with News Corp paying Newhouse’s costs:

Justice McCallum found the five defamatory imputations pleaded by Mr Newhouse were capable of arising. These included that Mr Newhouse “has fraudulently represented to the public that people whom he represents are refugees when they are not”; that he “lied to the High Court”; that he is “motivated by deceit” and that he has “acted immorally”. 

In 2011, Bolt was found guilty of breaching the Racial Discrimination Act with a blog in which he’d implied that light-skinned people who identified as Aboriginal did so for personal gain. 

In 2002, magistrate Jelena Popovic was awarded $246,000 damages for defamation after suing Bolt and the publishers of the Herald Sun over a 13 December 2000 column in which he claimed that she had “hugged two drug traffickers she let walk free.”

Obviously, Bolt is in the business of mischief-making, as is his employer. There is a certain satisfaction in witnessing this activity come back to bite them both, however, Bolt’s narrative genre, bereft as it is of truth or any pretence at interest in it, is a vehicle for the conservative ideology that is currently struggling for control of western democracies.

Bolt’s blogs largely consist of great swathes of unsubstantiated personal opinion, that if subjected to a moment’s elementary Socratic interrogation would disintegrate into dust. The only way to deal with the man is to haul him before appropriate courts, an option open to very few. The cost to News Corp is little in the scheme of things, and is no doubt outweighed by the talent the man has for rousing ugly public opinion that favours conservative prejudices.

In conservative politics and in the media that support the ideology, truth long ago exited stage left and won’t be coming back. Prime Minister Tony Abbott boasts of his own dodgy relationship with the truth, and the ABC’s “Promise Tracker” records the number of pre-election assurances by the coalition that have been broken since Abbott assumed power.

Does truth matter? It would seem we’re in an era of norm renegotiation: at one time in our social evolution a man’s [sic] word was all that was required, and any man who broke his word was ostracised and shamed for it. We have apparently devolved to a state in which the leader of our liberal democracy can quite cheerfully say whatever he likes at any particular moment, then blame his audience for being daft enough to believe him.

On Good Friday, the day on which Christians such as Prime Minister Abbott grieve the death of their Christ, it seems appropriate to recall Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor who handed Jesus over for execution by literally and symbolically washing his hands of the whole ghastly affair and asking, rhetorically, Quid est verities? What is truth?

Prejudice, arrogance, entitlement and ideology have triumphed over truth in Australian political discourse. Truth is now regarded with the same jaundiced mocking eye as is compassion. It matters not if Andrew Bolt and Tony Abbott spin narratives bereft of truth, populated with stereotypes, peppered with clichés. Truth is crucified. Ideology rules. OK?

 

 

 

 

 

On the moral outrage of the “normal.” A response to Madonna King

2 Apr

PeripeteiaI’d planned on a peaceful afternoon following a few arduous days but then I read this piece by journalist Madonna King, titled “Billy Gordon must stop making excuses for bad behaviour” and honestly, if this doesn’t encapsulate everything I’ve been writing about for the last few days I can’t imagine what would.

King opens by observing that Andreas Lubitz, co-pilot of the Germanwings flight that ended in tragedy after he flew the plane into the French Alps might well have been suffering from depression however, that doesn’t mean he ought not to be recorded in history as a mass murderer responsible for the deaths of 150 passengers.

From this King moves onto the saga of Queensland politician Billy Gordon, currently facing universal disapprobation for past crimes and present misdemeanours. Many people, King claims, suffer difficult childhoods and depressive illness, but they don’t all fly planes into mountains or resort to criminal activities, so why should anyone excuse the behaviours of Lubitz or Gordon on the grounds of their struggles with their personal demons?

Indeed, goes the illogic of her argument, Lubitz and Gordon are even more morally bankrupt because they did not manage to deal with their demons in a manner that did not cause anguish to others.

Let me unpick King’s moral dummy spit.

While there are undeniably common factors in depressive illness, and in the reactions to childhood trauma, it should never be forgotten that every circumstance is individual, and neither depressive illness nor childhood trauma occurs to robots and replicants but to human beings, formed by genes, nature, and nurture, different in every case, different even within the same family. To argue that because one person does not react like another to trauma indicates that they are exceptionally morally deficient, is the worse kind of middle class, self-righteous, pseudo-psychological conservative claptrap.

Lubitz undoubtedly will quite rightly be remembered as the murderer of 150 passengers and the bearer of anguish to hundreds of others. However, no human action takes place in a vacuum, and understanding Lubitz’s circumstances is not “making excuses” for his acts, but informing ourselves, the better to avoid such catastrophes in the future.

Likewise, knowing where Billy Gordon is coming from is not “making excuses” for his actions, but adding to our knowledge of how the events of an individual’s life form him or her, and of the enormous variety of responses and reactions individuals can have to what on the surface appear to be identical or very similar circumstances.

Taking a moral stand on these matters does nothing to inform us of anything. This is a classic example of how pointlessly destructive moral stands can be. If we say, as has Ms King, that explanations and understanding are “excuses” for certain types of behaviour, we come to a dead-end. If we want to reduce and prevent certain types of behaviours, we won’t do it by simply deciding they are “bad.”

Gordon has at some point this week described a deprived childhood. To which King replies: Guess what Billy. You should have spent less time wanting what others had, and less time breaking the law too.

He should have spent less time wanting what others had? What? It is an offence have nothing and want what others have? The poor must not envy and covet the privileges of the comfortable? They must simply accept they can’t have them?

King goes on: Excuses are now the reason for bad behaviour across the community. An act of road rage because someone cut someone off at the pass. A scratch along the side of a car because someone took somebody else’s car park. One punch outside a night club because someone thought someone else’s drink had been spiked. 

There is a vast difference between excuses and reasons, a difference that entirely escapes Ms King. These are explanations, however inadequate, of certain actions. They are vital to increasing our understanding of why some of us behave so abominably at times, and therefore indicators of how our abominable behaviour can be addressed and hopefully reduced, in the interests of the common good.

There’s not one among us, including Ms King, who can know with any certainty that we will not at some time become the victim of peripeteia. How we react in unexpected circumstances is determined by any number of factors, the majority of which are likely entirely unknown to us.  Morality is largely unhelpful in these situations, and is particularly so when applied after the fact.

Apart from anything else, it is profoundly arrogant for anyone to assume or demand that every individual who suffers trauma and/or mental illness reacts to her or his circumstances in the same way. Using some of us as a yardstick by which to judge the others is a game of the privileged and the entitled. Traumatised and mentally ill people do not lose our individuality because of our experiences. We have the right to be who we are, without the burden of the expectations and moral judgements of the “normal” and the “healthy.”

Thank you Eroticmoustache (I think :-)) for the link that led to this rant.

‘Pretty Woman’ is to blame for luring women into sex work. Right.

30 Mar

Everybody told me not to read this exceedingly stupid Mamamia piece alleging the film “Pretty Woman” caused young women to become sex workers by glamourising an industry that can be highly dangerous, but I did it anyway.

My question: how many films glamourise marriage and lure young women into that industry, only for them to become victims of violent partners to the extent that one woman each week in Australia is killed by that partner?

Which situation is the more dangerous for women?

And what are we, that we need to even ask such a question?

And when will Mia Freedman get her bourgeois morality off our bodies?

Runaway_Bride

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