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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

 

Protesting a broken system is not emotional blackmail

8 Apr

Peter DuttonImmigration Minister Peter Dutton yesterday declared that he would not submit to what he described as “emotional blackmail” by Iranian asylum seeker Saleed Hassanloo, who has been on a hunger strike for forty-four days in protest at the DIBP’s refusal of refugee status.

Asylum seekers imprisoned indefinitely in Australia’s off-shore detention camps have few methods available to them to protest their plight. That the camps on Manus and Nauru are hellish has been apparent for some time now. This has been recently confirmed by the damning Moss Report, commissioned by former Immigration Minister Scott Morrison some seventeen months ago after the government alleged Save the Children workers were “coaching” asylum seekers to self-harm in order to attract the government’s attention.

Peter Dutton obviously doesn’t know what emotional blackmail is. For a start, it takes place in a personal or intimate relationship, such as that between husband and wife, mother and child, siblings, bullies in the workplace, or close friends. It’s a manipulative behaviour intended to control the other party through fear, obligation, and guilt, and it isn’t a one-off occurrence, it’s a pattern of behaviour established between two or more people as a primary means of communication and interaction.

Detained asylum seekers have virtually no avenues for legitimately  protesting their situations. Self-harm, which is using the body as the vehicle of protest, is all they have. This is not the fault of the asylum seekers, but of governments that have created conditions in which human beings have no hope, extremely limited rights, and are forced to lives that can only be filled with despair.

Dutton’s reason for refusing to respond humanely to Hassanloo’s protest was that if he did, hundreds of asylum seekers would self harm, seeking the same humane outcome. This likelihood should tell Dutton there is something terribly wrong with the system he oversees. If the people incarcerated in it, including children as young as five are willing to harm themselves in order to escape the detention camps, the problem obviously lies in the detention system, and not in the human beings Dutton is forcing to endure it.

It is the default position of the coward and the bully to blame the victim for his or her reaction to the bullying he or she has been subjected to. Australian governments, both ALP and LNP, have bullied boat-borne asylum seekers for decades now. For decades now both governments have criminalised, demonised and dehumanised asylum seekers for their own nefarious political purposes.

Whenever asylum seekers have self-harmed we’ve heard the same old government spin about emotional blackmail, and the same old complaints about the duress these important politicians have been subjected to by asylum seekers protesting with their bodies. We’ve heard this from every Immigration Minister, from Philip Ruddock who infamously made repeated references to a child asylum seeker who refused to eat as “it,” onwards.

The problem and the fault lies with the treatment of boat-borne asylum seekers by both major political parties. Human beings detained under the conditions these governments have imposed are human beings who are, daily, being severely abused by governments. Our governments are bullies and serial abusers. Their victims self-harm, as victims of serial abusers and bullies frequently do. Our governments blame their victims, as bullies and abusers inevitably will. Our governments then claim victim status for themselves, as they accuse their victims of causing them duress by emotionally blackmailing them.

This is sick. This is dysfunctional. This sickness and dysfunction are at the heart of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection as they implement pathological government policies. Every Minister who heads that department, of either political persuasion, perpetuates the sickness and dysfunction by intensifying the secrecy surrounding boat-borne asylum seekers arrivals, and the conditions of their incarceration.

Increasingly, attempts to threaten and silence anyone who attempts to speak out about the daily abuses, fail. These attempts at silencing have been taken so far by the Abbott government as to personally attack Human Rights Commission head Gillian Triggs, when her report on the detention camps was released.

You can’t shut everybody up, though Transfield, to whom maintenance of the off-shore detention camps has been outsourced, is working very hard to assist the Abbott government in this mission with outrageous attempts to gag its workers.

You are only as sick as your secrets, and this government is fatally ill.

A new low in corporate paranoia: Transfield, Manus & Nauru

7 Apr

Zip It

 

There’s a report in the Guardian this morning that Transfield, the company responsible for the administration of detention centres on Manus and Nauru,is taking extraordinary measures to curtail the civil liberties of its employees.

New policy issued in February 2015 restricts religious and political freedoms of Transfield staff working at the detention centres by forbidding membership in or support for any “incompatible organisation,” such as political parties and churches opposed to off-shore detention. Support for the United Nations, Amnesty International and the Australian Human Rights Commission could also lead to staff losing their jobs.

At first blush, this looks like denying the human rights of workers to religious and political freedom.

A job for our Freedom Commissioner, Tim Wilson?

A staff member can also be sacked if a detainee or former detainee follows them on Facebook or Twitter, even if the employee is not aware of the following.

For previous Sheep posts on Transfield, and the association with the St James Centre for Ethics and the Black Dog Institute of one of its directors, Douglas Snedden, see here.

Then there was the brou ha ha I wrote about here, surrounding Transfield’s support for the 2014 Sydney Biennale which caused several artists to withdraw their work and led to Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull describing those artists as “viciously ungrateful.”

You may not think highly of people who undertake employment in detention centres. I’ve heard this perspective and spoken to employees, and it’s complicated. There has been, ever since the days of Woomera and Baxter, a culture of secrecy surrounding detention centres, asylum seekers, and those who are employed in the industry, a culture that serves no one well and from which very few emerge unscarred. Governments are entirely responsible for this culture, for imposing it and maintaining it, to the detriment of everyone involved at the coal face.

These recent actions by Transfield are alarming, and have widespread implications. They are designed to suppress dissent of even the most innocuous kind: being sacked for who follows you on Twitter must be a new low in corporate paranoia.

This morning on ABC Radio National Breakfast, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton insisted that he would not make decisions about refugee status “under duress.” The “duress” he is referring to is the hunger strike by Iranian Saeed Hassanloo that has brought the asylum seeker close to death. Iran will not accept deported asylums seekers: they must return of their own free will. If they do not wish to return, they are kept in indefinite detention by the Australian government.

The message from the DIBP is clear. If you flee duress in a manner we consider inappropriate you will be subjected to more duress, and if you respond to that duress with actions that cause us to experience duress, we will subject you to indefinite duress. We win.

The message from Transfield to its employees is of a similar nature. If you want your job you will relinquish the right to everything we say you must relinquish the right to, otherwise you will not have your job. We win.

The Abbot government to all citizens: If you’re thinking about blowing the whistle on anything think again, because we have captured your metadata and we don’t need a warrant to trawl it and we can make any use of it we like and we win.

All you have to do is what you’re told, and everything will be all right and we win.

Freedom Boy! Where are you?!

Freedom Boy

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

What is Conservatism and What is Wrong With It?

2 Apr

australian-conservative

 

Former Associate Professor of Information Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, Phil Agre, defined  conservatism thus:

Q: What is conservatism?
A: Conservatism is the domination of society by an aristocracy.
Q: What is wrong with conservatism?
A: Conservatism is incompatible with democracy, prosperity, and civilization in general. It is a destructive system of inequality and prejudice that is founded on deception and has no place in the modern world.

It’s worth reading Agre’s essay, to which I’ve linked above.

The core assumption of conservatives is that they are an aristocracy, that is, they are “the best type” of human being, and being the best type of human being are therefore entitled to govern. Here Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s phrase “women of calibre” springs to mind. Women and men of calibre, as determined by the conservative measure of calibre, are entitled to thrive and are entitled to rule.

This is what is at the heart of Joe Hockey’s protection of the wealthy: because they are wealthy they are by definition the best of human beings, of the highest calibre, and the most worthy of support and tax exemption.

With this assumption at the heart of political and social convictions, a sense of entitlement will inevitably be the driving force. In Australia this sense of entitlement does not generally originate in bloodlines: we are egalitarian to the degree that those of humble origins can and do form the conservative political aristocracy that considers itself the “natural” ruler, the “best” group to govern. The essential requirement is not breeding or wealth, but that one subscribe to the  ideology of entitlement, fuelled by the fervent belief that nobody else can do it as well.The conservative assumes, for no apparent reason other than the assumption itself, that he or she is born to rule.

Conservatives have become even more delusional than they were when they largely sprang from the ranks of the wealthy and the “well-bred.” At least in those instances wealth and breeding provided some perceived external justification for the born to rule ideology. Currently, the ideology requires no external justification: it has come to be justified simply because it exists.

If this is your starting point you will be unable to regard anyone outside of your privileged ruling class as anything other than a lesser being. This thinking is not conducive to democratic government.

As Agre observes, conservatism is founded on deception, largely self-deception. It requires only a belief in one’s superiority but no external proof of any particular accomplishment other than the ability to convince others of that inherent superiority and its naturally ensuing entitlement.

On the whole, the current crop of conservative front benchers are quite unfathomably stupid, blinded and halted and lamed by the conviction of entitlement that is their raison d’être.

Where do babbies of calibre come from? They just are.

Where do babies come from

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