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

If you can’t deal with vulnerability you’ve no business being in government

1 Apr

Vulnerablitiy

 

If there’s one single characteristic that defines the Abbott government, and increasingly the ALP opposition, it’s their utter lack of care for people who are in some way vulnerable.

One might once have been tempted to use the phrase “lack of compassion” but it’s been rendered almost meaningless through overuse, and besides, in the current political discourse the word “compassion” carries negative value,  being framed as a weakness unless directed towards victims of plane crashes, and hostages. Almost everyone else faced with difficult circumstances is implicitly blamed for finding themselves in them, denied care, and all too frequently punished.

The public attitude politicians seem most to represent is one expressed to me on Twitter yesterday, after I’d remarked that it was time to leave Craig Thomson alone as he looked like a man at the very end of his rope and enough is enough. He’s putting on an act, he’s putting it on, a couple of people responded. And you know this how? I felt like replying, but didn’t, thinking it pointless to attempt to challenge that level of ignorance in 140 characters. I’d be at it all day to no useful purpose.

He or she is “putting it on” is a phrase that has always been used by people with a particular mindset towards anyone who reveals vulnerability. It’s used repeatedly about asylum seekers who express their distress through the only means available to them, their bodies. It’s used about people who attempt or express the desire to attempt suicide. A variation of the phrase was used by the former headmaster of Knox Grammar Ian Paterson, about a boy who was being sexually abused on his watch, when he claimed the victim was a “drama boy.”

This lack of care has brought us to situations such as this one, in which a five-year-old child currently in Darwin with her family, has attempted suicide because she so fears being returned to detention on Nauru. I’m waiting to hear Peter Dutton declare she’s “putting it on.”

For mine, this attitude reveals a great deal more about the person expressing it than it does about the object of their derision. It tells me they are bereft of imagination, and incapable of thinking themselves into another person’s shoes, even momentarily. It tells me they are terrified of vulnerability and must attack anyone who confronts them with it, however distanced from that vulnerability they may be.

Consider the mental attitude of a person who is compelled to declare on social media that an individual unknown to them is “putting on an act” when he says publicly that he is close to suicide. It is this mental attitude that forms the Abbott government’s demographic, and to whom the government plays with callous contempt for any vulnerability it does not consider legitimate, that is, vulnerability experienced by anyone other than the group with which the government  identifies.

The conservative mind dehumanises those it does not perceive as one of its tribe, because it does not consider the concerns of “outsiders” as valid as its own. The Abbott government exemplifies this in its attitude to tax reform for example. Consider this piece by Ross Gittins on Treasurer Joe Hockey’s budget spin, skewed to benefit the tribe to which Hockey belongs, at the expense of those who are most financially vulnerable and thus, outsiders.

No matter where you look in government and many opposition policies, you will find they have in common lack of interest and care for the vulnerable, and overwhelming bias towards groups they consider their own. The Abbott government’s attempts to push through a budget almost universally regarded as unfair, and its attribution of that failure as a failure to properly  “sell”  unfairness, reveals everything you need to know about the conservative mind. They couldn’t sell unfairness, which is their ideology, so they need to work out how better to do that in the future.

There’s a building body of opinion that the conservative mind is incapable of compassion for any other than those it recognises as its own, and the attitudes and actions of this conservative government, and to an increasing degree our supposedly left-wing opposition, fit this conservative ideological profile.

This harsh and unyielding position, erroneously claimed as strength, extends itself beyond the immediately human to vital matters such as climate change, with Abbott’s reputation as the world’s worst climate villain perfectly expressing conservative contempt for the vulnerable situation of the very planet on which we must all exist.

We need politicians who can cope with vulnerability of all kinds. It isn’t so much compassion we need as intelligence, and particularly active emotional intelligence, of which compassion is a part. I doubt there has been a time in our living memory when Australian politicians have been further from this intelligence, or a time when it has been more dangerous for them to be so.

They’re “putting it on” is a particularly invidious perspective to take on the vulnerability and distress of others. It’s ignorant, it’s defensive, it’s dangerous. If you can’t deal with the sight of another’s vulnerability that’s your problem, not theirs. Vulnerability is not legitimised or delegitimised by the social class to which you belong. When a government can’t deal with vulnerability of all its citizens it is not a democratic government. It’s an ideological tyrant.

 

 

Drugs and Depression

30 Mar

 

drugs two

 

 

Andreas Lubitz, the co-pilot believed to have deliberately guided Flight 4U9525 into the French Alps killing all 150 people on board was reportedly suffering from depression, and possibly taking anti-depressants to treat his illness.

What hasn’t been mentioned so far is that many anti-depressants disclose in their list of possible side-effects a warning that they may trigger suicidal ideation, suicide or attempted suicide, and in some instances, violent and aggressive behaviour. While clinical studies continue into the association between these drugs and certain behaviours, the evidence is sufficient for drug companies to be compelled to disclose the possibilities to potential users.

There is, justifiably, a concern that depression and those suffering from it will be increasingly stigmatised as a consequence of this tragedy.  As the Guardian reports: In a sign of continued nervousness in the light of the tragedy, there were reports on Saturday of pilots offering personal assurances to passengers. One woman tweeted: “Pilot on my @Delta flight announces he and co-pilot are ex-military and ‘we both have wives and kids and are very happy’.” 

Apparently being “ex-military,” male, and with a wife and children is some kind of guarantee against depression which will be news to many people given the astronomic rates of post traumatic stress disorder diagnosed in military personnel, to address just one aspect of an idiotic comment that is a small example of the facile discrimination and prejudice anybody with a mental illness can encounter.

Australia has the second highest use of anti-depressant medication in the world after Iceland, from which we can conclude that depression is a common illness in our society and a lot of us are using drug therapy to help us manage it. Death from drug overdose is twice as likely to be caused by drugs prescribed to treat anxiety, insomnia and stress than by illegal substances, a Victorian coroner recently reported.

And it isn’t just drugs prescribed for depression that can cause mental disturbances. I have beside me a box of Metoclopramide, prescribed for nausea caused by other drugs, with a list of potential side-effects as long as my leg, one of which is “mental depression.” There are antibiotics that can cause anxiety. There are anti psychotics that can cause hallucinations. There are sleeping tablets that can cause bizarre sleepwalking behaviours.  If anything we need more awareness and education about the possible side effects of prescription drugs, and how those side effects can be safely managed.

It would be the worst possible outcome if the tragedy of Flight 4U9525 was used to stigmatise people with depression not only in the airline industry but in every other occupation. There have already been demands that airlines dismiss pilots with depressive disorders, and while no one wants a pilot in the throes of a seriously depressive episode flying a plane, depression can be managed and people do recover.

As usual there’s been a scramble, instigated by the country’s most reliable drama queen Prime Minister Tony Abbott, to ensure such a tragedy doesn’t occur on an Australian airline. Australia’s national security committee met on Sunday at Abbott’s insistence to discuss preventative measures.

Good luck with that. Absolute safety can never be guaranteed, and flying is still a whole lot safer than driving the Pacific Highway, and a whole, whole, whole lot safer than being a woman in a domestically violent situation in Australia. So far this year, the average is two dead women each week. Still waiting for the Minister for Women to call an emergency Sunday meeting about that.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘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

You will meet a tall dark stranger

29 Mar

wish-upon-a-star-andrea-realpeI watched the Woody Allen movie of this title last night, and was saddened by the slide into banality of a director I once found extraordinary. As is his wont, Allen again dissects the emotionally tormented relationships between comfortably off but miserable professional couples driven by their hunger for love, and the ensuing complications of their search for love’s validation.

The ironical musical theme of the movie is a sweetly gentle version of “When You Wish Upon a Star” and as the narrative unfolds it becomes apparent that while your dreams might indeed come true, dreams fulfilled don’t necessarily make you happy. In other words, be careful what you ask for. You might get it.

The film begins with an epigraph, Macbeth’s observation that life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. This announced the movie’s fundamental lack of imagination: as an epigraph this one has been done to death and I was reminded of how, as raucous and irreverent schoolgirls, we screeched the quotation at one another as we draped our adolescent selves across our wooden desks, mocking its nihilistic sentiment.

What the movie did cause me to ponder, however, are the many ways in which human beings can emotionally cripple ourselves and one another, believing we’re doing what we are supposed to do living respectable coupled lives, pursuing respectable ambitions, and conforming to the expectations of our culture. All the while, as in a witch’s bubbling cauldron, deep and guilty dissatisfactions are coming to the boil, provoking unforeseen behaviours that erupt from their repression and cause chaos in outwardly conformist lives. Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn and cauldron bubble…to stay with the Macbeth references.

As Freud observed, in order to maintain civilisation we must make a trade-off, and the price we pay is the voluntary relinquishing, through repression, of desire. This is the essential paradox of civilisation: we have designed it to protect ourselves from dissatisfaction and danger, yet it is simultaneously our biggest source of both. Allen’s characters are quintessentially civilised, yet their desires rupture their civilised veneer and reveal the turmoil and misery that lies beneath. Truth will out.

The catalyst for rupture is always desire, the “tall dark stranger” encountered at times of blind yearning for one knows not what, a yearning that is always at bottom a hunger for growth, and escape from circumstances that have come to represent imprisonment and stagnation. Yet few of us can pursue these needs without savage consequences, as they fly in the face of civilised culture and its constructed desires, leaving trails of wreckage that are largely perceived not as opportunities, but as destruction. Our culture values certainty, continuity and predictability. Our culture values what is antipathetic to desire. Those who break out, yielding to desire, are judged and found wanting.

Allen knows these truths well, given his own torturous history with desire. It’s disappointing that he hasn’t found a fresher way to dissect them: he’s become formulaic.

For mine, the meeting with a tall dark stranger is the meeting with truth or the real possibility of it, a possibility generally denied us by cultural demands and expectations. Discontent is a necessary by-product of civilisation. Civilisation, as Freud would have it, inevitably makes us neurotic. The only cure is love, and love is a stranger in an open car, tempt you in and drive you far away…

 

 

 

 

 

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