Tag Archives: Emmanuel Levinas

Kelly O’Dwyer, Christians don’t own marriage, & goodbye Bob.

15 Apr

Shortly after Bob Brown announced his retirement, Federal Member for Higgins  and Abbott attack puppy in training Kelly O’Dwyer tweeted that we now had a female deputy PM as well as female PM. This observation prompted ABC journo Latika Bourke to ask whatever could Ms O’Dwyer know about Wayne Swan that the rest of us don’t?

Of course, Ms O’Dwyer was keeping alive the Opposition tradition of claiming that the Greens are really running the country and so their new leader, Christine Milne, is our deputy PM in everything but name.

I first noticed Ms O’Dwyer when she took part in a Qanda episode. If you’re interested, you can find this on her website. I formed the opinion then that she is given to belligerence, quite lacking in manners, and adept at the practise of  “talking over everyone else not caring if your audience hears you because your objective is to drown out all other voices not to make an intelligent point yourself.” Yes. That.

I also formed the opinion that her subtext was “Look at me Tony look at me! I’m doing it just like you! Can I have a schmacko? Please?”

Had it not been for the notice warning “Puppy in training. Not to be fed or patted by anyone other than handlers” I would have chucked her one myself, being a sucker for unrestrained approval desperation. Below Ms O’Dwyer is pictured with Mr Costello who never became leader of the pack. It looks as if he’s eating a sausage. Or perhaps he’s going to feed it to Ms O’Dwyer. I don’t know what these people get up to.

In 2010 I wrote this article for On Line Opinion titled “Reclaiming marriage from the great big Christian hijack.” I wrote: Marriage has existed a whole lot longer than Christianity. The Chinese philosopher Confucius, born in 551 BC, offered this delightful definition: “Marriage is the union of two different surnames, in friendship and in love.”

Two years down the track and because our PM made a point of reassuring us the day after she took office that there would be no change in the Marriage Act to accommodate same-sex unions, we are no further ahead. It is rumoured that Ms Gillard was compelled to make this otherwise inexplicable statement  by the Australian Christian Lobby. (I claim her statement was inexplicable at the time because Kevin Rudd had only just been rumbled, and the last thing on anybody’s mind was gay marriage.)

What remains inexplicable to me is that Ms Gillard is a professed atheist and personally uninterested in marriage. Some 60 per cent of Australians approve of same-sex unions and there are Christians among them.

Why the ACL should have such influence over Ms Gillard is also inexplicable, and quite unacceptable. Frankly, I’m a bit fed up with public Christians at the moment. That appalling performance by Cardinal Pell on Qanda did it for me. In the On Line Opinion essay I wrote:

Perhaps what is required from Christians these days is a little humility. An acknowledgement that they haven’t got everything right, indeed there are things they have got horrifically wrong, and that there is a collective as well as an individual responsibility for this that must be addressed before they can legitimately turn their rigorous attention to the maintenance of a broader human morality.

If I were imagining a god, she/he would care a whole lot more about believers destroying the bodies, hearts and souls of children than about preventing same-sex marriage, and same-sex adoption. If my god was going to smite anybody, I hope she/he would be smiting the perpetrators of those crimes against children, and those who enabled and protected those perpetrators and denied their crimes. I hope she/he would take positive action to enlighten those who would deprive children of love and legal security, solely because these people are unable to personally deal with the concept of love between same-sex partners.

My god would teach that loving one another is the only thing that matters, and from that all else will grow.

She/he would also be smart enough to admit that loving one another is the hardest thing we’ll ever have to do on this planet.

“Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another,” said Christ.

“We must love one another, or die,” said the poet, W.H. Auden.

“If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal,” warned St Paul.

It’s time to reclaim marriage from the Christians. They can’t claim it as their own. It belongs to everybody. Marriage in Australia in 2010 is about loving one another, whatever gender the other happens to be. It is about hope, and deeply good intentions. It’s about wanting to be the best a human being can be. It’s about wanting to create a living, breathing mystery, day by day, with the person you love and who loves you.

How may times must these sentiments be expressed, and by how many people, before politicians take heed?

Christians, your noisy gongs and clanging cymbals are making my ears bleed.

Finally, adieu Bob Brown. There are many ageing white males in positions of power that I can think of who would do well to emulate Brown, and bugger off. Knowing when to go is a rare talent, whatever your field of endeavour.

I have no idea if this is the beginning of the end for the Greens. As the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas observed about death: One does not know when death will come. What will come? With what does death threaten me? With nothingness or recommencement? I do not know.

And that, my friends, is why I can’t call myself an atheist, for I do not know. While this is unkindly described as “fence-sitting” by some, I argue that it is a sign of maturity to learn to become comfortable with uncertainty. Only children demand certainty. The adult knows there is none. Nowhere. Ever. Ever. I know that for sure.

Bob and Paul

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The Malaysian solution, or why Gillard will never have my respect and trust

17 Jul

‘To shelter the other in one’s own land or home, to tolerate the presence of the land-less and homeless on the “ancestral soil” so jealously guarded, so meanly loved – is that a criteria of humanness? Unquestionably so.” Emmanuel Levinas.

In the Sydney Morning Herald today there’s an article revealing that in the last three months taxpayers have funded flights from the Christmas Island detention centre to the mainland totalling over $3 million. These chartered flights have transported asylum seekers from the over-crowded Christmas Island centre to other detention centres on the mainland.

Figures from Senate Estimates also reveal that for the 11 months to the end of May, health costs in detention centres exceed $95 million.

2010 Australian of the Year, psychiatrist Patrick McGorry, described Australia’s detention centres as “factories for producing mental illness and mental disorders.” In response, Prime Minister Julia Gillard said: “We believe mandatory detention is necessary for security reasons.”

And those security reasons are?

Asylum seekers who arrive by boat are security threats how?

Australia is the only country signatory to the UN Refugee Convention that detains asylum seekers until a decision is made on their application to be accepted as refugees. All other signatory countries allow community placement while the assessments are made. The only signatory country in the world that subjects asylum seekers to indefinite imprisonment in “factories producing mental illness and mental disorder” is Australia.

In Australia as in no other signatory country the asylum seeker, the ultimate foreign other, is co-opted as an imprisoned and criminalized scapegoat. This is intended to strengthen the boundaries of our nation state by uniting Australians not in recognition of our shared humanity with the stranger, but rather in a common rejection of the foreigners’ human rights and needs in the interests of maintaining a politically expedient ideology of sovereignty.

Julia Gillard has gone further than even John Howard in her proposed treatment of asylum seekers. She wants to send them “to the back of the queue” in Malaysia. No other Australian politician has proposed the trade in vulnerable human beings that Gillard is engaged in organizing.

The refugees from Malaysia we will resettle in exchange for the 800 boat arrivals Gillard plans to transport to that country have not “queued” in order to be granted visas to live here. They have applied for re settlement along with thousand of others, and they have been selected not based on a position they hold in a non existent queue, but on their suitability as citizens.

Does Australia select refugees on the basis of how long they have been in camps? No, it doesn’t.

Yet Gillard continues to misinform and mislead the Australian people on the matter of a mythical “queue” because it is politically expedient for her to do so. The fact that it is a lie is as irrelevant to her as it is to Alan Jones, and it serves both their purposes to continue to feed this lie to the public. To the PM and shock jocks alike, the stranger seeking asylum via the boat is assumed to be morally corrupt, a criminal and possibly a terrorist, by virtue only of the dire circumstances in which he or she finds themselves in their homeland. This is utter nonsense.

In the moral world of Gillard and the shock jocks, having the gumption to get yourself out of a high risk situation by entering into another high risk situation, all in the pursuit of life, liberty and safety, makes you a criminal and possibly a terrorist. The fact that you manage to get enough money together to pay for your dangerous boat journey is only further evidence that you should be hanged by the neck when you get here, metaphorically speaking.

Imprisoning boat arrivals is a dishonest, cruel, wicked and discriminatory practice. It does nothing to improve our society, and does everything to morally and ethically damage us. It does nothing to assist the thousands of refugees in camps around the world.

“He said to me: ‘You are an animal. We will deal with you like an animal.” Guard to asylum seeker detained in Villawood Detention Centre.

Julia Gillard is engaged in a process of dehumanizing both the boat arrivals and the Australian electorate. Our attitude to those seeking asylum is a measure of our humanness, just as Levinas claims. Our political leaders should care about our collective and individual capacity for humanness because no society can thrive and survive without this quality.

“We are not animals! We have eyes like you, we have hands like you! We are not criminals!” Thirteen-year-old male detainee.

The very thing the Gillard government does not want acknowledged is that the people in detention are in any way like us. If the humanity we have in common with asylum seekers is recognized, indefinite mandatory detention would become intolerable. The demonization of boat arrivals is a morally repugnant practice, and one which Gillard fully endorses. Politicians have always sought to demonize and scapegoat human groups in the pursuit of their own political interests, and she is no exception.

We drive these people mad through the use of  indefinite mandatory detention. Then, when they act out their mad despair, we punish them for it. Now Julia Gillard like Pontius Pilate, has decided to wash her hands of the fate of the boat people and send them to Malaysia, a non-signatory country where we will have no control over what happens to them. Indeed, singling out a particular group for some kind of “special” UN protection is likely to make them even more vulnerable to attack and discrimination in a country where there are tens of thousands of displaced people, all of whom are struggling for survival in an environment that is hostile to them.

What Gillard is doing makes the Howard government’s off-shore policies look reasonable. Many refugee advocates now prefer the Pacific solution to Gillard’s Malaysian plans. That Julia Gillard should have brought us to such a choice!

I should respect this woman? I should support her? I should trust her?

I should be a proud feminist because Gillard is our first female PM?

The Malaysian solution is a bloody disgrace to this country. Nothing Gillard achieves in other areas will do anything to mitigate the immorality and inhuman cruelty of her plan. Neither will anything mitigate her continued support of indefinite mandatory detention while refugee claims are being processed. Gillard continues this, despite everything we know after ten years of the practice about how it damages and destroys the human beings we incarcerate.

Go back part three: Don’t call me a leftie!

24 Jun

Abbott you've been dickrolled. by David Jackmanson via flickr

Go back where you came from: Part Three

I was amused to see Roderick, vice president of  a branch of the Young Liberals, appear again in last night’s episode sporting the tee shirt with Tony Abbott in a lifeguard’s bonnet and budgie smugglers on the front. Unfortunately I couldn’t read the slogan.

Later he showed up in Congo wearing Julia Gillard as a lemon on his chest. Roderick is to be commended for his commitment to furthering his goal, stated at the beginning of the series, that he did not intend to allow anyone to cast him as a leftie. He simultaneously pushed domestic political propaganda for the home audience, and I’m certain he is to be watched as a future politician.

I’m struggling with on-going ambivalence about this show. On the one hand, it’s a remarkable achievement. I mean, imagine the logistics involved in pulling it all together. Give credit where it’s due, I say.

The fusion of documentary and reality TV genres was inspired: while I found the Big Brother style narration a little irritating it certainly allows the program to speak to a broader audience than a straight doco. It was a clever marketing decision, and also  allowed the participants an on-going and authentic emotional engagement that would not have been as easy in a doco.

However, I’m unable to shake a sense of voyeurism and exploitation. I think this could have easily been avoided by including footage of whatever negotiations took place between the producers and the asylum seekers and refugees who took part in the program. We get very little sense of their agency: they are portrayed as largely without any.

While they obviously have severely restricted agency in determining the course of their lives, I think it would have been respectful and humanizing to at least show the audience how they were invited to take part, and how they accepted the invitation.

Instead, we are left with an impression that they passively exist for our consumption, while the agency of the white participants is taken for granted. Raquel, for example, was given a choice about visiting Congo and she declined.

At the same time, the face to face interactions between the Australians and the refugees worked extremely well to humanize them, counteracting the Gillard government’s on-going efforts at dehumanization by isolation.

As the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas pointed out, when we are denied interaction with the face of the other, we are denied interaction with our humanity and theirs. Go back to where you came from achieved a great deal in this regard, and this is one of it’s most powerful strengths.

Two participants did have their beliefs about boat people reinforced. Having seen the camps in which refugees languish for years awaiting resettlement, the sense of unfairness that these people should be usurped by boat arrivals was strong.

It’s probably entirely unreasonable to demand that anybody fleeing death and persecution should first consider others who may be worse off than even them. Such moral considerations are easy for those of us who are safe. Put any one of us in a war zone and we might well discard all moral niceties, and bolt to anywhere in any way we can.

Hopefully, the show will have gone some way to exposing the constellation of false assumptions that underly Australian attitudes to asylum seekers. But I’m not holding my breath.

Revenge, or an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind

25 May

There’s probably hardly anyone who hasn’t at some time nursed the desire for revenge against someone they feel has harmed them. Feeling those desires and acting on them are very different things, but even feeling without action can have its consequences: a life consumed by unhealthy imaginings; the destructive effects of living with vengeful longings that can’t be satisfied. Being injured is sometimes only the beginning: long after the incident is over difficult emotions can continue to disturb a victim/survivor’s equilibrium.

In such circumstances an injured party can find themselves confronted by what American academic and philosopher Judith Butler calls “the moral predicament that emerges as a consequence of being injured.”

This moral predicament is comprised of the natural desire for retribution, and the conflicting need to avoid exchanging the role of victim for that of perpetrator by acting on that retributive desire.  As Butler observes, the desire for retribution can be overwhelming, and thoroughly understandable, however, as the Mahatma also observed, an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind. Another way of dealing with the consequences of harm must be found if a cycle of retributive injury is to be broken, on a personal and political level.

To accomplish revenge the victim has no choice but to view the perpetrator as a means to an end, the end in this case being the satisfaction and gratification of the victim’s desire for revenge. This morally dubious reduction of a human being to merely a means to an end is unfortunately what has allowed the original injury to be inflicted. What is gained, then, by further dehumanization?

Butler’s moral predicament is the conflict and tension between the desire for commensurate retribution on the one hand, and the moral need not to become a perpetrator of injury on the other. If you take revenge, are you any better than the one who’s harmed you? Are you morally worse because you’ve chosen to return injury with injury, when you had the opportunity to end the cycle of violence into which you’ve unwittingly been drawn by the actions of another?

Breaking a cycle of violence, personally and politically, is probably another of the great moral challenges of our time. We need a secular framework for this challenge, one that is embodied in the human for those of us unwilling to leave it in the hands of an imagined divine. The Christian advice to “turn the other cheek” has for me anyway, undertones of masochism: I don’t see how offering an abuser the opportunity to abuse me again is helping anyone.

It’s more difficult, as philosophers such as Martha Nussbaum and Emmanuel Levinas have observed, to inflict injury on the other if we recognize the common vulnerability and humanity we share as embodied beings, rather than seeing a stereotype. Once we see the enemy as human it’s harder to deliberately hurt them. This is what competent propagandists know – showing the human face of the enemy doesn’t encourage violence against them. The enemy has to be dehumanized. The act of dehumanization is always immoral, as it requires reducing the other to what we want them to be, and ignoring the complexity of what they are. It’s always a failure of the imagination, worse, perhaps, dehumanization demands that we turn away from imagination, that we consciously don’t allow the stereotype to be fully human in our imagination.

Combatants trained to perceive the enemy as less than human often find it difficult to see any one, even those they love, as fully human. This is a contributing factor to stress suffered by those who’ve fought a war, and their families.

There are also people who are extremely adept at separating others into human and less than human categories: usually those with whom they can make a cultural and societal identification are regarded as real. Those of different appearance and from other cultures are perceived as less than real, and therefore easier to hurt.

Butler’s moral predicament reveals itself to be complex and challenging for a victim. As well as being harmed in the first place, the victim now has these ethical and moral matters to consider if an on-going cycle of violence is to be avoided.

The urge to act and the urge to refrain from acting create a disturbing conflict. This tension creates a site of great intensity. Butler calls this site “the region of the un-willed.”  Injury has been done to me against my will and as a result I’ve been thrust into the “region of the un-willed.” But from this traumatic and unpromising site Butler argues that what she calls “…a model of ethical capaciousness…” can emerge. This ethical capaciousness, she continues: “…understands the pull of the claim, and resists the pull at the same time, providing a certain ambivalent gesture as the action of ethics itself.”

This “gesture of ethics itself” I understand to mean the capacity to simultaneously hold within the mind two widely diverse impulses, without giving in to either. This creates in most people a sense of discomfort and anxiety from which one seeks the relief of coming to a decision, one way or the other. On the one hand we are experiencing the suffering that comes as a consequence of being harmed, and on the other, we are experiencing the desire to avenge ourselves, compounded by the reluctance to become a perpetrator, or as some people put it, an unwillingness to sink to the level of our attacker.

Butler’s “ethical capaciousness” is the ability to resist the desire to escape anxiety through decision, and instead to tolerate the discomfort of ambivalence until the ethical decision to refrain from revenge can be taken.

The experience of injury is always traumatic to some degree. It’s an experience that catapults one out of the everyday, an experience that ruptures the every day, breaking boundaries that have, up to the point of the trauma, been assumed to be inviolable, if indeed they have ever considered at all. In serious trauma, people often describe a sense of suddenly becoming different, accompanied by a sense of loss of the self they knew prior to the injury. Even a sense of being diminished by what has happened to us: the ignominy of being made a victim. This is the case whether the injury is physical, emotional or both. A normal reaction to such loss and humiliation is anger, and the wish to punish those who are responsible.

Society sometimes offers retribution in the form of the law. Often it doesn’t, or what it does offer feels inadequate compensation for the suffering.

Butler suggests that “…it may be that the very way we respond to injury offers the chance we have to become human.” That is, it is in the region of the un-willed harm that we suffer that we might discover our humanity. Perhaps our humanity resides in how we resolve the moral predicament that faces us as a consequence of being injured. Perhaps in discovering the ethical capaciousness that allows us to refuse to become retributive perpetrators, we make an ethical choice that contributes to a better world.

It wasn’t uncommon for those who suffered injury or lost loved ones through the events of 9/11, and the Bali bombing, to say when interviewed that they did not wish to take revenge against the perpetrators, that the horror must stop. They wanted them brought to justice through the systems that are available, but they had no interest in retributive actions. Perhaps in making this choice they validated Butler’s theory that the experience of injury can indeed catapult one into an entirely other level of consciousness from which a new ethical capaciousness may emerge.

This isn’t to recommend trauma. It’s to observe that in our current evolution, trauma would seem to be the prime entry point into an intensified ethical consciousness, one that is desperately needed in the world, personally and politically. It seems that collectively we daily become less and less capable of acknowledging the humanity of those who are unlike us, and those we feel or fear are hurting us. We become more isolationist and insular.

Just reading the immense amount of emotional material generated by the arrival of asylum seekers in boats, for example, is enough to alarm anybody who wants ethical and moral considerations to be included in our debates. Because someone allegedly “jumps a queue” are they less human than the rest of us? It’s as if in “jumping the queue” boat arrivals have committed a grave offence against us, and our subsequent treatment of them is our retribution.

The focus of the asylum seeker debate is unsatisfactory and dominated by those who deny the boat arrivals’ humanity. The asylum seekers are reduced to a set of stereotypes that occlude their human complexity. In itself, this is morally and ethically unacceptable, yet the debate is almost entirely built on this denial, and those who want to introduce an ethical dimension are derided and mocked. When did we cease to care about the ethics of our actions?

I imagine a time when our first consideration will be the humanity of the other. People will always have to be punished for offences against others, but if we first acknowledge that we’re punishing human beings who are of equal value, then the form the punishments take will be useful and possibly redemptive.

Butler’s identification of the moral predicament we face as a consequence of being injured is like a wake up call. How can we continue to treat others so badly, in our own families and in the wider world?

“Peace must be my peace, in a relation that starts from an I and goes to the other, in desire and goodness…” writes Levinas. From this I understand that peace begins in the individual human heart and from that heart moves into the wider world. This seems to be a very slow learning process. Just when I’ve let go of one lot of uncaring impulses, another lot turn up. It’s a slog, but what else is there to do? Go out and blind everybody?

Judith Butler, Giving an Account of Oneself. The Spinoza Lectures; Precarious Life: the Powers of Mourning and Violence.

 

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