Bluffing…

Debate and public discussions, even when hosted formally, often weigh in favour of the worst representations of fact. ‘Gish Gallops’ of dubious truth demand time and careful attention to verify or refute.

Worse, for every truth, there seems to be several intuitively satisfying falsehoods – each a contender for belief without recourse to evidence. This is all grist for the mill for the Skeptics (capital ‘S’, and a ‘k’), and there’s a lot authored on the topic for the most part I’ll simply defer to.

My interest is in how ‘woo’ manages to hitch a ride on the often legitimate moral anxieties of its victims.

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Phraseology for the nervous wonk

Ever had to interview someone politically charged, controversial and intimidating? Do your pals expect you to adhere to a particular political standard? Do you wish to sit amidst controversy all while being kept safe from criticism?

Do these thoughts make you quiver with a nervous smile?

Allow me to furnish you with a few turns of phrase one can use to help defuse such anxieties.

 

Etiquette…

‘You’re obviously very intelligent…’: Translates approximately to ‘please don’t make me look like a fool, I’ll flatter you if you flatter me’. Try to under-emphasise the implicit ‘…but’, so as not to lose the desired effect. May leave a substance of a nutty flavour on your tongue, or the tip of your nose.

‘People say…’: Not to be used as a weasel-word. Do not use with anything inflammatory, or people will want to know who ‘people’ are. This is only a throw-away line used to draw attention away from the fact one was out drinking with the wonks, instead of obsessively researching their article/essay/interview/etc (see ‘fetish’ below).

‘That’s a [any logical fallacy, preferably in latin]…’: To be delivered with the utmost sarcasm when addressing those who loathe analytic philosophers, scientists, engineers, rationalists, et al. Also helpful in the company of friends when the group doesn’t want to admit they feel they’ve been ‘pwned’ in an Internet debate. A morale booster.

‘They’re tone deaf…’: Means exactly, ‘you don’t think they realise that was an in-joke? Oh shit…’

‘Everyone knows…’: Means exactly, ‘I slept in, don’t ask me…’

‘X isn’t a team player’: Translates to ‘X fact-checked my stuff after I published it’. It’s a wise tactic to deploy such a rumor when sympathising with other victims of such ‘fetishized’ behaviour. A bonding strategy.


Culture wars…

‘I have sympathy with the concerns behind the Sokal hoax, but Sokal and Bricmont should have submitted their epistemic criticisms to a peer-reviewed journal.’: All you’ll ever need to know about the Sokal Hoax. Nobody you want to meet will know any more than this.

‘They have a fetish for error checking. They don’t see the bigger picture.’: Which is polite code for, ‘Fuck! They know stuff! Don’t let them work near us! We’ll look bad.’

‘The history wars in Australia, like the science wars…’: They are the same, apparently. Otherwise, if this weren’t true, Australian academics would look a lot less cosmopolitan.

‘Culture war Group X is just like Group Y’: Translates to ‘our group is better than Culture War Group X, or Culture War Group Y, so we didn’t need to read any of their shit.’ Further justification for spending time drinking with fellow wonks.


Oz Politics…

‘Well, I’m not ideologically opposed to a mining tax…’: In using this phrase, one wants to emphasise the non-existent ‘…but’ before the point of accidentally committing to anything. No, you do support a mining tax; you’re not any kind of opposed to it. It’s just that the rabid dude with the misogynistic Juliar placard gives you an incentive to sound uneasy about what are your true convictions. It’s either that, or finding a bucket of water to help shoo the spittle-flecked rage zombie away from your car.

‘Kids are smart. They can see through stuff. I’m an atheist/secular christian/modern Muslim/etc, but why not teach creationism in public school science classes if they’re curious?’: This isn’t advocacy for creationism – don’t worry about that. It’s not like you want alchemy taking up time in chemistry classes, climate denialism eating away the hours in Earth Science, or astrology cluttering up SOSE either. The approach is a delaying tactic. It’s a conditional statement. You can always at some later point, claim that the kids aren’t curious, and that way everyone else looks more confrontational and unreasonable than you; both the people who opposed it up-front, and those making creationist demands once The Science of The Flintstones isn’t delivered.

‘I was for the ALP conscience vote over marriage equality.’: Be a person of conscience while also not comitting yourself! No anxiety there. Nobody will notice. Honest.

…relatedly…

‘We need to be bi-partisan about this.’: It may be a white-hot issue where one side is clearly, as a matter of fact, in the wrong, but never underestimate how much time bi-partisanship can save for you to catch up on lost sleep. Let the consensus builders on the ground labour over the details. You’ve got a bender to sleep off.

‘Well, I’m glad you have such an ability to read people’s minds’. Now, you’re supposed to be sarcastic about this. Your expressed concern is that you don’t like people making baseless accusations about motive. Your actual concern is that the person you’re dealing with may know something you don’t. If you passive-aggressively have at them in small cuts, and if you can get others in on the act, perhaps you can wear your opponent down before they get the chance to show how they’re more cluey than you. All of this, while you appear to be acting responsibly. Nice, huh? (Trust me, nobody will realise you’re an asshole for this).

 

Terminology…

‘Secularism’: How religious people are suppressed. To be shunned.

‘Secular Christian’: Someone causing cognitive dissonance best projected back at them.

‘Fundamentalist Christian’: A target, if you’re going to criticise religion, best suited to your ability. A replacement for Stephen Fielding needs to be established for precisely this purpose, but preferably not in a position to start fights this time around. One doesn’t want to have to deal with interested parties with inflamed emotions.

‘Muslims’: All alike. In a good way of course. Flatter them without considering what you’re actually implying by flattering them. Awkward to ask the opinions of – use the smallest possible sample of their opinions. Avoid the accurate polling of. Avoid any polling of. Just say things you guess will sound nice. Pretend to listen when they speak (they’re used to it).

‘Islamophobia’: Something nobody is ever entirely sure what anyone else means by it, yet still something not to be accused of. Play it safe by not disagreeing with anyone using the term. Nod your head when you hear it. Pretend to understand.

‘Jains’: Objects used to show how religion isn’t violent, despite such use implying that non-Jain religion is more violent. Emphasise the former, ignore the implications. Like Muslims, don’t actually ask for their opinions – just talk about them in their absence.

‘Agnostics’: Approachable, non-confrontational, respectful, open-minded atheists.

‘Atheists’: Close-minded scum. Best dismissed. Do not admit you are one (see ‘agnostic’).

‘New Atheists’: What Guy Rundle said. Never disagree with this definition.

‘Deists’: Something from history books you don’t want to read.

‘Equal time’: A media strategy to be avoided in matters of uncontroversial fact, except when you don’t want scary people calling you close-minded, and sending you dead cats in the mail.

‘Science’: To be rallied for, until someone calls you an imperialist. Then rail against.

‘Statistics’: A great way to debunk misconceptions about asylum seekers, amongst other things, up until the point where you’re accused of being ‘reductionist’. See ‘science’.

‘Reductionist’: Shit involving numbers and squiggly lines, but not feelings. See ‘science’.

‘Fetish’: When someone does something you don’t like, once, it’s annoying. Any more than once, and its a fetish – to be written off as such.

‘Left-wing’: A grouping best not defined until you want someone excommunicated.

‘Right-wing’: The grouping of people you disagree with, including disagreeable people who call themselves ‘left-wing’.

‘Libertarian’: A sin-bin for people kicked out of, or not wanting to be, in either the left or right-wing.

‘Civil libertarian’: Someone who fights for equal rights. Alternatively, a scapegoat for the Global Financial Crisis when one is intimidated by more radical wonks.

‘Free-market fundamentalist / liberal absolutist’: Normally of the far right-wing, but when convenient, a term applicable to ‘civil libertarians’, irrespective of their actual views.

‘Non-political person’: A political person, only when they can’t hear you talking about them. Someone to be humoured in-person.

‘The status quo’: Something not to be criticised in the proximity of ‘non-political persons’.

‘Foreign correspondent’: Someone having earned the right of entry to more wine bars than you.

‘Ethics’: Either the name of a nit-picking department, or a field of study it is polite to suggest people, of all persuasions, are equally good at.

‘Homophobia’: Hating, or desiring to repress gay, lesbian or bisexual people. Unless done by the right kinds of religion, or done in the name of thinking of the children.

‘Misogyny’: Something other groups do more than your own. You were only kidding.

‘Racism’: A conventional word there’s little confusion about, leaving little room for colourful interpretation, or equivocation. Avoid using when you anticipate having to defend an accusation. Instead choose something more exotic and vague so you can never be wrong, or called upon to present evidence.

‘Social Justice’: When your lecturer’s, or favourite radical columnist’s enemies, get their comeuppance. Alternatively, only when not contradicting this, when the disadvantaged get a leg-up in life.

‘Multiculturalism’: The only model ever devised to help people from different backgrounds get along. Only one version of this model exists. Somehow, somewhere, someone smarter than you must know what this one model is, and what it means, and you defer to them in all things multicultural, except when making accusations. Any attempts at the nuanced discussion of, are to be viewed with suspicion, and interpreted as categorical attacks upon. Invoke liberally in defence of your views, and the views of others agreeing with you.

‘Orientalism’: When people represent the interests, aspirations and cultures of the East, and the Middle East, without consultation with the media and/or persons of these cultures. Except when saying something patronising about them. Don’t be an ‘orientalist’; be patronising.

‘Media literacy’: Something you always have the good fortune to be at the pinnacle of. A continuum by which to judge everyone else.

‘Dog-whistling’: Something a political journalism goddess like Annabel Crabb would infer only after observing a politician long enough to couch their rhetoric in the relevant contextual details. Something you allege to conveniently dismiss people smarter than you, out of hand. Anything can be dog-whistling. ‘Some Christians like ice-cream.’ – Why that’s code for people to marginalise Christians! Egad!

‘Annabel Crabb’: The lady whose effigy sits atop your Christmas tree. *Sigh*

‘Hipster’: People other than you, who ironically believe they were listening to Daft Punk before you. Have a substantial cross-over with political wonkdom on Venn diagrams of inner-city types. Used Venn diagrams before they were popular with mathematicians, including John Venn.

‘Irony’: Anomie.

‘Sarcasm’: Any form of snark not unintentionally ‘ironic’.

‘Camp’: Kitsch.

‘Kitsch’: Camp.

 

Conclusion

Now you may have noticed this advice puts you in a position to contribute approximately zero new analysis to the political scene. Screw that. The point is that you don’t come across as a trouble maker (even if you are one). This is good for your career, and it’s your career that matters, isn’t it?

Of course, after you’ve established a niche, you may need to break from it once you’ve tapped all it has to offer, in order to go on to greener pastures. If this happens, consider that you would have by then, put yourself in a wonderful position to capitalise on a conversion narrative, decrying all of the above.

Some think-tank would want you, somewhere. It’s all good.

Relax, and don’t take things too seriously. Merry Christmas.

~ Bruce

Horrible meat…

The Age is running an article, and series of pictures, Inside Baiada, dire picture of health, safety. The pictures are of course, pretty disgusting, which you’d expect I’d say, being vegetarian.

What strikes me is people’s shock, almost as if Baiada were some exceptional case, as if poultry workers normally work in futuristic factories, all sleek, swish and white, spotless in 1080p HD. Let me tell you, while I don’t like what I’m seeing, I’m not shocked.

Ben Schneiders reports Baiada as claiming boxes labelled ‘Coles’ aren’t destined for Coles, but are instead ingredients sourced for use in production. Worrying apparently, because these boxes are in proximity to waste.

Nothing in the article however, shows that the pictured boxes were to be used in production, rather just that they were sourced for that purpose. Consider the imagery of boxes next to piled up (and bruised) chicken carcasses; I’ve seen this kind of thing, where boxes of ingredients approach their expiry date and are sorted with waste to be removed from the factory. I’ve done this work before, taking damaged chooks and boxes of frozen, aging stuffing out back to be disposed of.

News of maggots and cockroaches at the plant aren’t particularly abnormal either. Surely, you’d worry about this being in proximity to the produce end of the line, but poultry processing has an arse end as well, and flies, and cockroaches (and European wasps for that matter) will be attracted. The location of this kind of thing matters, and the photos don’t provide such context – the cockroaches for example, could be outside away from the produce, dead near a trap or bait.

Timing matters as well, and with the level of activity shown in the photos involving produce, it looks like the end of the day when processing is wound down, things are messy, and the cleaners are on their way in. Ugly, yes. Out of order, I can’t tell.

There’s nothing in The Age’s selection of photographs that suggests that food safety regulations have actually been breached (although this may still be the case). Indeed, some of the ugly photographs, like the one with the unattended pot of what looks like marinade, show no signs of anything suspicious. It may all appear shocking (and it should), if you’ve never been inside a poultry factory, but that doesn’t make the produce illegally unsanitary.

No, I’m not alleging deception by the photographers, but rather an unintentionally skewed, middle-class interpretation by the reporter (and likely by most readers). The original photographers may very well have had different inferences in mind; being poultry workers, their perspectives on the matter aren’t likely to be exactly the same as that of white-collar journalists.

No, this is not an apologia for the industry (being normal doesn’t make something right). If I could wave a magic wand and turn Baiada’s plants into vegetarian operations in an instant, I’d do it. What I’m saying is that people need to get their heads around the idea that the poultry industry, and indeed any meat processing industry, is at best, so very, very ugly behind the scenes.

The photos attest to a horrid work environment, but they don’t show how bad things could be, or how bad they often are. The reader is possibly led to underestimate through the inference that any of this is exceptional.

During my stint at Joe’s back in the 1990s, there were instances of my cleaning things up considerably uglier than anything in The Age’s photographic selection (or the embedded video), and this was in compliance with regulation. Heck, I’ve had AQIS inspectors watch me while I’ve been at it – with a tick of approval!

This is the industrial reality of what meat eaters put into their stomachs. This is the industrial reality of what poultry workers put up with.

As for worker safety, the stacking of boxes, the obstruction of exits and the like – none of this surprises me. Nor does the decapitation currently under investigation. While there weren’t any violent deaths at Joe’s while I was there, there was a near-miss just after I left – a fellow falling into a rotary chilling drum that had the safety cover removed, to be crushed between the inner and outer drums, breaking ribs and his collar-bone.

If I read as a little jaded, or a little numb, consider this the result of having been a poultry worker.

None of this is to pre-judge occupational health and safety investigations. Without qualification, I want Baiada workers to have justice and security. None of this is to claim that Baiada hasn’t done anything wrong, legally, with regards to worker safety. I simply make no claims about likely legal outcomes.

None of what I’m writing is to belittle the experience of Baiada employees. Again, what I’m saying is, is that if you’re shocked into thinking this is particularly abnormal based on what you’ve seen so far, then you’re underestimating how harsh the industry actually is, and just how rough Baiada workers must have it, even in a best-case scenario.

Really, you, and Schneiders, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

There is a lot that can still be done justice-wise, even without monolithic reform, and this involves people waking up about just how ugly the industry is, even when ‘ideal’ and legal.

~ Bruce

(I do think it’s pragmatic, and realistic, to consider what a future industry would look like for workers if they were producing vegetarian alternatives; chickens and cows have arseholes, textured vegetable proteins don’t. Even if you aren’t a vegetarian, which workplace would you rather work in? Which kind of workplace would you be more comfortable having people work in to produce your meals?)

HT: Rod and Neil.

Baiada…

I may be a vegetarian these days, but that not withstanding, I’d rather not see Baiada get their way in the current industrial dispute with poultry workers at Laverton. Maybe one day, Baiada will be growing drumsticks from petri dishes, or making faux-chicken nuggets like Fry’s, but until then, the difference doesn’t negate the industrial relations concerns. And I’m concerned…

Whatever the job, workers deserve fair pay and conditions.

I’ve mentioned before that back in the 1990s, amongst other things, I worked in a non-union chicken factory, staffed almost entirely by casual workers.  What I wouldn’t have given for a campaign like the one Laverton’s workers are waging.

I could be wrong about the working conditions at Baiada, and it’s not my intent to minimise the specifics of the exertion I know they must strive through, but I suspect Joe’s Poultry may just have been a little worse*. That being said, with the reality of the cited threats to the Laverton workers, if things aren’t as bad, then it seems likely the situation could easily become so, if not worse. The implications of my own experiences ringing true are at least grounds for solidarity, and even in a best-case scenario for Baiada workers, still cautionary.

Mark Phillips cites ACTU President Ged Kearney stating the concerns plainly; casual labour, exploitative labour hire and health and safety. Poultry processing, as Kearney points out, is dangerous and unpleasant work. I’m thinking that as a result of necessity, Kearney’s terms are still a little abstract and boilerplate for many readers, so I’ll try to flesh out what these terms mean to me, as a former poultry worker, in the hope that it’s somehow helpful.

It seems a normal, and uncritically accepted work ethic, that casual labour isn’t a problem if only you’re a good worker (perhaps a product of fundamental attribution error related to that other myth, that if 100,000 unemployed people wanted work badly enough, they could all magically be employed in the 20,000 jobs available). This doesn’t ring true to me at all.

Your work life may not be as vulnerable, or if it is, it may be so fortunate as to avoid incident. Or maybe, like most humans, incidents do effect you, you can see them happening, and yet you overlook that shit happens to other people as well. This is understandably human, but it still presents an attitudinal problem needing to be dealt with.

I’ve known quite a number of good, hard, very hard workers on casual contracts, and I’ve seen them worn down thanks just to the combination of shit happening, and casual contracts leaving them vulnerable. (That this happens is hardly unique to my experience). For example…

‘Hey, don’t worry. If you don’t report this to Workcover, we’ll look after you!’

I’ve seen this consolation given to more than one hard worker on a casual contract. And if you’re feeling a little gullible, perhaps you’ll believe this is all legit, and that such good will from employers is the logical outcome of a strong work ethic by casuals.

Without exception, when I’ve seen this consolation offered to casual workers in poultry processing, the result has been that in coming back to work, and not getting back up to speed quickly enough, they’re dumped. Not fired, I might add, just told not to come in anymore – employed, but with zero hours a week (causing wonderful issues with Centrelink who want to see separation papers).

Casual contracts make this, and exploitations like it, incredibly easy.

The salt in the wound is that often, the injury slowing them down in the first place could have been avoided by occupational health and safety being properly observed by the employer – instead of for example, there being situations like safety guards being removed to speed up work, with the acceptance of supervisors themselves under pressure to perform.

When I was first interviewed for my job at Joe’s, I was told they chose to go with casual contracts despite the slightly higher hourly rate, because it worked out to be ‘convenient’ for them. Yeah, no shit. Cutting corners (and fingers) more than paid for the difference, I’m sure.

And of course, being in a non-union workplace makes this exploitation even easier.

As for labour hire, good grief. I was an underpaid lumpenprole back in the day, but wasn’t I surprised when I found out that the labour hire workers were getting paid less than me. At least, that’s after the labour hire joint got their cut. Only if a labour hire employee stayed around long enough, would they get their full pay.

Rhetorical question: Do you think labour hire employees lasted long enough to get their proper pay?

The upshot of this, for Joe’s at least, was that they got to outsource the expense of their personnel operations. As long as the labour hire company provided enough workers to replace the (incredibly high) turnover, who needed to care about a little exploitation, right? What a ‘convenient’ arrangement.

Then we come to health and safety (again)…

It’s bad enough that the job is as dangerous as it is without bad policy. Even in a far more ideal industrial relations situation, digits will still be severed, particulate matter from feathers will still be inhaled, workers at the start of the hanging line will still get covered in shit, cleaners will still be exposed to infectious materials and dangerous chemicals, and whatever the causes turn out to be, poultry workers are, and will continue to be, at greater risk of various cancers.

Oh, and don’t forget the stress of the job, coupled with the stress of being seen as a lowly poultry worker. (If you think the poultry work ethic sells well across the board, try ‘process worker’ on with white-collar employers looking for low-level office staff**).

Again, I’m not sure exactly how poorly Baiada employees have it, but they surely don’t deserve things any harder than they’re likely to be experiencing now, even in a best-case estimation. And personally, I really do not want them to endure as much hardship as workers at Joe’s Poultry had to put up with.

I think people need to sympathise more with poultry workers and workers like them, if not for sympathy’s sake in its own right, then because these conflicts are a picture of what more Australian’s lives may be more likely to become.

You may look down on poultry workers now, or dismiss their concerns as outside your interest, but what about when you become one?

With a shrinking middle class, and workplace ‘reform’ across the board, many Australians are the next potential chook on the line. A little forward thinking, if only out of enlightened self-interest, wouldn’t hurt.

If you want to voice a little solidarity with the workers at Baiada, you can sign a petition in support here.  (And please ‘re-tweet’, or ‘like’, on the appropriate social networks).

If you find yourself in much the same situation as Baiada’s employees, you can contact the National Union of Workers here, or The Missos here, who in turn, if they don’t cover your workplace, can hook you up with the right union.

~ Bruce

* Some or all of this may be mitigated against; my experience being prior to most of Peter Reith’s waves of industrial relations reforms back in the day, and obviously prior to more recent setbacks to worker’s rights.

** And no, being highly computer literate, and a fast typist able to slaughter data entry, word processing and database certificates in a swipe, will not help. Being a lumpenprole able to do these things will just get you stared at like Charlton Heston in Planet of the Apes. Forget upward mobility you lowly human.

Depressing and wonderful at the same time…

I’ve been a (not entirely bleeding edge) user of social media for some time now, particularly taking an interest in what Australian political/media wonks of a generally left inclination have had to say about this, that and whatever. I’ve been lurking, mostly, satisfied to let other people do the speaking, despite finding a few incidents, and a few individuals, repugnant.

Anyone who’s familiar with my writing, I think will find that I’m one to extend the benefit of the doubt, taking accusations and the like seriously. Serious claims needing serious evidence, not just in the courts, but in discussion in general.

As you can imagine, there are a lot of incidents over the past six years of this escapade where I’ve given the benefit of the doubt. At not insignificant risk of being mistaken as naive, I might add.

(It’s funny in these instances, when people think they’re humoring you).

In most cases, I think I’ve been vindicated. Not in a ‘guilt has yet to be established’ kind of way, but rather in that in many cases, best expectations have been exceeded.

In particular (I’ll name names on this side of the ledger) I think Rod McGuinness, Dave Gaukroger and a handful of others, come across as being better than I’d ever given them credit for at first glances. Not that I ever thought they were slouches to begin with.

This is the wonderful upside. I’m glad these people are alive and sharing their minds with us.

I’ve had reason to reflect a little (actually a lot) of late, especially after a brief online conversation with Tammi Jonas. I’ve been scratching my beardless chin in rumination about what it is to be genuinely left, as opposed to being someone who merely identifies uncritically with concerns seen to be left, as if these were accessories to be worn like a scarf. Moreover, I’ve been thinking about how this can actually constitute a kind of right-wingedness, when superficially espoused leftishness is a means to a purely self-interested end (career, attention-seeking and so on).

(You can imagine what I think of so-called progressives who peddle the Othering of bogans).

There is a downside to all of this of course. I’m rummaging through the sum of my experiences over a long period of time, in a way I’d usually parse in an ad hoc fashion.

The downside is that while some people seem better, more genuine upon reflection, others…

I’ve defended some of these others, on occasion, and on the merits of these defences, I can’t say that I regret doing so. I can’t say in any honesty though, that everyone I’ve interacted with online, or who’ve I’ve been watching, specifically those who outwardly demonstrate typically left leanings, fare very well against a charge of fake leftishness.

And this is assuming a pretty broad definition of left – I’m not assuming that people have to be a politically radical Marxist to be genuinely left, rather just committed to increasing the lot of the down-and-out. Even then, I’m finding myself losing respect for people on account of not being what they claim to be.

I’m occasionally seeing what I once passed off as human error, as more significant that I’d admitted. I’m finding that I’ve been too fair in the past with people I’ve associated with. I’m finding that I may have been inconsistent.

(The fear is that this is a tribal thing, which would make me somewhat of a hypocrite, because I don’t like political tribalism).

I’m finding I can’t agree to disagree on a lot where I have in the past. While there are many things with many answers and solutions, granting ample space for people to reasonably disagree, some things just can’t be right, by definition.

At worst, it’s when one of these supposed lefties have expected some kind of deference, or peer-status, or recognition, when they are obviously wrong, and when it’s obvious they haven’t done the legwork of someone who genuinely cares. I’m finding good reason, upon reflection, to really not like some people.

So I’m glad for the upside, of course!

~ Bruce

Book Review: The Australian Book of Atheism

The Australian Book of Atheism, edited by Warren Bonett.

Publisher: Scribe.

The answer isn’t self-evident; ‘what need is there for a book on atheism with a distinct Australian perspective?’

With this question in mind I made my purchase via the editor’s bookstore, Embiggen Books. Not because I was sure of an answer, but precisely because I wasn’t, the purchase was mandated.

With the various Otherings; the specter of the ‘New Atheist’ monolith; the fearful Easter sermons and the often boilerplate News Limited response, there’s clearly utility in compiling an anthology of varied atheist views, even down under in laid-back Australia.

But why Australian atheists? Being Australian doesn’t make you any more or less of an atheist, and vice versa.

***

Some way from the introduction, nestled away at the end of the discussion on politics, the editor makes his case proper; the inappropriateness of Australia’s apathy toward religion – particularly where sectarian interests are embrangled with tolerant secular politics – is what demands the expression of particularly Australian, godless perspectives.

But Australians are laid-back about these things, automatically providing us with tolerant, secular pluralism, right? Atheists elsewhere in the world look to Australia with envy!

If The Australian Book of Atheism has anything to teach you about this, the answer is ‘no’: Taking it easy, and taking ‘taking it easy’ for granted as far as religion is concerned, can permit if not precipitate sectarian politics.

Bonnet rightly highlights the absurdities opined by apologists like Prof. Tom Frame and Paul Kelly, who hysterically re-cast criticism made in good faith and fair humour, as catalysts for the erosion of religious rights and an eventual decline into secular moral nihilism, and even the bogey man of social Darwinism. This is truly Glenn Beck territory, yet a book from an atheist perspective pointing out how wrong it is to see this paranoia running mainstream, risks being marginal.

Anyone who pays serious attention to human rights will know that the affinity for outlawing blasphemy usually finds expression in the repressive treatment of minorities, often accompanied by a self-pitying assumption of victim status by the majority. The latter attitude, majoritarian self-pity, which Bonett identifies in Frame and Kelly and justly describes as the ‘endangered species fallacy’, is again, Glenn Beck territory. While the degree of this repression may not be as much in the developed world as elsewhere, particularly not Australia, Bonett’s book still manages to position itself on high moral ground against popular moral panic.

Many examples given elsewhere in the book are less abstract and are all the more confronting because of it.

While you may debate the emphasis, and question some of the facts given by Max Wallace, and similarly the interpretation of points of contention raised by Clarence Wright, early in the reading you’re palpably confronted with historical and social truths that must shake secular apathy to the core. Thanks to Wright, I’ll never look at S116 of the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution the same way again, nor take for granted its (flawed) capacity to grant rights equally. (Nor for that matter, the long grasp of Thomas Aquinas).

Of course, none of these facts occur in a contextual vacuum.

The role of religious apathy, and affirmative irreligion in shaping Australian history (not just the roles in our history that happen to have been filled by the godless) has been overlooked, according to Chrys Stevenson.

This shouldn’t be a surprise. Historically, serious academically-minded Australian religiosity has woven its way through much of the middle class; the section of society that’s penned much of the nation’s history. Rather than being a peccadillo of well-off naturalists as it’s often portrayed, Australian atheism has, according to Stevenson, a rich working-class tradition. Perhaps this could be why it doesn’t see due representation in the narrative.

Identifying more strongly on the grounds of class than religion, I like to think that all else being equal, I have more in common with working class Christians than, middle-class atheists. I find Stevenson’s contribution, and her call to further investigation, an invitation to have this self-identification refined, if not challenged.

Commendably, and giving hope for the future of her project, there doesn’t seem a hint of fudging for the sake of apologia, rather the opposite. The particular ugliness of much of Henry Rusden’s thought (specifically his actual social Darwinism), is brought to the fore as an example of the dark side of Australian atheist history. I wouldn’t want it any other way.

***

Tanya Levin and Hon. Lee Rhiannon would dominate the autobiographical entries, if not for the powerful way in which the powerful experiences of Dr Collette Livermore are communicated; the story of someone coming to terms with life after leaving the faith, and Mother Teresa’s order. No disrespect to Robyn Williams, David Horton or the always entertaining Tim Minchin (all well worth a read), but the competition in the personal accounts is just that good.

Indeed, the women find almost equal representation in this book, which is an improvement over many, many texts, and they certainly hold their own in the quality of their writing and argument; an appreciation of which is really mandated of the reader.

Education gets a good looking-over, with Hugh Wilson of the Australian Secular Lobby exposing the state of affairs in Queensland’s not-at-all-secular public education system. Moving along, Prof. Graham Oppy’s take on ‘Evolution vs Creationism’ in Australian Schools is a bit heavy on respect for Ian Plimer for my tastes, although yes, Plimer could amongst other things be called the ‘most spectacular opponent of creationism in Australia’ [emphasis mine].

This criticism not withstanding, Oppy’s contribution is illuminating even if you’re already relatively well-informed on the various attempts to squeeze creationism into Australian schools. Furthermore, Prof. Oppy’s analysis demonstrates true erudition on the politics of the matter as concerning the Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA), which is refreshing and much-needed given some of the recent moral panic surrounding the authority.

Kylie Sturgess writes of her experience as an atheist employee of a religious school; the dodging of awkward, tangential points because you’ve got other things you should be focusing on; the apathy about difference that kicks in when you just need a break; the anxiety that perhaps differences if unexamined will get in the way of what you’re supposed to be doing, and the hope that the force behind the lack of conflict will effectively put an end to the issue of difference.

To me, this is familiar territory because it also describes experiences I’ve had as an atheist volunteer in religious not-for-profit organisations. Yet the author expresses these difficult concerns with such clarity, I suspect most readers won’t need similar experiences to take something away her contribution.

Australian pluralism does rely largely on the logic of the law, but reform, better interpretation and application, all require insights into political realities as well. The kinds of experiences Sturgess illustrates are I think a necessary part of any serious consideration, both when generalised and in specific settings such as education. Often the perspectives of ‘the Other on the inside’ are overlooked by simple way of organisational reality, which makes a book that publishes them all the more important.

***

Topics progress to matters social, political and philosophical, which the general reader may find more familiar.

Dr Leslie Cannold is as anyone familiar with her writing would expect, educational on the matter of abortion in Australia, and the role of religion in shaping discussion of the topic and realisation of its politics.

Dr Philip Nitschke’s ‘Atheism and Euthanasia’ is a must read for anyone seriously supporting the right to die peacefully, Australian or not, atheist or not.

Rosslyn Ives continues the contemplation of living and dying, in a way that will be familiar to anyone who’s spent any significant amount of time looking after the disabled (Ives is a carer, in addition to being the President of the Council of Australian Humanist Societies). Her treatment of the philosophy of Peter Singer is informed and accurate, and given the context of the disabled (Ives is a carer), this is especially important; Singer’s views as they pertain to care for the disabled in particular have been routinely misrepresented by both religious and allied reactionaries.

The detail of Ives’ perspective fleshes out humane concerns for quality of life shared by many good Australians, but in ways seemingly not apt to reduction by pundits to cheap allusion. I think in this respect Ives may perform better as a spokesperson for quality of life than even Singer or Nitschke.

Dr Russell Blackford, in ‘Atheists for Free Speech’, convincingly and with an unflinchingly rational approach, deals with freedom of expression in Australia as it pertains to religious matters. This is undertaken with a welcome degree of sobriety that seems all-too-often absent from such public discussions; firm but fair, and sane.

Too often these matters are caught between hyperbolic, knee-jerk, credulous accusations of hate crime on one side, while on the other, syphilitic rhetoric is imported from foreign culture wars to frame the Australian situation as being as dire as it is in a supposedly sub-caliphate Europe. You’ll get none of this paranoia from Dr Blackford.

***

If there’s anything about the book that I can seriously object to, it’s that the implications of its perspective aren’t drawn out in sufficient detail in matters concerning Aboriginal Australia. An area of concern so substantial that any book with a broad Australian focus will be at odds to explain an absence of consideration.

According to stated and implied principles, what happens to land rights if they are challenged on the grounds of scepticism to Aboriginal religion? Does the rejection of Terra nullius as a legal fiction override this, with at least the establishment of a treaty required to grant standing to the sceptic or any other claimants?

Should, and how would, a separation between church and state coincide with a divide between Commonwealth and native title?

How would these matters have panned out in cases such as the Hindmarsh Island bridge dispute if said principles were applied?

What would a liberal, secular, Enlightenment-based treaty look like from an atheistic perspective?

According to principle, what is to be said about Christian imperialism and Enlightenment free-thought as they pertain historically to the treatment of Aboriginal Australians?

How does a non-indigenous atheist go about putting their secular hand forward in the spirit of reconciliation, with those who aren’t necessarily in all instances secular? What does a non-indigenous atheist do when such motions aren’t welcomed by the other party?

And what do Aboriginal atheists have to say about any of this (and more)?

The Australian Book of Atheism is a first-run of a new perspective, and it can be forgiven a lot for this reason. But even when not damning (I don’t think in this case that it is), recognition of the relative omission of the way this perspective views black politics warrants mention for the sake of future projects in the same vein.

***

The tone of the book is laid-back in a way one would expect of authors from a nation laid-back about religion, but the arguments and the concerns are anything but. The mode then is calm and seriously considered – an abundance of critique leveled with a quiet confidence that will have certain readers clutching at pearls. I suspect though, that its reception by the rest of us will be sober, as is fitting.

I’m left leaving Bonett’s book with a sense of its Australian qualities, but also with the realisation that it’s a first dip of the toes into new water. It gives a good kick in the complacency; a call for Australians with tolerant, secular values to wake and stop blithely assuming they know their country so well as to be so unconcerned.

It’s an excellent if not un-flawed starting point for a new discussion of an aspect of Australian identity and politics; a return to, and a clarification of, past issues unresolved that will be familiar to jaded political wonks and cultural critics alike. The Australian Book of Atheism justifies its perspective and its reason-to-be, all while heralding further debate.

I hope to see more books published along these lines.

Rating: 4/5

~ Bruce

(Photo Source: Warren Bonett).

Respect and how not to swing it

I’ve had quite a lot of email in response to the recent post I wrote about not being attracted to the ‘sceptic movement’. A ‘lot’ by the piddly standards of this piddly little blog, at any rate.

None of it is hate mail mind you, and there’s no hint of yet another groan-inducing flame war brewing in this quarter of the blogosphere. I take it as an in-road to meaningful discussion.

There does however seem to be an over-arching kind of confusion, one that ties into something else I’ve been subjectively observing of late; the creeping erosion of the concept of ‘respect’.

Before you go all Professor Crystal on me, and propound the reality of the changing nature of language; I already accept that as fact. This does not detract from my concern.

It’s not that ‘respect’ is changing, and that as some kind of conservative I’m digging my heels in and huffing, ‘it’s gone too far!’ Change per se, does not bother me. I’m not a conservative. There’s no nostalgia for old values here.

But…

There is a risk I think, in the careless use of the appearance of respect for short-term gain.

The risk not being that the term ‘respect’ is changing from denoting one kind of respect, to some newer, progressive, more articulate re-valuing of respect, so much as a change from denoting an important concept, to denoting little if anything other than cliché.

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