Tuesday, 25 December 2018

"Culture wars" are lazy politics

As far as the moral norms of both major parties in Australian politics goes, they're both middle of the road. Sure, there's the occasional far right winger in the Liberal Party that rallies against the prevailing norm, but politicians tend to know which way the moral winds are blowing and pander to it. Labor isn't a very progressive party in that respect, much to the chagrin of progressive voters, as they need to keep a broad appeal.

So when our Prime Minister says a vote for Labor is a vote for "extreme gender policies", he's lying. And such a comment works for the very reason you won't see Labor supporting anything resembling an "extreme gender policy" - because Labor needs to keep a broad appeal. It's the same reason why Labor opposed gay marriage when there wasn't much public support, then advocated for it when there was.

Which brings me to my point: this sort of rhetoric really brings down democratic discourse. That instead of debating the issues that tend to divide the left and right, we're instead fixating on a virtually non-existent issue that has little relevance to the direction of the country for the next 3 years.

It's lazy politics because of how easy it is up get people riled up over it despite how little relevance it has. The 8 people who take any mention of gender to mean it's denying their right to exist (it doesn't - no party has an "execution of intersex and transgender people" platform), and the True Believers who think that gender was defined the moment God fashioned a penis from dirt and a vagina from a rib, are going to make noise that exacerbates a non-issue into the public consciousness.

There's plenty of issues separating the major parties; issues that are relevant to the functioning of government and ought to decide the election. There are meaningful differences in funding public education and healthcare, differences in workplace laws and taxation, differences in environmental policy, etc. And even in issues where the major parties don't differ much (immigration, national security, food security, trade, indigenous issues, etc.) there's plenty of issues that ought to be debated publicly. But "culture wars" issues are playing into conspiracy theories on the fringes of politics and pretending they are relevant or a defining point of difference. It's cheap point scoring over nothing.

Saturday, 17 November 2018

We are all partisan hacks now

When I was younger, I thought the internet would improve political discourse, as it would take away the stranglehold of the mainstream media. Information wouldn't be filtered through a few agenda-laden voices, but there would be more of a focus on facts.

It's fair to say that I was extremely naive, and spectacularly wrong. Instead, as we all have come to learn, the internet has exacerbated the polemic nature in us and pushed us into even more tribal positions to the point we don't even feel the need to engage in substantive rhetoric.

But the problem is worse than that. We can now see others as mere mouthpieces of certain political rhetoric. In other words, they are biased, and all we need to do is point out how they are biased in order to dismiss them.

I've seen right wingers use the accusation of being left wing against fellow right wingers, and left wingers do the same against left wingers. The accusation is often confusing because those criticisms are often valid, but their use is disappointing because it shows how lazy we've become in our political rhetoric. We don't feel the need to address the substance, but immediately and indiscriminately try to cast the criticisms as extensions of a political identity we don't share.

It doesn't matter why we hold the positions we do. It doesn't matter about the underlying substance. It doesn't even matter where we actually sit on the political spectrum. When we are online, we are avatars of whatever politician / pundit / celebrity and need to be attacked as such.

Let's face it, we don't know nor need to know anything anymore. We don't need to have informed opinions, or be able to think through an issue. What matters is which side of politics closest resembles the view being put forward, and we need to remind ourselves that we are mere puppets of those views with no values or beliefs of our own.

Friday, 2 November 2018

Try putting politics you disagree with in terms of positive values

If you can't articulate a positive account of a given political belief in terms of positive values, you haven't understood that belief.

With the erosion of political discourse online, it's often hard to get away from the partisan rhetoric and inevitable strawmanning. We have our own political narratives for our own beliefs, bolstered by a community of like-minded individuals, yet we are isolating ourselves from other groups who respond to different values and narratives.

The more I saw this rhetoric online, the less I could figure out who it's for. It seems more about fostering in-group solidarity than an attempt to win in a democracy. And in a democracy, persuasion is the path to adoption.

Gross caricatures are not at all persuasive to those who are caricatured, and may only be effective on the neutral if it can capture an actionable value. More specifically, if you don't capture the correct values that are in play, you are showing yourself as an unreliable critic. You are a partisan hack repeating your tribe's talking points instead of offering a penetrating criticism.

Beliefs are rooted in values, and one reason why anyone claiming to be the moral majority or the 99% is greatly overestimating how widespread their particular values are. Yet both the moral majority movement and the Occupy Wall Street movement had values they believed in and believed were worth fighting for. To address either is to address those underlying values, however divergent they are from your own.

If you cannot see the focus on family, on love, on valuing social order, on the important of doing right morally, then the moral majority seems like a bible-thumping persecution-happy hate group. Similarly, if you can't see the commitment to justice, to rooting out corruption and greed, to caring for the basic welfare of people, then OWS seems like a bunch of self-righteous anti-capitalists who know nothing of how the world works demanding a socialist revolution.

People tend to centre their politics around beliefs that matter to them, so trying to demand a political discourse that ignores that is a disaster in a democracy. It's hard to break out of our own narratives and tribal allegiances, but doing so is how political discourse can (at least partly) transcend partisan talking points because it gets to the heart of what matters to a voter. Talking about their moral failings that you perceive in their beliefs is going to be ineffective at best, and often even counterproductive.

Thursday, 1 November 2018

Welfare as a stick for conservatives

Money is a necessity in society. It's our agreed upon standard for facilitating most transactions. This fact alone justifies the need for welfare, because without it people cannot function in our society.

Its necessity doesn't mean it's well catered for, however, with crackdowns frequent and even modest increases being politically untenable on either side of politics. I used to think that it was because they're an easy target - a group that can be demonised who have little recourse to fight back - but I think that explanation excludes the basic moral impulses in play. Rather the unfairness of getting something for nothing makes them an easy target.

In short, there is a tension between the necessity of welfare and the perceived unfairness of a welfare state.

People can, if they choose to, live their whole life without needing to work, which requires that others in the society do the so-called heavy lifting. The welfare rhetoric often focuses on abuse of the system for this reason, even if those abuses are rare and end up affecting those who aren't abusing the system.

This is why programs to restrict welfare to the deserving are part of populist politics, irrespective of whether it provides good societal outcomes. Drug testing welfare recipients is one policy that's expensive, counter-productive, yet gets popular support. After all, drugs are illegal, and welfare is meant to look after individuals. Cards that restrict purchases or even food stamps are another. They are the tacit recognition that welfare is necessary but that out shouldn't go beyond that.

The current contention over welfare in Australia currently is that the rate is so low that it's not even performing its necessary function. Again, for conservatives, this is a good thing because it means welfare shouldn't be relied upon, so it should only be used as a last resort. Combine this with the complaint that welfare recipients find ways to get on higher payments (such as disability pensions, which again get repeated crackdowns) or that they are supplementing their income without declaring (see: robodebt) and we've got a punitive system that makes it harder for those on welfare to survive.

Yet all these measures don't address some of the problems associated with unemployment. People in vulnerable jobs can be exploited. Long-term unemployed have weakened job prospects. There can never be full employment, and many who work now are underemployed. No amount of sticks within the welfare system are going to change that.

Instead, what is needed are practical steps to overcoming barriers for entry. There needs to be better support to get people into work, from better training, to employer incentives. These should be driven by practical results.

At the same time, we really need to change how we view welfare from a handout to the ability to participate in society. This would be more in line with the role welfare plays in a society, allowing for economic activity. Money given to welfare tends to go back into the economy, so the money isn't being lost, but encouraging economic engagement.

So when the the rate jobseekers get remains stagnant while the cost of living goes up, the outcome will be pushing more people into deeper poverty. The stick methods may be a deterrent effect for people in crappy jobs not to quit and live off welfare, but it's not going to get many people off welfare without other changes that make it easier to work. The necessary function of welfare needs to be depoliticised because of how easy it is to perceive it as a straightforward unfairness problem.

Thursday, 11 October 2018

Morality is sanctioned discrimination

With the question of religious freedom once again popping up, we get reminded that what people most want is the ability to discriminate against others.
In this case, religious schools want to be be exempt from anti-discrimination legislation in order to keep the school's environment within their set moral boundaries.
Similarly sitting the "I can't believe it's not a plebiscite" postal survey on gay marriage, a woman was fired for her "immoral" posting on Facebook against the proposition.
Or take the case of Louis C.K. His career definitely took a hit from the emergence of his masturbatory habits, but him performing again at all has some #MeToo advocates outraged. His punishment is deemed insufficient in that he's gone forever.
And even safe zones around abortion clinics draw this same ire as it prevents the moral crusaders from directly confronting the sinners using the service.
I could go all day with examples, and those examples would be from all across the political spectrum. But the point with the examples is to illustrate how morality is targeted at individuals and groups seen to break it.

Tolerance under "normal" conditions

A pluralistic society survives by allowing a personal moral compass - at least to the extent that is allowable by law. Our society can accommodate both those who choose to hunt animals and those who think it's immoral to do so. Each may teeth to convince the other of its validity, but there's no need to solve the problem via societal enforcement.
That's not to say there's no tension or coercion. Moral issues ignite our passions, after all, and invoke strong outrage. Impassioned pleas and organised protests are a healthy part of democracy.
Arguments are made in the public sphere in a variety of ways, and over time values can and do change. A majority of people in Australia choose to vote for gay marriage despite a majority seeing homosexuality as immoral less than a generation ago.
The key factor to my mind is tolerance - that we have learnt that our personal convictions most of the time are not necessarily what others hold it even ought to hold. This is not the same as relativism, though may be described as a pragmatic relativism. Christians and Muslims have truth as they see it, and they are allowed to practice those truths, insofar as they don't affect our ability to do the same. Likewise for vegans and hunters, capitalists and communists, etc.
We can argue passionately for our against these positions without the need to dictate how anyone lives within these bounds. This holds even when we vehemently disagree.

Localised sanctioned discrimination

The pluralism generally succeeds when the moral impulses are confined to limited areas where they are sanctioned. A church is a straight-forward example of this, as is a group of vegans. The organising principles of the group allow the group to police the behaviours of their own members irrespective of what those in the wider society believe.
When these sanctions aren't reflected in the wider society, there is a tension whenever these individuals deal with outsiders. The boundary of where discrimination is sanctioned can see seen where public services are provided, such as in businesses, or in schools.
When local groups create a bubble of like-minded individuals, the wider community can be seen as downright immoral for failing to grasp those moral truths. This raises the legitimate concern that outsiders are dehumanised, and that there is the threat of exertion of power. One strategy is playing the political game (and why abortion is a perennial issue), but others include shaming, ostracism, and even taking the law into their own hands.
The ideological bindings of the group shape the individual. There are few true lone wolves, but those who attack abortion clinic doctors, homosexuals, GM crops, politicians, civilian populations, etc. all share a common morality with a local group that holds them as moral and the outside society as dangerously immoral in need of rectification.

The rule of law as a proxy to justice

Law is the ultimate standard in any given society. While psychologically we may feel morality transcends law (we are all familiar with the notion of an unjust law), we know that the law is the arbiter of disputes.
Movements like #MeToo exist because of the failure of law to sufficiently address systemic problems. Conversely laws like anti-discrimination legislation exist because of a need to address systemic injustice in a society.
The law needs to be seen by enough of the population as being fair. Not perfect - no set of rules can be perfect, let alone satisfy the myriad of different moral beliefs - but good enough that major problems will be addressed so that we don't need to settle them ourselves. If enough see the law as insufficient or capricious, we get mob justice. And while mob justice might be satisfying when it comes to your beliefs (e.g. taking down serial sex offenders), it can be an outrage when it goes the other way (e.g. gay bashing).
The reason we have due process, innocent until proven guilty, tolerance, etc. is that the other way has been tried and it leads to more barbaric societies. It's not always satisfying to think that some can get away with immoral behaviour, but the alternative is far worse.

Monday, 1 October 2018

Happy Labour Day!

It's always good to have a day off work, and public holidays are a great way to enshrine the balance between life and work into law. Labour Day is unique along public holidays in that it celebrates this victory for the rights of workers.

Yet it's another day off.

We don't really celebrate labour day here, not in the sense that we celebrate Anzac Day or Christmas. There's no reminder of what importance the day has, nor what it was like before for workers.

Yet it's another day off.

What was fought for and won by the labour movement is more important than ever at a time when wages are stagnant and working conditions are gradually being eroded in the name of efficiency (i.e. shareholder profits). We have a proven way to give better working conditions and help share the success of the economy among the people.

Unions should be using this as an opportunity to show their relevance, especially at a time when they are only ever in the media when there's corruption or strikes. Without collective bargaining, the forces of supply and demand fix wages. Unskilled or low-skilled work is vulnerable to tougher conditions, lower pay, and exploitation.

Yet it's another day off.

We need more attention given to why it is we have this day off because without that attention there's too much power for those who can gradually erode the gains made by the labour movement. We are seeing the effects of that already, and as technology and globalisation continue to push forward, we will see greater effects.

It's no wonder MAGA was a thing, or Brexit was a thing, or that far-right national parties around the world are taking more and more of the protest vote of vulnerable workers feeling betrayed and marginalised by a political system that seems to serve the wealthy. It's no wonder many young people see communism as a solution despite every implementation of communism being a dismal failure that made workers worse off than a market-driven economy.

Yet it's another day off.

Every company wants to maximise its profits, and that means trying to get the most out of the workers for the least amount of money. The human capital - our wellbeing and our lives above and beyond work - doesn't factor into it. That's our responsibility, and we can only get that as a greater society reflecting on itself.

Labour Day is important because it's a reminder of how everyone can be made better off by collective action, and that we as a society ought to be having the conversation of how we want to live. It's a reminder that conditions can improve and that we aren't fully beholden to the relentless pursuit of profit.

It's another day off, and that's worth celebrating.