Democracy, Freedom and Swearing

After a lifetime of being privileged enough to indulge myself in education I receive a lot of begging letters from tertiary educations.

Recently I was asked by my first alma mater to contribute to a scholarship to promote a course promulgating “Human Rights and Democratisation”. Fairly appalled at the way it was assumed that these two concepts come packaged as intrinsically twinned, rather than as sometime interrelated, I put pen to paper expressing my concerns, but softened my outspoken negativity by enclosing a small donation. After all I do think the rights of all humans is a very important issue to which students should be exposed in many university courses. I am less certain, at the moment, about our democratic form or whether democracy as we know it is an exportable concept.

Much to my dismay I discovered that universities these days must be so tightly specialised that they employ numerate people to collect donations, not those with reading skills. The form “thank you” letter appreciated my support without even include a brief post script acknowledging that I had expressed major concerns.

But such is the way that we are sold democracy. Rarely (probably mostly by historians) are the conditions under which democracies have risen been considered, particularly the limitation to educated classes in the time of Socrates, to the nobility at first in the UK and, in more recent times, the strong link with free enterprise, party politics and (different types of) representative government in the western world. That democracy was originally concerned with freedoms and human rights is correct but whose freedoms? And one must look at which rights, in which country and against what particular conditions each struggle took place.

Looking at legitimate, democratically reached budget proposals in Australia, we see that democracy does not imply any sort of equality of human rights if this equality is not required by the majority of the voting public. Further, ICAC illustrates the means people will go to illegally to exercise what they feel should be their rights.

We are conned by our assumptions of freedoms. But what of our restrictions, by law and by tradition?

During the last NSW elections I decided to exercise my freedom not to vote. Of course this is a freedom we do not have by law. I had to go through the whole sorry court process coming into contact with some quite lovely people on route including the prosecutor and the Magistrate. But my and your freedom on this issue of voting in an inadequate democracy remains limited.

But very much more is silently limited by tradition. And this is nowhere more evident than in our views on education and class.

There is the tradition of class, and this was recently discussed so well by the eloquent Tim Winton in his recent essay in The Monthly, “Some Thoughts on Class in Australia (the C word)” that I can add no more.

Class in Australia can be somewhat altered by education. But access to education is not equal in Australia and it is, by the democratic process, becoming less equal.

This morning I awoke to read the passionate criticism in the Sydney Morning Herald of Noel Pearson by Paul Sheehan. I do not know Mr Pearson personally at all. I do know of him and admire that he is outspoken on behalf of Aboriginal people. Mr Sheehan condemns Mr Pearson as a “bully”. On close reading it appears that Mr Pearson stands accused of regularly becoming angry and swearing. And not only that, having the termerity to swear at (obviously terrified) groups of journalists, politicians and presumably their accompanying public servants. (Either I or Mr Sheehan overlooked any indication in this article that he swears at his fellow workers, underlings or people otherwise dependent on his good will.)

I am not a swearer. In my many years of life I have not found it necessary to swear. I am quite articulate and can speak for myself using other words. But I have often been sworn at in the years I was employed, and it hardly made a dint except for alerting me to the fact that the swearer was extremely upset about something. These are, after all, one set of words, where I would have used different words, perhaps to say much the same thing.

However, I must confess, my strongest temptations to swear have always been at journalists or politicians (and an occasional man of orders). I have never felt like swearing at a public servant.

The use of angry swear words is a little different from a studied, tailored, insult. Sometimes it is an indication of the language one has grown up with. Sometimes, as I expect in Mr Pearson’s case, it is to make a very strong point when he felt unheard.

But unlike a racial or sexual slur, discrimination which is targeted at a special group, swearing has been usually regarded much more as part of a democractic right to express oneself. Or is it? Is it just for the Pub? Does it depend on situations? Is it just when men are together? Is it only OK if no one is really angry? Does it mean we are not in the “ruling class” if we swear? Does it mean we are uneducated? Does it mean we do not fit the mould? If I say, “please begone immediately and get someone to indulge you in an activity of intimate congress”, is that going to be any better?

And the mould for democracy in Australia has become to be an educated, rich, entitled, male (if possible) person who has demonstrated the capacity and wish to put his shoulder to the wheel and make a quid and who admires and encourages only those who do. And who does not use coarse language! That is not a democracy that I want my grandchildren to think is their only choice. If the only way to be heard is to swear, and I am starting to think it is (I proved already that well phrased words on paper are not read) then there may be no alternative but to “go for it”.

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Suicide, Assisted or Not

I hold no particular view on Dr Philip Nitschke’s general opinions and his role in assisted suicide, except to say two things.

The first is that he has been prominent in bringing the issue of suicide to the foreground and facilitating discussion on it, and I recognise that, to some extent this has allowed for the growth of organisations that are now criticising him, such as “Beyond Blue”.

The second is that he is entitled to his opinion as a human being and that opinion should not be constrained by his profession.

But I cannot understand the line being promulgated at the present time. That amounts to; we can understand that when people are plagued, beyond bearing, with a physical illness which has the probability, except for a medical breakthrough not yet on the horizon, of being a lifetime condition which will lead to death, they can find this unbearable. On the other hand we refuse to accept that people plagued by a mental state beyond bearing which also has the probability, except for a medical breakthrough not yet on the horizon or some other immutable factor, of being a lifetime condition, can also be permitted to view their situation as unbearable.

What happens to people who have multiple suicide attempts? Many do accept help voluntarily and are often relieved of some of their angst. Others are subject to involuntary institutionalisation over and over again at the behest of their loved ones. In these institutions one often finds them pleading for someone to kill them!

Many suicide attempts are unsuccessful and cause to damage in the attempt and this leads to more grief.

Just from living quite a long time and sometime working in associated areas, I have seen doctors and others dealing with the mentally ill displaying great compassion and skill and I admire them greatly. I have never heard of one advising patients to suicide, but I have heard relatives being counselled that it is time to “let go” and respect the wishes of loved ones and not to make them feel more guilty, if they continue to demonstrate consistent and deliberate suicide attempts or ideology.

It is easy to blame “the system” on one hand for people “falling through the cracks” and to think that if our system were better no one would ever wish to suicide. There are some prospects in life not acceptable even to the sane.

On the other hand a “system” which has to include forced incarceration, continuous watching with cameras for suicide attempts and a loss of self direction over the course of one’s own life can be viewed as having some serious faults, but is inevitable if we will not accept the reality of some suicidal wishes.

Those of us who do not believe in a god can accept with sadness but resignation the fact that physically ill or infirm people should have the self determination to make the end of life easier rather than to have to dehydrate or starve themselves to death, as has been done for many years by people in those situations.

The same acceptance must apply to those who, after all life’s options are before them, face what is for them an impossible, mental or emotional future.

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I recently saw a Panel discussion on Offence at the Sydney Writers Festival. It was very competently and inclusively run by Mr Peter Fitzsimmons. I am always overwhelmingly impressed by one panelist, Mr Michael Leunig, whose cartoons are so thought provoking. At Christmas time I enjoyed reading the very interesting non offensive F OFF by Mr Richard King, another panellist. (I was glad that I was given the book and looked at the cover not just bought it as an ebook or I may have missed that humorous offence). It is fair to say I do not easily take offence, but then, apart from my gender, for which I no longer make apologies, I am not a member of a group routinely exposed to offensive remarks. It became clear, as I heard him in person and forgivingly warmed to him, that Mr Tim Wilson, our Human Rights Commissioner, also on the panel, has no realisation at all how significant it is for his understanding of this issue, that his own wonderful capacity with language and his ability to argue so cogently automatically has put him into a position of privilege.

My own view until recently has been much as the one Mr Neil James presented so well at this event. I thought for many years that with education and involved discussion and positive, all-embracing family and societal influences, discrimination would eventually be eliminated. I deludedly thought Australia was in fact improving in its ability to accept differences especially when the “white Australia policy” fizzled to its long overdue end. Alas none of it has been as successful as I imagined it would be. I was distressed recently when the entire group of my elderly, usually kind, female exercise class unanimously supported one of the woman in her loud complaints about being surrounded by people “gibbering”in their “Muslim language”. I politely pointed out that, as with Christianity, there is no special Islamic language as it is a religion widespread throughout many different countries with different language bases. The response was a firm, “but our Bible is English”.

Oh for a better more inclusive education in Australia was my thought as I dropped the subject in despair!!

But worse, this last Sunday 18th May 2014, I came upon this little ditty in an Album, circa 1900. The album, almost an autograph book, owned by a gentleman long since gone, had messages and rhymes inscribed on each page by friends in the gracious educated penmanship of the time. It sat amid many sentimental messages such as “roses are red.”

“God made the little niggers.
He made them in the night.
He made them in a hurry
And forgot to paint them white.”

Sadly, much laughter ensued as I read it out.

These examples just indicate how pervasively much alleged humour or comment, even of a non threatening kind and meant to be amusing, not specifically intended to be derogatory, can influence the views of generations. If the average person here is still brought up in a “knife and fork” family as Mr Leunig described the language patterns of an average family of the past, how can he or she cope wisely with the plethora of cutlery that are the IT outlets now, when all is shrouded in this “we are holier than thou” misinformation, the mindset that can be seen in all areas of Australian life? And how can what a reasonable member of such a society views as a discriminatory offence, possibly then be used as a legal standard?

Education is not enough. Our legislation, supposed to give leadership as well as being a last resort, has not been enough and it is about to get even less effective.

Whilst so ever this is the case, as was agreed by the panel, we personally have a duty to call discrimination every time we see or hear it in any form, and humour can be no defence.

It is to be hoped that the future may be better in the hands of some of the lovely young people there that afternoon.

I will end on a more positive note with a picture of my sweet, brand new granddaughter with her two grandmothers; one a sixth generation Australian, outspoken feminist and atheist, the other a gracious, intelligent, gentle woman who is a devout Muslim.

Perhaps I can just tell myself and an equally despairing Mr Leunig “We can all love together”.

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What’s in a Word?

What IS in a word? Absolutely nothing and yet apparently everything. This conundrum is what we must look at when we are considering what is an insult, discrimination, and the taking of offence.

Words do not retain the same meaning over time. This changing lexicography contributes to the conundrum. We must be aware of what words mean. But care must come from how our ears hear as well as how our mouths speak.

This capacity of words to change, particularly when words relate to differences between people, does create huge problems. But discrimination itself often is responsible for these very changes. We must be very careful because perceived discrimination can do this as well as spoken discrimination.

As an older person I have witnessed many changes in the language we use when refer to certain members of our population. I can remember as a child reciting “catch a nigger by the toe” knowing full well I was referring to someone racially different. I did not know then it could be a derogatory term and I never used it with that intention. I would not do so now. Yet Jeremy Clarkson was in trouble quite recently for an apparently inadvertent relapse into that old verse when choosing between two cars. It is clear no insult was intended but such was heard.

I worked with children for many years and over that time I have seen a significant number of words which we have used to distinguish children with special needs. As each new and sanitised word is used, it appears, quite quickly, to become imbued with negative connotations. During a few years I worked in England, we in Australia were still officially using the word “retarded” to refer to children who were intellectually a specified number of standard deviations behind the average on a normal curve. Those working in that area in the UK had already moved on to the next piece of nomenclature and I was reprimanded for using “retarded”.

My use of the word had been quite accurate, meaning at that time behind the average intellectually, and did not contain any implication of negativity. I was quite severely reprimanded by my boss for this remark.

At that time, in Australia, it had not been long since “retarded” had been officially substituted for the originally equally benign descriptor “handicapped” which was by then viewed in both counties as a very derogatory term. Some years prior to that, the word “moron” had a legitimately viewed scientific use and definition. There is no situation now when, anywhere, this word would be regarded as appropriate if applied to a person.

Now a phrase “people with a disability”, which purports to separate the person from the perceived problem, is an acceptable nomenclature. But can and should this ever be done? I contend that, instead of trying to do the impossible, we have to learn to fully accept the whole person and include in that acceptance all of our many individual differences including colour, race or disabilities etc. as one complete, worthwhile person. One cannot separate a person from a part which makes up some of their personal humanity.

If we cannot do this it will not be long before we find that the use of “disability” is regarded as an insult and we will change the terminology again. To illustrate this just go back to reconsider terms which are undoubtedly now viewed as derogatory such as “nigger” and “spastic”. Nigger originally was a corruption of older terms for “black”, a plain statement of fact. I don’t believe myself that to name someone as black is to say anything derogative. “Spastic” was used to refer to muscle spasms and often related to a condition now known as “Cerebral Palsy”. It is only legitimately used now to refer to muscle spasms in the colon.

There is nothing bad about being black, brown, yellow or white. Disabilities are an unfortunate fact of life and should not be taken to demean or lessen the person with the disability. Although I have never considered “nigger” or “retarded” or “spastic” as specifically derogative words, I have heard them used that way. When they are used thus there should be outrage. But this outrage should be because of the message the speaker is giving, not at the use of the word itself.

Once we blame the word we deflect ourselves from the real problem.

I can see no intention to insult someone else in the recent use of the two words “nigger ” and “retarded”, as used by Jeremy Clarkson and Shaun Micallif respectively. Therefore it is what the listener feels about the word itself that interprets it as an insult. Some of the greatest insults and most racist or negatively discriminating comments I have heard or read have been made without recourse to any of these ancient terms but in the most pure and benign, even superficially positive, individual words.

The danger is that, if we react to individual words rather than listen carefully to the whole of what is said, we will encourage an artificial sensitivity in our population whilst distorting our ability to recognise real, often politely phrased, insults, discriminations and subtle exclusions. We need to accept all people and be free to discuss and share, using words, our diversity including the advantages, disadvantages and fears that many of us find in these very differences.

Another danger is that we will also inadvertently enlarge the number of words that can be used as insults. I think the very benign and positive, “special needs” may already be heading that way. Is “standard deviation” to be next?

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An Anzac Day Protest – Fifty Years On

I am writing this post on Anzac Day mainly because, in this country I love, I am certain that our freedom has become so curtailed that no longer could I go out to the steps of the Town Hall with a poster and protest peacefully against the Anzac Day March as many of us did when I was a student fifty years ago.

I want to make it clear first, that my colleagues and I would never have protested against Services which honour our brave war dead in all wars. I greatly respect the concept of the Dawn Service. It is only the march through our streets and the ideology which supports it, which we then, and I now, ask people to reconsider.

I was spurred on to write this by the fact that yesterday, the day before Anzac Day 2014, the planets aligned in two coincidences.

One was a meeting with some fellow retirees, all of whom had been in productive and contributing careers. In the course of the planned discussion it was noted, and we reminisced, that University Students do not appear to have quite the same zest and interest in social protests as we did in days of yore. We could name many well known and later influential figures who had, from these beginnings, made a difference in our community.

I then heard the thoughts of the radio and television commentator Jonathan Green, very much younger than all of us, who was very clearly and succinctly presenting a view about Anzac Day much as my friends and I espoused in those long gone days.

Why is this day alleged to represent the nationhood of Australia when war is and must always be a memory of such horror and loss?

War time is never great. It means the death of many lovely young men and women on both sides of the conflict and the destruction of the lives of a great number of those who survive. It must always be regarded as a time for mourning and remembering, with love, those who suffered and died in conflict.

There is no room for glorification.

Yes, there should be a time to remember, with pride, individual acts of bravery. There is time to remember individual acts of self-sacrifice in all areas of human endeavour, both in wartime and on other occasions.

But when human beings have resorted to combat against one another instead of being able to sort out issues in a way that reflects what we regard as the difference between we humans and other species of animals who live on the planet, the memories must always be sad.

Remember all our fallen heroes with equal love and admiration, from the muddy trenches of Turkey, through the jungles of Vietnam, to the horrors of Afghanistan. Remember them by having ceremonies of remembrance, by laying wreaths, by helping returned veterans and their families as well as the families whose loved ones did not return.

But do not have a warmongering march each year. Much worse still, do not try to define our beautiful country, born through a history of successful negotiation between sovereign states, by its involvement in a war during an invasion of a foreign country whose citizens we have now come to like and admire.

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Treason in a Shed?

I don’t know whether I am a just a wimp, a sad ex-feminist or a real traitor. Or I could pretend this is an April Fools piece.

But I badly want a men’s shed for women and I would like some nice man to start one for us! (I don’t even mind if it is a unisex shed but then it must not interfere with the integral principle of the Men’s Shed movement!)

All my life I have stood up for our rights and capacities as females. I even led a deputation to our Principal (in those days the “Head Master”) at school in 1955 asking for permission to join the all boys “Woodwork” class instead of our “Cooking and Needlework” class. We were, quite gently, laughed out of the room.

Today I have admired the way the men have set up “men’s sheds”, modelling as they began to do such, on the enjoyment women get in gathering together and in being supportive of one another. And there is no doubt I very much enjoy frequent meetings with my female friends. And we are mutually supportive. But we don’t actually do very much. I do not enjoy sewing or cooking and only do these when necessary, not for fun. (My sons cook both for fun and professionally, as many men do.)

My early retirement fun was allowing myself to re-do my very own shed, with minimum help sought from one professional carpenter. (I have to thank him and other handymen from the past for giving me pointers as to how to do simple things. I also have to thank my son in law for my set of power tools.) I put up multiple shelves, cupboards to store my books, tools etc. Sadly a friend’s husband told me this much loved shed was “too girly” because I added curtains to the windows. He spoke kindly and as if in jest like my former Head Master, but perhaps he was right.

Recently I peripherally met a gentleman who was involved helping with the setting up of the Men’s Shed movement. We met in a discussion group with regard to a different sort of public duty/interest. What he said about this movement was fascinating and made me even more envious.

I could try to start a women’s shed movement for myself but know the expertise is missing. And I do not know, personally, other women who would be interested.

And anyway I am stuck and can’t change the metal cutting blade in my power saw. Help!

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To Mr Bernard Gaynor

Around about puberty, more than sixty years ago, I became a non-theist and a feminist. I have remained a loyal and proud Australian all my life.

As such, I am very pleased that you, ex Major Bernard Gaynor, are no longer representing Australia in any public role and am proud of our military for acknowledging it is no longer appropriate for people whose public profile is as yours is, should be in their employment.

In deference to your right to have your views aired and considered, I  read some of your blog postings. It is your privilege, in this country, to be able to make such comments as you have made.

I was astounded by your initial claim that you are a purveyor of “the truth”, an absolute with which many brains much deeper than that of former Majors such as yourself, or retired old ladies such as myself, have struggled over many ages. But then, to do you justice, it is a common phenomena for the very religious to regard their own views as an absolute truth and, as you, yourself, have so splendidly illustrated, use the very notion of everyone else’s religion except one’s own as an apparently axiomatic example of a mistaken thought process.

I leave aside here any need to comment on you anti-Islamic, anti-abortion  or anti-gay ideology. These are your personal views and, while I disagree with them, I have no problem with your having them, as long as you do not act upon them or assume it is your duty to do so in the name of the Defence Forces.

But what astounded and distressed me was what you think is the role of the military! In your words their “mission” is that of “destroying our nation’s enemies”. And how broadly you go on to define “enemies”!

I do not want the military forces that we have to protect us, bent on destroying anyone. If we can protect ourselves and those weaker than ourselves in a live and let live capacity, that is much more agreeable path to follow. We are all human and all have rights to exist on this planet in communities of mutual support. It is only when rights to do this are infringed that we should have to go to war. And it is not OK to attack other people’s rights to live because their ways do not accord with ours.

That we think we have a consistent enemy going back to the days of the crusades is more than laughable. It is, and always has been what is dangerous.

Our next enemy could well be New Zealand arguing with us about Tasmania! Have we a mission to destroy them? I would loudly say “no” and repeat that no one, in my name, has a mission to destroy anyone. That it happens in wartime is something sad, not a “mission”. We have seen this sadness often, for example, in WW II when many fine German men and women lost their lives because of the fixed ideas of military leaders, as did many of our own brave soldiers and citizens.

We need brave and daring soldiers in the forces and I have no doubt that you, as Major Bernard Gaynor, were a brave and daring soldier. Thank you.

But Mr Bernard, I think you are wrong, very wrong. My strong view is that there is no god, no absolute truth. Yes, Mr Gaynor, I have studied the  King James version of the Bible. I have read translations of the Koran. I have read various translations of small portions of Taoist works and have studied Philosophy. I try to do right, not based on Christian viewpoints (as so many Christians, such as you, try to claim) but based on universal humanitarian views.

I fundamentally disagree with you. I disagree more than any Muslim who shares with you the notion of a same Abrahamic god.

But I do not wish to “destroy” you. I hope you and your family have happy lives. 

And please, please, do not advocate the destruction of anyone on my behalf because of their beliefs.

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