Invitation to the Baroness and Socrates

Baroness Susan Greenfield would have been welcome at my daughter’s house one evening about six months ago.

We had returned from seeing a lovely, local, amateur theatre offering, which included a melange of tunes from well known musicals, including Les Miserables. In a two meter square area around a table, grazing from Pizza ordered on line, gathered five adults, a fifteen year old boy and a six year old boy. Three adults and the two boys had their iPads/ iPhones in their hands. An animated discussion, if not argument, ensued about which singer, over the many years that had elapsed since Les Miserables had been first performed, had offered the best rendition of “Bring Him Home”, with each speaker supporting his or her view/s with down loaded versions. Three other children were on the move around the house putting in random appearances at the table to help themselves to pizza and to voice their opinions. This animated comparison of various musical offerings, supported by argument and learned analysis of what was being offered (including from the six year old), was impressive. A seven year old girl wheeled by from time to time when she heard something to which she wanted to add her considered opinion and to say what tickled her fancy, and an 11 year old boy sang along. The two year old was very excited.

I have seldom seen such group enthusiasm or a debate backed by such immediate hard evidence.

Even Socrates, whose opinion on the value of reading and writing much mirrored that of the Baroness on digital technology, would have been impressed. In fact he should have been there with the Baroness. I freely agree that both reading and writing and digital technology in its turn modify the brain. Isn’t that otherwise known as evolution?

A second factor which supports the value to the brain of access to digital technology is the equalising factor. (I am sure, however, neither the Baroness or Socrates would like this as it might lower their respective statuses.) On this same occasion there was a perfect example of this. The seven year old girl suggested that perhaps “The Professor” should give a definitive answer as to which version was the best. She was referring to her Uncle, one of the iPhone users, who happened to have an PhD in Music. Two of the other adults (one playing an iPhone) were musicians too. But those of us who were not musicians felt a perfect right to express our opinions. This was not merely an academic exercise. We were actually hearing the contenders, and in the kind of quick succession, with part replays, not possible in a live concert format. The six year old eloquently expressed his liking of a version he had, among other versions, previously listened to on his own initiative, and he now played it with conviction as his choice – it made him feel like crying. What better accolade than that? In the “olden days” he would have had to bow down to the professor’s opinion and his emotional reaction would not have been able to be validated, as it was, in a semi public forum.

Digital technology was thus encouraging hands on development of independent thinking in the young user.

This whole episode was interactive, it was social, it was educational.

AND IT WAS FUN.

Baroness, you are missing out! (And we know Socrates would have had a ball with reading if he had given it a go.)

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Feminism and Discrimination

Congratulations to Tanya Plibersek’s on her magnificent defence today of feminism.

I agree with every word she says. However as a keen feminist, but not a fundamentalist about this, I want, never to excuse, but to attempt to explain the reasons for the common attitude expressed recently by Julie Bishop. Her attitude that people should not whinge but should “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” has been held by many others in all areas where discrimination occurs.

For a time, as a young feminist, I tended to be a fellow traveller with her attitude, advocating that the best way to influence was to take a lead in trying to break through barriers.

I first heard her attitude expressed by a radio commentator on 2GB, John Pearce, in the 50s and 60s. He was constantly railing on his program that anybody could overcome problems and make their way successfully in the world if he (I did not hear much mention of “shes”) just worked hard enough. His constant repetition of this theme in all situations seemed simplistic even to the young girl I was then. Age and experience have certainly led me to a different view.

The concept that people in the community are born with very different capacities to work hard and organise themselves did not seem to occur to him. I have very recently heard Tim Wilson, our Human Rights Commissioner, and over the years the likes of such as John Howard, also holding that overcoming disadvantage is best done by individuals striving and applying themselves, without any acknowledgement of different capacities so to do. That people are born into very different family situations with different abilities and wherewithal to provide support and encouragement does not seem to be acknowledged either.

How do many people even gain access to an aim towards which to strive?

It is much easier for those who only have to deal with one area of discrimination or disadvantage, perhaps only being female, perhaps only being from a poor less well educated family, perhaps only being homosexual.

But most of all it is easier if one is born with other advantages. Some of these advantages are ones of which the person himself or herself may be unaware.

Julie Bishop has the privilege of having been born not only with a very good brain but clearly with steely determination as part of her make up. Tim Wilson is equally clever and he has a compelling facility with the spoken word. Both appear to have come from comfortable backgrounds where they have learnt mainstream “social graces”. They may well assume that these assets come from their own efforts rather than from their birth.

It then becomes easy for them to criticise others for not following similar paths. Thus strident feminists are considered to be whingeing. Supporters of indigenous rights, such as the eloquent and emotionally involved Noel Pearson, are blamed for temper outbursts that people brought up in a restrained background may not find necessary to exhibit to successfully make their points. Those with different presentations, such as clothing representative of religions or ethnicities, are less listened to because they do not conform to the norm, despite equal hard work and considerable effort.

Some people with physical abilities but with outstanding skills in particular areas are respected as “strivers” whereas those without special skills are not similarly rewarded for their efforts.

These are the reasons I agree with Tanya Plibersek. Whilst so ever women who are not necessarily outstanding are not regarded as equal to men who are not necessarily outstanding; whilst those with disabilities who are not outstanding are not regarded as equal to those of us who are able bodied and not outstanding; while the poor do not have opportunities if they are also not skilful enough to display something remarkable although a richer unremarkable person might have better opportunities; then we must continue to speak out.

It is not enough to imagine one is doing enough by setting an example if we merely fight and make our own way, reaping our rewards as we do so.

We have a duty to speak for others and to recognise and acknowledge each advantage we have that may have given us a “leg up” along the way.

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Roads

I never thought roads would become a real sense of imagery for me.

Cars I would understand. I have always loved driving since getting my drivers licence. This was after a lengthy test on my 17th birthday administered by a large police sergeant, who patently thought 17 year old girls should be kept off his roads. But at that time it did not seems to me that very much importance could be attached to roads themselves!

But now, as I drive along highways with deeply wooded median strips whose native flora reach high into the sky, I remember, with some admiration for the road makers, the trips and my destinations when I was being regularly held up by the road widening and median strip building on those very stretches.

That this aberration of mine is shared, to some extent by the population at large was shown to me by the recent ABC radio’s coverage of the 50th birthday of the Gladesville Bridge. I well remember driving from the city to Gladesville as the bridge was under construction, anticipating how apparently random roads would connect, and delighting in revelations as they did. The memories were heightened by the fact that it was my fiancĂ©’s (and then new husband’s) mother we were visiting. I also remember my own engineer father’s delight at this new bridge. (He also admired the harbour bridge but bemoaned the addition of the purely decorative pylons.)

Some roads even awake childhood memories, such as being driven to the Town Hall for “Young Australia Sings” concerts. I still get a frisson of that old excitement when I approach the lights of Sydney at night. On the other hand the beautifully paved Monaro Highway brings recollections of my childhood trips from Cooma to Canberra on a dirt road.

And I have memories of the immense and impressive construction of the new toll road which has now become the M1. Now a Freeway (what images of prospective liberty that title contours up), it is just near where I now live. My son has christened this area “Roundabout World”. The Central Coast is, indeed, very beautiful and much larger and more varied than “Sea World” (and it has even got quite a lot of its own sea) and the plethora of roundabouts may well conjure up many more images than “Dream World”does.

Whilst not even one of the roundabouts here is as challenging as the ones I used to use on my way to work in London, such as Marble Arch or the roundabout that led to my then home or to Victoria Station, it must be acknowledged that for safety in the negotiation of those particular roundabouts the special courtesy of the English was needed. The laconic nature of Australia is more suited by those we proliferate on the Central Coast. However Australia must certainly be able to claim the most politically correct roundabout – the one in our National Capitol which uses the wonderful new Parliament House as its centrepiece.

The old English saying “take time to stop and smell the roses” is not needed here. On our wonderful roads we just need a bit of fresh air through the window to drink in (and perhaps sneeze at) the yellow wattle or hear the beautiful bell birds chiming “in the canyons of coolness” that we pass through.

We have roads by our beautiful lakes, our foamy seas, through our magnificent deserts. We can see our wonderful rainforests by road.

And we learn about life from our roads. As I bemoaned the fact I almost missed an overseas flight due to an accident which delayed the traffic, my son pointed out the obvious lesson, that one cannot expect to still have “emergency time” remaining once one has used it on the emergency.

And signposts! The sight of a golden guitar makes me think I am getting close to the next landmark, the wonderful mountains, perhaps once a haunt of Thunderbolt, leading to the beautiful city of Armidale. The indomitable big merino has moved from its position in the heart of Goulburn to be closer to the Hume Highway, presumably because there it had more interesting things to survey – the highway itself.

And we need to take a lesson from him. There is so much to see on a road, not only the surface but all that needs our concentration on each highway or byway. No detail can be too small. We must see it all. At crossroads we have to stop and make decisions, at roundabouts we can go with the flow. And then we have our wonderful rear vision mirror which shows us, so clearly, where we have been. In these more reflective times that we now live in we have two extra mirrors which also show us what we have left behind us. This gives us two other perspectives on what is passed.

Perhaps these reflections of roads, past and present are giving us a message. It is not the destination that is important. It is how we make the journey.

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Equality in Feminism

I have been quite uncomfortable recently with the discussion equating “equality” with “feminism”. Mostly, it appears, this is to placate comfortable young women who do not wish to feel that their reasonably wide range of choices in life might be upset if they rock the boat. They might turn out like unattractive, hairy, man hating “blue stockings”, as they see us feminists from the past.

However I have been uncharacteristically quiet, thinking that as an elderly “second wave?” feminist, perhaps even tail end of “first wave”, because I espoused feminist principles as a teenager at the end of the 50s, I may be out of date and out of line. But, honestly, I really value men and admire a lot of them. And I have never, ever worn a stocking that was blue! (Mind you I have worn slacks when they were forbidden, even rolled up under an academic gown if necessary.)

But feminism is selling itself short if all it wants is equality in the existing world.

This is for two reasons. Firstly it is unattainable. Men and women are different. Most men are physically stronger than most women. For example in elite sports men are likely to out perform women when each are in competition with the another. Women, at this stage in our biology, are going to be the ones to give birth to, and then, in the short term, supply food for babies . (But both genders, apart from initial food supply, can look after children equally.) There have to be acknowledged and mutually accepted adaptations around these type of basic, everlasting inequalities.

But more importantly, equality as applied to our existing world is not nearly good enough for feminism. Our western world, let alone developing countries, has been structured for many generations around male ideology and still retains much of this structure. Until the aims, ambitions and conceptualisation of the world as a whole are arrived at with mutuality between men and women, we continue to need positive action from feminists (both men and women).

When we have arrived at an agreed upon notion of world aims and structures only then we can settle for an (adjusted) equality in living.

For the young women who do not believe we are living in a society which still reflects some patriarchal power let me list a few dates at which here, in NSW Australia, laws fully enforcing some patriarchal views, were still in place.

Seventy years ago parents could agree to the marriage of 12 year old girls. Boys had to be older. The age of consent did not become equal as between genders at 16 until 1991, but it was the push of the gay community for equality which helped this along, not women’s protection issues. It was only determined by the courts in 1996 that it was illegal for a man to rape his wife. Women’s basic wage was raised and set at 75% of the male wage in 1971.

For a significant part of last century women could no longer continue to be teachers if they married. When they did teach or worked in some other professions, they had to wear skirts, not trousers, and that continued into the eighties. When I was a child girls had to wear white gloves to school and our tunics had to be a set length. As a young solicitor I had to wear a hat in court.

While much of this, as we can see, has now been altered, it remains strongly in the memory of those of us who lived through it, and therefore reflects how we view some other issues. Here, while I continue to concentrate on clothing, sexuality and, intrinsic to these, image, this merely provides a simple perspective to the other issues, some of which are still very tenuous and could be easily lost by behaviour which assumes a freedom and wide community support.

It seems to me that women are still prone to objectification. Nowhere is this more apparent today than in clothes, toys and stories for little girls and boys. Body image is an escalating problem, and is now a problem for both genders. But just because it has become worse for boys as well, does not make it right. Women and girls, and now to some extent young males, have become victims to rampant commercialism. Do we want to sit in this world that has been structured around us and say, “It is OK now the boys are starting to feel bad about themselves too. We are equal”?

Possibly partly as a response to this commercialism, some women continue to focus closely on appearance. Many seem to demand, by their scathing criticisms, that fashionable physical presentation should again be lauded as a positive, even bordering on a necessity of being a woman, rather than as a choice. Having one’s style of dress as merely an optional part of being a female (even a sexual one) was a very hard fought past battle for us and one which still rages in some cultures. Yet while exercising this freedom, some women try to deny that appearance will always give rise to impressions, assumptions and definitions, and even more so when we have choice (just look at the ties of politicians). And lo, they still refer to “blue stockings”.

We women need to be able to be active, equal participants in the sexual game and make sexual decisions for ourselves, not merely be passive. Some of us dress to accentuate sexuality and this is a complete right. But many of the women who choose to do that, object to use of the word “slut” instead of embracing it, whilst we all enthusiastically watch programs on screen about a “rake” without quibbling. Women, no more than men, can “have their cake and eat it”, in a society based on mutuality. As we discard the garbs of submission, we must take on our own responsibility, not only for the presentation we chose to make, but for its contribution to the structure of a mutual society.

I must now prepare to put on the blue stockings.

I, for one, think “feminism” means something a little more than “equality”. Yes, it encompasses the need for equal respect. It encompasses the need for equal opportunities for both genders. But it also stands for a hope for different ideals for the world. And I would always be happy to debate this complex issue with any young woman. But I cannot fit it on a little poster.

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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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Offence

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.
image

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

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