What is Social Justice.?

I went to a funeral the day before yesterday. It was of a person who had died suddenly and much younger than is usual but our friendship, born of being fellow students at one stage in our disparate lives, was a thirty year long one. She left behind a young child but her large family of origin, despite their shock, distress and sorrow, provided a funeral full of memories we would all like to envisage leaving when we die. They are an extraordinary family.

The next day I had to attend a meeting. This should have been uplifting, as it generally is, as it was of an inspiring group of wonderful people wanting social justice for all. But we came to a point of having to define the details of what “social justice” means and encompasses for this group.

This is not easy. Instead of focussing on positives this funeral and the meeting has left me querying the notion of “social justice” and how strongly we each look at the definition through our individual prisms. The deceased, in the profession we shared in which we had to focus on the care of children facing difficulties, was a very kind, good woman. She, however, had grown up in an area which had a reputation for less affluence and she had always spoken in defence of those who needed help, citing her greater knowledge of the problems based on her disadvantaged upbringing than some of we fellow students who she viewed as coming from more affluent background.

Meeting her family en mass, as I did at her funeral, made me realise that she had privileges she did not realise. A large supportive family, who were very thoughtful, intelligent encouraging and forgiving and whose younger members had gone on to work in areas with successes that most in the community would envy.

My late husband was similar. He viewed his background as quite underprivileged. I found it difficult to distinguish, in both cases, this rear vision from a very personal aspect which changes differences into a lack of privilege and negates the positives. One can often see this in public figures, such as politicians, who cite some misfortune in their lives as giving insight into disadvantage and inequity. And none of us are going to have identical lives.

We have to be careful of our own personal biases.

And this is what we face in definition of “social justice”. We can all be hidebound by our particular life experiences and outlooks.

One of these categories that needs no help in definition is that of asylum seekers. Two men in their nineties talked to me about this only last week when we were discussing refugees in a group of older men. These two, one from Hungary and one from Italy, both of whom have been in Australia since they were nineteen years old, expressed the following sentiments. No one chooses to become a refugee and leave their country, their extended families, their language and traditions lightly. It is because they cannot be safe, or they cannot feed their children and/or keep them safe. Most people love their country and going somewhere else is a journey filled with fear and doubt and is only taken when the person feels their is no safe alternative. The idea of “economic refugees” is often cited by those against helping, but not to be able to keep your children alive is surely more that a mere “economic” issue.

This has been complicated by the fact that our country has always been very racist. I can remember very powerful incidents since I was a child in the fifties. It has not improved and I get very annoyed when people try to allege Australia has ever been “welcoming”. I am old enough to remember the “Dictation Test” which was not removed until 1958. How can we do more to eradicate Australian racism on the Central Coast?

But we have another anomaly to address here? Should our help for refugees be focussed world wide, or on the areas where Australia is responsible for those who seek asylum here and does so badly? How much funding should go to individuals in trouble or to changes in the thinking of our community and thus our government?

Moving into other issues that are also clearly areas social inequalities and disadvantages it becomes even more difficult.

The plight of our Indigenous people is a topic many of us would like to address soon, particularly in light of the refusal of the government to agree to what seems to many to be the reasonable “Uluru Statement”. But again should the support be one of community education and government lobby or personal help?

Disability is another issue. Again we have some clear cut examples. But we have a government which does have in place a system which claims to provide for the disabled and surely the aim of this group and others on this and other comparable issues must be more lobbying of governments so that this support is fair and adequate rather than raising money to helping paste over holes in this system. We, the taxpayers, rely far to much on the government’s preference to keep our taxes low, to fund the less than adequate outsourcing in some of these areas and to rely on charities for help. Is financially aiding this disgraceful behaviour by a charitable donation a help or a hindrance to real social equity for the disabled?

On the other hand can we, as individuals (or as a group) stand by and see individuals in difficulties without helping?

One of the members of our group mentioned the need to include environmental issues as a social justice issue. This surely must be a clear one. If we look merely at the future of our children and grandchildren this should be enough. But added to this is the fact that our government is negatively impacting on these issues by supporting institutions which add to climate change and handing out subsidies to support outdated methods of supplying/growing food when their are droughts (and floods on occasions). It is hard to see how this is not a clear cut social justice issue which needs lobbying and public awareness support more than individual donations.

One member of the group suggested that one of the aims for the group could be “to facilitate social cohesion and harmony”. No one could disagree with that. Just the concept raises the spirit. And it will take funds to set up meetings/ teaching opportunities to do this.

From these early morning ramblings I think I can see a path for my own thinking.

There can be an ultimate working goal to change opinions and attitudes of our community and government and move towards social justice in Australia. But on the way we can sometimes give priority, perhaps triggered from our own or someone else’s insights and lived experiences, of actual help to groups and individuals. But only if we can make some lasting difference. Not just to make us feel better.

A quote from an article from the National Pro Bono Resource Centre on the topic says “The concept of Social Justice involves finding the optimum balance between our joint responsibility as a society and our responsibility as individuals to contribute to a just society.”

As an organisation we must somehow agree on that balance.


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Mea Culpa

When I say “mea culpa” I only have myself both to blame and forgive. I have no God for a fall back position.

I have not believed in a “maker” since I was 11 years old 66 years ago, although I did come from a Christian based family. I therefore became adept at going” under the radar” for many years and I do deeply respect the life values of most mainstream religions. (I find these values within each major religion very similar.)

This morning, reading the article in the Sydney Morning Herald by Catherine McGregor, with which I basically agreed, I found myself musing on the difficulties that religions have posed over the years.

Whilst the essence of most religions is the call to be good towards others, this at times appears to me to be incompatible with some of the strong beliefs and also the expectations of some congregations.

When once I said that I thought religions have been the cause of many conflicts over the centuries, the late Dr Denis Wright, a University teacher and researcher in Asian history, religions and culture, modern Asian politics and Society, replied with these wise words.

“I think it oversimplifies when it’s said that people have fought for centuries over their beliefs. When you study the history of religions, you discover that the beliefs themselves are practically irrelevant to conflict; it’s how you are treated because of your religion that matters. Is the battle between Jews and Muslims in Palestine over doctrine? How often does doctrine come up as the basis of war between Catholics and Protestants in Ireland? When did violence really erupt between Hindus and Muslims in India? It was only when all of these became political and economic issues, usually cloaked by nationalism in various forms, that doctrine was made the rationale for conflict. It was never about doctrine. It was about land, equality and freedom.

Why is there not bitter struggle between religions in Australia as there us elsewhere? Because most have enough of the good things in life to be content to live with each other; not with a knife at the others’ throats, or a bomb. Violence erupts when people feel a keen sense of injustice.

(It amazes me that the aboriginal people are not more violent towards those they blame for their loss – or is the violence turned inwards for them, against each other? Another question, not for here.)”

Wise words. When I hear of proposals to give those of the Christian Religion another favoured voice in my culture I feel a great sense of injustice. I do not acknowledge that our society is great because it is founded in a Judeo Christian culture. I think our society is only great whenever we can bring ourselves to think of others, including minority groups. I look around in dismay at what we have done regarding various beliefs in our indigenous cultures and migrant cultures. I remember the fights in my childhood between Catholic and Protestant children, often supported by parents.

And indeed it is adherence to differences that is sometimes what is preached by many religions. But these cannot be unfairly imposed in the secular society by giving personal beliefs any priority under our laws. All we can ensure is the right to personally hold such a belief within the law.

I know many Christians who are dear to me and who I admire. I know Muslims I love. (I do prefer the Islamic sacrifice story and regard it with more satisfaction than the Christian sacrifice story- though they have some strong similarities. I do not believe either of them.) I have known a Christian Arab, born, bred, educated and working in Jerusalem, who was exiled, for life, from his home. So much for the “Judeo/ Christian” bond!

My own personal faith in life is to try and be nice to others. I like to help where I can, if I can, which is not really as often as I should.

I do think everyone has a right to believe as they like and to freely practice their own religions in this country – but only in ways which do not impinge on the rights of others who are not of that faith or indeed of any faith.

We live in a society based on a secular constitution. Christianity has had an “inside run” since colonisation, first because of brute force and then because of its powerful majority in the population. Christianity, and in particular individual Christians, have certainly contributed some great good to our society. It has also perpetrated some evils, particularly upon the indigenous population. But those of us who are not Christian should not be forced to support a belief, and its trappings, which are not ours.

I will take full responsibility for all my decisions. I will obey all the laws of the land in which I live. But I deserve the right, in a democracy, to protest peacefully against any proposed laws that I think are unjust. And I think they are unjust when they favour religion in a society.

I take this responsibility seriously and do not have a God to give me guidance and forgive me if I err. I have to forgive myself and mend my ways.

I do not wish to support any legislation that will either regulate society by interpretation of any “superior” God’s wishes over any other God’s wishes, belief systems or indeed over the considered personal, equally non intrusive, decisions or speech of a free human being who does not have a belief in a God.

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I have a strong antipathy to high heeled shoes. This is well known in my family and much objected to as part of my considerably more minor non acceptance of general “fashion” trends.

But now I am also being subjected to attack for my explanation that I feel we are “conditioned” into accepting high heels as part of women’s fashion. A close friend the other day and my son last night asked me last night why I feel I am exempt from the conditioning process which might be, in my case, AGAINST the wearing of “high heels”.

I must state that, as a former psychologist, I am well aware of the nature of conditioning. But has this, in essence, conditioned me to the view I am harder than average to condition? I first studied psychology in the days of Skinner when much of Freud’s work was being challenged. Skinner’s experiments and contribution to psychology were almost all about conditioning. However I have never been entirely convinced that conditioning played as large a role in psychological processes as he alleged and I have always retained considerable faith in many of Freud’s theories.

( I must state clearly here, in defence of Freud, that I have never heard an allegation that he thought women’s wearing of high heels was just another form of “penis envy”.)

The history of high heels on shoes is interesting. It was, at first, a man’s fashion and their first use was a practical one. It gave an extra tool for gripping on to stirrups etc when horse riding, particularly in battle. The use of heels then, over many years, became a sign for both genders of being a member of the upper class. Perhaps this was because the “menials” needed flat shoes to be mobile enough do all the work? At the time of The French Revolution high heels went out of fashion for the very reason that it signified the class division. Marie Antoinette, in defiance, wore them to the gallows.

Much effort was then expended by the fashion gurus on the design of flatter shoe wear.

However high heels made an eventual comeback but only for women.

In deference to my son’s views I must say I grew up at a time prior to Germaine Greer’s “Female Eunuch” was published and my friends and I were quite a strong feminists. My mother always wore a hat and gloves out shopping. Prefects would give us detentions if we were caught on the train on our way home from school without hats or gloves on. At University we were not able to wear long pants to lectures. We would sometimes do so and roll the pants legs up under our undergraduate gowns. Later all teachers had to wear skirts or dresses when teaching a class. As a young solicitor I had to wear a hat in court and of course to church. So I was perhaps “conditioned” by reverse psychology to be a very overt feminist.

All these requirements about appropriate ways for females to dress and act changed gradually with the push from we feminists.

But, as far as fashion goes, high heels are the only fashion item that I know of that can cause actual damage. That done to the feet and back is sometime irreparable. High heels are harder to walk on, make the wearer slower, can and have caused accidents and falls and they damage some floors. They make it more difficult to drive cars and operate machinery.

Why has this much bigger, more physically damaging issue of high heel wearing not changed attitudes and choices? My assumption is that it has been conditioning, helped along by shoe manufacturers. We see many public images of well known women still wearing high heels, we hear of things like women being banned from the red carpet at award ceremonies if they did not wear heels. Heroines of children’s movies and adult dolls for children wear heels or very long dresses which cover the feet. (Mermaids are exempt from this criticism.)

I found one picture this morning of a well known celebrity wearing high heeled, open shoes pushing a motor mower on her front lawn!

But do I just think all this is wrong because of my own conditioning?

In an attempt to find out about perhaps more modern views of conditioning I went to the tried and trusty Google.

But I had forgotten about the hair product “conditioner”. Google was full of details about this product. The rationale for its use is that it makes the hair “soft and pliable”. That fits with Skinner’s view.

Do I think I have become soft or pliable?

No. Perhaps unfortunately I have become even more tough and opinionated.

Young girls around me (and my sons) will just have to put up with my opinions or close their ears!

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Aussie Values and White Blight

I speak from a position of old age but, so far, I have not lost the clarity of my memories.

In the last few weeks I have also had the great privilege of speaking with groups of even older people, who also treasure their Australian memories. For example, some of those who remember their own war service are amazed, and like me are not very pleased, about recent new attitudes towards remembrance ceremonies and the development of brand new memories  surrounding wartime.

But what most affects me at the moment is how generations younger than we are seem to idolise what they call “Aussie Values ” without criticism and analysis.  They think our way of life and “Aussie Values” have always been the same and that they should be immediately adopted, as is, by new settlers and refugees from whom, they assume, we can learn little.

One of the most amazing myths I have heard, and this is a development only obvious this century, that is we view ourselves as always having been a welcoming inter-racial society.

How is this possible? Consider the official government “White Australia Policy” – not a good example of welcome and only finally buried in the 1970s.  Observe our continuing poor treatment of Australia’s  indigenous peoples.  We have not, in fact, been very inclusive. I worked with a professional woman of Polish descent who remembered, not fondly, the years her family spent in a post war refugee facility. On Wednesday I was speaking to a very elderly lady who described herself as a “twenty dollar migrant from Glasgow” (but we did have a laugh about the “ten pound poms” as they were called). She also told how awful the camps were. I remember how poorly some refugees were regarded, by some, on the Snowy Scheme where I grew up.

This morning I heard on the radio a woman defending current criticism of a lack of acceptance of migrants.  She had an expectation that acceptance required rapid and major adjustments of displaced people from their traditional culture to adoption of “Aussie values”. She stressed the non patriarchal nature of our society must be accepted. But she seemed to have no appreciation of how recent that transition of Australia to a partially non patriarchal society has been.

Australian women were required to wear head gear – usually hats but scarves would sometimes suffice – in all sorts of places as well as in church – well into the second half of the last century. Prefects used to put us on detention if, on the train home from a state all girls high school, we were not wearing our hats. Women were required to wear hats in a court room when I was a young solicitor. When I worked in schools in the 1980s women teachers were expected to wear skirts.

As a University student I was not permitted to go to lectures in trousers.

In the early seventies, when I was a young married woman, the daughter of a neighbour was married at 14 with the permission of her parents as she was pregnant. This was not uncommon. (It was only in the mid 20th Century that Tasmania was the first state to raise the age of consent for girls from 12 to 14.)

I don’t say that we Australians are not entitled ( or even obliged) to  be vocal about women’s rights and child protection. But it is not reasonable to totally condemn migrants for practices we fully supported as a nation in the lifetime of many of us older Australians and which we remember clearly.

Culture is like the learning of English. It does not always come easily to the first generation of migrants and refugees but it will be easy for the next generation.

And as for the White Blight analogy. I wish all those who talk of “Australian values” could read the poem of that name, “White Blight” by Athena Farrokhzad . I wish we could all read it in the original Swedish but I, like the majority of non indigenous Australians born here, have sadly not got the facility to speak another language. Hearing her read (in beautiful English translation) of an immigrant mother trying to lengthen her vowels so they are “whiter than white” is so sad and moving.

Let us all try to develop a new set of Aussie values of modesty and tolerance.

Blight can destroy the most beautiful.

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Basic Skills? Learning to Read?

As an avid and lifelong lover of reading I never thought I would agree with Socrates’ opinion about reading. That was that reading would reduce our brain function.

But listening to radio discussions about the “new” curriculum it is clear to me that it is happening. Those supporting some silly interventions of more focus on early teaching of “basics” need to take a good hard read of Socrates’ opinion.

Two questions come to my mind. “What actually are basics in life?” And “Have these people ever heard of ‘reading readiness’?”

Basics, to me, are the gathering of knowledge and enhancing abilities, both by discovery and, perhaps even slightly less importantly, by formal learning.

Reading is one way to get this knowledge easily and quickly – yet this medium always makes such knowledge second hand and precludes self discovery! Ok, we do not have to go around every day rediscovering the wheel. But to some extent children should have to do this. If one watches children at play discovery is a great part of play. How to balance toys- we have all seen very tiny tots work this out, to give one small example.

In my career which included teaching, child psychology, having children and grandchildren, I have come upon very many different types of learning. One example is that many clever, involved children come to school and are not particularly interested in the mechanics of merely decoding words. They would rather take apart a toy and reassemble it, would rather gather a collection of nature’s offerings  than see pictures of them in a book. Then, about the age of 8, some discover research and they then learn to read very quickly. These children may be brought to books and reading earlier by the use of maps and diagrams but not by extra decoding skills such as phonics with cats in hats. And while they are learning without reading should this joyous knowledge gathering be spoilt by a task they are not managing and enjoying as well as that of discovery?

With the advent of the wonderful range of IT available I can see some are now satisfying their thirst for more knowledge through podcasts etc.

And why not? The development of language is extremely important in education, for concept formation and for daily life. Oral communication should be a basic in every classroom from K to 12.

The art of reading is not a God to be worshipped. It is a mere tool which is very handy if we understand how to use it and if we keep it sharpened. Teachers can help do this but it is very far from the most basic skill we all need.

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Philip Drew’s very interesting article in the Sydney Morning Herald this morning about the Opera House and Utzon’s role reminded me of a long ago morning with my long deceased father.

I love the Opera House. I enjoyed watching with my small children from a Cremorne window as its opening was celebrated. I have enjoyed performances and operas under its sails. Some of the later performances I have watched involved said infants as older children and then adults.

But I remember the morning in our kitchen in Cooma when Utzon’s amazing, winning design was announced to us, also in the Sydney Morning Herald. I was in my last year of school at the time.

My father was closely perusing the details in the paper and shaking his head in a mixture of amazement and despair.

He was, as we all are today, extraordinarily impressed by the concept. It took an extremely imaginative and inspirational person to come up with the concept which all Australians, and the rest of the world, must admire. Utzon deserved his prize. We, who enjoy the building, give him our thanks.

My father, an engineer on the Snowy Scheme, that morning in 1957 said, “This is a magnificent idea and he deserves the prize but it needs to be redesigned with the assistance of some engineers before the first sod is turned. It just will not work like this. The shape of the sails, for example, will have to be slightly altered.” He went on to explain more – such was my lack of understanding that I think I shut my ears to much of the rest he was explaining. I was quite used to the many, usually polite and intellectual conflicts between architects and engineers! Later there was quite a lot of this sort of discussion with his engineering friends.

My father was very sorry for the, at a later time, much criticised Peter Hall, who had to take over from Utzon and who was often blamed for the concept not quite working as first intended. He said Peter Hall was in a “no win” situation. But the decisions were made and we have to live with them. It should not be too hard!

It was interesting to read Mr Drew’s analysis today.

But whether we have got something perfect for our Opera House, or whether it could have been done better with more initial planning, it is still pretty terrific. The acoustics may not be as perfect as they could be, the stage space for a big Opera may not be excellent. I have been inside overseas Opera houses which blow one away much more with their internal beauty.

But where else, after a rousing performance of Traviata can one raise one’s glass, on a balcony or though a wide plate glass window and toast a wonderful city like Sydney? Who else, after a sad passage in La Boheme or Otello, can comfortingly sip a coffee under those magnificent sails and gaze at the healing blue harbour waters softly lapping? Only those at our wonderful Opera House.


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I was a feminist prior to the so called “First Wave”, so I accept that I have only been a mere ripple. But my compatriot ripples and I feel we made some contribution. For example we fought hard for the right to wear trousers (or slacks). Women no longer have to hide their long pants under academic gowns. Women teachers can wear them while teaching. A friend was the first woman to wear them presiding in court as a judge.

I am reasonably selective when I choose my long pants. I like those which, like men’s trousers, have pockets.

But over succeeding years fewer and fewer pairs of women’s long pants sport pockets. Why? Is it another aim to make us powerless by filling our arms with unnecessary bags? Or indeed is it so we will still have a capacious bag so that male partners have somewhere to put larger items? ( I so hope it is not just for “slimmer lines”). The fight continues.

To my dismay, a further, nastier element has crept up upon us. Look at this photo of three pairs of pants I have bought in recent times. A close look will show all have pockets. The pockets on the middle pair even sport zippers, perhaps “for safety”.

Imagine my dismay when I found each and every pocket was false. None of these pants can hold anything – not even a credit card!

What message is this sending? One a bit like our University days when our welcoming women’s common room was still home to a urinal ( water turned off). A message about a passing fad we thought at that time.

Is it the message that our whims and fads will be tolerated in a friendly fashion but our needs are not to be taken seriously?

And, worst of all, I am sure that there must be many women complicit in this false pocket decision.

If you think you are riding a big wave of women’s rights whilst wearing false pockets just for fashion, listen to the ripples – you may be on a dumper.

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