Ask me no questions

One of the first things I do in my new classes each year is ask them if they trust me. If they believe me. They are lovely, polite kids, and they usually say yes. And I tell them not to. I tell them to question me. I tell them I can be wrong, misguided, or foolish.

I tell them that if I say something that doesn’t sound right to them they should call me on it. That if they’re not convinced by what I say they should ask for proof. And seek proof – or proof to the contrary – for themselves. The best classes happen when I am forced to reconsider some dogmatic statement. When someone proves something can be done that I said was impossible. Or when someone comes up with evidence that shows I am wrong. I love that. And I reward it.

I’ve known teachers who weren’t up for that. Who consider themselves autocratic, godlike figures who hold truth and wisdom in their own hands. Who take a challenge to their words as a sword to their heart, and must crush dissent with chilling ferocity, simply to protect themselves and their power.

But with everything that is happening in politics today – both in Australia and abroad – I have come to realise that there is nothing more important that I can teach my students than to question. To ask for proof. And to dissect that proof meticulously.

The people who will hold the line against evil, who will challenge accepted “wisdom”, and who will ultimately change the world, are the people who ask questions. The questions that no-one else is asking. The questions that we are told are unacceptable. The questions that other people don’t want to hear.

Those are the questions that need to be asked most of all. Those are the questions that will save lives. That will hold the line of compassion, of reason, and of justice.

If you have students, teach them to challenge you. If you have children, make sure they know that no-one – not even you – is inviolate. That no-one is perfect. That asking questions can be a difficult, even dangerous road at times, but that there is nothing more important for our growth – for our survival – than this.

I’ve worried about how to respond to what’s happening in the world, but it has become ever clearer that it is our immense gullibility that is the greatest threat. My work year starts today, and this has to be at the forefront of everything I do. The truth may be out there, but we won’t find it without asking a lot of tough questions.

Ask me no questions, and you will believe all my lies.

 

 

Expectation management

I’ve been thinking a lot about political tactics of late. Tactics that make people shrug and go “oh well, it’s just the way things are done now”. Politicians say things they know to be outright lies, and we go “oh well, what did you expect? That’s politics.”

Gay candidates have whisper campaigns run against them in conservative communities – which seems to me to be unspeakably foul – and we say “well, it works, so of course they will try it.”

I think it’s time we stopped shrugging. I think it’s time we valued decency. I think it’s time we told each and every candidate that negative campaigning sickens us. That we want to know what they will do, and what they believe, not how much they hate their opponents.

A few weeks ago the new Labor candidate for the federal seat of Bruce, Julian Hill, was outside my daughter’s school when I arrived to pick her up. Seeing an opportunity to grill him on asylum seekers and climate change (two of the most urgent and compellingly moral issues Australia faces right now, in my opinion), I went to talk to him, much to the disgust of my kids. (“OMG! Mum, he’s a politician! Gross!”)

I was intending to go in hard, because I am bitterly disappointed by both of our major parties on most issues, and on these two issues I am enraged. I was taken aback, therefore, when Julian proved himself to be thoughtful, considered, and compassionate. I didn’t agree with everything he said, but I could not help but respect the fact that he had thought things through and didn’t just spout a series of pre-prepared slogans, which seems to be the standard political response these days.

I went away and researched some of the things he said and emailed him about them, and he replied immediately. Again he was thoughtful, rational, and decent. I found myself, a Greens member of long standing, contemplating voting for this man. You may think that decency is a pretty low bar to set, but it’s one I think a lot of our politicians would struggle to clear. Decent people rather stand out.

What really struck me about my interactions with Julian is that through talking to him and grilling him on his attitudes to various things, I became much more engaged with the political process. I am surrounded, for the most part, by people I agree with. That’s pretty normal – we tend to seek out people we have a lot in common with – but it does mean that my views aren’t challenged as often as they could be. That, in turn, means that my views aren’t always well thought out (shocking, I know).

I found myself responding to Julian with a lot of “I think”s, so I then went home and set about changing them to “I know”s, or “I was wrong”s by checking my facts. This is another thing there’s not enough of in our current politics. (Incidentally one of the things that impresses me, again unexpectedly, about Ricky Muir – he is quite prepared to find stuff out and be persuaded by evidence. How novel!).

Sometimes when I’m tired and grumpy I don’t like people challenging my views. But I always, always learn from it. (Sometimes what I learn is not to hit the “send” button late at night…)

Whatever your politics and whatever your usual voting pattern, it’s worth engaging with your local candidates to find out, as much as you can, who they are and what they believe in. At worst you might only get chapter and verse of the party line, but that in itself is quite revealing.  If you despise a party’s policies, but then find that your local candidate for that party  has more moderate views, a vote for them can influence the path of the whole party. Even parties who typically vote in lockstep have members with differing opinions who might just be worth supporting.

At best you might learn something about your local politicians. You might even reconsider your own voting patterns – maybe to confirm them, or maybe to change them. It’s a way to ensure that you are voting for the candidate who best represents your personal values.

Best of all it’s a way to make yourself think about what is important to you. And that’s worth voting for.

 

 

 

There’s no justice. There’s just us.

Death once famously said* to his apprentice: “There’s no justice. There’s just us.”

Granny Weatherwax had a similar position, when Tiffany Aching cried out “It shouldn’t be this way!” Her response was simple and to the point: “There isn’t a way things should be. There’s just what happens, and what we do.”

We human beings are very fond of the concept of justice. We are quick to say “it’s not fair” (which often means “I’m not getting what I want.”). We are eager to believe that our legal system actually dispenses justice, despite its manifest flaws.

And we still cherish the deep, although increasingly insupportable belief that a democratic government makes decisions based on facts and the good of the country as a whole, rather than on lobbying, donations, pressure from mining magnates and the country as a hole. We have the Minister for the Environment, who frequently makes decisions that put the environment at risk. We have the Minister for Education, who says we have a very particular responsibility for wealthy private schools – presumably believing that public schools are tougher and more able to fend for themselves. We have the Minister for Health who presides over deep cuts to our public health system. Yet we find it hard to name these ministers accurately and replace the “for” with “against”. It would explain so much. Minister Against the Environment. Minister Against Women. Minister Against Health.

Lately I keep coming back to Death’s quote. There’s no justice. There’s just us. We can’t rely on the government to govern in our best interests. We can’t rely on them to take decisive action on climate change. We can’t rely on them to fund research, to build up our health and education systems, to feed the hungry or protect the vulnerable. We can’t rely on them to be just, or fair, or even sensible.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that we can only rely on our politicians to seek power at all costs, and to misuse it once they have it.

And it’s easy to say there’s nothing we can do about that. It’s easy to complain about it, and believe we are powerless to act.

But we do have power. We have power at the ballot box and beyond. We have the power to vote for independents and parties that are not the big two, we have the power to STAND as independents, or as representatives of progressive parties whose policies are evidence based and in line with our own idea of justice. We have the power to speak out, to sign petitions, to attend rallies. To spell out the facts when we hear someone say climate change is rubbish. To explain reality when we hear someone say that refugees are queue jumpers. To stand up for our health system, and to rally for the education reforms we so badly need.

We have the power to tell our politicians that their behaviour is unacceptable. To make it clear that we do not accept this as an inevitable feature of our public officials, but as an unpalatable deviation from the ethical and moral government that we demand as our country’s right. Politicians are more poll driven now than ever before, so it’s up to us to drive the polls.

There is no fundamental balance that will pull our governments back into line. There is no moral compass on the floor of our parliamentary chambers. We are the government’s moral compass. There is no justice. There’s just us.

*Famous to Terry Pratchett readers. If it’s not famous to you, go read “Mort“. And then the rest of the Pratchett books. You’ll thank me later. :)

How could you, Mr Abbott?

I spent the holidays with my family having the most wonderful holiday I can remember. We went to Heron Island, where not only were our myriad food issues just brilliantly catered for, we made breathtakingly wonderful new friends, and relaxed properly for the first time in years.

The reason we were so relaxed, apart from bonding with fabulous people, was the Great Barrier Reef. We snorkeled for hours every day, and without fail we saw new and wondrous things every time. We didn’t have to leave the island, we just stepped off the beach, put our masks in the water and were overcome with the incredible biodiversity all around us.

We swam with turtles, who were magnificently unconcerned with our presence.

green turtle

We discovered sea beds carpeted with cow tail rays, shovel headed rays, and white spotted eagle rays, so camouflaged against the sand that we often didn’t notice until we swam right over the top of them.

sting rays

We saw fish and coral of astounding colours and variation, and learnt bizarre and wondrous things about the lives and behaviour of a myriad of weird creatures – like the sea cucumber who can squirt out its internal organs at you when it feels threatened (I do feel that “Stop, or I’ll throw my kidneys at you!” doesn’t sound like the most frightening of threats), the sea star who can casually drop off one of its legs and feast on it if it feels like a snack, or the beautiful reef sharks who are harmless to humans, despite their clear and slightly creepy resemblance to their larger brethren.

While walking among the coral at low tide we had an Epaulette shark swim right up to us and pose, helpfully, for photos.

Epaulette SharkAnd we saw brilliantly coloured sea stars just hanging out on the rocks. Sometimes literally, as they eject their stomachs in order to digest large food.

Blue Linkia Sea StarI could rave on for pages and pages about the astonishing and wonderful things that we saw, but overlaying the trip was an overwhelming, desperate sadness. This richly biodiverse environment is under catastrophic threat, and our politicians seem to be actively hastening its demise.

They do things like ignore the overwhelmingly strong evidence that human driven climate change will spell the end of this kind of environment in an alarmingly short time, doing away with an effective carbon tax and subsidizing coal and fossil fuels to an absurdly uneconomic degree. They approve coal ports in the middle of the Great Barrier Reef. They decide that this stunning environment and all its creatures would be the perfect place to dump dredging spoil.

They are trashing our environment, our world, and our future, for reasons I cannot possibly begin to fathom. They may not be  playing dice with the universe, but they are playing God in an all too tangible and destructive fashion, and we don’t have long to stop them before this exceptional place is gone for good. And that will be just the start of our woes.

Fish and coral at Heron Reef

What right do we have to wantonly and irrevocably destroy this most remarkable place for a fistful of dollars? And how do we stop it??

The new normal

Here in Melbourne, Spring has suddenly sprung. Truly it has – don’t bother me with your petty calendar-based technicalities, I know Spring when I bask in it.

Outside the sun is shining, the flowers are blooming, and the temperature has reached that balmy level where, if it were summer, we’d all be muttering about brass monkeys and their frozen … er… seed cases (this is a family friendly website, ok?). Truly, it’s 17 degrees out there and we’re breaking out the t-shirts, shorts, and thongs, making plans to head for the beach. Weather like this in January would have us reaching for our coats and beanies. But coming as it does after a grey, cold winter, 17 degrees is pure, unadulterated bliss.

We are a remarkably adaptable species. We adjust quite quickly to new circumstances, and sometimes we forget that anything has even changed. What’s normal today is entirely dependent on what happened yesterday. Was it 12 degrees and rainy? Then 17 degrees is fine. But sometimes it pays to examine the new normal, and wonder if we have actually progressed. So here is a random list of normalities that could use some adjusting.

1. Politicians lie. They do. It’s a fact. We’re so used to it that it’s not even newsworthy anymore. It’s just a thing we know they do. I don’t know what the point of elections is anymore. We vote for some party on the basis of promises that we know they will break. We accept the lies, the inhumanity, and the gross inequity of their actions. Perfectly intelligent people swallow all kinds of lies like “saving lives by stopping the boats” and “budget emergencies”, even when evidence has shown them to be complete rubbish. And we are neither surprised nor horrified when they turn out to be corrupt. It’s just the way they are.

But we don’t have to accept it. We don’t have to vote for politicians. We can vote for independents, and minor parties. The major parties would have you believe that it leads to chaos, but Julia Gillard steered a hung parliament and a very fragile senate through some of the most significant progress Australia has seen in years. We got a National Disability Insurance Scheme, we got a price on carbon – a step that much of the world is now implementing, while watching in horror as we dismantle ours. The worst thing that can happen to a government is to have complete control. Good government is a process of negotiation, balance, and compromise.The more independents and minor parties get the vote, the more politicians will take note and start to listen to us. Your local member broke a promise? Sack ’em. It’s the only way they’ll learn.

2. We need new stuff. It’s hard rubbish time in my area, and the number of large, fully functional televisions that have been thrown out because their owners have shiny new flat screen tvs is ASTOUNDING. All because we need new stuff. We picked up a coffee table that needs a couple of nails and a polish to be as good as new. It’s a sturdy, high quality table. It’s lovely. But it was chucked on the scrap heap, because we need new stuff. More with the shiny things. Newsflash: We don’t need new stuff. Things can be repaired. Things can be polished. I can imagine a whole new class of profession in the future: people who fix stuff. Freaky, eh?

3. There’s rubbish everywhere. Yes, there is. But like politicians, we don’t have to accept that. We can take responsibility for our own rubbish. We can create less rubbish (don’t get me started on coffee pods), and dispose of what we do create carefully. We can pick up a little of everyone else’s rubbish every now and then. How many times have you walked into a school, a shopping centre, or a carpark and thought “how disgusting, people are such pigs!” and yet not done anything about it? Be the change you want to see in the world.

4. We need cars. We don’t, you know. We have feet. We have bicycles. We have public transport. Sure, there are arguments against many of those things, but you have more power in your body than you give it credit for. You can walk further than you think you can. You can ride further than you think you can. And the beautiful part is that the more you do it, the more you can do it. Got kids to transport? Get yourself a cargo bike. Cheaper than a second car, and you’ll save yourself the cost of a gym membership too. I’m not saying cars aren’t useful, but does your family really need two?

5. Productive=Busy. We are greatly invested in being busy these days. Wasted time is anathema. Got to be up and doing! But if there is one single thing I have learnt from being ill for a long time, it is that sometimes the most productive thing we can do is nothing at all. Mindfulness, stillness, peace and quiet – whatever you call it, we all need it, and we don’t value it nearly enough. I recharge my phone with ferocious obsessiveness, rarely letting it get flat. But I let myself get flat all the time. When was the last time you prioritized recharging yourself?

6. We mustn’t interfere. I have friends who live on a beautiful beach in Tasmania, where signs say dogs aren’t allowed, as it is a significant nesting area for a number of threatened species. Nonetheless, dog owners take their dogs there regularly, even off the lead. Rather than tut-tutting under their breath, my friends call them on it. Gently. Tactfully. But ever so firmly. They’re clever about it. They give people a chance to save face with comments like “Did you realize that dogs aren’t allowed on this beach?” which gives the owners the chance to say “Oooh, no, thanks for letting me know” and scuttle away with their tails between their legs (sorry). They still see dogs on that beach, but there are less of them, and they rarely see anyone they’ve spoken to coming back. This is how progress is made.

The mum next door screams at her kids a lot? Strike up a conversation. Maybe she really needs someone to talk to. There’s a dad in the supermarket with his toddler on the floor, screaming up a storm? Reach out to him. “Hah, I’ve had days I’d have liked to do that!” or “we’ve all been there, eh?” to let him know he’s not alone. When I was away from work for an extended period, I got lots of messages, emails, texts and phone calls, just checking that I was ok. I even got a few visits.

The world needs more reaching out, not less. So often we have no idea what’s going on, even next door to us.

What’s normal to you, and how much of it needs to change?

Danger, Will Robinson!

Much of the Australian Government’s current behaviour seems to be predicated on danger. Apparently, aside from the “only visible out of the corner of your eye” budget emergency, we also have a security emergency, a border protection emergency, and a desperate need to sacrifice privacy and freedom in order to be safe from the ever increasing terrorism emergency. Indeed, one news article I read today suggested we Australians live in “increasingly dangerous times”.

Certainly we feel increasingly unsafe. The news is full of reasons why we should be terrified of, well, just about everything. Of strangers (especially around our children). Of hijabs and head scarves. Of hoodies. Of refugees. Of politicians (actually that one seems pretty logical).

We are told that we need to sacrifice the presumption of innocence, together with our privacy, and accept laws creating a new level of surveillance (maybe, depending on who’s talking today), and requiring people traveling to “suspect” places to prove that they were not there with nefarious intent. We have to accept this, or be on the side of the terrorists. Obviously. Because we are in so much danger.

And yet… Are we actually at risk? Are we more likely to die? The Bureau of Statistics says that in 2003 132,292 people died in Australia, whereas in 2012 the number was 147,098. So we are more at risk, no? Well… no. If you factor in population in those years, in 2003 the ratio was 0.0067. In 2012, it was 0.0064. So you were actually less likely to die in Australia in 2012 than you were in 2003. The overall death rate has dropped.

If you consider the facts (a proposition neither politicians nor the media are keen on, it seems), we are growing older, safer, and more prosperous all the time. We are increasingly blind to how good we’ve got it. We have an unprecedented degree of financial security. We can afford to extend our good fortune to refugees. We can afford to protect our privacy, our freedom, and the presumption of innocence. We can also afford universal healthcare and high quality education, whatever Tony’s cronies might say.

What we can’t afford to do is reject science, facts, and the reality we live in, in exchange for a politically constructed illusion that is convenient for people trying to gain power, but catastrophic for the rest of us.

There is increasing danger in these times, but it is neither terrorism nor economics. The real danger is ignorance and credulity. It lies in blind acceptance of political spin, and a failure to question the statements and the emotive slogans that are stuffed down our throats every day.

Whatever your political views, whatever your beliefs, the one thing we must all do is to keep asking questions. It may be too late to keep the bastards honest, but it’s not too late to call them on their lies.

What makes a leader?

I was excited when a friend of mine went for promotion recently. He was diffident about it, but I watched him light up when he talked about things he wanted to achieve, and the possibilities he saw in his organization, and I knew he’d be amazing. I’ve worked with him before in leadership positions, and I’ve seen him interact with people on a daily basis. He has that rare gift of giving you his whole attention and making you feel important. Everyone knows him, everyone likes and respects him. And yet I know that’s a good start, but it’s not enough to make someone a great leader. So what is it that makes me absolutely certain he’ll be great?

Not long ago I was lucky enough to hear Bob Brown speak, and you can’t listen to Bob for so much as 60 seconds without being struck by his passion, his optimism, and his drive. The central tenet of his talk was that optimism is a driving force. If you let pessimism knock you out, there is no way forward. It takes optimism to drive change. You have to believe that change is possible, and that you can make it happen.

Bob is an intriguing character. It’s enthralling to hear him talk, but he is not one of the world’s great orators. His speeches seem unplanned. He digresses from his digressions recursively, until you are so many levels deep you can’t remember where it all began (yet you are fascinated all the way through). He is not king of the media friendly three word slogan (“Axe the tax!” “Stop the boats!” “Harass the Homeless!” “Revile the Refugees!” “Persecute the poor!”), or master of the newsworthy soundbite. And yet he is a great leader, with talented and passionate people rallying around him in their thousands. Why should that be?

I believe it’s his passion that makes Bob Brown a leader. Bob sees what needs doing and he goes for it. He is dedicated, driven, committed, and utterly honourable. He leads from the front, always first to put himself and his principles on the line. Bob became a leader, not for power or control, but for change. He wanted things to change, so he stood up, grabbed them by the throat, and damned well made them change.

My friend, who is now on the management fast track, is the same. I don’t think he sees himself as a leader. He’s not interested in power, or making a big noise about his achievements (which are many). But he has a vision for how the world should be, and he wants to make it happen. And he will, too.

I am beginning to see that the best leaders have no particular interest in leading. They want to change things, to fix them. They accept leadership as a troublesome necessity for making that happen, but they are not interested in power for its own sake.

“Those who most want to rule should under no circumstances be allowed to.” Douglas Adams.

Leadership in politics and in business is all too often painted as being all about power and ambition. But that’s not leadership. That’s naked self-interest. Leadership is about a vision for the future. It’s about a drive to effect positive change, and to leave the world better than you found it. As Bob said, there is one question we should be asking that overrides all others:

“Will people 100 years from now thank us for what we are doing? If you can’t say yes to that, you ought not be doing it.”

 That’s leadership.