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. :)

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Why marriage equality matters

I have read so many arguments around gay marriage. From impassioned pleas, to shrugging “meh, marriage is dead. Why bother?” essays that seek to convince us that marriage equality really doesn’t matter.

I don’t believe marriage is dead, because I know that deciding to get married made a difference to my relationship. In my head, whenever we argued, I used to think “well, if we can’t work it out, I can just walk away.” There always seemed to be an out. But once we got engaged I stopped thinking that, and started thinking instead “ok, how do we fix this?”

I recognise that not everyone thinks that way. And arguing that it’s important to me does not in any way make it important to anyone else, except maybe my husband!

But here’s why I think it’s important, more than any other reason:

Because we are currently allowing our government to say that same sex relationships are not worth as much as straight ones.

Yesterday the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony included John Barrowman kissing a man. Instantly social media was buzzing, with people falling over themselves to say how great it was. I can’t help but wish we were better than that.

No-one would have said how great it was to see a straight kiss in the opening ceremony. A gay kiss should not be remarkable. Kisses happen every day, in quite unremarkable ways. There are passionate kisses. Casual pecks. Lingering and tender kisses. Between men and men, women and women, and men and women. They are not remarkable. They are life. And it saddens me deeply that it is still remarkable to see a gay kiss in a public forum.

We still say “ooh! Look! Ian Thorpe is gay!” and chatter about it at apparently infinite length. We still find other people’s sexuality fascinating, when it is nothing to do with us. And we are still ok with politicians, even our Prime Minister, saying that gays must not be allowed to marry. That marriage is between a man and a woman, and that any other relationship is not as valid, not as worthy, a little bit wrong.

Marriage equality is only a little bit about marriage, but it is all about equality. About recognising, FINALLY, that people are people, and that a loving relationship is a loving relationship, regardless of whether the genders form a traditional matched set.

While we say it’s ok for our politicians to argue that gay relationships are not as real as straight ones, how can we argue that our kids should not tease gays in the playground, and that workplaces should not discriminate against gays when hiring, or indeed firing?

We say that gay youth should be able to come out without fear of discrimination. We say we care about their mental health. We say it’s just as ok to be gay as it is to be straight. But we clearly don’t mean it. Because we also say at the highest levels that gay marriage can’t be real.

I believe in tolerance, and respecting other people’s viewpoints, but I find it increasingly difficult to tolerate or respect the point of view that says, in effect, all men are equal – but some are more equal than others. Surely we are better than that?

Land of confusion

I did a good deed today. My 11 year old was proud of me. She was so pleased that I had stepped up to help.  She said I would come back feeling really good. I thought I would, too. I was feeling a little smug. A little pleased to have got out of my own head, been lifted out of my own worries, and to be able to help some strangers. I thought I would come back all aglow with their gratitude, and a sense of self-worth.

But I have come home gutted. Devastated. Deeply ashamed.

Not because the strangers weren’t grateful – far from it. The children adopted me instantly. Hugged me, proudly told me the words they could spell, and wanted to know all about my own kids. The parents offered me tea, and told me many times how grateful they were, and how they had been told someone would come. When they heard how far I had driven they were overwhelmed. They were lovely. We live about an hour apart, but I think we could be friends. I’ll take my kids to visit them in the holidays.

But… my god. The horror of what they have been through. The horror of what we, as a nation, are still putting them through. I knew it was appalling, but until I met these people, until trauma was given faces, names, and lives, I did not look it full in the face.

These people, these beautiful new friends, who welcomed me with open arms, who want nothing more than lives, jobs, and freedom – those trivial details that we take for granted every day – they are refugees. Fleeing from a homeland that promised them death and destruction, they have been in detention overseas for DECADES.

You read that right. FOR DECADES.

There’s too many men, too many people
making too many problems
and there’s not enough love to go round.
Tell me why this is the land of confusion?
 

So they risked everything to cross the sea to come here. They risked EVERYTHING. They took their lives, and those of their families, in their hands. They piled 40 families on a fragile, largely unseaworthy boat, and they came here. Looking for life. Looking for compassion. Looking, above all, for safety. And we locked them up.

We. Locked. Them. Up.

For years.

This is the world we live in
and these are the hands we’re given
use them and let’s start trying
to make it a place worth living in
Land of Confusion – Genesis
 

Children. Families. People.

It costs money to lock people up. To prevent them from working. To ensure they put down no roots, create no support networks, and never feel a part of the community. These families want nothing more than to make their own way in the world in safety. They don’t want our charity. They want to build themselves valuable lives, and establish themselves in the community. After all they have been through, all they want is to live. But we would rather pay to lock them up.

Abbott professes himself devout. I am not much of a religious scholar, but I remember endless passages in the bible about compassion, and about helping those in need. I don’t remember anything about demonising the desperate.

Do you know what undid me today, more than anything else in the tales that unfolded? One of my new friends was desperately concerned that I would think him a liar, and a bad man. He showed me his UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees) documents that proved he had, indeed, been in detention for decades. That he had lived, married, had a child, all in detention. That all he wanted was a life. And all he was given was jail, for himself, his wife, and his child. He wanted me to know that he was honest. That he was a good person. That he deserved to live.

I took them food today, as they have no way of contacting their case workers on the weekend. No nappies for their babies. No food for their children. No friends in the community – they were uprooted from their only support networks, and transferred to where they have no means of supporting themselves. They are not allowed to work. Who knows if their children will be able to go to school.

The Department of Immigration refers to these people, these families, as “Illegal Maritime Arrivals”. They are not. Australia has promised the UN not to discriminate on the basis of arrival, but oh! How differently we treat people who arrive by plane and overstay their visas. For a complete discussion of the legalities and technicalities I refer you to Julian Burnside.

I won’t be coming home tonight
my generation will put it right
we’re not just making promises
that we know we’ll never keep.

Ultimately, though, the legalities are irrelevant. The facts are these: Desperate people come here, seeking our help. We punish them. These people with faces, names, and families. These people who are filled with love, with gratitude, and with hope, after years of the world battering them with the worst it has to give. We punish them.

When I came home and told my family the story over dinner, my 7 year old cried: “I don’t want to be Australian anymore, Mummy!”

Is this who we want to be?

I. WILL. NOT. STAND. FOR. IT.

Will you?

 

What do we want? Rational Evidence based decision making.

What do we want? Rational Evidence based decision making.

When do we want it? NOW!

I want this on a t-shirt. It may not be the world’s catchiest protest slogan. I can already hear the crowd getting out of time and tripping over the detail of the chant. But really, this is at the heart of politics.

Policies these days are built firmly on the twin pillars of partisan politics and whoever lobbies the hardest. Each time I sign an online petition on an issue I feel strongly about I am conflicted. Part of me is thrilled that the internet provides tools like change.org where individuals can rally others to a cause and effect real change. Part of me despairs that this is what it takes. The squeakiest wheel gets the grease. Sure, we can squeak a lot louder now. But we have to keep squeaking. Things don’t get done because they are the right thing to do.  Things get done because there are votes in it, or because someone is paying for it, or because it’s party dogma to do it that way.

Why don’t more politicians support gay marriage, despite the polls showing that an overwhelming majority of Australians support it? Because it’s perceived to be politically dangerous. Because powerful lobby groups oppose it.

Why don’t politicians support decisive action on climate change? Because powerful lobby groups oppose it (like the fossil fuel/mining industries), and because decisive action on climate change will hurt in the short term. Nobody in power seems remotely fussed by the reality that without decisive action we are so much char grilled, cyclone battered, drought shrivelled toast. Nobody is bothered by the overwhelming scientific consensus that action is desperately needed. Our politicians look to the next vote, the next donation, the next squeaking.

Which brings me to my t-shirt. “Rational, evidence based decision making.” Sadly it seems to be a bizarre and outlandish concept, but surely it’s not so far fetched as all that. You can construct a plausible argument to justify any decision you want to make. The human brain is fantastically good at rationalising bad decisions. But in most cases the evidence is in about what works and what doesn’t. There are countries all over the world who have tried most things. There are examples of fantastic education systems – we know what works. There are examples of great healthcare systems – we know how to do that, too. And climate change? The evidence is in. We need to do everything that reduces our CO2 output and removes it from the atmosphere. Reforestation, radical reductions in energy use, renewable energy, new generation nuclear – we need it all, and we need it yesterday.

Research shows us what works. The evidence is in. This is what we truly need to lobby for – a political system that rewards evidence based action, rather than the loudest, richest lobby group, or the most marginal electorate.

Last night I dreamt that I confronted Australian Federal politicians on both sides and shouted at them to stop fighting amongst themselves and actually FIX things. Imagine that.

Live and let bonk

The Age reported today that a British MP was “outed” as bisexual, which may have “scuppered his prospects of leading the Liberal Democrat party”.  The article dealt with the matter as a straightforward result of the whole hacking scandal which has had the press in paroxysms for what seems like years now.  It never addressed the question of why the sexuality of that MP was in any way relevant to his leadership chances.

While in these days of quiet desperation
As I wander through the world in which I live
I search everywhere for some new inspiration
But it’s more than cold reality can give

It saddens me that we are still here – in a world where being gay can scupper your chances of anything (except, possibly, a heterosexual relationship), and where being bisexual is a political liability of unassailable proportions.

How can that be? How is a politician’s sex life in any way relevant to his or her performance in office? How is anyone else’s sex life in any way relevant to me unless I am trying to pursue a sexual relationship with them?

If I need a cause for celebration
Or a comfort I can use to ease my mind
I rely on my imagination
And I dream of an imaginary time

Who I take to bed is no-one’s business except mine and my partner’s. Or partners’, should I so choose (ah, the subtle impact of apostrophe placement!). Who you take to bed is none of my business, unless it’s me.

I want to write more on this, but I am really stumped. It seems so blindingly self-evident. Sexuality is for the bedroom. It is (or should be) irrelevant to politics. Once we legalise gay marriage (and we will – it’s inevitable, get over it, move on), sexuality should not appear on the political stage. We all need to grow up.

Oh oh, and I know that everybody has a dream
Everybody has a dream, everybody has a dream
And this is my dream, my own
Just to be at home and to be all alone with you

Everybody Has a Dream, Billy Joel

I dream of a time when sexuality is irrelevant to politics – when who and how you love is up to you. Johnny Galecki, star of the Big Bang Theory said it best when questioned about the persistent rumours that he is gay, and why he has not bothered to scotch them. “Why defend yourself against something that’s not offensive?”

Why indeed?

The upsides of religion

I am an atheist. The concept of a loving, all-powerful God is not something I can accept as I look around and see the most appalling suffering all over the world. Where I differ from famous atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitches, however, is where they draw a thick, black line – religion and everything bad on one side, science and everything good on the other. I wish life was really so clear cut!

Religion has a lot to offer, and those who would create a happily secular society must recognise the positives – they are at the heart of the ongoing success of religion, and in many ways at the heart of our societies.

Religions are a focal point of community. (I will mostly use Christian groups as examples here, because I am more familiar with them, but the tenets apply very firmly to all religions that I know of.) Churches provide an instant point of welcome to newcomers in a neighbourhood. Many refugees arriving in Australia find themselves drawn to the heart of a religious community, provided with food, friendship and all manner of assistance.

Studies in the USA have shown that people who identify as religious (independent of which religion) are more charitable, at least in the financial sense of the word. They donate  substantially more to charity, on average, than those who identify as atheist or agnostic. They are also more likely to donate their time and energy, volunteering in all sorts of benevolent capacities.

These are averages, of course – I know atheists who volunteer, and Christians who don’t.  There are good people and bad in all circles of life, and in all groups. But it makes sense that to claim membership of a group that has charity as one of its central tenets (as most, if not all, religions do) increases the likelihood of a person being actively charitable.

Many atheists choose to throw the baby out with the bath water. There is a militant tendency to declare religion to be close minded, intolerant, and the root of all evil. Which is interestingly ironic as it is an impressively close minded and intolerant point of view. There are certainly religious groups that use their religions to justify fatwas, pogroms, or simply mindless discrimination, but these are the loud minority. If you listen closely and impartially to public debate you quickly discover that religious groups are among the loudest supporters of, for example, gay marriage, social justice, and racial and gender equality. Loud and visible on the far right of politics, religion is equally vocal, but perhaps less newsworthy, on the liberal left.

Religion has always played a strong role in social justice. While particular sects have sometimes been associated with the elevation of a chosen few, many religious explicitly champion social justice and pledge themselves to help the poor and underprivileged. Such organisations are often the ones who shelter the homeless, feed the hungry and clothe the needy. This is not surprising. All religions that I know of have this kind of charity as one of their central tenets. It’s a ‘there but for the grace of God’ kind of thing. Religions counsel against hubris, arrogance and selfishness. While religious people don’t always put this into practice perfectly, I suspect this is more of a human failing than a religious one.

It is foolish, naive, and indeed intolerant and discriminatory to declare that religions are wholly negative. We can learn a lot from the charitable and community-building work of religions the world over.

Why labels matter

My last post, on gay marriage, generated quite a few comments. Many people, both on and off-line, seem to feel that the label is irrelevant. “Give them the same legal rights, by all means,” people said, “but why do they need the actual word “marriage”? It’ll be easier not to give it to them, and it really doesn’t make any difference.”

Indeed, this is a persuasive argument. If there is no material difference, then what does a label matter? The trouble is that I don’t think we are very good at recognising what constitutes a material difference. The human mind is a remarkably strange and pliable beast. It can be persuaded of all sorts of things without the active intervention of the conscious being that we like to believe is in control.

Psychology experiments abound with evidence of this. For example, one study asked people to remember as many words as possible out of a long list. If the list contained just a few words related to old age (words like “wrinkle”, “grey”, and “stoop”), participants would leave the building moving measurably slower than if those words were replaced with neutral ones. Just a few words, out of many, changed the way people moved. Words have power. And in this example, as in many others, the power is entirely subliminal. The people in the study did not report feeling any different. Their physical reaction was entirely under the radar of their conscious minds.

How much more powerful are the subtle linguistic signals of the social world? Call someone stupid and they will start to believe it. Praise children for their caring, and they will display ever more of it. Even the precise type of praise matters – praise people for being smart, and research shows quite clearly that they will become more cautious in their work, and more likely to cheat, as “being smart” is something they perceive as outside their control. Praise them for their effort, and they will work even harder, achieve even more, as their effort is clearly something they can control. And none of these reactions are in any way conscious.

Indeed, these subconscious impacts are very effectively rationalised away by our conscious brains. Douglas Adams provides a very good example in “The Long Dark Teatime of the Soul.” Richard has just jumped into a filthy, urban canal and found himself unable to swim:

Dirk: “Do you always go swimming in the afternoons?”
Richard: “No, I usualIy go in the mornings, to the swimming pool on
Highbury Fields, just to wake myself up, get the brain going.
It just occurred to me I hadn’t been this morning.”
Dirk: “And, er – that was why you just dived into the canal?”
Richard: “Well, yes. I just thought that getting a bit of exercise
would probably help me deal with all this.”

Dirk goes on to prove, to Richard’s consternation, that he had hypnotised Richard, and ordered him to jump into the canal upon hearing the words “My old maiden aunt who lived in Winnipeg.” Dirk’s instructions went on to say that Richard, normally a good swimmer, would then find himself unable to swim.

Unable to access these instructions, Richard’s conscious mind found good reasons why he would jump into a filthy canal, and why he couldn’t swim (cramp).

Of course, this is a work of fiction, but it is a perfectly realistic example of the way the mind works. Given a subconscious prompting of which our conscious brain is entirely unaware, we will happily explain it away with reasons that we believe with utter conviction – but that are entirely false.

The things we do, and the words we choose, send messages to ourselves, our children, and our society, all the time. Choosing to deny marriage to gay people sends a loud, clear, and appalling message that we believe them to be lesser people. That gay parents are inferior to straight ones. That gay relationships are less real, less valid, and less worthy than straight ones.

That we’d really rather not admit that it is just as normal, healthy, and rational to be gay as it is to be straight. For those of you who cringed at that last sentence, I give you this lovely summary (seen on twitter):

Homosexuality is found in over 500 species. Homophobia is found in only one. Which one seems unnatural now?

I believe that legislating to make gay marriage legal will, over time, drastically lower homophobia in our society. Of course, I can’t prove it just yet. But I’d love to have the chance to try.