Monday, January 25, 2016

The consequences of speech

This is the story of three white men who lost their jobs. SBS sports reporter Scott McIntyre, for a series of critical tweets on Anzac Day 2015; British lawyer Clive O’Connell, for a tirade captured on video against fans of the Liverpool football club, and people from Liverpool generally; Sydney hotel supervisor Michael Nolan, for posting abuse on the Facebook page of feminist writer Clementine Ford. I could have chosen other examples, but hopefully these three recent ones are sufficient to begin to map a very contemporary set of concerns, at the intersection between social media and the debate not just about freedom but the very nature of expression.

One of these things, of course, is not like the others: few would class the torrent of vile and often violent abuse directed at Clementine Ford, and feminists and women more generally, as a form of ‘opinion’ worthy of protection. Yet a characteristic of this debate are the slippages between different forms of speech. Not only overt abusers like Michael Nolan but also critics of abusive language on social media are routinely described as bullies, or a lynch mob, or accused of policing speech. Broad equivalences are made, most notoriously perhaps in Jon Ronson’s book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, in which disparate events are classed under the same rubric. Specificities are elided, so that a general point can be made, be it about ‘shame culture’ or online abuse.

Thus on the surface, these are all stories about men losing their jobs because of something they said. If we force ourselves not to make distinctions between the circumstances that led to the three firings, we’ll be much more likely to take a position against any of them happening at all. However, each case is underlined by a very different power dynamic.

McIntyre lost his job for expressing anti-militarist opinions which were publicly lambasted by then-communications minister Malcolm Turnbull, who also got in touch directly with McIntyre’s boss the day before the firing. Even though McIntyre’s (state-funded) employer cited breaches in the company’s social media policies, there is reason to argue this was in fact a case of state censorship.

An agreed-upon code of conduct was also adduced as the explanation for Clive O’Connell losing his private sector job for causing embarrassment to his employer – an embarrassment which could translate into the loss of clients.

As for Michael Nolan, it is not enough to observe that he brought his firing upon himself. The chain of events is more complex than that, and passes through Facebook’s continuing failure to effectively address abusive behaviour by its members. Frustrated with this abdication of responsibility on the part of the owners of the communications infrastructure, Clementine Ford had tried reposting some of the abuse she received on her own Facebook page, only to have her account suspended for 30 days for ‘violation of community standards’. Ford’s eventual decision to report Nolan’s behaviour to his employers may be construed as a misplaced form of retribution, but is in fact the consequence of a failure occurring elsewhere in the system – a failure which is political in nature.

The fact that the discursive spaces on the web are so unsafe for women, LGBT or people of colour is a mirror of the lack of safety across society at large. One of Jon Ronson’s informants tried to make this point to him in a passage of So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed that was cut from the final, published edition. In the exchange, a female user of the 4chan message board explained the culture of online shaming as follows:

4chan aims to degrade the target, right? And one of the highest degradations for women in our culture is rape. We don’t talk about rape of men, so I think it doesn’t occur to most people as a male degradation. With men, they talk about getting them fired. In our society men are supposed to be employed. If they’re fired, they lose masculinity points.

In another passage which did make the cut, developer Adria Richards expressed a similar idea through the famous quote of Margaret Atwood’s – ‘Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them’ – an analogy forcefully rejected by Ronson. Yet the distinction goes to the heart of this particular debate, for it grounds it in an understanding of the forms that social violence takes.

When we talk about freedom of expression, we must always remember that this expression is met unequally, and that censure, criticism and ridicule are fundamentally different from threats of violence and rape, or state and police repression.

From this constitutive distinction descend the others: dissent and criticism expressed from a subaltern position, such as when a journalist questions the myth of Anzac heroism, are not the same as a tirade against the fans of a rival football team, and by extension the people from the city the team hails from; just as losing a job in journalism with a public broadcaster for expressing dissenting views is not the same as losing a job in the private sector for embarrassing one’s employer. Moreover, the particular consequences of these kinds of speech – however serious in terms of one’s immediate livelihood – in most jurisdictions allow for recourse to employment courts (McIntyre is bringing such a case), which further sets them apart from psychological and physical abuse.

It’s not just that I don’t think we could draw a single lesson from the three stories I have asked you consider: it’s that I don’t think we should try, for it would require erasing too many of these distinctions.

We live in an age of precarity, which certainly contributes to viewing loss of employment as a grave existential threat; the growing tendency to equate all manners of workers with public relations professionals simply by virtue of their having a social media presence – hence the ubiquitous ‘opinions are my own’ disclaimer – will also fuel this anxiety. These things are real. But loss of employment isn’t the only consequence of online speech: the perpetuation of patterns of social violence is a far more common one, and the task of recognising and neutralising this violence, more urgent.

To the extent that I’m willing to make a general claim, it is this: safe spaces are also critical spaces. And for critical spaces to exist, we must not only protect the right to genuine dissent – as opposed to hate speech or abuse – but also ensure that the people who have been historically marginalised have a chance to speak. Beware of anyone who tries to convince you that those voices are the real threat.

Originally published at Overland

Monday, January 18, 2016

Old words for the new poor

It wasn’t so much the plagiarism as the vague, condescending explanation. I wrote the same piece ‘about four times,’ he said, ‘in various different places.’ And anyway ‘there's clearly no such thing as self-plagiarism.’ Unlikely words to come out of the mouth of an academic, someone who once would have been in charge of policing such behaviour among undergraduates, and fail them with haste if they transgressed.

Except this time the context was different. That is to say, arguably, worse. Dr Jamie Whyte wrote this in 2005 in The Times:
There is no poverty in Britain. Misery, futility, depravity, yes; but no poverty.
And in 2016 he wrote this in The New Zealand Herald.
There is no poverty in New Zealand. Misery, depravity, hopelessness, yes; but no poverty.

He went on:
The poorest in Britain are the unemployed. They receive free housing, free medical care, free education for their children and small cash sums to pay for food, clothing and transport. Most own televisions, refrigerators, ovens, and stereos. Many even own cars. That isn’t poverty.
And then, 11 years later:
The poorest in New Zealand are the unemployed. They receive free medical care, free education for their children and enough cash to pay for basic food, clothing and (subsidised) housing. Most have televisions, refrigerators and ovens. Many even own cars. That isn't poverty.

He would have got away with it, too, if it weren’t for the meddling Lamia I. She’s the one who tracked down the copied sections (there are more), which over the course of one afternoon caused the paper to print the author’s explanation and essentially disown the piece (‘The Herald accepted the article in good faith. It would not have appeared had the newspaper known the background.’)

Some folks later tut-tutted about the self-plagiarism charge, opining it’s not so bad when people steal from themselves, and that the poor quality of Whyte’s argument was the greater issue. Perhaps. I rather think that the literally recycled nature of the argument illuminates its poor quality. Whyte’s original piece was entitled ‘The only poverty is in the head,’ which in light of what transpired is deliciously ironic. Lamentably in the irony stakes, he left out from the recycled piece the part where he had impugned the intellectual honesty of left-wing politicians. A true shame.

This is the test for why the self-plagiarism is a problem. The correct way of doing things would have been to reference the old piece. Something like this: ‘Look, anti-poverty campaigners are at it again with their fallacious measures of poverty, so I’m forced to recycle this old piece I wrote. Look at how few changes I have had to make. I can even reuse my horribly didactic schoolboy example again.’ It would have been an openly disdainful move, of course, and one that the paper apparently would have taken a dim view of. To copy-and-paste without acknowledgement, on the other hand, is to appear to be engaging with an argument – in this case, Susan St John’s – without actually doing so. It’s not just lazy, but also dishonest, which is why such things are frowned upon so vigorously in the publishing world.

To be clear: not every text needs to be absolutely original. Nobody is going to expect you to come up with a new wording every time you put up a safety warning. But in a political context, verbatim repetition is the mark not of genuine opinion or argument, but of a talking point. Or, as it used to be called, of propaganda.

That is why Jamie Whyte reprinted his old piece ‘about four times’. Because it was an effective way, from a strictly rhetorical standpoint, to argue that poverty doesn’t exist in advanced deregulated economies, and he couldn’t think of another one, or couldn’t be bothered. This would be unacceptable for a writer or academic – as Whyte once was – but is perfectly logical for the director of a right-wing think tank, as he is now. The nature of the op-ed piece, where one is never drawn into a debate, but can mount a one-sided polemic, does the rest. Thus a legitimate if far too broad and schematic argument against the relative measurement of poverty slips into the denial that concrete, absolute hardship exists. Nobody from inside the text will ask the question: what of the symptoms of poverty that are not relative, Dr Whyte? What say you about the incarceration rates, the third world diseases, the food banks working over time? And how is owning a fridge a measure of not being poor, when a family is unable to fill it?

Image from The Child Poverty Monitor

As it happens, an old report – not recycled, just old – re-surfaced on social media at the same time as Whyte’s hand got caught in the jar. Entitled ‘What happens when you scrap the welfare state?’ and dated 13 March 1994, it examines – for the benefit of readers of the British Independent – the effects of Rogernomics and Ruthanasia in New Zealand circa the end of the first Bolger term. Its rough conclusion is that while in aggregate terms the economy was stronger, inequality had boomed and poverty had reached levels that had not been known for decades. It’s an interesting read, vivid in its reporting but not lacking in analysis or data. One concluding passage struck me in particular:
In the pursuit of economic recovery and the enterprise culture, those with the least gave the most. And, as they did so, they disappeared below the poverty line.

If ‘disappeared’ seems too strong a word, it is true in that sense of 'belonging to and participating in the community'. Some disappear from the market-place, relying on the food banks. Some disappear from the streets and housing estates, departing to the caravan parks of south Auckland.

That line about belonging and participating famously hails from the 1972 Royal Commission on Social Security, which regarded them as the fundamental conditions of not being poor. So it shouldn’t surprise us that those who argue, quoting liberally from themselves, that poverty doesn’t exist, start from defining it rather as the lack of basic material goods, or a demonstrable and chronic state of hunger. In this way, they ask that negatives be proven (say, the absence of refrigerators, or food), instead of taking up the burden of showing that belonging and participation occur – a far harder and more meaningful task.

Sadly, the debate has been debased across the board. I regret that we use the word poverty so much, and especially child poverty – as if the poverty of adults didn’t matter – and other words so little, like security, exploitation or emancipation. I don’t blame anti-poverty campaigners for this, the best of whom do our best work: it’s simply a sign of our narrowed down political field, of which Whyte’s writings are the distorted mirror. This is why, I hope without nostalgia, I sometimes advocate the use of an older vocabulary, or reading old books full of forgotten lessons. So, for example, when earlier this month we read about ‘The myth of how families in poverty spend their money,’ I was reminded that the question ought to have been settled just over a century ago by a wealthy, well-meaning liberal woman, who along with other wealthy, well-meaning liberal women set about teaching to the real housewives of Lambeth how they could stretch their budgets and improve the health of their families, only to find that they knew far better than she.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

The world's biggest teddy

This is Wellington as we left it, heat-bathed, postcard-perfect. Our short holidays often coincide with the city being at its most superficially desirable, the small yearly window in which it becomes a seaside destination. Driving up North, as we did, at least as far as Ruapehu (in Winter) or lake Taupo (year-round), the balance shifts from the conventionally attractive to the quirk charm of small provincial centres in various stages of economic decline, sometimes wearing that decline on their sleeve: none more so perhaps than the small Horowhenua town of Foxton, of which I wrote before.

This is not the New Zealand of the tourist brochures for the international visitor. Like Maurice Shadbolt’s Shell Guide, it speaks instead to the domestic traveller, in the form of what it has chosen or managed to preserve. Its dominant feature is the undulated rural countryside remade in the image of England’s green and pleasant land, playing like a long film outside the car window. You could take a million of these pictures, flip them in quick succession and save a lot of money on gas.

We are drawn to a handful of small towns on this route, and to equally small and occasionally surprising sights. Like a suspension bridge with annexed lone smoke stack, what remains of an early 20th century flax mill on State Highway 56, near Opiki.

These places are like small flags on a historical map, while so many more have fallen off. The overall sense is that of an incomplete picture. What did this monotonous pastoral landscape look and feel like, before colonisation? How did it get to be this way? And what parts of the story are omitted?

'Official' historic places are few and far between, or semi-hidden. At the site of the Battle of Ōrākau, near the monument that commemorates both Rewi Maniapoto and Lieutenant General Duncan Alexander Cameron, somebody removed one of the explanatory plaques, leaving a literal gap in the story.

We stop along the road, take pictures, visit small museums if we are lucky enough to find them open. It’s our way of making interesting a route that is so very familiar and worn.

This New Zealand tries to immortalise itself, to hold on to its concrete past. Sometimes the nostalgia takes a melancholy turn, like at the former site of the Flaxville ‘model town’, in Shannon, improbably boasting the world’s biggest teddy bear. (The collection has been shifted to a pub on state highway 57.)

Or in the neglected but still quite beautiful building that once housed the Cascade Brewery in Taihape.

Stretched along these flag pins, and impossible to convey through pictures, is the time it takes to cover the distance. Yet it is a key to understanding how the pictures and the places fit together. It was not until I took the day train from Te Awamutu to Wellington, in late 1998, that I realised just how sparsely populated New Zealand is, how rural, and that I glimpsed how long it might take me to get used to this fact and begin to understand for myself its human and historical shape.

In no particular order, then, and more for my benefit than yours, some more images from this latest trip.

On the Arapuni School standard, referencing the nearby hydroelectric power station.

Fires destroy, Tokoroa.

The Putaruru Hotel..

The Pukeatua War-Memorial Church.

A dutiful vista of Mount Ruapehu.

Upstairs door, Taihape.

Outside Saint Michael’s Chapel, Tokoroa.

Who do I think I am, Jane Ussher? Inside St Michael’s.

Former Veterinary Clinic sign, Shannon.

The Shannon Post Office.

Outside The Majestic, Taihape.

Vintage Tip Top poster at Te Manawa, Palmerston North.

That’s Numberwang!, Palmerston North.

Outside the Te Awamutu Town Hall.

The Kihikihi War Memorial.

Heavily discounted grandmas, Shannon.

Oh: I never found out what the story was with the world’s biggest teddy.