Zero tolerance for ritual humiliation

The Church is recognised as having tolerated abuse of children and young adults, and sometimes regarded it as character building, in connection with corporal punishment and activities such as drinking rituals at university residential colleges.

Yesterday’s Sun-Herald led with the story of a first-year female student at the Catholic St John’s College at Sydney University rushed to hospital after being pressured to consume an initiation drink during an Orientation Week ritual.

In recent years other colleges at the university have also had to deal with the entrenched culture of ritual humiliation involving alcohol and sex. A student from Wesley College at Sydney University wrote in 2009:

Many young women feel disempowered, or attempt to win male 'respect' by going along with their incessant chanting to 'get your tits out for the boys' – and losing their self-respect.

Yesterday’s Sun-Herald revealed that the St John’s College rector Michael Bongers has implemented the college’s zero-tolerance policy on excessive drinking and other anti-social behaviour which had been a more or less accepted part of the college’s culture for many generations. Bongers has suspended 30 students over the recent incident.

Suspending 30 students makes a powerful statement that ritual humiliation destroys rather than builds character, and it won’t be tolerated. It was a tough and potentially divisive decision that will involve collateral damage. The college is likely to take a substantial financial hit, and at least some of the 30 will feel they played little or no part in the offence and do not deserve to have their education disrupted.

Zero-tolerance is also the risky strategy that federal defence minister Stephen Smith employed in dealing with the Skype scandal in the defence force. He perceived that the message sent by Commodore Bruce Kafer’s insensitive timing of his disciplining of the alleged victim undermined public condemnation of the act, even though Kafer did not break any rules. Smith has put his job on the line, and hopefully he and the defence force will emerge stronger after the dust settles.i

Military cadets and college students are at an impressionable and vulnerable stage of their life. Technically they are no longer minors, but they remain sensitive to many of the stresses that can undermine their confidence for the rest of their lives. It’s worth alluding to the positive energy created by the recent Protecting Victoria's Vulnerable Children inquiry.

In Eureka Street last week, Monsignor David Cappo highlighted its strategy of both prevention and high level intervention. He also discussed the interconnectedness of issues such as violence, alcohol and substance misuse and mental health problems. 

When a cocktail of such factors is placed in the hothouse environment of a military academy or university college with a tradition of robust behaviour, there is a certain inevitability in the result. But this need not be the case if those in charge are prepared to take decisive action to stop behaviour that has been tolerated in the past.

Infanticide and the spectre of eugenics

For many, it would have been alarming to read on Friday that 'killing newborns is morally the same as abortion and should be permissible if the mother wishes it'.

As reported in the Sydney Morning Herald, the idea is that around a third of infants with Down syndrome are not diagnosed prenatally, and mothers of children with serious abnormalities should have the chance to end the child's life after, as well as before, birth.

There is a lot that could and should be said about such a proposal, except that it is not a proposal, but merely a 'reasoned argument'. Arguments don't have legs unless they're greeted by popular acclaim, or perhaps contempt.

There is a danger that expressions of community outrage at the idea of infanticide could put it on the agenda for serious discussion.

Indeed that has perhaps already occurred in this instance, in which case organised community outrage could be appropriate. A lack of such an expression would then be a poor reflection on our society if we accept that the measure of a civilisation is how it treats its weakest members.

Julian Savulescu, who edits the British Journal of Medical Ethics says the two Melbourne academics who wrote the original article putting the argument for terminating newborns did not seek to 'present the Truth or promote some one moral view', but 'to present well reasoned argument'. He added that 'if others made a similarly refined case for recriminalising abortion he would also publish that'.

To an extent, his point is a good one. It's that academics operate in a laboratory of ideas, and it's their task to experiment with a variety of arguments in their attempt uncover the truth.

However some arguments are like dangerous viruses that should not be allowed to escape the lab, and their justification for infanticide seems to have done just that. It's therefore legitimate to suggest that this could be a matter of professional negligence.

A frightening example of a dangerous idea that made it out of the lab and into Victorian Government legislation is that of eugenics, the science of improving the race. It was promoted by a number of Melbourne academics such as the influential and well respected Professor of Anatomy at Melbourne University Richard Berry. 

State Parliament unanimously passed a bill legalising eugenics in 1939, but it was never enacted due to the embarrassment of the Holocaust. The bill aimed to institutionalise and potentially sterilise groups such as Aborigines, slum dwellers, homosexuals, prostitutes and alcoholics, as well as those with small heads and with low IQs.

Actually the very point about taking a stand against infanticide is that it is a form of eugenics, which by definition has no place in a society that cares for its most vulnerable.

Dysfunction in the Church and the ALP

As an institution stricken with dysfunction, the ALP shares a bleak outlook with unions, churches and other organisations that are similarly sustained by shared ideals and belief systems, but are struggling. They all find it difficult to sell their values to a wider public and to recruit new generations of members.

There seems to be a tension between marketability and remaining faithful to the original charism or inspiration. In the past, these have worked in tandem, as they should. But it could be that the institutions have lost their nerve and no longer know how to be authentic, despite explicit and well-publicised attempts to be 'real'.

There is a defensiveness that shows itself in a culture of denial that rejects effective self-examination in favour of actual or de facto authoritarianism. In 2010 British Jesuit psychologist Brendan Callaghan wrote in Thinking Faith of a defensiveness that is also common in the corporate world:

All large institutions develop mechanisms of defensiveness. IBM, General Motors, Lehman Brothers — all have also paid the price for having developed an internal culture which made it impossible for those with responsibility to see the truth ...

Unthinking obedience and loyalty in the face of disagreement with authority can be a way of avoiding the pain and tension of conflict, doubly attractive if those in authority have arbitrary powers of appointment and promotion.

Callaghan's main interest is in dealing with the dysfunction that exists in the Catholic Church, with particular reference to sexual abuse. He traces the problem back to the Reformation and the post-Council of Trent seminary system which was structured by a need to defend received doctrine rather than play a part in the contest of ideas represented by the Enlightenment and the growth of scientific method. 

He refers to the psychologist Erich Fromm's suggestion that we live with two conflicting tendencies: to 'move out of the womb' into freedom and responsibility, and to 'return to the womb', to certainty and security. The latter represents a gain of sorts, but it's actually a loss in terms of human development and fulfilled living.

It's not Eureka Street's purpose to transplant Callaghan's analysis of power structures in the Catholic Church to the Australian Labor Party. But members and observers of the ALP will recognise signs of the party's decline in that of the Church, and hopefully accept that both Gillard and Rudd forces have a particular job to do in order to make the party functional before the next federal election.

In defence of 'adults only' video games

The Federal Government last week introduced legislation to create an R18+ classification for computer games from the beginning of 2013.

Until now violent or sexually explicit games have had to be either banned or put into the MA15+ classification that is accessible to minors. The legislation represents a breakthrough in that it will allow adults to play a wider range of games, while teenagers will be protected. 

This protection has prompted the Catholic Bishops to offer cautious support for the new classification. Father Richard Leonard of the Bishops' Office for Film and Broadcasting said the old system is flawed because many games that should have received a restricted rating ended up attracting the highest possible MA15+ rating that includes content ostensibly suitable for older teenagers.

'Some parents have assumed that on seeing this classification on the cover of a computer game that these games were deemed to have less adult content. But they do not.'

The changes represent a step forward for both child protection and adult civil liberties. However they do beg the question of whether shifting the boundaries to legalise more sexually explicit and more violent content really serves a social purpose.

Indeed it would seem reasonable to conclude that increased exposure to sex and violence as entertainment will lead to more sexual exploitation and violence in the community.

Barbara Biggins of the Australian Council on Children and the Media does just that. She has been outspoken in expressing her conviction that the R18+ classification will lead to desensitisation, loss of empathy and an increase in risk taking activities.

Unfortunately Biggins' style is polemical. She appears to see only propaganda in the arguments of R18+ supporters, and this lowers the quality of the debate. She makes possibly important, but undeveloped, points, for example that video game violence is more sinister than violence in the cinema because 'you are rewarded for being the best at violence'. 

Such assertions are not backed up by scholarly research, according to Christopher Ferguson, a US psychologist and video game violence researcher from the A&M International University in Texas. He regards Biggins' presentation of the facts about the link between video violence and actual violence as 'not accurate'.

He wrote on the ABC's The Drum website last April that in recent research he conducted he found that youth exposed to violent video games actually engaged in more pro-social behaviours. The scholarly community, he says, is becoming quite skeptical about claims such as those of Biggins.

'In fact increasing numbers of scholars have criticised this conclusion, pointing out serious methodological flaws in much of the research as well as the irresponsible repetition of debunked "urban legends".'

Significantly Ferguson's research has found mental health issues to be a more reliable predictor of negative outcomes, not violent video games or television. This points to the need to stop demonising video games and instead to provide proper funding for youth mental health services.

Closing the Gap won’t work without human reconciliation

The Prime Minister's Closing the Gap speech to Federal Parliament last Wednesday was a finely crafted piece of work that failed to hit the spot. It was heartfelt, but the words seemed hollow.

It has become a personal mission to help my fellow Australians to open their hearts, as much as to change their minds, on Aboriginal policy ... Even as things began to change, a generation or two back, our tendency was to work forAboriginal people rather than with them. We objectified Aboriginal issues rather than personalised them.

Yet this objectification is what underlies the current focus of Indigenous policy, which is to 'close the gap' in statistical disadvantage.

Statistical disadvantage has, in the words of University of Queensland analyst Elizabeth Strakosch, 'become the dominant way of framing the relationship between Indigenous and settler Australia'. It is, she suggests, the sum total of 'our national Indigenous policy'. According to this view, it misses the point that human reconciliation needs to be achieved before the statistical gap can be closed.

Whether it's our Indigenous policy, or merely a campaign, 'Closing the Gap' is a media-friendly way of presenting in simple terms the complex challenge we have ahead of us. It facilitates the selling in overstated terms of any short-term improvements in the figures. 

It is not policy that has been thought out and developed. Rather it is a justification for getting out the big stick to achieve short term gains that will look good on the Government's political report card when the next election comes around. An example is the initial apparent success of the truancy officers measure, which Abbott referred to in his speech:

At my first COAG meeting, every state and territory agreed with the Commonwealth on the need to publish attendance data from every school. And that's why, at 40 remote schools, the Commonwealth is already funding new anti-truancy measures that, on day one of the 2014 school year, in some communities, seem to have boosted attendance from under 60 per cent to over 90 per cent.

What will attendance figures be in five years from now? What statistical blemish is he covering with his use of the word 'seem'?

Objectifying Indigenous Australians with such an overarching use of statistics represents another half-measured stab at improving the lives of Indigenous Australians. It is akin to its predecessor, the failed paternalistic NT Intervention that began during the Howard era and was continued by the successive Labor governments.

As Elizabeth Strakosch also points out, the Prime Minister 'has appointed his own advisory council on Indigenous affairs, rather than engaging with the elected National Congress. This sits uncomfortably with his commitment to a new engagement with Indigenous Australia.'

Close the Gap's preoccupation with statistics ignores the fractured social and political relations between Indigenous and settler Australia. It makes events such as the 2008 Apology to the Stolen Generations and the 2000 Sydney Harbour Bridge Walk for Reconciliation seem tokenistic. Especially when we consider ongoing hurts such as the annual Australia Day celebration, and the Australian War Memorial's refusal to recognise the death of at least 20,000 Indigenous Australians from 1788 at the hands of colonial authorities and settler militias.

The use of statistics to improve the lives of Indigenous Australians must go hand in hand with attempts to build human bonds between Indigenous and settler Australians. Building bonds is much more difficult than quoting and manipulating statistics. But it is likely to be more enduring.

Keeping Conroy out of bed with Rinehart

Mining magnate Gina Rinehart has many Australians worried about the future of Australian democracy after increasing her shareholding in Fairfax Media to just under 15 per cent. This, they believe, is just the beginning of her attempt to spoil the tradition of independent journalism we'[ve enjoyed as readers of the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

Former Age editor Andrew Jaspan summarised his fears in the newsletter of the group of eight universities' topical ideas website The Conversation, which he now runs.

In a 1979 polemic called 'Wake up Australia', Gina's father, Lang Hancock argued: 'We can change the situation so as to limit the power of government', before concluding: 'it could be broken by obtaining control of the media and then educating the public'.

The obvious response to this is that the government can and should do more to limit the power of wealthy Australians seeking to dominate debate. This is being done, but only to an extent. Communications Minister Stephen Conroy admits there is a need to strengthen regulations to ensure media diversity, but is essentially quite relaxed about Rinehart's move on Fairfax.

'It has always been the case in Australia over my lifetime in politics that a small number of families have had a controlling interest in the majority of the media in this country,' he told ABC Radio.

Conroy has cultivated good relations with at least some of these families. Two years ago he enjoyed a game of golf with James Packer on the day the government announced a $250 million licence fee rebate for free-to-air television stations. The stations subsequently reaped further huge rewards from the success of the extra digital channels the government allowed them.

Despite the UK Government's current hard line against Murdoch, it is unlikely politicians will ever take decisive action to limit the power of the dominant media owners because their electoral success is linked to positive media coverage. i

If we accept that politicians cannot be trusted to regulate the media without fear or favour, we must consider taking certain fundamental aspects of media regulation out of the hands of government altogether. This could be done by making media diversity subject to a charter of human rights. 

Obviously we do not have a human rights charter, and are unlikely to have one in the immediate future because the Government rejected the recommendations of the Brennan committee in 2010.

But media diversity is indeed a human right, and the Government's weak performance in legislating in this area represents a powerful argument for Australians to insist upon revisiting the human rights charter that was proposed.

Pope's advice for Gillard and Abbott

We expect our politicians to be engaged with the electorate, often assuming this equates to constant participation in public debate in the media. 

It’s as if there is a mathematical formula allowing us to measure their ‘cut through’ according to the total number of words they utter in public. That is, a greater number of different words, repeated frequently, amounts to more effective communication. 

On the contrary, it’s more likely that less words will engage people more effectively. Thomas Merton said in his 1956 classic Thoughts in Solitude that silence ‘teaches us to know reality’. He warned that words not informed by silence can ‘defile’ reality. That is certainly what underlies practices such as meditation and yoga, which help us to listen to silence so that we can connect with the world around us from the core of our being.

It was also the key point of Pope Benedict's World Communications Day message that was released last week. He said that silence and words are ‘two aspects of communication which need to be kept in balance’ if ‘authentic dialogue’ is to take place. 

The Pope’s insight could usefully serve as advice to the Prime Minister and Opposition Leader from political strategists charged with explaining why they are failing to connect with voters.

‘In silence, we are better able to listen to and understand ourselves; ideas come to birth and acquire depth; we understand with greater clarity what it is we want to say and what we expect from others… we avoid being tied simply to our own words and ideas without them being adequately tested.’i

Applying this principle to political rhetoric, we might hope that punctuating words with silence will allow leaders to move beyond ‘Stop the boats!’ and other blunted and hollow mantras towards an understanding of the real fears and hopes of the Australian people. On this issue, there is little doubt that the weight of words has distorted and defiled reality.

The Pope refers to communication as ‘a kind of “eco-system” that maintains a just equilibrium between silence, words, images and sounds’. These are the ingredients which, in right measure, could allow the hitherto elusive ‘real Julia’ to appear in time for the 2013 election.

Time to change our racist constitution

Last week the expert panel chaired by Indigenous leader Patrick Dodson and national reconciliation advocate Mark Leibler presented Prime Minister Julia Gillard with its report titled Recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples in the Constitution. 

The panel proposes recognition of the prior occupation of Australia by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and acknowledging their continuing relationship with their traditional lands and waters, and their cultures, languages and heritage. 

The report reveals that many Australians do not even realise that explicit racism is among the principles and ideals in the Constitution, and how significant this is because they continue to provide the foundation for the work of our lawmakers. 

Aside from the pointedly scant acknowledgement to the Indigenous Australians that were regarded as a 'doomed race', the most blatant example of racism in the Constitution — the exclusion of 'Aboriginal natives' from the census — was removed in the 1967 referendum.

But racism remains elsewhere, such as in the part of section 51 that gives Parliament the power to make laws for 'peace, order, and good government' with respect to 'the people of any race'.

Other traces of racism in the Constitution are more symbolic than practical, but this is significant because symbol can be as potent as practical possibility. There is section 25, which says people who are excluded from voting based on race cannot be included in the tally when seats in the Lower House are divided up. Removing that would have no practical effect, because nobody is excluded from voting on racial grounds any more. 

It seems that those who've been aware of racism in the Constitution and prepared to tolerate it, have taken the same 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it' approach that is commonly used to justify maintaining the monarchy. This effectively blesses the attitude that it's acceptable to regard Indigenous Australians as second class citizens in theory as long as we treat them as equals in practice. 

Perhaps we allow this because of a not always well placed pride in the pragmatism that we often think of as a laudable national characteristic. But it is racism.

Surely the right thing to do is to consult Indigenous Australians, as the expert panel itself has done.

As a sample of Indigenous opinion, last week's media release from the  National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Catholic Council (NATSICC) suggests the constitutional status quo does not even pass the pragmatism test. Chair Thelma Parker says justice for Indigenous Australians will be subject to political whim until their rights are enshrined in the Constitution.

'Currently we feel as if the goal posts are constantly shifting due to the ability to change Statute Law and legislation relatively easily via Parliament and often without consultation with Indigenous people. The Constitution, however cannot be changed without the will of the Australian people. That is the strong foundation that we are talking about.'

Unfortunately the implementation of the proposals of the expert panel will itself be subject to political whim, and opposition leader Tony Abbott has already indicated that, in broadly welcoming the report, he has 'some reservations about anything that might turn out to be a one clause bill of rights'.

Thatcher's blame game

Over the holidays, many cinema goers have seen The Iron Lady, the affectionate and mostly sympathetic portrayal of Margaret Thatcher, the divisive British prime minister who held office between 1979 and 1990.

She was credited with turning around the economic fortunes of the United Kingdom, and giving Britons reason to be once again proud of their nation. But unemployment and poverty increased markedly during the Thatcher years, and the gap between rich and poor widened significantly.  

Thatcher always defended her social policy, and insisted it was up to the poor to help themselves. She believed the poor choose poverty, and said as much in a 1988 speech to the Church of Scotland General Assembly on the theme that Christianity is about spiritual redemption, not social reform. 

'We are told we must work and use our talents to create wealth. "If a man will not work he shall not eat" wrote St Paul to the Thessalonians... Any set of social and economic arrangements which is not founded on the acceptance of individual responsibility will do nothing but harm. We are all responsible for our own actions. We can't blame society.'

The idea that the poor can be cast adrift to sink or swim in the market economy, and do not need any protection from the state, is consistent with the thinking that brought on the GFC and the eurozone crisis. In a recent article in Thinking Faith, the Irish Jesuit professor of philosophy William Matthews alluded to Thatcher's role in the initiation of the 'contagious ethos of the deregulation of finance from political control'.i

'This school of thought was convinced that a free global market economy would make the world a much better and prosperous place for all. What resulted over time was a dysfunctional shift in power relations with the financial world gaining unprecedented control.'

Matthews suggests Thatcher and the other architects of the free market system that allowed the calamitous binge behaviour that led to the current crises, should be held responsible in the way that engineers are culpable when their misjudgments lead to injury or loss of life.

'We are now suffering from the consequences of their carelessness. You never design an air traffic control system or a nuclear power station without the highest level of built-in safety features. To ignore those features and cause public harm could result in prosecution.'

Perhaps the best comments on Thatcher and the current public adulation she is enjoying are those of Meryl Streep, the actor who plays her in the film. Speakingon the ABC's 7.30, she made it clear that she 'still disagree[s] with many, many, many of [Thatcher's] politics', but that the politics need to be put into perspective with Thatcher's humanity.

Comparing her role as Thatcher now to playing Lindy Chamberlain many years ago, Streep said:

'Maybe there's a pattern in my life that I want to sort of defend the humanity of people that we've made into emblematic figures of one sort or another, figures of hatred or saints.'