The Good. The Bad. The Asinine.

What Does Racism Mean, Anyway?

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Pauline Hanson has a point.

Paragraph break while readers get back on their chairs.

The fearless Ms Hanson did have a point when she lamented that many of the people calling her a racist do not, in fact, know the definition of the word ‘racism’. I think a great many people are unaware of the exact definition. What they do know, however, is what they think it means. I find it odd that Ms Hanson would object to this kind of usage, given that this would appear to be the first time she’s resorted to anything resembling a dictionary. While I applaud this sudden lurch towards an academic understanding of words and things, I do feel compelled to point out that she’s muffed it.

You see, the main reason people don’t have a single clear definition for ‘racism’ is that the word does not have a single, monolithic definition. It’s always the same with pesky abstract nouns. There’s popular usage, the rather precise and fussy definitions used by various branches of academia, definitions in law and, after all that, the definitions that end up in the dictionary. Yes, definitions, plural. Not definition, singular.

And it’s really not the dictionary definition we’re concerned with when we’re talking about any sort of vox populi statement. It’s the duty of the listener, in any kind of communication, to make an effort to understand what their interlocutor actually means, and when people call Pauline racist, what they mean is that there is a fundamental assumption of ethnic superiority inherent in her particular brand of mythical monoculturism. Or, to put it in simpler terms – she’s a racist.

I suppose it’s not exactly a state secret that Senator Hanson is terrible at language. In fairness, linguistic capability is not what her supporters value her for. It’s for her ‘straight talking’, the way she ‘keeps the bastards honest’ and stands up to ‘lefty elites’. It’s a shame, then, that she hasn’t stuck to her core competencies. Incoherent diatribes blaming anybody and everybody for problems which are never clearly defined are the core, the fundamental bedrock of right wing populism. All of this semantic trickery is much more properly kept in the arsenal of the left.

If I were Pauline Hanson I’d be very careful about precision in language. I’d strongly advise she stick to inchoate expressions of injured outrage – if she gets too specific, it might become apparent to her supporters that she does not, in fact, have anything else.

The Futility of Trump Analysis

Image Credit NY Times

Image Credit NY Times

The question on everybody’s mind, I think, is: “What is Donald Trump actually going to do?”

A great many words have been written on this subject and a great many of these words have been written by people whose business is words. Which means that the vast majority of this analysis is simply useless. As I’ve been saying since the earliest stages of the campaign, focussing on what Trump actually says is not particularly useful for determining either what he means or what he intends to do. With Obama, parsing and analysing his every word was often worthwhile. Obama is a rhetorician and career politician. He speaks (and probably thinks) in policy-making terms, which means that there can be precise and specific meanings to be mined from his lightest comments.

Trump, on the other hand, has spent most of his life selling big, visionary projects. While the two disciplines are related, they are still entirely distinct in that the goals relating to the use of language are subtly but significantly different. The effective language of politics is about making quite narrow and technical concepts sound broad and appealing whilst avoiding inadvertent commitment to the impossible. The effective language of sales is about persuasion, personal bonding and desire, with specific meaning sitting very much in the back seat, while commitment isn’t even in the car. And whatever else he is, Trump is a consummate salesman.

In his recent touch and love session with the New York Times, where he attempted to heal some wounds and use his corporate slugger charm to win them over, some very direct questions were asked of him and his answers recorded in transcript form. In response to repeated questions about whether he would pursue the prosecution of Hilary Clinton, for example, one of his responses was:

“No, no, but it’s just not something that I feel very strongly about. I feel very strongly about health care. I feel very strongly about an immigration bill that I think even the people in this room can be happy. You know, you’ve been talking about immigration bills for 50 years and nothing’s ever happened.

I feel very strongly about an immigration bill that’s fair and just and a lot of other things. There are a lot of things I feel strongly about. I’m not looking to look back and go through this. This was a very painful period. This was a very painful election with all of the email things and all of the foundation things and all of the everything that they went through and the whole country went through. This was a very painful period of time. I read recently where it was, it was, they’re saying, they used to say it was Lincoln against whoever and none of us were there to see it. And there aren’t a lot of recordings of that, right?

But the fact is that there were some pretty vicious elections; they say this was, this was the most.

They say it was definitely the most vicious primary. And I think it’s very important to look forward.”

This is classic fast sales talk. The majority of these statements don’t actually mean anything, they’re not obviously connected in any way and they’re certainly not designed to convey any specific information. It’s about persuasion – delivering an impression of character. A flood of words to make the speaker seem forgiving and reasonable, delivered apparently willy-nilly and with, I think, a fairly transparent effort to confuse and distract – to derail forensic questioning. The structure of this response is, in its own way, masterly.

We start with a “No, no,” which sounds very much like a direct answer to the question, but which is immediately qualified into meaninglessness. This qualification leads to a crude and largely meaningless segue into immigration and health, followed by the payload – the statement that Trump actually wants to deliver: namely, that the campaign has been vicious (the implication being that things said during it shouldn’t be taken too seriously). Then there’s a joke, and then finally we have the answer, which isn’t actually an answer at all.

If you can be bothered, you can examine the full transcript here, where you’ll see that all of his responses broadly follow this pattern. It’s a sales talk. He’s not trying to tell us anything, he’s really only interested in how we feel about him. I still think this is the most significant factor in his success, as I’ve pointed out elsewhere, and I don’t understand why so many analysts are failing to understand this. But as far as analysis and prediction goes, I think it’s my job to say what nobody else in this clickbait, instant gratification culture wants to say. Predicting Donald Trump’s actions on the basis of his sales pitch is impossible. We’ll have to capture a great deal more of what he has to say before we can determine exactly what he means and, by that time, he’ll probably already be doing what he always intended to do. Which is kind of what sales patter is all about.

Peter Dutton: Wave Crest and Iceberg Tip

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It’s hard to imagine Peter Dutton being at the top of anything, except perhaps a list of the mentally defective, or the podium at a suicidal horse lookalike contest. Such, however, is the nature of hackneyed metaphor that we now need to imagine Peter Dutton at the top of a wave, iceberg, or some other mobile maritime feature, in order to see clearly what it is that he’s about – something, incidentally, which he seems utterly incapable of doing himself.

Mr Dutton’s recent remarks on Lebanese immigrants were, from a certain point of view, ill-advised, idiotic and frankly appalling. From another point of view, however, they were immensely enlightening. Various analysts are (correctly, I think) putting down his recent rhetoric to the emboldening Trump effect combined with the ongoing war between the right faction of the LNP and everyone else. This is all very interesting, and I think a valid way of interpreting and understanding events, but I don’t think it goes far enough. It is both satisfying and enjoyable to be outraged by his troglodytic bumbling about free speech, ‘honest conversations’ and ‘realistic assessments’, but it’s important to remember that he has a point.

Just as a stopped clock is right twice a day, he just happens to be right about the urgent need for Australia, as a country, to have a serious conversation. We need to talk about how it can be that after a snappy two hundred years we can still believe that xenophobic politics is anything other than a smokescreen designed to whip up popular frenzy and votes. We need to talk about our inherent tendency to racism, and our simultaneous compulsion to furiously deny that it’s any such thing. We urgently need to talk about how we’ve ended up with an electorate which consistently spews up pond-life like Dutton, Hanson, Roberts, Nile, etc. as political leaders. And the whole world needs to have a long and serious conversation about allowing the hysterical catharsis facilitated by internet anonymity to colour debate on serious, life-affecting issues.

What we probably don’t need to talk about so much is what names we should call each other, or whether Dutton should be sacked on the grounds of gross incompetence and utter incapability. His job as Minister for Immigration is simply irrelevant next to his real role as hard right political mouthpiece, and that is probably one of the most important topics for ‘honest conversation’. How can we be okay with paying people to serve the public good while they prioritise factional contests above the needs and safety of the people they purport to represent?

I don’t know that getting Peter Dutton sacked is going to help. The fact is, they’ll just replace him with someone better at this kind of rhetoric, as it’s hard to imagine anyone who could very well be worse at it. The real rot exists within the base of the movement atop which he is perched, and although I hate to say it, that base is at least partially formed by a significant portion of our population. I don’t know if talking’s going to fix anything, but I’m damn sure that name-calling and meme generation isn’t. Shall we attempt a dialogue now? After all, we’ve tried everything else…

An Open Letter To Trump Supporters

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I’ve been seeing a lot of right wing and libertarian triumphalism on the internet these days, and fair enough too. We of the liberal elite, of which I am apparently a member despite living several rungs below the poverty line, have richly deserved our comeuppance. We have been calling you names and sneeringly accusing you of idiocy and stupidity for quite a while now, and I think you all definitely deserve your moment in the sun. You showed us. Okay, not particularly emphatically, but it doesn’t matter if it’s an inch or a mile, a win’s a win. And no, I’m not being patronising by quoting “Fast and Furious” instead of a more highbrow source – I sincerely mean it.

The thing that worries me, though, is that you seem to think that you’ve won something. I’m sorry, but the truth is that you just haven’t. If the measure of victory was the removal of smug, self-serving elites from the corridors of power, what’s been achieved here is not so much a victory as a swap. Trump himself belongs to an elite – I would have thought that was staringly obvious – and it’s one that’s significantly nastier and more grasping than the one which was rejected at the polls. He’s a part of the business elite, a group which will say anything to get what they want and then, unsurprisingly, do anything to achieve same without any real reference to any connection between the two. What you’ve chosen is definitely not someone who thinks of himself as a tribune of the plebs – what you’ve chosen is a charismatic CEO. Think about that for a second.

Add to this the man’s manifest incompetence. His bumbling unfamiliarity with political systems and processes may have been endearing in campaign mode, but it’s going to be a flat-out nightmare in office. And then there’s his belief in an America from the past. I’m not going to say that this will definitely fail, but I will say that it’s a massive, reckless gamble. It’s not just that the market forces which the right so worship have already rejected the industries that Trump seeks to revive, it’s also the fact that he’ll be trying to push these changes against the prevailing currents of the entire world. This could be seen as brave and radical, or, from my side of the fence, retrograde and stupid, but no matter where we sit on the political spectrum we can all agree that it’s going to be very, very risky. And it’s not his own money and future he’ll be gambling with. It’s yours. Assuming, of course, that the revivification of the urban manufacturing base wasn’t just another part of his sales pitch, like the vast majority of the things he’s said during the campaign.

My point is that there’s pain coming. And for me, a member of the liberal elite, it’s mainly going to be emotional pain. The world we’ve painstakingly been trying to build has taken a massive leap backwards. Okay, so we’re all sick of internet feminists and the perception that every prize and benefit should go only to one-legged Cambodian lesbians, but there’s a tragic irony in all of this. Yes, there was a loud and often juvenile focus on minorities, but the point of liberalism is to build a world in which everyone can safely live and prosper. And everyone necessarily includes you. But enough of my problems, really, because it’s not me and my kind who are going to do the most hurting. If this new experiment in populism goes the way I think it’s going to go, then the big losers are going to be the same people they always are. The working poor. The uneducated. Middle America. It doesn’t matter if the powers that be are left, right, in, out or shake it all about – when things go bad, it’s always the same people taking the shafting. Remember that, please, as we move on to my next point.

We have received a loud and clear message about connection. Smart-arses like myself allowed ourselves to drift so far from the reality of plurality that we stopped listening to huge blocs of people because we were too busy shouting about inclusiveness. I see the irony, and I take the point. But a Trump in the White House is not a win against that kind of thing, it’s a wildcard. Things are very unlikely to get any better in the long term, or possibly even in the medium or short term. Because the real war in politics is not between left and right, it’s between the powerful and the powerless. I agree – the political establishment no longer serves the needs of the people. But neither does the corporate or business establishment. In fact, they’ve been screwing we the people for longer, and with much more thoroughness, for the majority of this era. The thing to remember is that division is the easiest path to power for the unscrupulous. Right wing populists climb fissures in the electorate to achieve high office. If we truly want a system and establishment which serves our needs, we can’t allow that to happen – we must, must, must create a situation in which we actually choose our leaders from amongst the best candidates, instead of whatever the hell just happened at the last election.

So, for the hundredth time – can everyone please just stop with the childish shouting and start listening to each other?

Remember When Syria Was About Assad?

Residents look for survivors at a damaged site after what activists said was a barrel bomb dropped by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in the Al-Shaar neighbourhood of Aleppo, Syria September 17, 2015. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail - RTX242XG

Residents look for survivors at a damaged site after what activists said was a barrel bomb dropped by forces loyal to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad in the Al-Shaar neighbourhood of Aleppo, Syria September 17, 2015. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail – RTX242XG

You could probably be forgiven for being unable to remember the origins of the Syrian conflict. It was all a long time ago, involving factions which have long since been overshadowed, over issues which seem irrelevant in the face of the current situation. Many of the details have probably become quite hazy over time – blotted out by the insanity of Islamic State atrocities, major power involvement and the rapid and increasing fragmentation of the factional make-up of the region. Now that Mosul is probably due to fall in the next few months, and the encirclement of Raqqa, due to start any second now, is likely to follow a similar trajectory, the imminent destruction of Islamic State in its current form and, more importantly, the means by which this fall is being engineered, is almost certainly going to bring the seed of the conflict rushing back to the forefront. All this being the case, it’s probably worth examining the state of play a new POTUS is likely to be confronted with.

If we cast our minds back a few years, we will remember that this all really started out as the Free Syrian Army (FSA) against the Assad regime. The FSA were (and possibly still are) pro-democracy secularist military defectors from Assad’s own forces, who largely concentrated their operations around Aleppo. While the world was fixated on this conflict and wondering why we weren’t intervening, an organisation based on the surviving rump of Al Qaeda in Iraq was completing their integration of an influx of Baathist military officers who had been seriously disaffected by some frankly disastrous US decisions in the aftermath of the second Iraq war. Many people also believe that around this time, Islamist insurgents being rather co-operatively held by Assad’s regime were quietly released into the wild in a dramatically high risk ploy to fragment the opposition. When I first heard about this possible tactic, I called it insane. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, I call it insane and somewhat effective. In any case, with a perfection of timing which seems deeply suspicious to paranoid types like me, the organisation which we now know by several equally inaccurate names and acronyms formed into a sort of flying light armoured column (strongly reminiscent of Baathist tactical columns) and took swathes of territory, materiel and cash from the ineffectual Iraqi authorities, as well as the (possibly deliberately?) absent Syrian ones. Rather embarrassingly for the US led coalition members who had invaded and then attempted to stabilise Iraq, they also took some major cities and a whole bunch of NATO gear.

We mostly know, or think we know, the rest of this story, largely because of its direct effect on us. The Paris attacks, as well as the wave of lone wolf incidents all over the world, refugees, pictures of injured or dead children, and then Russia’s blustery, propaganda-heavy intervention which made louder and louder claims to be anti-IS the more apparent it became that they’d barely hit a single target which wasn’t FSA. But now that the end of this phase is in sight, various factors which haven’t so far seemed to catch our interest are likely to become all-important. The fact that the real achievers in the fight against Islamic State have been Kurdish militia will prove to be a major sticking point in any future settlement. The US, always ready to back a winner, has cleverly and quietly folded these groups together into something called the ‘Syrian Democratic Forces’ (SDF), presumably as a workaround to avoid being seen to be arming and training members of proscribed terrorist organisations. The major problem here is that these organisations are in direct opposition to Turkey, a NATO member, and Iraq, one of the USA’s newest proxies. On top of this, Russia’s actions to defend its strongest ally in the Middle East have put them in a position where it’s very hard to see them acceding to the toppling of the current regime, especially if the replacement is US backed. There’s also the problem of what is to be done with organisations like Jabaht el Fatr al Sham, openly linked to Al Qaeda but also instrumental in reclaiming territory from IS. How can any lasting settlement exclude them? And if they are included, how to avoid the problem of negotiating with terrorists? And as if this wasn’t enough, there’s the fact that Turkey is backing and arming the FSA and operating openly on Syrian soil, in near-direct opposition to the major thrust of US policy. How to deal with the fact of their insulting and provocative exclusion from the final push against the last of Islamic State’s strongholds? And how much longer can everyone go on ignoring the added complication of Iranian militia operating on Syrian and Iraqi soil?

As we can see, the whole situation is a kind of horrible Gordian knot. Neutralising Islamic State as a force is not so much the end of the campaign, as it is the ending of a bloody and horrific sideshow which, once over, will put us firmly back on a heavily compromised square one. When the dust has settled on Raqqa and Mosul, it’s going to take very careful management to prevent a kind of backdraft effect from re-igniting and re-escalating the original conflicts. While the tortuous network of factions and alliances might be as clear as mud, what is very clear is that the destruction of IS in its current form is merely the end of a phase of this conflict. There’s a great deal more work yet to be done if the great powers are to fulfil their commitment to help the region return to stability.

Donald Trump Is Neither Funny Nor Incomprehensible

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It would seem, from a quick perusal of the internets, that we have two and a bit days before the world is either consumed in a fireball of climate change and offended minorities under Trump, or packaged up and sold to CIA reptiles and some numinous body called ‘the elite’ under Clinton. Every kind of publication I follow, from highbrow to low, mainstream to fringe, is relishing the opportunity to dust off their literary educations (such as they are) and get into some John of Patmos style apocalyptic prophesy. Political philosophers are talking about the ‘post-truth’ age, major newspapers are resorting to name-calling, fiction factories like RT and Sputnik have reached new heights of fabricated falsehood and the world in general seems to be devoting a fair portion of each day to screaming at people they’ve never met about issues they don’t understand. So, business as usual, really – just carried on a bit louder.

What’s depressed me most about this presidential race, however, has been the reaction of that subset of the media which caters to the intelligent, the well-informed, and the far more numerous group who incorrectly believe themselves to be both. By far the most common trend amongst what Trump supporters call ‘the liberal media elite’ has been blank incomprehension. They can’t understand why anyone would support Trump. They can’t understand how Trump can be a contender. They can’t understand what Trump himself is actually saying. And these are supposed to be the smart ones? To me, and presumably to the people who support him, Trump’s appeal is obvious. He speaks to the near-universal delusion that the world can be run on something called ‘common sense’. How do we control border access? Build a wall – why hasn’t anyone thought of that? Are we stupid? How do we fix the economy? It’s simple – we just fix it. Don’t worry about the details – that’s just finance nerd trickery. We’ll make more jobs. How do we solve the various crises in the Middle East? Easy – we’ll simultaneously bring all our troops home and bomb the crap out of the enemy, whoever they happen to be. It’s all really simple and don’t let anyone tell you you’re too stupid or too ignorant to work it out.

Because there’s the crux of the problem. It’s the revenge of the nerds out there at the moment. Who is the leader of Islamic State? What limits and powers attach to sovereign status in a rules based world order? What is the net effect of cash supply on the velocity of money? If you don’t know the answers to these questions, you’re not fit to run the country, vote, or use the toilet without assistance. And not just that, you’ll be sniggered at and put on a meme. Such is the narrative emanating from the left and a great many people are justifiably fed up with it. Of course they’re going to flock to someone who tells them that they’re not stupid, but rather oppressed by a conspiracy of smart-arses who use big meaningless words and over-complicate things to hide their self-serving perfidy, which is another meaningless big word and let’s make everything great again, y’all.

And to a certain extent, this is correct. Imagine, for a moment, that you are a person who doesn’t believe that trans rights is a real issue. Who feels that calling Hispanic people ‘spics’ is quaint and affectionate. Who’s utterly convinced that women and ethnics are being unfairly advantaged and that the keystone of Western civilisation and its success is faith in our one true lord Jesus Christ. Imagine that you’re that kind of person, and then think about just how patiently a left-leaning intellectual is going to listen to you. Think about just how big a platform you’d get for airing these views. Fact is, if you hold these views, you are guilty of thoughtcrime. They’re unthinkable, and therefore forbidden everywhere but in little pockets of resistance on the internet. And, now, within the walls of the travelling circus tent which is the Trump campaign.

It’s not funny. It’s goddamn heartbreaking. The world has always been filled with people too stupid to lift the seat before they piss, but not until recently has it become de-rigeur amongst the mainstream to mock, belittle and ignore them. The educating mission has died out just as the hillbilly meme is born and now we have a situation where it’s actually become impossible to persuade, largely because we’ve given up talking to each other. Ever since the emergence of complex civilisation, the vast bulk of any population has been more or less mystified as to the actual workings of the state, and it has been down to the people who do know to either cultivate their trust, or keep them in order through force of one sort or another. Well, the existence of a Donald Trump is indicative of a failure to maintain that trust. It’s not hard to see how it’s been destroyed when we consider that trust is impossible without meaningful communication. And when we swap persuasion for condemnation, understanding for mockery and dialogue for self-righteous censorship, any kind of communication becomes next to impossible. We’ve divided into feuding factions, separated by a mutual incomprehension which is at least nine tenths deliberate, and if Trump wins on Tuesday we liberals have only our sniggering, supercilious, breathtakingly arrogant selves to blame.

Still Stopping The Boats, Are We?

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There were always going to be a few options when it came to stopping unauthorised maritime arrivals, or whatever it is we’re calling them this week. As it’s a complex problem, the solutions are also quite complex. For the sake of space and sanity, let’s divide the possible responses into two broad sets: Preventative and Punitive. And just so we don’t accidentally create a false dichotomy, let’s point out, right here at the top of the page, that each solution obviously contains elements of the other. What gives each set of responses its title is emphasis, rather than exclusivity.

Way back in the days before Australia’s somewhat ill-advised experiment with Abbottian Radicalism, we the people were presented with a clear choice. On the one hand, there was the humane, intelligent and nuanced Preventative solution, where government tried to ignore the white noise of xenophobia and make plans which would operate and effect well into the middle and long term (note the careful use of the word ‘government’ – neither Liberal nor Labor get a pass on this particular bucket of vile toxicity). And then there was the Punitive solution, where government would amplify, and in large part create, xenophobic white noise, and undertake actions which can either be seen as courageous and direct, or reactive and stupid, depending on which part of the political spectrum the describer happens to be shouting from.

With breathtaking courage, perspicacity and intelligence, we the people chose the Punitive approach. Bravely, we went forth on a program of deliberate and questionably legal cruelty in order, so we were told, to save lives. We entered into dubious agreements with dubious island governments, militarised and classified what had previously been a relatively benign border control operation and turned a sanctimoniously blind eye to the psychological abuse, beating and rape of the men, women and children we were so virtuously saving from death. All things pass, however, and after a while I think we became less enthused about the Punitive solution. The obvious moral ambiguities, as well as the shockingly increased cost, gave many of us pause. “Who would have thought,” the media said for us, “that a solution which requires significantly greater resources and involves indefinite internment would cost so much more and be so damn nasty?”

I don’t really understand how we of the Australian public, members of a nation and culture I love, could ever have rationalised this to ourselves. Perhaps we saw it as some kind of tough love? Or perhaps we, as a nation, had a momentary lapse of both generosity and courage, and decided in that moment to listen to the mean, reactionary, white supremacist fringe which exists in every Western nation, no matter how wonderful. Suffice it to say, having made this choice we are, for the moment, stuck with it.

What happened, way back in the halcyon days before Rudd Gillard Rudd OMFG ABBOTT WHY WHY WHY Turnbull, was a re-affirmation of one of the oldest principles of Australian politics. We confirmed, in no uncertain terms, that being tough on Johnny Foreigner was still a guaranteed lever for generating popularity. It’s in this context that the recent proposed lifetime ban on boat arrivals makes the most sense. The permanently outraged left is not, I think, alone in being nonplussed and infuriated by the proposal, but there really isn’t any reason for this. With a Prime Minister weakened by factional infighting, low popularity and his own apparent moral and political cowardice, it was really only a matter of time before the xenophobia button was pushed yet again. And it is merely characteristic that it’s being done in such a half-arsed, pussy-footed and tangential way. Half-arsed, pussy-footed and tangential could and probably will be carved on this government’s headstone.

The Safe Schools Program Part 2, or, these are not the numbers you’re looking for

One of the earliest problems I encountered during my actuarial degree was being surrounded by nerds. Oh, and also, the Birthday Problem.

There are a few different ways to formulate the problem, but at the time, it was presented to us as:

If you’re at a party, how many people need to be there for there to be a 50% chance that two guests will have the same birthday?

The first answer that might spring to mind is that, since there are 365 days in a year (well, most years), you would need about half that many people to have a 50% chance of two people having the same birthday – so, around 182 people. That is wrong. By a lot.

The correct answer is actually 23. That’s right, you only need 23 people at a party to have a 50% chance that two of the guests have the same birthday. I won’t go through the calculation, because this post is boring enough already, but it basically comes down to combinatorics. Each time someone arrives at the party, there is a chance that they have the same birthday as someone already there. Thus, the second person who arrives has lots of alcohol to choose from, but also has only one other person to compare birthdays to. By the time the 10th person arrives, however, all the good alcohol is gone, and there are nine people who could have the same birthday. In short, the higher the number of people already there, the greater the chance that the next person who arrives won’t find a drink, but will find a matching birthday.

Keep this in mind for later.

Another interesting fact is that any party where this birthday-checking thing happens has a zero percent chance of being fun. I assume I don’t need to explain that one… suffice to say we all learned a valuable lesson at our first end of exams party.
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In my last post, we learned that over-stating the proportion of LGBTIQ people can make some people a little upset. The official Safe Schools Introductory Guide tells us that:

  • 10% of students are same-sex attracted;
  • 4% of students are gender diverse or trans; and
  • 1.7% of students are intersex.

Some people really hate that 10% figure. Like renowned statistical phenomenon Bill Meuhlenberg, who tells us that “the ten per cent figure has always been a big lie” and “homosexual activists have confirmed [it] to be a case of deliberate deception”. But why does it matter? Well, as Bill points out:

If the homosexual lobby is willing to use faulty statistics to support its cause, just how reliable is it in other areas?

Bill doesn’t provide an answer, but Murray Campbell has similar concerns about the proportion of intersex people. Apparently, “gauging accurate numbers for sexuality and gender is near impossible”. Even so, Safe Schools claims the proportion is around 1 in 60, while “the American Psychological Association suggests the figure to be about 1 in 1,500”. Ouch. Murray suggests that this is like “a political party taking 10 polls, publishing the one that is favourable and deleting the 9 which are less supportive”. The cynic in me says that a better analogy would be that it’s like ignoring countless free polls showing that 70% of Australians support marriage equality and asking to hold another poll that will give the same result but cost $160m and then ignoring that poll too. But the cynic in me also seems to be trying to derail my own post, so I’m going to ignore him.

In any event, Murray informs us that:

This kind of misrepresentation of facts and science straight away raises questions about the legitimacy of [the] program.

Indeed.

Keep this in mind for later, too.
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And by later I mean now.

Apparently, much like never seeing your parents having sex, getting the proportion right is not only near impossible, but also impossibly important. Because if those LGBTIQ people can’t even tell us how many of them there are, how can we trust them enough to believe anything they tell us? They could tell us that we need to, oh I don’t know, run an anti-LGBTIQ bullying program in schools, and we might end up spending millions of dollars saving fewer people from suicide than we thought we could. Let’s be honest, no one wants that.

But if we can’t trust the LGBTIQ community to give us the true state of affairs, who can we trust? Who can we turn to, to assess the legitimacy of the Safe Schools program? Happily, Bill and Murray, but definitely not Bill Murray, show us the way – if we can’t trust the people who don’t give us the true statistics, all we need to do is trust the people who do. You know, like the people who told Murray the proportion of intersex people.

The American Psychological Association.

Let’s ask them about the legitimacy of the Safe Schools program.

Tim: “Tell me, APA, do LGBTIQ people get bullied?”
APA: “Well, Tim, I’m glad you asked. Lesbian, gay and bisexual people encounter extensive prejudice, discrimination and violence because of their sexual orientation.”
Tim: “Trans people have it pretty easy though eh? Just look at Caitlin. She was in a magazine!”
APA: “No Tim, many transgender people are the targets of hate crimes. They are also the victims of subtle discrimination—which includes everything from glances or glares of disapproval or discomfort to invasive questions about their body parts.”
Tim: “So what you’re telling me is that LGBTIQ people are just a bit precious?”
APA: “No, Tim. The widespread prejudice, discrimination, and violence to which LGBTIQ people are often subjected are significant mental health concerns. Sexual prejudice, sexual orientation discrimination and antigay violence are major sources of stress. Although social support is crucial in coping with stress, antigay attitudes and discrimination may make it difficult for LGBTIQ people to find such support.”
Tim: “Yeah OK, but it’s all a mental disorder anyway, isn’t it?”
APA: “No, LGBTIQ orientations are not disorders. Research has found no inherent association between any of these sexual orientations and psychopathology. Both heterosexual behavior and homosexual behavior are normal aspects of human sexuality.”
Tim: “All right, fine! But they make shït parents, and shouldn’t be allowed to have a family.”
APA: “Studies of personality, self-concept, and behavior problems show few differences between children of LGBTIQ parents and children of heterosexual parents.”

Damn you, APA, damn you to hell. I can still use your statistics on LGBTIQ incidence, though… right? Please?
___

Turning to the proportions themselves, there are obviously a wide range of studies that show a wide range of values. Conveniently, people like Bill and Murray, but definitely not Bill Murray, only ever manage to stumble across the studies that confirm the view they already hold. Surprise, surprise, they also like to use measures that distort the picture to suit their needs. Statistics like “only 1% of people achieved orgasm with a member of the same sex in the last year”, or “only 0.002% of people named Sarah have müff-dived with someone named Nancy”.

I can do that, too. Manipulate statistics to suit my agenda I mean, not müff-dive with Nancy. For example, a quick look at Wikipedia will tell you that:

  • A 2011 survey of 7,725 Italians found that only 77% of people identified as heterosexual;
  • A similar study in Britain in 2009 found that 9% of people identified as non-heterosexual.
  • In an update to this study in 2015, only 72% of all adults identified as totally heterosexual.

Who to believe?

In terms of the Safe Schools program itself, however, there is one aspect of the debate on which people like Bill and Murray (and probably Bill Murray) are suspiciously silent. All the studies they quote attempt to determine the proportion of LGBTIQ people in society as a whole. A society in which the vast majority of people were raised to believe that being anything other than a gender-normative heterosexual was a very, very bad idea. A society in which people might be a little reluctant to admit their sexuality and gender identity to themselves, much less to a stranger conducting a telephone survey. A society in which each generation is a little more liberal than the last. And, returning to the 2015 study above, a society in which 72% of all adults identify as totally heterosexual, but when you look at the 18-24 age bracket, only 46% do.

Which is why Safe Schools based their 10% figure on a survey of Australian secondary students by La Trobe University.

All this leads us to two very obvious, and very important, observations:

  1. More and more young people are identifying as LGBTIQ; and
  2. There are still a shïtload of people out there who are going to hate them for it.

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The best part of all this talk of proportions is that it doesn’t even matter. I love it when that happens.

Because even if we accept the figures provided by people like Bill and Murray (but definitely not Bill Murray), it in no way invalidates the Safe Schools program.

If society is a party, and we are the guests, and instead of comparing birthdays, we compare our various levels of male- and femaleness, and hetero- and homosexuality, and acceptance and bigotry, there is an extraordinarily high probability that someone who is just trying to be themselves will encounter someone who wants to make them feel shït about it. And if that happens often enough, there is a very good chance that the person who is just trying to be themselves won’t want to be themselves anymore, and will think suicide is a good way to make that happen.

And it doesn’t matter if the proportion is 1 in 10, or 1 in 365. Given the number of people at the party, there’s a very good chance it will happen eventually.

I don’t know about you, but I think it’s a risk that’s just not worth taking.

The Safe Schools Program Part 1, or, Why Anglican ministers should study stats… stat

You may have heard recently that there has been a bit of a kerfuffle about the Safe Schools Program. For those who don’t know what that is, Google defines a kerfuffle as “a commotion or fuss, especially one caused by conflicting views”. Google also tells us that the Safe Schools Program is an initiative that aims to make life a little easier for LGBTIQ students in Australian schools. Or, in the words of the people who actually run the program, it seeks to provide:

a suite of free resources and support to equip staff and students with skills, practical ideas and greater confidence to lead positive change and be safe and inclusive for same sex attracted, intersex and gender diverse students, staff and families.

School can be a tough place, and never more so than for those who are a little different. School kids have an extraordinary gift for spotting someone who is a little different, and an almost supernatural talent for making them feel like absolute cräp for it. One country’s different is another country’s normal, but if you’re reading this and you’re Australian, you know who I’m talking about.

Rangas.

Also, anyone who isn’t thin, white, middle-class, or good at sports. But it’s not quite that simple. Sometimes, you even get bullied for being too good at sports. Mostly if that sport is golf. And, just to make things extra confusing, the reasons people are bullied can change over time. Terrence’s Shirley Bassey impersonation went down a treat in Kindergarten… in high school, not so much.

Haha, very funny. Right?

No. Not even a little bit.

Bullying is a scourge on our collective character, and a major, if not the biggest, contributor to youth depression and suicide. And today in Australia, one of the easiest ways to find yourself on the path to depression and suicide is to have the apparent misfortune of being gay, lesbian, transgender or intersex. The Suicide Prevention Resource Center analysed a number of studies on LGBTI suicide rates, and estimated that between 30% and 40% of LGBTIQ youth have attempted suicide. And a study by the US government found that LGBTIQ youth are four times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers. Just stop and think about that for a second. Between 30% and 40%. Four times more likely.

This stuff doesn’t just happen in a vacuum. LGBTIQ kids aren’t just mopey little whiners who need a cement pill. They’re pretty much exactly like the rest of us, except for the fact that society loves to remind them that they’re not.

Once you understand all that, the Safe Schools Program starts to make a little bit of sense.

Well, unless your name is Cory Bernardi. Or David Ould. [EDIT: David Ould is approximately 100 times better than Cory Bernardi].
___

Some of you may have seen the excellent 2014 SBS series called Living With the Enemy. If you didn’t see it, it was a six part series that explored “the fault lines of social cohesion in Australia”, with each episode exploring “a different topic dividing Australian opinion by asking people to live with others whose lifestyles and beliefs directly contradict their own”.

One such fault line was marriage equality, and one such person with a contradictory lifestyle was an Anglican minister by the name of David Ould. As part of the show, David was required to not only live with, and attend the wedding of, Michael and Gregory, but to also host them in his own home (or at least, in a caravan on his driveway). I was lucky enough to know Michael, and was at his house during filming, where I met David and spoke with him for some time. We ended up keeping in touch, and he was nice enough to ask me around to his house for dinner, where I met his delightful family, and we spent some time discussing marriage equality.

My friend Michael will probably not like me saying this, but I like David. I find him interesting, and easy to talk to, and I genuinely believe that his heart is in the right place.

But that doesn’t mean he has any idea about statistics.
___

David has a blog, which is almost as good as this one, and in his latest post, he addresses the Safe Schools Program, or more specifically, whether or not it is justified, based on the number of LGBTIQ students in Australian schools. The Safe Schools coalition, it seems, has been lying about how many LGBTIQ students there actually are. Their website claims 10% of students are LGBTIQ. David Ould says otherwise, via a Baptist minster named Murray Campbell. Murray is happy to admit that determining the proportion of LGBTIQ people “is near impossible”, but nevertheless feels confident enough to tells us that, while

Safe Schools want us to believe that 10% of the population have same-sex attraction, most scientific studies put the figure under 4% (and that includes bisexual people), and other research suggests even lower.

Helpfully, David provides some stats of his own, sourced from a recent commercial from Medibank Private, which you can watch for yourself below.

David did some analysis, and concludes that Medibank is trying to tell us in a “subtle way” that “30% of households with children are same-sex households”. He bases that 30% figure on a number of observations:

  1. There were, on a rough count, 10 various households with children.
  2. Single-parent families, who make up about a quarter of Australian families with children, only got one clear representative in the video.
  3. Of the ten families three were clearly same-sex.

I have to say, it looks a little damning for Medibank. Based on those observations, it really does look like they are trying to tell us that 30% of households with children are same-sex households. That’s clearly not true, so it made me wonder what else they got wrong, and I did a little analysis of my own:
Medibank stats

Based on my analysis, there were two households with children that didn’t have any parents whatsoever. I can only conclude that Medibank is trying to claim that 22% of Australian children are currently living out their dream of starring in a real life Lord of the Flies.

One of the nine families with children had four children. That’s 11%, compared to only 5% of Australian families having four or more children. Medibank is trying to convince us that there are way more four child families than there actually are. I can’t believe they would do such a thing.

That’s not the worst of it though. The worst thing I found was that 100% of the children in baths were really happy. And we all know that can’t be true.

I like this style of analysis. I wonder if I can turn it around, and analyse David’s analysis?

David claimed that there were 10 households with children. I counted exactly nine. He did say it was a rough count though, so perhaps I can forgive him.

David also claimed that there was only one single parent family. There were actually three, which puts David out by 200%. Hmm.

Finally, David said that there were three same-sex families in the video. There were actually only two, which puts David’s figure out by 50%.

Based on these results, and applying David’s own analysis technique, I am free to conclude that 67% of anything David tells us is wrong. Very, very wrong.
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That’s probably not fair though, is it? I’ve based that off only one of David’s blog posts, and one is hardly ever a good sample size. In fact, pretty much the only time that a sample size of one has any kind of statistical significance is when you survey yourself to find out what you want for dinner. To get a better indication of the true state of affairs, you should probably take the largest sample size you can. Like, perhaps, every television commercial and print ad from the last 100 years.

LGBTIQ people have been living in the shadows for a long time, and have only recently started poking out their heads for some time in the sun. Unfortunately, some people in our society see a gay head poking out, and have a desperate need to smack it back down, like some giant, real-life game of wack-a-mole. Apparently, lots of people would rather pretend that LGBTIQ people don’t exist. Don’t believe me? Just look at some of the YouTube comments on the Medibank video:
Medibank YouTube comments

Is it any wonder that a program like Safe Schools is needed, and 30% to 40% of LGBTIQ people attempt suicide? Given how long LGBTIQ people have had to hide in shame, is it really that hard for us to see them in a frikken health insurance commercial?

Besides, isn’t the bigger concern the high number of children who live in families with no parents at all? Shouldn’t we check how they’re paying their mortgages? Can we send someone over to make them eat their vegetables?

Or maybe, just maybe, we could stop for moment, relax, and recognise that there are people out there who want to end their lives because our society has told them that being themselves isn’t good enough. And maybe there are a few things we could do to help. Like give them a little recognition, in a single, 30 second commercial, in amongst the millions of commercials that have completely ignored their existence. Because maybe, just maybe, that will give a few people a better chance at being happy.

I don’t think that’s a lot to ask.

GBAV – Genesis 10

In which having sex with your family leads to a whole bunch of people with silly names.

Gn 10:1These are all the people who were born after Noah’s family all had sex with each other. And by people I mean boys.

Gn 10:2-5The sons of Japheth were Smeagol, and Gary, and Spencer, and Gomer, who was apparently a surprise, surprise, surprise. And the sons of Gomer were Hoochie, and Flowerpot, and Pooface. And the sons of Hoochie were Vlad the Impaler, and Snoopy, and Zoolander. And they all went off and invented new languages, for some reason.

Gn 10:6-9And the sons of Ham were Barry, and Andrew and Terrence. And the sons of Barry were ugly. And the sons of Ugly were Dumbledore, and Jabba, and Sauron. And Jabba begat Nimrod, who was a mighty hunter. Hence that really well known phrase, “OMG you are such a Nimrod, and by that I mean a mighty hunter.”

Gn 10:10-20And Nimrod begat Gilligan, and the Skipper, too. And the Skipper begat Krusty, and Stimpy, and Wolverine, and Jamiroquai. And they all went off and invented new languages, for some reason.

Gn 10:21-31And Shem was just as bad at inventing names as his two brothers, so all of his sons had silly names, too. And they all went off and invented new languages, for some reason.

Gn 10:32So that’s pretty much what happened after the flood. And everyone was happy, even though they had silly names, because at least they didn’t have to have sex with their family any more.

<< Genesis 9