The Good. The Bad. The Asinine.

Sleaze On Our Beaches and Rocks in Our Heads

Today I want to talk about something quite big and complex. In order keep it light and easy, I plan to take a leaf out of the conservative playbook.

Basically, take any big idea and say it’s just like something else. So, when talking social policy, ethics and the law, I can say something like: “The nation: it’s like a family, right? We all just have to get along.”

This way I can not only complete two whole sentences (no mean feat for some of our public figures); I can also avoid having to discuss anything at all to do with social policy, ethics or the law. “The economy – it’s like chip-shop, yeah? And our relations with the rest of the world – well, they basically boil down to [insert sporting metaphor].”

Brilliant! It doesn’t matter that, say, a chip-shop bears about as much resemblance to the economy of a medium-sized Nation State as a cap pistol to a thermonuclear warhead, despite the fact that they can be said to do roughly the same thing. What’s important is that people know what a chip-shop is. That way, when I stop talking, they’ve understood all the words I’ve used, and therefore believe I’ve said something which sensible.

So today I want to talk about our relationship with mass media, its effect on our perception of what we know, and, more importantly, what we actually end up knowing as a result of engaging with it.

Right. Here goes.

The Entirety of the Mass Media can now be understood if we say: “It’s like the Manly Daily, isn’t it? That’s a newspaper, right?”

The People (all of them) of the Commonwealth of Australia are reducible to whoever it is that gets the Manly Daily on a regular basis. People are all the same, basically, right?

Happy? Okay, neither am I – but let’s go ahead anyway.

For those of you who ended up in the wrong parts of Sydney, The Manly Daily is the organ of communication for ‘the beaches’. Whilst it rarely goes so far as to run an actual news item, it does do an excellent job of keeping us all informed about various happenings within our community. Council meetings, house prices, art shows, gigs, locals who have done well – all of it prompt, accurate and cheerful. This is seasoned with a bare minimum of court news and the occasional opinion piece. As a means of staying connected with the wider community, it really is a publication of considerable merit (no, really – I mean it).

There are however, some things at which the Daily has always been utterly crap. Like news, for example. Or social commentary.

Case in point – yesterday’s paper carried the front page headline “Sleaze on our beaches (videos of sunbathers uploaded to social media website)”.*

What’s basically happened is that somebody’s been recording and posting videos of women on the beach. Just like those blokes in Cancun, Ibiza, Ipanema, Miami – you get the idea. The videos go up under the tag line “Sexy Girls”. Mr Kay, the man behind the copy (or at least with his name above it), is outraged. He states that it is unacceptable to ‘secretly’ film people in a state of undress and then publish that footage without their knowledge or consent. In support of this contention, he even went so far as to consult an academic specialist in the area of social ethics. Unfortunately, all that he seems to have got out of her was a quote containing the words ‘creepy’ and ‘pervy’. Equally unfortunate is this person’s apparent lack of authoritative knowledge in the areas of ICT, philosophy of technology, media law, copyright law or privacy law.

Which I guess is just as well as, for some reason, the decision was made to print three screenshots from the actual video right next to an article complaining loudly about the existence and publication of these images. Sure, the Daily has made some effort to hide faces but, considering how much else of them I can see, this makes no sense either. As far as I can tell, this journalist has ‘secretly’ surfed the net to find these images and then published them without the knowledge or consent of the people who are in them. Which is an outrage, right?

Now, Mr Kay knows his stuff. He’s put in legwork and done his diligence, researching Youtube and looking at women in bikinis in a spirit of outrage. He spoke to a lawyer, who informed him that taking pictures of people in a public space and then publishing them online is probably not illegal. He also spoke to the Department of Justice, who pointed out that there are laws against filming people’s private parts and private acts. He also pointed out that it’s difficult to call voluntarily stripping half naked in order to loll about in a public place a ‘private act’.

So the more we think about this issue, the less it seems to deserve the name. This, in fact, is exactly why asking me how I ‘feel’ about an issue will get you a five minute rant. Issues are too important – they should be thought about first.

In this instance, thinking and proper research would have raised the following three points.

  • Every famous beach in the world has similar videos associated with them (and their women) on Youtube. In a twisted way, we could perhaps see it as a positive that we have joined a club that includes Cancun, Ibiza and Ipanema.
  • The article suggests we should ‘demand’ the removal of the material in question. This would indicate a lack of awareness with regard to what Youtube actually is. They will generally remove content on the basis of a single, pro-forma complaint. If there is to be a fight with anyone, it won’t be with them.
  • Most critically, he seems to fail to understand that the Youtuber is doing, albeit more crudely, what he himself has presumably been doing for a significant portion of his life. Getting pictures of stuff people like to look at and putting some words next to them in the hope of generating some interest.

These failures in understanding lead me to my point.

We talk airily about having ‘discussions’ and ‘conversations’ based on issues that are highlighted in the media. I contend that this simply isn’t likely, or perhaps even possible. So often, issues that arise in the media are being written about by people who don’t actually understand any more about them than you or I. And then, in order to generate interest, the tendency is to frame the entire issue, whatever it may be, in the strongest emotion possible.

Think about it – how many of us are experts on Middle Eastern power politics and history? Very few. So think about the last conversation you had about Israel. I’m willing to bet it ended in a flurry of ad-hominem insults, some very dodgy history factlets and some even dodgier statistics. And, most importantly, lots of angry shouting. Every conversation seems to end up emulating, on a very small scale, the conflict. Why?

It’s simple – the data that is coming in to us is many things: brilliant, rubbish, insightful, idiotic, accurate and ludicrous. Which means we can’t really trust it. Problem is, though, that the sheer amount of it also means we’re generally disinclined to check it. So the end result of all this information input is that we are no longer certain very much at all. What we do know, however, is exactly how we felt about stuff. In the case of Israel, the emotion that sells is generally outrage, and that’s what we end up retaining.

Is this the media’s fault? Hell no. At no point in the history of the written word has a journalist’s role been to do our thinking for us. They record and interpret, and that’s that. Is it the government then? Once again, that would be an emphatic no. They’re supposed to speak for us – enact our will, so to speak. This doesn’t really work if they’re also telling us what that will actually is. So who, in fact, is responsible for keeping us informed? Whose job is it to ensure that we actually understand the world that we live in?

Or, to put it differently, who is ultimately responsible for the shape and contents of your mind? Obviously, it’s you. Mr Bryn Kay, fearless hack for the Cumberland group, is responsible for his own failure to view his story intelligently prior to publishing it and it is my responsibility – mine alone – if I decide to react as stupidly as he did.

* http://newslocal.newspaperdirect.com/epaper/viewer.aspx

 

 

Atheism, Interwebs Style

So, I’ve decided to be an atheist. What should I do now?

I guess the best way to find out is to head on over to internetland.

I see. Hmmm…

It appears that now, having freed myself of the trappings and dogma of religion, I’m now expected to talk  constantly about God and religion, to the exclusion of almost everything else.

It would also appear that I have acquired a mission of sorts. It seems that, having received a revelation of the true nature of the universe, it is now my duty to attempt to convert the rest of the world to my way of thinking, presumably because I want to share the joy of no longer being told what to think. Sounds vaguely familiar, but okay – whatever’s clever.

And of course, having rejected the idea of ‘divine right’ and the implied heirarchies that go along with it, I am now free to look down on the faithful, dismissing them as emotionally crippled fantasists with defective minds.

You know what? I might just give all that stuff a miss. If you don’t mind, I shall content myself with not believing in God and applying research and evidence based reasoning in an attempt to understand the world around me. I get that a great many people appear to derive a great deal of satisfaction from separating into warring camps, shouting past their opponents and calling this a ‘discussion’. I sincerely hope that they are enjoying this as much as they seem to be – everyone, after all, deserves to find happiness in their own way.

I, however, have neither the time nor the inclination to engage in behaviour that makes me look as stupid and irrational as the people I am shouting at for being stupid and irrational.

Come on, atheists of the internet – we can do better than this. We are, after all, supposed to be the smart ones, aren’t we?

 

Let’s discuss Islam. Or Islamism. No, Sorry – Racism. No, Wait – Liberalism. Whatever. It’s a discussion, Right?

Ben Affleck had a spat with Bill Maher and Sam Harris and Reza Aslan have taken sides and meme, cat picture, outrage, racism. I know that doesn’t make any sense, but neither does paying any attention whatsoever to an argument about politics between an actor and a comedian.

The fact is, though, that most of us have, which means that an international humanitarian crisis has been reframed as a series of questions about ourselves. This being as embarrassing as it is pointless, I would like to dispose of some of these questions in order to clear the way for the discussion we should actually be having. And also to stop the constant stream of Ben Affleck memes inundating my social media feeds. Seriously, people – letting an actor frame a discussion on these issues makes about as much sense as letting a salmon fold napkins.

 

So, some of the questions we are currently asking include:

 

“How can we separate anti-Islamic bigotry  from opposition to Islamism?”

  • By understanding the difference between Islam and Islamism. One is a religion, practiced with varying degrees of liberalism around the world. The other is an ideology committed to using force to achieve political objectives.
  • By learning something about a culture other than our own.
  • By the spelling.

“Does Islamophobia exist?”

  • Yes
  • No
  • Who really gives a fuck?
  • Since when does the existence or non-existence of the inchoate concept behind a poorly defined buzzword actually matter?

“What kind of relationship should the religious have with a secular state?”

  • A normal one.
  • Like the one they all already have.
  • Which is, broadly speaking, the one they’ve always had.

“What moral grounds do we have for intervention against Radical Islamism?”

  • Our share of culpability in the creation of the current situation.
  • The threat to regional stability, life and freedom represented by IS.
  • Not, of course, to be confused with self defence against an existential threat to ourselves.
  • Isn’t that right, Mr Abbott?

 

Now, some of the questions we should be asking are:

 

Who are the key stakeholders in the conflict we are engaged in?

What are their aims and objectives?

What our ours? And how will we measure their achievement?

What role do we intend to play in the eventual reconstitution of the Area of Operations?

What factors drive radicalisation and how can they be eliminated?

Why is so much of the Moslem world in a constant state of outrage and to what extent is this our fault?

Why is our government wasting taxpayers’ money drafting legislation aimed at a tiny minority of a tiny minority group?

 

Please, by all means, feel free to answer these ones for yourelves.

Shorty Wanna be a Thug

Let’s say my name is Abder Mohammed Moussa. Let’s say that I was born in this country, in the fine city of Sydney, some time in the late seventies. Let’s say that my parents were refugees from Iran – my dad was an atheist and my mum a civil rights activist: two categories that guaranteed death in the homeland and refugee status in this land, the country of my birth. Let’s say that the government at the time persuaded my parents that a Moslem services hub existed in Lakemba, and that this was therefore the very best place for us to stay.

Let’s say that I went to school in my local neighbourhood, surrounded by local boys and girls, laughing, brassing, making a nuisance of myself in fast food outlets and shopping malls, all in the great Australian tradition of larrikinism.

So years pass by. I marry someone, have some children and start working on becoming a pillar of the community. I go to RSL raffles. I join Rotary and the Lion’s Club. My wheel alignment business becomes one of the major employment options in my neighbourhood. I spend about as much time as the average Christian does actually thinking about God – which is practically none at all.

Then all hell breaks loose.

9/11. Gulf 2. Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq. Bali, 7/7 and Boston. All of a sudden, my name produces difficult questions. The young lads I hung out with are inevitably contacts of interest from ASIO’s point of view. My faith – never something I thought all that much about – becomes a major concern. It seems that every hand is turned against me. People who I’ve known for years are suddenly forensically interested in every detail of my faith and upbringing. They ask me questions I’ve never actually known the answers to. The news is full of not-so-veiled inferences about crazy Moslems and people look at me suspiciously on public transport. Especially if I’m carrying a bag. The only people who seem to have anything nice to say to me are on Youtube wearing balaclavas and holding RPG launchers. Then, to cap it all off, one very early morning my front door gets kicked in and a bunch of officers who refuse to identify themselves are taking all my computers, asking me questions about my local Imam, the people I go to prayers with on Fridays. They seem to find it impossible to believe that my attendance is mainly about community – about making friends in my neighbourhood and keeping my devout wife happy.

After a fun-filled few days in a white room with no windows, I’m turned loose. Everyone on my street looks at me like I’m Osama himself. The busted door and remains of police tape don’t help. Nor the plain van parked across the road day and night.

Obviously, all this makes me feel like an accepted and valued part of a community. Not, however, the one I grew up in. My completely understandable reaction to this kind of thing is clearly going to be along the lines of knuckling down and loudly proclaiming that I’m part of ‘Team Australia’. Mainly because I don’t want to be dragged to a paddy wagon in my underpants again. And possibly booking a flight to Syria, where there are people who really understand me.

This hypothetical is not all that far fetched. Okay, so the name I made up is ridiculous, but the circumstances are drawn directly from the experiences of people I’ve met, drank with (yes, alcohol) and worked with. From the Morroccan I knew who disappeared off the face of the Earth after announcing his intention to join Hamas to the Indonesian family who appear to have been raided on the strength of a lone anonymous call to a hotline and membership of an iffy mosque. Ordinary, hard-working people who spoke with Aussie accents and tried desperately to take more than ten years of suspicion, marginalisation and abuse with a sense of humour.

If any or all of these people become a threat to Australia, I know exactly who and what I’ll be blaming. Here’s a clue – it won’t start with ‘Is’ and end with ‘lam’. The real culprit starts with an ‘H’ and ends in ‘ysteria’. For as long as we are unable and/or unwilling to distinguish between radicalised and non-radicalised Moslems, we will continue to largely create the threat that we are currently most afraid of. Just as grinding poverty and police brutality creates gang culture, marginalisation borne of hysterical ignorance creates radicalism.

Shorty wanna be a thug in Compton. In Sydney, Moussa wanna be a Jihadi – in much the same proportions and for much the same reasons.