The Good. The Bad. The Asinine.

The Curious Effect of the Sharia ‘Threat’

It’s a well known fact that importing Muslims into our country puts us under threat of having our culture obliterated and our hapless citizens yoked to the harsh and oppressive juggernaut that is Sharia Law. That is, it’s well known amongst people who are unclear on the definitions of the following words:

  • Muslim
  • Threat
  • Culture
  • Sharia
  • Law
  • Fact
  • Mat
  • Cat
  • Sat

Leaving such minor matters aside, we are still confronted with the reality that a growing number of Australians is embracing the idea that the Islamification of Australia is a threat which exists outside the realm of paranoid white supremacist fantasy. This growing anxiety is pushing more and more of our fine citizens to the political right, where we find such sterling products of the democratic process as Pauline Hanson, Corey Bernardi and George Christensen.

Now, to be fair, I do need to point out that the right wing is not the exclusive province of the sort of people who inspire the design of signs like this:

No, the political right has its fair share of savvy, intellectually agile and politically sophisticated adherents, well grounded in the complex theoretical bases behind nativist monoculturalism, protectionism, and so on. It’s just that they tend to limit themselves to painstakingly levering these concepts into the tiny minds of shrill populists, presumably via the exclusive use of words of one syllable.

This situation is imbued with a twofold irony. Firstly, there is the fact of people like Hanson – a spokesperson for the people who is incapable of coherent speech. And then there is the deeper and more worrying irony, mostly having to do not with the nationalist or white supremacist side of politics, but with the stolid core of ultra-conservatism.

This core, represented by the likes of Bernardi, Nile, and Christensen, is one possessed of deep religious roots, and an unshakeable belief in the idea that civil law should be informed by one or more of the many flavours of Christianity. As crazy as this idea might sound, it’s not a conspiracy theory I have confected in order to fight fantasy with fantasy – this is an openly stated position.

This means that the imaginary threat of a sharia-based criminal code is causing a movement towards politicians who believe that religion is a sound basis for the creation of laws.  Or, to put it another way, the fear of religious law is causing people to support politicians who wish to enact religious law.

This being the case, I think our most urgent policy priority should be the mass production of this warning sign:

Let’s hope it’s as least as effective as the chainsaw one.

The Australian Christian Lobby’s Delusions of Adequacy

Australian Christian Lobby

This is the ACL’s idea of an ‘argument’. Note the complete absence of logic of any kind.

The Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) is a frustrating organisation, not least because of its militant parochialism and refusal to accept that positions based on a combination of Christian revanchism and bigotry are, in fact, revanchist and bigoted. Its tendency to bleat out an utterly fabricated narrative of persecution, its insistence on blaming some amorphous ‘left wing media conspiracy’ for reverses generally caused by its own media incompetence, and its startling inability to pursue or even to form any kind of logically coherent argument are all extremely annoying. And Lyle Shelton, their managing director, is the kind of attention-seeking, self-pitying, incompetently grandiloquent noisemaker who makes the fists of all right-thinking folk become seriously itchy.

So, given just how annoying they are, it’s not hard to understand why someone blowing up a van in their carpark could immediately be put down to a targeted attack. I myself thought it highly probable, given how I feel every time Shelton opens his stupid gob or mashes ineffectually at his keyboard. And I wasn’t alone in this. There are huge sections of the voting public who apparently take ghoulish glee in attributing any and every act of non-domestic violence to Muslim terrorism or Muslim immigration or Muslims in general, possibly because a narrative as inherently irrational as Islamophobia requires quite a lot of fodder to sustain. Within twenty minutes of the first run of the the story, thousands of comments claiming that this was definitely the work of Islamic State and that the leftard libtard media was deliberately suppressing any mention of this, had engulfed certain pointy-headed and ill-spelled corners of the internet. Incontrovertible, iron-clad arguments like: “It was a quiet area, so it must have been a terrorist attack” were helpfully formulated, presumably to assist the police in their investigation, and not to muddy the waters with irrational reactionism. Quite a valuable contribution given that the poor, helpless counter-terrorism and  security experts of the world tend to be stuck with the idea that mass casualty attacks are generally conducted in busy areas at busy times of day. In order to cause mass casualties. Such narrow, blinkered thinking was obviously much enriched by the public’s insightful contributions.

In any case, during the initial phase of this story, the ACL actually had my sympathies. It doesn’t matter how mendacious, petty, bigoted or deluded one’s beliefs are – no law abiding organisation deserves to be the target of political violence. Shelton’s initial Twitterings were mostly generous and politic, though his comment, “hard to believe this could happen in Australia” sounded an ominous warning of the stupidity to come. And my word did he deliver. It appears that in the wake of the explosion, his first and admirable priority was to see to the welfare of his staff, which meant cutting short his holiday and returning to Canberra. In view of the fact that the building was empty at the time, and that none of his staff were injured or killed or, presumably, present at the time, this seemed a little odd. But then, if someone blows up the front of your building, it makes sense that you should repair immediately to the scene. It appears, however, that upon his return he did little other than stand in front of cameras and say stupid things stupidly to the media.

Australian Christian Lobby

Lyle Shelton, proclaiming his organisation’s suspect martyrdom.

By the end of the day, the ground was laid out as follows. The Canberra police had interviewed the suspect, who was unknown to police, and therefore presumably to domestic intelligence, and who said that his sole aim was to “blow myself up”. This, and the host of other factors militating against the interpretation of this event as an attempted mass casualty attack led the police to conclude that there was “no ideological or political motive” behind the explosion. Shelton, of course, wasn’t at all happy about this, and by evening he had proclaimed that the police had been too quick to jump to conclusions, jumped himself to the conclusion that the ACL was the victim of a terror attack and blamed the Greens and other parliamentarians for inciting anti-Christian terrorism by using the word ‘bigot’ to describe his bigoted views.

And then, of course, the story faded from view. This is partly because the only sources of credible information are a tight-lipped police command and a man with burns to 75% of his body, but mostly because the ACL is basically not all that important. Sure, it’s loud in its claims to represent the Christian community, but there isn’t any real evidence that it does. Its base, purportedly largely made up of Pentecostal and non-conformist churches, does not in fact support its views on marriage equality. Its measurable impact on elections is negligible to non-existent. To an informed observer, the ACL’s principle role is to be trotted out in front of the cameras whenever journalists want to provide the appearance of balance by padding out a panel with a talking head from the lunatic Christian right. And this represents, for me, the single most frustrating thing about the ACL – their persistent and unfounded delusions of adequacy. On no level do they actually contribute in any meaningful way to the debate on any issue, but their notoriety and fatuous self importance means that they have a profile which is all out of proportion to their relevance.

So, in the unlikely event that there’s anyone out there who actually is planning an attack on the ACL, I would urge you to reconsider. Not only would such an action be illegal, immoral and inhuman, it would also be of material assistance in backing their delusional narrative of persecution. They’re just not important enough to attack. In fact, I’m convinced that they’re not even important enough to respond to. Like every other screaming toddler, I firmly believe that the best tactic by far is to simply ignore them.

Secular Understandings of the Bible – Creation and Paradise

creation and paradise

In most creation stories the same themes tend to emerge, namely: separation, categorisation and what Levi-Strauss likes to call the ‘tension between the raw and the cooked’, or, in other words, the essential conflict between sedentary civilisation and hunter/gatherer models of life.

Genesis deals fairly curtly with the first two of these (separation and categorisation), taking care of it all within a handful of verses. It’s almost as if the authors felt that this story was already known and, looking at Sumerian/Babylonian/Egyptian myth there’s good reasons to believe that this is the case. The undeniable cross-propagation of these cultures meant that there was already a template of sorts for creation. In all of these cultures there is a sort of organiser god, one who is not necessarily tied to a single idea or aspect of nature, but who resonates with the role of administrator or scribe. Generally, this god sits around in some kind of no-space/time and, for reasons which are usually obscure, goes about separating light from dark, water from earth, and so on. Hard on the heels of this sorting endeavour comes an account of the first man. And yes, it usually is a man.

In understanding the parallels between this kind of god and the function and legitimacy of government in ancient civilisations, I think the etiological purpose of creation stories is pretty obvious. What’s less obvious, though, is whether or not the creators of these stories actually expected them to be believed as literal truth. This is another subject on which people much cleverer and more erudite than myself have spent years shouting at each other about, which makes me a little hesitant to add my own two cents. For what it’s worth, though, my own reading has nearly persuaded me that they did not. What we’re looking at for a great part of history is alien mentality. The world as we see it is necessarily very different from that perceived by ancient and proto-historical peoples. I think that looking at the way Classical Greeks and Romans talked about their own myths, as well as the relationship with magic and mysticism still existing amongst less developed cultures, should reveal to us that there are many ways in which to interpret and understand truth, and that the literal interpretation of myth and magic is a view more likely to be found amongst questionably sane modern Westerners than anywhere else.

A note about alien mentality: Anthropologist Nigel Barley tells an excellent story from his first field assignment in Africa. He became aware that the people he was studying simply had no concept of photography as a representation of self. He noticed that all of their ID cards had the same picture. The idea of individuality or a sense of self being transferrable or recordable in this way was completely alien to their existence. When testing this idea, he handed one person a photograph of a lion. He looked at the photo, turned it over, and then said, “I do not know this man.” His brain was either incapable or simply refused to understand representation in photographic form. If such variation in psychic landscape can exist synchronologically, then it surely follows that it must exist across time as well.

Anyway, we move from the suspiciously familiar creation story to the much abused tale of Adam and Eve. Frankly disgusting attempts to co-opt this story by fundamentalists, anti-equality groups, and other loonies are, I think, so far wide of the point they may as well stop talking about the story entirely. It’s the elements of the story, appreciated in context, which are important. Sure, on one level, this is an implausible fairy tale about God, a dysfunctional couple and talking animals in a garden, but this is really the least important level. What we’re talking about here is the advent of civilisation, and the deep problems this causes to the human psyche. The fruit of knowledge is such a widespread trope it deserves a post all to itself, but that’s not one I’m qualified to write. For the purposes of this article, however, suffice it to say that knowledge in the mythical sense is about self-awareness. It’s hard to imagine, but it’s generally agreed that self-awareness, or a sense of self, isn’t something we humans have always had. This means there must have been some point in time when humans somehow acquired it, and there’s a compelling argument to be made that most stories which contain the knowledge trope are attempts to interpret the dim memory of this. If you want to look into this idea further, Professors William Propp and Steve Tinney do a much better job than me of explaining it.

Leaving the megalithic topic of knowledge aside, though, understanding that this is what the Adam and Eve story is about tends to clarify the rest of it. What we’re left with, then, is a heavily symbolic account and exploration of the pros and cons of the advent of sedentary civilisation. Paradise is not so much a physical location as a state of being. Prior to the Neolithic revolution, humanity existed in what some call ‘a state of nature’. This is Levi-Strauss’ idea of ‘the raw’. Hunter gatherers may spend quite a bit of their day wandering around looking for things, but what they don’t really do is work. It’s not until farming, and all the other paraphernalia of civilisation that come with it (trade, disease, etc.) that humanity becomes familiar with the idea of work. If we look closely at the ‘punishments’ handed out to Adam and Eve, they’re mostly identifiable as the simple consequences of civilised agrarian life. Many scholars, in fact, like to deviate from the Augustinian narrative of crime and punishment and see this story as an account of humanity’s involuntary trade-off of awareness and surplus for freedom and the psychic immortality which comes with an ignorance of death. I’d also like to make a note about contextualising the symbols in a story this old. It’s very important that we don’t apply modern values to ancient symbols – the snake is a prime example. The erroneous association of the snake with Satan is very much a product of our own modern view of snakes. In the ancient world, all the way down to late antiquity, snakes are symbols of wisdom, knowledge and longevity/immortality, and are overwhelmingly not seen as evil. Which puts a completely different complexion on things, if you think about it.

Looked at in this way, and understanding the heavily symbolic nature of the story elements, this myth actually has value as a kind of mnemo-narrative of our deep, deep history. If nothing else, it tells us that ancient peoples preserved a memory, however corrupted, of a key moment in the history of human civilisation. And also that they were wont to think about it in very much the same terms we do today. Compare the anguish with which the sufferings of civilisation are recounted with our own modern fetishisation of pristine/tribal societies. In both cases we see a nostalgia for a simpler, less cultivated consciousness and mode of life, and an attempt to understand and come to terms with the bargain we made all those millennia ago.

In my next post, I’ll be talking about that favourite hobby horse of both atheists and creationists alike – The Flood.

Secular Understandings of the Bible – Genesis and Genealogy

Uruk and the Bible

INTRODUCTION

I find quite a lot of the debate surrounding the Bible a bit sterile. What it generally consists of is atheists pointing out the impossibility of literal interpretations of famous stories, or snarkily quoting passages from Leviticus or Deuteronomy while, on the other side, pie-eyed and frankly insane fundamentalists point to the handful of textual and archaeological attestations of which they’re aware, whilst simultaneously threatening the atheists with a hell in which they presumably don’t believe.

This strikes me as being about as productive as dry humping a telegraph pole. All the appearances of the thing are there, but it’s a very, very long way from the thing itself. The idea that a text can survive in oral tradition for five or six hundred years, and then roughly two and a half thousand in written form without undergoing major revisions, redactions and distortions is just laughable. Anyone capable of believing in something like this simply isn’t worth arguing with, as they’re clearly not at home to Mr Rational Thought.

What I hope to demonstrate over the next few posts is that the argument about literal truth is moot (in the American sense of the word), and that there’s quite a lot of very interesting information in the Bible, none of which has to do with God, but rather with literary truth, mnemo-narrative, and the real relationship between Christianity and the roots of Western law and culture.

I should point out at the very top that I am not a Biblical scholar, and that this is not a scholarly series of articles. This means I’m not going to bother with footnotes and references as I shamelessly steal the work of the following professors: William Propp, Richard Friedman, Aren Maeir, Eric Cline and Israel Finkelstein. To a much lesser extent I shall also be drawing on the minimalist/revisionist work of Professor Francesca Stavrakopoulou. I’ve linked to some of their major works so that you can check them out for yourself, if you’re so inclined.

GENESIS – GENEALOGIES

There’s a general consensus that Paradise is somewhere in the vicinity of the ancient city of Uruk. Or somewhere in Ethiopia. Or possibly Greece, Israel or, most nuttily of all, England. It doesn’t really matter all that much, but for what it’s worth, Uruk makes sense to me. The mythologised patriarch Abraham is said to have come from Ur, which isn’t that far away, and Uruk is generally thought of as the first proper city (that’s a little bit controversial, but let’s just go with it). The reason this makes sense is because of the clear and overt purposes of Genesis. These are the recording of creation myth and the validation of a set of kings and priests via a genealogical line from the ‘first man’ through to the first patriarch (Abraham).

As a hard historical source, I don’t think there’s any real dispute that Genesis is garbage. The genealogies and timelines of Genesis form the basis for the laughably incorrect chronology of Baeda and, by extension, the Young Earth nutters. But it’s not what we’d call egregious. When compared to roughly contemporaneous documents and stories of a similar nature, it becomes clear that Genesis isn’t really much better or worse than anyone else’s account. Sumerian and Egyptian king lists contain a hodge podge of gods and people mixed together with wild abandon and, in comparison with the tens of thousands of years of life claimed for the first seven Sumerian kings, some of the biblical claims are actually quite modest.

For the purposes of a broad (rather than a minute and scholarly) understanding, we can go with the breathtaking over-simplification that the whole thing is an exercise in legitimacy – political, cultural, territorial and spiritual. Basically, tracing through to Abraham is a way of claiming legitimate ownership of Yahweh, Israel, the Torah and authority over the Jewish peoples, by the authors of the version which has come down to us today. There are a great many debates raging, far above my head, about the historicity of Abraham and whether or not he ever existed, but I’m not really sure how important this is for understanding what all this begetting/begatting nonsense is about. It’s basically the same thing as Princess Diana’s family tracing their lineage back to the mythical version of King Arthur, or the Romans claiming the equally mythical Trojan War survivor Aeneas as the founder of their culture. It’s a mixture of the political and the etiological – we come from a line of god-like heroes, therefore what we have and what we are both have absolute legitimacy.

In the next post, I intend to have a crack at the creation myth and the story of Adam and Eve, hopefully demonstrating that their dismissal as ‘Bronze Age fairy tales’, or their veneration as ‘literal truth’ are both somewhat wide of the point.

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?
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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].
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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.
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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.
___

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.

The Relative Irrelevance Of Ideology… Explained Through Tinder

When I first heard about Tinder, I was very excited. You see, I’ve never really been interested in having a long term relationship with anyone, and the whole notion of creating a home and filling it with prototype humans has about as much appeal for me as a bareback ride on a machete. Of course, so many people have exactly the opposite view that it’s almost impossible to convince anyone else that this is a sincere or enduring position. People just smile puffy, self-satisfied smiles and say things like: “Well, you might think that now…” implying that my considered choices about my mode of life are just a temporary aberration that will be fixed when I finally decide to be just like everyone else. Maybe they’re right, or maybe not. It couldn’t matter less. What does matter in the here and now, though, is the fact that practically everyone who is single and my age is completely sold on the picket fence and SUV model for happiness, which brings up the practical issue of how to acquire sex without love.

So, Tinder is announced and the concept is one that seems tailor-made for my situation. It’s apparently a community of people who are interested only in “hookups”. Gone is the tiresome business of trying to determine likes and dislikes, political affiliations, compatibility of both the mundane and spiritual variety – it’s just a matter of liking what you see and then arranging to meet. To a person in my position, Tinder seemed to be absolutely heaven sent. A purpose-built community of people who, like me, do not see their future solely in the context of who else will be in it and who are nevertheless saddled with a practical need for temporary companionship. Perfect, right?

Wrong. The problem with Tinder is that it became phenomenally popular. And the whole thing with popularity is that it enforces, with crushing inevitability, the Poisson curve of statistical normality. Completely disregarding the deliberately shallow, hardbitten engineering of the system and ideology behind Tinder, the hookup app became overwhelmingly a dating app. What started as a simple means of obtaining casual sex became, under the pressure of sheer single-minded human banality, yet another place where people emote at each other and look for love. Don’t get me wrong – there is still a minority core of sex addicts and other assorted extremists who wish to use the app in the spirit in which it was intended, but they are  drowned out by the sheer volume of people using Tinder as a low-budget form of eHarmony. Even when they say they’re not.

And this, really, is my point. Systems, ideologies, creeds, faiths – it doesn’t really matter what they are: people will just be people. And it is this fact, so obvious that it attains the status of a truism, that many of us seem to have difficulty understanding. Take the people who think Islam is the root cause of violence and extremism in the Middle East. They smugly quote passages of the Quran, share around images and video of extremist nutbags saying extremist things and then use these things as ‘evidence’ that Islam is somehow intrinsically evil and directly responsible for everything that’s wrong with the world today. The massive, ten million dollar problem with such a view is that it ignores the reality of human experience  – that depressing Poisson curve of normality.

It really doesn’t matter what your religion says – people are pretty much just going to go on being people. Christianity can be interpreted as a mystical creed of universal love, abnegation of the self before God and the embracing of poverty, which clearly explains why Christendom has become one of the most peace-loving and frugal regions of the globe today. No, wait… bad example. Buddhism is a creed of universal love, tolerance and the transcendence of base human impulses, which clearly explains why Buddhist nations like Sri Lanka and Thailand have embraced ethnic minorities and… no, hang on – another bad example.

It really doesn’t matter what any creed or code actually says – get enough people involved and they will basically screw it up by being themselves. There are constants in human behaviour that can be identified across more than ten thousand years of civilisation and, while the exciting backdrop of philosophies and systems flickers and changes over time, human behaviour does not. I could start a religion today that advocates the worship of Satan, whose primary virtues include rebellion against God and the state and promiscuity. I guarantee you that as soon as it has a large enough membership, it will be filled with people who pay their taxes and raise children in nuclear families. And it will probably contain a fringe element of weird beards who actually read the holy texts and call the rest of the congregation apostates. Sound familiar? That’s because it is – it’s the story of every established religion in the history of humanity. The reality is that people ignore or twist ideology and faith to provide sovereign justification for whatever it was that they were always going to do in the first place. Which is why Tinder is just another dating site, and Islam is just another religion.

A media release from the Australian Christian Lobby

MEDIA RELEASE
For immediate release
_____

The Australian Christian Lobby has questioned the wisdom of a campaign by some Australian corporations supporting a change to the definition of marriage.

“I just wonder if they have thought about how legislating a family structure which causes children to miss out on one of their parents is fair,” ACL Managing Director Lyle Shelton said.

In order to keep his position internally consistent, Mr Shelton then also called for legislation to force married couples to have children, and to ban marriage for couples who don’t want children or who have children from previous marriages, and to ban unmarried couples from having children, and to force married couples without children to get divorced, and to ban divorce. When asked how he would both ban and require divorce, Mr Shelton shouted “OMG THAT TREE LOOKS LIKE JESUS!”, and ran from the room.

When he returned, Mr Shelton went on to say, “This debate needs to move beyond politically correct ideology to a mature and open debate. Men have pee-pees and women have hoo-has, and that’s all there is to it. Furthermore, you’re all poopy-heads, and I will now close my eyes and stick my fingers in my ears until you leave”.

Noting that the Football Federal of Australia had also backed the campaign, Mr Shelton wondered where this left the tens of thousands of Australians who play soccer but also believe a child should be raised by their mother and father. “I wonder where this leaves the tens of thousands of Australians who play soccer but also believe a child should be raised by their mother and father,” he wondered. “Mexico? Aruba? That place where all the refugees come from? Even if it leaves them exactly where they were before, playing soccer and believing a child should be raised by their mother and father, I’m pretty sure they all stand around during games thinking about children not being raised by their mothers and fathers instead of thinking about whether they’re in an off-side position, and it will make them sad to think that the governing body wants to change the definition of marriage, and much sadder than the thousands of gay, trans and intersex players who stay in the closet because they think the governing body and society in general won’t accept them. I just really feel for them.”

“The corporates involved in this latest campaign really are not showing very much tolerance to those in the community who have a different view about marriage and the rights of children,” Mr Shelton said. “Of course, if the FFA came out in support of my own personal view of marriage, that would be fine.”

When asked whether he understood the meaning of irony, and whether it was intolerant to be intolerant of intolerance, Mr Shelton yelled “POOPY-HEADS!” and ran from the room.

END OF MESSAGE

Whatever it’s about, it ain’t about the children

There are a lot of arguments floating around in the continuing marriage equality debate, but there is one argument that just… won’t… die. Which I guess makes it (a) a little bit like Jesus, and (b) a little ironic given that the vast majority of its proponents are big fans (of Jesus, I mean, not marriage equality). It’s a textbook case of post-hoc reasoning, and the religious argument you use when you don’t want to look religious. And it annoys the crap out of me.

In its simplest form, it consists of a middle-aged white man wearing a brown cardigan and corduroy pants, running around in circles screaming “WON’T SOMEONE THINK OF THE CHILDREN?!”. The slightly more academic version, however, goes something like this:

    Same-sex1 couples shouldn’t be allowed to marry because:

  1. Every child has a right to be raised by their mother and father; and
  2. Other things being equal, children raised by same-sex couples fare worse than the children of heterosexual parents.

Let’s have a look at these in turn.

1
This statement is obviously predicated on the assumption that the very purpose of marriage is children. And yes, traditionally almost every couple that traditionally walked down the aisle did so because traditionally that’s what you did when you traditionally wanted children. Traditionally that kind of made sense at the time, because traditionally no one really liked bastards. But tradition can take a hike, because not only are most of my good friends absolute bastards, but nowadays lots and lots and lots of couples get married with no intention of ever having children. Some couples even get married knowing that they can’t have children, even if they wanted to (say hello, Fred Nile!). Which is perfectly fine, and in some cases, probably for the best (say hello again, Fred Nile!).

The corollary to this argument is that, because marriage is all about children, any same-sex couple who is allowed to wed will make their marriage about children as well. Because that’s what marred couples do, see? That will of course involve at least three people out of biological necessity (or in the language of the bigot, “Poofs gotta get eggs from somewhere”), and there is a risk that the resultant child will never get to know the owner of the ovary (or nut) from whence they came. The consequences of allowing same-sex marriage, therefore, are very, very bad.

But let’s break that down.

There are, right now in Australia, lots of gay couples that want children. And do you know what they do? They have children. Which makes them a lot like straight couples who want children and then have children, except they can’t get married. There are also lots of gay couples who don’t want children. And do you know what they do? They don’t have children. Which makes them a lot like straight couples who don’t want children and don’t have children, except they don’t get abortions. Straight singles go out and have children, too. So do gay singles. And intersex and trans couples and singles. All of this is going on right now, with or without marriage equality. And there isn’t anything you or I or Fred Nile or the ACL or Bill Meuhlenberg can do about it.

What this argument is basically saying, then, is this: “The purpose of marriage is children, but you can have children without getting married, and you can get married if you don’t want children, and you can get married if you can’t have children, and there are thousands of gay couples out there who want children and could have children if they wanted to but aren’t having children because they can’t get married, because marriage is all about children, apart from all the married couples without children”.

Or, put another way, “I don’t like gays, and, furthermore, I don’t like gays”.

The only way this argument could possibly make sense is if people only get married to have children, and non-hetero couples aren’t having children because they can’t get married. And since neither of those things is true, the argument doesn’t make any sense whatsoever.

It makes even less sense if you follow it one step further: If you truly believe that stopping same-sex marriage will prevent non-hetero couples having children, you are essentially saying that, rather than having non-traditional parents, it is better that those children don’t exist at all. Which is odd, given that almost everyone against same-sex marriage also follows that whole “right to life” thing. Think about it.

2
The second half of the “won’t someone think of the children” argument says that the children of gay parents fare worse than the children of hetero parents.

They don’t.

That should be the end of it, of course, but for some reason same-sex marriage opponents aren’t too impressed with “science”. Unless of course it’s bogus, discredited science that supports their established prejudice.

Even if we’re being incredibly generous, and concede that non-traditional families aren’t ideal, no reasonable person should be able to argue that the outcomes of such families are catastrophic enough to warrant their complete abolition. We know this because, if the outcomes were catastrophic, marriage equality opponents would be telling us about that, instead of mindlessly appealing to a specious defense of an outdated tradition.

Besides which, as we’ve already established, the marriage equality debate isn’t about children anyway. If you want to argue against same-sex parenting, go do it someplace else.
_____

I mentioned at the beginning of this post that this argument is a classic case of post-hoc reasoning, and the religious argument you use when you don’t want to look religious.

There’s no denying that there is a strong correlation between religious beliefs and opposition to marriage quality. And there’s no denying that the generally accepted position of all three Abrahamic religions is that marriage should be reserved for one man and one woman. Statistically speaking, the chance that this is due to pure coincidence is infinitesimally small. That alone should be enough to convince you that any time someone says “Won’t someone think of the children”, what they are really saying is “Won’t someone think of Baby Jebus”.

If you happen to be one of those people, however, and you genuinely believe that your opposition to marriage equality isn’t religiously motivated, ask yourself this.

If we, as a society, could somehow address all your concerns, would you still oppose it?

What if we could guarantee that all children raised by same-sex couples got to know their biological parents? Or if all those useless, horrible same-sex parents undertook a year-long course on how to be as good at parenting as heterosexuals? Or, perhaps better still, all married same-sex couples were forbidden from having any children at all?

Granted, those seem a little far-fetched. What about this, then: what if a multitude of independent scientific studies were published that proved that the children of same-sex couples actually do better than their heterosexual equivalents? If it’s all about the children, surely you wouldn’t object then, would you?

Perhaps I’m being presumptuous, but… yes, yes you would.

And if that’s the case, then you should wait for your cognitive dissonance to subside a little, grab your bible, and see yourself out. Because you’re simply not qualified for meaningful debate.

_____

1. I use “same-sex couple” here, for the sake of brevity, to mean any non-heterosexual couple.

So, you agree with a fückwit…

A curious thing happened to me a few years ago. I found myself agreeing with a bunch of fückwits. Well perhaps that’s unfair. It was more like they were agreeing with me… but they were still definitely fückwits.

It was 2010, and a big year for Australia. Not only did we have our first female prime minister, we also had our first dead Catholic wizard. Meanwhile, over in nice, friendly Belgium, they already had 66 dead Catholic wizards, but they also had something that we didn’t – a nationwide ban on the burqa.

It was, at the time, an issue I hadn’t really thought about much before. I mean, like all good atheists, I had read The God Delusion, God is not Great, and The End of Faith, so obviously I was really smart and more than capable of thinking about it and coming to a sensible opinion. So I thought about it for a bit, and my opinion was that maybe, just maybe, banning the burqa could be a good thing.

My reasons were noble. Burqas are, after all, disgusting tools of misogynistic oppression, and perpetuate the idea that women are evil temptresses and men are slobbering sex-crazed idiots. They also can get pretty hot in summer, and don’t have enough pockets. And, I thought, maybe banning the burqa would send a message that those kinds of ideas are not OK. I was on their side, you see. It was for their own good.

Then I stumbled across a Facebook page, called “Ban the Burka in Australia“. And what I saw there kind of horrified me. Did you know, for example, that a burqa could be hiding Alan Jones?

Ban the Burka 1

Or that sometimes burqas walk around with no one in them at all?

Ban the Burka 2

Or that Australia is the last place on earth that allows them?

Ban the Burka 3

Or that soldiers died under our anthem to protect Christmas at school assemblies or something?

Ban the Burka 4

Then I started reading some of the comments. Comments from ordinary Australians, like me, who had genuine, ostensibly noble reasons for thinking that banning the burqa might be a good idea. Like these guys:

Ban the Burka 5

Cause “their” stupid. That says it all, really. Well, almost. Say hello, Andrew Moose:

Ban the Burka 6

Needless to say, views such as Andrew’s are repellent, and bring to mind the wise words of Ricky Gervais – ignorance may be bliss for the ignorant, but for the rest of us it’s a right fucking pain in the arse. The more comments I read, the angrier I became. How could people think this way? But then something started to slowly dawn on me, something almost as repellent as Andrew Moose – “I kind of think this way.” Sure, I didn’t want to ban the burqa because I wanted to wave my uncircumcised penis on the streets of Islamabad, but there was no escaping the fact that Andrew Moose and I were both in favour of banning the burqa. We may have been reading from a different book, but we had somehow found ourselves on the same page. And that wasn’t a nice feeling at all.

So I started thinking about it again. And I realised a few things that, in my initial haste to strike a blow against religious oppression, I hadn’t really considered before. Like people are able to make their own decisions, for example. And further ostracising an already repressed minority by locking them in their own homes perhaps isn’t the nicest thing we could do. And there are better ways to try and educate people about religious oppression. I very quickly moved from cautious, in-theory endorsement, to full-blown rejection – banning the burqa would be a colossally stupid idea. It would be like banning girls from school because you don’t want the boys to pick on them. Oh, and you’re worried that they’re bank-robbing terrorists.

In the few years since, I’ve occasionally found myself in a similar situation. For example, I used to think we should be able to burn Korans or flush consecrated Communion wafers down the toilet if we wanted to. I’ve crapped on enough already (not literally), so I won’t go into the details – suffice to say I had high-minded reasons at the time, but I no longer think we should do either of those things. Most recently, I learned that the Victorian Labor party was going to repeal a certain section of the Crimes Act that criminalised the deliberate transmission of a serious disease. That sounded to me like a reasonable thing to criminalise, so repealing it sounded like a rather silly thing to do. Then I read Bill Meuhlenberg. He also thought it was a silly thing to do, because… well… because gays. This worried me. But a little help from a friend led me to Michael Kirby’s thoughts on the matter. Guess who had the better insights on the issue – the bigoted, hypocritical, fundamentalist Christian, or the respected former High Court judge?

So what did I learn from all of this? Well, for starters, I learned that good intentions are lovely, but they don’t always compensate for shitty opinions. And that sometimes people’s feelings are more important than my noble ideals. The one thing that really struck home, however, was this.

Agreeing with a fückwit doesn’t necessarily mean you’re wrong, but it should at least make you think.

Because chances are, the fückwit hasn’t.