big-thinker-eleanor-roosevelt

Big Thinker: Eleanor Roosevelt

BIG THINKER: ELEANOR ROOSEVELT

Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962) was an American diplomat and longest serving First Lady of the United States, best known for her work on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

She was affectionately dubbed “The First Lady of the World”. The thread running through her massive body of work is this single idea: fear threatens our lives and our democracies.

 

To live well means to live free from fear

Roosevelt lived in a world reeling from fascism. Though the Second World War had ended, the horrors of Nazism, the Holocaust and Stalinism revealed the depths people would succumb to out of fear and insecurity.

It wasn’t your garden variety type of fear she was concerned with. It was the type of widespread fear that debilitates courage, rewards conformity and stifles “the spirit of dissent”. By succumbing to this immobilising fear, Roosevelt said, we waste our lives.

“Not to arrive at a clear understanding of one’s own values is a tragic waste. You have missed the whole point of what life is for.”

Roosevelt wanted all people to know their values but as an influential public figure and patriotic American, she especially wanted this for her country. This wasn’t without reason. The growing fear of political others (McCarthyism) and racial others (the push for segregation) mobilised Roosevelt and emboldened her stance. She didn’t want conformity to win.

 “When you adopt the standards and the values of someone else or a community or a pressure group, you surrender your own integrity. You become, to the extent of your own surrender, less of a human being.”

Find a teacher in every person you meet 

Roosevelt felt the danger of fear and conformity went beyond the trauma of war. It could quash “a spirit of adventure”, a way of viewing and experiencing everyday life that made you a better person.

She wasn’t talking about a thrill seeking, you-only-live-once, way of navigating the world. She meant close mindedness – denying your life experiences the opportunity to change your mind and mould your actions.

“Learning and living are really the same thing, aren’t they? There is no experience from which you can’t learn something. When you stop learning you stop living in any vital or meaningful sense. And the purpose of life is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience.”

This means treating everyone you meet – not simply those you immediately relate to or respect – as repositories of knowledge. Everyone has something to teach you, said Roosevelt. And, she said explicitly, you are the ultimate beneficiaryYour character, your actions and your democratic polity.

You might think this is selfish. After all, shouldn’t we do good simply because it is good? Being motivated by what Kant called “good will”, or a moral duty, is a higher ideal to strive for.

That may very well be true. But Roosevelt wasn’t concerned with principles the vast majority of a traumatised, distrustful nation would find impossible to reach. She dealt in the everyday.

A principled life

The most remarkable thing about Roosevelt aren’t necessarily her ideals. It was her moral gumption to act on them even if they were unorthodox for the times or grossly unpopular.

She lobbied for greater intakes of World War II refugees when immigration was not supported by many Americans still reeling from the hardships of the Great Depression. She criticised her husband, President Franklin Roosevelt, for a policy intended to address the post-Depression housing market crash that segregated black and white citizens.

She broke with tradition by inviting African American guests to the White House. She spoke out against the internment of Japanese soldiers to the very population grieving the 2403 Americans they killed at Pearl Harbour (in comparison, it’s reported 55 Japanese lives were lost).

Roosevelt’s reputation for loving all has not gone unchallenged. She has been accused of taking sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a way that contravenes the Universal Declaration of Human Rights she worked on. While famous for wanting to protect displaced post WWII refugees, who were often Jewish, she felt the solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict was to resettle indigenous Palestinians in Iraq – the suggestion being she had a Zionist bias.

Roosevelt nevertheless maintains her name as a pioneer in humanitarian efforts who walked her talk. Fast forward to today’s polarised political spectrum, and her story reminds us the tools to make it through are there.

We need to be courageous enough to use them.

Follow The Ethics Centre on TwitterFacebookInstagram and LinkedIn.

Join the conversation

Is every person you meet a teacher?


Big Thinker: Adam Smith

Big Thinker: Adam Smith

Big Thinker: Adam Smith

It’s no exaggeration to say the ideas of Scottish moral philosopher Adam Smith (1723-1790) have shaped the world we live in.

By providing the core intellectual framework in defence of free markets, he positioned human liberty and dignity at the centre of trade and money – all for the common good.

 

Adam Smith, the pioneer

In the 18thcentury, the race to colonise as many resource rich places as possible meant powerful countries were often at war. Companies which added to the wealth of empires were protected by grateful governments, creating trade monopolies that seemed impossible to dismantle. This was the heyday of mercantilism.

Smith noticed how these actions created concentrations of wealth, benefiting the wealthy while the labour class struggled to survive. His first book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, argued that the virtues of sympathy and reciprocity could tame greed.

His second, The Wealth of Nations, was about promoting a new way of approaching wealth that was as lucrative as it was just. The approach Smith adopted was multifaceted: economic, defensive, legal, and moral.

Smith argued that countries were competing for the wrong thing. Wealth wasn’t to be found in commodities like gold and silver. It resided in human labour and ingenuity. Smith encouraged countries that would normally look externally for wealth, suppressing the labour class and enslaving others, to look internally instead.

If the labour class could have the freedom to pick their job, all the while knowing the government would leave the money they made well alone, why wouldn’t they work hard at it? They would produce goods and services of even higher quality, and the government could buy these and trade them with each other. Everyone wins.

Collaboration would mean countries wouldn’t need to waste money on defence and war. They could save and accumulate capital, and invest that into better machinery, freeing people to work more productively. The labour class would grow richer, and so would the nation.

Smith stressed that in order for a free market to ensure fair pay for fair work, contracts had to be honoured, people had to keep their word, and governments mustn’t get into debt or take people’s property. Theft, negligence, mistakes, or irresponsible government spending must to be managed by the rule of law. And in the case of foreign powers, defence.

Thus, for Smith – a free market must rest on a sound ethical foundation. Given this, he argued for moral education of a kind that would lead people to be honourable and behave justly. This included the rich. Smith thought that an appeal to ‘enlightened’ self-interest might lead them to act honourably. By lavishing praise, accolades, and rewards on those who spend their wealth in charity, the rich gain the status and rank they really desire.

Adam Smith, the legacy

Claims of plagiarism, usury, inconsistency, racism, and all else aside, the major complaint directed towards Smith is his concept of the “invisible hand”. His observation that self-interested individuals end up benefiting the common good – that they are “led by an invisible hand to promote an end that was no part of his intention.” – has prompted some critics to label him naïve, idealistic, or even immoral.

The following quotation (misattributed to John Maynard Keynes) sums it up: “Capitalism is the astounding belief that the wickedest of men will do the wickedest of things for the greatest good of everyone”. But that plays into the Smith = laissez-fairetrap, and ignores the safeguards he proposed against human corruption

Smith did not think greed was good, saying this removed “the distinction between vice and virtue”, nor did he believe business interests and the public interest necessarily coincide. Instead, his perspective was that market competition forced people to act in ways that benefited others, regardless of their intention. And when it failed to do that, an overarching authority should step in. For Smith, markets have no intrinsic value – they are merely tools for the betterment of life for all.

No doubt the world we live in now is vastly different to pre-Industrial Scotland. Mass media, the Internet, the textile industry, factory farms, surveillance, housing prices, offshore tax havens…much would have seemed strange and unfamiliar to Smith. But his work and legacy leave a lesson in economics, ethics, and politics – all the more prescient in a world where the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Follow The Ethics Centre on TwitterFacebookInstagram and LinkedIn.

Join the conversation

Where does true wealth exist?


When human rights complicate religious freedom and secular law

As the Commonwealth Government ponders its response to the Ruddock Religious Freedom Review, it’s worth considering what people of faith may be seeking to preserve and what limits society might justifiably seek to impose.

The term ‘religious freedom’ encompasses a number of distinct but related ideas. At the core, is freedom of belief – in a god, gods or a higher realm or being.

Many religions make absolute (and often mutually exclusive) claims to truth, most of which cannot be proven. Religions rely, instead, on acts of faith. Next comes freedom of worship – the freedom to perform, unhindered, the rituals of one’s faith. Then there is the freedom to act in good conscience – to give effect to one’s religious belief in the course of one’s daily life and, as a corollary, not to be forced to act in a manner that would violate one’s sacred obligations. Finally, there is the freedom to proselytise – to teach the tenets of one’s religion to the faithful and to those who might be persuaded.

In a secular, liberal democracy the four types of religious freedom outlined above –  to believe, to worship, to act and to proselytise – attract different degrees of liberty. For example, people are generally free to believe whatever takes their fancy, no matter how ill-founded or bizarre. This is not so in all societies. Some theocracies will punish ‘heretics’ for holding unorthodox beliefs. Acting out of belief – in worship, deeds and proselytising – is often subject to some measure of restraint. For example, pious folk are not permitted to set up a pulpit (or equivalent) in the middle of a main road. They are not permitted to beat a woman, even if the teaching of their religion allows (or requires) her chastisement. They are not permitted to let a child die because of a religious objection to life-saving medical procedures. Nor are they able to teach that some people are ‘lesser beings’, lacking intrinsic dignity, simply because of their gender, sexuality, culture, religion, and so on. In other words, there are boundaries set for the expression of religious belief, whatever those beliefs might be.

It is precisely the setting of such ‘boundaries’ that has become a point of contention. Some Australian religious leaders claim they should be exempt from the application of Australian laws that they do not approve, like anti-discrimination legislation. This is nothing new. As it happens, in Australia, a number of religions have long denied the validity of secular law, even to the extent of running parallel legal systems.

The Roman Catholic Church regularly applies Canon Law in cases involving the status of divorcees, the sanctity of the confessional, and so on. The Government of Australia might recognise divorce, but the Church does not. The following text is taken from the official website of the Archdiocese of Sydney: A divorce is a civil act that claims to dissolve a valid marriage. From a civil legal perspective, a marriage existed and was then dissolved. The Catholic Church … does not recognise the ability of the State to dissolve a marriage. An annulment, on the other hand, is an official declaration by a Church Tribunal that what appeared to be a valid marriage was actually not one (i.e, that the marriage was in fact invalid) [my emphasis].

In a similar vein, the Jewish community maintains a separate legal system that oversees the application of Halakhic Law through the operation of special Jewish religious courts called Beth Din. Given the precedents set by Christians and Jews, it’s not surprising that adherents of other faith groups, notably Muslims, are seeking the same rights to apply religious laws within their own courts and to enjoy exemptions from the application of the secular law.

“Fundamental human rights come as a ‘bundle’. They are indivisible.”

Given all of the above, are there any principles that we might draw on when setting the boundaries to religious freedom?

Human rights

Fortunately, the proponents of freedom of religion have provided an excellent starting point for answering this question. It begins with the core of their argument – that freedom of belief (religion) is a fundamental human right. Their claim is well founded. However, those who invoke fundamental human rights cannot ‘cherry pick’ amongst those rights, only defending those that suit their preferences.

Fundamental human rights come as a ‘bundle’. They are indivisible. It follows from this that if people of faith are to assert their claim to religious freedom as a fundamental human right, then the exercise of that freedom should be consistent with the realisation of all other fundamental human rights. Religious freedom is but one. It follows from this that any legislative instrument designed to create a legal right to freedom of religion must circumscribe that right to the extent necessary to ensure that other human rights are not curtailed. For example, a legal right to religious freedom should not authorise violence against another person. Nor should it permit discrimination of a kind that would otherwise be considered unlawful under human rights legislation.

If there is to be Commonwealth legislation, then it should establish an unrestricted right of belief and a rebuttable presumption in favour of acting on those beliefs. The limits to action should be that the conduct (either by word or deed): does not constrain the liberty of another person, does not subject another person to any form of violence, does not deny the intrinsic dignity of another person and does not violate the human rights of another person. Finally, it is essential that as a liberal democracy any Australian legislation specify that the tenets of a religion only apply to those who have freely consented to adopt that religion.

So, what might this look like in practice – say, in relation to same sex marriage now that it is lawful?

Baking cakes

Nobody should be compelled to believe that same sex marriage is ‘moral’. That is a matter of personal belief unrelated to the law. Second, it should be permissible to teach, to members of one’s faith group, and to advocate, more generally, that same sex marriage is immoral (a view I do not hold). The fact that something is legal leaves open the question of its morality. Third, no person should be required to perform a marriage if to do so would violate the dictates of their conscience. Roman Catholic priests refuse to marry heterosexual divorcees. Such marriages are allowed by the state – yet no priest is forced to perform such a marriage because to do so would make them directly complicit is an act their religion forbids. Such an allowance should only extend to those at risk of becoming directly complicit in objectionable acts. For example, such an allowance should not be granted to a religious baker not wanting to provide a wedding cake to a gay couple. Cakes play no direct role in the formalities of a civil marriage. So, unlike a pharmaceutical company that might justifiably object to becoming complicit through the supply of drugs to an executioner, a baker is never going to be complicit in the performance of a marriage. As such, a baker should be bound by law to supply his or her goods on a non-discriminatory basis. Of course, there will always be some who feel obliged to put the requirements of their religion before the law.

To act according to one’s conscience in an honourable choice. But only do this if you are willing to bear the penalty.

 

Dr Simon Longstaff is Executive Director of The Ethics Centre: www.ethics.org.au

Join the conversation

Is religion ever above the law?


Big Thinker: Germaine Greer

Feminist firebrand or second wave scourge? When The Female Eunuch was published to international success, it was obvious Germaine Greer had hit a nerve – something she continues to do. We explore the contributions of one of the world’s infamous thinkers.

This article contains language and content that may be offensive to some readers.

Germaine Greer (1939 – present) is an Australian writer and public intellectual who rose to international influence with her book published in 1970, The Female Eunuch. It was a watershed text in second wave feminism, a bestseller around the world, and it made Greer a household name.

Greer’s infamously bold voice and sense of humour permeates throughout the book. Her strong character and take no prisoners approach to public debate saw her regularly contribute to panels and broadcast media. Greer was launched into the public eye as a young, bolshie feminist star.

Since then, Greer has written many books spanning literature, feminism and the environment. She has become one of Australia’s most ‘no-platformed’ thinkers. Almost five decades on, we take a look at her contributions to feminist philosophy.

 

 

Human freedom is intrinsically tied to sexual freedom

Greer is a liberation, rather than equality feminist. She believed achieving true freedom for women meant asserting their uniquely female difference and “insisting on it as a condition of self-definition and self-determination”.

Greer wanted to be certain about this female difference, and for her, this certainty started with the body.

You can think of Greer’s claims like this:

  1. Women are sexually repressed.
  2. Men are not sexually repressed.
  3. The difference between men and women is their biological sex.
  4. Biological sex determines if you’re sexually repressed or not.

The second part of her argument is as follows:

  1. Women are expected to be ‘feminine’.
  2. Women are sexually repressed.
  3. The expectation to be ‘feminine’ is sexually repressive.

Greer is scathing in her portrayal of ‘femininity’. She claimed it kept women docile, repressed, and weak. It stifled women’s sexual agency, hence the ‘eunuch’, which was intrinsically tied to their humanity.

Only by liberating women sexually could they remove this imposed submissiveness and embrace the freedom to live the way they wanted.

“The freedom I pleaded for twenty years ago was freedom to be a person, with dignity, integrity, nobility, passion, pride that constitute personhood. Freedom to run, shout, talk loudly and sit with your knees apart.” – Germaine Greer (1993)

A feminist utopia is an anarchist utopia first

In the London Review of Books 1999, Linda Colley wrote, “Properly and historically understood, Greer is not primarily a feminist. More than anything else, she should be viewed as a utopian.”

For Greer, the greatest danger of the widespread female eunuch is not an unfulfilling sex life. It is in her being so concerned with femininity that she is incapable of political action. Greer believed this social conditioning was dire and its enforcers so embedded that revolution rather than reform was required.

Greer called for this revolution to start in the home. She spoke openly about topics that at the time were taboo: menstruation, hormonal changes, pregnancy, menopause, sexual arousal and orgasm. She decried the agents of femininity that she felt kept women trapped: makeup, constricting clothing, feminine hygiene products, stifling marriages, misogynistic literature and female sexual competitiveness. She reserved her greatest fury for widespread consumerism, which she believed kept women dependent on the systems that forged their own oppression.

Like Mary Wollstonecraft before her, Greer argued neither men nor women benefited from this. She called upon women to rebel again these “dogmatists” and create a world of their own. But the solution she presents is exploratory instead of pragmatic. Perhaps women could live and raise their children together, making their own goods and growing their own food. It would be somewhere pleasant like the rolling landscapes of Italy, with local people to tend house and garden. (It’s unclear whether these local people would be liberated too.)

Intellectual criticisms

Greer’s celebration of non-monogamous sex in The Female Eunuch and her derision of Western society’s obsession with sex in Sex and Destiny led critics to label her ideas slipshod and too inconsistent for a public intellectual.

The root of most criticisms and controversies surrounding Greer, tend to stem from her view of the sexes. Like other second wave feminists, she suggested biological sex determined women’s oppression. This stands in stark contrast to the perspectives of third wave feminists and queer theorists, such as Judith Butler, for whom gender’s learned behaviours play the crucial role.

Greer and her contemporaries are often criticised by third and fourth wave feminists for predicating their philosophies on a male/female binary. A binary that does not account for the broad chromosomal spectrums found among intersex people or the many ways in which individuals feel and express their gender.

Infamous commentary

Greer is not the docile feminine woman she warned of in The Female Eunuch. She has long been celebrated for bucking trends and being refreshingly bold and frank. She is also heavily criticised for being rude, offensive and out of touch. She has been described as having “the self-awareness of a sweet potato”, a “misogynist”, and “a clever fool”.

After she extolled the work of Australia’s first female Prime Minister Julia Gillard on an episode of ABC’s Q&A, she was slammed for criticising Gillard’s body and clothing:

“What I want her to do is get rid of those bloody jackets … They don’t fit. Every time she turns around you’ve got that strange horizontal crease which means they cut too narrow in the hips. You’ve got a big arse Julia…”

Social media lit up with calls for Greer to “shut up” after she linked rape and bad sex in the age of #MeToo:

“Instead of thinking of rape as a spectacularly violent crime – and some rapes are – think about it as non-consensual, that is, bad sex. Sex where there is no communication, no tenderness, no mention of love. We used to talk about lovemaking.”

It is probably Greer’s public statements around transgender women that have attracted the most protest. In an interview after an intense no-platforming campaign to cancel a lecture Greer was scheduled to give at Cardiff University on women and power in the 20th century, she said, “Just because you lop off your penis and then wear a dress doesn’t make you a fucking woman”.

This sentiment probably links with Greer’s ideas on sexed bodies. A sympathetic reading of the comment might see it as one about being born into oppression – a rather second wave feminist sentiment that echoes the racial and queer politics of the same era. An idea that’s sometimes cited as analogous to Greer’s controversial comment is that you cannot understand what it is to be black, unless you were born black and experienced discriminations since the day of your birth. Perhaps she was suggesting we cannot understand the oppression experienced by women and girls unless we are born into a female body. Perhaps not. Either way, the comment was received as incredibly offensive and naive to transgender women’s experiences.

“People are hurtful to me all the time. Try being an old woman. I mean for goodness sake! People get hurt all the time. I’m not about to walk on eggshells.” – Germaine Greer, 2015

Greer and second wave feminists generally are at odds with intersectional feminism which is prominent today. Intersectional feminism holds that many factors beyond sex marginalise people – age, race, nationality, disability, class, faith, sexual orientation, gender identity… Different women will be oppressed to varying degrees.

Whether Greer is a trailblazer or tactless provocateur, it is doubtless her ideas have influenced the political and personal and landscapes of gender relations and feminist thinking.

Join the conversation

Is human freedom tied to sexual freedom?


Free markets must beware creeping breakdown in legitimacy

Free markets must beware creeping breakdown in legitimacy

Free markets must beware creeping breakdown in legitimacy

This article was written for, and first published on the Australian Financial Review

This much we know: a blistering series of scandals has led to a profound loss of trust – not just in Australia but across the developed world. Consequently, the issue of trust has become a hot topic – a new staple item on meeting agendas of cabinets, boards, conferences, etc.

However, what if the spotlight being shone on the topic of trust is blinding us so that we fail to see a far greater risk lurking in the shadows – the potential loss of legitimacy?

Creating Transparency

The Ethics Centre has just published a paper that raises this possibility and sounds a warning that should be heeded by those of us who believe in the virtues of the market economy. We do not argue that trust is unimportant. Instead, we make the case that while individuals and institutions can (and do) survive a loss of trust, they rarely (if ever) survive a loss of legitimacy.

“We do not argue that trust is unimportant. Instead, we make the case that while individuals and institutions can (and do) survive a loss of trust, they rarely (if ever) survive a loss of legitimacy.”

At the core of our argument is a simple truth of economics. A reduction in trust can be compensated for by an increase in the “deadweight” costs of surveillance and enforcement. The classic case is the making of agreements. A high trust context can see agreements made on the basis of a low-cost handshake (or its equivalent). Low trust contexts are burdened with the high costs of detailed contracts, enforcement provisions, litigation, etc.

The Definition

Bearing this in mind, we distinguish between the concepts of trust and legitimacy according to the following definitions:

Legitimacy is a recognised and well-founded right to claim a certain status, role or function.

Trust is a belief that a person or institution will perform their role or function in accordance with its obligations or where not bound by duty, in a predictable manner – often in accordance with its interests.

The less formal distinction is as follows: where low trust can be compensated for by a higher degree of checks and balances (deadweight costs), a loss of legitimacy cannot be compensated for at any cost.

Making The Case

Now, if you accept our argument that there is a difference between trust and legitimacy and that a loss of the latter is usually fatal, it soon becomes clear that some of our institutions are at grave risk. We see the early signs in a number of areas. In politics, it is not only political parties and politicians that risk losing legitimacy – it is the system of representative liberal democracy that is being called into question.

As the Lowy Institute has reported, a growing number of younger Australians doubt the capacity of democracy to respond to the challenges of modern life. In economics, there is growing scepticism about the legitimacy of an international economic order. Especially when the focus shifts to free trade and the operation of free markets. We see both trends converging in movements (sometimes dismissed and derided as mere populism) that are reshaping the political and economic landscapes in Europe, North America, Central America and at home.

The great risk in this is that each and every part of the political and economic ecosystem becomes tarred by the same brush – with the spiral of decline sucking in all…the good, the bad and the indifferent…without distinction.

Our Role

For its part, The Ethics Centre has a long history of calling attention to the ethical underpinnings of the free market…recalling that Adam Smith championed markets as the means by which to bring prosperity to all (and not just a few). We (again) make the case for free markets in this latest paper – but go one step further by outlining some core principles that we think should be adopted by corporations if they are to help maintain the legitimacy of the system upon which they ultimately depend.

At one level, the headline principles are deceptively simple: respect people, do no harm, be responsible and be transparent and honest. However, rather than simply state self-evident pieties, we have tied these principles back to the underlying concept of free markets as tools for increasing the stock of common good. These tools and mechanisms can only function, as intended, if participants do not lie, cheat or use their power oppressively.

“Businesses are struggling to develop enabling connections with communities. Their efforts are embedded in conversations about trust, social licence, shared value and so on.”

Businesses are struggling to develop enabling connections with communities. Their efforts are embedded in conversations about trust, social licence, shared value and so on. There are major programs to increase transparency – often as an alternative to trust (which makes transparency unnecessary). We argue that the problem with all of these efforts is that they fail to address the larger problem of a system whose parts are progressively undermining the legitimacy of the whole.

The good news is that the unravelling is reversible – that some fairly straightforward measures can be applied … but only if we rediscover the purpose of the free market and the economic actors that it sustains – for the good of all.

 Visit  https://ethics.org.au/trust-and-legitimacy/ to download a copy of the Trust, Legitimacy and the Ethical Foundations of the Market Economy report. 

Join the conversation

How many times should we be forgiven for the same mistake?


Calling out for justice

It’s probably the biggest phenomenon of calling out we’ve ever seen. On 15 October last year, in the wake of Harvey Weinstein being accused of sexual harassment and rape, actress Alyssa Milano tweeted:

“If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me too.’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.”

The phrase and hashtag ‘Me too’ powerfully resonated with women across the globe and became one of the most viral occurrences in social media history. Not only did the campaign become a vehicle for women to share their stories of sexual abuse and harassment, it had real world consequences, leading to the firing and public humiliation of many prominent men.

One of the fall outs of the #MeToo movement has been a debate about “call out culture”, a phrase that refers to the practice of condemning sexist, racist, or otherwise problematic behaviour, particularly online.

While calling out has been praised by some as a mechanism to achieve social justice when traditional institutions fail to deliver it, others have criticised call outs as a form of digital mob rule, often meting out disproportionate and unregulated punishment.

Institutional justice or social justice

The debate around call out culture raises a question that goes to the core of how we think justice should be achieved. Is pursuing justice the role of institutions or is it the responsibility of individuals?

The notion that justice should be administered through institutions of power, particularly legal institutions, is an ancient one. In the Institutes of Justinian, a codification of Roman Law from the sixth century AD, justice was defined as the impartial and consistent application of the rule of law by the judiciary.

A modern articulation of institutional justice comes from John Rawls, who in his 1971 treatise, A Theory of Justice, argues that for justice to be achieved within a large group of people like a nation state, there has to be well founded political, legal and economic institutions, and a collective agreement to cooperate within the limitations of those institutions.

Slightly diverging from this conception of institutional justice is the concept of social justice, which upholds equality – or the equitable distribution of power and privilege to all people – as a necessary pre-condition.

Institutional and social justice come into conflict when institutions do not uphold the ideal of equality. For instance, under the Institutes of Justinian, legal recourse was only available to male citizens of Rome, leaving out women, children, and slaves. Proponents of social justice would hold that these edicts, although bolstered by strong institutions, were inherently unjust, built on a platform of inequality.

Although, as Rawls argues, in an ideal society institutions of justice help ensure equality among its members, in reality social justice often comes into conflict with institutional power. This means that social justice has to sometimes be pursued by individuals outside of, or even directly in opposition to, institutions like the criminal justice system.

For this reason, social justice causes have often been associated with activism. Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s march in Montgomery, Alabama to protest unfair treatment of African American people in the courts was an example of a group of individuals calling out an unjust system, demanding justice when institutional avenues had failed them.

Calling out

The tension between institutional and social justice has been highlighted in debates about “call out culture”.

For many, calling out offends the principles of institutional justice as it aims to achieve justice at a direct and individual level without systematic regulation and procedure. As such, some have compared calling out campaigns like #MeToo to a type of “mob justice”. Giles Coren, a columnist for The Times of London, argues the accusations of harassment should be handled only by the criminal justice system and that “Without any cross-examination of the stories, the man is finished. No trials or second chances.”

But others see calling out sexist and racist behaviour online as a powerful instrument of social justice activism, giving disempowered individuals the capacity to be heard when institutions of power are otherwise deaf to their complaints. As Olivia Goldhill wrote in relation to #MeToo for Quartz:

“Where inept courts and HR departments have failed, a new tactic has succeeded: women talking publicly about harassment on social media, fuelling the public condemnation that’s forced men from their jobs and destroyed their reputations.”

Hearing voices

In his 2009 book, The Idea of Justice, economist Amartya Sen argues a just society is judged not just by the institutions that formally exist within it, but by the “extent to which different voices from diverse sections of the people can actually be heard”.

Activist movements like #MeToo use calling out as a mechanism for wronged individuals to be heard. Writer Shaun Scott argues that beyond the #MeToo movement, calling out has become an avenue for minority groups to speak out against centuries of oppression, adding the backlash against “call out” culture is a mechanism to stop social change in its tracks. “Oppressed groups once lived with the destruction of keeping quiet”, he writes. “We’ve decided that the collateral damage of speaking up – and calling out – is more than worth it.”

While there may be instances of collateral damage, even people innocently accused, a more pressing problem to address is how and why institutions we are supposed to trust are deaf to many of the problems facing women and minority groups.

Dr Oscar Schwartz is an Australian writer and researcher based in New York with expertise in tech, philosophy, and literature. Follow him on Twitter: @scarschwartz

Join the conversation

Is call out culture creating positive change?


Big Thinker: Malcolm X

Malcolm X (1925-1965) was a Muslim minister and controversial black civil rights activist.

To his admirers, he was a brave speaker of an unpalatable truth white America needed to hear. To his critics, he was a socially divisive advocate of violence. Neither will deny his impact on racial politics.

From tough childhood to influential adult

Malcolm X’s early years really did seem to inform the man he became. He began life as Malcolm Little in the meatpacking town of Omaha, Nebraska before moving to Lansing, Michigan. Segregation, extreme poverty, incarceration, and violent racial protests were part of everyday life. Even lynchings, which overwhelmingly targeted black people, were still practiced when Malcolm X was born.

Malcolm X lost both parents young and lived in foster care. School, where he excelled, was cut short when he dropped out. He said a white teacher told him practicing law was “no realistic goal for a n*****”.

In the first of his many reinventions, Malcolm Little became Detroit Red, a ginger haired New York teen hustling on the streets of Harlem. In his autobiography Malcolm X tells of running bets and smoking weed.

He has been accused of overemphasising these more innocuous misdemeanours and concealing more nefarious crimes, such as serious drug addiction, pimping, gun running, and stealing from the very community he publicly defended.

At 20, Malcolm X landed in prison with a 10 year sentence for burglary. What might’ve been the short end to a tragic childhood became a place of metamorphosis. Detroit Red was nicknamed Satan in prison, for his bad temper, lack of faith, and preference to be alone.

He shrugged off this title and discarded his family name Little after being introduced to the Nation of Islam and its philosophies. It was, he explained, a name given to him by “the white man”. He was introduced to the prison library and he read voraciously. The influential thinker Malcolm X was born.

Upon his release, he became the spokesperson for the Nation of Islam and grew its membership from 500 to 30,000 in just over a decade. As David Remnick writes in the New Yorker, Malcolm X was “the most electrifying proponent of black nationalism alive”.

 

 

Be black and fight back

Malcolm X’s detractors did not view his idea of black power as racial equality. They saw it as pro-violent, anti-white racism in pursuit of black supremacy. But after his own life experiences and centuries of slavery and atrocities against African and Native Americans, many supported his radical voice as a necessary part of public debate. And debate he did.

Malcolm X strongly disagreed with the non-violent, integrationist approach of fellow civil rights leader, Martin Luther King. The differing philosophies of the two were widely covered in US media. Malcolm X believed neither of King’s strategies could give black people real equality because integration kept whiteness as a standard to aspire to and non-violence denied people the right of self defense. It was this take that earned him the reputation of being an advocate of violence.

“… our motto is ‘by any means necessary’.”

Malcolm X stood for black social and economic independence that you might label segregation. This looked like thriving black neighbourhoods, businesses, schools, hospitals, rehabilitation programs, rifle clubs, and literature. He proposed owning one’s blackness was the first step to real social recovery.

Unlike his peers in the civil rights movement who championed spiritual or moral solutions to racism, Malcolm X argued that wouldn’t cut it. He felt legalised and codified racial discrimination was a tangible problem, requiring structural treatment.

Malcolm X held that the issues currently facing him, his family, and his community could only be understood by studying history. He traced threads between a racist white police officer to the prison industrial complex, to lynching, slavery, and then to European colonisation.

Despite his great respect for books, Malcolm X did not accept them as “truth”. This was important because the lives of black Americans were often hugely different from what was written about – not by – them.

Every Sunday, he walked around his neighbourhood to listen to how his community was going. By coupling those conversations with his study, Malcolm X could refine and draw causes for grievances black people had long accepted – or learned to ignore.

We are human after all

Dissatisfied with their leader, Malcolm X split from the Nation of Islam (who would go on to assassinate him). This marked another transformation. He became the first reported black American to make the pilgrimage to Mecca. In his final renaming, he returned to the US as El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz.

On his pilgrimage, he had spoken with Middle Eastern and African leaders, and according to his ‘Letter from Mecca’ (also referred to as the ‘Letter from Hajj’), began to reappraise “the white man”.

Malcolm X met white men who “were more genuinely brotherly than anyone else had ever been”. He began to understand “whiteness” to be less about colour, and more about attitudes of oppressive supremacy. He began to see colonialist parallels between his home country and those he visited in the Middle East and Africa.

Malcolm X believed there was no difference between the black man’s struggle for dignity in America and the struggle for independence from Britain in Ghana. Towards the end of his life, he spoke of the struggle for black civil rights as a struggle for human rights.

This move from civil to human rights was more than semantics. It made the issue international. Malcolm X sought to transcend the US government and directly appeal to the United Nations and Universal Declaration of Human Rights instead.

In a way, Malcolm X was promoting a form of globalisation, where the individual, rather than the nation, was on centre stage. Oppressed people took back their agency to define what equality meant, instead of governments and courts. And in doing so, he linked social revolution to human rights.

Join the conversation

Does multiculturalism erase racial identity?


Want #MeToo to serve justice? Use it responsibly

The exposure of Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein as a serial harasser and alleged rapist in October 2017 was the tipping point in an unprecedented outpouring of disclosures of sexual coercion and assault.

As high profile women spoke out about the systemic misogyny of the entertainment industry, they have been joined by women around the globe using the hashtag #MeToo to make visible a spectrum of experiences from the subtle humiliations of sexism to criminal violation.

The #MeToo movement has exposed not only the pervasiveness of gendered abuse but also its accommodation by the very workplaces and authorities that are supposed to ensure women’s safety. Some women (and men) have been driven to name their perpetrator via the mass media or social media, in frustration over the inaction of their employers, industries, and police. This has sparked predictable complaints about ‘witch hunts’, ‘sex panics’, and the circumvention of ‘due process’ in the criminal justice system.

Mass media and social media have a critical role in highlighting institutional failure and hypocrisy. Sexual harassment and violence are endemic precisely because the criminal justice system is failing to deter this conduct or hold perpetrators to account. The friction between the principles of due process (including the presumption of innocence) and the current spate of public accusations is symptomatic of the wholesale failure of the authorities to uphold women’s rights or take their complaints seriously.

Public allegations are one way of forcing change, and often to great effect. For instance, the recent Royal Commission into child sexual abuse was sparked by years of media pressure over clergy abuse.

While ‘trial by media’ is sometimes necessary and effective, it is far from perfect. Journalists have commercial as well as ethical reasons for pursuing stories of abuse and harassment, particularly those against celebrities, which are likely to attract a significant readership. The implements of media justice are both blunt and devastating, and in the current milieu, include serious reputational damage and potential career destruction.

The implements of media justice are both blunt and devastating.

These consequences seemed fitting for men like Weinstein, given the number, severity and consistency of the allegations against him and others. However, #MeToo has also exposed more subtle and routine forms of sexual humiliation. These are the sexual experiences that are unwanted but not illegal, occurring in ways that one partner would not choose if they were asked. These scenarios don’t necessarily involve harmful intent or threat. Instead, they are driven by the sexual scripts and stereotypes that bind men and women to patterns of sexual advance and reluctant acquiescence.

The problem is that online justice is an all-or-nothing proposition. Punishment is not dolled out proportionately or necessarily fairly. Discussions about contradictory sexual expectations and failures of communication require sensitivity and nuance, which is often lost within spontaneous hashtag movements like #MeToo. This underscores the fragile ethics of online justice movements which, while seeking to expose unethical behaviour, can perpetrate harm of their own.

The Aziz Ansari Moment

The allegations against American comedian Aziz Ansari were the first real ‘record-scratch’ moment of #MeToo. Previous accusations against figures such as Weinstein were broken by reputable outlets after careful investigation, often uncovering multiple alleged victims, many of whom were willing to be publicly named. Their stories involved gross if not criminal misconduct and exploitation. In Ansari’s case, the allegations against him were aired by the previously obscure websiteBabe.net, who interviewed the pseudonymous ‘Grace’ about a demeaning date with Ansari. Grace did not approach Babe with her account. Instead Babe heard rumours about her encounter and spoke to several people in their efforts to find and interview Grace.

In the article, Grace described how her initial feelings of “excitement” at having dinner with the famous comedian changed when she accompanied him to his apartment. She felt uncomfortable with how quickly he undressed them both and initiated sexual activity. Grace expressed her discomfort to Ansari using “verbal and non-verbal cues”, which she said mostly involved “pulling away and mumbling”. They engaged in oral sex, and when Ansari pressed for intercourse, Grace declined. They spent more time talking in the apartment naked, with Ansari making sexual advances, before he suggested they put their clothes back on. After he continued to kiss and touch her, Grace said she wanted to leave, and Ansari called her a car.

In the article, Grace she had been unsure if the date was an “awkward sexual experience or sexual assault”, but she now viewed it as “sexual assault”. She emphasised how distressed she felt during her time with Ansari, and the implication of the article was that her distress should have been obvious to him. However, in response to the publication of the article, Ansari stated that that their encounter “by all indications was completely consensual” and he had been “surprised and concerned” to learn she felt otherwise.

Sexual humiliation and responsibility

Responses to Grace’s story were mixed in terms of to whom, and how, responsibility was attributed. Initial reactions on social media insisting that, if Grace felt she had been sexually assaulted, then she had been, gave way to a general consensus that Ansari was not legally responsible for what occurred in his apartment with Grace. Despite Grace’s feelings of violation, there was no description of sexual assault in the article. Even attributions of “aggression” or “coercion” seem exaggerated. Ansari appears, in Grace’s account, persistent and insensitive, but responsive to her when she was explicit about her discomfort.

A number of articles emphasised that Grace’s story was part of an important discussion about how “men are taught to wear women down to acquiescence rather than looking for an enthusiastic yes”. Such encounters may not meet the criminal standard for sexual assault, but they are still harmful and all too common.

For this reason, many believed that Ansari was morally responsible for what happened in his apartment that night. This is the much more defensible argument, and, perhaps, one that Ansari might agree with. After all, Ansari has engaged in acts of moral responsibility. When Grace contacted him via text the next day to explain that his behaviour the night before had made her “uneasy”, he apologised to her with the statement, “Clearly, I misread things in the moment and I’m truly sorry”.

However, attributing moral responsibility to Ansari for his behaviour towards Grace does not justify exposing him to the same social and professional penalties as Weinstein and other alleged serious offenders. Nor does it eclipse Babe’s responsibility for the publication of the article, including the consequences for Ansari or, indeed, for Grace, who was framed in the article as passive and unable to articulate her wants or needs to Ansari.

Discussions about contradictory sexual expectations and failures of communication require sensitivity and nuance, which is often lost within spontaneous hashtag movements like #MeToo.

For some, the apparent disproportionality between Ansari’s alleged behaviour and the reputational damage caused by Babe’s article was irrelevant. One commentator said that she won’t be “fretting about one comic’s career” because Aziz Ansari is just “collateral damage” on the path to a better future promised by #MeToo. At least in part, Ansari is attributed causal responsibility – he was one cog in a larger system of misogyny, and if he is destroyed as the system is transformed, so be it.

This position is not only morally indefensible – dismissing “collateral damage” as the cost of progress is not generally considered a principled stance – but it is unlikely to achieve its goal. A movement that dispenses with ethical judgment in the promotion of sexual ethics is essentially pulling the rug out from under itself. Furthermore, the argument is not coherent. Ansari can’t be held causally responsible for effects of a system that he, himself, is bound up within. If the causal factor is identified as the larger misogynist system, then the solution must be systemic.

Hashtag justice needs hashtag ethics

Notions of accountability and responsibility are central to the anti-violence and women’s movements. However, when we talk about holding men accountable and responsible for violence against women, we need to be specific about what this means. Much of the potency of movements like #MeToo come from the promise that at least some men will, finally, be held accountable for their misconduct, and that the systems that promote and camouflage misogyny and assault will change. This is an ethical endeavour and must be underpinned by a robust ethical framework.

The Ansari moment in #MeToo raised fundamental questions not only about men’s responsibilities for sexual violence and coercion, but also about our own responsibilities responding to it. Ignoring the ethical implications of the very methods we use to denounce unethical behaviour is not only hypocritical, but fuels reactionary claims that collective struggles against sexism are neurotic and hysterical. We cannot insist on ethical transformation in sexual practices without modelling ethical practice ourselves. What we need, in effect, are ‘hashtag ethics’ – substantive ethical frameworks that underpin online social movements.

This is easier said than done. The fluidity of hashtags makes them amenable to misdirection and commodification. The pace and momentum of online justice movements can overlook relevant distinctions and conflate individual and social problems, spurred on by media outlets looking to draw clicks, eyeballs and advertising revenue. Online ethics, then, requires a critical perspective on the strengths and weaknesses of online justice. #MeToo is not an end in itself that must be defended at all costs. It’s a means to an end, and one that must be subject to ethical reflection and critique even as it is under way.

Join the conversation

Why we need to use #MeToo responsibly


Australia Day and #changethedate - a tale of two truths

The recent debate about whether or not Australia Day should be celebrated on 26th January has been turned into a contest between two rival accounts of history.

On one hand, the ‘white arm band’ promotes Captain Arthur Phillip’s arrival in Port Jackson as the beginning of a generally positive story in which the European Enlightenment is transplanted to a new continent and gives rise to a peaceful, prosperous, modern nation that should be celebrated as the envy of the world.

On the other hand, the ‘black arm band’ describes the British arrival as an invasion that forcefully and unjustly dispossesses the original owners of their land and resources, ravages the world’s oldest continuous culture, and pushes to the margins those who had been proud custodians of the continent for sixty millennia.

This contest has become rich pickings for mainstream and social media where, in the name of balance, each side has been pitched against the other in a fight that assumes a binary choice between two apparently incommensurate truths.

However, what if this is not a fair representation of the what is really at stake here? What if there is truth on both sides of the argument?

The truth – that is, the whole truth – is that the First Fleet brought many things. Some were good and some were not. Much that is genuinely admirable about Australia can be traced back to those British antecedents. The ‘rule of law’, the methods of science, the principle of respect for the intrinsic dignity of persons… are just a few examples of a heritage that has been both noble in its inspiration and transformative in its application in Australia.

Of course, there are dark stains in the nation’s history – most notably in relation to the treatment of Indigenous Australians. Not only were the reasonable hopes and aspirations of Indigenous people betrayed – so were the ideals of the British who had been specifically instructed to respect the interests of the Aboriginal peoples of New Holland (as the British called their foothold on the continent).

The truth – that is, the whole truth – is that both accounts are true. And so is our current incapacity to realise this.

The truth – that is, the whole truth – is that the arrival of the Europeans was a disaster for those already living here for generations beyond human memory. This was the same kind of disaster that befell the Britons with the arrival of the Romans, the same kind of disaster visited on the Anglo-Saxons when invaded by the Vikings and their Norman kin. Land was taken without regard for prior claims. Language was suppressed, if not destroyed. Local religions trashed. All taken – by conquest.

No reasonable person can believe the arrival of Europeans was not a disaster for Indigenous people. They fought. They lost. But they were not defeated. They survive. Some flourish. Yet with only two hundred or so years having passed since European arrival, the wounds remain.

The truth – that is, the whole truth – is that both accounts are true. And so is our current incapacity to realise this. Instead we are driven by politicians and commentators and, perhaps, the temper of the times, to see the world as one of polar opposites. It is a world of winners and losers, a world where all virtue is supposed to lie on just one side of a question, a world in which we are cut by the brittle, crystalline edges of ideological certainty.

So, what are we to make of January 26th? The answer depends on what we think is to be done on this day.

One of the great skills cultivated by ethical people is the capacity for curiosity, moral imagination and reasonable doubt. Taken together, these attributes allow us to see the larger picture – the proverbial forest that is obscured by the trees. This is not an invitation to engage in some kind of relativism – in which ‘truth’ is reduced to mere opinion. Instead, it is to recognise that the truth – the whole truth – frequently has many sides and that each of them must be seen if the truth is to be known.

But first you have to look. Then you have to learn to see what might otherwise be obscured by old habits, prejudice, passion, anger… whatever your original position might have been.

So, what are we to make of January 26th? The answer depends on what we think is to be done on this day. Is it a time of reflection and self-examination? If so, then January 26th is a potent anniversary. If, on the other hand, it is meant to be a celebration of and for all Australians, then why choose a date which represents loss and suffering for so many of our fellow citizens?

Join the conversation

Is #changethedate really a contest of right and wrong?


Why victims remain silent and then find their voice

TIME Magazine’s announcement comes amid a storm of reckoning with sexual harassment and abuse charges in power centres worldwide. The courageous victims who, over the past few months, surfaced and made public their experiences of sexual harassment have sparked a social movement – typified in the hashtag #MeToo.

One of the features of the numerous sexual harassment claims that have been made public is the number of victims that have come forward after the first allegations have surfaced. Women, many of whom have suffered in silence for a considerable period of time, all of a sudden have found their voice.

As an outsider not involved in these incidents, this pattern of behaviour might be difficult to comprehend. Surely victims would speak up and take their concerns to the appropriate authorities? Unfortunately, we are very poor at judging how we would behave when we are placed in difficult, stressful situations. This has been demonstrated in research.

How we imagine we would respond in hypothetical situations as an outsider differs significantly to how we would respond in reality – we are very poor at appreciating how the situation can influence our conduct.

In 2001, Julie Woodzicka and Marianne LaFrance asked 197 women how they would respond in a job interview if a man aged in his thirties asked them the following questions: “Do you have a boyfriend?”, “Do people find you desirable?” and “Do you think women should be required to wear bras at work?” Over two-thirds said they would refuse to answer at least one of the questions whilst sixteen of the participants said they would get up and leave.

When Woodzicka and LaFrance placed 25 women in this situation (with an actor playing the role of the interviewer), the results were vastly different. None of the women refused to answer the questions or left the interview.

In all these incidents of sexual abuse we typically find that an older man, who is more senior in the organisation or has a higher social status, preys on a younger, innocent woman. And perhaps most importantly, the perpetrator tends to hold the keys to the victim’s future prospects.

How we imagine we would respond in hypothetical situations as an outsider differs significantly to how we would respond in reality – we are very poor at appreciating how the situation can influence our conduct.

There are many reasons why people remain silent. Three of the most common are fear, futility and loyalty – we fear consequences, we surmise that speaking up is futile because no action will be taken, or, as strange as it might sound, we feel a sense of loyalty to the perpetrator or our team.

There are a variety of dynamics that can cause people to reach these conclusions. The most common is power. In all these incidents of sexual abuse we typically find that an older man, who is more senior in the organisation or has a higher social status, preys on a younger, innocent woman. And perhaps most importantly, the perpetrator tends to hold the keys to the victim’s future prospects.

In these types of situations, it is easy to see how the victim can lose their sense of agency and feel disempowered. They might feel that even if they did speak up nobody would believe their story. The mere thought of challenging such a “highly respected” individual is too daunting. Worse still, their career would be irreparably damaged. Perhaps, by keeping quiet, they could get the break that they need and put the experience behind them.

A second dynamic at play is what psychologists refer to as pluralistic ignorance. First conceived in the 1930s, it proposes that the silence of people within a group promotes a misguided belief of what group members are really thinking and feeling.

In the case of sexual harassment, when victims remain silent they create the illusion that the abuse is not widespread. Each victim feels that they are isolated and suffering alone, further increasing the likelihood that they will repress their feelings.

By speaking out, women have shifted the norms surrounding sexual assault. Behaviour which may have been tolerated only a few years (perhaps months) ago is now out of bounds.

But as the events of the past few weeks have demonstrated, the norms promoting silence can crumble very quickly. People who suppress their feelings can find their voice as others around them break their silence. As U.S. legal scholar Cass Sunstein recently wrote in the Harvard Law Review Blog, as norms are revised, “what was once unsayable is said, and what was once unthinkable is done.”

And this is exactly what has happened over the past few months. By speaking out, women have shifted the norms surrounding sexual assault. Behaviour which may have been tolerated only a few years (perhaps months) ago is now out of bounds. Both perpetrators and victims alike are now reflecting on past indiscretions and questioning whether boundaries were crossed.

Only time will tell whether the shift in norms is permanent or fleeting. As is always the case with changes in social attitudes this will be determined by a myriad of factors. The law plays a role but as the events of the past few months have demonstrated it is not as important as one might think.

Amongst other things, it will require the continued courage of victims. But perhaps more importantly it will require men, especially those who are in positions of power and respected members of our communities and institutions, to role model where the balance resides between extreme prudery at one end, and disgusting lechery on the other.

Join the conversation

How can individuals shift a damaging culture?