Who’s afraid of the strongman?

Donald Trump has announced his second run for presidency in 2024. With a reputation for both passive and active violence, and a disregard for democratic integrity, the prospect of another Trump presidency is feared by many. But for others, his re-election would mark the promising return of a strong, capable leader. How do we begin to make sense of these contemporary communities which seem to either fear or revere their elected leaders? And are there ways such polarised receptions can ever be avoided?

Historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat knows just how Trump, operates. He’s following the strongman’s playbook, one that has four guiding features. Strongmen put their personalities at the front of their politics, they embrace machismo norms, relish in corruption, and do not shy away from the power of violence. We can use these insights to sniff out the strongmen lurking in systems of governance. Ben-Ghiat emphasises that we should be strongly motivated to do just this, as there is ‘too much at risk not to try’.

Cultish personalities are formed around these political leaders as they work to present themselves as ‘a man of the people’. They emphasise their standout character while simultaneously asserting themselves to be no different than the common citizen.

Their embracing of machismo, Ben-Ghiat explains, is reflected in hypermasculine behaviours, showcasing these examples with shirtless photos of both Trump and Putin. Women, they say, are ‘the enemy of the strongman’.

Corruption in the case of the strongman is of both the ‘moral and professional’ variety. We are told that the strongman commonly grants pardons which ‘free up criminals for service’, channelling those who some may take to be immoral offenders into positions of political power.

To convey their relationship to violence, Ben-Ghiat directs us to the presence of weapons in recent Republican political campaigns in the United States, telling us that these men ‘think they look strong, but it is really a sign of insecurity’. The strongman is making up for something.

Ben-Ghiat tell us that a contemporary commonality of these men is that they are often democratically elected, and that they pose considerable threats to the democratic systems in which they embed themselves.

Trump’s rallying tactics and his subsequent role in and commentary on the 2021 Capitol riot may be taken as emblematic of these strongman features. His mass appeal has been argued as being largely derived from ‘performative’ techniques that obfuscate his political goals or capacities more broadly. Trump continues to claim the democratic integrity of the United States to be under threat, asserting the actions of the Capitol rioters as warranted given the presence of electoral fraud in the country.

In these ways and others Trump seems to aptly align with Ben-Ghiat’s constructed, strongman persona. Impeachment, ongoing congressional hearings and public scrutiny evidently do little to undermine Trump’s confidence and his desire to reobtain the political power he once held.

There are mounting concerns that this phenomenon is not isolated to the United States. And that politicians globally can be seen as working to strengthen centralised systems of political power in ways which align with authoritarian leadership regimes. Could there be a risk that even the most historically democratic governments could begin to shift in comparable ways? If so, what could be done to manage that risk?

Pursuing political instigators of harm is a coherent goal and a strong incentive to Ben-Ghiat’s work. State leaders, even when democratically elected, are fashioned with powers that endow them the capacity to do both a world of good, and a world of harm. Many people were directly harmed by policies of the Trump administration; even more were harmed from the uncertainty his particular presence in office brought into their daily lives.

Ben-Ghiat recognises these sorts of harms and aims to call out the various features which they take as both forging and propagating them, egotistical, corruptive, and violent figureheads. When bundled together, these form the strongman, and for Ben-Ghiat the strongman should be our target.

If the goals of this work are the management of uncertainty and the desire to retain confidence in our capacity to uphold democratic structures and installed systems of justice, and we are sympathetic to these goals, we need ask what Ben-Ghiat’s approach to achieving them misses, or more poignantly, what it risks.

Bertrand Russel, not unlike Ben-Ghiat, was similarly sceptical of politicians. He remarks, “since politicians are divided into rival groups, they aim at similarly dividing the nation…”. Importantly distinct from Ben-Ghiat however, Russel’s scepticism is namely directed at the two-party political system as it stood in early 20th century Britain, and the impact this system has on the wider populations who comprise it.

Features of Ben-Ghiat’s strongman criteria are not in opposition to Russel’s characterisation of political figures more broadly. Yet Russel’s evaluations of these harm attend more heavily to the relationships that citizens, or voters, have to these politicians.

“The power of the politician, in a democracy” Russel writes, “depends upon his adopting the opinions which seem right to the average man”. For Russel, both the best and the worst of our politicians are reflections of and responsive to the ideas and sentiments of the populations they operate within.

The risk of Ben-Ghiat’s approach is that attending so heavily to the strongman, determining what he is and is not, may unhelpfully be turning our gaze away from our communities who, as Ben-Ghiat remarks, oftentimes democratically elect the very figureheads they and others wish to repudiate.

Sources of harm do not always come to us wrapped up in neat and tidy (shirtless) packages. Tirelessly seeking to group together ‘bad men’ can diminish our capacity to see other less precise but perhaps more pervasive sources of harm.

Comprehensively managing any risk a strongman may pose to our society will only be minimally addressed by stringing together various features that are said to necessarily render that man strong.

There is certainly time and space for the sort of work Ben-Ghiat dedicates themselves to.

Though if we are committed to protecting systems of democracy, and to ensuring that basic rights are genuinely upheld, we may be best served by turning our attention away from contemporary figureheads and towards those who cast their votes in favour of them, and to those systems of governance that forge and foster polarisation.

Naming and shaming the strongman, however accurately, will do little in the face of many who take his central features to be admirable strengths. Let us ensure that our pursuits of certainty and stability do not come at the cost of neglecting to engage with those around us who evidently have different assessments about just how risky a strongman really is.


Tune into Ruth Ben-Ghiat’s full FODI 2022 discussion, Return of the Strongman

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What makes a strong leader?


We are on the cusp of a brilliant future, only if we choose to embrace it

Speaking a couple of days after the 2022 Federal Election, renowned Australian journalist, Stan Grant, noted that although the election of the Albanese government had been a moment of national ‘catharsis’, it was more difficult to discern in the result a commitment to a clear, positive direction for the nation. In that sense, the future shape of Australia remained an ‘open question’.

This was not to deny that the Australian electorate seemed to express, through their vote, a few clear preferences: an end to the debilitating ‘climate wars’, higher standards of integrity in federal politics and more generally, a preference for a more diverse and inclusive form of representation in our national parliament and government.

There is every reason to believe that these expectations will be met. Indeed, one might be encouraged to hope for something more. For example, it was remarkable that the first utterance of Prime Minister Albanese, on claiming victory, was to promise a referendum to enshrine in the Constitution an Indigenous ‘Voice to Parliament’ as called for in the Uluru Statement From The Heart. The surprise in this was that this issue had barely been mentioned during the election campaign – yet had clearly loomed large in the mind of the new PM.

So, what else might we aim to achieve as a democratic nation endowed with the most fortuitous circumstances of any nation on earth? Yes, despite the current ‘doom and gloom’, we are on the cusp of a truly brilliant future – if only we choose to embrace it.

We have everything any society could need: vast natural resources, abundant clean energy and an unrivalled repository of wisdom held in trust by the world’s oldest continuous culture supplemented by a richly diverse people drawn from every corner of the planet. However, whether this future can be grasped depends not on our natural resources, our financial capital, or our technical nous. The ultimate determinant lies in our character.

Three forces can shatter our path to prosperity. First, enemies from without who seek to exploit our grievances and divide our nation into warring factions. Second, a collective fear of the unknown and a lack of trust in those who would lead us there. Third, a lingering, persistent doubt about the legitimacy of a society that violently dispossessed the first peoples of our continent.

Each of these threats can be neutralised – if only we have the collective will and the courage to do so. With this in mind, I have outlined below a set of core, national objectives that I think would secure the endorsement of a vast majority of Australians. It is the realisation of these objectives that will unlock the brilliant future that is available to all Australians.

In five years, we can fashion a society that is at ease with itself and its place in the world. We can have sown the seeds out of which will grow a universal sense of belonging – a gift bestowed by First Nations people who have only ever asked for respect, truth and justice. That sense of unfettered connection, informed by an Indigenous understanding of country that has grown over time immemorial, will be the glue that binds us into one people of many parts. Once established and reinforced, nothing will dissolve that bond.

In five years, we can grow the confidence to embrace radical change – confident that no individual or group will be asked to bear a disproportionate burden while others take an unfair share of the gains. Our commitment to a broadly egalitarian society will move from myth to reality. While we may not all rise to equal heights, no one will be left to fall into the depths of neglect or obscurity. This will allow us to be brave, to take risks and to harvest the rewards of doing so.

In five years, we can be better led. Confidence can be restored in our governments – that they will truly honour their democratic obligation to act solely in the public interest – whether in their use of public resources or in the policies and practices they adopt.

In five years, the aged, the sick and infirm should be cared for by a workforce who are properly valued and rewarded for their support of the most vulnerable.

In five years, all Australians should have a genuine opportunity to make a home for themselves in affordable, secure accommodation.

In five years, everyone should feel more safe and secure in their homes, their workplaces, their cities and towns.

In five years, a confident Australia can build and reinforce enduring alliances with nations who share our desire to live in a just and orderly world free from the heavy yoke of authoritarian governments.

All of this is possible. For the most part our physical and technical infrastructure is world class. Our ethical infrastructure could be better. We need to invest in this area – confident that in doing so we will unlock both social and economic benefits of staggering proportions. As Deloitte Access Economics has estimated, a mere 10% increase in the level of ethics in Australia would lead to an increase in GDP of $45B (yes, billion) every year – not through some kind of ‘magical effect’ but as a direct consequence of the increased trust that better ethics would create.

Do this and we can embrace the brilliant future that beckons us.

 

With your support, The Ethics Centre can continue to be the leading, independent advocate for bringing ethics to the centre of life in Australia. Click here to make a tax deductible donation today.

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We're being too hard on hypocrites and it’s causing us to lose out

Hypocrites

Everyone hates a hypocrite. And apparently they are everywhere.

In the last week alone British Labour leader Keir Starmer has been accused of hypocrisy for having a beer and curry with colleagues in violation of lockdown rules; feminist social commentator and writer (and election candidate) Jane Caro has been labelled a hypocrite for advocating action on climate change, but also flying a lot; teal independents have been called hypocrites for their sources of funding after criticising Australia’s donation rules; the president of the Solomon Islands has accused Australia of hypocrisy for criticising their security pact with China while pursuing its own AUKUS agreement… 

Hypocrisy is a sin regularly and loudly identified in politics and the media. And not without cause. However, this discourse regularly goes too far, to no good end.

We should be less critical of hypocrisy. Our obsession with hypocrisy prevents us from engaging in reasoned debate, it robs us of the tools to identify and express what others are doing wrong, and it risks leading us and others to becoming worse people.

 

What is the problem with hypocrites?

Though the term ‘hypocrite’ is often used as a catch-all term of moral condemnation, vaguely pointing to people whose actions appear to be inconsistent with their words, it is worth distinguishing between different types of hypocrites.  

First there are insincere hypocrites – people who lie to gain advantage. Their actions, however, reveal that they genuinely do not hold the convictions they espouse. They are intentionally mis-leading and using others. Which is particularly egregious when they hold significant power over others as is in the case of politicians. But note that, here, the lying and manipulation are typically far more serious offences than the inconsistency and hypocrisy.  

There are also exceptionalist hypocrites – those who make or police rules which they have no qualms about violating themselves. At the heart of it, this feels really unfair. However, it is not a universal wrong. Think of parents who make rules for their children that they do not follow – “you are not allowed to drink”, they say, while nursing a glass of wine; “it is always wrong to lie”, they say, while putting out mince pies for Father Christmas. 

Such exceptionalist hypocrisy can sometimes reveal a greater wrong, or potential for wrong. For example, Boris Johnson made laws that kept large parts of his country in lockdown, but was breaking social distancing rules and attending parties. His actions demonstrated a lack of respect for others and, importantly, for those people whose interests he is meant to represent. The hypocrite hater could also point out that Johnson’s actions likely contributed to less adherence to the rules as people looked at his actions and felt “if he gets to do that, why shouldn’t I?”. However, modelling bad behaviour can encourage bad behaviour in others whether or not it is exhibited by a hypocrite. In this respect, the hypocrisy does not worsen the situation.  

And then there is the weak-willed or inadvertent hypocrite. This person fails to live up to their espoused rules or ethical principles, not due to malice or deep insincerity, or because they think the rules don’t apply to them, but because it can be hard to be really good all the time. Think of the Christian who believes in the sanctity of marriage but finds themself desperate to leave a loveless marriage. The animal rights advocate who cares passionately about protecting native wildlife, but can’t bring themself to give up their beloved cat that steadfastly resists being kept indoors.  

Inadvertent hypocrites may do better to reflect on their own experiences of struggle before harshly criticising others for not living up to their principles. But if they are unempathetic or overly aggressive in their attacks on others who violate their ethical rules, isn’t that the greater crime than not fully living up to those rules themselves? Wouldn’t that be problematic whether or not they lived according to those rules? And is it unempathetic of us to demonise the inadvertent hypocrite for an understandable weakness of will? 

 

We shouldn’t just dismiss hypocrites

As soon as someone is called a hypocrite we feel licence to ignore them. But just because someone is bad, that doesn’t mean what they are saying is incorrect. Rather than shutting hypocrites down it is rational to ask if their hypocrisy is relevant to their argument. 

Consider the smoker suffering from lung cancer who tells young people not to smoke because it can ruin their lives. Is their testimony any less reliable because they did not listen to their own advice? Or an environmental activist who flies to climate action conferences. Does this mean that they are any less right when they say we need to take action on climate change?

Our focus on hypocrisy can distract attention from the real issues or moral problems with a person (or institution) or their actions, such as: Are they lying to or manipulating people? Are they showing that they don’t respect the people they are meant to represent? Are they being aggressive or unsympathetic to others? Are they espousing something false or acting in a way that is morally wrong – whether or not their actions and words match up?  

This should not dissuade people from rationally engaging in discussions with others about whether their moral principles are consistent. Highlighting ethical inconsistencies is the bread and butter of contemporary moral philosophy. If holding one principle should entail another but your friend holds the first while rejecting the second, talking through this can shed light on their values: help them realise the connection between the two. But throwing around the term ‘hypocrisy’ when you do it can turn a potentially neutral observation that they should reflect more on whether their ethical principles are consistent (shouldn’t we all?) to simply telling them that they are bad. 

 

Being inconsistent is better than being consistently bad

A hypocrite says one thing and does another: so at least they are getting something right. Would we prefer someone who is all bad? 

An obsession with hypocrisy can lead us to expect moral perfection in everyone. But inconsistency is part of moral life. There is nothing wrong with having high moral standards while recognising that we won’t always meet them.

Our desire for consistency can lead to unachievably high expectations that, when unmet, lead us to rejecting an entire principle or endeavour rather than living with our moral imperfections and trying to gradually improve our actions next time. Like the dieter who fasts for a week and then immediately gives up because of one slip with a slice of cake, or the long-time vegetarians or vegans who returned to eating meat after an extended stint in a country where vegetarian options were extremely limited. It is not surprising that they broke with their vegetarian principles while in those countries. It may well have been inconsistent with the view that all else being equal it is wrong to eat meat, but that makes it no less understandable an action to take. Rather, it is surprising that they continued to eat meat once they returned to a country where vegetarians were once again well catered for. Their actions changed first and their values followed. They ended up being more consistent perhaps, but (at least for those who believe that it is wrong to eat meat) things went the wrong way. 

We are all hypocrites sometimes. The desperate desire to avoid hypocrisy can lead us to strive to be all good and, when that fails, to be all bad, rather than trying to be ‘good enough’ – being guided by moral principles we will likely never fully live up to. 

My recommendation is to take it easy on hypocrisy. If you are in a debate, attack arguments not people. Where people are bad the wrongness of their actions or words should speak for themselves, and you should focus on pointing out the actual problem with them, rather than using a catch-all term. When it comes to yourself it may also help to start by aiming for the good, not the perfect. Improving incrementally is still improvement, even if it sometimes means you will be inconstant.  

And if all of that doesn’t convince you, then you better hope that you have never exhibited inconsistency in your own principles and your actions. Because if you have, judging others for being hypocritical would be, well, very hypocritical of you. 

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Should we be less critical of hypocrisy?


Housing

Housing affordability crisis: The elephant in the room stomping young Australians

Housing

Affordably housing its peoples is a hallmark of a developed society. Yet, Australia’s housing system has been failing young people, argues Intifar Chowdhury.

Squeezed by rising rents and aggressive increase in property prices, young Australians are increasingly being locked out of the housing market, and thus are being denied the stability and financial security that was taken for granted by previous generations.

The housing affordability crisis deepens as inflation, cost of living and housing prices rise at a faster rate than wages. Similarly, Australia’s rental crisis worsens with natural disasters such as flooding and increased competition as the country reopens to international students.

The backdrop to the COVID-19 pandemic will also exacerbate this growing economic inequality across generations. In fact, those in their late 20s and early 30s have now known two crises: the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) of 2008-2009 and the COVID-19 crisis of 2020-2021. This puts them at unique risk and financial disadvantage compared to other members of society.

The reality on the ground is that, compared to their parents and grandparents, today’s young people are not only poor homeowners but also poor renters. The reality is an intergenerational theft.

While some have argued that housing should be at the front and centre of the upcoming federal election, housing affordability has not taken on a sufficient degree of importance in the policy narratives of the two major parties.

In fact, I’d agree that young Australians have been betrayed by both parties. Although the youth need a proper national plan for housing affordability and supply, their situation is sometimes met with rather condescending comments from the political leadership.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s comment – that “if you can’t afford rent, buy a house” is both comical and disturbing at first reading. As the PM flaunted in the first 2022 leader’s debate, first home buyer loan schemes allowed 160, 000 Australians to gain access to the property ladder last year. And his recent proposal to allow young people to tap into their superannuation has a similar ambition.

But what he neglects is how housing affordability concerns 67 per cent of Australians, many of whom are young people with low wealth and heavily taxed incomes. And government subsidies for a relative minority put upward pressure on prices for the many, presenting a trade-off of where it is more difficult to save a deposit for a home. Therefore, such comments are disturbing reflections of how far removed Australian political leaders are from the reality on the ground.

 

Housing affordability: a sticky problem?

Housing unaffordability has been identified as a pressing problem for more than decade now, so why then does it remain unresolved? The simple answer to this is that the politics around the problem prevents a permanent solution.

The housing affordability crisis persists because of two political reasons. First, more voters have an incentive to maintain the status quo compared to those who could benefit from a more equitable housing system. Although the growth in property prices entrenches economic inequality, it is a positive for incumbent homeowners who want to capitalise on their investment.

Further, impenetrable, cumbersome and ambiguous policies spook those with property. They fall into the status quo bias. For example, Labor’s 2019 election slogan to tone down investment incentives and introduce the housing tax upset property and construction industries and offended a large constituency of property owners. These radical proposals cost Labor the election.

Existing housing policies also fail to address the root cause of the problem. Most efforts to deal with unaffordability aim to cool housing demand rather than increasing supply. Pete Wargent, co-founder of BuyersBuyers, believes this approach would “make a marginal difference to affordability over time”.

Although investment incentives like CGT discounts and negative gearing are touted as the key drivers, recent review of six economic papers revealed that the combination of both contributed only a small 1 per cent to 4 per cent increase in dwelling prices. Whereas zoning restrictions, which limit the supply of land on which to build homes, contribute to almost half the rise of average detached house prices in major metropolitans, like Sydney and Melbourne. Centre for Independent Studies’ chief economist and a former RBA official, Peter Tulip, suggests increasing supply and lifting zoning restrictions can have huge benefits.

Yet, these are difficult to attain. The politics of improving housing affordability is determined by whether there are more voters who are property owners than not.

That is, whether there are more beneficiaries of unaffordability who will vote in their self-interest and support policies and parties that will keep prices high and rising, even if that compromises the future security of young people.

According to the Australian Electoral Commission, in 2022, there are 4.2 million voters aged over 65 compared to 3.1 million voters under 29. That is a difference of 1.1 million between lightly taxed, asset-rich older Australians, and younger wage earners. This intergenerational inequality is therefore a function of the classic headlock between the older haves and the younger have-nots.

 

Simple fix: increase supply?

Housing unaffordability is a complex structural issue that can’t be viewed through a simplistic lens.

Despite a plethora of issues influencing the housing market, the imbalance in supply and demand is at the crux of the matter. Rather unsurprisingly, the Property Council of Australia, recommends major parties to address supply shortages to improve affordability.

But adequate supply of housing doesn’t just mean constructing a certain number of dwellings on greenfield sites. It needs to be well-located and well-serviced with job, social and community infrastructures.

At both federal and state level, more commitment is requited to increase urgent need for more social housing. With a historically low level of social housing, (i.e. a non market rental housing sector), this would be more affordable and secure for low-income earners. Both major parties, however, fall short on public housing investment this election.

Supply of affordable housing can be increased by institutional investments, but investors show relatively little interest in affordable housing largely due to perceptions of risk and comparatively low returns. This is where government incentives and the introduction of some form of financial instrument (similar to the discontinued National Rental Affordability Scheme) could work.

However, evidence from Europe and Britain, suggest that government intervention may decline as affordability worsens. There is a major challenge to rolling out reforms: homeowners want to protect their properties from being undermined by growing housing supply, resulting in less support for government intervention. This feeds into inequality.

Another option is rent control. But opponents suggest that more limitations in the rental property make owning far less appealing. This again points to the headlocks between homeowners and renters; as the classic adage from former PM John Howard goes: no one is complaining in the streets about their house value going up.

Under the current structure, young people are common losers of the housing system. A change in government won’t be a silver bullet for housing affordability in Australia. What is needed is a structural change which is hard to attain given competing interests, imbalanced power and wealth dynamics among stakeholders.

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How can we ensure future generations are left financially secure?


Antisocial media: Should we be judging the private lives of politicians?

The footage was grainy, but the man stepping out of the gay sex club was easily recognisable.

David Campbell, then transport minister of the New South Wales Government, was outed in the evening news, prompting his resignation the following day. His sexuality was the subject of intense media coverage, not least because of the impact it would have on his wife and children. 

As headline grabbing and salacious as such personal scandals might be, one might question whether we should have the right to know about the private lives of politicians in the first place. After all, the fact of being queer alone bears little relevance to one’s ability to speak for their constituents, therefore arguably falling outside the realm of the public interest.  

Yet, the journalist who broke the story felt differently, noting that the politician in question had “purported to be a family man”. As such, some might see this as an act of exposing hypocrisy, speaking to a deeper issue of character that is highly problematic for representative democracy.  

So when it comes to dealing with information about the private lives of public officials, how morally justified are we in caring about what is done outside of parliament? 

 

When rights collide

Although privacy is beneficial for human well-being and flourishing, it is not unequivocally good because such a claim can equally be used to hide information. This poses a significant threat when we consider how the personal lives of those wielding political power might influence their decision-making abilities, negatively impacting those that they claim to represent.

This tension between the claims to privacy of public officials and the rights of the public and the media to freedom of information is an undeniably hard one to resolve 

On the one hand, the revelation of Gladys Berejiklian’s relationship with Daryl Maguire and her subsequent resignation over accusations of corruption vindicate the idea that we should hold the private lives of politicians under constant scrutiny.  

Yet, on the other, the case of David Campbell highlights the murky waters in which public interest claims lurk, with a person being pressured to end their political career over a seemingly inconsequential fact about their personal lives. 

Are we morally justified in paying attention to and seeking out private information about public officials? After all, prima facie, all individuals have morally and legally robust claims to privacy. 

Nevertheless, we generally consider it reasonable for interviewers to enquire about a potential employee’s prior working history to ensure that they are a good fit, or for a detective to ask someone questions about their private life to solve a crime. This is because privacy can and sometimes should be forfeited (with our knowing consent) for other rights or purposes, such as safety and transparency.  

On a similar note, many citizens would see certain information about the private lives of politicians as relevant to their decision of who to vote for. This interest is warranted because public officials attain their legitimacy and authority from being entrusted to represent their constituents.  

Ultimately, serving in government is ethically demanding to avoid the corruption of power, we must elect individuals who have a track record of not abusing such privileges. According to the perpetually relevant ‘unity of virtues’ theory of the ancient Greeks, individual morality exists across both public and private spheres of decision-making. 

As such, an absence or excess of good behaviour in one’s personal life may be illuminating with regard to professional conduct.

For instance, the media has recently reported that Boris Johnson, in his previous job as a motoring correspondent, accrued over £4000 in parking tickets. This fact, whilst seemingly trite, implies a historical pattern of rule flouting behaviour by the British Prime Minister, suggesting that we ought not be surprised by his involvement in the Partygate scandal.  

Such cases highlight the often-blurry public/private divide and justify why we might look to politicians’ personal lives for clues as to how they might fulfil their moral duty to represent their constituents and their interests – even if this conflicts with their own. 

 

Social media and the personalisation of politics

Furthermore, many politicians willingly open themselves up to public scrutiny by using their personal virtues and achievements to appeal to voters. We need not look further than Scott Morrison’s Twitter and Facebook feeds, which regularly feature pictures of the politician cooking up a curry in Kirribilli House and donning blue in support of the Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks, to see how political figures selectively reveal aspects of their private life to project a likeable image.  

For as long as public officials advertise themselves and attack others on the basis of irrelevant personal characteristics and decisions (see criticisms recently directed at Anthony Albanese for everything from his weight loss efforts to having a “quiet week” of campaigning despite being in isolation for Covid) they cannot also claim to be innocent victims of the press, particularly when journalists are merely reporting on these assertions. 

Nevertheless, politicians often resort to the refrain that ‘the media goes too far’ to divert attention away from their more questionable acts. When it was revealed that self-proclaimed family man and current Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce was having an extramarital affair with a staffer, a formal complaint about news coverage of the incident was made despite the couple accepting $150,000 to do a tell-all interview about it on live television. 

The omnipresent pressure for news outlets to turn a profit leads them to sensationalist reporting and a rather liberal stance as to what information falls into the purview of the public interest.

However, political journalism acts as an irreplaceable check on power, and we ought to be wary of solutions that involve stifling it more than it already is under Australia’s extremely rigid defamation laws. 

 

Towards a better discourse

Instead, content relating to the private lives of politicians needs to be understood in terms of its relevance to their ability to execute their role. We should actively dismiss and avoid searching for details that tell us nothing about the honesty, accountability, competence, integrity, judgement, and self-discipline of a public official, no matter how salacious. However, we can feel justified in pursuing information that reveals their historic performance in such areas. 

Admittedly, this is a long laundry list that leaves few areas off-limits. It is important to note here that judgements about protected characteristics alone – such as race, sexuality, religion and gender – are not morally acceptable ways in which to judge the competence of an individual, as established under anti-discrimination laws. 

That said, we cannot shy away from investigating how public officials have acted when they thought nobody was looking, particularly when such actions reveal how they use (and abuse) power or contradict their espoused values.

Because the relevance of this information can only be ascertained once it has been made publicly available, there will always be some politicians that have their privacy unjustly violated. This is a trade-off that can be easily defended when we consider the immense number of people that benefit from having a government composed of honest and accountable representatives. 

Additionally, anyone entering a public-facing role knowingly places their privacy in a position of vulnerability. If they have something to hide, politics is probably not the place for them, practically and principally speaking. 

Furthermore, we can limit the collateral damage of this proposal by encouraging journalists to prioritise reporting on facts that expose political corruption and speak truth to power. By choosing not to indulge in amusing but inconsequential gossip about the private lives of politicians, we can help change the incentive structure of the media system whilst simultaneously promoting enlightened attitudes towards sex and other areas of intense, but often illegitimate, public interest.  

The democratic function of the press falters when trivial details about the lives of politicians consume all the resources of our finite attention economy. As such, it is a moral imperative for news outlets to maintain strong ethical standards when it comes to their reporting on the private lives of politicians, focusing their coverage on that which is relevant to their ability to bear office.  

Finally, as public ethicist Patrick Dobel writes, “we should judge as mortals judging other mortals”. Public officials are not perfect people, but if they can recover from a fall from grace by regaining trust and legitimacy in the eyes of the people then we should leave them (and their sex scandals) be.

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Should we be judging the private lives of politicians?


Polling booth

A critical thinker’s guide to voting

Voting polls

In Australia, we have no formalised method of teaching people about politics, voting and elections. Most people vote the same way as their parents in their first elections, and won’t receive any more education beyond how-to-vote cards and electoral ads.

People under the age of 25 make up about 10% of all voters – that’s about ten thousand per electorate. They’re the most underrepresented group in political discourse and in elections. Not only that but young people will have to live with the consequences of these policies far longer than any other demographic.  

Given that some elections come down to only a few hundred votes, the way we vote really does matter.  

Our votes matter beyond the current election – they affect future elections too. The Australian Electoral Commission provides funding for every candidate or group that receives more than 4% of first preference votes. This means that even small groups can become big factors, influencing future elections and swaying the balance of power in parliament.  

Finally, democracy works because it’s about communicating our needs and visions of the future. The major parties pay attention to how and why people vote. The Labor and Liberal parties have issues that they care about but others they overlook. A vote can shift the way the policy platforms of the major parties to discuss the issues we care about. 

Here is a practical guide to critically think about your vote. 

 

Step 1: Ignore the hype 

Political parties are really good at demonising each other. They’ll accuse each other of being craven, lying, baby eating monsters. None of this is useful information. Almost every piece of political messaging from every party is propaganda designed to get your vote. They’ll frame the issues in terms of economics, jobs, the environment or tradition. This anchors our thinking in a way that is unhelpful for choosing a candidate, making it difficult to consider nuance and complexity. 

 

Step 2: Value democratic integrity 

Our democracy cannot function if our representatives are known liars, are demonstrably corrupt, or engage in unscrupulous mudslinging against other candidates. Everyone believes they are morally correct but if the candidate spends their time hurling insults, they’re actively toxic to our democracy. If the candidate is willing to say or do anything to get elected, they can’t be trusted to further the public good and should come last on the ballot. 

The establishment of a federal Independent Commission Against Corruption is an important measure in this process. This would be a governing body free of any political influence designed to protect our democracy from exploitation and fraud. There are no sincere arguments to be made against a non-partisan watchdog body like this (even if there are arguments against a poorly functioning ICAC). 

 

Step 3: Think about your values 

The most fundamental part of knowing who to vote for is knowing what your values are. There are an endless number of beliefs that we might hold. We might believe in universalism and benevolence (welfare for all, tolerance and understanding), which lead to policies like a universal basic income, investment in public broadcasters like the ABC, and increasing foreign aid. Values such as self-direction and achievement are more important to us (pursuing and gaining personal success) lead to policies that minimise taxation and deregulation. Voting against same-sex marriage or changes to the constitution to include First Peoples are examples of valuing tradition, whereas policies that block foreign investment or advocate turning back asylum seeker boats prioritise security. 

There’s no wrong set of beliefs but it’s essential to know what we believe in and why we believe in it in the first place.  

 

Step 4: Think about what you’d like for the country 

Now that you understand your values, think about how they inform the kind of country you want Australia to become. Political parties offer massive packages of policies containing aspects we agree with or may not like. Vote compasses can be useful at this point in this task – they have specific policy directions that allow us to precisely target what we would want to achieve in the country. This is an important step because we might agree with a party’s stated views but if their policies don’t match up, we’re not going to be represented well. 

It’s common to agree with only part of a party’s political package. This is why we need to learn about all the candidates’ parties, their aims, and which best aligns with our own views. Preferential voting is a way of creating an order of best fit – with your number 1 preference going to the party that most aligns with your views, and each subsequent preference being the next best fit. The party that least represents your views should get your last preference. 

 

Step 5: Learn about the parties 

Labor and the Liberals are the most powerful and oldest parties in Australia. They aren’t exactly the same platforms as they once were, which is why second hand information from others may be out of date. The Greens are also a significant party and often hold the balance of power in the Legislative Assembly. There are many other parties that will be in your division and it’s worth looking into what they value and what their aim is specifically. There are many parties that focus on single issues that are important to them. 

 

Step 6: Discover the candidates’ credentials and goals 

The Australian Electoral Commission provides information about all currently enrolled candidates. Additionally, blogs like The Tally Room track candidates for each division and provide links to all of their personal websites.  

A person’s qualifications and work history will tell us a bit about who someone is. Do they own a business? Ran a not-for-profit? Have they been a teacher or academic or front line retail worker? Have they been bankrupt? This is useful for telling us what kind of person we’re voting for and how they think. 

Another important aspect is how clearly they’ve articulated their goals. Every party is in favour of good economic management, green technology and low unemployment figures. What matters is which they prioritise given the current context. It’s also worth considering what they plan in the long term – do they have a vision for Australia in 20 years? In 50? A party that only sees the future one electoral cycle ahead is one that will make short sighted decisions. 

Lastly, if they can’t concisely say that they aim to enact a specific law or to increase a certain tax, we have reason to question their competence. A candidate can talk about the value of freedom all they want – without a stated goal, they either haven’t thought about it or they’re dog whistling.  

 

Step 7: Judge the incumbent’s track record 

The member of parliament for your division has a higher burden for gaining re-election because they have to defend their record. What have they done so far? What have they accomplished? How have they voted in the House of Representatives or Senate? Hansard is the official record of parliamentary speeches and votes. They Vote for You is a not-for-profit independent non-partisan organisation which tracks how the current member of parliament has voted (from Hansard). This includes their attendance (how often they do their job), and what they vote consistently for and against. This is particularly useful for us if we care about a specific issue – we can discover if the sitting member supports or votes against it in parliament. 

 

A final thought 

There are no wrong choices except those which are made with inaccurate information. This guide will take less than an hour and that’s not much to be conscientious about your vote once every three years. Democracy isn’t just about voting. It is in our civil discourse itself and how we share our perspectives. 

Think about whether the status quo should stay the same or change based on your values and goals, then vote for the candidate that you believe represents your view. When you talk to people about who you’re voting for, be curious about their values and their perspective. From these together, you’ll have a thoughtful and well considered perspective. 

Image by AEC photo.

 

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What matters to you when casting your vote?


How to have a conversation about politics without losing friends

There’s a reason our parents told us to steer clear of discussing politics (along with sex and religion) in polite company. Because as soon as politics is raised, there’s a very real chance that the company will become significantly less polite.  

One reason political disagreements can be so divisive is that, unlike other contentious topics, like whether pineapple belongs on pizza, politics taps into our deeply held moral values and emotions: taxation policy isn’t just about the budget’s bottom line, it’s fundamentally about fairness; climate policy isn’t just about decarbonisation, it’s about the harm that our society is inflicting on future generations.  

The moral dimension of politics can make us less tolerant of disagreement and more likely to see other views as not just different but mistaken, and perhaps dangerously so. It’s easier to shrug off someone’s opinion about the latest episode of The Bachelor than it is to let their views on asylum seekers pass without rebuttal. 

The good news is that there are ways to have fruitful conversations about political differences if you approach them with care.

Before you start

Disagreements don’t have to be corrosive to our relationships or wellbeing. In fact, genuine disagreements give us an opportunity to learn, grow and share our perspectives with others. But they take time and effort to set up. 

So before you utter a contrary opinion to a friend or family member about a political issue, first reflect on the strength of your own views and how open you are to new perspectives and evidence. 

In today’s heated political environment there can be a great deal of pressure on us to form an opinion and take a side before we’ve had a chance to digest all the relevant information. There’s also a strong tribal element to politics that makes us more likely to adopt the views of ‘our side’ and oppose anything said by the ‘other side’. Many of us might even admit we hold opinions that we would struggle to justify if pressed. 

Ideally, the strength of our convictions should be proportional to the strength of the reasons and evidence we can muster in their support. It’s still OK to form an opinion without doing a Masters degree on it first, but it does mean we should remain open to new information and perspectives that could change our mind. As a rule of thumb, if there are no reasons or evidence that could even hypothetically change your mind, then you’re being dogmatic and will likely receive no joy arguing about your views with others. 

Before deciding to engage in a political disagreement, it’s also worth pausing to consider whether it’s worth arguing at all. It’s natural to feel compelled to correct a view you believe is harmful or wrong. But if it is likely that a disagreement could get heated or emotional, or it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to influence the other person at all, then getting into a debate might end up being entirely fruitless. All you might achieve is damaging the relationship, even if you’re in the right.

Sometimes relationships matter more than being right. If you’re arguing with someone close to you, someone you care for or depend on, it may not be worth eroding that relationship for the sake of a political argument, especially if it’s almost certain to go nowhere.

And if you do want to actually change someone’s mind, you need to establish a base of trust and respect first. Foregoing one heated conversation in order to strengthen a relationship means you can build enough trust and respect so that you can have a constructive disagreement sometime in the future. Once you’re sure they’re willing to listen to you, you might even have a shot at changing their mind. 

Where to start

If you do decide to wade in, the very first thing to do is keep your mouth shut! At least at the start of the conversation. 

When we hear someone say something we disagree with, our first impulse is often to express our own contrary opinion. The problem is that this immediately frames the conversation as a ‘war of ideas,’ which can trigger all the baggage this metaphor implies. We see our conversation partner as our ‘opponent,’ we become focused on ‘winning,’ on ‘undermining’ and ‘outflanking’ their position. And absurdly, if we do learn something and change our mind, that’s considered ‘losing’. 

It’s better to frame the conversation in terms of fellow travellers exploring an issue together. You might have different perspectives, but you have the same ultimate goal: improving your understanding of the world.

In order to avoid slipping into the argument-as-war frame, instead of expressing your opinion up front, start by asking questions. Ask why your conversation partner believes what they do. Get them to elaborate on what they mean by various terms. Then listen carefully, paying special attention to both the content of what they say as well as their emotional state when saying it.  

Once they’ve had a chance to express themselves uninterrupted, summarise their view back to them and validate how they feel. You can do this without necessarily validating the content of their beliefs, even if you disagree with them. You might say something like “I see you’re really concerned about the economic impact of climate policy”, which acknowledges how they feel but doesn’t commit you to agreeing or disagreeing with them.  

This kind of reflective listening achieves two crucial things. First, it gives you a fighting chance of actually understanding their view in detail rather than assuming you know what it is. This is important because people often mean different things when they use terms like ‘freedom’ in a political context, which can lead to confusion and crossed wires unless you probe them on what they mean.  

Secondly, reflective listening helps people feel heard, which signals respect and can lower the temperature of a conversation. In fact, a lot of defensiveness can simply be a result of people wanting to be heard and feeling like no-one is listening. 

Common ground

If you want to progress the conversation, the next stage is to seek out common ground, especially around values or goals that you both agree upon. For example, you might both care about taxes not being wasted, or you both care about the wellbeing of the next generation. At this point you can start to frame your difference in perspective as being different strategies to achieve common goals. This can take a lot of the edge out of arguments, making them feel less like you’re fundamentally at odds and show that you’re only disagreeing about the means to achieving shared ends. 

Crucially, if you ever feel the conversation getting heated to the point where it’s difficult for either of you to engage constructively, then it can be wise to back out and change the subject before it’s too late. You can always revisit the topic once things have cooled down.  

It’s also important to not let the conversation drag out. It’s unlikely that you’ll be able to fully grasp someone’s views or change their mind in a single conversation. But even a short conversation can help you better understand their views and allow you to offer up a different perspective. And if it’s done with patience and respect, it can open the door to future constructive conversations. After a few such chats, you might even find you change their mind – or find that your own view has changed. That’s not a bad thing.  

The highly charged moral dimension to politics is why conversations about it are so fraught. But if we engage thoughtfully and respectfully we can have a rich conversation about politics, and still have a fighting chance of making it to dessert with friendships and family relationships intact. 

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The Dark Side of Honour

If someone insulted a family member, would you rush to defend their honour? If you said “yes”, then you’re not alone. In fact, American actor Will Smith did just this when he confronted comedian Chris Rock on stage at the 94th Academy Awards in March 2022.

It happened after Rock directed a joke at Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett-Smith, that appeared to make light of her alopecia, a medical condition that causes hair loss. Smith mounted the stage, strode up to Rock and slapped him across the face, before returning to his seat shouting “Keep my wife’s name out of your fucking mouth!”

Many onlookers in the room and around the world were shocked at this outburst of violence, even if they thought the joke was offensive and hurtful to Pinkett-Smith. But others interpreted things differently. They saw a chivalrous husband doing what a good husband should do.

One such defence of Smith came from American comedian and actress, Tiffany Haddish.  “As a woman, who has been unprotected, for someone to say, ‘Keep my wife’s name out your mouth, leave my wife alone,’ that’s what your husband is supposed to do, right? Protect you”, she told the media during the awards.

“That meant the world to me. And maybe the world might not like how it went down, but for me, it was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen because it made me believe that there are still men out there that love and care about their women, their wives.”

Haddish is speaking about the importance of an old moral concept: honour. It’s one that has been a core feature of many cultures around the world and throughout history, and even where its influence has waned, it still exerts some pull on our hearts, as we can see in the case of Will Smith.

But honour also has a dark side, not least contributing to violence as well as the oppression of women. The question is whether honour ought to play a role in our ethical thinking today, or whether it should be replaced by a more liberal ethic that prioritises reducing harm and injustice.

Reputation is life

At its heart, honour is about protecting one’s reputation as a virtuous and trustworthy individual. Anything that threatens that reputation, whether scurrilous gossip or a verbal insult, can – or even must – be forcefully challenged, violently if necessary.

Honour is particularly prevalent in smaller-scale societies that lack trustworthy institutions that prevent people from lying or cheating others, like law courts or government regulation of business. In smaller societies, it’s often left to individuals to figure out who can be trusted and who should be avoided.

This is where reputation plays a key role. If you have a good reputation, others will be happy to cooperate with you. If you’re found to be an untrustworthy cheat, word will get around that you should be avoided. In a society where cooperation might be essential to your survival, a bad reputation could be tantamount to a death sentence.

This is one reason why insults trigger such an acute response to people who value honour. An insult does two things: first it besmirches the target’s good name, often accusing them of some deviant or dishonourable act; and second it paints them as being weak, which is seen as a kind of moral vice in itself, especially in honour cultures that have norms that equate masculinity with strength.

As the psychologists Richard Nisbett and Dov Cohen describe in their famous study of the honour culture in the Southern United States:

“A key aspect of the culture of honor is the importance placed on the insult and the necessity to respond to it. An insult implies that the target is weak enough to be bullied. Since a reputation for strength is of the essence in the culture of honor, the individual who insults someone must be forced to retract; if the instigator refuses, he must be punished – with violence or even death.”

Even when honour culture has waned in popularity, as it has in the Southern United States, it can continue to influence the way people behave. Nisbett and Cohen describe one experiment that showed that when university students from Southern states were insulted, they were more likely to show signs of elevated hormones related to stress and aggression than students from the Northeastern states.

The price of honour

If an insult is to be met with force rather than shrugged off, then it can easily descend into conflict even over trivial statements. It can also easily lead to violence. Nisbett and Cohen cite evidence that the homicide rate in the Southern United States is significantly higher than other regions.

But there’s another price of honour: the oppression of women. Honour cultures are usually also patriarchal, with men occupying most of the positions of power. In these societies, men often seek to control women, especially their sexuality.

One motivation is to help ensure the paternity of their children, which is difficult without modern medical technology. One way to do so is to only marry a woman who is virgin and then to control her sexuality to guarantee sexual exclusivity. This is one reason why many honour cultures are obsessed with sexual fidelity, primarily of women, and why promiscuous women can be subject to “honour killings” by their own families.

This connects with another motivation for men to control women’s sexuality: alliances. Marriage has been used as a strategic tool for millennia to create bonds between families, usually to serve the interests of the heads of those families, who were predominantly men.

Again, virginity and sexual fidelity make marriable women more attractive as mates for other men, which feeds into an honour culture that seeks to protect the reputation of women as being faithful and chaste. These same cultures often encourage men to violently respond to any perceived slight against their female family members, or to ostracise or enact violence towards women who choose to deviate from the sexually oppressive norms constraining them.

The decline of honour

None of this is to suggest that Will Smith was seeking to control women as a sexual or political resource. But the same sensitivity to honour that motivated him to stand in his wife’s defence can be used to control and disempower women. Indeed, some interpreted Smith’s slap as robbing Pinkett-Smith of her own voice when it came to defending herself.

While honour can be a vehicle to encourage people to take responsibility for their actions, to promote virtues like honesty and loyalty, it can also place a higher priority on protecting one’s reputation – and that of their family (and often the women in their family) – over de-escalating violence and solving injustices through other means.

Honour is also largely redundant in a world with institutions that protect us from miscreants. We no longer live or die by our reputation. This is why we teach children the “sticks and stones” rhyme. Yet it is all too easy in the heat of the moment to let a sensitivity to our reputation carry us away, compromising the values of care and justice that have become dominant in liberal societies.

It is precisely these values that are reflected in Will Smith’s public apology, posted the day after the Academy Awards when some of the heat had died down. “Violence in all of its forms is poisonous and destructive,” he wrote in an Instagram post. “There is no place for violence in a world of love and kindness.”

The question for each of us to answer next time someone insults us or a loved one is what do we value more: a society of reactive violence or a society where we prioritise compassion and justice through more considered responses?

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To Russia, without love: Are sanctions ethical?

The western world has responded to Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine by imposing a historically large suite of economic sanctions upon them. Are such measures likely to cripple the kremlin, or are they merely wreaking havoc on the lives of innocent civilians?

Following the invasion, Lina, a 21-year-old living in Russia, found herself suddenly locked out of her OnlyFans account. Her loss of livelihood and income as an adult content creator was a direct consequence of comprehensive sanctions imposed upon her country. Taking to Twitter to voice her discontent, Lina wrote “I don’t support this war, but I became its hostage”.

Although OnlyFans has since reinstated Russian owned accounts, this has not stopped ordinary citizens from being caught in the crossfire of a war they do not necessarily condone. The rapidly plummeting value of the ruble coupled with aggressive boycotts has seen the cost of living skyrocket, causing many to question who is truly paying for this war.

Porn stars and geopolitics are worlds apart, as are innocent civilians and armed combatants. Universally recognised international humanitarian law tells us that jus in bello (justice in war) means protecting people not involved in the conflict from unnecessary hardship. The use of economic sanctions as an alternative to boots on ground intervention has challenged this principle, punishing everyone from the oligarchy to sex workers in one fell swoop.

Russia is a relatively impoverished, repressed, socioeconomically divided and bellicose country. The average citizen does not enjoy the same social and economic freedoms as those in the nations that sanction them. Such diplomatic measures might seem unethical because they have the potential to make innocent lives even more miserable – so why is the international community so trigger-happy when it comes to implementing them?

Sanctions in brief

The latent power of sanctions as a tool of foreign policy was revealed through the Blockade of Germany during WWI, where the restriction of maritime goods by naval boats played a crucial role in securing victory for the Allies. Taking this lesson into their stride, the League of Nations (superseded by the United Nations) began threatening the use of an “economic weapon” to reign in troublesome countries such as Italy and Japan, mostly unsuccessfully.

Using a mix of coercive tools ranging from the withdrawal of diplomatic and economic relations to boycotting sporting games, nations (usually acting collectively) set out to back their targeted regime into a corner. Coupled with the external pressure of being unable to access vital resources and capital, sanctions are designed to deteriorate living standards and stoke discontent to the point where governments are faced with the choice of kowtowing to international pressure or risk facing civil war.

Nowadays, sanctions are more ubiquitous than ever, despite having a demonstrably mixed track record.

The trade embargo in Cuba has cost the country over $130bn and has been in place for over 60 years. Nevertheless, the communist government has endured, with sanctions doing little more than providing the government with a scapegoat for its tanking economy. Research suggests that sanctions meet their stated objectives only 34 per cent of the time.

On the other hand, many credit such measures with delivering a fatal blow to apartheid in South Africa and nuclear proliferation in Iran. Even if such sanctions aren’t always successful, their utility can be viewed as largely symbolic, allowing nations to turn ideological enemies and human rights abusers into international outcasts, all without firing a single shot.

The ethics of using sanctions

From a consequentialist perspective – which looks to outcomes rather than intentions when it comes to making a moral judgement – the case for sanctions looks rather grim. To be ethically justified in pursuing such measures, those enacting this policy would want to be guaranteed that their actions are helping, not causing unnecessary hurt.

Perhaps a recognition of this principle was the reason why OnlyFans was so quick to backflip on their boycott. If only those pulling vodka from supermarket shelves and Dostoevsky from university reading lists could make this same calculus. These grandstanding gestures are not the kinds of actions that will meaningfully impact the course of war. If anything, they distract from a lack of meaningful action, erstwhile promoting xenophobic discourse.

It is worth noting that Joe Biden was referring to Putin, not his motherland, when he instructed the world to make the aggressor a “pariah on the international stage”. We would do well to remember the distinction between a country’s elite and their citizens (particularly in countries with low levels of democracy, like Russia) before implementing sanctions that treat them as one and the same.

As acknowledged by the United Nations, arguably the biggest international advocate for multilateral sanctions, sanctions often cause disproportionate economic and humanitarian harm to the very people they seek to protect. Additionally, such actions often cause collateral damage to otherwise uninvolved countries. Underscoring these issues is a lack of historical evidence to support the effectiveness of such measures.

Some may work their way around this point by arguing that such measures would shorten the war through crippling the economy, thereby negating some of the fallout for innocent civilians. However, the facts show otherwise – Sanctions stand the best chance of success when they are short, targeted, and implemented against a democratic government.

The measures in place against the kremlin meet none of these criteria, all but guaranteeing a prolonged amount of suffering for innocent civilians. To this end, imposing sanctions could be considered unethical.

Nevertheless, countries often justify their use of sanctions by claiming that they have a humanitarian duty to act against perceived injustice and moral violations. Accordingly, the ethicality of this decision must be judged to a different standard; if an actor is fulfilling their obligations as a member of the international community, then they are acting morally (a theory known as deontology).

This line of reasoning does not hold when it comes to the sanctions placed on Russia. Firstly, these actions replace a perceived injustice with perhaps an even greater one – the unnecessary involvement of innocent civilians in a conflict that is largely beyond their control. Some may justify this by arguing a responsibility to punish wrongdoers irrespective of the consequences, but the fact that all countries in the world are signatory to the principles of jus in bello vis-à-vis the Geneva Convention indicates a more binding duty. Undeniably, Russia has broken this code of conduct many times over, but moral decisions are not conducted on a tit-for-tat basis.

Secondly, they are not principally sound. Russia is one of the world’s largest suppliers of energy, yet curiously, this industry is largely exempt from most sanctions. We are unlikely to see this change significantly until the world moves away from fossil fuels altogether. Moreover, the international community will fail to cripple the kremlin unless it is willing to endure some short-term sacrifice for a greater duty.

Altogether, if those imposing sanctions are attempting to do so morally, they are failing. History has shown us what happens when we attempt to choke a country economically and politically, and it is ugly. We should be suspicious of the idea that sanctions are the only way for us to respond to misbehaving countries.

This is not to excuse citizens from the crimes of their government, but to call into question why the international community is so willing to use a tool that inevitably punishes the innocent, vulnerable, and often powerless (noting that this economic weapon is so often wielded against autocratic regimes).

The facts cannot be ignored; the elites responsible for the unprovoked invasion of Ukraine will continue to dodge sanctions through the likes of anonymous international bank accounts, foreign sympathisers and, increasingly, cryptocurrency. Meanwhile, people like Lina will shoulder the brunt of this burden.

All is fair in love and war – but some things are fairer than others, like avoiding the use of debunked tactics that mess with innocent lives needlessly. Without considering the ethicality of their behaviour, the international community risks causing an entirely avoidable humanitarian crisis which undermines the very principles that they to defend. We must think twice before we applaud those that are quick to sanction lest we cause more injustices to be committed.

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Are sanctions worth it?


Survivors are talking, but what’s changing?

At the Australia-wide March4Justice rallies in 2021, Brittany Higgins (a former Liberal Party staffer) and Grace Tame (Australian of the Year 2021) delivered speeches in Canberra and Hobart, respectively. Higgins was raped inside Parliament House. Tame is a survivor of child sex abuse. Both called for changes in Australian culture and our institutions to prevent “abuse culture” and to ensure the safety of those most vulnerable to sexual assault.

On Wednesday 9 February 2022, both women gave respective addresses at the National Press Club (NPC) in Canberra. Both criticised that too little had changed since they spoke at these rallies. (Though, the day prior to the addresses, Prime Minister Scott Morrison finally apologised to the survivors of sexual harassment and assault endured by employees in federal parliament.)

In her NPC address, Higgins explained her rationale for making her sexual assault public:

“I made my decision to speak out because the alternative was to be part of the culture of silence inside Parliament House. I spoke out because I wanted the next generation of staffers to work in a better place.”

She then lamented:

“I’m worried what too many people beyond the government and the media took out of the events of last year was that we need to be better at talking about the problem…. I’m not interested in words anymore. I want to see action.”

To clarify, the words Higgins is not interested in anymore are “weasel-words” – she is not advocating against free speech, nor rejecting the need for conversations on the prevalence of sexual abuse.

Embed from Getty Images

 

Tame and Higgins both believe we need institutional changes to address this issue. And if we are to take anything away from the NPC addresses – and we should – it is this: institutional change must be tackled actively – though not all institutions are formal; we must challenge abuse of power – though not all power is formally bestowed; and those who are in formal positions with considerable power must act effectively.

To that end, Tame explicitly identified three necessary steps that must be taken to progress social and institutional change.

  1. Take sexual violence seriously – this means taking proactive measures to prevent it.
  2. Provide adequate funding to actually implement the proactive measures we need.
  3. Create consistent legislative reforms. For example, sexual assault of a child should not be named “maintaining a relationship with a person under the age of 17,” which was the law Tame’s rapist contravened. All such forms of child sexual abuse should be named for what they are. Abuse.

And, according to Higgins’ response during NPC question time, a greater gender balance in Government would help immensely.

Tame and Higgins have told Australia exactly what we need to do – so why isn’t Australia making adequate progress? Higgins clearly believes that the LNP Government, and Prime Minister Scott Morrison in particular, could be doing more to prevent such heinous acts. She explains:

“I wanted him to use his power as Prime Minister. I wanted him to wield the weight of his office and drive change in the Party and our Parliament, and out into the country”.

In spite of Morrison’s apology, and even in light of the 28 recommendations for change in parliament workplaces following an independent review headed by the Sex Discrimination Commissioner (AKA the Jenkins’ review), Higgins perceives too little action, reminding us:

“Last year wasn’t a march for acknowledgement and it wasn’t a march for coverage. It wasn’t a march for language. It was a march for justice, and that justice demands real change.”

It is time to hold power to account.

On the matter of power, note its informal use. During her NPC address, Tame revealed that she had received “a threatening phone call from a senior member of a government funded organisation” ‘asking’ her not to say anything negative about the Prime Minister because “you are influential”. But Tame did not have the power in this exchange – the caller did.

Then there is the press, another crucial institution with an immensely powerful role to play in shaping the attitudes of the populace.

But what media seem not to care about, says Tame, is how trauma is often reinforced through powerful institutions like the press.

Since being named Australian of the year in 2021, Tame reports being: “re-victimised, commodified, objectified, sensationalised, delegitimised, gaslit, and thrown under the bus by the mainstream media.”

Strikingly, in spite of Tame’s reprimanding of the press for their re-traumatising actions, the anonymous phone call to Tame became the centre of the mainstream media’s focus of the NPC addresses – with Higgins’ contribution essentially written out of the narrative. Suddenly it was necessary and urgent to find the identity of this mystery caller and for the Prime Minister to assert intent to discover which agency was responsible (and, in so doing, delicately removing himself from the realm of complicity in this abuse of power).

Then, on 14 February, the Daily Mail ran a photo of a teenage Tame seated with what appears to be a ‘bong’ (a device for smoking marijuana). One can only presume that the decision to publicise this photo, which implicates Tame in undertaking illegal behaviour, would have the effect of tarnishing her public image. Media are supposed to report neutrally, not run smear campaigns.

On 19 February, Tame responded publicly via Twitter to all media who published “that” photo, stating:

“At every point — on the national stage, I might add — I’ve been completely transparent about all the demons I’ve battled in the aftermath of child sexual abuse; drug addiction, self-harm, anorexia and PTSD, among others. You just clearly haven’t been listening.”

She then goes on to chastise the media:

“By point-mocking a symptom of a bigger picture, you’ve reinforced the imbalance of an already skewed culture. You’ve chosen to punish the product of an evil, not the evil itself. This is precisely why survivors don’t report. Congratulations.”

Inertia and smear campaigns are just two of the ways institutions can perpetuate abuse culture, also known as ‘rape culture’.

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Philosopher Claudia Card has argued that ‘rape’ (here, meaning any and all sexual assault) is a terrorist institution. Sexual violence – a social practice – is gendered. We live in a world of “social norms that create and define a distribution of power among and between members of the sexes”. This is a type of social identity power – a power that is informally maintained through our actions and our assumptions about the way the world necessarily is. Women fear what men can do to them. Terror of this kind is manipulative. And terror is a shortcut to power.

Rape is also an institution (in an informal sense) insofar as it is “a form of social activity structured by rules that define roles and positions, powers and opportunities.” Cisgender men are usually the perpetrators of sexual assault, and women and children (including male children) are usually the targets of that assault. “For the most part,” says Card, “the rules become ‘second nature’, like the rules of grammar, and those guided need not be aware of the rules as learned norms”.

While I want to emphasise that not all – nor even most – cisgender men commit sexual assaults, that cisgender men can be victims of sexual assault, and typical targets (women and children) can be perpetrators, the constancy of this type of activity – in 2018–19, the majority of sexual assault offenders recorded by police were male (97%) – leads to the impression that sexual assault (tacitly: of women and children) is inevitable.

Since there is a social practice – an open secret – of women and children being sexually abused, women become socialised to fear sexual abuse. Women live in a state of apprehension, always on alert for signals of danger. Cisgender men (who have not experienced assault) do not have to live this way.

Thus, if ‘rape’ really is an informal terrorist institution in Australia, it would follow that one of the reasons Australia is yet to meet Tame’s first requirement – to take sexual violence seriously and to take proactive measures to prevent it – is because we have not yet disregarded the assumption that sexual abuse is inevitable. People may be working on changing such tacit assumptions, but on a mass scale we are yet to shift the dial.

This leads us to Tame’s second ask: adequate funding. Help the people who are doing the re-educating, who are running shelters, who need to access specialist legal services, who are training medical professionals in sexual assault cases, increasing access to psychologists, and improving the child welfare system. The list goes on. And, in Higgins’ view, if there were more women in Parliament, this issue would be taken more seriously – even though “quotas” is a “dirty word” to the Liberal Party, she revealed in question time.

Finally, we reach Tame’s third driver of change, to which her foundation has been working: creating consistent legislative reforms wherein, for instance, there is no reference to a sexual “relationship” between an adult and a child. However, one foundation can only achieve so much – we need a more proactive approach.

Higgins and Tame both identified the barriers to overcoming trauma, while making suggestions on overcoming the abuse culture that has been absorbed into some of our most powerful institutions. Thus, institutions are not off the hook. They have their role to play in dispelling both rape culture and challenging the presumed inevitability of sexual abuse.

Given this, why did the media sensationalise Tame’s anonymous caller, why was Tame smeared, and why was Higgins cast out of the media spotlight? Why is the Government dragging its feet on reform? Why do people keep spreading “that” photo on social media?

One problem, it seems, is this: while Higgins and Tame were indeed given a platform from which to speak, what they said was not really ‘heard’ (that is, properly understood) by the media, by politicians, and even by the public. When one is not heard properly, one is effectively silent. Silence is exactly what Higgins was trying to escape. And yet, it seems that what is said too often makes little difference.

Being ‘effectively silenced’ does not necessarily mean that someone literally cannot speak, or that they have no platform. It means that when they speak, they are misunderstood (often wilfully). The message that should be taken from their words is not the message that media, politicians, and even the general public actually hear.

The media have acted as though that one singular instance of intimidation was the most important issue raised that day. But the point Tame was making is that there is no need to name the person nor agency because this sort of silencing tactic happens all the time to people trying to change the status quo. One must ask, are the media and LNP, even the public, purposefully missing the forest for the trees?

To fail to heed the wisdom of these women, as spokespeople for survivors, is an absolute ethical failing. They are gifting us with their situated knowledge and experience-based insights that would lead to successful reform, as well as the many insights that have been shared with them by other survivors who have sought them as confidantes. Tame literally lists what needs to happen: one, two, three. But it is clear that the press and the Parliament have not yet learnt how to actually listen to the intended overarching messages of these women – and, until they (and we ourselves) do, nothing will change.

We must pay attention and be proactive in destroying the terrorist institution of abuse culture.

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