The ethical price of political solidarity

Which takes ethical precedence: keeping a promise to remain loyal to your group or sticking to your principles?

This is a question that has faced first-term Western Australian senator, Fatima Payman, repeatedly over the past few weeks. Ultimately, she chose her principles, crossing the floor to vote for a Greens bill calling to recognise Palestinian statehood, and now she’s paying the price for breaking her pledge of caucus solidarity with the Australian Labor Party (ALP). 

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, faced a different dilemma. Even though his party’s National Platform ostensibly supported Payman’s principled position, the fact remains that she broke caucus solidarity by crossing the floor, an act that he was obliged by party rules to punish with a one-week suspension from caucus.  

But then Payman doubled down on her principled stance by stating on national television that she would be willing to cross the floor again should another vote arise on Palestinian statehood. Again, Albanese felt his hand was forced, with him issuing her with an indefinite suspension. 

Payman’s suspension has proven divisive, with many Labor members and supporters expressing outrage that she would violate her sacred pledge of caucus solidarity and draw media attention away from key Labor initiatives, such as the revised stage 3 tax cuts.  

Others, such as the Australia Palestine Advocacy Network, have seen events through a different lens, saying it was “disturbed by the suggestion that towing the Labor Party’s line is more important than standing up for the rights and lives of Palestinians as they are slaughtered in Gaza.” 

Ultimately, both Payman and Albanese were placed in an ethical dilemma, with competing obligations pulling them in different directions. However, the episode raises deeper questions about whether politicians should be allowed to vote on matters of conscience or principle, and whether it is justified for a political party to punish them for doing so. 

Ethical tension

When we vote for a politician based on their stated values and principles, we might expect they stand by them and vote accordingly when they’re in parliament. However, that’s often not the case. 

Members of parliament are typically bound to vote for – and publicly support – their party’s agreed position, even if that position contradicts their own. In fact, since its inception in 1891, Labor has maintained a strict policy of caucus solidarity, with members pledging to uphold it as sacrosanct.  

This means Labor members are free to argue forcefully for their views inside caucus meetings, but once the caucus has decided on a position, they are bound to vote for it. This has sometimes put Labor members in a difficult position, such as when Labor Senator Penny Wong was obliged to vote against same-sex marriage in 2008, despite her deep commitment to marriage equality. 

In keeping with its traditional liberal roots, and the notion that it’s a “broad church”, the Liberal Party takes a relatively softer stance, ostensibly allowing members to cross the floor on matters of principle. However, even though the Liberal Party doesn’t require its members to make a pledge of caucus solidarity, they are still strongly encouraged to vote with the party, and often suffer punishment if they go against the party line. 

The exception is when the leadership of a political party announces a “free” or “conscience” vote. These are rare, and are typically related to bills with a strong ethical element, such as abortion, euthanasia or embryonic stem cell research. In these cases, members are released from their obligations to vote with the party. However, over the last few decades the ALP has been less likely to allow a conscience vote than the Liberal Party, and the bill on Palestinian statehood that Payman crossed the floor on was not declared as a conscience vote by Labor. 

Caucus solidarity is often justified in terms of the party being more stable – and more effective in governing – if it works as a collective rather than a group of individuals with diverse views. If every member of parliament were free to vote on any issue, then parties would have to work harder to curry favour with each representative, possibly watering down bills in order to get them on board. That could result in weaker legislation and prevent a party from genuinely being able to enact the policy platform that it presented to the electorate. It would also make it harder to vote for a party platform, knowing that any member might vote against it at any time. 

Still, party solidarity could be seen as a political solution that involves an ethical compromise, not only preventing politicians from voting according to their deeply held views – which might be the very views that got them elected – but also requiring them to act inauthentically by publicly supporting a view they don’t personally hold.

Ultimately, political leaders – Anthony Albanese included – have a choice to make when faced with the dilemma of a sitting member crossing the floor: which is more important, solidarity or principle? And voters have a choice of whether to vote for a candidate, knowing that they might be prevented from voting in accordance with their values and principles.

 

Image: Lukas Coch, AAP Photo 

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The limits of ethical protest on university campuses

Ethical protest is a crucial element of liberal democracy. But protesters and universities must tread a fine line to allow good faith expression while preventing unethical forms of speech.

In parallel to the conflict raging in Gaza, another front has emerged in the form of pro-Palestine protest camps at universities across the United States and Australia. 

The protesters have called for a ceasefire in Gaza and for their host universities to sever any connections with defence companies that support Israel’s war effort, including divestment of stock in any companies with ties to Israel. Meanwhile, Jewish lobbies have claimed that the protests are stoking antisemitism and compromising the safety of Jewish students.  

In the US, these camps have triggered a significant, and occasionally violent, backlash from authorities. Both Columbia University and the University of California, Los Angeles have called in police and riot squads to break them up, leading to hundreds of arrests. Australian campuses have so far refrained from such a forceful response, but there are increasing calls from some voices, to close them down.  

How should universities and other authorities respond to these protests? What kinds of protest are deemed acceptable? Which cross the line and should be shut down? 

Ethical protest

Every citizen of a liberal democracy has the right to protest against injustice. But protesters and authorities must tread a fine line between allowing justified forms of expression while preventing forms that incite, dehumanise, vilify or cause undue disruption or damage to private or public property. 

But what counts as incitement when slogans are interpreted in different ways by different people? What constitutes vilification, when many in the Jewish community perceive criticism of Israel as being antisemitic? Is it undue disruption if a camp prevents uninvolved students from attending their classes? Can a protest movement prevent fringe elements from coopting it to promote extreme views or violence? 

These are difficult questions to answer for both protesters and universities. However, a better understanding of the limits of ethical protest can guide those running the camps to ensure they remain within the bounds of what is justifiable speech, and authorities, so they don’t end up suppressing legitimate forms of expression. 

In good faith

A crucial feature of ethical protest is that protesters are acting in good faith, which means they are acting with the intention to call out what they genuinely believe to be an injustice.  

This means the protesters need to have just cause, and ensure their expression doesn’t stray outside of this justification. In the case of the pro-Palestine camps, there are arguments that can provide just cause, including statements of concern from the United Nations, governments and other world leaders about the impact that the conflict is having on innocent civilians and the lasting damage to infrastructure that could harm future generations of Palestinians who played no part in Hamas’s terrorist attacks of October 2023. 

However, there have been some pro-Palestine protesters who have stepped outside of bounds of this just cause, such as threatening Jewish students or saying Hamas deserves “unconditional support”.  

A major challenge for the pro-Palestine camps is to keep emotions, especially outrage, in check. This is because justifiable outrage and heated emotion against injustice can easily tip over into calls for unjustified retribution against the perceived wrongdoers. While protesters may not intend to carry out any hyperbolic threats they express verbally, they can still service to threaten, intimidate and dehumanise. A sense of solidarity with one’s cause can also lead people to refrain from criticising problematic views or actors within their own “tribe” for fear of appearing disloyal. 

Universities and other authorities are right to clamp down on any individuals who engage in such bad faith forms of expression. However, if protest leaders clearly demonstrate that they repudiate violence and dehumanising claims, and actively police their own ranks, then the universities ought to draw a distinction between the protest movement as a whole and individuals who overstep the line. 

Interpretation

Bad faith expression is complicated by ambiguous slogans, such as “intifada” or “from the river to the sea”. Many people interpret the former as a call for resistance, while others associate it with the Palestinian uprisings starting in the 1980s. And some interpret the latter slogan as a call for peace within the region while others hear it as a call for the elimination of the Israeli state.

It is inevitable that symbols will be interpreted in different ways, and it is impossible to ensure that a symbol will only have one meaning. It’s also impossible to prevent fringe elements from appropriating a symbol and potentially tainting its meaning.  

However, protest organisers can be clear about the intended meaning of symbols, promote good faith interpretations and suppress their use when they overstep into representing a clear threat to others. People perceiving the symbol should also exercise charity in their interpretation, rather than assuming the worst possible interpretation. Only in clear cases where the symbol is being used consistently in a bad faith manner should authorities step in to suppress its use. 

Language matters

Language that is critical of the Israeli government has also been interpreted by some as being inherently antisemitic, and often such criticism has been laced with antisemitic sentiment. However, it is possible in principle to be critical of the Israeli government and its policies without being antisemitic. Were that not the case, then a significant proportion of the Jewish population of Israel would itself be deemed antisemitic due to its strong opposition to the current government’s policies. It is also possible to condemn terrorism and Hamas’ October 7 2023 attacks against civilians and also condemn the scale of collateral damage in Gaza as a result of the Israeli offensive.  

It is important for those critical of the Israeli government to be clear in their use of language to not imply any antisemitic sentiment, just as it is important for those listening to exercise charity in how they interpret such statements. 

Disruption

Many protests cause disruption. Indeed, disruption is sometimes a means to draw attention to an issue that might be otherwise overlooked by the public. However, ethical protest requires that the organisers minimise their impact on bystanders, especially those who are not responsible for the injustice being protested.  

If the disruption becomes disproportionate, or it tips over into serious property damage, then authorities can be justified in placing restrictions on the protest and prosecuting any individuals who are involved in damaging acts. However, authorities must be very careful in how they do so, as targeting the entire protest can end up suppressing legitimate speech and can also backfire, causing more disruption or damage. 

More space for protest, not less

Often the most prudent response to a protest is for universities to give the protesters more space for expression, not less. Despite the demands issued by many protesters, one core goal is often simply to be heard and acknowledged. Even if the other demands, such as divestment, are not met, protesters may still feel satisfied if they are given the space and respect to be seen and heard.  

If universities give the protesters a platform to express their good faith arguments – and equal space for others to oppose them in good faith – and they can manage it safely, then it can take a great deal of pressure off the protest movement, which might otherwise lash out in more destructive ways.

It is also crucial that the protests do not turn violent. One trigger for such violence is overly forceful policing, as we have seen in the United States. By increasing the pressure on protesters, especially if that pressure is exerted by police, who are trained to use force when necessary to achieve their objectives, then protesters can lash out or act in self-defence. This can, in turn, motivate an even more forceful crackdown, leading to a spiral that can end in violence or riots. Better to take the pressure off and give the protesters the space to act peacefully and in good faith rather than set their backs against the wall. 

It is impossible to guarantee that any protest will unfold entirely without cost or error. But as long as the protesters are acting in good faith, with just cause, and if they police their own members to prevent unethical behaviour, then universities ought to give the protesters the space to do so peacefully and with minimal impact.

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Australia’s fiscal debt will cost Gen Z's future

When my HECS debt exceeded $50,000, my jaw dropped, and I wondered how I’d ever pay it off. In contrast, my father enjoyed a free tertiary education when he was my age and entered the workforce unburdened by debt. Is that fair? 

The Baby Boomer generation faced huge challenges, like post-war reconstruction, promoting civil rights and living with the prospect of nuclear war. But it had its boons too. This is the generation that benefited from a buoyant labour market, cheap housing and enjoyed free university thanks to the Whitlam Government. Today, a booming housing market is helping to fund a luxurious retirement for many of that generation.  

On top of this, middle-aged and older Australians have disproportionately benefited from government spending in recent years – spending that has been funded by taking on debt that younger generations will have to pay off. So not only do younger generations not have the benefits that older Australians have enjoyed, but they have the added burden of government debt. 

It’d be like if I was able to avoid paying my HECS debt for my university degree by foisting that debt on my children. I would benefit from the education and its employment opportunities, but my children would bear the cost. Just as that would be unfair, so too are Boomers passing government debt onto younger generations while they get to enjoy the benefits of government spending today. 

This is the problem of intergenerational injustice when it comes to government debt. Fiscal spending is, by nature, short-term and aims to solve economic problems quickly. In moderation, it isn’t bad. However, in excess it disproportionately benefits people who are working at the time. Younger and future generations then bear the brunt of debt repayments accumulated by previous governments, while receiving fewer immediate benefits from the public spending financed by that debt. In contrast, older individuals enjoy the immediate advantages of government expenditure without the long-term responsibility of repaying the accumulating fiscal debt.  

For example, the large government spending during the COVID-19 pandemic has left Australia with a debt in excess of $800 billion. That is around 38% of Australia’s GDP. This means for the next 20-30 years, when today’s young Australians will be entering the workforce, their taxpayer dollars will not go into benefiting the society they live in, but rather repaying these loans. If the government cannot repay those loans, it must either increase taxes or spend less. It means young people potentially could lose healthcare benefits or have less personal money due to increased taxation or cuts in services.  

Philosopher Juliana Uhuru Bidadanure argues that we should be focused on relational equality at a moment in time. Relational equality emphasises the significance of social relationships and interdependence in achieving a more equitable society, highlighting the need to address and transform the structural conditions that perpetuate inequality.

Younger people today should not have to financially suffer today because it is expected that their lives will improve later.

Likewise older people in nursing homes shouldn’t be punished because they had a good life earlier. Everyone, regardless of age, should be entitled to a good life. Debt ultimately undermines this principle of relational equality if the benefits are only short term, as an unfair burden is placed unto future generations.  

Jobseeker is another example contributing to this inequality. Members of Generation Z who weren’t working or on Youth Allowance during the pandemic received no government benefits, much of which were funded by debt. So, over the next two decades, it will fall mainly on Generation Z to repay that debt, even though they received the least benefit from it. In fact, someone born today will likely have to pay off a portion of that debt in their first job even though they were not alive to experience the COVID-19 stimulus. Older generations will not live long enough to see through the long-term consequences of debt, but young people today will.  

It is important to note that not all debt is bad, such as long-term spending as investments today can greatly benefit future generations. Unlike pandemic-related debt, which disproportionately benefited older people, expenditure on infrastructure contributes to the collective good and is eventually enjoyed by younger people when projects are completed, demonstrating a more equitable form of financial responsibility. 

In addressing the pervasive issue of intergenerational injustice fuelled by fiscal government debt, we must advocate for policies that prioritise relational equality now. Balancing the scales requires a nuanced approach, moderating short-term fiscal spending, focusing on the impact of spending in the long-term through investments in projects like infrastructure.  

Governments need to ensure that they are careful with how their spending today will impact future generations. Short-term spending promises before an election are an example of short-term thinking from our political establishment. Naturally, voters who benefit from such spending might be inclined to support such policies. But they should be mindful of not only their self-interest but the interests of future generations, including their children and grandchildren. 

Meanwhile, Generation Z would benefit from advocating for balanced government budgets, for it is in their interests. Young people should always be cautious whenever they hear the words “fiscal”, “stimulus” and “injection” into an economy. Because, in the future, if those government actions risk a debt blowout, they are the ones that will have to pay for that intervention in the future.  

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What we owe each other: Intergenerational and intertemporal justice

According to the United Nations, the global population will increase by two billion over the next thirty years. This gives the idea of intergenerational justice particular weight. But philosophers struggle to discern the existence, nature and extent of any moral duty owed to future generations.

Issues of remoteness, non-identity, and economics leave many fixed in the parochialism of the present. Using British philosopher, Derek Parfit’s ‘person-affecting principle’ and the threshold notion of harm to argue that current generations do owe a moral duty to their heirs, existential threats to present and future people, such as climate change, should be dealt with through a pragmatic, sociological focus on distributive justice, encouraging a reinterpretation of justice as inter-temporal. 

Relations between generations are ‘relations of domination’. Future people either have not come into existence, or they are too young to access the full rights of a democratic citizen. For some, this belies a ‘moral imperative to give voice to the voiceless’. Others resist giving ethical considerations to non-specific, non-existent things, and the future consequences of our actions are not certain. Indeed, future generations have not done anything to warrant our consideration, so obligations must come from some intrinsic value placed on human life.  

Israeli political scientist, Avner de-Shalit suggests the existence of a ‘transgenerational community’ to which we owe a duty because we share ‘cultural interaction and moral similarity’. But deciphering how far into time this community stretches is difficult, and de-Shalit does not adequately address the different levels of obligation felt towards today’s youth and remote future people, with whom it is difficult to feel part of a community.  

A more convincing argument is Derek Parfit’s ‘person-affecting principle,’ the ‘fundamental ethical requirement that humans have an obligation not to affirmatively harm a person.’

If everyone should be treated with respect and dignity no matter when they are born, we ought not to make decisions that will cause harm to future persons.

This deontological position is strengthened when considering an adaptation of Australian philosopher Peter Singer’s classic thought experiment. If it is equally important for an adult in Nepal who sees a drowning child to save the child as it is for you to save a drowning child in front of you, then spatial distance must be irrelevant to moral responsibility to prevent harm. By extension, why should temporal distance be any different? Tensions surrounding the personhood of the unborn should not keep present people from refraining from acts that will harm the interests of future people, whether or not they actually come into existence.  

But Parfit does not define the meaning of ‘harm’, nor what level of care is owed to future generations. If a policy is criticised because it is predicted to worsen future standards of living, it could be said that all actions have some consequence for the lives of future people. If the act results in certain people not coming into existence, they cannot really be said to have been ‘harmed’ by the policy, because they never became a person.  

Defining ‘harm’ through the notion of the threshold abates this problem. It does not require individuals to be worse off at a point in time than they otherwise would had a harmful act not been performed, only that they are worse off than they ought to be. Individuals are harmed if they come into existence in a sub-threshold state. This extends the notion of moral responsibility and intrinsic rights across time so that, ‘no child should do worse than some minimum standard that is determined by reference to the entire society,’ taking basic requirements such as food, water and shelter as a given.  

Determining this threshold, however, is difficult. Buchanan suggests ‘better than our current median’ as an antidote to ‘better than me,’ because this acknowledges intragenerational disadvantage. The economic practice of ‘discounting’ the future, by contrast, entails a willingness to act on a preference for current generations. This discount rate ‘dramatically diminishes the significance of policy effects on future generations.’  

The issue then becomes one of balance. How do we balance our obligations not to inflict harm on ourselves, and the sometimes competing aim to not inflict harm on future individuals? Focusing on fiscal policy, Buchanan suggests a focus on ‘distributive justice,’ pressing the need to weigh all claims and redistribute resources away from the ‘richest’ to the ‘poorest,’ irrespective of when those people may be alive. For example, higher taxation for the rich and more investment in welfare and public infrastructure of the future. The aim is to reach a level of wellbeing ‘according to which both currently and future living people are able to reach a sufficientarian threshold.’  

Issues posing existential threats to present and future people have a particular moral primary in terms of harms to avoid. Climate change, especially rising global temperatures, poses irreversible and universal damage. Using the threshold concept of harm, one assumes that future generations ought to live in a clean and safe environment, and current generations ought to act in ways that avoid environmental degradation. But, given that sustainable energy is more expensive than fossil fuels, there exists a tension between economic growth and ecological protection.  

Irish sociology lecturer, Tracey Skillington takes a sociological rather than philosophical approach, arguing that ‘the needs of the capitalist present have taken precedence over all other concerns,’ noting the insufficient efforts taken to prevent environmental harm. If all focus is on present concerns, justice is not equitably distributed to the future. Skillington sees this as a flaw in the present liberal-democratic political infrastructure.  

Youth are taking legal action against governments to assert their right to inherit a safe environment. In Australia, a temporarily-established common law duty of care to protect young people from climate change was reversed by the Full Bench of the Federal Court. It held that the previous judge’s reasoning was too expansive and endorsed an analysis based only on narrow legal principles of negligence. This view does not consider that intergenerational issues arise slowly, and legal justice should be interpreted in a manner that extends beyond the political and economic realities of the present if we are to prevent harm to future generations.  

Scottish philosopher, William MacAskill’s ‘longtermism’ encourages a broader gaze, asking politicians to see beyond the short term reality of a carbon economy to universal and inalienable collective rights. This ‘intertemporal’ approach to justice and the role of institutions recognises humanity as bound not only by biology, but ‘shared ecological resources and a common cosmopolitan project as well’. Through national and international cooperation, current generations can minimise harm by creating a threshold state that satisfies the right to a safe environment and equitably distributes justice between present economics and future longevity. 

The notion that future generations can suffer harm at the hands of present policies creates a moral obligation to avoid acts that ensue a sub-threshold state. This state is determined by reference to the society as a whole, but as a minimum can be expected to include basic necessities such as a clean environment. Democratic institutions should adjust their gaze when formulating policy, recognising long-term implications and understanding justice as a concept that exists across and between time.   

 

What we owe each other: Intergenerational and intertemporal justice‘ by Pia Curran is one of the Highly Commended essays in our Young Writers’ Competition. Find out more about the competition here.   

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Why Anzac Day’s soft power is so important to social cohesion

Any country wishing to advance or defend its strategic interests has recourse to two types of power: hard and soft.

Richard Marles’ release of the government’s most recent Defence Strategic Review, coming as it does just before Anzac Day, provides an opportunity to examine how well Australia is positioned in relation to the oft-neglected “defensive” aspect of soft power.

Any potential adversary knows that a low-risk way to wound a diverse, multicultural society is to pick it apart until it turns against itself. They are right. Look at the cracks that have opened up at home under the strain of a distant war between the state of Israel and Hamas. It has led to a massive rise in antisemitism and a resurgence in Islamophobia.

Indeed, the first thought of many was that the murderous rampage at Bondi Junction was a terrorist attack connected to conflict in the Middle East. Two days later, a surge of communal violence was unleashed in response to the wounding of two clerics in a terrorist incident.

Thanks to good management by police, politicians and community leaders, our worst fears were not realised. However, we should be warned. Malicious actors will have been encouraged by evidence of how easy it would be to ignite the tinder of a larger conflagration. They will be readying themselves to stoke the embers with their weapons of choice: misinformation and disinformation. How can we defend against this?

There are two aspects of soft power in its defensive form that we must deploy now to build resilience for the future. First, we must work to restore trust in our private and public institutions. Second, we need to harness the power of unifying narratives.

The first of these tasks is essential if we are to protect ourselves against the corrosive effects of misinformation and disinformation. Our current approach mostly relies on regulation and surveillance to control the worst of it.

However, a liberal democracy with a commitment to free speech will always fight with the equivalent of one hand tied behind its back. So, we need to work twice as hard; investing in the development of individuals and institutions who can be trusted to offer sound guidance at times when it really matters.

Trustworthiness needs constant effort

When natural disasters strike, we all tend to look to the ABC for critical information – even those who are concerned about the national broadcaster and its editorial stance. Trust in our public institutions should not be the exception. It needs to become the norm. This will happen only if those institutions are consistently trustworthy.

Becoming trustworthy is an acquired skill. It needs constant effort. Trustworthiness is not something that can be produced by anti-corruption commissions, by regulation or surveillance. It requires investment in a positive commitment to ethics.

As a public, we need to know that our leaders merit our trust at times when it really matters. No matter what those dedicated to sowing the seeds of dissension might tell us, no matter what conspiracy theories might be abroad, we need good reason to believe that when it comes to the crunch, our leaders have the knowledge, skills and character to be relied on. In short, we need to invest in the nation’s “ethical infrastructure”.

Second, we need to make far more of our “secular myths”. Like all such stories, their power resides in something larger than the immediate facts. They speak to something deeper – which brings me to Anzac Day. Many nations ground their identity in stories of triumph, whether it be the defeat of an armed foe or the overthrow of an illegitimate or oppressive regime. Anzac Day offers something different.

Those of us who celebrate Anzac Day not only remember the fallen. We also find meaning in a striking example of “noble failure”.

To try your best. To venture all, even if you fail. To maintain honour, even to the end. These are ideals to which anyone can aspire – even if, in reality, we so often fall short.

This ideal is not bound by religion, culture, language or heritage. About 70 First Nations people fought at Gallipoli. The Turks, who won the engagement, still honour what took place – despite the horrors of war. People of all faiths and none have found moments of inspiration in a story that does not glorify war – only the spirit of those “warriors” who try to be and to do their best, even when they fail.

Of course, this is just one narrative. How many others are out there waiting to be deployed for the common good?

We spend billions of dollars on the implements of hard power. But on Anzac Day we should remember its complement – the soft power of a shared ethos that underpins a cohesive society and safety at home.

 

This article was originally published in The Australian Financial Review.


Pleasure without justice: Why we need to reimagine the good life

We’re living through brutal and devastating times.

Apocalyptic scenes of mass bloodshed are being live-streamed to our phones by journalists who have millions of followers. Awareness of colonial brutality and conflict across the globe has permeated the minds of the Western social media generation on an unprecedented scale, as well as our government’s complicity in it. 

Yet life goes on in Australia and across the West. Every week, thousands march through the Sydney CBD to protest genocidal violence in Palestine. We gather in Hyde Park where Palestinians tell us of the destruction of their families and homes, and then we march, passing queues spilling out of high-end shops and chanting ‘while you’re shopping, bombs are dropping’. 

It feels as if I’m seeing the individualism that defines our consumer culture with fresh eyes. It’s always been there in plain sight, but suddenly I marvel at how obvious its function is, how it keeps us busy looking in the wrong direction by selling us an alluring dream. 

The difference between our everyday and theirs is hard to comprehend. Increasingly I find myself consumed by these overwhelming contradictions; grief at the hands of terror states and the need to keep living in our society of supposed positivity.

I’m questioning how much of my time and energy is wrapped up in searching for the dream-like abundance and pleasure that modern capitalism promises me, unpicking everything I thought I knew about what I wanted from life. How can you feel pleasure in the face of horror?

Consumer culture paints a vision of the good life that’s full of pleasure, relaxation and joy. Influencers sell us manicured images of sun, sea and luxury food, showing us what a free and fulfilled life looks like. But unreachable for many, we often end up seeking consolation in smaller consumer pleasures, distracting ourselves with whatever repetitive hits of relief we can find after we finish our days at work. Dreams of abundance keep people sustained in oppressive systems, searching for a sparkling life that never arrives for most of us. 

Dissatisfaction with this cycle of unfulfilling work and empty pleasure seeking has long simmered under the surface. But the lid is now off. The way meaning has been drained from our visions of the good life is brought into focus by brave journalists demanding we confront ugly truths. The daily effort to find pleasure, however small – the morning coffee, the new clothes, the office pizza parties, suddenly pale in significance to the scale and urgency of the problems that face us; the rot at the heart of our system has revealed itself. Discontent has turned to rage. Others feel it too – millions across the globe have been protesting for months on end, refusing to stay silent. 

Philosopher and writer Mark Fisher wrote about the emptiness he observed in how his students experienced pleasure. He thought that despite the abundance of instantly pleasurable activities they engaged in, there was still a widespread sense that something was missing from life. He argued that just because we have an abundance of pleasure accessible instantly, it doesn’t mean that life is actually more pleasurable. In fact, he thought the opposite was true.

Depression is usually characterized as a state of anhedonia, but the condition I’m referring to is constituted not by an inability to get pleasure so much as it is by an inability to do anything else except pursue pleasure.”

He’s not the only one to observe a widespread emotional decay brought on by the constant consumption of quick fix, disembodied pleasure. Kate Soper, in her book Post Growth Living, argues that we must dissociate pleasure and our vision of the good life from the culture of consumerism that so often promotes mindless and toxic pleasure seeking. Like Fisher, she points out how a seductive vision of comfort and abundance so often results in a sterile search for contentment that never comes. She argues that we urgently need to redefine our idea of the good life, asking us to imagine how collective life could transform if we placed care and ethics at the center of our priorities rather than consumer driven gratification.

What both of these writers pick up on is how meaning has been drained from life under Western capitalism, and how pleasure is so often used to plaster over deeply felt doom for the future. They both remind us that sustaining and rich fulfilment does not come from instant gratification. 

I think many of us intuitively see that the most pleasurable things we can do with our lives are immaterial, found in the substance of considered, caring and meaningful relationships. What’s a much bigger task is to translate this into finding the pleasure in fighting for bigger social causes. To recognise that a good life must be built on an ethics of justice.

It’s about more than just making different consumer choices, about taking a few hours to go to a march instead of shopping. It’s about finding a set of values that you believe in, and acting in accordance with them, holding yourself and others accountable to the best of your ability with the time and resources you have. Acting with political principle is hard in a society that does everything it can to tempt you into hopelessness, but there is a growing appetite for it. In the face of unthinkable violence, so many have been searching for meaning bigger than the endless cycles of work and shopping. 

We first need to recognise that if we want to build any meaningful future for ourselves, we can’t turn away from the dehumanisation of others. The good life isn’t built on collective denial of blistering injustice – burying our heads in the fake comforts of consumerism offers us a bleak future. Our own search for meaning brings us towards our interconnected struggle: Palestine and other occupied nations call for us to fight for justice – our ability to live good lives depends on that justice as well as theirs. 

bell hooks said that there can be no love without justice. I think the same can be said for pleasure. 

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Taking the cynicism out of criticism: Why media needs real critique

Increasingly, it appears that constructive criticism and cynical attacks are being conflated. And perhaps it’s nowhere more apparent or more troubling than when it comes to criticism of the news media.

In 1993, Edward Said stunned the world of cultural criticism with his revolutionary critique of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. The literary professor and avowed lover of the Western literary canon reviewed Austen in a way like never before: as a cultural artefact that reflected and embodied the British imperial ethos.  

Austen, he wrote, “synchronises domestic with international authority, making it plain that the values associated with such higher things as ordination, law, and propriety must be grounded in actual rule over and possession of territory.”  

As both a critic and a fan, Said was surprised at accusations he was discrediting Austen. Rather, he was demonstrating that even novels ostensibly about domesticity could not be separated from the politics of the time.  

Said showed that art not only can but must be both enjoyed and critiqued.  

That criticism must, in other words, be constructive. 

Said’s approach to criticism is more needed now than ever. Increasingly, it appears that constructive criticism and cynical attacks are being conflated.  

I find this nowhere more apparent or more troubling than when it comes to criticism of the news media. 

After The New York Times opened an Australian bureau several years ago, some readers and journalists complained its coverage was patronising. Such complaints, journalist and former Times contributor Christine Keneally said, indicated that locals felt it “considered itself superior to the local press”.

As I wrote at the time, grievances included needlessly explaining Australia to Australians, engaging in parachute journalism, and not employing enough local journalists.” The newspaper wasn’t doing anything that Australian journalists don’t do as a matter of routine when covering foreign places. Whether wittingly or unwittingly, English-language media often assume an air of authority as they “explain” the local culture and events to their audience back home, adopting an almost anthropological tone that has been frequently and hilariously satirised. 

The problem, then, was not the Times per se but Western approaches to journalistic “objectivity that equate their own interpretations with fact.

Consequently, the criticism centred on mocking the Times rather than interrogating the broader problem of Western journalistic processes and assumptions. This merely served to make the Times defensive and resistant to the criticism. 

It is futile to simply demand that journalists “do better” on certain issues or to single out specific publications when the problem so often comes down to Western media conventions as a whole.  

How then should we go about it? Robust public constructive criticism of the press is vital. Not least because:  

“There is everywhere a growing disillusionment about the press, a growing sense of being baffled and misled; and wise publishers will not pooh-pooh these omens.”   

This quote could easily have been written last week but comes from legendary American editor Walter Lippmann in his 1919 essay ‘Liberty and the News’. 

Lippmann urged fellow journalists not to reject criticism but use it as a means to improve. “We shall advance when we have learned humility,” he predicted hopefully. “When we have learned to seek truth, to reveal it and publish it; when we care more for that than for the privilege of arguing about ideas in a fog of uncertainty.” 

Some of this antipathy towards critique could perhaps be explained by a lack of consensus of what critique actually is. The job of a critic is often misrepresented as being merely “to criticise, telling us what is good and bad. However, the true role of a critic, explains culture writer Emily St. James, is “to pull apart the work, to delve into the marrow of it, to figure out what it is trying to say about our society and ourselves”.

Social media complicates our understanding further because of the difficulty of in reading people’s tone and intent online. Then there is also the unfortunate fact that social media is so often used deliberately as a platform to launch cynical, shaming attacks, which makes it even more challenging to distinguish criticism from cynicism. 

This can be applied to the news media as easily as it can to novels or films.  

As media scholar James W Carey observed, and as Said demonstrated in his critique of Austen, genuine criticism is not a “mark of failure or irrelevance, it is the sign of vigour and importance”.

Over many decades historians and scholars have agreed on the shape criticism should take. Namely, that criticism is an ongoing process of exchange and debate between the news media and its audience. That it should be grounded in knowledge rather than solely in emotion. That it should not be pedantic, petty, and shaming.

Media researcher Wendy Wyatt defined it simply as “the critical yet noncynical act of judging the merits of the news media”.

And as media scholar James W Carey observed and Said demonstrated with Austengenuine criticism is not a “mark of failure or irrelevance, it is the sign of vigour and importance”.

Lippmann and Wyatt advocated for criticism of the press by the press, such as a public editor or ombudsman hired by the publication solely to address readers’ concerns and complaints.  

Others including Carey argued that true criticism can come only from the outside; from academics or authors that are not on the payroll to ensure fairness, and minimises the possibility of retribution. Many journalists, they warn, have been ostracised by their peers for daring to critique their own. 

Much of the onus, then, falls to editors and publishers to open up the news media to constructive criticism, and to not “pooh-pooh” our concerns. But we, as individuals and as a society, all bear some responsibility for fostering a social climate that encourages such critique.  

If we are to demand that journalists heed our criticism, we must also enter into it in good faith. Like journalism itself, any and all criticism should also be weighed up on its merits. Our ultimate goal should not be merely to shame journalists but to transform the news media in an ongoing process of reform and improvement.

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I changed my mind about prisons

Every time the face of a criminal flashed up on the screen of our flatscreen TV, my parents would never hesitate to condemn the perpetrator, and demand the prolonged imprisonment of the thief or shoplifter.

For violent crimes, the death penalty would often come into conversation. 

My siblings and I, perched on the leather couch, would listen open-mouthed, our young minds unable to comprehend how anyone would even consider such an act. I thought to myself: anyone who went to jail was inherently evil, different to normal people. 

Yet, as I grew older and started to reach beyond the sheltered confines of our upper-middle-class home, that perspective gradually fell apart. 

I have come to realise that our prison system is dysfunctional, a warped interpretation of right and wrong. A system designed for retribution, that essentially calls an end to a person’s potential in life, is both ethically and practically malfunctioning. Intended to benefit society through rightful punishment and restorative justice, it is instead one of the largest perpetrators of discrimination and often even worsens a prisoner’s life after release. 

For instance, consider the story of Wesley Ford: a gay Whadjuk/Ballardong man, who battled with a drug addiction that fuelled 13 prison stints over two decades. He was just one of the 60% of Australian prison detainees who have been previously incarcerated. We have one of the highest recidivism rates in the world and, in a world where over half of prisoners expect to be homeless after release, and it is nearly impossible to secure employment, is that really such a surprise? 

Our sentences do not tend to be harsh enough to fully realise the power of deterrence, nor are the quality or quantity of support services anywhere near sufficient to rehabilitate offenders.

In the words of Ford, ‘There were services there, but it is such a farce, because … they are so few and far between hardly anyone can get onto them.’ 

This also promotes a cycle of crime, further disadvantaging minority groups. Despite making up only 2% of the overall population, Indigenous Australians constitute nearly 30% of prisoners. They are twice as likely to have been refused bail by police before their first court appearance. 

As for a solution, the harsher approach, employed by regimes such as Russia, is evidently unethical. Criminal behaviour must be punished, but the unnecessary imposition of prolonged sentences or even death penalties for minor offenders is closer to a violation of basic human rights, rather than the intended enforcement of justice. This is supported by various ethical frameworks, be it a utilitarian goal to preserve life, or the Christian belief in grace. Instead, especially for those who are low-risk offenders, restorative justice measures should be utilised to punish behaviour whilst also incentivising criminals to make better decisions. This approach has been proven to work, as evidenced by the Norwegian system. 

With a system of small, community facilities that focus on rehabilitation and reintegration into society, Norway’s prison system ensures that prisoners do not lose their humanity and dignity whilst incarcerated. The facilities are typically located close to the inmates’ homes, ensuring that they can maintain relationships, and the cells resemble dormitories rather than jails. Norwegian prisoners have the right to vote, receive an education, and see family. 

This approach may seem radical, but it has been incredibly successful in Norway. The Scandinavian nation has one of the lowest recidivism rates (20% within 2 years), a dramatic decrease since the 1990s (70-80%, like modern-day USA) when it had a more traditional system. Furthermore, ensuring that prisoners can live normal lives after release benefits the economy. Fewer people in prison means more capable adults available for employment, and many prisoners even leave with additional skills, leading to a 40% increase in employment rates after prison for previously unemployed inmates. 

Yet, one drawback is the higher expenses of this system. Norway spends an average of 93,000 USD per year per prisoner, which is potentially unviable for countries with larger prison populations. Such a proposal would also likely be controversial amongst voters, unhappy with their taxpayer dollars being spent on criminals. 

And might it be unethical to divert taxpayer funds to lawbreakers? To what extent does one deserve forgiveness? When does an act become unforgivable? 

The issue is extremely complex, and realistically, a slightly different setup might be necessary for each unique society. Yet, the approach is undeniably more ethical, and benefits of rehabilitation are well-documented. In Australia, a country with a low population and high recidivism rates, success is highly likely.

Through the recognition that lawbreaking does not definitively indicate moral character and that factors such as socioeconomic status, bias, and even racism can impact the likelihood of incarceration, we can begin to see prisoners as human, too.

Forgiveness is a moral imperative and this is something that our prison system should reflect. 

 

I changed my mind about prisons‘ by Sophie Yu is one of the Highly Commended essays in our Young Writers’ Competition. Find out more about the competition here.       

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'The Zone of Interest' and the lengths we'll go to ignore evil

The Zone of Interest is not really a Holocaust film. At least not in the traditional sense.

Unlike Schindler’s List, there are no scenes set in a concentration camp – no footage of gas chambers, or slaughter. And unlike The Pianist, the focus is not on suffering victims. Indeed, the victims are entirely offscreen, only present as a sort of ambient, sometimes audible, force. Our cast of characters here are a German family, living an ordinary life – or as ordinary as a life can be, when the patriarch, Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel) is the commandant of Auschwitz, which lies just over the family’s garden wall.  

The film features no literal violence whatsoever. Occasionally, we glimpse smoke from Auschwitz’s chimneys, cutting through the air; tiny touches, and the only clues that we are literally next door to the camp.  

Instead, the genre that The Zone of Interest falls into – and cunningly undermines – is the domestic drama. Strip the Holocaust context out of the film, and you have a fairly humdrum story of a man trying to keep his family and his career together; working to raise his children, and rise up the ranks of his job. Insert that context back in, and the humdrum becomes terrifying.  

Hedwig Höss (Sandra Hüller), The Zone of Interest, A24

The result is a film that tackles the question, “How did the Holocaust happen?”. It is interested in the mechanics of the slaughter – how it was enacted, and by whom. The answer lies in Höss. He has, it seems, emptied his work of all emotional context. It’s just a job to him. There are only very rare points where we see him express something like remorse – and even then, such outbursts feel uncontrolled; unconscious. In that way, The Zone of Interest has much to tell us not just about the Holocaust, but about moral responsibility, and the lengths people can go to avoid it. 

Empathy and obligation

Höss has become so inured to his work – so horrifyingly, disturbingly used to it – that he acts like it has no moral quality at all. He seems to have no feelings, no empathy, and more than that, no knowledge that he even should have empathy.  

This dispassionate quality is a common basis of those who avoid moral responsibility. When we do not emotionally feel the pain of others, through empathy, we will not have any motivation to avoid inflicting that pain. This is the heart of moral sentimentalism. If we are emotionally blind to suffering – even if we are aware that it is happening – we will not be compelled to act to stop it. Simply put, without emotions and empathy, our moral obligations lose their force. 

Indeed, Höss’s lack of moral emotions makes him the successful endpoint of the Nazi propaganda machine. This machine worked hard to try and target the emotions of Nazi guards, and in the process neuter natural sympathetic responses. Most notably, Nazi propaganda dehumanised the Jewish population, painting Jews as fundamentally different from human beings. The comics writer Art Spiegelman attributes the following quote to Hitler, which sums up the position: “The Jews are undoubtedly a race, but they are not human.” 

In this way, Nazi propaganda worked on “perceived similarity.” See, psychological studies suggest that empathy fires when we witness something that feels similar to our own experiences. We have to recognise the pain of others as meaningfully like our own in order to be sympathetic to it. This is why we don’t like seeing animals like dogs in pain – we anthropomorphise them, and see their suffering as “human”. It is also while most of us will not flinch at the torment of a bug. We think of dogs as like us, and bugs as not. The outward signs of a daddy longlegs in distress seem alien enough to us – different enough from our own – that our natural empathy is not triggered. 

For Nazis like Höss, Jewish people were perceived as so alien – so dissimilar from other human beings – that the suffering of Jewish people came with no associated moral obligation. This is what we see in The Zone of Interest. Höss knows he is sending Jewish people to their deaths – how could he not? It is happening right next door – but he feels nothing about this murder. Höss is not maintaining a literal distance from the horror he is enacting, but he is maintaining an emotional distance, and this is what allows him to do what he does. 

Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel), The Zone of Interest, A24

A reminder of what we share

This focus on emotional distance is what makes The Zone of Interest so timely – what expands its reach beyond the Holocaust.

We are all occasionally guilty of seeing those who suffer as being “different from us”; their pain as alien, or foreign. Those in warzones; refugees; victims of famine in the Third World – we can all see these people as being divorced from our regular life, emotionally different from us, and as a result, we can unconsciously discharge our obligation to them.

The antidote to this disaffection – to the emotional coolness that can stop us from helping when we need to – is reminding ourselves of what we share with others. It is about tapping into our essential humanity. The philosopher David Hume put this essential humanity simply – he believed as human beings, we all have an aversion to pain, and an attraction to pleasure. If we remember that, and keep in mind that all human beings want to live pain-free lives, then we will see the suffering of others as a great transgression, and will work harder to help when we can.  

Indeed, this is the strange optimism buried at the heart of The Zone of Interest. The film suggests, very subtly, that we have a natural connection to those around us; that this shared wellspring of humanity can never be entirely vanquished.  

Even Höss, who has worked so hard to completely distance himself from the suffering he is directly inflicting, is unable to escape his natural sense of empathy – in a key moment of the film, he has a kind of physical breakdown, suddenly overcome by all that he has tried not to see. There, in that scene, is buried a form of hope: even against all odds, sometimes, human connection survives. Because human feeling survives. And that is where our moral responsibility lives. 

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Why sometimes the right thing to do is nothing at all

How a 1990s science-fiction show reminds us that just because we can do something, it doesn’t always mean we should.

Captain Jean-Luc Picard commands the USS Enterprise-D, a 600-metre-long starship that runs on antimatter, giving it virtually unlimited energy, and wielding weapons of devastating power.  

In its journeys across the stars, depicted in Star Trek: The Next Generation, the crew of the Enterprise-D is often forced to draw on all its resources to overcome tremendous challenges. But that’s not what the show is really about.  

Star Trek: The Next Generation

If there’s one theme that pervades this iteration of Star Trek, it’s not how Picard and his crew use their prodigious power to get their way, it’s how their actions are more often defined by what they choose not to do. Countless times across the 176 episodes of the show, they’re faced with an opportunity to exert their power in a way that benefits them or their allies, but they choose to forgo that opportunity for principled reasons. Star Trek: The Next Generation is a rare and vivid depiction of the principle of ethical restraint.  

Consider the episode, ‘Measure of a Man’, which sees Picard defy his superiors’ order to dismantle his unique – and uniquely powerful – android second officer, Data. Picard argues that Data deserves full personhood, despite his being a machine. This is even though dismantling Data could lead to the production of countless more androids, dramatically amplifying the power of the Federation.  

Data, Star Trek: The Next Generation

One of the paradigmatic features of The Next Generation is its principle called the Prime Directive, which forbids the Federation from interfering with the cultural development of other planets. While the Prime Directive is often used as a plot device to introduce complications and moral quandaries – and is frequently bent or broken – its very existence speaks to the importance of ethical restraint. Instead of assuming the Federation’s wisdom and technology are fit for all, or using its influence to curry favour or extract resources from other worlds, it refuses to be the arbiter of what is right across the galaxy.  

This is an even deeper form of ethical restraint that speaks to the liberalism of Gene Roddenberry, Star Trek’s creator. The Federation not only guides its hand according to its own principles, but it also refuses to impose its principles on other societies, sometimes holding back from doing what it thinks is right out of respect for difference.  

The 1990s was another world

There’s a reason that restraint emerged as a theme of Star Trek: The Next Generation. It was the product of 1990s America, which turned out to be a unique moment in that country’s history. The United States was a nation at the zenith of its power in a world that was newly unipolar since the collapse of the Soviet Union.  

It was an optimistic time, one that looked forward to an increasingly interconnected globalised world, where cultures could intermix in the “global village,” with its peace guarded by a benevolent superpower and its liberal vision. At least, that was the narrative cultivated within the US. 

In a time where the US was unchallenged, moral imagination turned to what limits it ought to impose on itself. And Star Trek did what science fiction does best: it explored the moral themes of the day by putting them to the test in the fantasy of the future. 

Today’s world is different. It’s now multipolar, with the rise of China and belligerence of Russia coinciding with the erosion of America’s power, political integrity and moral authority. The global outlook is more pessimistic, with the shadow of climate change and the persistence of inequality causing many to give up hope for a better future. Meanwhile, globalisation and liberalism have retreated in the face of parochialism and authoritarianism. 

When we see the future as bleak and feel surrounded by threats, ethical restraint seems like a luxury we cannot afford. Instead, the moral question becomes about how far we can go in order to guard what is precious to us and to keep our heads above literally rising waters. 

The power not to act

Yet ethical restraint remains an important virtue. It’s time for us to bring it back into our ethical vocabulary.  

For a start, we can change the narrative that frames how we see the world. Sure, the world is not as it was in the 1990s, but it’s not as bleak as many of us might feel. We can be prone to focusing on the negatives and filling uncertainties with our greatest fears. But that can distort our sense of reality. Instead, we should focus on those domains where we actually have power, as do many people living in wealthy developed countries like Australia. 

And we should use our power to help lift others out of despair, so they’re not in a position where ethical restraint is too expensive a luxury. Material and social wealth ultimately make ethics more affordable.

Just as importantly, restraint needs to become part of the vocabulary of those in positions of power, whether that be in business, community or politics.

Leaders need to implicitly understand the crucial distinction between ought and can: just because they can do something, it doesn’t mean they should.

This is not just a matter of greater regulation. For a start, laws are written by those in power, so they need to exercise restraint in their creation. Secondly, regulation often sets a minimum floor of acceptable behaviour rather than setting bar for what the community really deserves. It also requires ethical literacy and conviction to act responsibly within the bounds of what is legally permitted, not just a tick from a compliance team.  

If you have power, whether you lead a starship, a business or a nation, then the greater the power you wield, the greater the responsibility to have to wield it ethically, and sometimes that means choosing not to wield it at all. 

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