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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE and HUMANITY ENHANCED.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Fair Work Australia decision re Qantas case ... and some comments on keeping a sense of perspective

Those people who are interested in the Qantas case, which looked like stranding me and many other people, could do a lot worse than reading the actual decision by Fair Work Australia (what was once known as the Australian Industrial Relations Commission). The attachment to the decision, which sets out a timeline of events, is especially useful.

As some of you know advocacy before this tribunal (or, rather, its predecessors) made up my bread and butter work for many years, and I was at one point a fairly prominent specialist in this area of law. If some things had gone differently, maybe I'd now be a member of the tribunal, with all the attendant headaches. Although I'm out of touch with the details of current Australian labour law - a very volatile and politicised area of the law - I retain a certain interest in it that goes beyond my personal interest in getting home from the US over the next couple of days.

I've seen a great deal of uninformed speculation about this case, with many people expressing pet theories that seem to have little basis in reality. As far as I can see, both the unions and the employer have simply followed the logic of the legal system as it now works in Australia, and neither is terribly culpable - much as I am not especially happy with the scare I received this week, and much as I can imagine that passengers who found themselves actually stranded in airports at the last minute must have been furious.

From here, it looks as if Qantas made a calculated gamble that an extreme move - grounding the fleet and locking out employees who were taking industrial action - would force the hands of the government and the tribunal, and lead to a rapid termination of all industrial action. That gamble has evidently paid off.

While it is a bad look for the CEO of Qantas to ground the fleet, even for a couple of days, and to take a monstrous personal pay rise during the period of an industrial dispute, his move a couple of days ago will very likely turn out to have been a smart one, possibly the best available to him in the circumstances. In the short term, at least, shareholders will probably be happy with him.

It looks as if this case could be headed for compulsory arbitration proceedings(that's if it can't be resolved by negotiations in the next few weeks).

More generally, I repeat that this is the logic of the system. The system encourages tests of industrial muscle, and there is little that an employer can do in such a tussle apart the nuclear option of locking out staff. As long as we want an enterprise-level bargaining system based around tests of relative industrial muscle between unions and particular corporations, this kind of thing will happen now and then. Such a system supposedly has micro-economic benefits in matching wages to profitability across the economy.

Of course, similar large-scale disputes and disruptions also happened under the old system of industry awards and compulsory arbitration that was traditional in decades in Australia. The only difference was that strikes and lockouts were technically unlawful under that system. They happened anyway, and I seriously doubt that any less days of work were lost. On the contrary, such episodes of disruption are probably rarer these days than in previous decades.

Some people are calling for the nationalisation of Qantas, but this dispute really has nothing to do with that. Government-owned enterprises can experience similar disruption, as has happened many times in the past, including in disputes that I was personally involved in during the 1980s, when I was a young man carving out my reputation as an industrial advocate employed by the Commonwealth government.

All in all, these sorts of disputes are unpleasant, decisions made in them can be nasty and sometimes foolish (as with the mass resignation of aircraft pilots across the industry in the celebrated 1989 pilots' disputes), and can disrupt the plans of ordinary people. The system does, however, have a certain logic, and in the case the parties have played it out. I can't see that either the trade unions or the Qantas management have actually done anything especially reprehensible here, or how they could have acted all that differently with the system currently in place.

In short, a bit of perspective is required here before we start seeing the dispute in class-warfare terms and condemning either greedy unions or evil corporate management. You get the system that is voted for, and you get the results that the system encourages. Moreover, no system can guarantee a society without industrial disruption; the point is to try to contain and manage it within broadly acceptable boundaries. That's pretty much what's happened here.

Latest news - it looks like I'll be flying home tomorrow night after all...

Voila!

Sunday, October 30, 2011

World Fantasy Convention

Yesterday's panel on villains and their motivations, starring Len Wein, Kay Kenyon, John Fultz, F. Paul Wilson (moderator), and myself, seemed to go well. Up on the panel, we were all pleased afterwards: it felt like we'd had a useful discussion and left the audience wanting more. Audience feedback was uniformly good afterwards, and it was a pleasure meeting my fellow panelists.

For a combination of reasons I haven't been getting to much of the program, though I can report that the "in conversation" item with convention guests Neil Gaiman and Connie Willis was delightful - both are very engaging personalities. The mass autograph signing last night was lots of fun, as these things always are, with a large number of authors all in one room and a strong feeling of the almost familial relationship among authors.

I spent a fair bit of time at the party afterwards talking to James Bradley, Gregory Benford, and literary agent Cherry Weiner. Great to see you guys. Have also been glad to catch up with many other friends whom I don't see often enough. Once again, I'm running late this morning in getting along to the program items, but never mind ... I'm sure it'll be a good day.

The big question is whether I'll be able to fly home on Monday, given the industrial action affecting Qantas (which is currently totally grounded ) ... but I guess I'll have to deal with that problem when I get to it.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Encyclopedia of Science Fiction now online

You can find a beta text of The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (third edition) online. This is, of course, an indispensable reference work. Unfortunately, many entries have not yet been updated from the 1993 second print edition. Still ... it's good that this resource is now widely and freely available.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Chrys Stevenson on Doctors in Conscience

Chrys Stevenson really nails it here.

Now, there's a lot more to say about this issue of conscientious objection in health care, and it won't surprise you to be told that I say a fair bit of it in Freedom of Religion and the Secular State.

But meanwhile, the idea that there is substantial support on a worldly basis for doctors being able to opt out of emergency abortions looks like a myth. Once you remove otherworldly considerations and esoteric moral theories that are deeply entangled with religion, you don't have much basis to object to abortions, much less to emergency abortions. It's not surprising that so many of these doctors turn out to be deeply religious, though it's surprising that so many don't own up to it freely and candidly.

I need this book

Gratefully received if one comes my way as a review copy or a pressie (Speech Matters by Katherine Gelber). Publishers take note - I'd happily review a book on this or similar subjects.

A plug for the Freethought University Alliance

Check out their site and their impressive list of affiliated speakers.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Ah iz in San Diego, California

Now I await the adventures mentioned in the previous post. My only problem at the moment is adapting to a new time zone - the flight and the transfers went very smoothly.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Okay, off to San Diego

Who knows what adventures await at the World Fantasy Convention?

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Kenan Malik on stem cell research

Kenan Malik weighs in on the atrocious outcome in the European case.

Sunday supervillainy a bit early - "The Black Cat"

The cruel and murderous narrator of Edgar Allen Poe's "The Black Cat" says:
In the meantime the cat slowly recovered. The socket of the lost eye presented, it is true, a frightful appearance, but he no longer appeared to suffer any pain. He went about the house as usual, but, as might be expected, fled in extreme terror at my approach. I had so much of my old heart left, as to be at first grieved by this evident dislike on the part of a creature which had once so loved me. But this feeling soon gave place to irritation. And then came, as if to my final and irrevocable overthrow, the spirit of PERVERSENESS. Of this spirit philosophy takes no account. Yet I am not more sure that my soul lives, than I am that perverseness is one of the primitive impulses of the human heart - one of the indivisible primary faculties, or sentiments, which give direction to the character of Man. Who has not, a hundred times, found himself committing a vile or a silly action, for no other reason than because he knows he should not? Have we not a perpetual inclination, in the teeth of our best judgment, to violate that which is Law , merely because we understand it to be such? This spirit of perverseness, I say, came to my final overthrow. It was this unfathomable longing of the soul to vex itself - to offer violence to its own nature - to do wrong for the wrong's sake only - that urged me to continue and finally to consummate the injury I had inflicted upon the unoffending brute. One morning, in cool blood, I slipped a noose about its neck and hung it to the limb of a tree; - hung it with the tears streaming from my eyes, and with the bitterest remorse at my heart; - hung it because I knew that it had loved me, and because I felt it had given me no reason of offence; - hung it because I knew that in so doing I was committing a sin - a deadly sin that would so jeopardize my immortal soul as to place it - if such a thing were possible - even beyond the reach of the infinite mercy of the Most Merciful and Most Terrible God.
This is villainy of an extraordinary kind. The narrator is not superpowered, but the villainy is of a superlative level. It seems that he acts in horrible ways precisely because he recognises them as evil.

He is not rejecting some familiar moral standard and embracing an alternative, as Milton's Satan arguably does ("Evil, be thou my good"). Nor does he disregard standards of good and evil, perhaps simply not being motivated by them, but only by such things as ambition or greed. He does not regard such standards as merely conventional - as, perhaps, psychopaths do. He goes further in seemingly accepting these standards as absolute, binding, and horribly consequential, but he violates them for the sake of doing so, or so some of his statements appear to say.

It is difficult to think of other characters in literary or popular narratives with that kind of motivation, at least spelled out explicitly in this way. Again, the narrator of "The Black Cat" is not merely evil, or malevolent, or disposed to act in ways that are inimical to the interests of other sentient living things. He even seems to go beyond psychopathy. There is something more pure about this kind of evil.

Does anyone else in the ocean of literary narrative act like this - or so clearly? Probably not Shakespeare's Iago, generally thought of as one of the most horrible characters in our literary heritage. Iago's evil acts, which produce the catastrophic events of Othello, are given various weirdly confused and inadequate motivations, making him seem oddly motiveless as he wreaks destruction on people's lives, but he does not perform acts that he, himself, regards as evil ... and because he regards them as evil. Or anyway, so it seems to me.

Richard Joyce points to certain characters depicted by de Sade, to Shakespeare's Aaron from Titus Andronicus, and, yes, to the narrator of "The Black Cat". Perhaps we can think of others from fantasy fiction in particular. I'd be interested in suggestions, but bear in mind the very high hurdle that has to be surmounted. The character's actions must not only be evil by our standards, or by some standard believed to be objective, or in accordance with some concept of evil as equivalent to, say, psychopathy, sadism, callousness, fanaticism, or malevolence. We are looking for characters who perform evil acts that they themselves regard as evil in an absolute sense, and perform them precisely because they regard the acts as evil in that sense.

Poe, Shakespeare, de Sade, and perhaps other authors seem to think that this kind of psychology is possible and even recognisable. People can be driven to act wickedly even by their own fully-endorsed standards of what is wicked. Poe's narrator appeals to us to recognise this kind of motivation, almost as if Poe thinks it a familiar phenomenon.

But is this picture coherent? I can see why we might be tempted to attribute such an extreme psychology to someone we regard as evil, perhaps a psychopath who does terribly cruel things that he himself will (if asked) report to be morally wrong. But I think that if we do so in such a case we take a step beyond what is justified on the facts. Very likely the psychopath does not feel absolutely bound by standards of right and wrong, and does not differentiate any such standards from mere social conventions. He (most psychopaths are male) may take pleasure in ideas of destruction and suffering, and also in the idea of subverting or transgressing the socially accepted rules. But that's a different point.

The narrator of "The Black Cat" seems to go one step further into evil, and I'm not sure that this step is possible ... or that what I've described (assume for the sake of argument that it is faithful to what Poe presents to us) is actually coherent. What do you think?

Julian Savulescu on that patents case

Julian Savulescu has a good crack at it here.

I'm still planning to have a go at the decision myself, because I think that there are some strictly legal issues that are not getting much discussion so far. But commentators such as Savulescu are right to protest the inappropriate imposition, via law, of a highly contestable moral viewpoint.

One irony of all this has not escaped me: in this case, we are seeing an irrationalist, quasi-religious morality being imposed through law by the supposedly secular nations of Europe rather than by the more religious US.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Attending World Fantasy Convention 2011

I'm off to the 2011 World Fantasy Convention in San Diego next weekend (flying out in a couple of days). The convention program has just been announced on the site, and it places me on a panel with John Fultz, Kay Kenyon, Len Wein, and F. Paul Wilson on the subject: But I'm The Hero! The Justifications for Villainy. I'll be thinking of good justifications for my villainous ways over the next week:
Sure, you get the occasional hand-rubbing, cackling, “I’m so evil” villain, but, particularly in real life, most villains don’t see themselves in that role. Even Snidely Whiplash had a mother who loved him. What are the reasons and reasoning of people and characters for doing villainous things?
My fellow panelists are a high-powered bunch (if you don't know all their names, just click on the links), I'll look forward to learning something from them all. Meanwhile Jenny has a panel with an equally high-powered group of people on a subject relating to scary fairies in folklore, myth, and literature:
The fairies of folklore were no Tinkerbells. They lured humans to their realm for their own reasons, not to help. Cold iron was prescribed as a protection against them. A discussion of faeries as figures of fear, not wonder, in myth and literature.
And I see many other friends on panels or giving readings, scattered throughout the program. I'm looking forward to catching up with my pals and colleagues, meeting interesting people, and generally (I hope) having some fun. Come along to the panel if you're at the convention - it'll be a blast.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Why I do not belong to or support Greenpeace

The case that I referred to in my previous post gives a good example of why I do not belong to Greenpeace or support it as an organisation. I did belong to Greenpeace for a time, but I left it because I do not support its approach.

According to the report, the case against awarding a patent to convert embryonic stem cells into nerve cells was brought by Greenpeace. I have to ask, What the hell does this issue have to do with Greenpeace? Converting embryonic stem cells to nerve cells is not analogous to pumping dangerous chemicals into the environment or hunting endangered species to extinction or destroying forests.

This sort of litigation is not what I would want from an environmental group. Of course, the members of the group, or their Board, or other appropriate people in the organisation, get to decide what it stands for. I can't control that. But if it stands for opposition to embryonic stem cell research, based on whatever philosophy it thinks it's pursuing, I want no part of it.

European Court of Justice outlaws "immoral" patents

I'd like to read the full judgment in this case before I pontificate too much about it.

From what has been reported it is a stupid outcome and one that should be protested in any way possible. Courts should not be making their decisions based on what they regard as "immoral". They are there to apply legal norms, which may have their sources in statutes, in customs that have traditionally been recognised by the courts, or elsewhere, but not in contested moral claims.

In some cases, legal norms will resemble core moral norms, which is understandable as both serve similar functions. So it's not surprising that murder is condemned both morally and legally. But the courts should not be giving the force of law to one of the many moral positions that are open for people to take in modern pluralist societies, and statutes should not encourage them to engage in that sort of inquiry.

On the face of it, this looks like a bleak day for the progress of medicine, but also for liberalism and social pluralism.

(None of which is to get into issues about whether some sorts of things should be unpatentable on other grounds, such as being products of nature rather than human inventions. That's a separate argument.)

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Laura Hudson on sex in superhero comics


You might think that I'd disagree with this post by Laura Hudson, which has been getting a lot of attention ... at least if I've managed to convey only a simplistic version of where I stand on issues of sexual politics and the portrayal of sexuality in popular culture.

In fact, I agree with about 95 per cent of what Hudson has to say. There are things that I could quibble with around the edges, as to which more later, and as happens with almost anything I read ... but in essence I agree with Hudson's post. And like Hudson, I take this view not because I'm opposed to sexual display, or to the human body, sexual openness, critiques of monogamy, or anything related, but largely because I'm all in favour of those things.

Here are some quick points. First, the material that Hudson is objecting to may not be technically pornographic - that will depend on your definition of pornography, but, for example the material does not show any culturally taboo body parts (i.e. genitals and female nipples). That is not the point of the complaint. I've increasingly to come to think that the category of pornography isn't much use in these debates. Where the word "pornography" is used, care should be taken in defining what it means for the purpose of the discussion.

Second, Hudson is not asking that anything be banned, and nor is she making grandiose, poorly researched claims about the harm that something-or-other supposedly causes. She is writing as critic rather than as a pseudo-scientist. If she were making stronger claims, I might be arguing against her.

Instead, she's doing her apparent best to explain aesthetic reactions and to put arguments as to why you and I should or might share them. This is important, because we need to distinguish between the claim that something should be banned, the claim that something should be the object of serious social rejection that falls short of legal prohibition (seen, perhaps, as a serious moral wrong), and the numerous kinds of more local and nuanced claims that can be made about the merits of works of art or other examples of individual or collective expression.

Third, once you enter in the proper spirit into discussing those more local and nuanced claims, you thereby allow some room for sensitive and principled disagreement. I believe that Hudson does this. Judging this becomes difficult, because it's impossible to justify every premise all the way down, and Hudson certainly has not done so. At some point, you have to offer your individual, potentially idiosyncratic, responses, letting others take them or leave them. You hope that any personal responses that underlie your claims and concerns will be widely shared, but there is never a guarantee of this available. If you're honest, you write on that basis.

Hudson has done so, I think: she does not overreach, but relies on her ability to respond and comment sensitively, and to convey her responses to others.

I share her response to, for example, the pic displayed above. Notice how the DC heroine Starfire does not seem to be posed in that pic (perhaps unlike some of the others) to entice the guy she's trying to seduce. Rather, she is turned into a sexy object for the gaze of the presumably male, heterosexual reader (which tends to suggest that other kinds of readers are not welcome).

Is that necessarily a bad thing? Well, not necessarily. After all, this is a fictional character - there is no real person to be hurt through her transactions with DC comics. Even if this were a photograph of a real woman, I would not necessarily protest in any very serious way - it would be her decision to pose in that manner, and I'd be wary of wild statements alleging that it does some kind of harm, either directly or indirectly. Such statements are difficult to prove, and they may often be false.

And yet, and yet, that doesn't mean that I have to agree with the message(s) sent out by such images in context, or that I must be happy to see the message(s) sent out in a superhero comic largely aimed at children. No artwork is beyond critique, even if the interference of the law is entirely inappropriate. Bring on some smart critique.

Again, note I am not insisting that children receive only such messages as I personally approve of. I am in no way suggesting that the image be hidden or censored. But I can still worry about or disagree with its message. There is no paradox here.

Part of the difficulty, as Hudson acknowledges, is that any specific case may not be clear cut. In each specific case we have to look at the full context, including the reality that we are dealing with a medium where all messages are tentative, subject to new perspectives as further issues of serial narrative publications reinterpret (and sometimes outright erase) past issues.

Nonetheless, there can be a cumulative effect. True, no number of entirely bad arguments add up to a good argument. But an accumulation of worrying cases, any one of which just might be justified individually (and so we should not be too quick to attack individuals), can still add up to an undesirable social trend.

The trend is not merely to present an image of women as disempowered, passive objects of male desire. In fact, do the Starfire images do that at all? It's probably nothing so simple. Anyway, at least within my view of the world, there is nothing wrong with being the object of someone's desire in the grammatical sense of "X desires Y." There is nothing wrong, furthermore, with desiring to be desired, or in fulfilling the desire to be desired. As Hudson herself points out, it is difficult to nail down just what is wrong with the images that she deplores.

Part of the problem, surely, is that all (?) the choices being made in the relevant narrative are presenting Starfire not just as a woman who wants to be desired, which is fine, or even as a woman who wants to experience sexual pleasure with many men, each different from the others - that's also fine as far as I'm concerned. Women are just as entitled to think that way as men.

Part of the problem, as it seems to me, is that she is presented as someone who becomes little more than an opportunity for the male characters, with whom the reader is encouraged to identify, and for the implicitly male audience. This does not give legitimacy to her experiences and values, but merely demeans her and them. That's not a pro-sex, or sexually open, or healthy, message to pass on to the next generation.

Could the same story be told in a way that makes us understand Starfire's mentality as a (rather extreme) polyamorist, somehow conveying the value that she finds in having sex with many different men ... each occasion a different and valued experience for her? I don't see why not. I'd have nothing against that story at all. Indeed, I'd probably applaud the story and its message. My concern is not based on prudishness or on commitment to some traditional set of values or moral norms based on, say, a valorisation of heterosexual monogamy.

When we dig into sexual politics expressed by our high and popular cultures, we will have to defend, and at times honestly abandon, some fairly contestable interpretations of what is going on. We sometimes need to back our judgments - to have some faith in ourselves - but we also need to avoid dogmatism or arrogance of the kind that simply dismisses interlocutors as not "getting it" (if others "don't get it", that may mean that there is nothing to "get" ... or it may mean that we should try harder to help them). A certain amount of charity in interpretation has much to commend it.

I think, though, that Hudson has provided us with a good example of what is involved in talking sensitively, locally, modestly, about these difficult issues ... but also clearly and effectively. She's had a lot of publicity for the piece that I've referred to, but she's thoroughly earned it to date.

Libel suit against Richard Dawkins

I don't know anything about this beyond what is reported by Jack of Kent. It will be interesting to see what follows.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The other side of the porn debate

Thanks to Leslie Cannold for providing this abridged piece by Ronald Weitzer. I can confirm that I've read the entirety of Weitzer piece and it has not been quoted out of context.

I don't claim to be an expert on the sociology or the varieties of pornography, but when accusations of dealing in pornography get thrown around at the drop of a hat, as happened with the Bill Henson debate, among many others, some scepticism about the never-ending attacks on erotica and related forms of expression is only healthy. Cannold is doing a great job of holding anti-porn activists' feet to the fire. The fashionable but empty ravings of Gail Dines and her ilk need to be tested against rigorous intellectual standards as much as anything else.

Sample:

In a unique survey of 688 Danish women and men aged 18-30, men reported significantly more positive effects of porn consumption
than women, but few women and men reported negative effects. Most perceived positive effects on their sex lives, attitudes toward sex, sexual knowledge, and the overall quality of their lives. Moreover, for both men and women, the higher amount of pornography consumed, the greater the perceived positive effects of exposure to porn (Hald & Malamuth, 2008). If these self-perceptions are valid, the researchers suggest that “pornography’s impact is relatively positive and that media and popular books’ reports of highly negative effects on consumers are exaggerated or unfounded” (Hald & Malamuth, 2008, p. 622).

Which is not to say that I am in favour of all aspects of the sexualisation of culture. There's a lot to be said about the various nuances (in other posts, no doubt).

On the gripping hand, if you don't like some aspect of modern culture you can write about why, as sensitively as you are able, rather than making wild accusations about it or its effects. More on that later, no doubt (in those other posts). But in any event, we need people like Cannold and Weitzer to provide a rational perspective.

How not to defend freedom of speech

Miranda Devine may have a legitimate point or two here somewhere. First of all, no one should be intimidated with death threats, harassment, and acts of actual violence (against people or property). It doesn't matter where these come from, they are completely unacceptable in an ordered society. So they should not be used in an attempt to silence anti-gay bigots. Anti-gay bigots should be able to go about their lives peacefully like anyone else who has not actually broken the law.

So far, so good.

Conversely, pace Devine, the rest of us should be free to call them anti-gay bigots ... which is basically what they are. I don't see why we should censor ourselves when confronted by speech or other expression that amounts to anti-gay bigotry.

Devine may have another legitimate point, but it gets hidden among all of her emotive ramblings. The point is simply that most anti-gay, bigoted speech should be legal. I say "most" because we can draw some lines. I have no problem with it being illegal to get on the radio and say, "Gays are vermin, go out and exterminate them." There are some kinds of extreme hate speech that should not be tolerated in an ordered society.

But it should not be illegal to argue against recognising same-sex marriages, or to claim that homosexual acts are sinful, or to advocate the reintroduction of sodomy statutes. If you do any of that, I may consider you an anti-gay bigot, and I'll certainly argue against your position, but I don't want the law to shut you up.

So I'd agree with Devine if she confined herself to arguing for the repeal of any statutory provisions - if such exist - that tend to suppress these kinds of speech. Unfortunately (for her case), she doesn't identify any section of any Act or regulation that has that effect. She complains that, "Opponents of same-sex marriage are being dragged before anti-discrimination tribunals with complaints that are, at times, withdrawn at the 11th hour." However, she gives only one example:
Toowoomba physician David van Gend is their latest target, forced to attend a compulsory mediation on Thursday by the Anti-Discrimination Commission Queensland over an article he wrote for Brisbane’s Courier Mail in June.
She discusses the example in such a one-sided and general way that it is difficult to tell what actually happened. What was the wording of the statute under which van Gend was pursued? What did the article in The Courier Mail actually say?

Without a lot more facts, I can't tell whether the relevant legislation really is in a form that should be amended on free speech grounds - possibly not, since the case was not pursued. Perhaps the claim was frivolous; it's hard to tell from the little that Devine offers us about it. Perhaps Devine is correct that there are other such cases, but you have to be suspicious when she gives only one example.

I don't think that we should be using anti-discrimination legislation to pursue people merely for things that they say ... not unless there is some extreme circumstance ("Let's go out and exterminate the Canaanites!") or some defamation of particular individuals. Provisions that intrude on freedom of speech need to be cast in narrow terms, and tribunals should be quick to throw out frivolous or clearly unmeritorious applications.

Devine might have a point, but she writes in a way that makes it hard to analyse the real situation and decide one way or the other.

As with Andrew Bolt, I'd feel more sympathy for Devine's position if she were more consistent about defending freedom of speech and expression. Where was she, after all, when Bill Henson's artistic freedom came under attack not so long ago? Answer: she was there baying for his blood just like her mate, Mr Bolt. Devine is an implausible free speech advocate.

Still, we need to look at the underlying merits of an issue rather than just being put off by unpleasant people. If Devine can show that certain statutes are worded and interpreted in such a way as to chill freedom of speech in certain areas - including the speech of anti-gay bigots - then fine. I'll support what she's saying. But she's got to do better than this.

Currently reading - The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket by Edgar Allan Poe

I don't think I'd ever read the entirety of The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym until now. I thought I had, but having "re-read" I now suspect that what I originally read three decades ago was just a long extract in a supposedly "Complete" Writings of Edgar Allan Poe ... or something like that.

Anyway, I was surprised by the verisimilitude of the narrative, which is not what I associated with Poe (having read all, I think, of his shorter fiction). It reminds me of some of Arthur C. Clarke's writing, for example, with its piling up of factual information to evoke a very solid-seeming image of the real world, which is then taken just an increment or two into the unknown (in this case as the characters move toward the then-unexplored South Pole), with no real change in style or in the level of detail. The descriptions of the unknown seem continuous with those of what is known (but outside the experience of most readers).

Poe is, I think, pioneering a hard science fiction technique.

I wonder how much direct influence this work had on any science fiction writers of the following century and the current century. We do know that Poe had a lot of indirect influence on what came later in SF (e.g. via Jules Verne), and his shorter work has doubtless had a huge influence on fantasy and horror writers in particular. But how many recent writers of SF have actually analysed or just picked up on what he does here, I wonder.

There's probably been some research done on this, but if so I'm not familiar with it.

Monday, October 17, 2011

More from Legal Eagle on the Bolt case

This is an excellent post fom Legal Eagle, and should be consulted and pondered.

Where is this passage from?

I'm going to change a few words here and there to disguise it, etc. But let's see what you think. Someone will recognise it, for sure, despite the changes.

I suppose:
A sullen darkness now surrounded us - but from out the milky depths of the galaxy a luminous glare arose, and stole along the sleek metal loins of our space craft. We were nearly overwhelmed by the brilliant shower that settled upon us and the ship, but melted into the vacuum as it fell. The source of the cataract was utterly lost in the darkness and the distance. Yet we were evidently approaching it with a hideous velocity. At intervals there were visible in it wide, yawning, but momentary rents, and from out these rents, within which was a chaos of flitting and indistinct images, there came the rushing, mighty, soundless winds of space, tearing through stars and planets in their course.
Don't look it up or google for it. Who is the author?

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Steve Zara on William Lane Craig and debating technique

An interesting - and I think cogent - observation by Steve Zara over here.

Quote:
An example is when he raises the issue of morality in debates about the existence of God. Craig says that without God there can be no objective morality. Now, even if you believe in objective morality, this is clearly nonsense, but it can some explaining. If a full explanation can't given in a few minutes, this leaves Craig's opponent looking like they are in defence of baby-killing and all kinds of horrors because Craig then comes across as someone who has moral standards!
I do think that a problem with these sorts of debates is that it is possible to make emotionally appealing pro-religion arguments very quickly, whereas unpicking what is wrong with them takes much more time.

Not that all theistic debaters are tactically astute to this, but Craig undoubtedly is.

Friday, October 14, 2011

GetUp on refugee policy

Dear Russell,

Last night the Government announced at long last that it will begin processing asylum seekers who arrive by boat on Australian soil. Sadly, it did so because it was backed into a corner and could not get the support in Parliament it needed to amend the Migration Act.

Despite this, a number of the changes announced are welcome including faster processing of asylum seekers and community placement during processing for those arriving by boat - the same successful measures in place for years for those who arrive by plane. What's missing is an increase in the humanitarian intake.

Currently Australia accepts 13,750 refugees each year, but by roughly doubling the intake to 25,000 annually we could reduce the number of boats, while providing greater protection to those in need.

Click here to help make it happen: http://www.getup.org.au/sensible-solution

Current Government policy has actually created a pull factor because once an asylum seeker arrives in Malaysia or Indonesia from countries like Afghanistan and Iraq they discover there is no "queue." According to UNHCR, there are currently more than 90,000 refugees and asylum seekers in Malaysia. Yet between July 2009 and February 2011 only 518 visas were granted to people waiting in Malaysia and all of them went to Burmese nationals, leaving many people with no choice but to risk their lives on a boat to Australia.

If Australia is to slow the number of boats arriving on our shores we need to increase our refugee intake, target that intake within the region and step up diplomatic engagement with our neighbours to do all that we can to stop people risking their lives on the dangerous boat journey to Australia.

As the Government moves to onshore processing, let's make sure they know they have our support, but that we must also increase our humanitarian intake.

Click here to email your Labor MP: http://www.getup.org.au/sensible-solution

Incredibly, despite the encouraging steps announced yesterday, the Prime Minister says that her party remains committed to the Malaysian solution when it's been shown to be sorely lacking in human rights and legally suspect.

The Gillard Government must now develop a multilateral, regional cooperation framework that ensures adequate protection and timely assessment of refugee claims. Only by accepting greater numbers of refugees will we undermine the people smugglers who seek to profit from persecuted people.

Send your Labor MP a message: onshore processing and community detention are welcome, but it's time we increased the humanitarian intake.

http://www.getup.org.au/sensible-solution

Political leaders often face testing moments that either expose inconsistencies between public promises and political policies, or enable them to exhibit true leadership and rise above partisan politics to create a lasting legacy that they, and those they represent, can be proud of.

It's time that our politicians do what we elected them to - show leadership and provide, not Pacific Solutions, not Malaysian Solutions, but sensible solutions.

With hope,
The GetUp Team

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Embiggen Books back in action

Having been out of action after flooding some weeks ago now, Embiggen Books is back and operational in its new location in Melbourne. Please consider giving it some business if you can.

Embiggen Books is a great business devoted to the advocacy of science and reason; it deserves to thrive.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Freedom of Religion and the Secular State - paperback now on Amazon


Amazon now has the paperback edition for a price of US$29.95. And just look at the endorsement on the back cover ... from A.C. Grayling!!

I couldn't be happier with this.

Novel Activist on Clive Hamilton

Over at Novel Activist, we get a useful critique of Clive Hamilton's deeply conservative worldview and not-so-hidden tendency to authoritarianism.

The lionisation of Clive Hamilton has long puzzled and troubled me. The man is an enemy of our liberty, like so many people who think they have special insight into what is good for us. It's about time that people of reason treated his pontificating with a bit more scepticism, and even hostility.

Conversely, I had never heard of the Novel Activist blog until today - when someone (*goes and checks and finds it was Leslie Cannold*) mentioned it on Twitter - and it looks like an interesting one to explore.

H/T Leslie Cannold.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

And another useful post on the Bolt case

This one by Skepticlawyer. Again, there's a good comment thread.

Bruce Everett and Legal Eagle on Andrew Bolt and the free speech thing

A useful post by Bruce Everett over here.

And it points us to another one by Legal Eagle, who has since followed up at considerable length. This bit of Legal Eagle's analysis is important, and I agree with the sentiments:

The following issues seem to have been highly operative on his Honour’s conclusion: the sarcastic, uncivil tone of Bolt’s writing, the various inaccuracies in the presentation of the backgrounds of the plaintiffs, and the way in which the portrayals of the plaintiffs were slanted to emphasise their European heritage. Fundamentally, his Honour’s conclusion seems to be that Bolt’s articles were not a polite or respectful discussion of the issues: contrary to the suggestion of various commentators and blogs, people are entitled to discuss issues of racial and Aboriginal identity, but they should do so in a way which is scrupulously accurate and respectful of those who claim Aboriginal identity. It has to be said that if I had my “druthers”, I’d vastly prefer that people followed his Honour’s strictures when they were writing on this topic. I do not generally like Bolt’s sarcastic tone, and I do not read his articles for this very reason. I did not like the articles in question in this case, and thought that they were misguided in certain respects, although I also thought that some of the questions they raised were worthwhile and important. I do not generally like sarcastic writing of this type. I can think of left wing bloggers who have adopted a “Bolt like” tone in apparent retaliation and reaction against Bolt, and I have never been a great fan this either. I really don’t think a sarcastic tone is helpful to resolving complex issues. It just gets your interlocutors angry and means that they close their ears to any reasonable point you might have.

But ultimately, I query whether the law is an appropriate vehicle for enforcing civility in debate. It is a very heavy-handed mechanism for dealing with this issue, and may have unforeseen consequences. I am just not sure that the RDA provisions seeking to prevent offence are the right vehicle to deal with this issue. Does this mean that any writer with a sarcastic tone should be worried?

I should add that Legal Eagle's lengthy discussion thread on the more recent post is very good indeed.

"Can I help you?"

The answer to this question is, "Maybe not."

Okay, this is a post in which I'll let off a bit of steam. You're warned.

I receive a lot of emails from people asking me to do things. Some of these offer me work on a professional basis - as a writer, a speaker, or an editor. In many cases, I am not offered money but at least there's the possibility of good PR if (for example) the outcome is a reputable publication of some kind. All those offers are welcome, even though I can't accept them all.

Many other emails basically ask me to do the writer a private favour. It might be reading a manuscript and offering editorial advice, putting in a good word with a publisher for someone trying to start a writing career, or even helping a kid with his or her school assignment. There are many categories, I don't have any hard and fast rules about how I respond.

I don't resent these emails. I try to answer them all, and sometimes put in hours of work doing what I feel I can.

However, I do ask the people who send such inquiries to understand a few things. First, you are not the only one. If I only ever got one email asking me for a favour every blue moon I might be able to put in more time and effort in these cases, but I actually get quite a lot - enough to keep me occupied full-time if I wanted them to. So if I don't do as much for you as you hoped, maybe you could bear that in mind.

You might also bear in mind that I am not a literary agent, do not have any particular clout with publishers, and don't have time to do manuscript assessments (a proper manuscript assessment is pretty much a full week's work, and the people who do this work are entitled to some reasonable payment for their efforts).

If you have a book coming out from a reputable publisher, I may well give it a review if you send me a review copy. I love getting review copies, though alas it's rare that I get review copies of the books that most interest me. (But, yay, I currently have an advance reading copy of Philip Kitcher's new book, and I'm enjoying it and thinking about it.)

If your reputable publisher is looking for blurb writers, again I might be able to help if the book falls within my obvious interests and your publisher contacts me. But I can't set aside the time to do work on your unpublished manuscript, or to read your unpublished manuscript on the off-chance that I'll love it so much that I'll try to get whatever publishers I know to take an interest in it.

Still, I do answer all email inquiries if I possibly can (I may miss some by oversight, and some are sufficiently crackpot that I am at a loss as to what to say). I put some thought and time into each one.

What I do resent is when I put in some time to be as helpful as I can ... and I don't even get a thank you in response. I suspect that a lot of people are disappointed by my replies - someone who thought I could give free editorial advice or put in a good word with a publisher, or whatever, may be disappointed to receive just some general advice about publishing, or maybe a pointer to the submission guidelines of a possibly relevant publisher, or whatever.

Well, if that's the case ... I'm sorry to disappoint you. But perhaps I don't have the time or the energy or the clout, or whatever, that you think I have that could assist in your particular case. I will, however, have taken some time out from my own projects, and my own life in general (yes, I do have a family, etc.), to give you whatever assistance or advice I could.

This is just a word to the wise out there. Perhaps some people who come to me asking for help with their projects are not thinking about how it is from my point of view - having all-consuming projects of my own and a steady stream of such requests coming in from the public.

The same applies to other writers, editors, etc., whom you might approach. Generally, we're stretched thin, forced to concentrate on whatever activities actually put some food on the table or at least generate worthwhile PR, and are being as polite and helpful as we can. I'm sure some people think that writers are rich in money and free time, but exactly the opposite is usually the case.

As I said, just a word to the wise. I'll continue to treat all inquirers as well as I can, but it's a two-way street.

Friday, October 07, 2011

The most obvious reason not to be sorry for Andrew Bolt...

... is that so many findings of fact made by Justice Bromberg in Eatock v. Bolt make Bolt look like a bully who is reckless with the truth. Again and again, the judge makes findings like the following about particular people whom Bolt attacked in print:
The evidence given by Ms Heiss was not contested and I have no reason to not accept it as truthful. In particular, I find that by reason of Ms Heiss having been raised as Aboriginal she has and does genuinely self-identify as Aboriginal. She has Aboriginal ancestry and communal recognition as an Aboriginal person. She is an Aboriginal person and entitled to regard herself as an Aboriginal person within the conventional understanding of that description. [...] She did not consciously choose to be Aboriginal. She has not improperly used her Aboriginal identity to advance her career. She is a person committed to her Aboriginal community and is entitled to regard her achievements as well deserved rather than opportunistically obtained. I accept that she feels offended, humiliated and insulted by the Articles or parts thereof in the manner outlined by her evidence.
Insofar as Bolt has accused numerous individuals of, in effect, opportunism, dishonesty, and greed, he has defamed them. He has done so from a position where he commands an enormous mainstream audience whose views he is capable of influencing. A journalist in his position will tend to be believed by large numbers of people on matters of fact, so we need him to be careful with the truth, however extreme his political values or opinions may be. This isn't just a matter of political correctness: it's basic to a healthy culture of public debate.

It's likely the individuals concerned could have vindicated their reputations by suing for defamation. Although I think defamation law needs to be constrained so that it doesn't chill legitimate speech, I don't have a problem with some basic law of defamation remaining in place to protect people from false allegations that are damaging to their good repute - especially when those allegations are made by people such as Bolt who command huge audiences.

We are social animals, and we cannot flourish as individuals if our reputations are successfully trashed. If I am (explicitly or implicitly) called a liar or a dishonest opportunist, or anything of the sort, by someone who has credibility with a large and relevant audience, that is highly destructive to my ability to function as a social being.

Put simply, one reason not to be sorry for Bolt is that he could probably have been sued for defamation in any event, possibly with a large damages award to the people he defamed. People who are defending Bolt's freedom of speech need to keep this in mind. They might also keep in mind that the operation of populist bullies can intimidate others into silence. His publications must have at least some intimidatory effect on fair-complexioned people wishing to identify publicly as Aboriginal.

I accept that freedom of speech in the strict sense is a freedom against government interference with what we want to say, so I am not suggesting that Bolt denied anyone freedom of speech in the strict sense. Nonetheless, we do have reason to fear individuals who are in a position to intimidate others into silence. If they use their power irresponsibly, we have every reason to respond with hostility and harsh criticism.

Again, none of this means that the legislation under which Bolt was pursued is flawless. Indeed, this is a case where it would have been cleaner and more straightforward if the individuals concerned had sued for defamation to clear their reputations and obtain compensation for the damage their reputations had suffered. That's what defamation law is for.

Instead, they took action under a provision of the Racial Discrimination Act. That immediately creates a problem, because it immediately looks as if they are seeking some restriction on Bolt's freedom of speech above and beyond that imposed by a properly constrained defamation law. I have no idea what their real motives were in invoking this Commonwealth legislation - perhaps they thought the Federal Court provided a cheaper and more user-friendly jurisdiction than the state courts, or perhaps they wanted to send some kind of political message, or perhaps there was another reason. I don't know, so I won't speculate. (If anyone does know what they may have said about their decision to invoke the Racial Discrimination Act rather than to sue for defamation, I'll be interested.)

Under section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, Bolt was not sued directly for his damaging falsehoods about individuals. These became relevant at the stage of whether he had a good defence.

He was pursued under a provision that makes it unlawful to say things in public that are reasonably likely to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate a class of people, where what is said is wholly or partly because of the race, colour, or ethnic origin of those people.

Alas, that provision is a can of worms - it is open to numerous interpretations, and there is the possibility that it could extend to forms of speech that go far beyond the obvious ones, such as abusing someone on the public street with racist epithets ("Get out of our way, you fucking cockroaches!"). Indeed, Bolt's articles in the Herald Sun, however unsavoury they may be, are quite remote from that sort of situation. The reasoning used to get them to fall under section 18C has a rather procrustean look about it to me. Even the humble word "because" is difficult in the context of this legislation. I'm not going to say that the judge got it wrong in law - he seems to do a pretty good job of wrestling with the language of the statute - but the case will very likely be appealed to test the scope and meaning of section 18C.

Bolt's slurs against individuals really became relevant when he ran the legal defence that his conduct in writing the articles was done reasonably and in good faith for a purpose in the public interest (consult the judgment for the nuances and difficulties of this). The underlying idea in the judge's reasoning is that Bolt could hardly claim that he had acted reasonably and in good faith when he was so reckless with the truth about the people concerned.

Again, the meaning of the words in section 18D, which provides the statutory defence, will very likely end up being tested in appeal proceedings. Similar provisions appear in other statutes, so it's not just a problem about the operation of the Racial Discrimination Act. We need such statutory provisions to be interpreted broadly - i.e. so that the defence is not too difficult to make out - in order to protect freedom of speech.

Unfortunately, the judge took into account not just these aspects of Bolt's articles but also their "inflammatory and provocative language" - that is unfortunate, because we should not be told that our speech is unreasonable or in bad faith merely because it is snarky or satirical, or passionate or denunciatory. There may be cases where speech is so hateful ("For these reasons, I conclude that Canaanites are basically rats and cockroaches...") that any attempt to dress it up as a good-faith contribution to discussion of a matter of public interest is clearly a sham. But we should not be so quick to draw such a conclusion that legitimate satire or denunciation is thought to negative reasonableness or good faith.

Here is where I part company with any people on the Left who think there's nothing to worry about. I submit that the judge's discussion goes further than was necessary. It has too great a tendency to undermine the reasonable/good faith defence wherever it appears in legal statutes. Given Bolt's actual behaviour, the outcome may be correct on the facts, even if a broader interpretation of the defence is adopted, but all the same... Hopefully this aspect will be addressed in any appeal.

More generally, I am not absolutely against laws that attempt to curtail Nazi-like racial hate propaganda. We know from recent history how damaging this can be. Arguably, some of the state laws address that, though it is also arguable that some of those are poorly drafted and go further than is necessary. In any event, laws such as these forbid a person A from saying such things to audience B as "people who fall into class C are rats and cockroaches - let's exterminate them!"

However, the Racial Discrimination Act is not drafted in this way. Perhaps it should be. It is not a law about incitement of third parties to racial hate and possibly violence, but a law about saying things that are offensive to a second party. Perhaps there is still a place for such a law, but it will have to be a limited one. The starting point should be that we generally don't have a right to be protected from offence. Something more is required.

That is an important, if vague, ethico-legal principle, and it creates a problem when a provision of this kind is drafted and whenever it is interpreted by the courts: how far do we really want to go to protect people from being offended, as opposed to having their reputations damaged or having people incited to hate them?

So, yes, there are good reasons not to be sympathetic to Bolt. But that is not a reason to assume that the statute itself is unproblematic. It is not a reason to be relaxed about how the courts decide to interpret it. There really are freedom of speech issues here, even if the particular speech at issue was meretricious and the speaker is an unpleasant individual.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

One reason why it's hard to feel sorry for Andrew Bolt...

... is that he did not stand up for Bill Henson's freedom of expression. Quite the opposite.

One thing that I'd like to know is how many of the people who are rallying to support Bolt also supported Henson when the going was rough.

That's not to say that the law under which Bolt was pursued is all fine and flawless, just because Bolt has unclean hands regarding freedom of expression issues. Freedom of expression should apply even to people who are not committed to it. I think that the provision is flawed and has been interpreted in a very broad way to capture a mixture of speech that should be legally tolerated and speech that is better regarded as defamation. However, Bolt does look pretty hypocritical here - he defends free speech when it suits him and attacks it when it serves his illiberal social agenda.

We should actually have a broad debate about freedom of speech in Australia and look at all of the laws that impinge on freedom of speech and expression, including defamation law. Even if some of the defenders of free speech who are coming out of the woodwork seem hypocritical, a debate about free speech issues - and the never ending attacks on free speech - is overdue.

All the same, it would just be nice to know who (besides me) has stood up for freedom of speech and expression in a principled and consistent way through all these debates.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Oops!

Apparently some more of the debate - including my speech - was shown on Big Ideas today. I didn't know until a pal phoned me to say she'd seen it, so I missed it and didn't advertise it. Damn!

Never mind, you know that you can go to the program's site to see the whole debate.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Monday, October 03, 2011

IQ2 debate tomorrow

The ABC 1 television program Big Ideas is showing last month's IQ2 debate on "Atheists are wrong" ... tomorrow, 4 October, at 11 am.

Presumably it's only extracts or a heavily edited version, as there are other stories on the program, so you'll have to go to the Intelligence Squared Australia site to watch a video of the whole thing when it's available. Still, if you're in Australia and free tomorrow morning you can at least sample the debate.

Eatock v. Bolt ... just a quick comment

As previously mentioned, the judgment of the Federal Court in Eatock v. Bolt is the length of a short novel. I'll have difficulty treating the issues properly in the space of any number of blog posts. This post is just to say that I spent most of today reading it and trying to get few things about it clear in my mind. I'll comment in more detail soon.

Currently, I still have rather mixed thoughts and feelings about it: I have little sympathy for Andrew Bolt or The Herald Sun. It seems to me that they defamed a number of individuals. On the other hand, I'm also not entirely happy about how this case and the judgment were framed, or about the provisions under which the case was conducted.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Sunday supervillainy - countdown of top 100 Marvel and DC characters (2)

Back in this post, I was talking about a countdown of the top 100 DC and Marvel characters (i.e. the top 50 from each company) that was underway, based on votes from "nearly 1400" fans.

At the time, the list was still counting down and listed the 15th to 50th most popular characters from Marvel and the 15th to 50th from DC, based on the voting. Since then the countdown has concluded and the lists are now complete.

How did I go in my prediction of the final 14 Marvel characters? Not that badly. Here is my prediction, from the earlier post:

1. Spider-Man
2. Wolverine
3. Captain America (Steve Rogers)
4. Iron Man
5. The Hulk
6. Thor
7. Doctor Doom
8. Magneto
9. Professor X.
10. Galactus
11. The Thing
12. Mary Jane Watson
13. Cyclops
14. Doctor Strange

And here is the actual list:

1. Spider-Man
2. Captain America (Steve Rogers)
3. Thor
4. Wolverine
5. The Hulk
6. Daredevil
7. Iron Man
8. Doctor Doom
9. Cyclops
10. Hawkeye (Clint Barton)
11. The Thing
12. Magneto
13. Nightcrawler
14. Doctor Strange

Some observations. First, I totally forgot about Daredevil (I knew I was forgetting someone important), who certainly should be in the top 10. On the other hand, I'm surprised to see Hawkeye and Nightcrawler ranking in the top 15 - both are important characters, but I wouldn't have said they were all that iconic or all that important from an in-world viewpoint. So I've learned that those two characters are more popular than I would have thought.

Second, I'm surprised and a bit concerned that Professor X has not only not made the top 10 or 15 characters - he has not made the top 50 at all! Yet, he is surely one of Marvel's most iconic characters and is very important from an in-universe viewpoint as well, as founder of the the X-Men (and their leader through much of Marvel's history). Something has gone wrong if such an important character is not getting ranked highly in a poll like this (conversely, his arch-rival, Magneto, ranks 12 ... not quite as high as I predicted, but still very high, and despite being primarily a villain; this disparity suggests that something really is askew in the marketing of a major character).

Third, a couple of wild-cards that I threw in didn't make the overall list at all. One was Mary Jane Watson. Well, she's Spider-Man's main (over the decades) love interest: though she's a somewhat iconic character, MJ is not a superhero or a supervillain, so perhaps it's not a great surprise that she doesn't make the list. Moreso since Marvel retconned away her marriage to Spider-Man. I'm actually a bit more surprised to see the important and iconic villain Galactus not make the top-50 list at all. I still think he should be up near Doctor Doom and Magneto.
Fourth ... now here's something worth talking about. The highest ranking female character turned out to be Emma Frost, at number 17. Ouch! That's a bit of a concern. Sixteen male characters before we finally get to a female character.

Some of the X-women have done quite well, with Kitty Pryde at 19, Jean Grey at 20, Storm at 21, and Rogue at 23. But She-Hulk is at 26, Ms Marvel languishes at 29 (despite getting lots of push from Marvel on an ongoing basis), the Scarlet Witch is at 31, Invisible Woman at 47 ... and the Wasp, who is one of the great classic superheroines from the Silver Age, does not appear at all.

A few others - the Black Widow, X-23, She-Hulk, Psylocke, and Spider-Woman - appear on the lower half of the list, but it's a poor showing overall for female characters. Worse, so many of those who do make the list are female variants of more popular male characters (She-Hulk is a variant of the Hulk, Spider-Woman of Spider-Man, and X-23 of Wolverine). And female villains do very poorly indeed - even Mystique does not make the top-50 list, despite her considerable exposure (in more ways than one) in the X-Men movies.

I'm not sure what Marvel can do about this. You can't force the readers to adopt a character and give it the sort of popularity that makes the character iconic. Marvel sometimes seems, to me, to be trying to force things with Ms Marvel, who clearly has a great name from the company's viewpoint, as well as a cool costume design and a classic power set - but with only limited success.

There's a limit ... but I can't help feeling that Marvel has made some bad decisions with female characters. Think about it.

The Wasp has been sort of dead for some time now, and there's no real push to bring her back. The Scarlet Witch was rendered unusable some years ago, when she was turned into an overpowered deus ex machina type character, though Marvel seems to be doing something about that problem in the current Children's Crusade mini-series. Jean Grey (a.k.a. Phoenix) has been considered dead for years, but still manages to hold down position 20. It seems crazy that Marvel has not yet found a way to bring her back to centre stage.

The move to destroy the Spider-Man/MJ marriage may have made commercial sense, restoring the Silver Age status quo of a bachelor Spider-Man with a troubled love life. I'm not so critical of that, though many others are (many fans are almost obsessed about it). But MJ is a well-loved character, and surely there are better ways to use her than as a relatively unimportant member of Spider-Man's support cast, i.e. just as an ex with whom he broke up amicably and who is still his friend.

As I say, this sort of thing can't be forced, but some of Marvel's decisions look, well, almost like the company has gone out of its way to sideline its great female characters. I'm sure that's not true, but it could also put a bit more thought into avoiding these bad scenarios.

Finally, my list doesn't look very different from the list as it actually eventuated. I had a few characters in exactly the same slots (the Hulk, the Thing, Dr Strange) and some others very close. I was a bit surprised at little things such as Wolverine coming out at number 4 rather than number 2, and at Thor doing quite so well (and I thought Iron Man would have done slightly better, given the success of the Iron Man movies), but all in all the outcome was fairly predictable.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Another kerfuffle among atheists - the Stefanelli and Hale dust-up

These kerfuffles among atheists don't prove much - only that atheists have human limitations, like everyone else, and that atheist organisations are all-too-human constructions. Since they don't claim otherwise (they don't, for example, claim to be divinely founded or guided), in a sense there's nothing to see here. Still, every such incident provides a teachable moment if we're willing to see it that way.

Here's a fairly recent post by Al Stefanelli, Georgia State Director for American Atheists, in which he calls for "taking the gloves off" against Christian fundamentalism and radical Islam. It has attracted well over 100 comments and a great deal of additional controversy on the internet.

An initial difficulty with the post is that it calls for "intolerance" of certain beliefs. That, however, goes against the grain of liberalism ... which values toleration and social pluralism.

Philosophical atheists are usually notable for endorsing and advocating liberal tolerance: this does not mean that we welcome or esteem every viewpoint, but merely that we do not attempt to crush rival viewpoints by the use of state power. Prisons, guns, and the like - swords, the rack, and flaming torches in earlier times - are not, according to liberal tolerance, to be employed as weapons to crush disfavoured ideas or ways of life. Not, at least, without some compelling reason for state interference, such as a pressing threat to someone's health or safety.

Doesn't Stefanelli actually agree with this? Perhaps he does, but he says as follows:
The growing ranks of fundamental Christians and radical Muslims should be of concern to everyone who is not part of these two groups. Everyone. Again, bigotry, discrimination, hatred, coercion, terrorism, slavery, misogyny and everything else that is part and parcel of fundamental Christianity and radical Islam should not be tolerated and anyone who agrees with this needs to adopt extremist points of view that includes the intolerance of their very existence. The only reason these groups exist is because they are allowed to, and we, as a society, are allowing them to.
This has evidently caused some confusion. The first quoted sentence talks about "fundamental [Stefanelli really means "fundamentalist"] Christians" and "radical Muslims", which sounds as if he is talking about individuals who belong to those categories, but then he ends the sentence by speaking of them as "two groups". In the next full sentence (after the sentence fragment "Everyone"), he talks about "bigotry, discrimination, hatred, coercion, slavery, misogyny" then "everything else that is part and parcel of fundamental Christianity and radical Islam"; he then says that anyone who agrees with this (i.e. that certain things should not be tolerated) "needs to adopt extremist points of view that includes the intolerance of their very existence". But what does the word "their" refer to?

Does it refer back to "fundamental Christians and radical Muslims" (as individuals)? Does it mean these as two groups, i.e. fundamentalist Christianity and radical Islam? That's plausible, since the final sentence of the quote speaks of groups existing only because we "as a society" allow them to ... as if these groups should not be allowed to exist.

Or does the pesky pronoun "their" refer to "bigotry, discrimination, hatred, coercion, terrorism, slavery, misogyny" (and perhaps also to "everything else that is part and parcel of fundamental Christianity and radical Islam")? Or what?

If it refers merely to intolerance of the existence of bigotry, discrimination, hatred, coercion, terrorism, slavery, and misogyny, then why is this intolerance described as an "extremist" viewpoint? Surely there is nothing especially extremist about not tolerating those things (though it may be a good question whether all "hatred" and "discrimination" can/should actually be dealt with by the law).

If the intolerance is supposed to extend to the unnamed other things that are "part and parcel of fundamental Christianity and radical Islam" the situation is less clear - for what are these things? Surely there are some things that are part and parcel of fundamentalist Christianity, to use that example, but should be tolerated in every sense. Consider private prayer - this is surely "part and parcel" of fundamentalist Christianity, as it is of various other belief systems, but it's something that should be tolerated in every sense. I imagine there are also many things that are part and parcel of radical Islam but should be tolerated (belief in the existence of Allah, for example).

Overall, the post is emotive and confusing; and I don't think anyone who struggles to make sense of it is thereby suffering from a lack of reading comprehension, as Stefanelli has since suggested. I wonder, in fact, why it had to be written in such a way that it purportedly calls for "intolerance" (whatever exactly that is, in this context) and "extremist points of view". Why adopt this sort of language, which either identifies you as an extremist, a fanatic, or (if you are not one ... and I don't think Stefanelli is) merely causes confusion?

It gets worse: near the end, after talking about various organisations and their members, and why atheists and others rightly criticise them, Stefanelli says: "But the underbelly of fundamentalist Christianity and radical Islam does not operate in the legal system. They don’t respond to lawsuits, letters, amicus briefs or other grass-roots campaigns and they must, must, must be eradicated."

Here, the word, "they" as in "They don't respond to lawsuits..." apparently refers back to the expression "the underbelly of fundamentalist Christianity and radical Islam" - but why say "they", rather than "it", if that is intended? In any event, what is this "underbelly" that he speaks of? Does the expression refer to certain groups, organisations, individuals, ideas, or what? Whatever it is, we are told that "they" do not respond to lawsuits, etc. That wording implies that we are talking about groups or organisations (or, less likely individuals) that must be "eradicated". After all, an idea is not the sort of thing that is even a candidate for responding to a lawsuit.

And what form is the process of eradication supposed to take? It can't take the form of sending letters or initiating lawsuits, which are the very actions that we are told are ineffective. Some other action is evidently being urged, in order to eradicate whatever is supposed to constitute the "underbelly" ... but it's not clear just what action.

In the end, when you boil it down, Stefanelli mainly seems to be making a point with which I (essentially) agree: the law should apply the same secular standards to actions done for a religious reason as to the same actions done for some other reason. E.g., if we have a law in place forbidding murder, that law should apply just as much to ritual human sacrifices as to bumping off a rival lover or a pesky business competitor.

However, when Stefanelli talks of some-or-other "they" which doesn't respond to lawsuits, letters, etc., and so must be eradicated, this starts to sound like he is talking about eradicating organisations or groups or movements (again, I do think it's stretching things to imagine that he's talking about eradicating people ... but still, any use of words such as "eradicate" and its cognates is dangerous).

Miranda Celeste Hale has thought about all this ... and written a blog post that has also received over 100 comments, including at least one angry one from Stefanelli.

I don't agree with every point in her post, but I do agree with her that Stefanelli's post suffers the fault of using inflammatory language while being quite fuzzy as to what is intended by it. What's more, there was no need to employ such inflammatory language ("intolerance", "extremist"), since the strength of the post is a good, solid point - a point about the need to subject religious adherents and organisations to the same laws, and the same kinds of criticism, as everything else. This point could have been made without talk of intolerance or the need for "extremist points of view", or anything else of the kind.

This point could also have been made without seemingly wild over-generalisations about how fundamentalist Christians and radical Islamists "want us to die" - no doubt, some do. But I happen to know a lot about fundamentalist Christianity, in particular, and I've met, or even been on friendly terms with, many people who would qualify under most definitions of fundamentalist Christianity (e.g they believe that the Bible is the inerrant, unchanging word of God). It is simply not true to say of them, in a blanket way, "They want us to die."

Many of these people actually want us to live as long as needed to accept Jesus Christ as our saviours. The minds of many or most fundamentalist Christians are simply not oriented to violence, but to spreading the Gospel and "saving" souls.

Nor should we talk as if people who believe in fundamentalist Christian doctrines - or radical Islamic ones if it comes to that - are more likely to be sociopaths or psychopaths than anyone else. In the absence of robust research findings to the contrary, there is no reason to think that these groups contain a significantly higher percentage (or, indeed, a higher perecentage at all) of sociopaths and psychopaths than any other religious group or than non-believers. No such research is mentioned.

These religious groups may well harbour far greater percentages of fanatics than the rest of the population, but that is another matter entirely.

It's true that fundamentalist Christians tend to want their views to prevail at the social and political levels, so Stefanelli is correct to say, "They do not want to sit down with us in diplomatic efforts to iron out our differences and come to an agreement on developing an integrated society." That, however, is not the same as wanting us to die.

To try to sum this up, Stefanelli's article is often confusingly written; it makes Stefanelli himself look more extreme than he probably is (when you try to boil down what he's actually asking for); and at best it engages in considerable hyperbole.

What about Hale? Perhaps her response also includes some hyperbole, but it certainly does not exhibit a failure of reading comprehension, as Stefanelli says on the comment thread. Indeed, an obvious way to read Stefanelli's post is that he thinks society as a whole should not allow certain groups to exist.

Moreover, it's always wise not to blame your readers too quickly, even if they do seem to misunderstand you. Sometimes readers may misunderstand because difficult concepts are involved, and because the readers are not familiar with them or with their historical context. This may not be the fault of the writer, and it can be galling when readers who have failed to understand a line of argument for these reasons reply in a dismissive or nasty way. That's happened to me plenty of times, and I can understand if that's what Stefanelli thinks is going on here.

But I don't see it like that in this case. The concepts in play are not actually that difficult, and the person who has struggled to achieve the meaning Stefanelli apparently intends is a high-profile and highly-educated atheist blogger who has produced much in the way of intelligent analysis in the past, especially of Catholic responses to sexual misconduct issues. In any event, it's easy to see how the hyperbole and very strong language used by Stefanelli can give the impression that he is arguing for something drastic (much more drastic than he probably intends) even if read with some charity.

I'm sure there are lessons in all this, but different readers will take different things from it. One lesson might be that we should always explain ourselves very carefully when putting views that might be interpreted as extremist. Labelling your own views, or views that you commend, as "extremist" is asking for trouble.

That said, some opponents will quote mine, over-simplify, and distort, no matter how carefully we explain ourselves. There is no guaranteed defence against this happening when our words get into the hands of malicious or intellectually dishonest opponents, but that's not a reason to write in a way that will even confuse and alienate allies and others who are reading in good faith.

There may be other lessons as well, but I've said enough for now. I wish these kerfuffles could be avoided, but they will go on happening, and we need to take them in our stride. When they do, it's worth examining some of them to see if we can learn anything ... especially anything that could minimise poor communication in the future.