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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019) and AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021).

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

John Wilkins on fear and risk

Over at Evolving Thoughts, John Wilkins has a highly meritorious post about the creeping totalitarianism in Australia and other Western democracies. This tendency succeeds, and has the support of major political parties in both government and opposition, because, we, as populations and electorates, acquiescence in it, or even seem to want it. We are driven by fear and an irrational aversion to any risk. Unfortunately, no government, however much it puts us under surveillance and attempts to micro-manage our lives, can ever guarantee an environment free of risk (or some kind of centrally planned utopia). The tools available to governments are clumsy, and can never bring about a risk-free, ultimate zipless society.

We might as well face that fact, unpalatable or not, and fight to get our freedoms back.

Worse, democratic governments reach for populist solutions that create an illusion of decisive action, and thereby make our lives less and less free, but are pretty much guaranteed to be ineffective, Imperfect though it is, our law-makers would do better to rely on ordinary policing of genuinely harmful crimes. Yeah, okay - meanwhile, in the real world, we end up with such outcomes as ridiculous and unpleasant aviation "security", censorship of the internet, and ever-increasing surveillance of our actions and speech. Wilkins says:

we have adopted useless ineffective and costly measures that only look good, so we can deal with out fears. We can feel comfortable knowing that the national intelligence services are listening to those terrorists, while pretending not to know that they are going instead to listen in on you if you have any kind of view the authorities do not like. Warrantless wiretaps by the FBI and other agencies after 9/11 went rogue immediately, and that’s only what we do know. In Australia, moves to make the internet self-censor under law according to an undisclosed, unsupervised, list drawn up by public servants at the behest of the government of the day stands to make Australian access to information something that happens at the whim of the politicians. Now where has that worked well in the past, I wonder?

What can we do about it? Well, I sometimes feel as if it's futile to try anything, since we are confronted by the sensationalist media and a naive, scared public, not just by power-hungry or officious politicians. But we certainly won't be able to push this whole thing back if we simply give up and live in coccoons.

Wilkins again:

What to do? Well there is only one way to prevent this – stand up for freedoms against the unrelenting desire of the bureaucracy and politicians to take control. Allow rights to those you do not like so that you may have rights too. And when something, like child pornography or terror, threatens the civil order, use legal and effective policing methods to halt it and reverse it. And realise that you cannot have a risk-free world.

That's right. But it won't work unless a lot of us follow this advice, and it's all too tempting not to step forward and risk being isolated. In my case, I'm a bit less vulnerable than most, being old enough, now, and financially secure enough (by a run of moderately good financial luck plus a certain amount of self-sacrifice over the last 25 years or so). Nothing terribly harmful can be done to me, not easily. Not if we're talking about careers or livelihoods being destroyed - though obviously my reputation can be smeared, and I'm as vulnerable to physical attacks as anyone else. But I do speak up in this blog and elsewhere, partly because I can. I'd do it even more if I had better media access. If you can deliver it to me, take the hint.

Not everyone is as well-fortified against human-made ill fortune as I am. Still, I implore you to do whatever you can against the drift that Wilkins identifies.

It's an understatement to say that John Wilkins and I don't always agree on stuff, but he's a stalwart on this kind of issue, where our vaunted Western freedoms are being eroded. On this occasion I want to applaud him with all my might and power (pity I don't have more of it to applaud with).

You rock, mate. More strength to your arm.


DEEN said...

Somewhat ironically, the fear of a Big Bad Government That Will Take Away Your Freedoms is also very effectively used by many of these populists to get more votes.

Russell Blackford said...

If you're thinking of Geert Wilders, perhaps so. But we don't have anyone like that in Australia. The only strident voice for individual freedom here is the tiny, marginal, and narrowly-focused Sex Party. (No insult intended to the leaders of that party, who are generally doing a good job and deserve some support.)

mace said...

Yes, our fear of a particular dangerous event occurring is nearly always not proportional to the risk and because of this fact we can be easily manipulated.Despite the actual probabilities of a lethal event occurring most of us are relaxed drivers and nervous airline pasengers these days.
In order to be free we must accept some risk,that's the trade-off.I'm rather sceptical as to the commitment many of my fellow citizens have to liberal democracy,particularly when there's a real or imaginary threat reported in the media.

John S. Wilkins said...

Danke schön. I will convince you about agnosticism and transhumanism one day, too; you wait...

John R. Vokey said...

Like you Russell, I am fortified against most economic attacks, admittedly almost entirely fortuitously, so, yes, you and I can speak out. But, so what?

I have watched in just four years a minority government (yeah, well, they are in a minority, what can they do?) take a country known for its liberalism, internationalism, international protector of human rights, and coarsen it to the point that we have gone in that same period from a country that in a majority repudiated the death penalty to one that now supports it at well over 60% (despite falling crime rates), that now supports a ``tough against crime'' agenda, and militarism (from the society that defined ``peace-keeping''?), and ... It really can happen overnight. And, a government that ignores its own Supreme Court regarding torture and human rights. This is/was Canada! You know, the country every other country's citizen just a few years ago pretended to be?

Russell Blackford said...

John 2, what do you mean "So what?" The answer is, "So you have less to fear from most people if you speak out, even against populist views."

John R. Vokey said...

Dear Russell,
I thought I had provided the context in answer to your question, which was, indeed, my point: do not count on seemingly innocent covers (minority governments) to protect the obvious. The loss of what was Canada to the world should be acknowledged as a world loss. This brilliant, liberal democracy for internationalism and freedom, reduced to a ``me too'' version of ugly USA foreign policy? And that of the previous administration? (Not that the current administration has changed much in that regard).

Yes, I can and do speak out, as I can afford to. A weak victory, if it is one at all.

DEEN said...

@Russel: actually, I wasn't thinking of Wilders at all. He's accusing Muslims of wanting to take away our freedoms, not the government. If anything, he's accusing the government of being too tolerant and too weak. So while he's still playing off people's fears, it's not fear of the government he's using.

No, the best example at the moment for what I meant must be the US Republican noise machine. According to them, Obama is going to take away all sorts of freedoms, and the Republicans are all that stands between Obama and some sort of evil socialist state. This tactic appears to be getting them some very vocal supporters too.

Frank J. Ranelli said...

Ophelia, you may read my full riposte concerning Shermer’s act of “intellectual prostitution” by following the link below(1)—and the accompanying attributed references—but, to address your question first, I will allow Dr. Shermer to speak for himself. He writes in the Huffington Post, “For the record, I am not sponsored by Templeton, and I've never received a grant or fellowship of any kind from them. They did pay me to write and edit some articles for them (work-for-pay is okay!)” (See, “Does science make belief in God obsolete?” - http://www.templeton.org/belief/ )

I take Dr. Shermer at his word, therefore I do not think “funding” is an accurate characterization, but he unequivocally states he has been paid by the Templeton Foundation for work. However, I find his recent remarks, along with his clearly stated remittance from the Templeton Foundation, a suspicious, if not a duplicitous act that, at minimum, undermines his exemplary work as a skeptic—it was either venal, for money, or it was an act of capitulation to reason and acquiescence to tepid religionists.

As you have vociferously, yet rightly pointed out in numerous posts here, Chris Mooney is unfit for a litany of reasons to host POI. Hence, I felt it germane to point out Dr. Shermer’s concomitant acute and anomalous accommodations to moderate of religion, as they eerily echo Mooney’s longstanding record of anathema for us so-called “new atheists.”

Finally, it is worth noting—for full disclosure and intellectual honesty—Christopher Hitchens and Victor Stenger (both inexorably not apologists for religion) also participated in the Templeton Foundation “conversation” paper; however, my own trepidations lie not with where Michael Shermer wrote his piece, but what he said, chiefly, “Likewise, it should not matter how God created life, whether it was through a miraculous spoken word or through the natural forces of the universe that He created. The grandeur of God's works commands awe regardless of what processes He used.”

Certainly you will agree these are out of the ordinary words for Shermer, considering his otherwise venerable work in the arena of science, reason and skepticism?

The entirety of my position is the corollary to Mooney’s overt and well-documented stridency against people such as PZ Myers and Jerry Coyne, which is antithetical to true free inquiry and free thought, and Shermer’s surreal statements about God—the Abrahamic god, no less. (Witness the reverence of capitalization in the above quote by Shermer.) In short, Mooney and Shermer each seem to have adoptive motives—money and prestige—rather than an honest, uncontaminated inquest into free inquiry.

(1) Renowned Skeptic Michael Shermer: Deist or Just Disingenuous? http://www.opednews.com/articles/Renowned-Skeptic-Michael-S-by-Frank-J-Ranelli-091203-939.html