None of your business

Big news last Friday when two AFL executives were basically sacked after having affairs with female subordinates.

It’s not a good look, and given these men are married with children, is pretty shabby – but since when is that sufficient to fire someone?

I can’t support these men, but I feel some disquiet over what’s happened because it sets up the employer as moral arbiter. More pointedly, it’s interference in personal lives.

In both cases the affairs were consensual. No-one did anything against their will. I know it’s a bit of a cliché, older executive with younger, more junior colleague, but that’s all it is. It may be questionable, but it’s not illegal, and it’s only vaguely immoral when the parties have other partners – but then, it happens all the time. What if we lived in a society whereby adultery led to instant dismissal? We don’t thankfully, yet these men have lost their jobs (but only because the media got hold of it).

The only possible justification I can see is if it directly impacts on job performance, in which case the reason for dismissal is performance. Otherwise it might contravene a code of conduct the employees have signed up to – but then I don’t think such a thing should be in a code of conduct. It becomes more understandable if it is part of a pattern and a broader culture of entitlement and abuse – which may be the case here. It’s not something that should be encouraged, and yet I’d bet if these guys chose to challenge their dismissal then the law would be on their side.

One of the things I find disturbing about this is the general acceptance that this is just. Officially these managers chose to resign, but only after a hefty push. There seem only a few who have questioned the justice of this, or pointed out that really this is nobody’s business but those involved. It feels to me that convention and public morality intrudes more and more upon our private lives. There is a gap – a necessary gap – between our private and public/professional lives that should be maintained, even if we choose to get hot and bothered with someone we work with.

Speaking for myself I’ve had multiple affairs with women I’ve worked with. Who hasn’t? It’s hardly unusual. I understand if it is frowned upon, but no corporation has the right to dictate my personal relationships. This is what has happened now though, these men have lost their jobs, the women humiliated, and the PR fallout very ugly – and for the most part we seem ready to accept it as fair. Why?


What the people don’t want

It’s tempting to suggest the unlikely rise of Jeremy Corbyn is due to the political difference he represents. His gentler political philosophies are certainly widely appealing (unlike some of his more hard-line policies). After years of austere neo-liberalism being rammed down their throats Corbyn’s emphasis on traditional labour values and focus on the small, the under-privileged, the voiceless came as a welcome relief, and that’s very real. People are sick and tired of being overlooked in favour of big business and the top end of town, and to find in Corbyn someone who sincerely and authentically spoke for them was a breath of fresh air – and it’s a truth that would apply equally here in Oz, where much the same complaints – and resentments – exist.

While the folksy Jeremy Corbyn was genuinely appealing, it was more about what he wasn’t than what he was that led him to the verge of an unlikely victory. What he wasn’t – or at least, appeared not to be – was a member of the political machine. Scorned by his own party and rejected by much of the mainstream media he epitomised an authentic political character. In the world of 2017 there’s an instinctive appeal in that.

My view is this recent run of surprising election results is less to do with voting for something than it is about voting against something. What is being rejected are incumbent orthodoxies and stale vested interests. Corbyn’s success was less an endorsement of his politics and much more a rejection of political orthodoxy (and neo-liberalism) as embodied in the fumbling Theresa May.

Likewise when Trump got up what he represented was the anti-system, and by voting for him swathes of the American public were voting against the established political class of which Hilary Clinton was a leading member. For years they’d heard the same old slogans and formulas repeated ad nauseam, and to little effect. They were weary of pollsters and slick political machines and above all class of the perpetual, and bitter about the flawed system that spawned them.

Corbyn and Trump have very little in common. Their politics are polar opposites. Their styles couldn’t be more different. What they share is an outsider’s status. Trump came from business, outspoken, boastful and larger than life. He gave voice to many of the electorate made cynical by party machinations. He was over the top, perhaps unpleasant, but he might actually make a difference because he was different.

Corbyn came from the unfashionable socialist wing of the Labour party. Guys like him are bit like political duffers, they’re idealistic to a fault and speak in unrealistic riddles. They’re cardigan wearers that lend a bit of street cred to the Labour movement, but in an era of slick new-Labour, never meant to rule. Except by an extraordinary series of events he managed to get himself elected to Labour party leadership. Somehow he managed to retain his leadership in the face of challenges and criticism. Altogether he is an unlikely character and, like Trump, represents the anti-political establishment.

I write this from Australia where this phenomenon is yet to bite deeply, but there is a lesson there for anyone who cares to heed it.

There has certainly been a drift towards the minor parties on the edge in Australia, and for the same reasons as above – voters are jaded about mainstream politics. The independent parties have waxed and waned in popularity, but are well established now and seem to be accepted as a necessary evil by both Liberal and Labor.

The Libs are the incumbents, but barely competent. Labor leads in the polls, but only because the Libs are so riven and ineffective. In Bill Shorten Labor have an uninspiring and mediocre leader who is more concerned about plying political tricks than he is in advocating for the genuine benefit of Australians. He would rather exploit a tricky political angle for political advantage than he is in allowing for bipartisan reform. It’s all about the polls, all about winning.

This is what politics has become, but it’s now a stale formula. People see through that now. They’ve heard it all before and though they may have fallen for it the first half dozen times they’re now awake to it. This is the new political reality: the electorate is angry, and they’re through with being treated like fools. The shonky backroom deals and cynical compromises have been exposed.

I seriously doubt that Shorten and polling minions are oblivious to this. They live in a bubble, and there is an inherent arrogance that has them believe they know better – which is one of the central things the people have rejected.

Stop playing games. Speak to truth. Show what you believe in. Expose your values. Be vulnerable. Risk something. This is what people want now.

I don’t know that Shorten has that in him, but it’s what the electorate are clamouring for. Shorten is of the machine. He is created by it and has the mentality of it. It was a mistake when the party powerbrokers rejected the vote of the members and installed Shorten ahead of Albanese. Albo is tough and smart, but he’s earthy too, and real. He’s an old fashioned Labor idealist too – he believes in things (and was mentored by one of my all-time favourite politicians, Tom Uren – a great man).

Labor is ahead in the polls now, but no guarantee he will be when the next election comes. Albo would be ahead of Shorten if leader, and has the credibility and authenticity to carry it to election day. One sure thing, when that day comes there will be more surprises unless someone – Turnbull or Shorten – is prepared to make a difference.

The things I can’t walk past

I don’t know if it’s normal, but the older I get the more purist I become. When I say purist I mean I’m less inclined to tolerate lies, incompetence and poor attitude – in others, but also myself. I’ve always had high standards. In many aspects, I might have been called a man of principle. It was expectation then though, not necessity. I’d be disappointed when those standards were not met, whereas often these days I become angry. It’s harder to let go now. Why?

I think there are two reasons. The first is not easy to parse. I think having experienced so much hardship in recent years, and having survived it, I am left with a more primal concept of behaviour. Having experienced these things through that period, and being at fault myself on occasion, I have come to understand that such standards are more than just words. Promises made, commitments given, even things left from one day to the next can have huge consequences. There is no excuse for it when it can be so vital to wellbeing.

The other reason is probably shared by many. I’m thoroughly jaded by the politics of our times. I’m sick of boasting politicians, politicians bought by big business or opinion poll, politicians who say one thing today and the opposite tomorrow. I’m sick to the stomach with the utter lack of integrity, kneejerk cynicism and serial dishonesty. I yearn for a leader who will be strong enough to speak the truth without thinking about their reputation or the opinion polls. I want someone to believe in, someone who embodies those principles – but there is none. Well, I’ll have none of that. The more dishonest they become the more honesty I demand. I won’t be a party to the cynical mores of our times. I must be better than that, and in this way I have made a sub-conscious stand.

It’s hard work. Dispiriting often. I’m like the boy and the dyke, except I’ve long run out of fingers. I could give it away, except I can’t really. It’s not in me anymore. Pure has become a state of mind.

In the last few days there have been a couple of things that define that state of mind.

I get occasional food deliveries to my door. I was due one over the weekend, but it never showed up though delivery was claimed. I rang up about it, received an apology and a credit to my account. Later I managed to track the box down to a neighbour and reclaimed it. I could have left it at that, enjoyed the box and kept the credit. It would have been easy, and as my finances remain in a state of disrepair, a handy bonus. I couldn’t though. I knew that right from the first moment. That would be wrong. It would be dishonest. I couldn’t walk around like that, and so I told them, I got the box, thanks anyway. I’ve done myself out of $70, but it’s the right thing.

Then at work, I’ve been working on a small project and right at the death knell an unscrupulous outside party threw a cat amongst the pigeons. What had been agreed to was cancelled. I had been dealing with one person; this other person came in over the top to kybosh it. Furthermore, she then made same disingenuous and factually incorrect claims to justify it. Her agenda was clear – if she could stop what we proposed then her company would benefit by stepping into the breach she created. Her claims got airtime and caused a stir and made us diplomatically retreat into our shell. The project was put off pending further discussions, from which I’ve been sidelined. What’s happening now is that this other person is making claims directly contradicting what her colleague had committed to previously. Some of the claims are ridiculous, but go unchallenged. The outcome, I’m sure, is that they’ll get their way.

Now I’m seething at this. There is no stage of my life when I would have meekly accepted it, but the reason is different now. Previously my ultra-competitive instinct would have been roused. I’d have taken it as a direct challenge and felt compelled to defy it. I hate to lose, and that would have dominated.

The prevailing emotion right now is outrage. I can’t stomach how unscrupulous this is, and the thought that they’ll likely get away with it gives me hives. This is blatant dishonesty and I can’t comprehend how someone can be like that – and it’s unacceptable to me. I’ve been played, and the company has been wedged. Because of ignorance, naivety and a good dose of misplaced diplomacy this situation will be played out until they get what they want.

I get told sometimes that I shouldn’t care so much. Well, I do, and I cherish that. More people should care. I’m very strongly of the belief that the standard you walk past is the standard you accept. This is no small thing, and it applies personally as it does at the corporate level. If we want to be better we need to demand better, and not accept anything less than that. Excellence does not happen by accident. For me, I can’t walk past. I won’t accept what I don’t believe in.

What would Orwell say?

18C raised its contentious head again yesterday, and today goes to the senate to be passed. My guess is that it will be knocked on the head.

The amendment they’re looking to pass is to replace the term ‘offend’ with ‘harass’. What to you and me may seem semantics are actually pretty important distinctions in the legal world. To boil it down to something everyone can understand it equates basically to the right of someone to call another person the ‘n’ word.

For proponents of free speech it’s tricky, though there is a difference between the right to free speech and the right to vilify or abuse. Still, there is ambiguity.

I think any intelligent person understands there must be a limit to what free speech permits in a civilised society. The question is, where do you draw that line, how to you define it, and how is transgression measured?

I don’t think this will ever be a simple exercise because, in my view, context counts for a lot. Certainly there are words, actions and phrases that most of the reasonable public believe to be out of bounds, and in fact I think the pub test is basically the best determinant of what should be permitted. In general, it combines common sense with reasonableness, and most people know in their gut when commentary has gone too far. That’s great, but how do you legislate the pub test?

I had a long debate about it with my nephew on Twitter last night. He came out applauding the proposed changes, not really appreciating – I think – what they meant. I took issue with him. The experience of a white, middle-class, educated Australian male is very different from that of the typical victims of this. What may seem casually offensive to us is very often oppressive to others. The reason for that, as I explained to him, was historical and cultural precedents we couldn’t begin to appreciate.

He has a very absolutist view of the issue, and it reminded me of myself at his age. When you’re that age it’s very easy to be gung-ho about your passionately held beliefs and in being so the subtleties are often lost (incidentally, that was the sort of comment that would infuriate me at his age). As I explained, there is very little wisdom in absolutist positions – nothing is all one thing or another, truth is generally somewhere in between, and a key to life is to keep things in balance – that much I’ve learned.

I think he believed to ‘offend’ was essentially to say something that might hurt someone’s feelings, when in fact – in the legal definition of it – it means to cause ‘profound’ grief – such as calling someone the ‘n’ word. Given we the current laws allow for the offensive cartoons of Bill Leak I don’t understand why they need watering down. What is it that people can’t say today that they want to say? In any case, the current laws don’t prohibit free speech – they simply allow for someone offended by it to seek redress.

As anyone who has been on Twitter would know, it’s hard to prosecute an argument in 140 characters, which is why there is so much trolling and abuse on it (ironically). So we went backwards and forwards before my nephew signed off with the kind of claptrap I abhor – that if I don’t worry about free speech, then no-one will care about mine. It’s the sort of thing that Andrew Bolt would say, or a politician at a doorstep searching for a catchy sound bite for the evening news. It sounds good, but means fuck all. It’s rhetoric and it gives me the shits.

For all of this, it is a delicate and difficult discussion. I believe strongly in free speech, but believe also very strongly that we must preserve the rights of the least privileged (particularly) and most vulnerable. I can look after myself, but then I’m hardly a target demographic. These laws are in place not for me, but for those who actually need it.

The problem with unfettered free speech is that it allows the kind of commentary that confirms or incites racist views. It encourages the more extreme in their extreme views and language. If there’s not a barrier to butt their heads up against then the risk is that it becomes rampant. As we know, language often leads to action, and informs attitudes.

For me that’s easy. It becomes more complex when it’s not abuse that is impacted, but comment. Charlie Hebdo is a good example of that (my nephew also brought up South Park as an example). If you recall Charlie Hebdo was targeted by Muslim extremists because they were derogatory of the Muslim religion in general, and the prophet Muhammad particularly.

Does this cross the line? To the devout Muslim it does, and certainly to the extreme. There’s a good argument that people’s beliefs should be protected – and yet in western society there is a long history of irreverence. The Catholic church is a frequent target and doesn’t like it, but does it make it wrong?

It’s a western attitude that very little is above the law as such. Anything is fair game. That’s very different to most other cultures. Are we to exhibit cultural sensitivities to others that we don’t to ourselves? Should we be sympathetic to the mores of others, or simply be true to our own?

This is where the line gets blurred. There’s no simple take on that, and even the pub test would leave me feeling uneasy. For me there’s no definitive answer to that – but I would reference intent and context. If the intent is simply to vilify another set of beliefs then it crosses the line; if it is the product of a more serious analysis or commentary then it is more permissible. In simple terms, if it is gratuitous then let it go, but even then, what defines offensive?

For questions such as this I often find myself asking what George Orwell would say? I think Orwell was an uncommonly wise man when it came to questions of politics and the culture of power. He was a socialist who was an outspoken critic of communism and the Soviet Union. He believed in language and clarity and freedom of expression, but he was also very much on the side of the oppressed and the downtrodden. I don’t know, but think he might agree with me.

When the law is unjust, break the law

Here’s a dinner party question for you: when is it okay to disobey the law?

It’s a question prompted by the recent storm of controversy caused by comments made by the incoming secretary of the ACTU, Karen McManus. She made the statement that she saw no problem in breaking the law when the law was unjust.

This is a very slippery area. After all, if everyone went about flouting every law they disagreed with then we’d have anarchy. And who makes a judgement on whether a law is unjust or not?

That’s a philosopher’s dilemma and I don’t think there is a single right answer for it.

In this case McManus was making a point about some of the statutes within the recently passed ABCC laws which severely constrain and prohibit union action. The laws in the first place were politically motivated, and only ever finally passed after months of wrangling by the government and the cross-benchers. They’re certainly not an expression of pure justice, and it’s arguable that they are even reasonable (let alone fair) – that’s certainly the view of the unions, and many others beside.

For what it’s worth I agree, but that’s not really the point. Do we, as citizens, have an obligation to obey the law of the land? And I’m not talking about your parking tickets here.

The simple answer to that is probably yes, but then it’s not a simple question. There will be many emphatic that the law must be upheld regardless, because it is the law – and nothing else is, by definition, illegal.

I’m a born dissident so it’s no surprise I take a different view. It’s a point very easy to labour, but a valid point all the same. There have been myriad governments throughout history who have passed laws which with the benefit of hindsight are clearly against ‘human’ law, and very often oppressive. It’s easy to argue that a great lot of them were clearly wrong at the time – either politically expedient or socially insidious. Law perhaps, but clearly unjust.

How do we respond to those laws? How should we? Isn’t there an obligation as a human being – as opposed a citizen – to resist such laws? Or is the “just following orders” a perfectly valid defence after all?

So okay not every law is going to be so obviously wrong. There are grey areas and different perspectives, and times when laws are simply bad, rather than wrong. It’s more difficult then because what is right to one person is wrong to another.

This is why it’s so important to get laws right in the first place. That’s the responsibility of the people who govern us. In this case the legislation was raised to cripple a political opponent. Because it was so weakly found the gatekeepers who determine what should be law refused to make it so – until they were enticed by the promise of deals to be made and cooperation in other matters. Thus a poor law was passed into legislation, with the gift of trinkets. This is not how it should work, but does; it’s a failure of democracy.

Even so, it’s now fait accompli – it is law.

Sometimes laws have a use by date and it takes civil disobedience to get them changed. There’s a long history of this, and many of the rights we take for granted today are because of this. Without resistance the laws would never have changed.

Then there are bad laws passed such as this. I think it’s undemocratic and against principles of fair dealing, but there will many a union basher who will believe it’s long overdue. In such cases there is no empirical right or wrong, but I would argue that if it feels wrong it probably is.

Personally I find these discussions a little like discussions over free speech. Civil disobedience has a long history. I may not always agree with you, but if you believe strongly enough that something is unlawful then you should oppose it. That’s what democracy is about – the right to expression. That’s why in a democracy we have processes in place to arbitrate such matters.

Sometimes the principle is bigger than the law. There has been plenty of politically motivated outrage after the comments of the ACTU president (and the mealy mouthed response from Bill Shorten that bad laws should be changed, not resisted – but if not resisted, how will they change?), but I admire her.

I suspect everyone has their own answer to this question. As someone who has always stubbornly resisted the unjust the answer is simple for me. I think we have an obligation to resist the unjust law, and more power to them.


The limit

There’s been a few things in the public forum in the last week that have roused comment and controversy. As always I’m a keen observer of these disputes, even if it makes me feel a bit sick at times. These two issues relate to free speech. This time I need to add my voice to the fray.

The first relates to quite a stupid and clumsy promotion by Cooper’s Brewing. They were releasing a special edition beer to celebrate the centenary of some religious group they had an affiliation to. To mark the occasion a couple of federal ministers were brought together over a beer to discuss the merits of same sex marriage.

This is always going to be a fraught topic, and this is not the forum for it. It was all very amicable with one minister for and the other against, debated with a beer in hand. It was pretty silly and given that the sponsoring body – The Bible Society – is anti-same-sex marriage, is easily viewed as a political piece. Naturally it drew outrage.

All of a sudden social media was lit up with commentary, most of it condemning the piece, and a lot of it pretty violent. Within moments there was a movement to boycott Coopers products, which in the way of our times quickly gained momentum. Everyone wanted to be in on the act.

But not me. I reflected on this deeply, but my instinct right from the start was to recoil from such drastic action.

There’s no anger management on social media. Just about everyone goes hard, and much harder than they would dare face to face. There’s a red hot need to express outrage and support. One way or another commentary heads for the extreme. It’s the signs we live in, a binary age where one is either for or against, a snowflake or a RWNJ, where is little subtlety or sophistication in discourse, and only rarely any real insight.

This is why I can’t support a boycott. It’s a purely reactive, knee-jerk reaction to the situation, and as such is mindless. Never mind free speech or the right to have an opinion, the prevailing mode of discourse is to punish anyone who disagrees with what we believe.

Whenever I begin making statements like this I feel obliged to affirm my position in general. I hate having to do it as I consider myself first and foremost as a thinking individual, but lest I’m accused of being bias let me lay it out. I have a very strong liberal bent who believes in the rights of the individual – be they man, woman, black, white, gay or heterosexual – or even if they journey here by boat from far away. I’m for equality in general and a strong supporter of marriage equality.

I disagree strongly with the sentiments of The Bible Society, but I must defend their right to have them. We are a democracy. Free speech is a cornerstone of that. In fact, debate and discussion is a good thing – though rare these days as inevitably it degenerates into rabid name-calling. As a thinking man, I can’t support a response which is mindless reaction, which is why I’ll continue to enjoy a Coopers every now and then. It happens also to be a very good beer.

The next thing is the premature and unexpected death of cartoonist Bill Leak. In recent years Leak had become a very controversial and provocative figure. A great artist and at his best a very funny cartoonist, something had gone off in him sometime in the last 10 years. Many of cartoons, though clever, became offensive to different cultural groups, and often engaged in gross racial stereotyping. The sort of stuff we as a society had long moved past, and which, in my opinion, should never have been published by The Australian.

Quite naturally Leak became a champion of the right wing bigots who hide behind the skirt of free speech. This is the thing – free speech cuts both ways, but it also has limits on what is acceptable. This has been the great debate behind 18C, which Leak had become an unwitting champion of (he had been charged under its auspices). The argument was that Leak in publishing his cartoons was exercising his right to free speech. The debate was whether his cartoons crossed the line. Naturally this was another violently argued issue.

He died last week at the age of 61. On Monday night at a live broadcast of Q&A a bunch of audience members stood up and shouted that they were glad Leak was dead. This has been a common sentiment on social media. I may be old fashioned but I reckon that’s ugly and unnecessary.

Not surprisingly that sparked a reaction, this time from the conservative side of the political spectrum. Among other things they demanded the ABC – the broadcaster – should be censured for the uncouth actions of their audience. Oh, the irony.

The principle tenets of free speech are frequently overlooked by champions of it when it is turned against them. They cannot claim that Bill Leak was expressing his right to free speech and then turn around and demand punishment when others exercise that same right in opposition to them. I think the people who so bravely stood up to celebrate Bill Leak’s death are low lives, but so be it. They broke a social convention, but no laws – and that’s as it should be.