On How to Save the World

A handy guide for effecting genuine social change. Follow these five simple steps and you’re sure to succeed!

Step 1: Recognise and accept the difficulties
If there’s an issue that needs changing, it’s because our society currently thinks it’s easiest and/or for the best that we leave things as they are. They may well deny this, claiming to think equality and saving the planet is great, but ultimately most people who swear they’re not racist will also end up arguing that it’s ‘too much work’ to have to, y’know, not be racist. This applies to sexism, environmentalism, homophobia, classism, and many other issues.

Step 2: Overcome your growing misanthropy
As you meet more and more people in your campaign against that thing in human society you really hate, you will gradually realise that if humans didn’t exist, that bad thing wouldn’t exist either. This frequently leads to high levels of misanthropy in both amateur and professional campaigners, and can be a difficult phase to get out of. Unfortunately, it will never go away completely, but most find that a combination of excessive optimism, annoyingly inspiring fellow-campaigners and alcoholic tendencies help them to cope with their urge to kill everyone and start society afresh.

Step 3: Organise a clever and logical campaign
This should be something that provides a really smart way to change people’s behaviours and attitudes, and is wholly ingenious and relatively simple to put into practice. There’s no point giving you suggestions, because every campaign needs a different approach. Just figure out how to circumvent people’s innate biases, laziness and miserliness and be interested in recycling and trans rights instead!

Step 4: Organise a highly publicised campaign
It should be very popular on social media platforms, but rarely achieve anything beyond that hallowed ‘increased awareness’, like the Ice Bucket Challenge, or wearing a safety pin. It might not be useful for creating social change as your original campaign was, but being famous on the internet means strangers will know who you are. This will let you keep trying to run helpful campaigns once most people have forgotten about the pro-recycling hashtag that you started on Twitter that was retweeted by Emma Watson AND Greenpeace!!

Step 5: Continue to work diligently for many years*
Genuine social change usually takes at least a whole generation or longer to occur. To stop people from saying that you are a ‘quitter’ and that ‘you never really cared and it was all for the fame’ you will have to spend most of the rest of your life working in the same field and doing boring things like doing the accountancy work on your funding and telling people the same thing over and over again in identical-looking conference rooms in hotels across the country. Change will come, and you will be proud of your efforts, but still always feel like you failed in actually changing enough. Congratulations! You’re not a quitter, you changed the world, and now you have to hope it stays changed for the better. Have a gold star, and maybe someone will give you a Nobel Prize.

*Alternatively, you can choose to die young and hopefully become a martyr for whatever the social change you were campaigning for happened to be. This works best if you die in some kind of accident related to supporting your cause, preferably due to humans who oppose it. Being shot by the cops whilst protesting police brutality is a good example, although already widely used.

On Feminism and Good Taste

My parents encouraged me to be egalitarian, to care about being kind and fair, and to stand up for what I believe in. These are all excellent qualities to pass on, and are the basis of my feminism today. And yet at the same time as they instilled these values in me, they warned me to not cause scenes, and not get angry at people if they’re doing something wrong. They wanted me to know whatever facts I needed to know about sex, but they didn’t want me to ever, god forbid, mention the topic. Their opinion on the LGBT* community was always simple: ‘I don’t care what anyone else does with their sex life but I don’t want to know about it – it’s just not right to discuss that kind of thing in public!’

I can completely understand why they taught me these rules of society, because they live in a world that considers good taste, politeness and breeding to be very important. I still think those things are important myself, it’s just that I’ve expanded my idea of good taste to include two of most vital components of feminism – unbiased discussion of sex, anatomy and sexuality, and a willingness to dispute the status quo and keep arguing even if it might upset someone.

I’ve never been shy about calling people out for doing something wrong, whether it’s speeding, littering or using offensive language. And yet it’s with feminist issues that people get most upset with me and tell me to ‘be nice’ and ‘not cause a fuss’ if I dare tell someone they’re being rude. It’s weird, really: I get accused of being mean when I’m asking someone to stop doing something that’s hurtful or offensive.

Unfortunately, there’s still this strange expectation that if you’re well-raised, you won’t maintain an argument with someone for fear of upsetting them, and it’s a really poisonous concept because it suggests that a single individual’s feelings are more important than the entire idea of social equality. Of course no one should be rude for the sake of it, or angry if they don’t have to be – but to be told you’re not acting appropriately because you’re standing your ground on issues you care about it is ridiculous.

The other issue with trying to be fiercely feminist while making sure you don’t disappoint your grandmother is, of course, that of polite language and taboo topics. Polite society, apparently, pretends that sex and sexuality doesn’t exist except as a means to make babies. I’m told that ‘you shouldn’t talk about vaginas in public’. I’m told it’s not what nice girls do. But I study biology, and vaginas are totally fascinating. Apart from my own interest, girls absolutely have a right to discuss their own body parts so that they can look after themselves better.

I can’t help but sigh at the craziness of a situation where people accuse me of not being ‘well-raised’ because I’m happy to discuss sex and happy to do battle against sexism. Being well-raised has nothing to do with whether you talk about penises and vaginas or not. As with so many things, it’s about how you do it. Is it conversation based on common interest, on exchanging facts and opinions with each other, or are you just making cruel comments or sexualised suggestions? Are you sharing information, or just perpetuating sexist myths?

In the same way, being-well raised doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be angry at people. It means you should know the right times to be angry. Is the person you’re arguing making a choice that harms others? Or are you just upset over something that isn’t their fault? As long as it’s the former, feel free to keep arguing as much as you’d like.

I find it funny, because I’ve always been a huge supporter of ‘good taste’. I hate to imagine that someone would consider me badly brought up – I want to immediately point out my wide reading, my travels, my good works, my broad perspective. To think that someone would dismiss the positive values and wide experience that govern my life because of something as inane as me using the word vulva makes me first laugh, then sigh when I remember that that’s what does happen. Nonetheless, regardless of whether it makes some people think worse of me, I’m convinced of one thing: being well-raised should never mean you can’t talk about the things important to you, especially if acquiescing to the demands of politeness means perpetuating injustice against yourself or others.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On Refugees and how we see them

In France, the question of refugees has become truly pressing only in the last years thanks to the so-called ‘refugee crisis’ affecting Europe. Their issues are vastly different to our own decades-long struggle in many ways, including the nature of the refugees, the sudden increase and France’s own cultural and socio-political differences, but the situations are alike in the most vital details: each country is currently dealing with large numbers of genuine asylum seekers who we expect our government to aid according to the human rights convention.

Australia’s island state has prevented us from seeing the same sudden arrival of so many asylum-seekers, as the difficulties of the ocean voyage leads to most refugees being detained and sent to off-shore detention centres for processing before they reach the mainland. In comparison, the most popular tourist destination in the entire world – Paris – is also a makeshift home for up to 3000 refugees. There are the lucky ones, in organised camps, but walking through the city still means walking past whole families tucked onto a doorstep with plastic shopping bags spread over their few belongings to keep off the autumn rain. At Saint-Lazare, one of Paris’ largest stations, the repetitive melody of the metro announcements mingles with the haunting tones of the refugees who wait at the top of the escalators, begging for sympathy from the commuters.

Yet the vast majority of commuters treat these refugees as little different than any of the usual beggars, rarely stopping to toss them a few coins. The most common reason stated for not giving money to beggars on the street is that the would-be giver fears their donation will be wasted on alcohol or illicit substances, as they assume these are the reasons for the beggar’s current state. But with refugees, there’s no evidence to suggest they have any issues apart from being cruelly mistreated by chance and other humans’ selfish actions, and as such, no reason to withhold your spare change. Sadly, though, it is human nature that when confronted with mass suffering, aware we cannot give to everyone in need, we tend to give nothing – justifying it by telling ourselves we can’t save them all.

These are heartbreaking scenes, and unlike what we see in Australia, even though the deplorable conditions of our detention camps and the seemingly endless time periods required for processing prompts many Australians to consider the government’s policies an aberration of human rights. Yet there remains one silver lining in this dark cloud, and that is our maintained interest in the welfare of these displaced peoples. Thanks to our outrage at our government’s policies, there are constant lobbies and protests, and the media continues to report on the conditions. We stay invested in these people kept out of sight on far-away islands in a way that would likely not occur if the same people were lining our city streets with their handwritten cardboard signs.

Gerda Lerner, famous feminist scholar, once noted that it took ‘long periods of organised effort to accomplish any advance in social policy’, and her point is, sadly, very apt. Change of any kind comes gradually, and only when we refuse to give up – and our outrage at human rights violations is exactly what fuels such determination. As much as our government policies may displease us, we can be glad that they have kept us angry, and in doing so, kept us resolved to change the current state of affairs instead of turning away for fear that because we can only make a small difference, it is not worth trying to make a difference at all.

On Preparation, and how to enjoy history properly

As a kid, my parents dragged me to half a million fascinating places between Portugal and Germany, and I have clear memories of quite a few of them. The common element of all those memories, though, is that I frequently barely even remember the historical or cultural significance of the place, but rather some silly anecdotal event that happened. Getting lost as an eight year old in the Schönbrunn palace and deciding to continue on with a random tour group I found, or carrying our pet cat through an abandoned-feeling monastery in Spain. There’s a place I went in Germany which I couldn’t describe as anything except ‘the place we watched a squirrel run up a vertical wall’.

Obviously, unless it’s a particular hobby of theirs, children are rarely as fascinated by who-lived-here-when and who-died-how as adults are. But even travelling as an adult I’ve found that a lot of the time, seeing the must-see sights of this famous city or that can be, rather, well, boring. This is despite my being both keenly interested in and possessed of a relatively well-developed understanding of Western history.

Almost everything is wonderful if I read the helpful placards and remember which king Henry VIII was (the one with all the wives, FYI) and what else was happening in the world at that time (European expansionism, mostly) because then I can put personalities to the scenes in front of me, whether it be an ornate display of the tea-table or a half-destroyed dungeon where some political prisoner was kept. That is without debate: it is amazing to see the remnants and reproductions of how these famous characters from our cultural development and their fellow man lived.

Unfortunately, a lot of the time, you don’t really know the specifics of what you’re visiting. Yes, the Arc de Triomphe is an impressive monument in and of itself, but if you’re very vague on what Napoleon actually did except be made fun of by modern day students for being short, it doesn’t mean a great deal beyond that. The solution is surely to read the informative plaques that inevitably accompany any popular tourist site, but even then, the information might not be available in your language or it might be too dreadfully brief and expect you to already be well-versed in the exact succession of royalty in Hungary in the 18th century. Not many of us, sadly, are. Guided tours are often perfect for filling these gaps, but might be impossible due to timing, language barriers or costs.

What’s the solution, then? Should we confine ourselves only to seeking out the historical monuments we already know the history for? Of course not. The answer, while perhaps a little unattractive, is to read up beforehand. It sounds counterintuitive to think that you should be studying for your holidays, but the fact remains that you’ll get more genuine enjoyment out of what you’re seeing if you know why you’re supposed to be enjoying it. That’s why people get tours, after all – to have someone explain why they should care. But it’s easy to do it yourself, too, whether by buying a guidebook or just letting yourself fall into the rabbit hole that is link-hopping on Wikipedia. And as an added bonus, you can customise your research to include exactly what it is that interests you most – though you do run the risk of ending up completely off topic and wanting to go visit another three different sites because of what you’ve read about them!

In simple terms, unless you’re ready to throw yourself on fate’s /hands/ and hope that there will be adequate information that fits neatly into the jigsaw puzzle of what you already know, or, at least, an interesting event involving small furry animals, it’s nothing but a good investment to be prepared with all the facts you need to truly impress everyone with all your brand-new knowledge about the place you’re going to – even before you get on the plane.

On Perspective, and what you wouldn’t do

Sometimes, I’m convinced that being able to see things from other people’s perspectives is the most important skill we learn in our lives. I’m not very naturally empathetic, and if someone has even slightly different opinions or feelings to me on something, my immediate response is to stare at them in complete confusion, and perhaps tell them they’re wrong. Probably with rather unkind language.

Instead of doing that, I have to make a concerted effort to understand why they think differently from me. Frequently it seems impossible to do so, and I try to attack the issue as logically and analytically as I can. It’s a hard task, precisely because I am blinded by my own perspective, and because often I don’t even know what the biases I should be trying to overcome and see past even are. I am regularly amazed to discover the thousands of nuances that wealth, cultural background, religion, social status, education and myriad other factors bring to our personal understanding of the world.

It would never occur to me that women resent the endorsement of females in the workforce because it threatens their family income. In fact, something as relatively controversial as people disliking the growing prevalence of alternate gender identities always seemed strange to me, until I realised that it was because they didn’t want to see their own established sense of identity undermined.

Even if you like to think you’re pretty good at being broad-minded, it’s dreadfully easy to slip into the habit of forgetting how much your perspective changes everything in your life. If you’ve ever read about a rape victim who kept silent, an abuse victim who went back to their abuser, a bystander who watched people be mistreated for the colour of their skin – anything that made you think, ‘If that had been me, things would have been different. I wouldn’t have done what they did,’ you’re guilty of forgetting all the thousands of differences between your life and theirs. It is pointless to think about what you would do in that situation, simply because the other person is not you. They don’t have the same influences, fears, securities and knowledge. You can’t judge their actions by the same metre as your own.

That is not to say that people do not do evil, terrible things of varying degrees, or that they shouldn’t be condemned for injustices against others. But the vast majority of people do believe they’re doing the right thing, or else they’d change their ways – we need to be able justify our actions to ourselves. And arguing with someone by telling them their views are wrong achieves very little when both sides are equally certain the other is wrong. It is better by far to, as it were, take the higher road and dedicate some time and care to figuring out why they feel that way, and which biases might be guiding their opinions. It is only when you discover that, and truly attempt to see the scenario from their viewpoint, that you’ll be able to convince them of anything new, because it’s only then that you can provide arguments, reasons and explanations that will mean anything to them.

By the same token, it’s equally important to remember that you are not an infallible source of human reason and justice. We are all fettered by our own perspectives, and if someone is willing to take the time to explain to you how some small part of your individual life might have changed your opinion on a certain issue, you should be willing to hear them out and do your utmost to move beyond such a bias.

Remember; perspective changes everything, regardless of its abstract justice or righteousness, and regardless of whether it’s your opinion, or theirs.

 

On Education and Utopias

I’m a self-confessed nerd, as unspectacular a confession as that is. That doesn’t mean I always loved going to school because I downright detested it at some points, but that was always due to other issues rather than a hatred of education, which I love whole-heartedly. That’s partially because I’m good at it, and partially because I simply can’t imagine going through life without wanting to absorb all the knowledge I can from everything I encounter. But this isn’t about converting anyone to the wonders of learning – it’s just an attempt to prove that this is more than just the stereotypical embittered teen complaining about the stress of formal education and how ridiculous the system is.

With that kind of upbringing, and since I’m finished with it (though yet to receive my results), it’s easy to look back and argue that it wasn’t that bad after all. Even while I was in the midst of it, trying desperately to memorise 3000 words of literature analysis for an exam the next day, although I felt desperately unable to cope, I still knew somewhere in the back of my mind that it wasn’t as bad as I thought. That’s what I find so horribly fascinating and terrible about the whole experience, because I instinctively want to join the chorus of students decrying the unfair standards, the ridiculous nature of the whole system…and yet I can’t help but want to defend it, in part, as well.

I do think there are major issues in the way some things are assessed. The importance placed on the final exams brings a sense of urgency and absolutism that can ruin any learning environment, and most teachers share a hatred of ‘teaching to the test’, because they want their students to learn for the sake of knowledge, for their interest in the subject, or to acquire proficiency in the area, not to pass an exam. It’s an anti-climactic, drab kind of way to sum up the entirety of anything as broad as biology, or history, or literature.

And yet, what on earth is the alternative?

Students love to talk about this supposed ‘better’ systems, the way they do it in this country, in this state, in primary school, in this utopian daydream. But it’s damned difficult to implement their half-expressed ideas, and we do, it seems, need some way of separating those who know things, and those who don’t. That’s essentially what assessment is about – much like championships in a sport, the aim is to find the people who are the best at what they do, which in this case, is learning. And that’s why I feel our current system fails, because it separates out two different products: those who are naturally intelligent, and those who work and work, not to become more intelligent, or more knowledgeable, or better at what they do, but to arbitrarily ‘prove’ that they are intelligent, through a few hours in an exam hall and a lot of memorised answers and rote-learned responses and stoic acceptance of the flawed system that results in a decision to go along with it if it gets them what they need.

Education systems are flawed when they value rote answers over understanding, and when they praise students for intelligence that’s actually hard work, or vice versa, and we need to do our best to ensure our systems work as smoothly as they can by considering every aspect and all possible biases and outside factors. That said, no one will ever like exams, or assessments, or assignments that make them have to think and work hard. It’s documented across the decades, even centuries – de Balzac’s description of lazy students, bright but resentful of having to give evidence of the fact, remains startlingly close to any modern description, as does de Maupaussant’s, these 19th century French intellectuals echoing the complaints of any average 21st century high school student.

But really, most education systems aren’t so awful, because whatever is good about them is likely taken for granted. Any assessment will be biased, obtaining a thorough education without at least a little effort is perhaps impossible and certainly extremely difficult, and we do need some method of figuring out who’s good at what and how good they are. Your marks shouldn’t determine self-worth, and the education system should strive to make them as accurate a reflection as possible of your ability and achievement, but there is no perfect system that suits every single individual and makes school absolutely easy for everyone.

If people want to complain about their education system, I completely understand and will likely join them, as long as they complain about the right things – the way things are assessed, the accuracy of the assessment system, the ultimate goals of the assessment, the value of that assessment in wider society. Whining about how boring essays are and how damn much there is to know about kidneys is understandable, but it won’t achieve anything because humans will always complain about having to do any kind of work and the people who do have the power to change things won’t listen, because they know it won’t matter if we have to write one essay or ten, we’ll whinge just as much. If you want things to change, accept that life will never be perfect, and remember that that applies to school and assessments just as much as anything else.

 

On Tolerance and Upbringing

How much of your personality is yours and yours alone, and how much is the environment you grew up in?

The wonderful Sylvia Plath wrote all about this many decades before it ever occurred to me, and the basic argument of nature versus nurture has been going on an aeon, with Rousseau throwing his hat in the ring with natural man and civilised man, and Shelley presenting us with nurturing gone awfully wrong, and from that famed literature (and likely from earlier) a thousand other imaginings have sprung up of life without upbringing, of the human without its natural environment, of people set apart from all the little things that shape us and observed, through the magnifying, mystifying lens of fiction.

Clearly, it’s a subject humanity loves to dwell on, and who can blame us? The desire to understand ourselves is perhaps stronger than any other need for comprehension we might encounter, because it seems so logical that if we could only unpick and pull apart the very fabric of our selves, we could so easily see where any errors lie, and cut them out with our sharp little scissors so as to sew ourselves back up all perfectly and know a life devoid of sadness and unnecessary guilt and anger.

I’ve always felt particularly interested in it, like every slightly oddball, introspective kid. Everyone’s upbringing differs slightly, of course, because some parents are stricter, or more traditional, or less well off, or raised differently themselves, but mine had noticeable contrasts, like moving overseas multiple times, that distracted me from the subtler differences for quite a while. It was by no means astounding and indeed sounds quite tame and unexciting typed neatly out for a stranger’s perusal, and yet it was so important an influence on all the actions I make today, and will make for the rest of my life.

I’d like to be able to claim all the fascinating aspects of me as part of my magnificent, unique snowflake self, but that’s naive and unjust. I’m smart, and interesting, and knowledgeable and open-minded because of all the wonderful opportunities I had, even if there was some small genetic predisposition for those traits.

My parents encouraged me to read at every spare moment and my brother and I were willing victims, getting in trouble for staying up late to read as much as any other childish misdemeanour. We were carted around Europe, books in hand, by our eager parents who forced as many cultural experiences as they could find on a shoestring onto our impressionable minds, sometimes all the more memorable for the extreme budget we did them on – how would I forget the cheap, shady-looking ‘hotel’ in Morocco where the beds were all inexplicably damp when we got to our room and the manager brought us new sheets, which, he assured us, had been stripped from his own bed literally moments before?

There’s the obvious things like that, or the way my mother speaks properly and people tease me for calling my parents my mother and father (instead of the more appropriately Aussie ‘Mum and Dad’), but there’s small things too. Like how I just assumed everyone would be conversationally fluent in at least one foreign language. Like how I didn’t know there was any way you could do something other than go to uni after high school. Like how I don’t know how grandfathers love to spoil their granddaughters, because mine both died before I was born.

And each of these is a tiny, tiny part of my life and often hastily overlooked. If we don’t pay attention to the impact of all these infinitesimal occurrences it’s easy to not realise how much the part contributes to the whole, to dismiss them as unimportant. And that in itself doesn’t seem so awful, except that these small differences do change our lives, and change the way we approach our lives. It’s the microagressions we mention when discussing race issues, the constant silent erosion of culture and self that happens one grain of sand at a time, so slow that no one notices, not even the ones it’s happening to.

I don’t mean to preach about sexism and racism and ableism and all the ingrained discrimination in our world that we accept as normal and right because we don’t know a world without it, it simply provides the most common, everyday example. I grew up not believing catcalls were insulting because I grew up in a world where no one would dream of catcalling or wolf-whistling unless it was ironic, or perhaps happening in a movie where the characters might equally end up flying areoplanes out of cathedral tombs and marrying millionaires. Even when I read other people’s accounts, I still thought, secretly, that it all seemed to be a lot of fuss about nothing. It wasn’t til I encountered it myself that I realised why some women hate it so much, live in fear of it as they walk cautiously down the streets I generally run down unafraid of harassment because it’s not part of my life.

My parents raised me in a way that was half-revolutionary and half-old-fashioned so that, thanks to the mix, I turned out reasonably ordinarily. My books included both Asterix and Obelix comics and Jane Eyre*, and I had a diet of old movies that ranged from Francis the Talking Mule to Freaks. My mother defends her decision in showing her eight-year-old daughter a film that ends in the main character having her legs amputated and her hands melted into wing-stubs by righteously outraged carnival freaks because, as she quite fairly points out, the morals are still good and true. The main character is evil and rotten, and the freaks are the good guys, mutilating her only because she treated them as less than human.

I like to think I’m especially tolerant and open-minded, and I like to imagine that I’m inherently smarter or somehow better than people I meet because I know so much more than a lot of them. But if I hadn’t been raised by my parents, who fed knowledge faster than I could digest it, and gave me such a strong moral backbone that they never bothered to shroud in the disguise of social convention, who would I be? Who am I to assume that other people don’t know things because they’re dumb, and not because they weren’t given a dozen books on faeries and history and sent reluctantly to run around crumbling castle walls? Who am I to truly consider someone lesser than me because they’re less tolerant, if they were brought up to truly believe that morality can follow only one path and any deviation from normality is akin to sin?

I don’t really think I have the right. And neither, I imagine, do you.

*Anyone who appreciates humour or Jane Eyre or Victorian literature or any combination of the three should definitely read this lovely, lovely summary of a book which I’ve read 3 times since I was 11 and liked more with each successive re-reading.