Saturday, March 28, 2015

To discriminate or not to discriminate?

I try, very hard, to look at both sides of a debate. I find it very hard, because it doesn't come naturally to me. I prefer easy answers and like defending those easy answers to all and sundry. Through blogging I discovered I couldn't really defend a lot of what I thought of as fact, because with writing, one doesn't have an opponent to bully. I think, if I'd known I'd end up having to reevaluate so much of what I'd taken for granted, I probably would never have begun blogging. 

Blogging has also led to me to realise that sometimes I just don't have good answers. Again, for a vain and arrogant person, that's a terrible thing. If I don't have an opinion to defend then there'll be debates without me. And I simply can't have that. 

For example; should businesses be allowed discriminate against certain classes of customer?

For many people, the answer to this is easy. Many think yes and many think no. Yet I'm torn. I abhor legally sanctioned discrimination. I also believe in a maximalist definition of free speech. And while I no longer think of capitalism as some sort of supernaturally self-correcting entity, I still think it must enjoy a certain freedom, if it is to realise its full potential. 

So three principles, legal equality, freedom of speech and the free market. Why must I delve into values instead of simply saying whether I think a thing is right or wrong? Back to discriminating against customers. A bakery in Northern Ireland refused to bake a particular type of cake for a gay customer. I think this is wrong. I don't even have to think about it. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. And ugly. But there are those who genuinely believe that the bakery owners are the true victims. Leading me to think that perhaps recourse to simple questions of right and wrong are not useful to this dispute. 

I hope you find that conclusion as unsettling as I do. 

So back to principles, or if you wish, my particular prejudices. Because if we strip away right and wrong, we are faced with a choice between imposing our will on others or finding a way to accommodate difference, even (or especially) difference, we find distasteful. 

Should a company be allowed to discriminate against particular classes of customer? Yes, I think they should be allowed. While I am not a Roman Catholic I would happily accept First Communion, Confirmation and Ordination business. There's good money in that. But I would not take money from someone, who was looking to have a cake made or flyers printed that carried an anti LGBT message. I don't know how the State can endorse my right to discriminate against homophobes without it also affirming the right of homophobes to be homophobes. 

I know it's a weak argument I'm making. Where do we draw the line with homophobia? Must we then allow employers to discriminate (as we already do in some cases)? If homophobes have a right to their disgusting beliefs, what about racists and misogynists? And are you even thinking about the ongoing damage homophobia has on children? All valid points. All predicated on the conviction, a conviction I share, that homophobia is wrong. But, do we want right and wrong, decided by 166 winners of a popularity contest? 

If pressed, I think the greatest weakness of my equality for homophobes argument is that while homophobes are more or less free to be homophobes, we don't have the right to call them homophobes. That is galling. That we cannot label the opponents of LGBT equality, homophobes, demonstrates just how far away we are from freedom of speech in this country. And that freedom should extend to businesses who wish to discriminate against certain customers. If they believe black people are inferior, or that Jews are Christ killers, or that all Muslims are terrorists, then they must be allowed come out and say these things. Then those of us who find these beliefs abhorrent can explain why they are wrong headed. (I have to acknowledge my privileges when I make that argument. I'm a straight, white man)

We can do more than argue. We can use market forces. I don't mean picket (though sometimes that would be necessary) or boycott (sometimes perhaps) or even insist these hateful places identity themselves with a sign indicating which hateful genuinely held beliefs they have. Rather that businesses that do not treat certain customers as lesser human beings, should advertise as such. Make hate, unprofitable. 

This seems all so obvious to me, but I know it really isn't. Principles and convictions are easy on paper but would I press this argument with a victim or potential victim of hateful ideologies? I doubt it. Could I bring myself to stand up and defend the right of homophobes to be homophobes? I don't know. 

All I am certain about is that when faced with an individual or group who's conception of the world is so different to be almost alien, we are faced with some difficult choices. Do we seek to eradicate or accommodate? My illiberal gut says eradicate, my liberal head says accommodate. And if accommodation, how? If accommodation, where do we draw the line? If accommodation, how do we protect the more vulnerable among us? If accommodation, will that effort be reciprocated? 

Oh how I miss the simplicity of right and wrong.    

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Self-publishing, my experience so far

Cover by Robyn Morton

When one self-publishes, one is supposed to blog about it first, not a month later. But as I was so eager to get it out into the world, I neglected to follow this simple rule. I'm ok with that. I needed it out there and it's out there.

I can now reflect on the process.

In the deeper recesses of my mind, I had allowed myself to contemplate how I would judge the relative success of this project. I wondered what would have to happen for me to feel justified in changing my Twitter profile from 'wannabe writer' to simply, writer. Well, not even my most realistic expectations were met, so I won't be changing my profile anytime soon.

On one level, the novel has been a failure. It has failed to generate anything more than the minutest of interest. I am disappointed by this. My pride, my vanity and my faith in my abilities as a writer are wounded. I wanted success. I crave it.

That wound is not deep though. For all my vanity, I was realistic enough to expect failure. Blue Eyeshadow is a first novel and I think it reads as such. It has flaws. And its flaws meant that it was up to me and me alone to push it out into the world. I am vain, but not so vain as to expect to turn a flawed product into a commercial and artistic success.

I do not wish to denigrate the novel. Those who have read it, see its merits. Vanity notwithstanding, it does have something. And I dedicated a great deal of time and effort to its creation. My partner dedicated an extraordinary amount of time and effort to it. Friends read it and contributed time that could've been more enjoyably spent reading better books.

It remains precious to me. But I know I am going to have to let it go very soon. Like Rincewind with that one spell in his mind, blocking entry to all other spells, I need to make space for the next novel. And I already know so much about the next novel. But dedicating myself to it, does involve a process of moving on. At the moment I'm just not sure how to do that.

I am strangely attached to the characters. In my short stories, I discovered people I liked and was drawn to, but I was never too long in their company. The characters in Blue Eyeshadow occupied my mind for years. Which might be a symptom of taking too long to finish the thing. They are fully formed in my imagination, if not entirely so on the page.

They are characters I want people to meet. I want people to feel for them as I feel for them. It is an unrealistic expectation, but it's there and it's really quite annoying to be honest. It seems so inconsistent to create these people and to make them suffer just so that I can convey a story, then get all sentimental about them.

But I must purge myself of them and of the vanity of wanting to be read, because I need to write another and then another. So forgive me if I continue to go on about Blue Eyeshadow a little longer. I know I must move on, but it won't be today.

Blue Eyeshadow may be purchased here and here

What is secluarism?

What is secularism? It is at once an easy and difficult question to answer. Easy, because there are so many examples. Difficult, because it involves a mind set.

Last year I had the privilege and chore of being called for jury duty. I wasn't thrilled, but just like voting for the least bad candidate, I considered it a duty I should not try to get out of. And sure what were the odds I'd actually have to sit?

As it happens, the odds were shorter than expected.

When all the perspective jurors were assembled, the judge welcomed us and gave a brief explanation as to what was expected of us. Included in his remarks was a reference to the oath every juror would have to take. He also reminded us that there was an alternative to the oath, an affirmation. I was glad of that, as I didn't want to stick out like a sore thumb if called.

The draw was made and Kerry being Kerry, many of those called, had to excuse themselves as they knew the accused. Thus my name was pulled from the box. What surprised me was I went from put upon citizen to scared shitless citizen in about ten seconds flat. The case involved an assault and I'd have to assess the evidence given. Me? I've met me, I'm irredeemably trivial. My philosophy doesn't extend far beyond "What would Picard do" and I'm not even sure he was a real person.

The twelve members sat in the jury box for the oath. To my dismay, a man handed each person a bible and they repeated the oath. Swearing to a god was the default, not just an option. When my time came I had to wave away the bible and wait for the registrar to go through her notes so she could find the obviously weird and little used, affirmation wording.

What a strange system of contradictions our courts are. The judge, can only be a judge, if he or she swears an oath to a god. Jurors and witnesses are also expected to swear an oath to a god to do their duty and to tell the truth. Yet if any of theses actors fails to adhere to their holy promise, they are not handed over to a religious authority for punishment. It is the secular authorities, with their oaths to their gods, who will administer retribution.

The affirmation I gave, which made me look like a bit peculiar and inconvenienced the officials, carries the same weight as the holy promises, and carries with it, the same consequences if I'd failed in my duty.

Why continue to single people out, why allow people to be prejudged, when an affirmation is equal in law and consequence, to a holy promise?

A mind set that values oaths over affirmations, that privileges the holy over the secular, is where things get difficult. It is the place where feelings, tradition, inertia, identity and prejudice are allowed subvert our institutions.

Many High Offices, in this country, can only be attained with a holy promise. The Presidency, the Council of State and the judiciary are barred to those who wish to affirm rather than take an oath. This is in the Constitution and thus cannot be changed without a referendum or even a series of referendums.

It is difficult to imagine a situation where a government would feel inclined to give a damn about conscientious secularists. Especially when no secularist to date, at the point of gaining high office has had the backbone to risk their juicy new position by objecting to taking a holy promise.

It is particularly strange that our Constitution continues to privilege religious values over secularist neutrality, when we are facing into a referendum on marriage equality. Some Roman Catholic figures have muttered threats about refusing to take part in the secular aspects of a wedding, if the referendum is passed. Only religious organisation get to conduct weddings and play at politics at the same time. Yet their right to do so is unquestioned. And the right of others to have the same powers, is denied.

If not true secularism, I'd settle for secularist adjacent. As we stand on the cusp of marriage equality, why is it still beyond the wit of our politicians to simply have jurors asked, if they would prefer to affirm or take an oath?

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Anti-choicers and the Eighth Amendment

I haven't gotten excited by Clare Daly's latest attempt to make our abortion laws less barbaric. I haven't bothered to contact my local TDs, as I feel little hope that things will improve during the life of this Dáil. The main opposition parties, Sinn Fein and Fianna Fáil, won't support her legislation. Sinn Fein have sniffed the wind and decided to sit on its hands. Fianna Fáil have decided to sniff all the local winds and vote both ways. As for the government parties. Labour will self-inflict another humiliation by voting no. And my party will definitely vote no because it's too scared to take on the anti-choicers inside and outside the party. 

Granted, the legislation might be unconstitutional, but that is a question we employ very expensive judges to decide. At least if the legislation failed at the Supreme Court, we’d have some momentum for a referendum. And once our politicians agree a referendum on abortion is necessary, sure we'd hardly feel the ten years pass before they finally held one.

I don't agree with Clare Daly on many things, but she is brave and honest. Two qualities one doesn't usually associate with TDs. For taking on the Gardai, I'd feel obliged to give her my first preference, if she was standing in my constituency. Though I doubt she'd appreciate a vote from a blueshirt.

I also think her championing of women who experience fatal foetal abnormalities during their pregnancies, is exactly the right road to take towards the ultimate goal of repealing the Eighth Amendment.

Those of us who wish to see the Eighth Amendment repealed are a disparate bunch. There are those, like me, who wish women to have control over their bodies in all circumstances. That is not necessarily a popular position. There are others among us who see women carrying foetuses with life ending conditions as a special case, meriting a particular dispensation. It's not an unpopular position.

The women who’ve experienced these tragic pregnancies and are now campaigning to help other women in similar situations, are accomplished activists. They are an admirable group and they hold some considerable sway. They represent the best opportunity we have at finally addressing the Eighth Amendment. Of course, if the Eighth does go, this loose coalition will end.

The inescapable logic of repealing the Eighth is that abortion will become legal. It will prove impossible to legislate for choice on the basis that it's only for women who deserve it.

The anti-choicers are well aware of this. They know they have nothing to fear from me. My opinions on abortion are far too liberal. Women who have experienced the diagnosis of a 'fatal foetal abnormality' and have been told their foetus is 'incompatible with life' scare the shit out of the fanatics. So much so they even want the terms, fatal foetal abnormality and incompatible with life, banned. Think on that one. They want to change language so that women will no longer be able to accurately describe their own experience of a tragedy. Denying women language, denying women control of their own bodies, denying women choice.

They say they genuinely believe a foetus is a fully fledged human being, deserving of all the rights and protections afforded the already born. In essence they see themselves as trying to save lives and protect women from trauma.

Let's look at that. What are the anti-choicers doing to prevent abortions and help women?

An abortion is one of the safest medical procedures a women can have. Well, in countries where it is legal. In countries where it is illegal, back street abortions are dangerous and sometimes fatal. Fortunately, in Ireland, despite the illegality of abortions, many women can access the service in the UK or smuggle in the appropriate medication, sparing us a proliferation of back street abortions and death. That is the status quo. A status quo where abortions are ubiquitous, but carried out at a slight remove. A status quo where women are made to needlessly suffer and are driven to unnecessary expense. Yet thousands of Irish women continue to have abortions.

And what are the anti-choicers doing about this? As far as I can tell, nothing. This is difficult to understand, as there is so much they could do, to reduce the number of abortions that Irish women have, while remaining respectful of women and their choices.

If the anti-choicers were to adopt the maxim of 'safe, legal and rare' they would probably prevent more abortions than they do now. (Not that I'd advocate, safe, legal and rare, as it's a bit judgemental)

Within the framework of ‘safe, legal and rare,’ there are several useful strategies the anti-choicers could pursue to reduce the number of abortions that Irish women have and indeed women have, worldwide.

They could begin in the schools. Compressive, age appropriate and ongoing sex education would go a long way to preventing unwanted pregnancies. Everything from educating children about their bodies, appropriate touch, respect, where to get advice, all the way up to extensive instruction on contraception. Imagine the number of abortions this might prevent.

Further to contraception, it continues to amaze me that our species split the atom, landed a human on the moon and put a computer/phone/camera/clock/torch into my pocket, yet contraception is still not 100% reliable, still causes side-effects and requires humans to use their brains when other parts of their anatomies are vying for attention. Instead of paying for protest marches and lobbying, why not throw money at scientists. More reliable contraception? How many abortions prevented?

Poverty. If the anti-choicers directed some of their efforts towards eliminating poverty, they might find the number of abortions simultaneously falling.

And let's not forget those terrible women who are ambitious. Children can still hinder a woman's progress in those parts of the world that lauds unhindered capitalism. Might a few letters to the rich white men who control that world, help address this?

The anti-choicers could redirect their efforts from banning the term 'fatal foetal abnormality' to instead, aggressively funding the kind of research that might make the term 'fatal foetal abnormality' obsolete.

Then there's tackling cultures, so patriarchal, that female foetuses are aborted in favour of male ones. You know, take on ingrained conservatism. How many fewer abortions there?

This is not an exhaustive list of strategies that the anti-choicers could employ to reduce the number of abortions in Ireland, but it's start. It just strikes me that these strategies are somewhat obvious. And if they are obvious, why aren't the anti-choicers taking any positive steps to make abortions rarer?

Is it because this really isn't about women and the so called 'lives' they may be carrying? The evidence suggests that anti-choicers don't care all that much about abortions. Instead, all they appear to care about, is control. Controlling women, controlling their bodies, controlling their choices. For that is the very essence of the Eighth Amendment, control. Repeal the Eighth and the fanatics will lose their control of women. No wonder threats to that amendment terrify them so much. 

Monday, February 9, 2015

Civility in Debate

Civility is thought by many people to be important in a debate. They think this for two reasons. The first is civility for civility's sake. It is the hand shake before a game of rugby. We may knock seven shades of shit out of each other during the game, but we shake hands after, because ultimately, we are all friends and we respect each other. The second reason is a tad more cynical. In a public debate we are not really addressing the arguments of our opponent, but using the platform to persuade the audience. And an audience may be put off by an excess of passion. 

I am troubled by this.

I am a middle aged, straight, white man who is also an atheist. When describing myself, I place atheism high on my list of defining characteristics. Most atheists of my acquaintance do not. For them, atheism is merely incidental. If I could spend the rest of my life debating atheism with those atheists, I would have a life of overwhelming contentment. The thing is, I am so privileged, I could do that. 

While I am passionate about the constitutional and institutional discrimination that atheists experience, I don't have children and I have no interest in being a judge or the president, so that discrimination touches me in theory only. I can debate that discrimination with great civility and even empathy, because I believe I understand why so many Irish people feel atheism is a threat to their identity. 

As attractive as a life wholly immersed in arguing how many Dawkins can dance on the head of a pin is to me, I can't help thinking that equality in law for atheists, can and should only be achieved when more irrational and obvious discrimination is dealt with first. 

Until LGBT people enjoy the same privileges as I do, I will continue to struggle to get angry about the discrimination I sort of experience. Until women have the same level of physical autonomy as I take for granted, I will continue to be a tad embarrassed about the 'burden' of my atheism. 

But back to civility. I am troubled by the question, is it fair to expect a gay person or a woman in search of control over her own body, to play the game of debate? Short answer is, I don't know and I will now write several hundred more words exploring that, don't know. 

Thought I am neither gay nor a woman, I struggle with my contempt for those who oppose LGBT rights and women's choices. I struggle there, much more than I do with my feelings for those who think atheists are not quite Irish. Yet I think I have it within me to debate in a faux-respectful manner with those people. 

It would be an act of purest cynicism, but I would do it, because 'the game' requires the pretence of civility. Obviously there are people who wish to overthrow and abolish the game as currently played, but I have little faith in such ideologues establishing anything better than the status quo. 

I do not think I have any special insights or abilities or that I would even be any good at debating on the side of the LGBT community and women, I just know that after twenty years working with vulnerable children and adults, I have a game face that is hard to crack. 

Which brings me back to my question, should people who are the direct victims of discrimination be polite to those who would deny them equality? The game does require it as the audience/voters will hover between disinterest and apathy. We do live in a world where many people get rich because they know how best to convince an audience that black is white. And these people sell their skills to whomever is buying. 

I simply do not know how I would react if I was in the presence of someone who was calling for, even demanding, that I be discriminated against in the most basic aspects of my life. I simply cannot know if I could keep my game face on, could keep my eye on the big picture, could remember the rules of engagement. And because I doubt my ability to restrain myself, I cannot expect people who are true victims of discrimination to keep calm, and with angelic patience, wade through the shit directed at them. 

Yet the game requires it. 

If there is a downside to privilege (and there really isn't) it is that I simply do not know what it is like to be thought of as less. Meaning I can empathise with Irish people who fear and loathe my atheism, more than I can empathise with my gay friends and the women I know who were forced to travel for terminations.  

So I can't say if LGBT people and women should be civil in their demands for equality. But I can be certain that knowing they must play to the rules of a game that defines them as less, must make civility taste more bitter than I can ever imagine. 

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Kerryman letter re Freedom of Speech

As appeared in Letters - The Kerryman - 4 February 2015 edition 

(Wrote this letter in response to this article)

As I read Brian Whelan (January 21) condemn the actions of the recently murdered French cartoonists, I thought of the film 'Life of Brian.' Banned in this country for many years, I think I watched it at least a dozen times before the ban was lifted. The little men who banned it, thought it offensive, even hateful.

Then I thought about Father Ted. An entire sitcom dedicated to mocking the type of people who banned Life of Brian and hundreds of other films and books. 

After that I thought about the thousands of barbs, small and large, that gay people will have to endure, as we approach the marriage equality referendum.

There are people who think gay children should not be subjected to the prejudices of others. They reason that children do not have the fortitude to cope with wounding words. They would see their enemies silenced, for is not attacking the beliefs and rights of any group, a form of hate speech?   

We should certainly consider banning ridicule and offence. We should consider it so that we may realise how monumentally dangerous this would be. If a belief or ideology cannot survive being mocked, then it's probably not a worthwhile idea in the first place. 

The little men who demand the silence of others, should remember that one day they too may be silenced. 

Thursday, January 8, 2015

What do we want from health care?

I sometimes catch myself feeling nostalgic about the Progressive Democrats. This is not an ideological pining. It's more akin to missing the 'good old days' when Liverpool always won or when petrol cost half what it costs now or even when I used to drink vodka. It is an emotional attachment. The PDs were formed when I was about 11 and I identified with them from the night I saw them on the news. 

Nostalgia and sentimentality are not wholly useless pastimes. While I welcomed the PDs destruction, due to their gross errors while in government, my occasional unguarded feelings towards the party, does allow me a certain empathy for those who stick with parties that disappoint them. Understanding, but not sympathy. Misplaced loyalty should be understood so it can be overcome. 

One of the key failures of the PD administration was in Health. I had high hopes when Mary Harney took over that department. She was clearly smarter than most of her colleagues and more importantly, wasn't in thrall to parish pump politics. 

She was hamstrung from the beginning by having to take on the HSE. The HSE was a good idea in principle, but was horribly bloated from day one, due to Michael Martin conniving with the public sector unions. 

Expenditure on health mushroomed under Harney, but there was no serious reform. The Centres of Excellence, were a good idea, but Harney left few improvements behind her. 

What I find most disappointing about that, was during the Bubble, there was time and money to have a conversation about health care in Ireland. A conversation not necessarily ideological laden. Yes the PDs were a free market party, but their partners, Fianna Fáil were never what one would call ideological and certainly the Opposition represented all ideologies and none. 

A conversation about what we want and how best to achieve it. (Though of course this is my blog post, so it will be about what I want and how I think it can be best achieved)

Obviously, as a former PD and current member of Fine Gael I must be a fan of capitalism. Guilty as charged. I am a capitalist. I think a free and open market can be the least bad option for achieving prosperity, or at least for finding the resources for funding that prosperity. I also happen to think that the State is the least bad option for ensuring that this prosperity reaches as many people as possible. To some that may appear to be a contradiction. I don't agree. I am neither a libertarian or a socialist. I wish to live in a state with a carefully calibrated balance between my freedoms as an individual and the state's power to ensure my freedom is not merely the freedom to starve to death or die for a want of some antibiotics. 

So, what do I want from health care?

First, I do not embrace any philosophical obligation to help my fellow man. Intellectually, I regard myself as free to step over a sick person on the street, as I am free to pretend not notice all the homeless people I saw in Dublin last week. 

That being said, humans are a social animal. We have evolved empathy. Not noticing those homeless people took a toll. I cannot see a homeless person without selfishly listing off to myself all the disasters I would need to encounter before I too would end up on the streets. My privilege is having so many supports in place, that me sleeping on a street would require several and improbable calamities occurring simultaneously. 

(How to deal with homelessness eludes me, though I am less than impressed with this government's efforts thus far)

Health however, or more accurately ill health, cannot be dealt with by merely having a wide circle of friends and family. It requires expensive expertise. And it can visit anyone at anytime. 

I wouldn't step over that sick person because my basic humanity would stop me, but also my primeval self-interest would kick in. I would not want to live somewhere where I would be stepped over. It is bad enough having to inure myself to the shivering bodies sheltering in doorways. 

Nor would I wish to have to worry about money. Not that an emergency case would have to produce a credit card before getting onto an ambulance. More that, I would prefer to live in a country where a poor person has the exact same access to medical care as a rich person, both in quality and timing. This isn't altruism. I had to give up my Medical Insurance last year and it makes me feel vulnerable.    

I want everyone to have access, because I want access. And I think most people would agree with that, in principle. That's my stall set out. I want everyone to have the best available care, because I want me and mine to have the best, even though I can't afford it. 

Now if we could achieve a broad consensus on that, we might think we've done a good day's work. The problem is paying for it. Not that I'm underplaying the importance of establishing the principle of everyone having access to the best health care available. There will be ideologues and 'pragmatists' who'll rail against it. And others who would divide people into 'deserving' and 'undeserving' sick. They would have to be wholly defeated. A prisoner serving life for murder must be entitled to the same care as a child with cancer. If we get to play favourites, then it's not really a principle, more a guideline. Give people the power to play god and they will play god. And if they are corrupt, which some of them inevitably will be, then money will again decide who gets what and when. 

But cost must then be addressed. And when deciding how best to meet the cost, one must also look at methodology. This is where the ideologues will run amok. I don't care how it's done, though mostly I don't care because I don't how it can be done. If research showed that a model based on the NHS, entirely funded by taxes, was the best, I'd go for that. If research showed a wholly privatised system worked the best, I'd go for that. I have no problem with profit. I'm a carer by profession. I get paid and would not work for free. I'm also not a big fan of paying taxes, but if the State did it best, then I'd pay the extra taxes. 

Unfortunately, all I see at the moment is confusion, inefficiency, a lack of resources and a crippling lack of vision. 

Perhaps we could first decide what it is we want. Let's achieve that one thing in health care, let's identify our ambition for health care in this country, then perhaps deciding how to reach that goal won't seem so crisis led and chaotic.