Monday, September 30, 2019

Time to reclaim the lifeblood of human society

In the lead up to last week’s School Strike 4 Climate, a tweet jumped out at me. “Why are so many young people depressed?” it asked, and then presented two different answers.

Teenagers: The adults have f***ed up the planet and our future.

Adults: It’s the phones.

Of course, both might be true. Depression might be sparked by the fate of the planet, but then fed by incremental updates and outrage delivered to smartphones in our pockets all the time.

It isn’t what used to happen. Panic about 1980s' concerns such as nuclear war weren’t amplified and fed back to us through a hyperconnected echo chamber.

It most certainly is bad for our health. Studies show that as screen time increases, so too do rates of teenage suicide and depression.

Lead researcher Jean M. Twenge of San Diego State University compared US statistics on teenage suicide deaths, suicide-related outcomes and adolescents’ depressive symptoms, with new media use. He found adolescents who spent more time on new media (including social media and electronic devices such as smartphones) were more likely to report mental health issues, and adolescents who spent more time on non-screen activities (in-person social interaction, sports/exercise, printed media, and attending religious services) were less likely.

Australian teens spend as much, if not more time on screens, than their US counterparts. Screen time is not just increasing conflict between people, it’s shrinking space for nourishing things, particularly in-person social interaction.

A study from some years back showed 90 per cent of respondents believed people were less polite on social media than in person, while 81 per cent said they had a difficult conversation on social media that remained unresolved.

It took us millennia to cultivate low-drama dialogue and complex negotiation; the art of building rich and rewarding relationships, an art that may be being lost.

We may know this deep down but we still compulsively go online because of its deliberate intermittent reward system, affirming us one minute but punishing us the next.

Adults, we’d expect, have a stronger sense of who they are; are therefore less buffeted by the combative, often judgmental text and relentless drama of news online. Young people are far less prepared, hence feeling more emotionally brittle, less optimistic about life, especially as is shown, if they are high-users of new media. Young people are more likely to be addicted to the technology because they have less impulse control than adults.

One strategy is reclaiming the art of face-to-face conversation, that lifeblood of human society. Conversation takes people seriously. It says we matter.

A nine-year-old told his mother, a friend of mine, recently: “People say at school that the world is not going to be here when I grow up?” The mum asked calmly, “Is that something you are worried about?” She engaged her son to understand the world as he sees and feels it. She did not look shocked. She did not panic, a feeling the language of climate emergency may create. Instead, she listened.

Good conversation starts with where kids are at, from which small steps can be made to give them a sense of power and control. As children and young people feel a loss of control, even afraid of their future, adults have a responsibility to avoid patronising them or dismissing their concern, but rather to co-design solutions with them around the table, at home, at school and in the wider community.

The stakes are high. Being so well informed can perversely make young people prone to giving up, without agency, even more vulnerable to the attention merchants that distract and numb. Some can’t get out of bed, suffering what’s now being called ''eco-trauma''. They have worked so hard to get the climate message out, but feel they have failed themselves while others have failed them.

A balance must be reached between pragmatic realism and hope about the world we live in today and tomorrow. There must be space to enjoy nature for itself without mediating screens, spaces to quieten the mind and spaces for gentle and spontaneous conversation that turns down the drama, to recharge, re-enchant and really connect.

First published in The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, September 23, 2019
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Monday, September 2, 2019

A public health issue: Alan Jones and his violent metaphors

Countless firms have pulled their support and advertising from Alan Jones’ radio program after his Jacinda Ardern comments. Just what will it take to suspend him?

The managers of the station should take him off the airwaves, but not just for reasons of language. The reason to pull him off is public health. Let me explain.

One of the greatest threats to health is violence. Australia has a shocking record of violence against women. On average, one woman a week is murdered by her current or former partner.

Overwhelmingly, perpetratators of domestic or family violence against women and children are male. Factors associated with gender inequality are the most consistent predictors of violence against women including male peer to peer relations that emphasise aggression and disrespect towards women.

Jones, who appears to have trouble with women of influence, feeds and helps legitimise an already-existing set of attitudes that condone violence.

There is mounting evidence that public, political rhetoric has an impact.

Researchers believe anti-immigrant Facebook posts triggered hundreds of violent crimes against refugees in Germany between 2015 and 2017. They helped push perpetrators over a line.

In the United States, there are a number of recent case studies of real world outcomes resulting from influencers using language that targets or excludes certain groups.

Anti-immigrant sentiment, stoked by Donald Trump, promoting punitive immigration policies has contributed to bad health - psycho-emotional and physical - and bad health-related behaviors.

Animosity directed at Latino immigrants drove fear and hopelessness which led to substance abuse and unprotected sex, as well as an avoidance of medical care or preventive behaviors.

Alan Jones, the four-million dollar radio host, who told Scott Morrison to give the New Zealand prime minister “a few backhanders”, has anti-immigrant form also.

In 2005, he took to the airwaves to condemn an ethnic minority, describing them as "vermin" who "rape and pillage a nation". A court found his comments were "reckless hyperbole calculated to agitate and excite his audience".

Laws and policies can assist in altering norms linked to violence. But the kinds of messages Jones keeps espousing, misogynist and racist confound or reduce the efficacy of those interventions.

The Australian Prime Minister who wants to make mental health a priority ought to get that.

He ought to know, as LGTBI people and First Nations peoples and other minorities do, that vile things said over and over can contribute to a hostile and stressful social environment that reduces a sense of wellbeing, even when it doesn’t result in violence.

There is evidence that (in conjunction with existing predisposing risk factors) it can result in illness and an elevated risk of suicide.

It makes the language of Jones, a man whose own sexual identity has been the subject of gossip and rumours, all the more vexing.

In his 2006 biography of Jones, award-winning investigative journalist Chris Masters points out that a constant theme of Jones’ broadcasts has been the decline of public and moral standards.

He describes how the Jones of the time tormented his staff. If they argued back he got madder. They learned that it was easier to apologise. Masters asks, “When Alan Jones laments on air the escalation of public violence, I wonder whether he thinks of the violence in his own words.”


First published in The Canberra Times, August 28, 2019
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Saturday, August 31, 2019

The smartphone has become a metronome. This is how we change the beat

Without thinking about it much, children mimic their parents. It was when my husband — a veteran journalist — and I found ourselves glued to our phones for work at home, and tweeting compulsively, that I began to worry about what it was teaching our kids.

What were we modelling? What was it doing to us? We were increasingly alone while together, particularly after our young teens retreated into their bedrooms to use their own smartphones, a development that quickened their inevitable withdrawal from us.

Cyberspace is more intense and exciting than the real world, a world of continuous competition and commerce. It's also easier to navigate. But what grabs our attention there isn't necessarily what's needed for us to grow well.

While we were working out boundaries for our children, I began to think about boundaries for us, looking for other ways to find joy and meaning in our own lives in the hope we could spark it in our kids, because it isn't children who are driving the digital revolution. It's us, adults.

Screens everywhere

We have normalised the extraordinary take-up of personal screens. Schools have made them compulsory. Adults have become dependent, blurring the lines between public and private, home and work.

It's making everyone in the family more emotionally brittle, less present. It was just this week, when at a school assembly I noticed how many grown-ups — there, after all, to eye-ball and champion students — were scrolling and checking notifications habitually.

Smartphones have thinned relationships. If parents and carers are constantly checking their devices, their children feel less important. If your partner is on the phone all day and night, your relationship with your partner suffers. It makes it hard to be at ease. It is a recipe for anxiety.

We have always sought to be entertained. My parents' and my generation were mesmerised by the television, which replaced the hearth or the fire. The difference with modern media and families is that the television set was in the centre of a common space and the evening shows were usually watched together.

The smartphone is more than a tool, it has become a metronome; dictating a rhythm that deprives us of the ability to concentrate on just one thing. One of them is conversations; active-listening, 'ebb and flow' conversations that matter. Without face-to-face conversations we find it harder to reflect. For children growing up, conversations are the bedrock of development. A way to fight back is "table-time talk" over dinner at least a few times a week.

How I quit my phone

A few years ago I became so concerned about where technology was taking us that I quit Facebook and more dramatically, quit my phone-dependent job. I went into rehab in the form of art school — getting messy with paint and clay and observing the world in a different way. There are screens and the performative elements of social media in the art world too, but they are not obligatory.

Even the most simple exercise of drawing with charcoal or ink is therapeutic, especially for young people for whom playdates often involve screens.

"I have a student who loves his computer games but drawing from observation has helped him see," a teacher told me. "Sadly, you have to teach play these days."

How can you learn to play without getting messy?

During the July school holidays an art gallery assistant told me how apologetic parents were about their children leaving marks on tables after an art workshop. "We don't make art at home. It's too messy," one told her. "That's why we give them the iPad."

The physicality of art materials can be a surprise for those of us who aren't used to squeezing tubes of paint, mixing plaster moulds and gluing collaged paper. Using our hands is part of developing and strengthening eye coordination and neural pathways.

I reclaimed making and doing things with real materials. It also proved a way of engaging practical science and my whole body. Making complex sculptures proved very rewarding.

I learnt the basics of welding and timber work with a mitre. It took some risk, which is what we want our young people to do too.

Developing any skill, given time, requires discipline, patience and fortitude, which has got to be good for emotional agility, whatever your age.

My family's challenges haven't disappeared but they have eased as we have talked about them and invested in alternatives to screens. Not everyone can change jobs or quit to go to art school but in lesser ways we can all renew our passions and support lives offscreens.

As we do, we will find our children do too. They pay more attention to what we do than what we say.

First published by the ABC Online, August 17, 2019
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Sunday, July 7, 2019

Victoria should make the ACT schools think again about rush into screens

The Victorian Government ought to be congratulated. From next year it will ban the use of smartphones during school in all state schools.

Schools are where we expect our children to be safe, to develop co-operative and pro-social skills, and to grow their capacity to focus and become critical thinkers. Smartphones blunt those skills. They are (in the main) a tool for distraction and a weapon for online-bullying. Social media is fueling anxVictoria should make the ACT think about its headlong rush into screens in schoolsiety and a mental health crisis.

If adults are distracted and harassed by technology in the workplace, then you can be sure that children and young people are too, except that it’s worse for them because they have less wherewithal to withstand it. The part of the brain that controls decision making and considering consequences is less developed.

Limiting access to smartphones won’t stop bullying. It’s an old-age problem. But it will help.

France and Canada have adopted similar bans. In NSW, smartphones are not allowed in primary schools. In time, we might see the results in NAPLAN scores.

School-aged children can tell you immediately which teachers they like. They are the teachers who take an interest in them, who are good at listening and create spaces for respectful learning. Their favourites don’t sit at the front of the class checking notifications. So too, teachers expect students to tune in. They resent wasting time managing phones and having to remind students to put them away. A whole-of-school or better still, whole-of-state approach, makes it easier.

Victoria’s decision suggests that finally there is real resistance to the digital revolution. Parents were told, without caveats, that it would benefit their children. Parents were made to feel guilty for not providing smartphones, laptop and 24 hour connectivity, as if it’s a childhood right. Others, seeing the impacts and wanting to slow technology’s march (like me), were frustrated by the mandated take-up in schools, especially here in the ACT, where it's offered little obvious support for managing screens.

Some parents will complain that the Victorian ban means they can’t contact their children in school hours. Frankly, when I send my kids to school I look forward to not hearing from them until after the bell rings. Front office staff have always known how to connect students to parents when needed. High school principals lament the development of smartphones, because they allow children to contact their parents about problems before they speak to their teachers. Students go missing after parents picked them up without frontline staff knowing.

Smartphones have been with us for a decade. I have seen and felt their impact. They offer a kind of freedom — the freedom to connect and to be transported somewhere else. But they have made us dependent on them and their social media functions make us more fractious.

Victoria’s ban ought to improve the general wellbeing of its students, although cyberbullying is more likely to happen after hours than in school hours.

Researchers at the University of San Diego have found that teens who spend a lot of time in front of screens playing computer games, using social media, texting and video chatting are less happy than those who invest time in non-screen activities such as sports, reading newspapers and magazines and interacting face-to-face. The happiest teens use digital media for less than an hour a day. After one hour, they get increasingly unhappy as screen time rises.

On the other hand, social media is now so pervasive that it is sometimes needed to strengthen offline connections. Young people say they need to be online to know about social gatherings. Asking them to unplug is not straightforward.

Schools are only one battleground. The other is the home. The main time Australians teens are online is 5 pm to 10 pm. More than a quarter are still online between 10 pm and midnight (times when they are more likely to experience cyber-harassment).

Digital space has become an important place - part of an indivisible whole for children who were never taught or who have lost the art of doing things without their screens. Thankfully after a decade, the pendulum appears to be swinging back towards creating some kind of balance.

Some universities are limiting screen use in class. Exchange programs are reviewing successful applicants’ use of smartphones while on exchange in order to ensure they experience cultural exchange with their hosts.

Other Australian states ought to think about following Victoria’s lead. The ACT Education Directorate in particular ought to reexamine its shambolic headlong rush into digitising children’s lives and consider pressing pause.

First published in The Canberra Times, July 1, 2019



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Saturday, June 1, 2019

Post election: Ken Wyatt's historic gig and daring to hope for Australia reMADE

What a Reconciliation Week. Not only were we reconciling differences after a bruising election, but a respected Indigenous man was appointed Minister for Indigenous Australians, the first Indigenous Australian to be given that responsibility.

Ken Wyatt was subjected to racist taunts during his campaign for the West Australian seat of Hasluck in 2010. After his narrow win for the Liberals, some people who voted for him complained they didn't realise he was Aboriginal.

He was born on a mission farm, a former home for young Indigenous children removed from their families. His mother was one of them.

In his maiden speech Wyatt thanked Kevin Rudd for the 2008 national apology to stolen generations. When he heard it, in his office in the West Australian department of health where he was director of Aboriginal health, he cried.

"My mother and her siblings, along with many others, did not live to hear the words delivered in the apology, which would have meant a great deal to them individually," he said.

"I felt a sense of relief that the pain of the past had been acknowledged and that the healing could begin. At that point, the standing orders prevented an Indigenous response."

During his maiden speech, and again at the swearing in ceremony at Government House on Wednesday he wore a booka, a traditional cloak made of kangaroo skins given to him as a gift from Perth's Noongar elders. The red-tailed black cockatoo feather on the front symbolised leadership. In a break with tradition the entire ministry stood and applauded.

Wyatt is a good listener. He will need to be in the days ahead. Managing expectations within the Coalition and among Indigenous constituents will be difficult.

He brings a deep understanding of the gross inequities between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. To address the complexities of it, Wyatt must reach out across the chamber, continue to call out racism and paternalism, and acknowledge the ideas, passions and experiences that many people bring to the table.

Labor's platform this election better articulated and addressed the social determinants of health and wellbeing (how poverty affects everything) and that empowering Indigenous leaders, not just those who are visible, to take local actions for themselves does result in stronger communities. Its policies were broader in reach with dollars to match.

Wyatt often talks to Aboriginal parliamentarians in Labor. He admires them. We can assume the dialogue will continue. If only more party political people sort to make friends across the aisle.

The wider electorate is desperate for signs of cooperation and genuine reconciliation. A majority want to change the date when we celebrate nationhood. We long for real collaboration and an openness, rather than the usual ideological bickering.

Wyatt has the authority to move on the Uluru Statement of the Heart by endorsing a referendum to embed a representative body in the Constitution that gives Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people "a voice to the Commonwealth Parliament".

It's hardly radical because the body would be advisory, rather than have a decision-making function; like the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) which John Howard abolished to Wyatt's regret.

In a turnaround, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has accepted that a referendum should happen but he has no timetable for it.

Wyatt is cautious, but learning from the 1967 referendum, has the capacity to bring naysayers along. Strangely enough, the Coalition may be in a better position to take fear out of a potentially fractious referendum debate, assuming the debate doesn't drag on.

Much has been made in recent weeks of an apparent schism between Australians on a number of issues. Are we really more hopelessly divided than before? I don't think so.

We are different and we do vote differently, but that doesn't mean we don't want the same things: comfort, security and care. That's the overwhelming view of Australia reMADE, an independent, vision-based collaboration of a cross section of people working to build a country where people and planet come first. It's vital work.

Researchers with Australia reMADE went into pubs and workplaces around Australia asking the same question: 'If you woke up in the Australia of your dreams, what would it look like?' Belonging, a meaningful job and good healthcare came up again and again, from tradesmen in fluro vests to women with PhDs.

The best way to bring people around is not to yell at them for not voting as you did, as tempting as that may be. Queensland is not hugely different from the rest of Australia. Pro-miners are not bad people.

What's long overdue is the will to have both sides agree on the need to transition from coal, and quickly, supporting old industries to retrain their workers, and to agree on shared messaging that convinces all of Australia that our future depends on the transition.

Anthony Albanese has offered a willingness to reach out to cooperate with Morrison, and a willingness to reach out to people who didn't vote for Labor. The language is encouraging.

First published in The Canberra Times, May 31, 2019
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Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Time to recast Australia's role in the region

A new or re-elected government will give us a chance to better support our neighbours in Asia and the Pacific. The behaviour of the last one hasn't been good.

It has repeatedly used the aid budget as a sort of automatic teller machine to take money from development in order to get its budget in order.

A glaring example was the $55 million dollar refugee resettlement deal with very poor and dictator-led Cambodia. About $40 million came out of aid while $15 million was directed for resettlement services and support. Signed in 2014 by Scott Morrison as immigration minister, it was an abject failure. Only four people accepted offers of resettlement from Nauru. Only a Syrian man (with his family) is left but he's now hoping to move to Canada.

"Why is your country doing this?," perplexed Cambodians asked Australians in Phnom Penh at the time of the deal. "We all know where the money will end up." Corruption permeates Cambodia. The deal wasn't directed (as it could have been) at Cambodia's deteriorating human rights situation and the silencing of its media.

China has been delivering the region something closer to real aid, although like our special Cambodia and Nauru and Papua New Guinea contributions, much of it has been directed to elites in those countries rather than going to genuine needs.

As prime minister in 2018, Scott Morrison woke up and scrambled together a policy to renew focus on countries from the Solomon Islands to Samoa. The policy signaled support for the US, and while welcomed, the money for the region was redirected from the existing and an already drastically cut aid budget.

Aspects of the new policy are questionable, namely the new loan facility Australia set up to finance new infrastructure in the Pacific. We already lend to the Pacific through the Manila-based Asian Development Bank. It's the biggest lender. Is there a need for a dedicated Australian-branded loan facility, requiring another bureaucracy to deliver finance?

Some say yes. It's been put to me that Pacific nations have been crying out for targeted infrastructure assistance, for roads to communication technology to support education and health systems, in addition to support to address the climate crisis (last year Pacific Islander leaders said in a strongly worded Pacific Islands Forum statement that the biggest risk to the Pacific's security is climate change. Australia has been woefully slow and resistant to take action).

And there's a concern China's lending model has left some in the region, namely Tonga and Sri Lanka in desperate circumstances. Unable to pay back debts, they have been forced to transfer their liabilities into land grants and fresh access for China to their ports. A worried Australian government has felt an obligation to offer an alternative and a lending regime with clearer and more flexible arrangements and more safeguards in place. Direct lending by Australia to Pacific countries might also create a more diverse marketplace for lending.

Still, Australia's Pacific announcement was borne out of years of complacency across the region. We have been drifting and we have been losing influence and impact in Asia as a less than exemplary champion of human rights. And, existing development programs are legacy programs put there when Labor was last in power. "We've been doing some programs for so long and we keep doing them that Australia has forgotten why we do them," one outgoing parliamentarian told me.

Labor is seeking to correct things should it form government after May 18, but not in a hurry. Penny Wong has committed the ALP to rebuilding Australia's aid budget but cautions that it will take time, more than 10 years, to get anywhere near the .5 per cent of GDP target.

"All of us who believe in a strong and generous Australia must push back and articulate why Australia's international development programs matter; to the lives of those in our region, to our influence in our region, to our own national interest," says Wong.

The aid sector represented by the Australian Council for International Development (ACFID) wants whoever is elected to not just commit to rebuilding Australia's aid budget but to make the policy air-tight and bipartisan.

Regional development is linked to security (transboundary disease is both people and agriculture, for example) and so Australia's shrinking engagement has adversely affected the national interest.

Australia should see the world as it is but with ideas and imagination, transform it into something better: see how to assist our neighbours but also to understand the challenges to work together to live in a safer and more equitable world.

Australia's aid program can also be our best soft diplomacy tool. We were there assisting Thailand rescue the young Thai soccer team trapped in cave. Australian volunteers are every year working in communities abroad to reduce maternal mortality rates and raising awareness about good nutrition to reduce the risks of diabetes in Pacific communities.

With a recast approach we must respond to the question - 'what is Australia really good at, so our neighbours benefit from us the most?' "That question has not been asked for many years," ACFID head, Marc Purcell, tells me.

"What's the point of having a deep-sea infrastructure cable providing more data to the Solomons if you have a population that doesn't have beyond primary school literacy?"

"We have scrambled to knock back China. The point is, does the Pacific need more Australian supported infrastructure or would they benefit more from things that Australia is good at, which would be governance experience and grant programs in public health and education," Purcell asks. Those programs improve the capacity of vulnerable populations and their well-being, to ultimately support stronger communities. An educated population is better able to determine the future course of its country and deal with the problems they have whether it preventable illness or the scourge of modern slavery.

It's not an either or, but the way we are going about it (signalling to the world's major powers that, 'hey, we are in the infrastructure game too') is not for clear reasons to do with the specific needs of any developing country that wishes to partner with us. Their needs should not be incidental.< First published in The Canberra Times, May 13, 2019. Photo by Duc Le on Unsplash
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Tuesday, April 16, 2019

New media and violence: an old problem meets the modern era

History is littered with examples where propaganda has led to appalling acts of violence.

That's why the rise of social media in the hands of extreme groups is a deep concern, as is the role of public figures in potentially inflaming hate.

Who could forget Rwanda. Twenty-five years ago this month the world heard of the genocide against the Tutsi. I was in South Africa covering that country's historic election of Nelson Mandela, a moment of euphoria, when shocking news trickled in of the mass murder of up to 70 per cent of Rwanda's Tutsi people by members of the Hutu majority.

Civil war had been brewing in Rwanda before April, 1994. But the use of the media in skilled hands brought ordinary people, who had lived together for hundred of years, to extreme violence.

The Tutsi were labelled as demons, rich and avaricious, out to get the Hutu. The Hutu were called on to kill members of a Tutsi rebel group that threatened the government, and their "accomplices" - women and children.

A private radio station founded by the president's party played a key role. It exploited and exacerbated small tensions in powerful and provocative style. When a plane crash killed Rwanda's Hutu President, the ground was already prepared to incite the killing of those "cockroaches", as the Tutsi were called.

Within months the International War Crimes Tribunal began trials. One, known as the "media trial", pursued a newspaper and a radio station for inciting genocide. It determined that what was said, (things like, "we know the enemy, we know them by their narrow nose, break that nose") was said with intent.

The trials discovered that the behind the broadcasts were intelligent people pulling the strings, just as trials after World War II that pursued justice for the million or more Jews killed in Europe discovered that the people who headed Germany's propaganda unit had doctorates.

We often think of social media as a Western phenomenon. But with the rise of personal devices, its uptake is rapid everywhere. The United Nations has found that the military in Myanmar used social media to incite violence against the Muslim Rohingya by soldiers and the militia recruited in the Buddhist population. The strategy to kill and displace thousands of people did not evolve overnight. As in Rwanda, people in power executed long-held plans.

So we shouldn't underestimate the power of powerful people to do it here.

The Australian government's crackdown on social media companies after Christchurch, threatening jail for executives that don't remove live streaming of violent crime, is to be applauded. But violence can be incited by old as well as new media.

Visiting Australia last week for the 25th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide was American lawyer Stephen Rapp. Rapp is a former United States ambassador-at-large for war crimes issues in the Office of Global Criminal Justice. He said he was in no doubt there were parallels between the Rwandan and Myanmar genocides and the Christchurch massacre.

Social media, he told the ABC, "are powerful means to build hatreds and to prepare people for violence". Social media allows players in politics - in the broadest sense -greater capacity to target individuals with tailored messages that exploit existing insecurities.

"We see it in the Christchurch situation, where communications were made that this young man had responded to... [a] kind of rhetoric that Muslims are going to replace us. In Rwanda the rhetoric was 'the Tutsis are going to replace us' and: 'do it to them before you do they do it to you."

Rapp's antidote, hard not to endorse, is that social media be used to spread love, to reinforce our common humanity. Moderates need to be heard. He points out that in places where violence has thrived, the extremists had silenced the moderates first.

The problem for both types of media is that 'what bleeds leads'. Each type inadequately covers peaceful demonstrations, vigils and efforts to marshal our better selves.

Add to that, leaders tapping into attitudes held by some in the community who hold negative views of Muslims, people of colour or other minorities. They include parliamentarians who don't necessarily believe the things they say but say them regardless, for political gain.

Then there's a kind of combative politics practiced in Australia and on display every Question Time. It's aggressive, full of blame. The language is so scorching, the politicians so busy shouting at each other they don't even see it's a problem.

Christchurch and the historical lessons about where propaganda has led before it, deliver a sharp message to our members and would-be members of parliament. Election campaigns with their overblown claims, demonisation and invented threats can create divisions when what we really need is to be brought together.

First published in The Canberra Times, April 15, 2019
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Friday, March 22, 2019

A Christchurch reflection


Like many around the world, I have this week found myself in dismay-driven prayer, heartfelt hope for the world to be better, safer.

As a person of colour, it is deeply concerning that the alleged perpetrator in the Christchurch massacres is an Australian citizen espousing white-supremacy and publishing a manifesto of hate.

The rise of right-wing hate ideology is indisputable.

The Internet has helped the cause. Social media has made white-supremacists more visible and international (Why shouldn’t the forces for good, for love, be more greatly amplified by the world wide web?). In small, bizarre and accumulative ways, a fear of Muslims, that objectifies them, has shown its ugly head online.

Platforms including Facebook, Instagram and YouTube have not exercised as much moral authority as they should have. They have relied on pressure from individual governments, rather than being proactive from the get-go in self-managing and limiting hate-speech and the live-streaming of violence. I have long worried about social media’s hunger for gut-wrenching and gratuitous content; it is a giant performative space that invites and celebrates extremes. It also fits with a gaming culture that normalises violence. Several people told me they saw the mass shooting video and thought it was simulated; something out of an addictive online game.

In Germany there are clearer expectations and penalties of online platforms, says Professor Paul Spoonley from Massey University in Wellington, a specialist in ultra-nationalist politics.

While reluctant to draw a causative line between comments by politicians and the extreme right Spoonley does finger them for creating an enabling environment; an environment which makes views (such as the Muslim world is swamping the white Western world) acceptable.

Populism around the world has seen parliamentarians engaged in dog-whistling politics, including here at the highest levels, with appeals to community politics of an extreme nature. Anti-immigration rhetoric has fuelled and normalised hate-speech. It has long infected debate about refugees and asylum seekers. It's not enough to call for an end to divisive tribalism while fanning it in subtle ways. Words matter.

Human Rights Watch said this week, that while Prime Minister Morrison strongly condemned the Christchurch attack and inflammatory statements by a far-right senator, his remarks appear insincere given his record as Immigration Minister and the record of senior Australian government officials in conflating Islam or refugees with terrorism for political gain.

Under pressure this federal election campaign to recognise that rhetoric can have a devastating impact - conservative parties, Labor and the unions are urged to put One Nation last on how to vote cards. One Nation's simplistic politics, that scapegoat Muslims for Australia's ills and elevate white people and nationalism, exploits voters' insecurities and hardens hearts.

What personally upsets me is that parliamentarians who have stirred the pot have used Christianity to justify their views and propaganda. They use religion when expressing religious intolerance. It represents such a betrayal of anything the gospel claims to be about - from the healing work and ministry of Jesus Christ and tales of his refugee family, to the imperative to love one's neighbour and stand with the most vulnerable.

Free-speech, let’s remember, is not hate-speech.

Compared to the UK and the US, the far-right is a modest group in New Zealand and Australia, but they are no doubt more active.

Spoonley says New Zealand authorities were so focused on Muslim terrorism, they were diverted from looking at the extreme right.

What's concerning is that in both countries across the Tasman there is no designated agency that publishes clear, annual data to know exactly who the white-supremacists are, and what they do. Authorities have thrown very few resources at the problem.

We live in a complicated world but it should not be hard to foster a political principle that expresses and embeds equal respect for all citizens and stresses that we have more in common than not. It begins with the imaginative capacity a creator God has given us all.

Image: Rage and Intimacy, 2018, Toni Hassan (Ink transfer and paint on board)
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Thursday, March 14, 2019

In the shadow of Neverland: a journey from fandom to pathos

Here’s the thing. A lot of people from Oprah down suspected Michael Jackson of pedophilia but he continued, while alive, to live with impunity. Finally two men have come forward to speak their truth and fulsomely.

Leaving Neverland,” the disturbing documentary that continues to make headlines around the world should surprise no one and yet Jackson’s tenacious fans will hold onto their version of the King of Pop, regardless. But there's no holding back the tide.

Like many of them, I grew up with Mowtown music. Thriller had been rocking the charts when, as a junior high school student, I celebrated my crush one school dress-up day. I wore a twist on the Billie Jean outfit; one white glove, a red jacket, a pair of shiny-fly glasses, white slacks and my mother's low-heeled leather loafers that promised to defy gravity on the dance floor. My hair was short, shiny and curly. My nose was itself.

Over the years I lost interest in the star. By the time the first case of alleged child molestation was before a US court, he was a slim cardboard cut-out, almost lifeless insomniac. Jackson's chubby brown cheeks had given way to a distorted mask; a chiseled chin and pale-face.

I covered the 2005 case against Jackson (for the ABC) brought by a teen cancer sufferer who told a jury that, when he was just 13, the singer providing him with alcohol (what he called ‘Jesus Juice’) and molested him at least twice.

Jackson was acquitted. But it was problematic. The magic was gone.

Accusations against Jackson continued to fly about as did more stories of multiple sleepovers with minors.

Then, a few years ago veteran journalist Randall Sullivan wrote his book Untouchable: The Strange Life and Tragic Death of Michael Jackson. I read it with macabre curiosity. Sullivan says Jackson died "a 50-year-old virgin"; that he yearned to be 'presexual'. Real adult intimacy was just too messy. There were details about his quest for perfection and something the author called sexual anorexia. Sullivan described a self-loathing star, haunted by the criticisms of a scavenging family.

No doubt he was a manipulated child-star. But as an adult, it appears beyond doubt, he went on to become a chief manipulator himself. The evidence is devastating. In separate accounts, Wade Robson and James Safechuck say Jackson sexually abused them for many years from boyhood to adolescence. The documentary is as uncomfortable to watch as it is compelling.

They describe a calculated pattern of grooming and exploitation. The abuser, in a position of power, set out to seduce. Jackson became an accepted member of each boys’ family. He isolated himself from scrutiny (creating the Neverland ranch, a vast and gated community). He then isolated the victims, from their families and from each other (Jackson lavished the children and their families with gifts, even paying for the families to go on holidays without Robson and Safechuck). Jackson turned the boys against their parents to inflate Jackson’s hero status. He claimed God was on his side. He told them they would go to jail if they told anyone. He even had them practice a routine should they be caught having sex.

Wade and Safechuck did not know the other’s story until they went public. Their experiences are very similar. They broke down when as fathers they recognised their proteges’ vulnerability and their own at the age the alleged abuse began. Wade and Safechuck live with shadows but have found catharsis.

Who may have helped Jackson in his web of deceit? Most likely, teams of people; people in paid positions, who worked behind the scenes to support his addiction and hide it. There is always an industry behind what is hidden, as we saw with Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, just as there was an industry around powerful men in entertainment alleged or found guilty of using sex for favours and women as playthings, from Bill Cosby to Harvey Weinstein. How does evil happen? When good people do nothing.

I’m not entirely without empathy for Jackson. You can both believe a victim and pity a perpetrator (continue to admire their talent, even with legacy up in the air); at least seek to understand what drives them and what environments create socially inappropriate impulses and actions unchecked.

The documentary adds to a growing sense that a generation or two have been growing up now with very little faith in institutions, in people they once looked up to and in elders they once may have trusted. The light that has shone on the darkness in Jackson’s life and those of other celebrities (and clerics) has left lots of people asking, ‘who and what can I trust?’

As a parent I wonder out loud about how the parents of Wade and Safechuck could have ever agreed to situations that clearly put their children at risk. But every day our children are exposed to risk and every day we way up risk factors, having confidence in our neighbours, schools and the clubs they join, while understanding that children too, have agency.

Then there’s the question, from what age should we broach issues from respectful relationships to consensual sex - especially with the rise and rise of smartphones and social media? I think the conversations must start young. Reluctance to talk about the complexities leaves society ill-equipped to recognize and handle child sexual abuse today. History professor Rachel Hope Cleves of Victoria University puts it well when she writes that, "A culture that is caught up in narratives that identify pedophiles as monsters has a hard time recognizing when beloved figures, like Michael Jackson, are molesting children right before its eyes."

Talking openly about good touch versus bad touch is essential. While carers might feel they need to protect their children from some information, the fact is that young people have a right to know about their bodies, about personal safety and who to talk to should they need to. Talking about adult power and responsibility, and about their own power might not eliminate risk but will support healthier relationships and hope.

(Image via YouTube)
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Tuesday, March 12, 2019

The one thing we have to fear is fear itself

The government’s trying to scare us, which is odd because the one thing that is truly frightening it keeps trying to tell us isn’t a problem - calamitous climate change.

There’s Medivac. Scary stuff! Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton said our hospital waiting lists will be bumped out by refugees evacuated from offshore detention camps.

Then there was the problem of violence by African-Australians in Melbourne, also pointed to by Dutton and ministers including Greg Hunt. Never mind that you are much more likely to be attacked (and killed if you are Melbourne woman) by someone who is not African (In fact, every week in Australia, a woman is killed by a current or former partner).

Last week there was talk of recession. That’s what’s coming if Labor is elected. Ignore for the moment that figures released on Wednesday show we are already in a per-capita recession.

The Prime Minister says Labor’s extra taxes on negative-gearers and people who receive share dividends without paying tax could push us into a full-blown one. It’s impossible to say that it won’t happen, although it should be noted that, at least initially, Labor is offering much bigger personal income tax cuts than the Coalition, which ought to protect us from a recession.

All this scare-mongering mightn’t work. Long ago Greek philosopher, Aristotle, said success in arousing fear relies on the speaker making himself appear trustworthy. The government is devaluing that currency.

Research out last month showed that the level of satisfaction with Australia’s democracy had fallen from 86 percent in 2007 to just 41 per cent after four election cycles. If the trend continues, there won’t be much trust left.

“Whoever wins the 2019 federal election must address this problem as a matter of urgency,” said Mark Evans, professor of governance at Canberra University and the driver of a new initiative called Democracy 2025 at Old Parliament House.

Whoever is elected will also have to address a lack of faith in governments to arrest a more present and chilling reality.

Morrison was as conspicuously absent from the Victoria’s latest fire emergency as he was when Tasmania was threatened by dangerous fires over summer or when the Darling River’s Menindee Lakes were filling up with dead fish.

His environment minister Melissa Price keeps insisting that carbon emissions are falling, although she has conceded it is only over one quarter rather than a period of years. Meanwhile, the National’s Matt Canavan insists now is the time for more coal mines.

The problem with all these small and not so small lies is that it has normalised deceit. We have gotten used it to it, or worse, people are needlessly frightened because they are told to be so. Fear ultimately narrows human hearts.

Government ministers are not embarrassed by their tactics. When challenged, they show no or little remorse. For those of us who are appalled, we turn to social media only to find anger and anxiety on a road to nowhere.

Every government is culpable. Every election cycle is an opportunity to press the reset button.

Our best defence against more scaremongering is a fearless and independent media and a public that treasures truth. Valuing the welfare of the whole community over self-interest, vaccinates voters. The biggest porkies told are strategically aimed at our hip pockets and insecurities.

They are lies that inflate threats to personal wealth and safety over community wellbeing and environmental health. The lies almost always betray notions of the common good.


First published in The Canberra Times, March 11, 2019
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