Saturday, October 24, 2015

Romantic love: what's it good for?

In her best-selling 1970 work The Female Eunuch, Germaine Greer urged a great awakening; for women to exercise their freedoms and stop being passive.

The Bachelorette put that to the test, 45 years later.

The female lead, 26-year-old Sam Frost, was indeed in the driver's seat, choosing a man on her own terms. She asserted her virility. In the last few episodes she intensely kissed all the men still standing.

But on the other hand, Frost was an advertiser's dream. Projected as The Ideal, she was slim, symmetrical, fair-skinned and mostly discreet.

Ours is a culture that urges individuality, but then pushes on us perpetual "types". Television does it best. The dwindling list of chosen blokes were all chiseled and sporty.

Hundreds of thousands of us watched it because we structure our whole lives around romantic love, philosophy Professor Carrie Ichikawa Jenkins of British Columbia University says.

It's a powerful force, yet we rarely wrestle with what it is. Is it a social norm or is it built into our biology?

In fact, it's both. Ichikawa Jenkins says we are both hard-wired for it and pressured into it. People in their 30s are consumed by fear they are running out of time.

It was my teenage daughter who prodded me into watching the show. Her keen interest made me curious. I groaned at some of it, but ended up grateful for what the "reality" TV melodrama threw up for us to discuss in the ad breaks.

We liked Sam's vulnerability (taking us with her as she exposed herself to the ultimate male gaze); her preparedness to talk about earlier relationships and to make sense of the humiliation of being dumped by Blake, the man of her dreams, whom she met on a different show, The Bachelor, just months ago. She burnt toast while the men vying for her attention made elaborate meals. Awesome.

Why, I asked, were the men's occupations often discussed – as if it helped define them – but not Frost's? (She is a marketing manager.)

There were no on-camera glimpses into Sam Frost the entrepreneur or Sam Frost the advocate. What was she passionate about? What contribution did she dream of making to the world? We saw no aspiration beyond finding Mr Right. Yet the program was directed towards young women who presumably have wanted more than that from their lives.

It also irked me that the contestants repeatedly referred to Sam as a "girl" – a lovely, nice girl – not as a woman.

There were some signs we had moved on. Contestant Michael asked Sam if she would contemplate proposing to a bloke, just as his mother had to his father. Sure, women "can take things into their own hands", Sam said. Michael was masculine without being macho. Maybe men aren't from Mars and women aren't from Venus.

However, there's finding love and there's finding meaning. The program didn't really explore the latter. There was talk about being "happy together" but little discussion about what that meant.

In his book on love and sexuality, The Transformation of Intimacy, philosopher Anthony Giddens says modern relationships feed each partner's needs and can dissolve as easily as they are formed.

Canberra poet John Foulcher has thought a lot about love. He says what attracts people is their scars, not their good points. "You fall in love with their flaws," he says. Sam was haunted by the idea of being heartbroken again. The men, knowing that, spoke to her wound with reassuring words.

Research shows that romantic love is like gender: it comes on a spectrum. You can romantically love more than one person, just as you can be afraid of more than one thing. Sam understood this for herself, admitting a crush for all of three of the finalists.

We wish her and "the winner" Sasha good luck as they give this love-thing a try in the real world. But here's some advice from philosophers and life-long partners Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre. Their relationship was, we'd have to say, very liberal, but happiness for them was about finding harmony. It had to be worked at. They said friendship was the key, as well as having other projects, other sources of meaning.

Romantic love is often sold as a replacement for meaning. That's too much to ask of it.

First published in The Canberra Times, October 23, 2015.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Newstart not living up to its name

What do multitasking and the low level of Newstart have in common? New research suggests they both do something to our brain, and in Anti-Poverty Week the new Social Services Minister, Christian Porter, ought to pay attention.

As our new Prime Minister is fond of telling us, our future is increasingly tied up in technology (when has it not?). It inevitably means more multitasking. These days employers email us at night. We shop for shoes at our desks. We arrange business meetings while at the supermarket. Our children flip between devices while doing their homework.

As more and more things fight for our attention our mental bandwidth shrinks. There's only so much attention we can offer. Splitting it more and more ways impairs our ability to do anything well.

Harvard University professor Sendhil Mullainathan provides the link to the unemployment benefit Newstart.

At just $261.70 per week, it's hopelessly inadequate. Pensioners get $394.20 per week. Politicians staying in Canberra get $271 per night.

When you have barely enough (or not even enough) to cover the cost of accommodation you worry. It taxes your mental bandwidth. If an unexpected expense pops up (of the kind that wouldn't worry someone with money) you almost shut down.

Mullainathan says there are a lot of similarities between the time-poor and money-poor. The money-poor are late paying bills, the time-poor are late turning stuff in.

Neither thinks particularly well.

Under intense time pressure, the time-poor are likely to retreat to Angry Birds, as crazy as that seems. Under financial pressure, the money-poor are likely to resort to high interest payday loans. Yes, it will make their predicament worse, but it will solve their immediate problems, the only ones they have the bandwidth to see.

"It makes total sense to be fixated on solving the immediate problem with borrowing," he told the London School of Economics. They have a real fire they need to fight today."

When people suggest other options, they look at them with incredulity. "It's like their house is burning down and they are coming to the well for water, while others are saying: have you thought about the sustainability of this well?"

When sick, the poor are less likely to take their medication. They'll worry about what it will cost them. It isn't that they are inherently less capable of thinking straight than someone with money, it's that the lack of money triggers worries that degrade their ability to think beyond the fire.

More and more unemployed Australians are staying out of work rather than finding jobs. The Council of Social Service reports that seven out of 10 Australians on Newstart have been out of work for more than a year, up from six out of 10 just three years ago. In part it's due to the weak labour market, but it may also be due to the wearing effects of being unemployed and forever worried about money.

Mullainathan says the one thing you shouldn't do with people whose mental bandwidth is degraded, is tax it some more.

Would you say to the money-poor: I have this really great program for you but you have to pay $500 upfront, he asks. We don't, but he says we sometimes throw a 50-page booklet at them, or a survey 50-questions long.

Payments have been reduced under the so-called welfare-to-work policies of successive governments but the Abbott government devised its own torture.

It its first budget it demanded that most job seekers apply for 40 jobs per month. To tax them further it denied them Newstart for the first six months.

It's since backed down in the face of an intransigent Senate. It now wants only 20 jobs per month, and a one-month wait for the dole. But if it really wanted to make the unemployed more fit for work, it would lift Newstart.

Organisations as mainstream as the Business Council of Australia and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development have begged it to do so for some time.

Research commissioned for the government's pension review found one in 10 Australians on Newstart were unable get a substantial meal each day, one in eight were unable to buy prescribed medicines, and one in 20 were unable to heat their homes. The results were far worse than for pensioners, many of whom were not that badly off.

Malcolm Turnbull and Christian Porter have it in their power to ease up on the unemployed, to allow them to live and search for work with some dignity, and without financial threats gnawing away at their every decision. They have the ability to give them bandwidth, to enable Newstart to live up to its name.

First published in The Canberra Times, 16 October, 2015

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

I Consume Therefore I Am?

Buying is much more American than thinking, pop artist Andy Warhol once quipped. On last month’s visit to the United States, Catholic Pope Francis generated an enormous market for ‘things’, both spiritual and commercial.

It was thick with irony. While personally devoted to simplicity, Francis unleashed a hunger for products that surpassed what is usually associated with rock tours. New York was flooded with Pope posters, 'the Pope gives hope’ t-shirts, Pope caps, Pope bracelets and even Pope cheese that could be spread on Pope toast and then washed down with Pope beer. Instead of singing the hymn “The Great I Am” believers could have been singing “I Consume Therefore I Am”.

What is it about the human condition that makes us feel the need to bottle or wear things that are fleeting, even sacred, things that can’t be bottled or worn? Francis talks about being saved by the divine, of being in the world but not of it, yet all around him marketeers are offering objects that promise salvation in the form of material objects.

I get it. As a visual artist-in-training, I assume people will continue to want to put pictures on their walls. When I went to see Michael Jackson at the Sydney Entertainment Centre as a schoolgirl in the 1980s I just had to bring home something to keep the feeling going. It was a book full of posters of Jackson looking ‘bad’, sponsored by Pepsi. Now with teenagers of my own, I am reminded of the cultural pressures to frame our lives with products to shape our story.

We buy things because we can, because we want to and for what we think they can bring us. We want what surrounds them, the idea behind them. It happens when we are hollowed out spiritually. The less right we feel, the more we buy things that we think will make us right.

Corporations know this. They sell products associated with values in the hope that we will buy the products in order to buy the values.

Andy Warhol, who held a lifelong Catholic faith, understood it too, selling Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley prints and pictures of Brillo Boxes and Campbell's Soup cans. He was attacked for “capitulating” to consumerism but he was really doing was documenting the selling of identity. (When he wasn't making art, he worked in his congregation’s soup kitchen, the very opposite of selling out).

Spring is a good time to clean out our cupboards and shed those things we no longer need. There are garages throughout the suburbs just waiting to be liberated (Look out for the Majura School Spring Carnival and the National Garage Sale Trail on October 24). For me it’s also a time to think again about what I collect and why, to ask: ‘how much stuff is enough?’.

Pope Francis wants us to reflect on simplicity, on the virtues of modesty over show. You get the feeling that he is more interested in a battle with materialism than he is a battle over doctrine.

And it’s not only him. University researchers are increasingly interested in “voluntary radical simplicity” - a so-called middle way between over and under consumption. University of Melbourne researcher Dr Samuel Alexander describes it as the pursuit of “a sufficient standard of living” through non-material sources of wellbeing. As an example, he suggests exchanging some of our things for more free time.

He is promoting the idea of eco-villages that are “not escapist, but spaces to provoke thought and expand our ecological imaginations”. He says we shouldn’t forget the little things that reduce our footprint - walking to the shops, recycling, turning off the lights. But adds that we need creative and radical thinking that goes beyond simply giving up stuff.

It’s hardly a new idea. Alexander has harvested ideas from figures such as Buddha, Henry Thoreau and Jesus, who provoked his followers with “where your treasure is that is where your heart is also” (Old and contemporary prophets in all their shapes and sizes are like stones in our shoe, annoying but a potential gift).

We have become so wedded to consumption (those of us in Canberra are counting down to the opening of Ikea) that untangling ourselves from it is heavy going. Pope Francis may well have more success fighting sections of his Catholic Church over doctrine than he will in weaning the world off materialism.

The argument for easing back on acquisitions exists independently of arguments about the environment and climate change. It’s about living with ourselves and experiencing the profound and sacred rather than grasping at substitutes for it. Even if our consumption affected the rest of the world little it would be important to get it in perspective.