24 December, 2010

Just because I have a penis, doesn't mean I want powertools for Christmas

I get sick of all the advertising on television, pandering to stereotypes and 1950's, Stepford wife, bullshit. The same thing happens on Mother's and Father's Days. All men want for Christmas, apparently, is tools and car stuff. Women, on the other hand, will be content with pot-plants and spiritual books, according to the advertising they keep hammering in our faces.

As I mentioned in one of my earliest posts, I'm not the biggest fan of Christmas. What gets me the most about it is that all the stores and malls suddenly become tacky vomitoria of hideous, cheap, plastic, brightly coloured crap. While that annoys me, however, what I find the most insidious, is the aforementioned advertising.

I don't want to read rugby players autobiographies as if their vapid lives have any remotely interesting aspects worthy of printing in ink. I don't want jerseys with car logos on them as if affiliating yourself with either Ford or Holden somehow made you a better person (note: it doesn't, it makes you worse). I have no use for powertools or car stuff. Yet in spite of this, I'm still a man.

How about, instead of looking for "Gifts for Girls" or "Gifts for Boys," we instead just look for Gifts for People. If you're going to tailor a gift for someone, you should at least try to be a little more specific about who they are than just judging based on what they happen to keep in their pants.

Not Christmas gifts advertising, but here's a take on gender-based advertising in general:

Blogging and stuff

I want to be the awesome blogger, but being that I'm one of those people who has to say something important rather than just inane blather, and also being that it can often take effort to write seemingly important things (it takes me ages to get a post just right, I can't just brain-fart one out) I never get around to it, so my blog doesn't get updated and goes unread.

So either I'll fade into obscurity, or I'll start posting inane ramblings. Find out after the break...

08 November, 2010

Depression is lame and stuff

Do you know what really sucks? Everything.”
- Scott Pilgrim
OK, so everything sucked for Scott because he had girl trouble, but he pretty much sums up how I feel at the moment. Depression sucks. It really does, and it makes everything else suck.

It saps your motivation, makes you tired and grumpy, and makes everything you do feel like a failure. It's like there's a voice in your head telling you how much everything sucks. Whenever you attempt to do anything - especially if it's important - that voice is there telling you that trying is pointless because you're not going to succeed at what you're doing, and therefore, will fail at life forever.

That's not a silly exaggeration - that's literally how I feel when I attempt to do my work. It's really hard to maintain motivation when the part of my brain that I need to do my work, is being used by my depression to tell me that there's no point in doing any of the work, because I'm never going to get it finished to any kind of acceptable level. It's annoyingly circular, it makes your life feel like one big clusterfuck, and if left unchecked, will spiral out of control until your whole life collapses into a catastrofuck - kind of like what a neutron star goes through - except neutron stars are awesome and depression isn't.

A lot of people don't seem to understand depression. They often tell me to 'cheer up' or 'get over it,' or worse, they point me to a self help book which spends a whole chapter telling me that I just need to smile - Oh right! That's my problem! It's got nothing to do with the ability of the neurons in my brain to transport serotonin*, I just need to smile!†

* I'm not a neuroscientist - that's just what I got from a cursory glance of Wikipedia.
† That book is real, by the way. I can't remember what it's called, and I'm not going to give the author the dignity of looking it up, but it was, by far, the most patronising opening chapter I've ever read. Seriously, Self Help books are a waste of time and money.

It doesn't work like that (well, not for depression strong enough for a doctor to tell you that you have depression. Everyone gets in a bit of a 'blue funk' from time to time). You can't 'cheer up,' you can't 'get over it' and you certainly can't just fake a smile and pretend that it will trick your brain into thinking you're happy. Because you're not happy, and the suckiest thing is that you can't explain why.

In my last post, I wrote about my struggle with depression due to living in a homophobic world, and ended by saying that It Gets Better. But it's not just homophobia that makes me depressed - I am clinically depressed, and though it hasn't affected me very much over the past few years, it's coming back right now with a vengeance - right at the time when I most need my motivation and a clear head. Clinical depression doesn't go away and recent studies have suggested that anti-depressants aren't as effective as once thought. How can I tell young LGBT kids that "It Gets Better" when, right now, I feel like it never will?

The trouble is, we always want to strive for perfection. We want to be perfectly happy, without a care in our perfect world. But in reality, we have to set our sights a little lower. "Perfect" is unattainable. We have, instead, to set our sights on "good enough." My depression will never go away, I will have to battle it again and again. You can't escape it. For me, there are long periods of what can be approximated as "almost-normalcy" punctuated by periods of depression. For me, "almost-normalcy" is as good as it gets, but that's OK, as I don't really want anything too saccharin.

But it does get better - I have to fight and fight against an unknowable force using the very tools it's using against me. It's an uphill battle and it's hard and it usually strikes when you least want it to - when you're under stress or work pressure; when it has it's most deleterious effects - but it does still get better. It's taken me years to train myself to remember that. I'm not on medication now, haven't been for a few years, because I've trained myself on how to notice depression sneaking up and how to deal with it when it does, and the solutions are as individual as the person it affects. But that doesn't mean that I can just turn it off like a switch. I still have to fight it - every minute of every day - until it goes away. And it doesn't just take a day or two, it can linger for weeks or months - sometimes even years.

So I can't despair (even though that's what my brain is trying to make me do), I just have to plod along and do what I can to fight it: enjoy the sun, listen to good music, eat good food - and take solace in the fact that it will get better, but it's not easy. It's not something I can run away from or protest or accuse of bigotry. I've got to slog away at it until it's over. Even though it's the loudest voice in my head, I've got to ignore it, and I've got to shout over it to get anything done. If shouting math equations over an obnoxious emo in your head sounds like a bit of fun, then you should try depression too. But for me, it's not fun (OK, visualising and personifying it, is fun, but I digress...), it's a necessity.

Depression's a bitch, and if you don't nip it in the bud, it'll make you it's bitch. Talk to your friends (friends love it when you bitch about stuff at them), or a counciller, or a doctor or anyone who can help, and get yourself on the right track to mitigating it (you can't "cure" it). It's not easy, but with a little effort, it will get better.

31 October, 2010

It gets better - but it needs help

There's two things going on at the moment, mostly in the US, but it's also spilling over here too. The first is that there have been a string of young, queer people who have killed themselves due to the constant bullying that they receive for their particular shade of different. Whether this is something that has recently reached a crescendo or that it's rather that the mainstream is just starting to pay attention, doesn't matter - it's starting to get the attention it requires.

The second is the response. Celebrities across the US are posting videos online and giving speeches on their talk shows telling same-sex attracted youth that it gets better, that life is worth living, and pleading with the everyone to end the homophobic and transphobic bullying. The latest trend started when Dan Savage posted a video titled It Gets Better, with a number of celebrities, including Ellen DeGeneres contributing to the project. I must say that I am impressed by this - usually the mainstream media don't like talking so frankly about queer issues, preferring to sit on the "balanced" sidelines.

I am absolutely thrilled that this is happening, but I'm worried that as soon as the novelty wears off, we'll find something else to worry about, and the abuse and the suicides will continue to happen.

In New Zealand, gay, lesbian and bi youth are three times more likely than their straight counterparts to be bullied for being gay, or being thought of as gay. I'm not sure what the stats are like in other countries, but from what I understand that it doesn't get much better.

There is a reason that young queer people are being singled out and bullied, and it goes quite a bit beyond general schoolyard meanness. As a teenager at school, you're pretty much guaranteed to be bullied if they don't fit into whichever clique is supposed to be popular. Nerds and geeks are classical fare, as are the fat kids, and those who are just arbitrarily deemed unpopular. But if you're labelled 'gay' - even if you're really not - then life can become a living hell. At school, I fell into all those categories.

There needs to be a lot more done to curb bullying in schools. A lot of the abuse is often just passed off as childhood and teenage meanness; we certainly wouldn't expect adults to act like that. But when homophobia and queerphobia gets involved it becomes much worse - who you love and who you find attractive become one of the most things in a teenagers life once puberty strikes, and coupled with the overwhelming desire to fit in and do and like the 'right' things, things can get very stressful for a young queer person even before you add bullying into the mix. Children and teenagers can be very cruel - I should know: I spent years being bullied and taunted everyday, including two years at a boarding school I couldn't escape, for having the audacity of being different in a way that was outside my control, and for not following the rules of that society which, to this day, I can't totally comprehend.

I think that there is a dangerous myth present here that knocks back efforts to curb school-yard bullying - that children are cruel, purely because children are cruel. I really don't think that is the case. Yes they can be blunt, yes they take time to learn about things like compassion and empathy. Male children are learning how to establish hierarchies and pecking orders, in which they put others down. But I don't think that's enough to explain it all. Where do they get their ideas of how to be at the top of that pecking order? How do they know who to pick on; who's 'different'?


Quite simple, really. No prizes for me. Some children might not have developed their empathy, but that doesn't mean that they're incapable of understanding it (children are capable of understanding anything if you explain it to them) and it is the duty of adults, especially parents and educators, to explain it to them. And it is also adults who spread most of the lies, misunderstandings and stereotypes about homosexuals and queer people.

“Being a fag doesnt [sic] give you the right to ruin the rest of our lives. If you get easily offended by being called a fag then dont tell anyone you are a fag. Keep that shit to yourself [...]  I like that fags cant procreate. I also enjoy the fact that they often give each other aids and die. If you arent against it, you might as well be for it.”
That from Clint McCance, a school board member in Arkansas in responce to students wearing purple in memory of - and to protest the homophobia that led to - the recent, high-profile cases of gay teenage suicide. Read that again: a school board member, i.e. a person who influences teenagers' education. There's currently a Facebook campaign calling for him to be fired. Thanks to the fallout, McChance has since announced that he will resign from the school board. (Just as well, too - do we really want someone in charge of people's education when he can't seem to comprehend an apostrophy's role in contractions?)

Another person to not like It Gets Better, is a strange person called Mike Adams. In the interest of one-upping those annoying gay suicides, he decided to write about the suicides of eight straight people due to "harassment" by homosexuals. The cases he cites are all real except for two subtle points. The first is that they couldn't really be counted as "harassment." One of his 'victims' had recommended a homophobic book for a freshman reading course as a library committee member, and another member filed a harassment complaint against him. Because of that complaint, the librarian took his own life. Except, as he admits at the end of his rant, he didn't. And that's the other point. None of his 'victims' took their own lives. Instead, they're mostly sueing the people who "harassed" them.

So, Adams - a college professor - tried to out do a spate of teen suicides caused by horrific homophobic bullying by equating that abuse (which has included kidnapping and torture) with what mostly amounts to being called out for their bullshit, and then not committing suicide. Harassment is not being told you can't be a bigot. Harassment is being called a fag every other day. It is being spat on on the street. It's being told that you shouldn't be allowed to marry your partner. It's being accused of paedophilia and bestiality. It's being called a disease ridden whore. And not just being picked on by high-schoolers, but by entire churches and religious leaders, celebrities and politicians - all of these people demanding freedom of speech and religion to deny the rights of others, apparently without noticing the irony of their actions.

Fun fact: Adams is also a misogynist.

So, what to do? First of all, we must remember that there is no arguable defence of homophobia and queerphobia. None. Is it a 'sin?' Nope. Does it lead to paedophilia, rape and incest, or be kept away from children? Nope. Is it 'unnatural' (however you qualify or measure that)? Nope. Being gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans, or any other shade of queer is no more wrong than being left-handed, or blond, or female, or black.

Next: be visible. Show people that it's not shameful to be queer. Be visible in your sexuality, or your acceptance of the differing sexualities. I know a lot of people don't want to do this for fear of precisely the things we are trying to fight, but we need to make ubiquitus the idea that being gay or lesbian or bisexual or trans or queer - being different - is completely normal* and acceptable.

* Normal, as in an everyday, natural occurance, not as in statistically average. I am aware of how stupid that word it.

And finally, we need to discourage homophobia and queerphobia wherever we see it. When people say "that's so gay" or call someone they don't like a "homo," tell them that that's not alright. When someone says that gays can't raise children, ask for proof, and let them know that, according to research, children raised by lesbians fare better than those raised in heterosexual households. If they say that it's a 'sin' or that God forbids it, point out leviticus, along with prohibiting male homosexual acts, also forbids the eating of shellfish (which also uses the term abomination), shaving, vegetable gardens, doing anything on a Saturday, and mensturating women from sitting on chairs - furthermore, there are stories of a lesbian couple and two gay couples.

Everyone needs to own this problem; both queer people and 'straight', but especially adults. It's time we got rid of homophobia and queerphobia, and all other forms of bigotry, once and for all. Oppose it whenever you witness it, and tell people that it's not OK.

To all those teachers, parents and caregivers, you need to go out of your way to loof for and discourage homophobic and queerphobic bullying. Yes, all bullying is bad and needs to be stopped, but for too long, bullying of young queer people has been largely ignored. It's your job to ensure that children and teenagers are raised in an environment free from persecution and harassment, and that they understand that they live in a diverse world with many different types of people, just trying to live as who and what they are, and that bigotry is unacceptable.

And to all those people, young people especially, who are being bullied and abused for being gay or being perceived as gay; for all those who are caught in a spiral of depression and are comtemplating suicide, know this: It gets better. You grow up. The arseholes go away. You can get away from it. You can do something about it. I've been there - I've been bullied, yelled at, called a 'faggot' and been tormented. When I was at Timaru Boys High School, as a boarder, I was in an inescapable cuccoon of hypermasculine homophobia. The prefects egged it on, and the housemasters cared more about not letting my parents think there was anything wrong with the hostel than whether I was alright. (It was at the boarding school, that I developed my keen disdain for hegemony, authoritarinism and also militarianism)

But I grew up. I was able to leave Timaru Boys† and, although Ashburton College (shut up) didn't fare much better in the homophobia department, I eventually left that too. I went to university - the bullies dropped out. Now, I'm the happiest I've ever been.

 † I have nothing against the school itself, except the rigid, Christian, superiority complex that I remember. It's the boarding hostel, Thomas House, or rather those that ran it at the time, that draws the attention of my ire.

Life gets better. Even if you're being dragged throught the shit, don't give up. Depression can cloud your judgement and make you unable to see through the storm. It may even make you just want to give up and kill yourself. But that's never the answer. Once you're dead, you're dead forever. You can't go back and fix it. Instead of killing yourself, hold on. I know it may seem futile, but grab onto whatever gives you strength and keep going. Just remember that it does get better.

11 October, 2010

Reading things make me angry

I today saw both the names "Michael Laws" and "Paul Henry" in a tweet. In the interest of masochistic rigour, I clicked on the link to see if I could get my blood to boil. Why do I do this to myself?

It didn't take long - the fact that I'd already read the name "Michael Laws" helped out a lot there. The link led to his column on the Radio Live website. Apologising to the Governor-General for controversial statements seems to be in vogue at the moment, so Laws jumped the bandwagon and apologised for calling Anand Satyanand fat:
Today I have engaged in discussions with RadioLIVE regarding my comments about the Governor General and his physique.
I apologise to the Governor General for comments which were, upon reflection, uncharitable and inappropriate.
So, Laws called Satyanand fat. That's not really that offensive. Fatphobia is a bad thing and should be discouraged, but I can imagine Satyanand shrugging it off. Laws is just trying to remind everyone that he's offensive too, and that by apologising for this one act of insensitivity, he can claim that he cares and isn't all that bad.
But he is. He's a racist homophobe, and he's worse than Henry. At least Henry could hold a logical debte when he wasn't laughing at lady-moustaches. Laws is just a dick.

I can't help but [cynically] notice that he refers to him only as "the Governor General," not once does he refer to him by his name. Is the name Anand Satyanand not 'New Zealand' enough? (Sorry, that's the domain of Henry)
I reserve the right to be controversial and outspoken.
Translation: I reserve the right to be a bigoted arsehole - freedom of speech and all that!

OK, so we all know that Laws is a dick (well, we should, by now). I won't keep flogging him - I found something else to be cynical about [Emphasis mine]:
By Jane
What the hell is wrong with this country...sorry but this is seriously a case of the Emperors New Clothes, sorry to state the obvious but the Governor General, not matter how holier than thou he is, is of Indian descent and hes FAT, regardless of whether he was born in NZ or not! And if you dont want English speaking nations to say your name as Dikshit, then spell it Dixit! And if that makes me a racist, then I'm happy to wear that label
(3)   (0)
This was the first comment I saw on Laws' column. I could poke fun at 'Jane's' grammer, I could poke fun at her misplaced "Emperors New Clothes" analogy, but I won't. Firstly, at what point has Satyanand acted "holier than thou?" He's hardly said anything - it's the media and social commentators (myself included, granted) that been blustering about this.

Secondly, yes, it does make you racist, but that's not something to be proud of. Furthermore, at the time I read this post, 3 people 'agreed' with her. This is what is what "is wrong with this country." Not people being offended at offensive stuff, but the racist, bigoted sentiment that comes gushing to the surface when people like Laws and Henry get in trouble.

It's hard to think of New Zealand as being a bigoted nation, but the bigotry is there. What I can't comprehend is people defending it, and claiming it as their right to be bigots.

I should stop reading the internet, it makes me angry. Also, Jane, your grammer sucks and that "Emperors New Clothes" line makes no sense.

08 October, 2010

Do I give more face time to Paul Henry?

The ship is fast sailing on this one, but the media keep plugging it, so I will too.

[Warning: This post gets cynical quite quickly]

What I find interesting (though not at all surprising) about the whole Paul Henry thing, is the difference in reporting between the two networks. TVNZ (understandably) is only giving a minimal amount of information, focusing on his offending question surrounding whether Anand Satyanand was "even a New Zealander," and only focused on his joking about Sheila Dikshit's name once the controversy hit India. TV3, by contrast, played a sort of Paul Henry mega-mix whereby he laughed at a lady moustache and his mockery of Susan Boyle.

Both networks conspicuously leave out his comment that homosexuals are "unnatural."

There are two things that annoy me about this whole Henry debacle. First is the fact that people are defending him - some people joining ‘boycott TVNZ until Paul Henry returns’ groups on Facebook. They act (seemingly echoing TVNZ's sentiment) that it was a one-off incident, and wasn't really all that bad. The reason people are pissed off and want his blood, is because it's the latest in a long line of bigoted, arsehole statements that the veteran broadcaster has made - and, being racial, it's the one that's inflamed us all the most. He's not saying “what we're all thinking but afraid to say” (granted, TVNZ later retracted this statement). Most New Zealanders are not bigoted arseholes. Tough I would agree with the sentiment that we'd like to be able to “tell it like it is,” that has more to do with New Zealanders reprehension with complaining rather than any introverted intolerance.

Henry is a bigot and giving him free reign on Breakfast has exacerbated his bigotry. The argument that he's a good broadcaster and that he's fantastic at debating politicians, et al, does not warrant letting his offensive remarks slide.

The second thing that annoyed me about the whole thing is that TV3 interviewed radio shock-jocks John Tamihere and Willie Jackson. The pair admonished Henry's offensiveness, rightly pointing out that a government-owned network shouldn't employ openly racist presenters, while ignoring the hypocrisy of them making those comments. Jackson and (especially) Tamihere have received their fair share of complaints about their own offensive statements, but they defend their right to do it because their radio programme is privately owned, as if that makes it all OK.

Finally, I should pay lip service to the fact that many people are saying that we shouldn't be flogging this piece of non-news. While the media do have a tendency of over pushing pointless “news” items, I think people are more worried about giving Henry's words an ersatz legitimacy by talking about it.

I disagree, and think that we should be talking about it. The fact that he said it, and the fact that many people are rushing to his defense, shows that New Zealand is still a quietly bigoted country. While we have nothing of the sort we see proudly trumpeted from the parapets across America, we're not the paragon of tolerance and freedom that we tell ourselves we are. Racism, heterosexism, misogyny and other forms of discrimination all still exist in our society.

But does that mean that we need to keep harping on Paul Henry? He may be a bit of a media pariah at the moment, but he's fast becoming a patsy for bigotry in New Zealand. In stead of keeping on him, we need to honestly look at ourselves in the mirror, and actually have a conversation with ourselves to finally deal with the conservative bigotry lurking beneath our liberal façade.

[UPDATE: Paul Henry has resigned, lol]

07 October, 2010

Straight Men are Lame and Insecure :)

[This post was originally published in Critic - Te Arohi, p. 31, Issue 25, 2010]

"Why is it," I was asked, "that women get Women's Week? We don't get Men's Week." I also often hear "Gays get a 'Pride' Week, but I bet they wouldn't let us have a 'Straight Pride' Week." Instead of responding to things I don't like with vitriol, like I usually do, I thought I would offer a more elaborate rebuttal than just saying "Because you already have the other 50 weeks!" (OK, there's going to be a little vitriol in this).

As it turns out, straight men are insecure. For the last few decades, as Feminism and Queer Civil Rights really picked up steam, straight men have been having their stranglehold on society slowly, but forcibly, loosened. Straight men are still the dominant group in society, but their authority is being challenged, and that makes them insecure.

If you're so insecure in your masculinity that you need a special week to fellate your ego, then by all means, have a Men's Week.

However, before you rush out and install a blow-off valve in your car or whatever it is that straight guys do, note this: Women's Week, Pride Week, Diversity Week, et alia are about dismantling stereotypes and misunderstandings, claiming a political voice and challenging the insecurities of wider society through visibility and supporting women, queers, and diverse ethnic groups by creating 'safe' spaces, both emotionally and physically, for a week.

The truth is, straight men are unfairly affected by sexism and expected to behave in certain ways. Men are expected to be REAL MEN™ - to be the epitome of logic and reason, yet resolve everything with violence; be humble, yet win every fight. They are expected to tend to a woman's 'needs', yet not give a shit about their feelings. They have to be good fathers, yet not invest any emotions in their children. They have to tread a fine line between stylish, yet looking messy. They can't possibly be mistaken for gay - even if they are. They have to enjoy watching and playing sport (personally, I'd rather watch grass grow with paint drying on it). They also absolutely have to have a penis - a big one; and be willing and able to prove it (though not really prove it, because that would be gay).

All of these things tie men up in awkward, contradictory, illogical knots. No wonder straight men feel confused and insecure - especially in a society that's also trying to pry a little of their power away for women and queers. If we are to have a Men's Week, then it has to dismantle the impossible expectations of 'straight' men in today's society.

A couple of year's ago, we [OUSA] did have a Men's Week. It was lame. This year we had 'Manday'. Sport, violent video games, meat - this just reinforced the hyper-masculine stereotype. As a friend said, it was straight men saying "We have a voice too - and it's deep." While I agree that X-Box and barbecues are awesome, there's much more to being a man than this. If straight men are insecure about loosing their place in society, then it's not going to be helped by having Manday-esque circle-jerks where you high-five each other and tell yourselves how awesome you are. Instead, men should be told that they can still be REAL MEN™ without having to subscribe to the beer, tits, rugby, rally-cars, guns, explosions, steak, barbecue, sex, violence, car-maintenance, womanising, track-pants-wearing, hyper-masculine, bullshit stereotype that we keep getting sold.

In reality, most of the straight men in my life don't subscribe to this image. But time and time again this is the image we're sold, this is the contemporary archetype male that is hammered into us. In advertising, on TV and in print we're sold this lie over and over again. A common source of sitcom hijinks sees the blokish main character fall slightly outside this ridiculous norm or (more hilariously, apparently) be caught in some kind of 'gay panic' situation. Father's Day seems to have less to do with parenting and more to do with powertools, and don't get me started on department store Christmas catalogues' 'gifts for boys' sections. This is what we keep being sold in spite of the fact that most men are not like this at all.

Men, be they gay, straight, bi, queer, trans, or whatever, need to be sold the idea that they don't have to resolve everything with a fight; they don't  have to win every argument; they don't have to be tall and 'rugged' and physically strong. They should be told that they don't need always to be ready to have sex with anyone (of the 'correct' gender); that they are allowed to date the 'fat chick'; that they don't have to be able to fix stuff or make lots of money, or hide their emotions. And most importantly (from my perspective) they need to know that being called 'gay' is not an insult. If a guy hits on you in a bar, take the compliment and politely decline, don't have a mini freak-out. These are issues that we must own collectively - not just those outside the norm, but everyone who comfortably sits in it too.

But if you'd still rather cling to your insecurities, then by all means, keep your Manday's and your rugby and your beer; just don't be baffled when you get no respect in return.

19 July, 2010

Downsize Your Exec - Destroy Minority Representation

OUSA is currently running a referendum to ask it's members if it should make a smaller, more efficient executive. But while this might be good for governance, it could be disastrous for minority groups at Otago University.

The "Downsize Your Exec" question is to put in place the recommendations of the Governance Structure Review Working Party, which calls for the removal of most of the representational portfolios on the OUSA exec. This would mean the removal of the Queer Rep, as well as the Women's Rep, Maori Rep, Pacific Islands Rep and International Rep (Though Te Roopu Maori will delegate an officer ex officio instead of the Maori Rep and the international students will be represented by one of the General Reps).

Over the last decade or so, the students at Otago decided that the Welfare Rep was unable to accomplish all of these roles on their own (International and Women's Reps have existed since at least 1996), so each different rep position was created to ensure that they all got the time needed to fairly represent all these disparate groups.

While, publicly, OUSA has been proactive on certain queer issues, historically, queer issues were often pushed to the sidelines. It was codified in their policies to be proactive on queer rights, but these rights were often put at the bottom of the list, and were neglected. By combining the Queer, Women's, Maori, Pacific Islands and International Reps back into the Welfare Officer, we're going to see the same thing happen again - it's too many disparate things for one officer to handle. Harriet's response is that the reps are being replaced by sub-committees, but this is similar to what already happened previously (and is from where UniQ originally sprung) and what OUSA already has the power to create.

Furthermore, the Welfare Sub-committee will be comprised (potentially, according to the Working Party Report) of a Maori Rep, Queer Rep, Women's Rep, Pacific Islands Rep, International Cultural Council Rep, Disabilities Rep, and a Postgrad Rep. Each of these different groups are equally important and deserve equal time and respect, but I think that it's utter folly for them to all be deliberating on each other's issues. The PI Rep cannot truly comprehend queer issues in the same way that I cannot truly comprehend women's issues - which is why these all need to be separate positions. By putting all of these different things into one sub-committee, we risk losing an effective voice through OUSA, as do Maori, PI, female students, et al.

Finally, the sub-committees are appointed by the Executive. There is absolutely no democratic recourse if we disagree with whom they appoint. If they appoint someone that, for example, we feel doesn't have the backing of the queer community, there's nothing we can do about it. They could even appoint a man as a women's rep - there's nothing in any of the proposed constitutional changes that guarantee that any appointed reps on the committee must actually represent the people they claim to. In fact there is nothing in the proposed constitutional changes that have anything to say about the appointment of the sub-committees.

I truly believe that we should strongly oppose the Governance Structure Review. It is anti-queer, it is anti-women, it is anti-diversity. I do believe that the working party is not being deliberately sinister or malicious and that they do have our best interests at heart, but I think that they are naïve. "Downsize your Exec?" will destroy our representation on OUSA and University councils - representation we fought tooth and nail for, and we should not sit idly by while that happens.

The structure that they are proposing isn't even established by the referendum: The constitutional amendments in the referendum question are only going to axe all of the representatives. The sub-committees have to be established in further policy. While OUSA says that this policy is already drafted and waiting for the results of the referendum, there is absolutely nothing binding them to passing it - and it could all change before it gets a chance to.

So, those of you who actually read this, and of that subset those who are OUSA members, please vote NO in this referendum. The referendum is on the OUSA website 

13 March, 2010

What is the real intent of Voluntary Student Membership?

There is a bill before Select Committee at the moment – the Education (Freedom of Association) Amendment Bill, sponsored by Roger Douglas of the ACT party - the same Roger Douglas who arseholed up the country in the 80's.

What ACT are trying to achieve, as laid out in the General Policy Statement of the Bill and according to the Hansard’s account of the debates, is freedom for students and the destruction of corrupt organisations.

But the cynic in me tell me to be wary of the intent of politicians – particularly those to the right of centre.

‘Freedom of Association’ is proudly flaunted in the title of this insidious piece of legislation. Who could deny anyone freedom? Freedom is such a good thing and is always worth fighting for, right?

Apparently, our rights are being denied by Universal Student Membership. Those who don’t want to join or can’t afford to, are forced to anyway and spend their hard-earned money on the Students’ Association when they enrol at their chosen institution.

This argument rests on a logical fallacy: Student’s already have the option to opt out either for reasons of financial hardship or conscientious objection. Also, if at least 10% of the student body call for one, a binding referendum is held to determine whether the association becomes voluntary. The students can democratically call for Voluntary Student Membership (VSM). This isn’t happening.

But, implies Roger Douglas, democracy represents the tyranny of the majority, as the minority of students who want VSM don’t have a loud enough voice. Before dismantling this point, let me first let my inner cynic speak: since when have ACT given a shit about the rights of minorities – they were recently the only party to vote against legislation that would see people who kill gays being convicted of murder; gays aren’t humans according to ACT.

The very construct of student associations gives those students who belong to minority groups a voice in their education and provides support structures for those who feel discriminated against. Queer students, Maori students, Pacific Island students. When VSM became law in Australia, the first things to go were the support for minorities. Women’s and queer spaces disappeared. With VSM, it’s the minorities who suffer the most; they lose the protection they fought hard for – and they did fight very hard for these protections.

On to corruption. In the debate, both ACT candidates mention the amount of fraud and thievery of students’ money that go on in students’ associations – listing several examples. But one thing that the examples have in common (aside from being mostly at Vic.) is that they all represent people who were caught, tried and received convictions, not people who skived money away publicly as nobody battered an eyelid. Fraud exists here not due to anything inherent in the associations, but simply because they are run by people. People are, by and large corrupt. Corruption happens everywhere, from small businesses to the stock market and, most significantly, in banks and parliament. By the same argument, we should shut down everything that we humans run.

The difference between students’ associations and other organisations is that student associations are directly responsible to their constituents and must be completely transparent in their spending. Other organisations don’t. It was this transparency that enabled the students to hold the fraudsters to account and achieve conviction to be written into the public record for ACT to bitch about. The whole process is self correcting. Roger Douglas’ privatisation campaign in the 80’s, however, destroyed the transparency of many of the countries largest companies, filling them with more corruption than students’ associations can ever hope to hold.

So what is the real issue here? This is the part where I let my cynic fully out of his box. Traditionally, students represent everything ACT hate: intelligent, free-thinking, liberal, socially-minded, financially poor, young people who aren’t afraid to speak their minds and are deeply interested in politics. Students complain, students protest. Student’s across the word have been influential in every major push for human rights and civil liberties in the last century. From the emancipation of women, to the civil rights of blacks, to homosexual law reform, it’s been students at the forefront of the protests.

This bill is really about silencing ACTs loudest opponents. And what better way to silence your political opponents than by putting it behind the disguise of ‘Freedom.’

11 January, 2010

Open letter to Mark Buckle

In the opinion pages of the Otago Daily Times last week - Friday 8th January, to be precise - I read an actual creationist piece in the paper. I thought this was a little silly, so I sent in a response. The original Opinion piece, written by Mark Buckle, is available to read here.

Here follows my as-yet-unpublished response:

Mark Buckle wrote of the restoring power of ‘knowledge of the Creator’ (ODT, 8.1.10). I would argue that this is certainly not the case – or at least that knowledge of the Creator (or any creator for that matter) is not a necessity for creative restoration.

First off, however, he opines that we're constantly being told new, conflicting knowledge about how to live. This is true, though it has a lot more to do with the sensationalised reporting of science in the media than the actual science – the anti-MMR vaccine hoax in Britain recently is proof of that (not that I think the media are deliberately being facetious, they often, like most of us, just don't know how to handle esoteric and complex scientific reports). However, this doesn't mean that there is anything wrong with the scientific knowledge itself.

Also, we are immensely less afraid that our forebears. We (in the West, at least) are no longer afraid of vampires or zombies or goblins or any of the myriad demons and ghouls that ‘threatened’ us in the middle ages. While we still fear the dark, heights, fire, snakes and spiders and obvious things like death, having survived evolution by developing a mechanism to avoid such things, the things we fear that once lay hidden in the dark, have now, to borrow an analogy from Carl Sagan, have been revealed by the candle of science. Once we know them, we can deal with them rationally. Those who say that our fears have been ‘amplified by our heightened knowledge’ have it wrong: knowledge doesn't lead to greater fear – that fear is constructed by those who oppose knowledge.

Knowing all this ‘stuff’ has brought us closer to life's fundamental needs, because we in the secular, liberal west, have realised that, fundamentally, people need to eat right, have fun and be nice to each other. That's it. We don't need someone telling us that our knowledge is wrong or indeed that our lifestyles are wrong or immoral. We fundamentally need the freedoms granted to us by our advancements through science. To quote comedian Tim Minchin: ‘Science adjusts it's views based on what's observed; faith is the denial of observation so that belief can be preserved.’
He goes on: ‘Life is full of mysteries, yeah, but there are answers out there and they won't be found by people sitting around looking serious and saying, “Isn't life mysterious? Let's sit here and hope.”’ [Seriously, go look up his Storm on YouTube.]

But what really boggled my mind about the opinion piece of Friday the 8th, was that half of it was devoted to creationism, an hypothesis that has so thoroughly been debunked to be barely worth it. The fact of evolution by natural selection is so irrefutable, that even the pope supports it (and he doesn't support a lot of things that he should). Our DNA does not hold evidence of our unique identity, rather it is proof of the interrelatedness of all living things on Earth. To me, the knowledge that I share 50% of the DNA code with a banana is more beautiful and powerful than anything offered by any religion that I have yet come across.

David Attenborough observed it best when he said of those who see beauty in ‘creative design,’ that those people always mean sunsets and flowers, and not the little worm that can only make it's existence by burrowing through the cornea of a starving child in Africa – where is the benevolence in that? I will say no more on evolution, except to point you to a far better argument than any I could conceive: Richard Dawkin's latest book The Greatest Show on Earth. If you read it sincerely and honestly, and don't just skip to the bits that offend your intelligence, you'll find it very persuasive.
To quote Tim Minchin again: ‘Isn't this enough? Just this... world? Just this, beautiful, complex, wonderfully unfathomable, natural world? How does it so fail to hold our attention that we have to diminish it with the invention of cheap, man-made myths and monsters?’

To elaborate on what I wrote above, those that tell us that greater knowledge brings us greater fear are merely trying to hide the fact that it is this greater knowledge that they themselves are afraid of. To quote an oft-quoted paragraph from Carl Sagan: ‘How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, “This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant”? Instead the say, “No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way.” A religion, old or new, the stressed the magnificence of the Universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths.’

To say that ‘True faith ... relies on a reason of greater comprehension than our own’ serves the dual purposes of being illogical, metaphysical garbage and of also being designed to be non-arguable. If the countless people from various cultures and religions have taught you that faith in Jesus Christ is revolutionary and removes fear, are you selectively ignoring those of the Muslim faith who have the same kind of faith in the words of the prophet Muhammed, or of the Jews or Hindus? Or Atheists? Or have you never really known any of them, only assumed that they must be unfulfilled and incomplete based on your own biases, ignorance and bigotry? I realised a long time ago that belief in Jesus Christ only superficially removes fear, and when I discovered that religion is design (not deliberately, mind you) to instill fear so as to control people, I got away from it as fast as I could.

True change comes from being free of mental controls, from being free from accusations of thought crimes. To be able to think and express oneself freely, regardless of one's belief's is true freedom. We only have one life – only one that you can empirically or logically prove – and the brevity of this life makes it all the more worth living.

One final quote from Minchin: ‘If perchance I have offended, think of this and all is mended: we'd as well be 10 minutes back in time, for all the chance you'll change your mind.’

This has not yet been published yet (15.1.10) and I don't expect it to - not in the ODT at least. I can see them wringing their hands over all the apparent offences in this piece. But I'd like to point out one further thing.

Mark Buckle is a pastor at Fernhill Church in Dunedin and it appears that he has in the past delivered the opening prayer at the council meetings. He's written a few opinion pieces in the ODT and they all seem quite similar - he doesn't have a clue what he's on about - even misquoting Karl Marx (the famous "opiate of the people" line which is very easy to check that you've got it right these days. It's nice to think we could just ignore him and his ilk, but we can't. This sort of thinking is muddying the waters that we're trying to clear.

At worst, it's dangerous thinking that sets people against one another. At best, it's offensive to those of us who don't share his belief and don't like being told that we're non-creative sinners.