Tuesday, 28 February 2006

Tropfest 2006

P. and I went along to watch Tropfest in Commonwealth Park (Canberra) on Sunday night and had a really fun night. We met a bunch of people there quite early, who had arrived even earlier and secured what was probably the best seat in the 'house' (field?). There was also plenty of yummy food (a lot of which had been left over from our housewarming the night before), and the band that played before the screening was great - funky latin music that got people up and dancing shamelessly (us included).

The films were mostly pretty good, but I was disapointed that neither of our favourites "Carnivore Reflux" or "Glitch" won any awards. I thought that both of them were far cleverer than any of the other films and they were both very well made. I guess I didn't expect an animation to win (Carnivore Reflux), but it may have received the people's choice award if that hadn't been cancelled because of the bad weather in Sydney shutting down the screening early.

Canberra has actually been looking up of late. Tropfest was good fun, and so was the Swing Band that was playing in Garema Place on Friday night as part of the Round Town community events. There were a bunch of people dancing to the band who were pretty good, and it turned out that they were all from a swing dancing class that is just down the road. So, I now have another activity on my list (one that I have talked P. into joining me with - not that this was difficult, he was already keen). I'm also quite looking forward to heading along to see Bride and Prejudice on the 11th of March, so long as the weather stays nice.

Monday, 27 February 2006

Ninth Carnival of Feminists, and a little exploration of the prostitution debate

I have yet to wade my way through the amazing Ninth Carnival of Feminists, put together by Winter Woods at the wonderful feminist blog from Cardiff, Mind the Gap, but I wanted to draw it to people's attention it because it is an incredible collection of posts - yet again.

My favourite, so far, is a brief post by Laurelin in the Rain entitled The Patriarchy Phrasebook. Like many of the commenters, I felt the most empathy with this particular translation:
Patriarchy: ‘Smile, love!’
Translation: ‘Why are you not deferential to my masculinity?’
I have experienced this one, or close variations on the theme, on countless occasions and it never fails to both irritate and baffle me. My irritation should be fairly self-explanatory. My confusion is based on my inability to understand how some guys appear to believe that although I have either never met them, or barely know them, my primary concern for the day is whether or not they find me attractive and pleasing. Where did this belief come from? Is this really the message that society as a whole is sending them?

Another post in the Carnival that I had actually stumbled across earlier through a link from Kate's blog is a post from Mad Sheila Musings about Why WA shouldn't legalise prostitution. This post was one that I wanted to write about earlier, but was sort of reluctant, because I think that the issue is really complicated. In brief, though, I have to say that I can't agree with Alyx, over a MSM, despite my sympathy for her concerns about the messages that are being propagated about women within the sex industry.

My primary reason for disagreeing with Alyx is that I think that criminalising prostitution will not make it go away, but will rather drive it underground - meaning that sex workers (both male and female) will be subjected to more abuse, harassment and unsafe working conditions than they would in a legal and regulated work environment. It is for this reason that I would whole-heartedly support the legalisation of prostitution. Beyond this, however, I am less confident about what I think.

Additional arguments around the issue of prostitution range from women (often sex workers) who argue that sex work is a legitimate choice that ought to be respected and even be considered liberating for women to those that argument that prostitution is never a choice that is freeing made by women, but is rather always something that is forced upon women and always exploitative.

One example of the first perspective is that of the Scarlet Alliance, an Australia organisation that
aims to achieve equality, social, legal, political, cultural and economic justice for past and present workers in the sex industry, in order for sex workers to be self-determining agents, building their own alliances and choosing where and how they work.
The Scarlet Alliance has been doing excellent work with Australian and International sex worker's unions in promoting the rights of sex workers, and in campaigning with governments to draft legislation that strikes a good balance between balancing the rights of sex workers, while protecting vulnerable people who may be forced into sex work either through trafficking or other forms of coercion.

I have a lot of respect for the work that they do, and a lot of respect for sex workers who demand the right to safe working conditions and for people to respect their life choices and their agency in making those choices. However, I am also a little uncomfortable with the idea of sex work being considered in any way 'liberating', and believe that while it is necessary to respect people's life choices, it is also important to recognise the constraints under which they made those choices and to question whether they would have made the same choices under difference circumstances.

I guess, ultimately, I feel similarly about prostitution as I do about abortion. I think that the right of women to choose what it is that they do with their bodies should always be respected. To not respect their choices is patronising and paternalistic. However, I also think that both choices have the potential to be harmful to women (and society, in some cases) and that far more effort should also be made to alter the circumstances that constrain women's choices. In the case of prostitution, this would include better educational and training opportunities for women (and men), as well as greater access to employment (which would include employment overseas for some women who end up being trafficked while seeking out better opportunities internationally). In the case of abortion, this would include increased access to affordable childcare, more flexible work environments, paid maternity leave, greater levels of support from partners in the home, and a more supportive society (i.e., less demonisation of single mothers and welfare recipients).

That said, even with all of these changes, I would still respect the right of women to continue to make their own choices about their bodies. There are so many factors that go into determining whether something is right for you, and to assume that someone else is in a better position to make that decision on your behalf is fundamentally patronising.

Rant over.

Friday, 24 February 2006


Well, we have been living in Canberra for a few weeks now, and now that we have found somewhere to live and unpacked most of our crap I have realised that I had better do something about getting settled in to the city at large.

You see, strictly speaking, I actually have no reason to leave the house (other than for groceries and family events), since my office is located next to our kitchen. I also have no reason to actually speak to anyone (except P, and the rest of my family), since I work (research) alone. However, I have a sneaking suspicion that if I follow this course of action, I will go mad fairly rapidly. So, I have been taking my time over this last week (while P was away for work) to plot and scheme ways of actually having reasons to leave the house and to maybe even have some contact with the rest of the world.

My first stop was a local yoga school where I signed up for a term of classes. This particular plan was only semi-successful. It has certainly given me good reason to leave the house. However, as my class appears to have whittled down to a total of three people (myself included) the whole ‘contact with the rest of the world’ thing hasn’t really been going on.

My second stop was the ANU, where I enquired about doing some tutorial work with the head of school of one of the faculties. This plan was a little more successful. The head of school in question got back to me the other day with an offer to teach a couple of classes from mid-semester onwards, giving me not only a reason to leave the house, but also some contact with the world AND, as a nice bonus, some extra money!

Volunteering was next on my list and so I approached the Welfare Rights Legal Centre down the road. Unfortunately, this was not particularly successful, as they have a bunch of interns starting this semester and a large group of continuing volunteers, meaning that they simply didn’t have the office space to take on any new volunteers. Strike one. Undeterred, I ventured into Amnesty International. Here I was greeted by a cheery volunteer who got me to leave a message for the office manager. She (also very cheery) contacted me soon after and I went in for a meeting. The meeting was actually just a tour of the office, some filling in of forms and statements like: “What do you want to do?”; “Whatever time you have is just fine”; and “If you’re just feeling bored, there are people here between [these hours], so just pop in and hang out” – all very nice. Now I just have to figure out what I do want to do and email the right people, etc.

In an attempt to avoid the massive amounts of packaging at the supermarket (and its horrible fluoro lights), and because it is so close to our new place, P. and I also joined the Food Co-op. They also have lots of unpackaged, bulk goods, much of which is organic, locally produced and/or fair trade. So last night I did a big shop there, stocking up on tahini, beans, almonds, green & blacks cocoa, chai, muesli, spelt flour, and other hippy-foods. To get our 20% discount, we will have to volunteer for a few hours a month, so this venture also fulfils my criteria.

Last night I also finally fulfilled a vow that I made after the last depressing federal election and joined the Greens. I’m not sure how much this will get me out of the house, but at least I feel like I am engaging in the creation of a positive alternative to the current political status quo in Australia, and that can only be a good thing in my book.

Finally, P and I have been talking about starting a book club for the last few months. So I guess that is the next thing on my list. I’ll keep you updated on how that goes…

OH, and by the way, we finally have broadband! mmmm.... it is so nice.

[Image borrowed from here]

Wednesday, 22 February 2006

What are the appropriate limits of freedom of expression?

Tonight David Irving is behind bars for publicly denying the existence of the Holocaust some 17 years ago, while newspapers around the Northern world are republishing cartoons that mock the image of the Prophet Mohammed causing offence to many Muslims around the world. Is this appropriate?

If you set aside the fact that Irving’s statements were made a long time ago and the fact that he has since recanted his views, then the core issues here are whether freedom of expression should be boundless, whether there are good reasons for limiting its scope, and, if so, when are these limitations appropriate?

First of all, it is widely agreed that limiting freedom of expression by banning statements that are controversial or against general social mores is fundamentally at odds with the very concept. Freedom of expression is meaningless if it does not protect unpopular speech. However, many also argue that the solution to all kinds of controversy is the airing of all perspectives in the ‘market place of ideas’. The argument goes that it is in this ‘market place’ that ideas will be debated, tested and ultimately brought in check by rational means. In contrast to this argument, others argue that freedom of expression has the potential to infringe on other human rights, and it is when human rights come into conflict that it becomes appropriate to restrict some people’s access to their rights in order to protect the rights of others. In the area of freedom of expression the two most common areas of conflict are equality and freedom of expression itself.

The issue of equality is most often raised in the context of the debate around pornography. The argument here is that pornography denigrates women and, thus, restricts their access to equality rights. This argument is sometimes extended to include the idea that pornography increases acts of violence, sexual harassment, and other serious forms of discrimination against women, and the rights of women to be protected from these threats should override the right of others to express themselves by publishing pornography (or particular kinds of pornography). This same argument can also be applied to hate speech.

It is also possible to reframe both of these debates in terms of a conflict between two kinds of expression, by using the concept of ‘silencing speech’. The argument here is that some speech has the capacity to silence its subject and therefore infringes their right of freedom of expression. In the context of pornography or hate speech, the argument would be that by denigrating or demonising women or other groups, and creating a social environment in which they are threatened and subjugated, and in which their words are not heard or they are afraid to speak out, pornography and hate speech serves to silence women and other groups, thereby denying their right to freedom of expression.
The idea of limiting freedom of expression to not include the protection of silencing speech can be seen as a decision to prioritise the rights of the vulnerable members of society; by restricting some of the expression of the more powerful members of society the less powerful members are given space to express themselves as well. However, this same concept can be very easily turned on its head. Politically, it is easier and more popular to use this very concept to support views that are already powerful and to silence controversial opinions that are held by the minority. When this happens, only the powerful groups gain protection from ‘hate speech’ legislation, and the vulnerable are subject to a double restriction – that caused by the legislation and that by the silencing speech of the more powerful groups. Arguably, this is what is happening in the North at the moment – with Jews receiving very strong protection and Muslims being silenced by both ‘anti-terror’ legislation and silencing speech.

At the end of the day, I don’t think that this is an argument about whether freedom of expression should ever be limited. It will always be limited, whether through legislation, silencing speech or (more commonly) lack of access to the means of mass communication. This is really a public policy issue about equality of access, both to protection and freedom of expression. Currently, I think that it is pretty clear that public policy on this issue has been seriously skewed towards the protection of the powerful at the expense of the more vulnerable. This is not to say that everyone who is being protected is unworthy of this protection, nor that everyone who is being silenced deserves instead to be amplified.

Ultimately, however, the situation at the moment is both unfair and unsustainable. You cannot drive an opinion underground without it bubbling back to the surface again, and generally it will return in a less rational more resentful form. By attempting to assert a rigid straightjacket of what kind of values and opinions are acceptable in our societies, we are merely alienating and angering people who do not share our views (or should I say, ‘those views’ since I do not share all of them myself?). Rather than reducing conflict, these policies will also serve to increase and deepen the differences between us.

Of course, this doesn’t solve the issue of whether Irving’s conviction was appropriate, or whether the cartoons should be protected under the guise of freedom of expression. I would be reluctant to promote either form of expression as something that should be protected in all circumstances, and I certainly wouldn’t want to give either of them the right to amplification. However, ultimately, I think that both forms of expression are best dealt with in ‘the marketplace of ideas’ and, rather than being criminalized, both should be roundly criticised, mocked, and put in their place by rational debate. Stronger reactions, like imprisonment and rioting only give both kinds of expression more strength than either of them deserve and thus amplify their voices. Surely this was the last thing that ought to have been done?

[Cross-posted at larvatus prodeo ]

Monday, 20 February 2006

Long time no post, sorry

Yes, I have been truly slack and have not posted in what feels like a millions years, but I have excuses, and some of them are even quite good ones. First, we have not had the Internet at home since November. Obviously, this has made posting a little challenging. Second, I have been on the move basically since early December – starting with Hong Kong, then Thailand, Southern Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, back to Vientiane to pack up house and ‘induct’ Sal, then Sydney, and finally Canberra. Finally, since arriving in Canberra we have been fairly consumed with finding a place to rent, unpacking, purchasing homey stuff and adjusting to the whole idea of living in Canberra.

But now we’re all done. We found a gorgeous new apartment, with a perfect study and lots of storage space. We are unpacked (mostly). We have a beautiful new IMAC that I am officially in love with. We have dial-up, pending the imminent arrival of our broadband connection. So, now there are no more excuses.

The last few months have been a huge whirlwind. Hong Kong was amazing and also quite overwhelming. I met Paul in Pakse (southern Laos) in quite a state – ‘a ball of outrage’ I think I was called. I was so angry at the reality of the politics of the World Trade Organisation. I was frightened about what was going to happen with the GATS negotiations this year and in disbelief that the compulsory, plurilateral negotiation model had been agreed to, despite to strong opposition of the G90. I was shocked that the smaller Southern countries had been so easier bought off with the measly ‘Development Package’ and the almost irrelevant EU agreement to eliminate export subsidies by 2013, subject to countless conditions that may never be met. The peaceful, sleepy islands of southern Laos were a strange place to feel so agitated and to have the slogans from the streets of Hong Kong ringing in my ears. To Paul’s annoyance, I kept randomly chanting, “Down, down, WTO”, “Kong yee sai mau” (same in Cantonese), and “Women resist WTO” without even realising what I was doing. It was rather surreal.

The epic bus trip that we took to Phnom Pen kind of drained my rage, as well as both of our reserve energy levels. We knew that the 8 hours promised on Don Det was thoroughly unrealistic, but we weren’t expecting to arrive at 1 am, after leaving at 8am the previous day. Nor were we expecting our mini-van (or shoud I say heap of rusty scrap metal with engine) to also be used to smuggle large plastic containers of petrol across the country. The fumes made me nauseous, but that was nothing compared to the fear we experienced when a Khmer man thought that smoking a cigarette inside the bus (over the top of a large plastic container of petrol) was a good idea. I ended up holding his arm out the window until he dropped the cigarette and then getting the petrol moved to the roof – something that we should have thought of at the beginning of the journey.

We spent Christmas with Mum, Jono and Nat at Kep – an old resort on the Khmer coast – which was lovely, apart from the food poisoning that Paul and I suffered from, and then had a few days in Phnom Pen before heading back to Vientiane. It was nice to have the chance to see a bit more of southern Cambodia, since last time I mostly saw Ankor, before rushing through Phnom Pen and Sihanoukeville on my way to Koh Chang. It was also nice to be with family on Christmas day, despite being ill.
OK, I think that I have basically caught up. From now on I can regal you with the delights of Canberra. I am sure you cannot wait!


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