Trying to make sense of privilege and poverty

Recently a friend of mine went on a bit of a diatribe on Facebook about just how good we have it, here in Australia. This particular friend is currently in India; I’m not sure exactly what it is he is doing there but it may have something to do with teaching impoverished children how to read and write. It was sparked by a post he’d seen, directed at Prime Minister Gillard, where a young man complained that he was ineligible for Youth Allowance while studying at University, while “a person that lives their life on drugs and that has no intention of getting a job” is eligible for government assistance. My friend was absolutely scathing about Australians who complain about the ‘difficulties’ of life here or the exorbitant cost of living.

I want to defend those people. No, I don’t think it’s right to complain incessantly about what are, rather crudely, elsewhere called ‘first world problems’. I certainly do think that a large number of people need to pause, look around, and try to appreciate just how good they have it – not just compared with many other people in this world, but in and of itself. But these things aren’t simply caused by wilful ignorance and stupidity: they are actively encouraged by the society in which we live.

There are two kinds of poverty: absolute poverty (also known as extreme poverty), and relative poverty. Absolute poverty is a standard set by the World Bank; it approximately means that you live on a total of less than US$1.50 per day. Relative poverty is like, not being able to afford a computer while everyone else in your neighbourhood has a high-speed internet connection. In Australia, the poverty line has been set at 50% of the average median income.

When you’re more likely to compare yourself to Gina Rinehart than an anonymous Chinese sweat-shop worker, I can understand why you might feel like you’re being ripped off. If Ms Rinehart can become the richest person in the country by inheriting a financial empire – and then have the audacity to claim that ordinary Australians should be willing to work for poverty wages – why can’t I afford to buy a brand new car? The media have a vested interest in keeping us discontented. That is how advertising works: make people feel like they don’t have enough. To get people to buy things, you must keep them believing that they deserve a certain standard of living, and then get them to work towards that standard of living. Next step: profit! Not to mention the fact that the federal opposition continue to tell us about how difficult life is under the carbon tax and skyrocketing cost-of-living pressures. Never mind the fact that the cost of many of the essentials of life has either remained stable or actually decreased over the past decade (compared with the average wage): if the Opposition can convince us all that there is a widespread problem, then maybe they can win the next election by convincing us that they have a solution to that problem.

Yes, it is absolutely, shockingly ignorant to think that middle-class Australians are somehow having a hard time of it. But when our daily lives consist of news stories about super-wealthy people like Gina Rinehart and Rupert Murdoch, when politicians tell us that we’re having trouble heating our houses through (incredibly mild) winters, or even when we feel a bit jealous over our next-door-neighbours brand new Ford SUV, it can be hard to put this back in perspective. Most of us do not travel to developing countries or view news stories about wars, famines, and natural disasters that afflict the global poor. The problem is that telling people that they’re oh-so-privileged to live the life they lead just isn’t profitable.

There’s an argument that providing welfare breeds a culture of entitlement. I think it’s a valid argument to make, but I also think that even if it is true, providing some kind of welfare is worth it. The problem comes when middle-class recipients of welfare masquerading as tax breaks start to believe that they are more entitled to their Family Tax Benefit than the long-term unemployed are to the money that literally allows them to eat and keep a roof over their head. Claiming that you are entitled to government benefits by virtue of being a university student while simultaneously denying the right of impoverished Australians to try to build a better life makes my head spin. These kind of people seem blissfully unaware of the fact that if you are born into disadvantage, it can be very difficult to find a decent, permanent job or obtain appropriate long-term housing. It’s much easier to advocate for the doctrine of ‘personal responsibility’ when your parents have coddled you all the way to university.

Yes, we live in an incredibly privileged society and yes, we need to stop sometimes and look around and understand how good we have it. But none of us lives in a vacuum; the way that we interact with society influences the way we make sense of our lives and of the world around us. Having a go at someone for acting entitled is valid, but there are larger things to blame than just their own sheltered ignorance.

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Why I’m beginning to regret choosing UTas

With every day that goes by, UTas shows itself as an even more cynical and disillusioned institution. It seems utterly intent upon disenfranchising students and depriving them of the opportunity to obtain a good quality education.

Just today, we have had an announcement that nominations are open for the Student Representative Council, which included the information that elections are to be held from the 6th to the 8th of November. This is right in the middle of the exam period, a time when students are pulling all-nighters and skipping meals in order to ensure that the past thirteen weeks of their lives have not entirely gone to waste. A major problem in past SRC elections has been dismal voter turnout, a state of affairs which many of the candidates for the State Council positions (elected some weeks ago) actively campaigned to change. In addition to the (frankly outrageous) timing of the actual voting period, we have had the announcement that “all face to face campaigning is strictly prohibited from Monday 22 October, 2012, onwards.” This is, allegedly, an attempt to prevent students from being distracted from their exams.

UTas is actively trying to stop the people who will soon be our elected representatives from engaging with us. How can they hear our concerns if they are not allowed to speak to us? How are we to make an informed choice about the kind of people we want to have advocating for our interests if we are not allowed to hear them speak? And how on earth are we meant to understand their policy platforms when they are restricted to advertising their candidacy with posters no larger than A3 size, posted only on TUU noticeboards, after receiving the TUU stamp of approval?

The fact that SRC elections are a farce is only one element of UTas’ gross contempt towards students. Starting in 2013, the Faculty of Arts is undergoing a major restructure, allegedly designed to increase ‘efficiency’. This includes reducing the previous ten schools of discrete disciplines down to three schools, in which the old disciplines will be subsumed (without entirely losing their identities, of course). While there are obvious problems with amalgamating schools and depriving them of their individual identities, it was not immediately apparent how this would impact upon the teaching of the various disciplines, and I thought it might be justified if it really would reduce bureaucracy and administration costs.

However, it has now emerged that in addition to being stripped of their autonomy and identity, each of the original ten schools will be permitted to run only 14 different units of study in a given year. This is down from as many as 45 units per year in some schools. Education is not a one-size-fits-all arrangement. Students must be allowed to follow their passions, to explore new areas, to diversify their learning, and to specialise into particular fields. This restriction of units on offer deprives students of the choice we all deserve at this level of education, not to mention the fact that it significantly reduces the amount of work available for teaching staff. UTas has said time and again that it is trying to make itself more attractive to students in order to attract more people to study here. If that is the case then why are they actually reducing the number of opportunities that they provide to study and learn?

Currently before the Tasmanian Legislative Council is legislation which would reduce the number of student representatives on the University Council from two to one. The University is literally seeking to reduce the amount of input students are able to have into the way that their education is structured and run. I don’t know as much about it as I would like, but I know that UTas is also treating its academic staff with contempt. If we invest in our teachers and researchers, UTas could be a world-class university. Instead, staff are kept in the dark, with the threat of redundancy looming large, while their schools and faculties are restructured and downsized around them. A University is a place of learning, not a place to make money.

UTas is trying to silence the student voice, alienate us from one another, and reduce the quality of our education. There have been plenty of token gestures which purport to be listening to the student voice. Actions speak louder than internet surveys. Educational institutions should not be run like businesses. Have some respect for the intelligence and integrity of your students and your staff. We will not stand to be treated like this for much longer.

Information about the SRC elections can be accessed here.
Some information about the Arts Faculty restructure can be found here.

Why I Love Sociology

I don’t make new friends very often, which is sad… but that is a subject for another post at another time. So, when I do meet new people, it’s kind of a big deal for me. Recently I met someone new and we got to talking. Among other things, he challenged me a few times to justify what it was that I found so compelling about the discipline of sociology. I declare my love for it often and loudly, but when I tried to explain to him the basis of this love, I seemed to come up short. Perhaps this was because I was inebriated at the time; perhaps it was because I seem to steadily be losing my ability to accurately express myself. Regardless, it has been bothering me for some time now, and I think I’ve come up with an answer that I’m happy with.

An acquaintance of mine once said that she joined the ALP because she simply couldn’t bring herself to believe that ‘poor people are poor because they just haven’t worked hard enough.’ Forget about the political affiliations and the debates we could be having about that statement: the truth is that this is exactly why I like sociology. I refuse to believe that we are a product only of our ‘choices’. We are shaped as human beings by external factors, to a huge extent by the society and the culture in which we live. I love people, I find them fascinating, and I love trying to figure out why they are the way they are.

Each of us is shaped by the choices that we make in life. But the choices that we are given – the opportunities that we have access to – are shaped by much larger forces. I was born into a middle-class family with loving, supportive parents; I have had numerous and wonderful opportunities provided to me, not least access to a very high standard of education.

The level playing field is a myth: even before we are born, we have differing chances in life. The location of our birth and the socio-economic status of our parents are some of the most determinative factors in our lives. Children who fall behind in health status or educational development in the first six years of their lives are unlikely to ever catch up. Having parents who work long hours or are otherwise unable to help with learning, having parents who are drug addicts, having parents who are unable to afford adequate healthcare, having parents who can only afford to live in disadvantaged neighbourhoods is never the fault of the child. But it will significantly affect the opportunities that are available to them throughout their life, and it will affect the choices that they make.

I could probably use sociology to explain why it is that I wear the clothes that I wear, or read the books I read, or like the TV shows that I like, but I won’t. Suffice to say here that people are not simply a product of their personal choices. Society may be an abstract concept, but it is an important one. By understanding the ways that society affects individuals, we can start to change the structural barriers that exist to prevent everyone having the same opportunities to live their lives that I and my friends have had. Knowing what we’re up against in terms of disadvantage and discrimination is the first step to overcoming it.

Fear and Gender

One of the strangest things that has ever happened to me occurred a few days ago. Once or twice a week I go for a jog through the suburbs near my house. Occasionally people stare at me from their cars for a little longer than is appropriate, but I have never felt unsafe. On Wednesday, as I was jogging along the road – with my headphones in, I might add -, a man stopped his car, got out, gestured towards me and, when I reacted, began speaking to me. I don’t remember ever seeing this man before in my life, but his first words to me were “you work at [my workplace]!” I affirmed that yes, that was true. He then began a long-winded story in which he alleged that someone I had been in a car with the week before had said something nasty about him, which he knew because he had the ability to lip-read.

Without stopping to allow me to confirm or deny this observation he had apparently made, he went on to tell me about his rare and confusing neurological condition and the effects it has had on his life. He continued to assert that he wasn’t crazy, he wasn’t trying to be weird, that he’s actually a pretty intelligent guy, that he’s not paranoid, that he doesn’t take things personally any more… All while he appeared to be trying to politely berate me about the fact that I shouldn’t stand for it when other people say unkind things about him.

All I could think about while he was speaking to me was ‘who will hear me if I scream? If I go missing how long will it take someone to notice? Can I run faster than this guy? Could I hurt him badly enough that I would be able to get away if he tried something?’

I don’t think that he stopped me on the street because I’m a young woman. He certainly didn’t make any kind of sexual remarks or advances. But my mental reaction to the situation was absolutely gendered.

This is what happens when, instead of teaching boys and men not to sexually victimise others, we teach women a culture of ‘risk management’. Don’t go out alone at night, don’t wear revealing clothing, don’t drink alcohol or take drugs: basically, live your life in fear (or not at all). This doesn’t just disadvantage women, it disadvantages men. How many men are there in the world that have been looked at with suspicion, brushed off, avoided or been otherwise adversely reacted to by women – even when their intentions were completely non-sexual – because of the way we talk about things like sexual assault? Every man becomes a potential threat if you keep telling women that they might become a victim at any stage.

I wish I hadn’t felt threatened by this man, but I did. It was clear to me that he didn’t have the best social skills, and it’s certainly unfortunate that any person thinks that they can just stop a stranger on the street and talk at them for fifteen minutes. That’s just bad manners. But the thing I hate the most is that I’ve grown up in a culture of fear that makes me wary of people who are otherwise perfectly nice, just because they’re one gender and I’m another.

Here’s something for today.

Ms Peacock Escapes

As I mentioned in a previous post I recently attended a series of lectures at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas in Sydney, it was a fantastic experience all round and I enjoyed so much of it, my mind buzzing with so many thoughts and ideas and questions I figured I should organize them before spitting it all out onto the internet. But the thoughts provoked by this particular panel have taken on a life of their own and somehow fed into such a range of other coincidental happenings in the week since I’m just going to make a start of untangling a few of the issues and come back to this later when time (hopefully) adds a little more clarity.

The panel’s blurb asked, rather aggressively in my opinion, “Is it any wonder that women hate each other?” We’ve all been bitten by harsh criticism or cruel jibes about our size, shape…

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Blow whistle on harassment – Hobart Mercury

More intelligent, more accomplished women – and probably men – have been saying this stuff for decades. But Bec Fitzgibbon gets it published in a small-town newspaper and suddenly everyone is all ears?

It’s no wonder that I get my news from Tumblr rather than my local rag.

That said: yes, it’s an important message and a good article. But it shouldn’t take something like this to make people realise that this is how life works.

She’s not perfect, but I’m still proud of our Prime Minister

After her incredible Question Time speech in Parliament on October 9th – the news and YouTube video of which have apparently gone viral – Prime Minister Gillard is receiving, well, even more attention than usual. Many people, men and women alike, are praising the Prime Minister’s courage, as well as her oratory skills, in calling out Tony Abbott and others on ridiculous statements they have made in the past.

It’s true that those whose watched the entirety of the day unfold, and not just the Prime Minister’s speech, have a somewhat different (and more cynical) view of the whole affair. But nothing even comes close to the bile that Peter Hartcher today expressed in his column in the Sydney Morning Herald. I beg you, please read the whole article, but just in case you’re lazy (like me) I’m going to extract a few key quotes.

“If there was one thing that should have been different about Gillard’s prime ministership, it should have been that Australia’s first female prime minister should have been a flag bearer for women.”

In the next paragraph he goes on to say: “She started on her long trajectory of electoral disillusionment when, bit by bit, she revealed herself to be just another politician.”

And then: “If Gillard will not defend respect for women, what will she defend? Just another politician indeed.”

I have three points to make here.
1. Hartcher seems to be implying that Julia Gillard should have been a certain kind – a different kind – of prime minister simply by virtue of her gender. I would argue that every politician is ‘just another politician’. Prime Minister Gillard doesn’t have an obligation to act any certain way simply because she is a woman. Yes, it is inspiring to know that we as a country and a society have advanced enough that we can elect  a woman to our highest office. But Julia Gillard is a human being just like any other, and she is constrained by the workings of her party and the wider political arena just like any other prime minister would be. Much like those who label women ‘shrill’, ‘hysterical’ and ‘aggressive’ when they act just like men, Hartcher seems to be implying that by virtue of her gender Ms Gillard ought to somehow be better, more principled, less jaded than the men who have preceded her. I was alive for less than two months of Margaret Thatcher’s time as Prime Minister of Britain, but I’m sure if anyone told her she should have ruled the country differently because she was a woman she would have had a cow.

2. Julia Gillard is a flag-bearer for women. Did you somehow miss her entire speech? Fifteen solid minutes of calling out the sexist, misogynist pigs that Ms Gillard and every other woman in the country has to deal with on a daily basis. Trying to tell me that my prime minister is somehow not sticking up for my rights the day after this speech really just makes me think you’re an imbecile.

3. Ms Gillard wasn’t defending Peter Slipper. In fact, she quite explicitly called out Tony Abbott for his continuing close friendship with Mr Slipper, which all went down the drain – probably for political point-scoring – when this whole text messaging scandal emerged. The Prime Minister, in no uncertain terms, condemned Mr Slipper’s actions in sending those text messages.

I’ll leave you with this delighful snapshot of another wonderful human being – a commenter on Hartcher’s article – who seems to think that femaleness is a reason to be a whole different kind of Prime Minister.

The only other thing I have to say right now is go and read this article because it is utterly fantastic, more comprehensive and eloquent than anything I could ever manage.

  • Things about me:

    My name is Mel, I'm a final year law student from Australia. I'm interested in politics, feminism, sociology and science, among other things. You can find my Twitter account below; I am more active there than here.

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