This should be my last post reflecting on 2016. This year seems to have been the year that anti-PC sentiment really came into its own. The catch cry of this movement seems to be ‘This is political correctness gone mad!’ Other themes seem to be a disbelief in trauma triggers and a disdain for safe spaces. (I have to note that I have some skepticism about trigger warnings and I think there are limitations to safe spaces, but I also don’t want to rubbish those ideas if folks find them helpful.)
What I find interesting is that the anti-PC folks seem to be just advocating for another kind of political correctness. I noticed this most in this article from The Spectator, ‘We need to talk about Waleed’. It sounds a bit like Magnusson is saying he needs commercial television to be a safe space where he won’t be triggered by brown, Muslim academics. He feels for our elected leaders, who need news programs where they won’t be interrogated by real journalists, like they are on the ABC.
There has been a lot of talk this year about whether we should be listening to bigots. My hunch has been that we do need to listen to bigots, but I don’t mean that we should be guided by bigotry or that we shouldn’t challenge bigotry.
On the global stage this year the two major events that seem to have indicated that bigotry is back in vogue have been the Brexit vote in the UK and the election of Donald Trump in the US. While things haven’t been so dramatic in Australia, I think the strongest indicator of a similar pattern has been the election of Pauline Hanson back to the senate. When I was a kid growing up in one of the most culturally diverse areas of Melbourne she was rallying support by opposing Asian migrants, whereas this time around she’s chosen Muslims as her scapegoat.
A couple of days after the election I was on a tram with a middle-aged European woman who was smugly announcing to her fellow passengers (mostly Asian) that she’d voted for Pauline Hanson and that she was so pleased she was back in parliament representing the ‘real’ Australia. I’d like to say that I spoke up to her, but I have to admit that all I did was glare at her, and I’m embarrassed to say that was all I did. (Admittedly there was another European woman sitting next to her who engaged her in conversation, which stopped her announcing to the whole tram.)
I had a similar experience not long after, where another European man started talking directly to me, saying, ‘It’s spot the Aussie in here, isn’t it?!’ (Again, almost everyone on the tram was Asian.) I’m guessing he presumed that because I was European as well I would share his views about who qualifies as ‘Aussie’. I asked him to explain what he meant, as though I didn’t understand, and basically said it was hard to tell because we all come from so many different places, and that most of us aren’t ‘real’ Aussies. I ended up telling him my grandfather was brown (we think now that he had South-Asian heritage) and that he shouldn’t presume he knew he was talking to. He shut up after that. I said goodbye to him when I got off at my stop.
I tell those two stories not because I think they say much about how we listen, because listening isn’t what I was trying to do in either of those situations. But I tell them to demonstrate that I don’t think we should be putting up with bigotry and that I do think we need to challenge it.
These are some reasons why I think we do need to listen to bigots. I’m keen to hear if others disagree with these reasons or find them problematic or dangerous. I’m also keen to hear reasons why we shouldn’t listen to bigots, because I could be entirely wrong.
We need to listen to bigots because we’re all bigots
My sense is that we all struggle with prejudice. Many of us have become aware and convicted of this and so we are trying not to act on our prejudice. It can be easy to think that this means we don’t still have prejudices to deal with. We might also be acting on other forms of prejudice we haven’t recognised. (For example, we might have been convicted of our racial and class prejudice, but still hold prejudices about sexuality or religion.) If we argue that we shouldn’t listen to bigots, does that mean that if others recognise prejudice in us, they shouldn’t listen to us?
Because we have some joint responsibility for our group’s behaviour
If members of my cultural, religious or ideological group are victimising others, I might consider it part of my responsibility to engage my fellows on their treatment of others in order to confront their behaviour. (If I don’t recognise this as my responsibility, I think I’d be passing the buck to the folks they are victimising – hardly fair.) Listening to their perspectives may help indicate the best ways to confront the damaging behaviour.
Because we need to be able to convince others of our own perspective
if we believe we’ve got a more enlightened perspective and practise, we should be doing what we can to bring others on board with us. We need to know what our opponents think and believe and practise so that we can work out how to argue against them. We need to be able to do this so that we can win over folks who are undecided, and maybe even win over some of our opponents.
So what do you think? Have I convinced you, or are you convinced there are things I should give some more thought?
Okay, so 2016 has been my first year mostly freelancing, and freelancing as an artist-theologist-hospitaliter nonetheless. So what have I actually been doing? Here’s what:
One of the things that’s occupied a fair bit of my time the second half of this year has been illustrating for Victorian Council of Christian Education’s new Join the Dots resources. Join the Dots provides some activities for each Sunday, which church groups can use to engage the whole congregation with some of the lectionary Bible readings – rather than sending the younger members out for a separate program. I’ve really been enjoying working on these with Beth Barnett and seeing where the texts lead our reflection.
I’ve also done a few smaller one-off illustration jobs for groups like Love Makes A Way and Incedo (formerly Youth for Christ NZ).
Another thing I’ve been involved in is hosting spaces. That’s what we do in our home with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander hospital guests from day to day. We’ve also been making space for other more local visitors through learning circles, irreverent Bible discussions over dinner and inviting comrades (old and new) around to share a pot of tea.
During winter I also got involved as a volunteer at the Welsh Church’s community dinner, which is in some ways new and in other ways very familiar. That’s also been about making space for others. In March I also hosted some morning contemplative spaces at SURRENDER’s Melbourne conference.
Is this really three different things? Or is it just one thing?
Yes and yes. In a lot of ways making images and making room is about creating opportunities to reflect with others or encourage others to do their own private reflection. Often reflection is on how we do a better job of hosting or making room for others. All these things go together and if I try to separate them too clearly they stop working. Hence the hyphenation in artist-theologist-hospitaliter.
Reflecting with folks
The last thing (or more of the same thing) that I’ve been doing is reflecting with folks. Early in the year I got to spend some time with our friends in Footscray who often meet informally on a Sunday night. We spent three evenings reflecting on practises of hospitality – cooking, cleansing and sharing tea. I’ve also done some more formal speaking at a few churches on Sunday mornings – Armadale Baptist Church, Melbourne Welsh Church and Moreland Baptist Church – but have each time tried to make sure there’s some opportunity for reflection and or discussion so we can all learn together.
In the second half of the year I spent some time working with Murrumbeena Baptist Church, helping them start to analyse the stories being told in their neighbourhood. We learnt a fair bit about the Boyds, a family of artists who lived in the area, and how the Boyds’ story might be calling that community to participate in their neighbourhood.
Throughout 2016 (and over the past few years) I’ve also been working on Labyrinth (formerly known as Space Stations) a project that’s about teaching people in Melbourne and other places to uncover the hidden stories of their cities. We’ve hosted two City Hacks and one Labyrinth tour in Melbourne, and we’re also on the cusp of releasing an app that showcases some of the Melbourne stories.
What’s next in 2017? Well, would you like to hire me? I’m open to requests. I’m particularly interested in
facilitating reflection on the significance, purpose and meaning of everyday practises
hosting contemplative spaces
teaching local communities to uncover the sacred stories of their neighbourhoods
leading Labyrinth tours in Melbourne CBD
If you’re interested in talking about any of these offers, feel free to send me an email – firstname.lastname@example.org
Endings are a good opportunity for reflection aren’t they? The Ignatians make a practise of taking time to reflect on the whole day each evening, but even those of us who are less disciplined tend to get reflective at the end of the year. It probably helps that there’s often a bit of time of away from work between Christmas and New Year.
We also tend to get reflective at the end of someone’s life, and as many have stated, it seems like so many people have been dying this year. I don’t think that this is because 2016 has been a particularly bad year, but more about our historical relationship with the mass media. It was in the 1950s that television became the dominant form of media, making it so easy to become familiar with the faces of celebrity. My guess is that 2017 may not be much different, as celebrities from the second half of the 20th Century continue to pass away. I wonder whether we will continue to hear about every public figure that passes away, but I also wonder whether we might take these occassions as opportunties for reflection?
When David Bowie passed away earlier in the year we invited a couple of neighbours around and watched a DVD of one of his concerts to reminisce about the impact his songs and person had made on us. I wonder whether we might take each news of death as an opportunity to reflect on our own lives, and how we want to spend them? The truth is we never know which will be our last day.
The other question I have is about whether we are attentive to the deaths of so many less celebrated people? Over the Christmas break another asylum seeker, Faysal Ahmed, has died while illegally detained by the Australian government on Manus Island. Others will die if this policy doesn’t change, so we need to be telling our federal MPs that we are attentive to these deaths and the ill treatment of asylum seekers generally.
I’m often asked by more conservative Christians about how I can be affirming GLBTIQ+ folks when the Bible says that God’s intention was for human beings to be heterosexual. To back this up they will normally cite a small piece of teaching from Jesus about marriage – but they normally look at it without also looking at Jesus acknowledgement of eunuchs in the same teaching session.
The other text they often cite is one of the two creation narratives from Genesis. They’ll say that since God made the woman to be the man’s companion, all women should have male partners and all men should have female partners, or be celibate.
As I’ve been reading Genesis today I’ve been reminded that this isn’t actually what happens in the story. The way this version of the story is told, God doesn’t design the man’s companion – if the first human should even be understood as a man. God thinks the first human should have a companion, but God presumes this companion will be chosen from among the animals.
The first person doesn’t find a suitable companion from among the other creatures, and that’s where God’s idea to make another human – but a different kind of human – comes from.
I think this story suggests a really different idea of God from the idea that says God doesn’t allow same-sex relationships. This story shows a kind of God who doesn’t stick bloody-mindedly to their own plan but listens to the preference of one of their creatures. In my opinion the idea of a god who can change their mind and collaborate with others sounds more like good news that a god who is unable to change their mind.
(Just to be clear, I don’t think this story is historical. I think it’s a folktale, and that its authority depends on the authority we assign to it as individuals and within our communities.)
When I was living and working in the city, there were a number of people who we shared our back laneway with. There were the people who slept there occassionally. There were the people who went there to inject heroin or amphetamines. There were the tourists and suburban folks who wandered in thinking they could get through to the next main street. There were the folks who brought the bins through from the serviced apartments. There were the council cleaners. There were church folks who’d come in and out through the back door. And there were workers from a Japanese restaurant who’d have their smoke break in the laneway.
What I found was that some of these groups were hard to get to know and others were easy. But there was also a group in between who I think just needed consistency. I don’t think I ever got much of a response from any of the people who worked in the serviced apartments, and I never got to know any of them. But it was a different story with the restaurant workers.
When I moved into the area I was looking out for opportunities to be present to others and to get to know neighbours, but also aware that a lot of people may not be in the city for that purpose. So with the restaurant workers I started off just trying to make eye contact with them and nod acknowledgement when I saw them. When I started to consistently get a nod back, I started to wave and say hello. What really changed my relationship with these neighbours though was going away on a holiday for a couple of weeks. When I got back one of them said, ‘Oh, you’re back! Where did you go?’ From that point we introduced ourselves, and it suddenly became comfortable to loiter and chat together when they were on their break.
Over the last couple of years I’ve become less involved with the city and more involved in the area where I live now. I’ve really enjoyed beginning to get to know some of the locals around Carlton and Carlton North. If I walk down Rathdowne Street I’ll often see our nextdoor neighbours. If I walk Lygon Street I might see one of the workers from Kathleen Syme Library. At the housing commission flats I might run into someone I know from church or from my time working at Credo Café in the city.
In my own street the other day I recognised someone I’ve never met, but have often seen at the library. He was patting one of the cats, which seem to be repopulating our street. I smiled and said hello and he said hi. I don’t know if he recognised me, but he might next time.
I think a lot of good things can become problems when they’re misplaced. Today I’ve been thinking a bit about loyalty. I think loyalty is a good thing when it’s dedicated to the people in our lives – family, friends, comrades. But loyalty becomes problematic when we dedicate loaylty to institutions. Institutions can be useful tools for organising and maintaining our relationships with others. But for the same reason they can also become confused with the people involved, to the point where we treat them like people. When we confuse institutions with people and dedicate loyalty to them they can become idols that we sacrifice others (and ourselves) to. I need to acknowledge that I’ve made that mistake before. Insitutions can be useful tools, but they don’t have real minds, wills or feelings of their own and they don’t need our loyalty or our love.
What is the most important institution in your life? How healthy is your relationship with it?