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Friend Your Enemies

27 Dec

 Unfriending culture and the dumbing down of debate

Information technology is argued to have brought the world closer together and exposed all those who partake in its gifts to a broader range of information and opinions. This, in turn, should have increased diversity and tolerance. What I see, however, is the opposite: fragmentation and self-righteousness.

The clearest examples of it are to be found on my facebook feed and in the behaviour of my (facebook) friends. While it might be easy to think of what happens on facebook as a rather shallow and fluffy (cats) manifestation of cultural trends, it is a manifestation of cultural trends nonetheless, and what it reveals about what’s happening in culture more deeply is profoundly disturbing.

I have deliberately chosen to remain facebook friends with a number of people whose political and social views differ greatly from my own. Some of these are old high school friends whom I haven’t seen in years, some are former teachers, others are people whom I have known socially. These people often post opinions or statements with which I disagree. Occasionally I like to challenge these opinions or statements, in the hope of engaging in some kind of debate, and of having the chance to refine or even change one another’s views. This is rarely (but sometimes) the outcome. On a couple of occasions, I have been unfriended or even blocked. Thankfully this is rare. On many more occasions, I have had other friends suggest that I unfriend a person for their opinions, because I “don’t need friends like that.” On the contrary, I believe I do. I believe we all do.

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New Pope, New Hope?

9 Dec

I’m an atheist (and a reluctant Buddhist), but that doesn’t mean I don’t take an interest in religion –  I’m keenly interested  in human psychology especially as it relates to political and social movements. I like to kid that I was raised lapsed (Catholic), because my family went to Church twice a year, but they were very disappointed when, at age fifteen, I refused to take Confirmation. Mainly because of what the neighbours might think.

I am also a great believer in the teachings ascribed to Jesus in the New Testament gospels, and do my best to live by them. They are hard. I don’t call myself a Christian, however, because I don’t believe that Jesus, if there was such a historical person, was any more divine than you or I (take that as you will). I also don’t call myself a Christian because I have only met two or three people who identify as such who actually live in accordance with these teachings – love thine enemy, turn the other cheek, camel and needle’s eye, the sermon on the mount, and so forth.

But I still sometimes dip my fingers in the holy water and cross myself when I enter a cathedral.

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So I am really fascinated by the early days of the papacy of Francis I. He made a good start in my eyes by taking the name of my favourite Catholic Saint, and showed further that he might break with tradition when he became the first pope in 1100 years not to choose a name already chosen by a previous pope (the previous was Pope Lando in 913, who of course named himself after a character from Star Wars).

In less than a year since his election, Francis has made some extraordinary statements and undertaken strong symbolic actions which set him aside from his two immediate predecessors, John Paul II and Benedict XVI. However, many critics argue that thus far, he has offered many words but not done much if anything to change the church. I would like to present the view here, gleaned largely through recent discussions with leftist atheist Italian thinkers and artists, that these critics may be mistaken – in their understanding of how both the church the papacy work.

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Kicking it down the line

25 Nov

“The oppressed, instead of striving for liberation, tend themselves to become oppressors… The oppressed find in the oppressors their model of ‘manhood’… The oppressed want at any cost to resemble the oppressors.”

– Paolo Freire, The Pedagogy of the Oppressed

It has happened in every revolution in history, one oppressive class is replaced with another. But this is a story of how I have seen it happen in the space of two generations, and of how we can stop the cycle.

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My parents came to Australia from central Italy in the early 1950s. They arrived on ships. My father arrived in Fremantle, Western Australia, on New Year’s Day 1952, and my mother and three year old brother followed eighteen months later. None of them could speak a word of English when they arrived. I am often asked why they came to Australia, and it is a question I asked of them myself several times in my life. Like most big life questions, the answer is somewhat complicated. And in this case, there is an official and an unofficial story.

My parents were born in Italy, and grew up in small farming communities near the border of the Marche and Romagna regions, just inland of the Adriatic coast. They both started going to school, but neither were able to complete their schooling because they were needed on the farms on which their respective families worked. My mother made it into, but did not complete, the third grade. She was the top of her class. My father made it a few years further.

They were teenagers during the second world war, and lived near the Eastern end of the Gothic line, the final line of defence for the Axis forces in Italy once the Allies began their attack.

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Silence is Violence

22 Nov

One of the things I do with my time is to work with prisoners on performing Shakespeare. In the project I direct, this leads up to the prisoners at Southern Queensland Correctional Centre performing a Shakespeare play for audiences of other inmates, families, staff and invited guests from the community. At the moment I’m travelling in the United States and Italy, exploring and working with a few similar projects. I spent a month in Michigan working with Shakespeare Behind Bars on both an adult men’s and a juveniles’ (mixed) project led by Curt Tofteland (his TEDx talk is here). After that, I took part in the first Shakespeare in Prisons Conference at the University of Notre Dame. For the last handful of days I’ve been in Kentucky with the original Shakespeare Behind Bars project that Tofteland founded, now run by Matt Wallace.

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As a result of this, I have made valuable connections with many other Prison Shakespeare practitioners, as this can be fairly isolated work. The QSE project is the only Prison Shakespeare project in Australia, and one of only two in the southern hemisphere (the other being by the Independent Theatre Movement of South Africa). I’ve been steeped in the practice and philosophies of this kind of work (and pretty much nothing else except beer and bourbon) for the last five weeks.

I’m not going to write about the details of the process night about the benefits and challenges. You can read all about that in the final chapter of Teaching Shakespeare Beyond the Centre. Instead I want to explore here why arts work of any kind is important for marginalised populations. This is basically the written version of a short talk I gave at Women in Transition‘s open mike poetry night,  ‘Silence is Violence‘ held at the Rudyard Kipling bar in Louisville on November 21, 2013.

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“Tough on Crime” works, just like the Sun goes around the Earth

22 Oct

Whenever I hear the phrase “name and shame” these days I get furious. Seriously punch-the-person-in-the-mouth furious. I have never punched anyone, yet, but the current Premier and Attorney General of Queensland are testing the limits of my pacifism. I guess that proves my point that getting tough on crime just produces more crime. Before you talk this kind of shit, spend some time studying the psychology of shame and/or the causes of crime.

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The logic behind boot camps for young offenders, naming and shaming kids as young as ten, and the whole ‘tough on crime’ movement is about as sound as the logic that says the sun goes around the earth. It’s a populist argument based on superficial and simplistic reasoning rather than careful and detailed observation. Such claims are invariably made by people who have never picked up a single research paper on what causes crime, particularly violent crime, and what sorts of measures have been shown to be effective. I don’t propose to go into that research here, it’s very easy to get a hold of (ask Uncle Google) if you’re interested. The sad thing is that most people, and especially the current Queensland government, don’t want to know – they want to promulgate simplistic and inaccurate ideas. What I want to do in this post is actually talk about some first-hand experiences of the changes the new government has made, and connect a few hitherto unconnected dots. But I will make the following quick summary of what the research tells us:

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