an autodidact meets a dilettante…

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

Posts Tagged ‘society

more on the slo-mo train wreck – just look at the USA

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much truth in this, sadly

What is the greatest weakness of democracy?

The answer has been the same for over 2500 years. The possibility/likelihood of demagoguery and mob rule. It’s one of the reasons why we don’t have direct democracy – though there’s something close to a version of it in the USA. We have representative democracy, which is actually a check on ‘too much democracy’, because the representatives who are then voted on by the people (and I’m talking here about our Westminster system and to a lesser extent the US congressional system) are given their opportunity to serve in parliament/congress by an ‘elite’, or an in-group (of course there are problems with in-groups which I won’t get into here). Often they’re tapped on the shoulder or receive a late night phone call from a party apparatchik and told ‘X is retiring at the next election and I notice you’ve been active in that electorate and have held position A and B for the party, would you be interested in running for the seat?’ It’s likely the apparatchik isn’t operating on her own initiative – party officials have been observing the prospective candidate and how many party boxes she’s been ticking. So there’s this behind-the-scenes selection process going on before anything ‘democratic’ occurs. And this, IMHO, is a good thing. You don’t want just anybody even helping to run the country, let alone running it. I mean, just look at the USA.

Under the Westminster system there no Presidents, Vice Presidents or powerful unelected officials selected by the President. Yes there are chiefs of staff, private secretaries and advisors in official and unofficial capacities, but there is no unelected Secretary of State, Defence, the Treasury and so forth, who all owe their jobs to the President, albeit subject to some review.

Under the Westminster system there is a head of state whose position is entirely ceremonial. Everything she signs is at the direction of the party elected to power. That party has a leader, the Prime Minister, the first minister, primus inter pares, first among equals, the captain of the team. She works in the parliament, sitting alongside her colleagues, opposite her opposite number, consulting, sparring, winning debates, losing debates, triumphing and being humiliated on a daily basis. There’s no separate ‘executive’ space, there are no veto powers, shut-down powers, special executive powers and the like. Pardoning powers are limited, and not granted to the Prime Minister. In Australia, that power is granted to the Attorney-General, in Britain to the Lord Chancellor, but decisions are made in consultation with the whole of government. Power, in short, is more distributed under the Westminster system, and this is surely a good thing. I mean, just look at the USA.

Under the Westminster system there is only one set of national elections, not two. Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand – the four primary predominantly English-speaking nations who use the system – all vary as to electoral terms. In Australia, elections are held approximately every 3 years, but on no fixed dates (but elections are always held on a Saturday, and voting is compulsory). These elections are roughly similar to the US mid-term elections. People vote for their local member, based on that member’s campaign, her personal qualities, and the platform of the party she belongs to, if any. There are two major parties, of the right and left, and each party has its leader, elected by elected members of parliament. If that party holds power, she will be the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister therefore holds her position at the behest of the governing party. If the governing (or any) party loses faith in its leader, they can oust her through a vote of no-confidence, after which they will hold an internal round of voting for a new leader. The ousted leader then may or may not hold another cabinet position in government, or go to the ‘back bench’ as an ordinary elected MP. Thus, a Prime Minister may be removed from office between elections, though this is generally inadvisable as it is seen by the public as destabilising. It is a very different case, however, from removing a President from office, about which there appears to be no clear guidelines. The heavy reliance upon a President and his powers and duties appears to have created a degree of paralysis when it becomes clear that the President is manifestly unfit for office and has engaged in criminal activities before becoming President, during his campaign, and while in office. Under the Westminster system such a person would have been removed from office well before now, and it’s unlikely that such a person would ever have been placed in that office in the first place, since her appeal would not be directly to the people but to the party she is a member of. A person with an extremely shady reputation would be unlikely to appeal to a political party obsessed with the lack of rectitude of its opposite number, and therefore with its own rectitude.

A note on the separation of powers. The idea originated with Montesquieu (1748) who separated the duties of government into three, the legislative, the executive and the judicial. However, under the Westminster system, the legislative and executive branches are essentially fused. This may have strengths and weaknesses, which are alleviated through oppositional and bicameral scrutiny, as well as the democratic process. The executive and the legislative forces of government are always in dynamic interaction, so that too much fusion and too much separation can be inimical to good government. In the USA, the physical separation between the legislative and the executive appears to be the source of a wealth of political problems.

Under the Westminster system there is no direct election of any person or persons by the whole nation, either through an electoral college or by means of a first-past-the-post nationwide vote. This is a useful if not essential curb to the dangers of demagoguery. Although there is no official screening of candidates (as I believe there should be), by means, for example, of a basic political literacy test, involving an understanding of the nation’s political and legal structures, its political history, the separation of powers and other pertinent matters (scientific literacy might be included), there is at least some screening to ensure party loyalty and understanding of party policies and goals. The Presidential electoral system involves no screening, formal or informal, a fact which some people appear to view with pride.

There is no immunity from criminal prosecution for a Prime Minister in Australia, Britain, Canada or New Zealand. The Queen as titular head of state, and her representatives (the Governor-General in Australia) may be immune, but that’s hardly an issue for government. There are some protections from civil proceedings while in office, but it would be an expectation that criminal acts of politicians would be treated like those of anyone else, or even more expeditiously considering the position of public trust they hold. Although such criminal proceedings would be scandalous, they need not affect government to a debilitating degree because of the distributed nature of political power and the flexibility of government roles under the Westminster system – unless, of course, the criminality was spread throughout government or opposition ranks, which would be a rare thing. In any case, look at the USA for comparison.

Under the Westminster system there is, of course, no such thing as impeachment. That’s because illegal conduct is dealt with by the law, and other ‘conduct unbecoming’ or conduct contrary to party ideology or ethics is dealt with by no-confidence motions. A no-confidence motion needs no external justification other than that the leader has lost the confidence of her party. If the electorate as a whole disagrees with the motion it will make its view clear at the next election, or at by-elections, which can serve to restrict the power of government, or send a message by reducing its majority.

Finally, there appears to be another, perhaps less tangible difference between Westminster system countries and the Presidential system of the USA. It is rare to hear residents of Westminster system countries representing themselves as partakers of the world’s first and greatest democracy, leaders of the free world, the light on the hill and so forth. Nationalism and jingoism appears to permeate US society like no other. Such parochialism isn’t conducive to self-analysis and reform. It needs to be pointed out, if we wish to talk of ‘true democracy’, that no nation was ever anywhere near full democracy until it granted full voting rights to the female half of the population. On that very reasonable basis, New Zealand was the first true democracy. Australia, Britain and Canada all granted women the right to vote before the USA did – though in Australia, Aboriginal people of both genders weren’t granted the vote until 1962, so Australia cannot be considered a true democracy till that date. But the US Presidential system, in its difference, also represents something else – US individualism, as represented in many Hollywood movies in which one quasi-superhero saves the world more or less single-handed in the teeth of official lethargy, incompetence or corruption. It can be argued that nations can be found on an individualist-collectivist spectrum, with the USA somewhat at one end of the spectrum, the individualist end, and a country like Japan close to the collectivist end. The problem with individualism is a lack of trust in government – if not a lack of trust in each other – resulting in poor support for collective action on education, health and other social goods, and also high incarceration rates. Collectivism suffers the opposite problem, lack of willingness to speak out, to criticise, to behave differently, to seek reform when needed, though it also tends to mean reduced crime rates and genuine respect for others.

What this means for the genuine crisis the USA finds itself in is anyone’s guess. Having allowed a person with no moral compass and little understanding of the world to bypass the checks and balances of party allegiance and teamwork by appealing to a sector of the population which he actively despises (people who actually work for a living, or try to) in order to become their all-too-powerful President, the USA has deservedly lost a great deal of standing in the global community. And because of the way their system operates – so very differently from the Westminster system – the slow-motion train wreck which began with this person’s ascension to the Presidency is very far from over, and one really begins to wonder if this is the beginning of the end of the US ascendency. I for one hope not. The USA is a great, flawed nation. It can do better than this. It can recover. It can reform itself. It might look, for starters, at the Westminster system.

Written by stewart henderson

March 3, 2019 at 8:38 pm

women and warfare, part 2: humans, bonobos, coalitions and care

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bonobos, or how to be good (without gods)

Shortly before I started writing the first part of this article, I read a sad and disturbing piece in a recent New Scientist, about an Iron Age citadel in modern Iran, called Hasanlu. Its tragic fate reminded me of the smaller scale tragedies that Goodall and others recount in chimpanzee societies, in which one group can systematically slaughter another.

Hasanlu was brutally attacked and destroyed at the end of the ninth century BCE, and amazingly, the massacred people at the site remained untouched until uncovered by archeologists only a few decades ago. One archeologist, Mary Voigt, who worked the site in 1970, has described her reaction:

I come from a long line line of undertakers. Dead people are not scary to me. But when I dug that site I had screaming nightmares.

Voigt’s first discovery was of a small child ‘just lying on the pavement’, with a spear point and an empty quiver lying nearby. In her words:

The unusual thing about the site is all this action is going on and you can read it directly: somebody runs across the courtyard, kills the little kid, dumps their quiver because it’s out of ammunition. If you keep going, there are arrow points embedded in the wall.

Voigt soon found more bodies, all women, on the collapsed roof of a stable:

They were in an elite part of the city yet none of them had any jewellery. Maybe they had been stripped or maybe they were servants. Who knows? But they were certainly herded back there and systematically killed. Its very vivid. Too vivid.

Subsequent studies found that they died from cranial trauma, their skulls smashed by a blunt instrument. And research found many other atrocities at the site. Headless or handless skeletons, skeletons grasping abdomens or necks, a child’s skull with a blade sticking out of it. All providing proof of a frenzy of violence against the inhabitants. There is still much uncertainty as to the perpetrators, but for our purposes, it’s the old story; one group or clan, perhaps cruelly powerful in the past, being ‘over-killed’, in an attempt at obliteration, by a newly powerful, equally cruel group or clan.

Interestingly, while writing this on January 4 2019, I also read about another massacre, exactly ten years ago, on January 4-5 2009. The densely populated district of Zeitoun in Gaza City was attacked by Israeli forces and 48 people, mostly members of the same family, and mostly women, children and the elderly, were killed, and a number of homes were razed to the ground. This was part of the 2008-9 ‘Gaza War’, known by the Arab population as the Gaza Massacre, and by the Israelis as Operation Cast Lead. The whole conflict resulted in approximately 1200-1400 Palestinian deaths. Thirteen Israelis died, four by friendly fire. And of course I could pick out dozens of other pieces of sickening brutality going on in various benighted parts of the world today.

Attempts by one group of people to obliterate another, whether through careful planning or the frenzy of the moment, have been a part of human history, and they’re ongoing. They are traceable as far back, at least, as the ancestry we share with chimpanzees.

But we’re not chimps, or bonobos. A fascinating documentary about those apes has highlighted many similarities between them and us, some not noted before, but also some essential differences. They can hunt with spears, they can use water as a tool, they can copy humans, and collaborate with them, to solve problems. Yet they’re generally much more impulsive creatures than humans – they easily forget what they’ve learned, and they don’t pass on information or knowledge to each other in any systematic way. Some chimp or bonobo communities learn some tricks while others learn other completely different tricks – and not all members of the community learn them. Humans learn from each other instinctively and largely ‘uncomprehendingly’, as in the learning of language. They just do it, and everyone does it, barring genetic defects or other disabilities.

So it’s possible, just maybe, that we can learn from bonobos, and kick the bad habits we share with chimps, despite the long ancestry of our brutality.

Frans De Waal is probably the most high-profile and respected bonobo researcher. Here’s some of what he has to say:

The species is best characterized as female-centered and egalitarian and as one that substitutes sex for aggression. Whereas in most other species sexual behavior is a fairly distinct category, in the bonobo it is part and parcel of social relations–and not just between males and females. Bonobos engage in sex in virtually every partner combination (although such contact among close family members may be suppressed). And sexual interactions occur more often among bonobos than among other primates. Despite the frequency of sex, the bonobos rate of reproduction in the wild is about the same as that of the chimpanzee. A female gives birth to a single infant at intervals of between five and six years. So bonobos share at least one very important characteristic with our own species, namely, a partial separation between sex and reproduction.

Bonobo sex and society, Scientific American, 2006.

Now, I’m a bit reluctant to emphasise sex too much here (though I’m all for it myself), but there appears to be a direct relationship in bonobo society between sexual behaviour and many positives, including one-on-one bonding, coalitions and care and concern for more or less all members of the group. My reluctance is probably due to the fact that sexual repression is far more common in human societies worldwide than sexual permissiveness, or promiscuity – terms that are generally used pejoratively. And maybe I still have a hankering for a Freudian theory I learned about in my youth – that sexual sublimation is the basis of human creativity. You can’t paint too many masterpieces or come up with too many brilliant scientific theories when you’re constantly bonking or mutually masturbating. Having said that, we’re currently living in societies where the arts and sciences are flourishing like never before, while a large chunk of our internet time (though far from the 70% occasionally claimed) is spent watching porn. Maybe some people can walk, or rather wank, and chew over a few ideas at the same (and for some it amounts to the same thing).

So what I do want to emphasise is ‘female-centredness’ (rather than ‘matriarchy’ which is too narrow a term). I do think that a more female-centred society would be more sensual – women are more touchy-feely. I often see my female students walking arm in arm in their friendship, which rarely happens with the males, no matter their country of origin (I teach international students). Women are highly represented in the caring professions – though the fact that we no longer think of the ‘default’ nurse as female is a positive – and they tend to come together well for the best purposes, as for example the Women Wage Peace movement which brings Israeli and Palestinian women together in a more or less apolitical push to promote greater accord in their brutalised region.

October 2017 – Palestinian and Israeli women march for peace near the Dead Sea, and demand representation is any future talks

Women’s tendency to ‘get along’ and work in teams needs to be harnessed and empowered. There are, of course, obstructionist elements to be overcome – in particular some of the major religions, such as Catholic Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism, all of which date back centuries or millennia and tend to congeal or ‘eternalise’ the patriarchal social mores and power structures of those distant times. However, there’s no doubt that Christianity, as the most western religion, is in permanent decline, and other religions will continue to feel the heat of our spectacular scientific developments – including our better understanding of other species and their evolved and unwritten moral codes.

The major religions tend to take male supremacy for granted as the natural order of things, but Melvin Konner, in his book Women after all, has summarised an impressive array of bird and mammal species which turn the tables on our assumptions about male hunters and female nurturers. Jacanas, hyenas, cassowaries, montane voles, El Abra pygmy swordtails (a species of fish) and rats, these are just a few of the creatures that clearly defy patriarchal stereotypes. In many fish and bird species, the females physically outweigh the males, and there’s no sense that, in the overwhelming majority of bird species – whose recently-discovered smarts I’ve written about and will continue to write about – one gender bosses the other.

Turning back to human societies, there are essentially three types of relations for continuing the species – monogamy, polyandry and polygyny. One might think that polyandry – where women can have a harem of males to bed with – would be the optimum arrangement for a female-centred society, but in fact all three arrangements can be turned to (or against) the advantage of females. Unsurprisingly, polygyny (polyandry’s opposite) is more commonly practiced in human society, both historically and at present, but in such societies, women often have a ‘career open to talents’, where they and their offspring may have high status due to their manipulative (in the best sense of the word) smarts. In any case, what I envisage for the future is a fluidity of relations, in which children are cared for by males and females regardless of parentage. This brings me back to bonobos, who develop female coalitions to keep the larger males in line. Males are uncertain of who their offspring is in a polyamorous community, but unlike in a chimp community, they can’t get away with infanticide, because the females are in control in a variety of ways. In fact, evolution has worked its magic in bonobo society in such a way that the males are more concerned to nurture offspring than to attack them. And it’s notable that, in modern human societies, this has also become the trend. The ‘feminine’ side of males is increasingly extolled, and the deference shown to females is increasing, despite the occasional throwback like Trump-Putin. It will take a long time, even in ‘advanced’ western societies, but I think the trend is clear. We will, or should, become more like bonobos, because we need to. We don’t need to use sex necessarily, because we have something that bonobos lack – language. And women are very good at language, at least so has been my experience. Talk is a valuable tool against aggression and dysfunction; think of the talking cure, peace talks, being talked down from somewhere or talked out of something. Talk is often beyond cheap, it can be priceless in its benefits. We need to empower the voices of women more and more.

This not a ‘fatalism lite’ argument; there’s nothing natural or evolutionarily binding about this trend. We have to make it happen. This includes, perhaps first off, fighting against the argument that patriarchy is in some sense a better, or more natural system. That involves examining the evidence. Konner has done a great job of attempting to summarise evidence from human societies around the world and throughout history – in a sense carrying on from Aristotle thousands of years ago when he tried to gather together the constitutions of the Greek city-states, to see which might be most effective, and so to better shape the Athenian constitution. A small-scale, synchronic plan by our standards, but by the standards of the time a breath-taking step forward in the attempt not just to understand his world, but to improve it.


Melvin Konner, Women after all, 2015

New Scientist, ‘The horror of Hasanlu’ September 15 2018

Max Blumenthal, Goliath, 2013–09)

Written by stewart henderson

January 11, 2019 at 11:25 am

what to do with a serious problem like Trump: part one

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When I first encountered Trump, I suppose a couple of decades ago now, I quickly felt an intense, visceral loathing and disgust. He struck me as tasteless, vulgar, ignorant, vain, an exemplar of the absence of all humane values. A boorish, blustering, bigoted, bragging blundering, bullying, bullshitting buffoon, not to put too fine a point on it. And then, when those he demeaned and belittled began acting as if they deserved it, I began to wonder – who is worthy of more contempt, Trump, or those who take him seriously for more than a second? How could anyone with an ounce of sense not see that he was a walking advertisement for abortion?

But then, when you start thinking everyone’s a fuckwit except yourself, you know something’s going wrong. Okay, you do start listening around and find that in many circles Trump’s a laughing-stock. But then he’s somehow super-rich, and people like to hob-nob and ingratiate themselves with the super-rich no matter how obnoxious and boring they are.

So why was Trump super-rich? I have to say that, having lived mostly below the poverty line in one of the world’s richest countries (that’s to say I’ve rarely come close to going hungry), I’ve never really associated with rich people, never mind the super-rich. They’re like alien beings to me. But it stands to reason that there are two types of super-rich people; those who inherited wealth, or those who gained it by their own talents and efforts – legitimate or illegitimate.

So which of these was Trump? He struck me as flamboyantly imbecilic, far removed from the Bill Gates and Steve Jobs types. And I have to say it wasn’t a burning question for me. Naturally I was far too superior to concern myself with such riff-raff, and yet…

Information fell into my lap over the years. He’d inherited oodles of wealth from his father, a ‘business tycoon’. He’d never done a day’s work, in the general sense, in his life. He’d been bankrupted many times. His net worth was anything from negative infinity to positive infinity. His principal business was real estate, which was as hazy to me as scalar field theory. But his principal interest was self-promotion, which I felt a bit more cluey about. It seemed he was little more than a ‘big noise’.

So that was it, until he began to run for President, and shocked almost all pundits, including this pseudo-pundit, by winning quite well on an electoral college basis, though losing the popular vote.

Of course during the run-up to these ludicrously long US presidential elections, especially in the final months of 2016, we were pretty well forced to learn more about Trump than many of us ever wanted to know, and it’s been an ongoing ‘reveal’ throughout the last eighteen months or so. But I return to my initial response to Trump, and my feelings of contempt, and easy superiority.

How did Trump become what he is? How did I become what I am?

How free are we to form ourselves?

I think the answer is clear, though clearer when we look at others than when we look at ourselves. We didn’t get to choose our parents, our genes or our upbringing, we didn’t get to choose or influence our experience in the womb and in our earliest formative years, which the Dunedin study, inter alia, reveals as more character-forming than any other period in our lives.

More questionably I didn’t get to choose a character that loathes someone like Trump, any more than Sean Hannity and many others got to choose a character that finds Trump appealing, refreshing and admirable, assuming that I’m reading more or less accurately Hannity’s mind.

So am I saying we’re all blameless when it comes to our flaws, and unpraiseworthy when it comes to our virtues? Further, am I saying that moral judgment is inappropriate?

I hope not. After all, humans are the most social of all creatures – vertebrate creatures at least. We’re interested in getting along, in minimising harm and maximising advantage, for us all. We shouldn’t turn a blind eye to any person, or policy, or activity, that threatens that well-being. So we should discourage, and sometimes punish behaviour that harms or demeans others, while at the same time recognising that the bully or aggressor is acting under the sway of traits she has less control over than we might think.

So we should judge behaviour as immoral when it damages others or damages the institutions or activities that tend towards the general well-being. And we should check or punish those who commit those faux pas, which we might call crimes, misdemeanours, or bad behaviour, to the extent that they understand that resistance of the general will is futile – that’s to say, that continual commission of those faux pas will be counter-productive to their own well-being.

Let me return then to the case of Trump. In watching and listening to him, I find him, as President, consistent with the person I loathed decades before, though I also realise, as I did then, that there is something unfair and slightly unseemly about my contempt, for reasons described above. Trump is the product of a background and influences which are clearly far removed from mine. I was also, like many, somewhat fascinated by him as a specimen who revealed, more effectively than most, how infinitely variable human experience and character can be.

However, though I recognise that he is what he is and can’t help but be, I’m also alert and alarmed that he is now the President of the USA – a shocking development, considering the man’s character.

For, though nobody should be blamed for his own character, there are some characters that the general society needs to be protected from, because of the damage they are capable of doing, or incapable of not doing, given certain powers and opportunities.

Trump came to his current position with a reputation which, I feel, was deserved, given everything I observed of him, and everything I learned. That reputation was one of dishonesty, self-aggrandisement, wilful ignorance and anti-intellectualism, and indifference to the feeling and suffering of others, with possibly a few exceptions, and leaving aside his children, whom he would see as extensions of himself to a large degree.

There are some characters who are so pathological, so damaging to themselves and/or others that society needs to be protected from them, unless of course their pathology can be identified, treated and cured. In the case of Trump, the terms psychopath, sociopath, malignant narcissism and narcissistic personality disorder have been given an airing. It’s surely not coincidental that these claims about Trump have been much more frequent since he has become President. His power to damage the wider society is at its zenith.

When I first heard the term narcissistic personality disorder directed at Trump, it was in a discussion with a mental health professional, early in the Presidency. That professional was critical, even angry, that the term was used to describe Trump, because, he felt, this term described a real and debilitating pathological condition which was far too serious to be used for political purposes against Trump. His words gave me pause, but now I think it’s time to look at this matter more closely.

First, before actually looking more closely at the ‘mental disability’ terms described above, I should say this. As Stormy Daniels’ impressive attorney Michael Avenatti has said, Trump’s behaviour, especially his constant self-promoting and self-protecting lies, should concern all Americans regardless of their political persuasion. Trump’s behaviour in office is essentially not a political issue, in spite of its massive political consequences. One pundit recently described Trump as a ‘lifelong Democrat’ before switching to the Republican party a few years ago. It’s my contention however that Trump was never a Democrat and has never been a Republican. He has never been interested in politics in the usual sense – that of believing in and promoting policies and practices for the most effective running of a state. He has little interest in or knowledge of political history, political philosophy or international affairs, and no knowledge whatever of science, or history in general. He doesn’t read or have anything like an enquiring mind. He has expressed very little compassion for others, except when it may benefit himself, and his concept of truth is not something that anybody seems to be capable of recognising or describing.

This description of Trump is not a political one. It’s a description which most sensible people would broadly agree with. It’s a description of a person so singularly ill-equipped to be the President of the world’s most powerful military and economy, that the question of how he came to be in that position and how he can be removed from it before further damage can be done, should be paramount.

Before I go on, I should address those outliers who say that Trump has been a successful and impressive President. They would cite the booming economy and the administration’s tax legislation, the only major piece of legislation enacted thus far. On the tax legislation, I will not consider its fairness or unfairness, or the effect it has had on the US economy. I will simply say that Trump recently claimed more or less sole responsibility for this legislation, a claim that was demonstrably false. Trump did not participate in the writing of this legislation, and he most certainly hasn’t read it. He simply presided over a Republican congressional majority responsible for its production. As to the US economy, that is a massively complex area, full of winners and losers, which, of course, I’m not competent to comment on, any more than Trump would be. Suffice to say that the reasons for an economy’s success are manifold and generally historical.

So there is a problem with Trump as President. In my next post I will go into more detail about what the problem is, and why there is no easy solution.

Written by stewart henderson

May 5, 2018 at 11:33 am

is this the best use of journalism?: attn Katie McBride and Outline magazine

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Rat Park, in colour

Jacinta: Now we’re going to do something slightly unpleasant but wholly necessary: take someone to task, as teachers must occasionally do.

Canto: Yes, it relates to a previous post, a recent one, about Rat Farm and the war on drugs.

Jacinta: In writing that post we happened upon an article entitled  ‘This 38-year-old study is still spreading bad ideas about addiction” – which kind of shocked me with its provocative title. It was written by Katie MacBride and published by Outline, an online magazine. I only skimmed the article at the time, bemused to find the Rat Park experiment still creating such negative vibes after all these years, but some obvious problems in the article stood out, even on the most cursory reading, so I’ve decided to revisit it with a more careful analysis, with Canto’s help.

Canto: Well the first red flag with the article comes with the first words, before even the title. Pop science. In other words, this article, or rather its subject, should be filed in the category of ‘pop science’, as opposed to real science. This is designed to instil prejudice in the reader from the outset, and is clearly a cheap trick.

Jacinta: Yes, and for an immediate antidote to this kind of cheapsterism, I’d advise anyone to read the Wikipedia article on the rat park experiment, which is calmly and reasonably presented, as is usual. And let me here heap praise on Wikipedia for its general reliability, its objectivity and its pro-science approach. It’s one of the greatest gifts the internet has provided to our world, IMHO.

Canto: The next red flag comes with the title – ’38 years old and still spreading bad ideas’…. As if the date of the study is relevant. There are a number of landmark psychology studies even older than Bruce Alexander’s Rat Park, and also ‘flawed’ – of which more later, – which continue to resonate today for obvious reasons…

Jacinta: Yes, for example Stanley Milgram’s electric shock experiments, over fifty years ago now, and the Stanford Prison experiment of 1971. These, and Alexander’s Rat Park experiment, deserve to be regarded as landmark pieces of work because they make you think. And they often overturn previous thinking. They shake our complacency.

Canto: And what about the latter part of the title, that Alexander’s work is still spreading bad ideas?

Jacinta: It’s interesting that she claims this, considering that the main reason Alexander embarked on this study was to combat bad ideas – particularly the war on drugs itself, and the prevailing view, promoted by the likes of Harry Anslinger and his zero tolerance approach to drugs such as cannabis and cocaine, that use of these drugs led inevitably to a kind of madness that was extremely harmful to self and others. Remember the rat adverts of the time, which showed rats dropping dead after regularly imbibing morphene-laced water, with the message ‘this could happen to you’.

Canto: Yes, and the rats may well have been choosing the drug over plain water because, like many lab rats of the time – hopefully things have changed – the conditions they were kept in made their life something of a living hell. What Alexander’s experiment showed was that, given a far more enriched environment, rats made far less simplistic and self-destroying choices. That’s all. So how could this be a ‘bad idea?’

Jacinta: MacBride doesn’t say. But to be fair, Alexander’s thesis may have been that opiates aren’t addictive at all, which is not what his results showed – they showed that environment matters hugely in respect to the willingness to get hooked on drugs. And that’s a really really important finding, not a ‘bad idea’.

Canto: And we’re still on the title of MacBride’s essay, which is followed by a tiny summary remark, ‘The Rat Park study was flawed and its findings have been oversimplified, but it keeps getting cited.’ Any comments?

Jacinta: Yes – as a regular listener to the podcasts of the Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe (SGU) over the years, as well as a reader of Ben Goldacre and other science-based critics of medical/psychological studies and experiments, I can safely say that every piece of research or experimentation, since the dawn of time, is flawed. Or imperfect. Or limited. Some more than others. of course. So to say the study is flawed is to say nothing at all. Every episode of SGU, and I’ve listened to hundreds, features one piece of published research or other, which Steve Novella picks to pieces to determine whether it’s very or mildly interesting, or a piece of rubbish, but even with the best study, the mantra is generally ‘needs more research’. So a critic needs to show how an experiment is flawed, and how those flaws affect the results. And MacBride’s effort to do this is pretty abysmal.

Canto: Okay, before we examine that effort, I’d like to quote something from early on in MacBride’s article:

The Rat Park study undermined one popular misconception about addiction, that chemistry of drugs is the single most important factor in addiction. But instead of pushing the popular understanding forward, it merely replaced that misconception with a new one: that environment is the most important factor.

What do you make of that? Do you think it a fair description of the study?

Jacinta: It’s an odd description, or mis-description, of the study. The first sentence you quoted isn’t problematic. The study did undermine the idea that it was all about chemistry. Or rather it would have, had anyone paid attention to it. It should have, as MacBride implies, but instead of then regretting that the study didn’t have any impact, she presents it as deserving of oblivion. It doesn’t make much sense.

Canto: The quote claims that it’s a misconception that environment is the most important factor in drug addiction. Do you agree?

Jacinta: I don’t know if it’s the most important factor, but it’s obviously an important factor, and the Rat Park experiment provided strong evidence for this. It seems MacBride is confusing Alexander’s possible claims or commentary on the study with the study itself. The study doesn’t prove that environment is the most important factor, but it certainly makes you think about addiction in a very different way from the horrific but dumb rat ads  that prompted it. It makes you think, as all good studies do, and that’s something MacBride seems extremely reluctant to admit. And I wonder why.

Canto: But MacBride does provide cogent criticisms of the study, doesn’t she?

Jacinta: Well, she quotes one particular critique of the study, by a Dr Sam Snodgrass, who found that the Rat Park environment, in which rats were no longer isolated and therefore mated, as rats are wont to do, would have rendered the findings questionable. According to Snodgrass, “You can’t have one group of subjects mating and with pups and compare it to a group that doesn’t engage in these behaviors and say that the difference between the two groups is caused by environmental differences.” But I beg to differ. An environment in which you’re isolated and unable to have sex is obviously very different from an environment in which you breed as normal – especially for rats. As to the rat pups ruining the experiment, I think if you looked closely at any rat study in which rats get to live together and breed, the actual experiment would be more messy than the published results indicate, but I doubt the problems would be so great as to invalidate those results.

Canto: And what about attempts to replicate the experiment?

Jacinta: Well there seem not to have been enough of them, and that’s not Alexander’s fault. Above all, similar experiments should have been conducted with different drugs and different concentrations etc. And of course rats aren’t humans, and it’s hard to bridge that gap, especially these days, as lab testing of other non-human animals (and rats too) is increasingly frowned upon, for good reason. I note that MacBride briefly mentions that others did replicate Alexander’s results, but she chooses to focus almost wholly on those who found differences. She’s also quite brief in describing the obvious parallel, presented in much greater detail in Johann Hari’s Chasing the scream, of American soldiers taking heavily to heroin in the alienating environment of Vietnam and giving them up on their return to what was for them an obviously more enriched environment. The facts were startling – 20 time the heroin addiction in Vietnam, as MacBride admits – but not much is made of them, as she is more concerned to pour cold water on Rat Park, so to speak.

Canto: Yes it’s strange – MacBride admits that the war on drugs has been an abject failure, but her obsession with criticising Rat Park prevents her from carrying through on that with, for example, the alternatives to this American approach in Europe. She mentions the again startling fact, reported by the Brookings Institute, that the combined hardcore user rate for hard drugs was approximately 4 times higher in the US than in Europe, after decades of the US war on drugs, but fails to note that the Rat Park experiment was one of the main inspirations in implementing more humane and vastly more successful policies, not only in Europe but, more recently, in some US states.

Jacinta: Yes MacBride is clearly concerned to get everyone’s facts straight on the opioid epidemic that’s currently gripping the US, and about which I honestly know little, but I think she has gone overboard in seeking to vilify the Rat Park study, which surely has little to do with that epidemic. The Rat Park experiment hardly promotes drug-taking; what it does strongly suggest, as does Johann Hari’s book, is that environment is one of the most important factors in determining a person’s willingness to escape into drugs. My own personal experience tallies with that, having been brought up in a depressed and disadvantaged region, hard-hit in the seventies by economic recession, and watching the illicit drug trade take off around me, as houses and gardens became more and more derelict.

Canto: Yes, it’s hard to understand why she’s focusing so negatively on Rat Park, when the problem is really one of interpretation, insofar as there is a problem. And I don’t know how it relates negatively to the opioid crisis. Maybe we should find out more about this crisis, and do a follow-up?

Jacinta: Maybe, but it’s so hard trying to fix the world’s problems… but of course that’s what we’re here for…


Written by stewart henderson

April 13, 2018 at 11:53 am

Why science?

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why is it so?

Ever since I was a kid I was an avid reader. It was my escape from a difficult family situation and a hatred or fear of most of my teachers. I became something of a quiet rebel, rarely reading what I was supposed to read but always trying to bite off more than I could chew in terms of literature, history, and occasionally science. I did find, though, that I could chew almost anything – especially in literature and history. And I loved the taste. Science, though, was different. It certainly didn’t come naturally to me. I didn’t know any science buffs and in fact I had no mentors for any of my reading activities. We did have encyclopaedias, though, and my random reading turned up the likes of Einstein, Newton, Darwin, Pasteur and other Big Names in science. Of course I was more interested in their bios than in the nature of their exotic researches, but in my idealised view they seemed very pure in their quest for greater understanding of the material world. I sometimes wished I could be like them but mostly I just dived into ‘literature’, a more comfortable world in which ordinary lives were anatomised by high-brow authors like Austen, Eliot and James (I had a fetish for 19th century lit in my teens). I took silent pride in my critical understanding of these texts, it surely set me above my classmates, though I remember one day walking home with one of the smartest kids in my class, who regaled me with his exploration of the electronics of a transistor radio he was pulling apart at home. I remember trying to listen, half ashamed of my ignorance, half hoping to change the subject to something I could sound off about.

Later, having dropped out of my much-loathed school, I started hanging out, or trying to, with other school drop-outs in my working-class neighbourhood. I didn’t fit in with them to say the least, but the situation worsened when they began tinkering with or talking about cars, which held no interest for me. I was annoyed and impressed at how articulate they were about carbies, distributors and camshafts, and wondered if I was somehow wasting my life.

Into my twenties, living la vie boheme in punk-fashionable poverty among art students and amateur philosophers, I read and was definitely intrigued by Alan Chalmers’ unlikely best-seller What is this thing called science? It sparked a brief interest in the philosophy of science rather than science itself, but interestingly it was a novel that really set me to reading and trying to get my head around science – a big topic! – on a more or less daily basis. I was about 25 when I read Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, in which Hans Castorp, a young man of about my age at the time, was sent off to an alpine sanatorium to be cured of tuberculosis. Thus began a great intellectual adventure, but it was the scientific explorations that most spoke to me. Wrapped up in his loggia, reading various scientific texts, Castorp took the reader on a wondering tour of the origin of life, and of matter itself, and it struck me that these were the key questions – if you want to understand yourself, you need to understand humanity, and if you want to understand humanity you need to understand life itself, and if you want to understand life, you need to understand the matter that life is organised from, and if you need to understand matter…

I made a decision to inform myself about science in general, via the monthly magazine, Scientific American, where I learned at least something about oncogenes, neutrinos and the coming AIDS epidemic, inter alia. I read my first wholly scientific book, Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, and, as I was still living la vie boheme, I enjoyed the occasional lively argument with housemates or pub philosophers about the Nature of the Universe and related topics. In the years since I’ve read and half-digested books on astronomy, cosmology, palaeontology and of course the history of science in general. I’ve read The origin of species, Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle and at least four biographies of Darwin, including the monumental biography by Adrian Desmond and James Moore. I’ve also read a biography of Alfred Russell Wallace, and more recently, Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Gene, which traces the search for the cause of the random variation essential to the Darwin-Wallace theory. And I still read science magazines like Cosmos on a more or less daily basis.

These readings have afforded me some of the greatest pleasures of my life, which would, I suppose, be enough to justify them. But I should try to answer the why question. Why is science so thrilling? The answer, I hope, is obvious. It isn’t science that’s thrilling, it’s our world. I’m not a science geek, it doesn’t come easily to me. When, for example, a tech-head explains how an electronic circuit works, I have to watch the video many times over, look up terms, refer to related videos, etc, in order to fix it in my head, and then, like most people, I forget the vast majority of what I read, watch or listen to. But what keeps me going is a fascination for the world – and the questions raised. How did the Earth form? Where did the water come from? How is it that matter is electrical, full of charge? How did language evolve? How has our Earth’s atmosphere evolved? How are we related to bananas, fruit flies, australopithecines and bats? How does our microbiome relate to obesity? What can we expect from CRISPR/Cas9 editing technology? What’s the future for autonomous vehicles, brain-controlled drones and new-era smart phones?

This all might sound like gaga adolescent optimism, but I’m only cautiously optimistic, or maybe not optimistic at all, just fascinated about what might happen, on the upside and the downside. And I’m endlessly impressed by human ingenuity in discovering new things and using those discoveries in innovative ways. I’m also fascinated, in a less positive way, by the anti-scientific tendencies of conspiracy theorists, religionists, new-agers and those who identify with and seem trapped by ‘heavy culture’. Podcasts such as The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, Skeptoid and Australia’s The Skeptic Zone, as well as various science-based blogs like Why Evolution is True and Skeptical Science are fighting a seemingly never-ending fight against the misinformation churned out by passionate supporters of fixed non-evidence-based positions. But spending too much time arguing with such types does your head in, and I prefer trying to accentuate the positive than trying to eliminate the negative.

And on that positive side, exciting things are always happening, whether it’s battery technology, cancer research, exoplanetary discoveries, robotics or brain implants, more developments are occurring than any one person can keep abreast of.

So I’ll end with some positive and reassuring remarks about science. It’s not some esoteric activity to be suspicious of, but neither is it something easily definable. It’s not a search for the truth, it’s more a search for the best, most comprehensive, most consistent and productive explanation for phenomena. I don’t believe there’s such a thing as the scientific method – the methods of Einstein can’t easily be compared with those of Darwin. Methods necessarily differ with the often vast differences between the phenomena under investigation. Conspiracy theories such as the moon landings ‘hoax’ or the climate science ‘fraud’ would require that scientists and their ancillaries are incredibly disciplined, virtually robotic collaborators in sinister plots, rather than normal, questing, competitive, collaborative, inspired and inspiring individuals, struggling desperately to make sense and make breakthroughs. In the field of human health, scientists are faced with explaining the most complex organism we know of – the human body with its often perverse human mind. It’s not at all surprising that pseudo-science and quackery is so common in this field, in which everyone wants to live and thrive as long as possible. But we need to be aware that with such complexity we will encounter many false hopes and only partial solutions. The overall story, though, is positive – we’re living longer and healthier, in statistical terms, than ever before. The past, for the most part, is another country which we might like to briefly visit, but we wouldn’t want to live there. And science is largely to be thanked for that. So, why not science? The alternatives do nothing for me.

The SGU team – science nerds fighting the good fight

Written by stewart henderson

October 7, 2017 at 6:18 am

three quite pleasurable little rants and rallies

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Bai Ping Ting

on Chinese women, fantasy and reality

I’ve been watching The General and I, a charming if generally ludicrous multi-million dollar Chinese historical fantasy series about a woman whose leadership abilities all men defer to. Fat chance of that happening in the real China, where the dictatorship of macho thugs has reigned supreme for decades. But could today’s fantasy – minus all the superhero powers – ever become tomorrow’s reality?

China, like every other country, has traditionally been highly patriarchal, and to be fair the dictatorship (I refuse to endorse the charade of calling the country a people’s republic) is moving with the times in calling for greater gender equality. However the political reality is clear. China’s dictatorship is essentially based on the nine members of the ‘Politburo Standing Committee of the Communist Party’, and of course these individuals are regularly replaced over time. No woman has ever been Standing (or even Sitting) on this Committee, and according to Wikipedia, ‘since 1997, China has fallen to 53rd place from 16th in the world in terms of female representation at its parliament, the National People’s Congress, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union’.

Soong Ching-ling

It’s a disastrous situation, especially considering that in terms of women in the workforce, China is one of the world’s most egalitarian nations, outdoing the USA, Japan and many other developed countries. There seems to be little motivation to encourage women into the really important political jobs – the jobs they’d be best suited for as the more collaborative gender, and Angelababy’s Bai Ping Ting (actually not the most collaborative of females) is unlikely to change the situation. There doesn’t seem to be any woman of anywhere near the political stature of Cixi or Soong Ching-ling today. So I’d urge the smart women of China – there are millions of them – to rise up and demand their government to open its doors and let them in. They can’t do a Tianenman Square on you this time!



on the archbishop of everywhere and nowhere

The same-sex marriage/marriage equality no-brainer has dragged on for far too long here. The other day I heard a fat archbishop of somewhere-or-other being introduced by the ABC to put the nope case. He started on about marriage being meant to be between a man and a woman, and I switched him off. Ahhh, but to have spent some time alone with him…Ok, I’d promise to have my hands tied behind my back. I’d ask him, how may female archbishops are there, mate? I mean, throughout history? In round figures? How many female bishops? Cardinals? Popes? You don’t think that’s relevant? Are you prepared to admit that your organisation’s hierarchy is extremely patriarchal? Like, the most patriarchal institution in the western world by a million miles? No, don’t blether on about your Mamma Superiors, I’m talking about the big decision-makers, you know that. And have you noticed how the most patriarchal societies in the world – look at the Middle East, Africa, parts of Asia and Eastern Europe – are also the most homophobic? You think that’s coincidence? Bullshit, patriarchy and homophobia hang together like a pair of testicles, and if you were a female archbishop, as you should be, you wouldn’t be sitting there spewing shit. But no, the Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church would rather collapse under the weight of its own criminality than appoint a female to high office. So let me now turn to women everywhere, but especially to educated women who identify as Catholic. What the fuck are you thinking? How can you sleep at night? How can you more or less passively support the most retrograde and destructive institution in the western world? If you haven’t the sense to recognise your own interest, do it for other women, straight or gay, religious or no, and make a stand, surely you can do no other.

don’t ban, just abandon


on the history of marriage

‘Marriage has always been between a man and a woman, and I see no reason to change it.’ These, from memory, were the words of our former PM Julia Gillard, who was otherwise a good leader. Of course, even it it were true that marriage had always been between blokes and sheilas, that wouldn’t be sufficient reason to continue with that exclusive system. It’s a bit like saying ‘blacks have always had to sit at the back of the bus and use the back entrance and eat the leftovers…’ But has marriage always been between men and women (or little girls)? Or even between humans (I’m sure I’ve heard of a few blokes marrying horses and such). Who of us has witnessed the first marriage? Or the second or the fiftieth or the 500th? Where and when did they take place? Ten thousand years ago? Fifty thousand? Presumably at the time of mitochondrial Eve, some 180-200,000 years ago from memory, humans – and she was most definitely Homo sapiens – didn’t marry. There was little need for it as far as I can see, as there wouldn’t have been much in the way of property to protect and hand down to your legitimate heirs. And that’s interesting because, since mEve definitely had children, and we’re all descended from them, that makes us all bastards.

We don’t even know if humans were particularly monogamous at that time – we know sweet FA about their sexual liaisons, though it seems likely they were more free and easy than they are now – together with plenty of fighting over best mates. Of course the romantic in me likes to think that a twist of fate could’ve taken us the way of the bonobo, but there’s still time, and I’ll fight for that twist for the rest of my days. Meanwhile, marriage, if we must have it (and I’d rather not) is always what we make it, and making it as inclusive as possible is surely the best for us, and will maybe bring us full circle…

love isn’t blind, just blinkered

Written by stewart henderson

September 27, 2017 at 10:53 pm

on dresses, marriage and patriarchy

with 2 comments

the spice of life

Canto: It seems some schools are still intent on having girls wear dresses to their classes. Why?

Jacinta: Because that’s what girls have traditionally worn. Because some schools insist on an absolute distinction between girls and boys.

Canto: Yes but they must be able to come up with good reasons for that, otherwise they’ll look foolish.

Jacinta: Well girls are girls and boys are boys, aren’t they? How can they be treated equally or identically? It’s obvious.

Canto: Ah, the obvious argument. Like Cook obviously discovered Australia. But this absolute differentiation between males and females has always been a horrible thing to behold. When such absolute differences are insisted on, it’s always accompanied by a sense of the superiority of one side of the differential.

Jacinta: Indeed, as one schoolteacher put it in an interview I saw recently, the dress thing in schools is essentially an insistence that girls should dress more for decoration than for practicality.

Canto: Yes, though there are conditions in which dresses are more practical, in which case they should be allowed for all genders. I’d still like to buy one of those kilts I saw advertised on Facebook a while ago.

Jacinta: It’s amazing that this gendered stuff hasn’t been questioned, or raged against, more vigorously before now, but the dress thing could be a wedge to open up a pack of gender issues.

Canto: And research has found that girls exercise less than boys, to a significant degree, and dresses undoubtedly contribute to that. It’s being pointed out that making simple changes to uniform policies might be a much cheaper way to address the problem than a ‘girls be active’ campaign.

Jacinta: And it requires leadership from, well, the leaders. Girls aren’t likely to go it alone and risk being mocked by their peers for being different. And it looks like if senior teachers or principals don’t engage in the exercise of change – at last! – then parents will have to make the move, possibly via legal action.

Canto: Yes, the refusal to allow girls to wear clothes appropriate for tree-climbing, mud-wrestling and other typical schoolyard activities is clearly discriminatory. Bring it on!

Jacinta: Seriously we know that both girls and boys, in terms of their mental and physical activities, cover the whole range. Forcing them into specific, gendered outfits inhibits that range. That’s the last thing the wider society wants. So now, due to the same-sex marriage issue and some silly remark from the no campaign about boys wearing dresses, the issue of girls’ uniforms is grabbing a moment’s attention, but will it die down again with no action taken? Our society’s inertia is lamentable, methinks.

Canto: Maybe we should take it upon ourselves to keep the issue alive after the marriage issue gets dealt with – letters to arch-Catholic schools, veiled threats, dress-burnings outside the railings.

Jacinta: Railings and wailings outside the railings. But not outside of individual schools, that would take forever. We need national action. Federal parliament needs a dressing down. But speaking of marriage, I just heard a sound-bite about a woman from Israel, a parliamentarian, who’s calling for a cancellation of marriage. She wants to get rid of it, apparently. Now that takes me back to the old days.

Canto: Is this a feminist issue? I mean, lots of people aren’t keen on marriage, including myself, but I never thought of it as a feminist issue, though of course it would be in more patriarchal cultures.

Jacinta: Well the ‘cancel marriage’ advocate is Merav Michaeli, who worked mainly as a journalist before entering the Israeli parliament, and in her TEDx talk she clearly sees it as a feminist issue and makes a number of valid points…

Canto: But how can this be relevant to gay marriage?

Jacinta: Yes, that could be an argument against her – marriage can evolve rather than be cancelled. She’s right about the history of the marriage arrangement and how it has disadvantaged women, quite massively in fact, but marriage is what we make of it and we can do a better job of the arrangement in the future. Having said that, I’d be quite happy for it to be scrapped.

Canto: I’ve always been interested in different arrangements for rearing kids, other than the two-parent thing. But let’s return to the small issue of dresses. The Western Australian labor government has upped the ante by making it mandatory for schools to offer girls the choice of wearing pants or a dress.

Jacinta: That’s great. I presume this is for primary school. And maybe high school, Though I recall in my high school, a long long time ago, the senior students were weaned off uniforms, in preparation for sensible adult life when they could at last wear what they wanted.

Canto: I’d love to hear the rationale of those schools who don’t allow girls to wear trousers or shorts. And I don’t think just offering the option of shorts for girls is enough – no girl wants to be the only girl in her class to not be wearing a dress. If shorts and trousers really do encourage girls to engage in more play – and they clearly do, then they should be encouraged, for their health’s sake.

Jacinta: It really is discriminatory, as many experts say. And it doesn’t reflect what grown-up women wear. I teach in a college with predominantly female colleagues. Not one of them wears a dress on a regular basis. Most of them have never worn a dress at work, as far as I can recall.

Canto: Which makes me wonder about the female teachers at these hold-out schools. Do they all wear dresses? Imagine a trousered teacher dictating the dress-only-dress code to her female charges. Wouldn’t be surprised if that hasn’t happened somewhere. It’s a weird weird world.

Jacinta: In some ways it might seem a trivial subject, given all the issues about clean energy and so on, things that we’ve been focusing on lately, but these apparently minor issues of dress go to the heart of patriarchy in many ways. After all, these rules are being forced on girls quite often, and they’re telling them something at a very impressionable age, and that’s not a good thing.

Canto: We must try to keep this one in mind, as the issue is likely to go off the boil again and may take decades to fix. I’d also like to know which schools are enforcing these rules. We might try to shame them.

Jacinta: I hear it’s often the parents that insist on it. They’ve sent their kids to a conservative school for a reason. In any case they should be forced to justify their attitudes. I’d like to see them try.


Written by stewart henderson

September 12, 2017 at 8:39 am