Friday, February 29, 2008

Good site for free speech issues in Australia

Here's a useful resource for censorship issues of all kinds in Australia: At the time of writing, their What's new page is linking to some fairly hefty-looking documentation about continuing steps to implement a mandatory ISP filtering scheme in Australia.

There's no RSS feed for when new links are added, which is a pity because it looks like a page worth checking frequently.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Freedom of speech and the cartoon controversy

In my Media, Information and Law tutorial at uni I managed to get some fairly intense heat directed at me from people on both sides of the Mohammed Danish cartoon controversy. I don't know whether that indicates my independence of thought from all entrenched interests or if it just means I'm an irritating and argumentative bastard who annoys people of any political persuasion.

I did feel extremely defensive at one point when a guy in favour of publication was complaining about what I suggested was an inconsistency in his believing that publishing the cartoons was okay but publishing a phrase like "jews are the new nazis" should be illegal. His response was that talking about Nazis was an order of magnitude worse than mere publishing of caricature.

My response to that was incredibly poor: I thought not rationally, but combatively. My remark in retrospect was incredibly lame as I said something stupid about that being a subjective judgement. It's not. Or I don't think it is. Yet my response was motivated more by a desire not to let the other guy "get one over me" rather than any reasonable attempt to get at the truth.

I'm tempted to let myself believe that I did nothing wrong and that it was the other guy's combative approach that's to blame for me refusing to concede a point. But I don't think I should. And I think that the question of who's to blame for not adopting a reasonable attitude is extremely relevant to the question of the Danish caricature, and it's a question that's completely neglected by most commentators.

I wrote one of my essays last year on freedom of speech in an attempt to challenge my own extremely favourable attitude to free speech and see if there was something wrong with it. I came away from it still being extremely pro-freedom of speech, but I've gained a few insights along the way.

The first one is that in order for freedom of speech to have any meaning at all, there must be an audience for the speech. If a tyrant claims his subjects have freedom of speech because they can say whatever they like in the privacy of their own homes, is that really giving people the benefit of the freedom? Speech that no-one can hear is not really free speech at all.

Accepting that freedom of speech requires an audience immediately shows another way of looking at the cartoon issue: stop looking so much at the opinions and actions of the publishers and start looking at the opinions and actions of the audience.

This is where the dispute really lies when it comes to whether or not to publish the Danish cartoons: on the extreme pro-publication side, it is axiomatic that the members of the audience who feel offended by the cartoons are themselves responsible for "taking it too personally", with no real responsibility for the publisher. On the extreme anti-publication side, it is just as axiomatic that the audience members who feels offended and hurt can justly place the responsibility for that hurt, and for subsequent reactions to that hurt, on the publishers for "deliberately attacking Muslims".

I suspect that most people wouldn't be found on either extreme, and would only lean one way or the other. But I think that's a better starting point for the discussion of the issue: who is responsible for the feeling of harm and/or offense caused by the publication of the cartoons, and why? The answer may not be as straightforward as people think. My own experience above, where I was tempted to think it reasonable to blame my own poor actions on somebody else's speech, makes it harder for me to come down on the pro-publication position of believing the Muslim audience is "taking it too personally" than it otherwise would. I still strongly lean in favour of publication, though.

Monday, February 25, 2008

From uni: thoughts on online activism

At my university tutorial today we managed to get onto the subject of social activism, particularly online activism. I was curious to hear an opinion that online activism was a reason for a reduction in physical, more visible, one might even say "real", activism. I can understand the reasoning: the ability to pop up a "Causes I support" application on Facebook or put an e-mail address onto an online petition is much easier and, in theory, has much less impact than a person actually showing up to a protest or putting their verifiable name and address onto an offline petition. The argument seems to be that such actions aren't an indication of real commitment, but a shallow, insufficient one which gets mistaken as sufficient commitment because, hey, at least we're doing something. Consequently no actual sufficient commitment is made.

I'm not sure I agree. Online activism, as opposed to what one might (inaccurately) call "real" activism, has a much lower barrier to entry in terms of participation. What that means is that while the effect might not be as great per person, there is a much greater chance of getting more people onside. Any offset in people's willingness to actually get away from the computer to do some sort of offline activism has to be weighed against the people who wouldn't otherwise be particularly engaged in any kind of activism but can be persuaded to display your little "Cause" app, sign your petitions, join your mailing list, and from there perhaps even become an offline activist as well as on online one. You might actually gain a body at a physical protest rather than lose one.

There were other reasons put forward for what seems to be a decline in offline activism as well, such as the increased competitiveness of everyday economic life leaving people less time and effort away from the rat-race that they can put towards a non-economic agenda. An opportunity for a less time-consuming form of activism is helpful under such circumstances, if admittedly not as appealing to the especially dedicated.

But overall, I think that the decline in offline activism has mostly been from a perception that it isn't working anymore. The signature example is the Iraq war. The mobilisations against that invasion were some of the most impressive protests that I can remember, but the invasion wasn't stopped. In the wake of the US government's intransigence on the issue, people I think have been forced to working at the most basic level of person to person to try and keep people engaged on the issue. The less imposing, lighter form of activism that is online activism is I think a response to the inability of offline activism to readily effect the social change desired.

It remains to be seen whether this form of activism is definitely abetter or worse at that goal than more traditional forms. But I think that in the context of the current Western social milieu, it is necessarily a better choice.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Gay marriage:The Australian Christian Lobby on Lateline

Lateline last night had some reporting on same sex marriage and civil unions last night as the ACT government once again presses ahead with its plan to introduce civil unions in that Territory. Jim Wallace from the Australian Christian Lobby was on, arguing that gay people did not deserve to be married because their relationships did not compare to heterosexual relationships in the slightest.

As so frequently happens from people opposing homosexuality, he spouted a lot of incredibly precise-sounding statistics, not a single one of which can be readily verified by anyone ("Various studies show that..." was the phrasing he used to avoid anyone noting his dearth of real evidence,if I recall correctly). I have from time to time managed to track down some of these wayward statistics to find that they are distorted, misunderstood, and one occasion outright made up (and yes, I can provide sources for that accusation if asked). Other people have also tried to expose this deceptive practice, but it's hard going. For one, most people are statistically illiterate. For too many people, numbers that sound exact, references that appear voluminous and charts that look professionally created count for far more than statistics that are actually accurate. For another, even when the actual reality is presented, it's all too easy for people to ignore the evidence by discrediting the person presenting the evidence on the basis that they're a homosexual who "has an agenda".

I've tried to track down the sources for Wallace's scientific-seeming numbers, with very little success. I've only found one. It's a statistic that occurs relatively frequently in anti-gay propaganda. Anti-gay activist frequently claim that a study in Holland showed that homosexual relationships only last an average of 18 months. The usual tactic when quoting the study is to then compare this to a study which grotesquely overinflates the average duration of heterosexual marriages (note: not heterosexual relationships, heterosexual marriages. I leave it to the reader to figure out why any such comparison between homosexual relationships and only those heterosexual relationships that are heterosexual marriages is inherently dishonest). Jim Wallace in this case spouted the unsourced statistic that Australian marriages last an average of 33 years. I can't find that one at all, unfortunately.

The "Dutch study" in question, though, is called "The contribution of steady and casual partnerships to the incidence of HIV infection among homosexual men in Amsterdam", and is available online. Jim Wallace of Box Turtle Bulletin has already done a fairly good job of demolishing the idea that this is a representative sample of homosexual couples:
We have a study population that was heavily weighted with HIV/AIDS patients, excluded monogamous participants, was predominantly urban, and under the age of thirty. While this population was good for the purposes of the study, it was in no way representative of Amsterdam’s gay men, let alone gay men anywhere else.

Perversely, Wallace went even further than most anti-gay activists in his denunciation. He didn't just say homosexual relationships only last an average of eighteen months, he said homosexual marriages only last an average of eighteen months. From the Lateline transcript last night
JIM WALLACE: And our experience is, that where homosexuals are given marriage, for instance as in Holland, that the average length or duration of those relationships has been eighteen months between two gay men. Now that's not marriage.

The study he's misrepresenting had absolutely nothing to say about homosexual marriages in the Netherlands whatsoever. Why does he think he can get away with such dishonesty? It appears to me that the depressing answer is: because he can. Anti-gay activists spout too many lies, and it takes too long to explain why they're lies, to ever be able to effectively catch them all.

There are reasonable questions to go into here about not just gay marriage but marriage itself - whether longevity is necessarily the best measure of a relationship's quality, whether marriage has any effect on the longevity of a relationship, whether this kind of collectivist reasoning about "average duration of a relationship" for a part of the population is a valid reason to deny relationship recognition to all members of that part of the population, including those who fall outside the average - but it is impossible to reach those points of argument when the debate is forever being poisoned by so-called Christians who see nothing wrong with basing their entire worldview about homosexual people and homosexual relationships on a foundation of lies.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Obama and the "we" generation

I've been struggling to articulate the question of Barack Obama's alleged lack of policy detail and how this actually makes him more favourable to some people, including myself, but found that Henry Jenkins has already explained it, and more besides.

Jenkin's posts tend to be long (academics, huh?), but I think this one is worth reading in its entirety. Here's the section dealing specifically with how I, and assume many others, view Obama's less than fully-detailed policy plans:

...the fact that the vision is blurry and not yet well defined is a virtue rather than a limitation: it is a virtue if we set up processes which enable us to collaborate to find further solutions. I look on Obama's more vague statements as something like a stub on wikipedia -- an incitement for us to pool our insights and to work through a range of possible solutions together.

After eight years which have sought to revitalize the once discredited notion of an Imperial President, it is refreshing to imagine a more open, participatory, and bottom up process. In such a model, the experience of the leader is less important than the ability to channel all of those voices and the commitment to make sure that everyone is heard. This is like the difference between older notions of expertise (based on monopoly and control of information) and newer notions of collective intelligence (based on creating a self-correcting and inclusive process by which we collect, evaluate, and distribute knowledge.) This may be what commentators are groping towards when they talk about a generational shift or discuss Obama as the candidate of the future.

Friday, February 08, 2008

In which gay marriage opponents appear confused on the issue

I can't be the only person who's noticed this...

In California, the State Supreme Court has scheduled a hearing on whether the state's ban on gay marriage is unconstitutional. One of the arguments in favour of the ban is that
the domestic-partner laws [of California] satisfy California's constitutional requirement of equal treatment for gays and lesbians.

That gets argued a lot, that a domestic partnership, civil union or something similar which gives the same legal rights and responsibilities as marriage should be good enough, even if it isn't specifically called marriage. Many supporters of gay rights find it persuasive, even. Who thinks that a "domestic partnership" is different from a "marriage" in anything except name?

Well, as it turns out, gay marriage opponents do - but only if it's heterosexual relationships at issue. In Maryland, US legislators introduced a Bill that
would abolish civil marriage ceremonies now confined to heterosexual unions in the state and replace them with domestic partnerships for all couples.

"Marriage" would be a label applied by religious institutions only. In secular law
The word "marriage" would be replaced with "valid domestic partnership" in the state's family law code.

The opposition's response? Derision.
"What they're talking about is an even more radical departure from traditional marriage than even advocates for gay marriage are talking about," said Del. Christopher B. Shank (R-Washington), the minority whip. "They're creating a situation for one special interest group that basically diminishes the value of marriage for everyone else."

So, an arrangement that for gay people is supposedly so similar to marriage that it makes gay marriage itself unnecessary is for straight people a departure from marriage so "radical" that it's demeaning for straight people to be limited to it.

Conclusion? "Separate but equal" never is.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

The weirdness of US politics: Obama and abortion

One of the charges that came out early in the US Democratic Primaries was that Barack Obama was insufficiently pro-choice. The issue just resurfaced on the eve of Super Tuesday. It's based on votes made in the Illinois Senate where Obama took advantage of a voting rule which allows a person to vote "present" rather than "yes" or "no" on something, and voting "present" rather than "no" on several bills put forward in the Senate that were pro-life rather than pro-choice.

As explained in the article linked above, other people have defended this voting record on the basis that it was part of a specific strategy requested by pro-choice advocates in the state. Nevertheless it seems that this still gets brought up as a way of trying to show that Obama is more pro-choice than pro-life.

So it was a bit weird to see people on the other side of US politics trying to tell me that Obama is gung ho in favour of baby killing. And they're doing it based on his voting record in the Illinois senate, too.

Here is the location of one of several almost identical screeds online saying that his opposition to something called the "Induced Infant Liability Act" means "his radical stance on abortion puts him even further left on that issue than even NARAL Pro-Choice America" (what NARAL stands for I have no idea, but I'm guessing that they're like the Gold Standard of pro-choice activism).

I've been entertaining myself chasing down the Senate Bill they're talking about (it was actually called the Induced Birth Infant Liability Act and far be it from me to suggest that someone's making it harder to Google the full text of the Bill) and checking for other factual inaccuracies besides the name. The most obvious one is that the author is conflating this Bill with a federal Bill called (supposedly) the Born Alive Infant Protection Act, and trying to pass off support for one as automatic support for the other. But that's just garden-variety hyperpartisanism.

What really amazes me is that it's possible for one person to find himself attacked by partisans on both sides of the same issue for supposedly being too far in the other side's camp. How does that work?

Monday, February 04, 2008

The promise and problems of OpenID

Playing around with an OpenID provider and something bothers me.

The idea behind OpenID of course is to try and get past the problem of having lots of different accounts on lots of different websites. The existence of a site like Useless Account is testimony to the problem.

OpenID, as I understand it, gets you to sign on to a single OpenID provider site, like My Open ID, which you can then use to sign into other sites rather than having to explicitly create a new user/password combination for each and every site you want to use.

The main obstacle at the moment seems to be a lack of major sites that will authenticate using OpenID. There does appear to be some recent momentum, with web2.0 site aggregator Plaxo and the comment system now being accessible through OpenID authentication. But that's not what's bothering me.

What's bothering me is that I already have a lot of accounts on a lot of sites which aren't tied to my OpenID account, and I don't see any way to tie those accounts to my OpenID account. Worse, plenty of existing sites like LiveJournal also act as OpenID providers: you can sign onto an OpenID-compatible site using your LiveJournal details. As a result I now not only have multiple accounts around the place, but two of those multiple accounts are both OpenID accounts. This doesn't bode well for a system aimed at reducing the number of superfluous user/password combinations I have to keep in mind.

Maybe there's something I missed in the protocol, but to my knowledge there's no way to associate my previously existing accounts with my OpenID accounts. Nor do I know any way to make my existing accounts on disparate OpenID providers aware of each other so that I could easily alternate between them, or even subordinate one to the other.

Perhaps someone could point out whether this is currently possible? If it isn't, then I fear OpenID will go down the road of things like the DVORAK keyboard: a technological improvement that is superior, useful and fails because it desn't take entrenched social realities into account. To succeed, OpenID needs to be able to assimilate existing accounts somehow.