Informing or Persuading? Clarifying the Nature of Proselytisation in Special Religious Education

Special religious education (SRE) in state schools is a recurring issue in our public debate. While specific questions about parental consent forms for SRE have been the subject of heated discussion recently, the deepest fault line in the debate is generally given only cursory attention. In my view, the real point of contention comes down to the issue of proselytisation. There remains a lack of clarity about precisely what proselytisation entails both in a general sense, and in the classroom specifically.

Let’s start with the obligatory OED definition of the word: “Proselytise:- convert or attempt to convert (someone) from one religion, belief, or opinion to another… Advocate or promote (a belief or course of action)”. While it may seem clear, the term seems to raise more questions than answers. What does ‘attempt to convert’ actually mean in terms of behaviour? Does ‘advocate’ really mean the same thing? Can someone ‘advocate’ for a belief without proselytising to them?

In the current debate about SRE, it’s difficult to be taken seriously if you support proselytisation in state schools. The Australian public and their representatives generally have a strong commitment to religious pluralism and the secular state, and the idea of children being exhorted to believe a religion in the classroom doesn’t sit well for most of us. Many proponents of SRE would likely agree with this sentiment, but don’t consider SRE – when run appropriately – to involve proselytisation.

With this in mind, let’s explore the core teaching of Christianity, which is central to the SRE program: that we (humankind) are inherently sinful and are in need of salvation through acceptance of Jesus Christ as Lord and saviour.
SRE supporters might argue that teaching this to students doesn’t constitute an example of a proselytisation mission because there is no explicit element of persuasion. One could argue, as defenders of SRE do, that the mission is merely to help students understand this apparent truth, not to persuade them of it. To them, proselytisation means active, overt persuasion as to why students should accept Christianity, reject non-belief or alternative faiths. Anything less forceful or persuasive than this would appear to be a legitimate activity for SRE classes. Hence, there are many people who support SRE whilst ostensibly also being against proselytisation.

But it’s easy to see where this distinction – between persuading and merely informing – breaks down. Telling primary school kids that they are sinful and in need of salvation through Jesus has obvious persuasive implications. The teaching, whilst not explicitly exhorting or persuading someone to believe, is clearly persuasive in its intent. This is particularly so for younger students, whose faculties of critical thinking are in their absolute infancy.

Exhorting someone to adopt a religious faith is only one type of proselytisation, and a generally ineffective one at that. More often, evangelising religious groups deploy more subtle forms of engagement, that involve establishing affect and positive associations with potential recruits. This is not to say that they they are trying to deceive anyone, or that it’s necessarily nefarious. We simply need to recognise that proselytisation is built into faiths with an evangelising orientation. This is why the Moonies were so successful proselytising for recruits to the Unification Church in the 1970’s; they were happy people, with a positive message to tell anyone and everyone who would listen.

Proselytisation works in much the same way that contemporary advertising does. Rarely do you see commercials that overtly try to persuade you to buy their product by actively telling you to do so. Marketers now understand that it’s much more effective to tell people about the product, and to frame it positively. There’s far less overt ‘persuasion’ in advertising, but it’s unambiguous that advertisers are ‘proselytising’ for their products. They intend for their message, simply through increased awareness and a positive framing, to recruit people to their cause.

So called ‘non-proselytising SRE’ is functionally the same as this. SRE instructors might not be coercing or overtly persuading students to become Christians, but this is because Christianity (among other religions) has intuitively come to understand that this is an ineffective way to spread the gospel. In other words, proselytisation is central to the SRE project – just not in the simplified, and largely outdated, notion of what many people understand proselytisation to be.

In light of this, the question that emerges is as follows: ‘Does this ‘soft’ religious proselytisation belong in our state schools?

My view is that it does not. Consider that in all other core subjects in their primary school learning, students are taught a common curriculum. In maths class, children aren’t taught equations that only some people think are right. In English, parts of the class aren’t taught that words have different meanings to what other students are taught. Yet in SRE class, students are taken aside and taught the same broad subject – religion – in different ways, with different content, and with different implications for their worldview.

Indeed, they’re taught not just different but competing accounts of the world by the different religions. We may like to play down these differences for the sake of maintaining interfaith dialogue – that these are just ‘different perspectives of the same subject’ – but they are actually irreconcilable with each other. Consider this same central claim of Christianity that would be taught in any SRE class: that Jesus was the resurrected son of God. Such a belief is mutually exclusive, even heretical, to both Islam and Judaism, for a start. With our society becoming increasingly multi-cultural and multi-faith, SRE sows the seeds of religious division where none need be.

It also needs to be understood that adult SRE instructors, like teachers, are overwhelmingly perceived as authoritative figures to a classroom of primary school students. This means there is a significant power asymmetry in favour of the SRE instructor, in terms of being an authority of what is being taught. They might not be able to articulate it, but primary school children (rightly) assume that adults are there to teach them what’s true, not just what some people think is true.

This line of argument should not be taken as ‘anti-religious’. It’s appropriate that children do receive some education in religion at school, since the influence of religious thought on our history and culture is undeniable. However, education policy should focus on facilitating students to come to their spiritual worldviews on their own terms, once their faculties of critical thought are more thoroughly developed. Such an outcome is best achieved by General Religious Education (GRE), where students are educated about all the world’s major religions and their specific beliefs. This provides the foundation for any, or none, of these religious views to take shape.

In contrast, SRE intervenes and undercuts this process by making inherently provincial claims on these worldviews through the teaching of a specific religious dogma from an early age. Religious groups may no longer threaten children with fire and brimstone, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t in schools to proselytise.

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Progressives and feminists have been led astray on the question of the burqa

In a market society, we’re told that everyone makes choices according to their own preferences. Capitalism celebrates individuals as independent creators of self-identity through the way we choose to conduct ourselves, the things we choose to buy, and particularly in the way we choose to dress. Nowhere has this discourse of individualism been more prevalent recently than the issue of the burqa and the niqab – which I’ll collectively refer to as the ‘veil’.

So enamoured are we with this general philosophy of individualism, that we can’t help but interpret the issue through its lens. Commentators across the spectrum – including progressives and feminists – insist that wearing this garment ‘is a matter of individual choice’. Consequently, any attempt to prohibit the veil is thought to be an infringement on the rights of the wearer to self-identity and self-determination. Banning it would be an affront to individualism itself.

However ‘choices’, construed as such, aren’t made in a vacuum. Social norms and cultural expectations are far more accurate predictors of the way people dress and conduct themselves. It’s the reason that ties are thought to be appropriate for men, and dresses thought to be appropriate for women – even though we perceive ourselves as ‘choosing’ to wear them. Sociologists and marketers have understood this for some time, yet the debate around the veil seems particularly tone-deaf this rather obvious point.

But, to adopt the language of individualism for a moment, let’s examine why a woman might choose to wear the veil. Many religious cultures, both Muslim and non-Muslim, advocate headwear that promotes a degree of modesty, by covering the hair and neck. By leaving the face – the most communicative and identifiable part of the body – uncovered, women are still able to participate in the public sphere as men do. It’s for this reason, that no one of note has even remotely advocated restrictions on the wearing of the hijab or chador, both garments that leave the face unobscured.

As veiling garments, the burqa and niqab are reflective of particularly conservative Muslim subcultures that place much stricter codes of dress and conduct on women. The term ‘subcultures’ is deliberate, because we should be under no illusions that all, or even a majority of Muslims, advocate the wearing of the veil. These garments reflect an interpretation of modesty that requires complete bodily and facial coverage. Women who wear the veil overwhelmingly do so in order to preserve their purity and piety, by shielding themselves from the corrupting influence of the male gaze.

In wearing the veil, they are denied the most crucial basis for human interaction – that of recognition. The veil strips away the prospect of their taking part in society’s activities in any meaningful way. The ability to empathize with a wearer of the veil is almost completely lost. It’s unsurprising then, that countries where the veil is most prevalent – such as Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan – are also those where women are most marginalized. In effect, women become the walking disappeared. They are silhouettes; in the social world but not of it.

Rationalizing the veil as merely an ‘individual choice’ reveals our general inability to discuss the nuances of social conformity. While it’s true to say that not all veil-wearing women are forced to do so, the nature of subcultures with strict standards of conduct means that conformity is often achieved in the absence of explicit coercion. In communities that interpret the virtues of femininity through the complete concealment of women’s faces and bodies, it’s to be expected that some women will willingly submit to that practice. This is the difference between being told that one must wear veil, and simply knowing that one should wear the veil.

Western progressives and feminists have become well attuned to the most subtle and insidious signs of a gendered system of inequality in the West. And yet, in describing the wearing of the veil solely in terms of ‘a women’s right to choose’, they are staring directly past a patriarchal system far more conservative than their own.

It’s a testament to the capacity for conceptual contortion that the utter effacement of veil-wearing women in public could be framed as just another form of individualised expression. This, by the very people in the political sphere who should be able to recognise systematic marginalisation when they encounter it.

Once these social norms that govern the wearing of the veil are understood, the notion of it being an ‘individual choice’ starts to look both simplistic, and misleading.

However, there is still the matter of the overwhelming support for the wearing of the veil by progressives and feminists. This can be interpreted in several ways. Firstly, some may truly believe that there are many roads to the empowerment and equal participation of women in society – and that the veil is as valid a means to achieving that goal as any other form of dress. Such a vision of gender equity is difficult to take seriously, particularly as it is only women who are incentivised to render themselves anonymous in the public sphere.

Another possibility is that progressives and feminists are happy for women to ‘Destroy The Joint’ on our own cultural turf, but simply lack the conviction to argue their case against practices that originate from outside the West. Concerns about cultural imperialism are perhaps understandable. But this is not about Australian values being ‘imposed’ on Muslims. It’s about universal human rights being extended to all women, even to those whose immediate religious and cultural milieu smothers them in front of our eyes. If progressives and feminists won’t support the erosion of such an obvious subculture of gendered inequality here, then where will they support it?

It may also be that progressives and feminists have allowed the way this debate has unfolded – and particularly their disdain for Cory Bernadi and Jacquie Lambie – to cloud their vision on the issue. In their haste to reflexively oppose bigotry and religious discrimination, progressives and feminists have unwittingly sided with a subculture that opposes the very values that they would ordinarily stand for. This is regrettable, and demonstrates the adage that the enemy of one’s enemy is not necessarily an ally.

Let’s be clear: incidents where women wearing the veil or the hijab have been verbally abused, or had violence directed at them, are inexcusable. But discussing the prospect of banning the veil is not an attack on those women wearing it. Instead, it would be an attempt to undermine an arch-conservative, patriarchal subculture that leads both sexes to conclude that a woman’s value can only be maintained under a cloak of concealment.

Until this point, progressives and feminists have been lured into this issue by lazy thinking. Simplistic memes about preserving ‘individual choice’ obscure the reality that the veil is both a symbol and instrument of a conservative, anti-feminist subculture. Likewise, sloganistic rationalisations about how ‘government shouldn’t tell women what they can and can’t wear’ miss the point that the state is in this business already. Public nudity has been prohibited for some time, with few of us seeing it as an infringement on personal autonomy.

It’s time that progressives and feminists rediscover their core principles on the issue of the veil. Yes, we can be in solidarity with women who ‘choose’ to wear it. But in doing so, we shouldn’t legitimise the subculture that puts them in a position of having to make that choice in the first place.

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Classrooms aren’t full of “sinners” – they’re just kids. A reply to John Dickson

Recently, the Sydney Morning Herald ran an article about the ongoing issue of Special Religious Education (SRE) in Australian public schools, and the growing movement of parents and teachers who feel it is an inappropriate intervention into the curriculum. The article described Lucius, a 6 year-old boy who was found weeping on his bed by his father, exclaiming “I’m a sinner, Daddy, I’m a sinner.” Lucius claimed to have learnt this in his primary school Christian SRE class, run by volunteers from outside the school. The story of this student being traumatised by a seemingly innocuous scripture class should raise concerns for both supporters and opponents of SRE classes alike.

I tweeted the article to Centre for Public Christianity’s John Dickson, as it’s a topic that I’ve debated with him before. Prompted by my tweet, John penned a defence of the Christian doctrine of ‘original sin’ – the notion that we humans are ultimately flawed creatures whose sinful nature is inherent – irrespective of how compassionate, caring, and kind our actions may be in life. John feels that this teaching is empowering, as it strips away the naive assumption that humans beings are – at their core – good.

There is much that a secularist could agree with in John’s post. Maintaining a healthy skepticism about human nature is prudent, given that we still retain so many of the neurological and behavioural characteristics of our evolutionary history. Many of these tendencies are residual artifacts of our more primal ancestors, who’s existence was far more brutish than that required by the civil society of today. As Christopher Hitchens eloquently put it: ‘Our prefrontal lobes are too small, our adrenaline glands are too big, and our thumb-finger opposition isn’t all that it might be.’

John is also right to recognise fallibility as part of the human condition, even if it is unevenly distributed amongst individuals. It’s certainly the case that those people who perceive themselves as capable of doing no wrong, are often more dangerous than those who acknowledge their own weaknesses of character. A culture of humility, in the face of our own selfishness, ambition and greed, is surely something we should attempt to foster at both a personal and societal level.

But as a response to the original article about Lucius, John’s defence of original sin largely misses the point. The central question posed by the story of the weeping 6-year old “sinner” isn’t whether the doctrine is a defensible account of human nature – since that is a debate that will continue long into the future. Rather, the question that needs to be answered is somewhat less philosophical, but far more pressing for public education policy: Is the doctrine of original sin an appropriate teaching for primary school students? In other words, does a 6-year old need to be told that their existence, irrespective of their behaviour, is defined by their sin?

The doctrine of original sin stands in stark contrast to the life lessons that we try to impart onto children at this age: namely, that their actions matter, and that doing good deeds is what makes a person good. But if they attend a Christian SRE class, they can be told, as Lucius was, that they are inherently sinful – irrespective of any good deeds they might do. In no other part of their education would a student of this age be asked to comprehend and implement such a complex and seemingly contradictory view of themselves.

On the one hand we teach children not to pre-judge each other. In contrast, original sin claims that they, and everyone else, have been pre-judged by God in the very way that we’d hope they wouldn’t judge others. The notion of original sin might be existentially empowering for a contemplative scholar like John, but it is utterly naive to expect a 6 year-old child to understand the same subtleties and nuances of the doctrine that he does. I suspect Lucius isn’t the only one in SRE class rather upset to learn that he’s a ‘sinner’.

Support for this line of argument need not fall along the same lines that characterise other debates between religious and secular people. One need not be an atheist or agnostic to object to this particular doctrine being impressed upon primary school students. One could be a committed Christian, and still recognise that the concepts and metaphysics involved in the doctrine of original sin are likely more complex than a primary school student will reliably understand. Likewise one could be a committed Christian, and still believe that it’s more appropriate for children to view fallibility in terms of discrete actions, rather than sin defining their existence.

If becoming a Christian involves evaluating the evidence for its truth claims, as John passionately advocates, then we should allow children to develop the reasoning and critical thinking capabilities for performing that task, before we attempt to steer them toward any particular faith. If the case for Christianity is so compelling, as John and many other SRE supporters believe, then it should be more than capable of attracting more mature converts, rather than seeking to influence the minds of school children. Some Baptist traditions understand this, asserting that declarations of faith should not be made until a person is capable of fully comprehending the concepts they are committing to.

As long as religious institutions segment young children into different groups to teach them competing narratives about God, the world, and themselves, then they will always be seen to be recruiting believers. If there is even a distinction between merely teaching a child about a faith, and actively proselytizing to them to join that faith, it is a conveniently blurred one. The doctrine of Original Sin has a place in our philosophical discourse, but not in the classrooms of primary schools.

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Rethinking 18C

For the past few years, the free speech debate in Australia has been conducted vis-à-vis a series of public incidents of racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination: Andrew Bolt cynically targeting Aborigines, rednecks on public transport hurling abuse at ethnic groups, a girl making a racist slur at Adam Goodes, and now Wicked Campers displaying cruel slogans about women. Every time a notable incident like this emerges, we can’t help but use it as a proxy for the broader debate about whether it constitutes hate speech, and if so, whether it should be illegal.

In each of these situations, we assume to know what’s at stake: the so-called ‘right to be a bigot’, weighed against the right not to be discriminated against. So far, in any given incident, we’ve generally been able to tell who the perpetrators are, and who the victims are. With that, it’s been obvious where the responsibility and vulnerability lie. These episodes have lent themselves to easy public moralising.

In a way, this is unfortunate, because these incidents have done little to probe our intuitions about the broader issue of free speech in a way that doesn’t merely reinforce the position we held the last time we witnessed something similar in the news cycle. Coupled with the polarising nature of its most prominent advocates George Brandis and Tim Wilson, and we’ve arrived at a point in the discourse where genuine debate about the virtues of free speech, or conversely, the dangers of hate speech, has all but ground to a halt.

With this in mind, it’s worth considering how a different scenario – one which is more ambiguous, and hence less easily moralised about – might breathe some new life into the discussion.

Lets assume that an Aboriginal woman writes a searing, insightful, ‘check your white privilege’ article about Andrew Bolt, which gets printed in a mainstream newspaper. In it, she uses him as an example to illustrate how our culture funnels white Anglo-Saxon males toward success, at the expense of racial minorities.

The article goes viral, because it so effectively mocks the cherished assumptions about life opportunities and ‘hard work’ that undergird the cultural image of the white, privileged, yet apparently ‘self made’ man. Let’s also say Bolt is genuinely humiliated by the article, not because it contained factual information that was untrue (which could be grounds for defamation), but because it exposes his racial worldview as naive and simplistic.

Then suppose, despite past proclamations about the right to free speech, Bolt decides to press charges under the Racial Discrimination Act, as a way to test whether the law would be equally harsh to the Aboriginal author as it was to him in 2011. Bolt feels as though he has a case, since the tone and intent of her article, coupled with its racially loaded subject matter, would be enough for it to be deemed discriminatory. He bases this on the ruling from the discrimination case made against him, where the judge ruled that even if he had gotten all his facts right, the law still demanded that the article needed to be written ‘reasonably and in good faith’ – something the ABC’s Jonathan Holmes has pointed to with concern.

If the RDA is applied to this hypothetical case as it was to Bolt’s, then it seems like it should be grounds for prosecution. The law doesn’t make a distinction between whether a racial group is a vulnerable minority, or privileged majority. The RDA only seeks to prohibit racial discrimination – period. That being the case, Bolt would be right to accuse her of racism.

But wouldn’t we want to protect that Aboriginal woman’s right to express her view in the way that she sees fit?

In my reading, Section 18C of the RDA and the judge’s statements from the Bolt ruling say to her: “Sure, you’re free to express your racial minority’s discontent with decades of mistreatment at the hands of whites – but only if you do it politely, and have the right tone.”

Given that white Anglo-Saxon culture has done it’s darndest to wipe out Aboriginal people and culture for a significant part of the time they’ve cohabited Australia, I’d say we’re in no position to dictate how they might care to express that grievance – particularly if it targets an individual that embodies the kind of white power and privilege that comes at the expense of Aboriginal welfare. It’s also problematic that the RDA would seek to curb an individual’s expression of a racially based protest sentiment toward a dominant white culture, when our socio-economic policies have inflicted racism on her people at a systemic level on a daily basis for decades.

As it’s currently interpreted, Section 18C serves as a reminder that the terms of debate favour consensus – which means they favour the powerful. The marginalised parts of the community are prevented from seriously challenging public figures that most visibly contribute to their marginalisation, while those with power, opportunity, and cultural capital are given the protections to keep it from being undermined.

We may think Section 18C is a shield to protect the vulnerable against vile and damaging forms of hate speech. But, in the hands of some, a shield is also a weapon. By not allowing legitimate, and – yes, arguably ‘racist’ – critiques of entrenched white privilege to be voiced, 18C actually gives the powerful yet another means of reprisal. Or worse still – it means that we might never hear the truths of an ongoing racist co-existence that we need to hear.

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United Airlines Complaint Letter

Dear Sir / Madam,

At what point in history would you say Western society begun it’s gradual slide into depravity and barbarism? I realize this is likely a more abstract question than the United Airlines customer service department might be used to receiving. For that I apologise.

Perhaps it was the first official eating contest, which took the mortal sin of gluttony and turned it into a national sport. Perhaps it was the premiere of ‘Bridalplasty’, a show that displayed such a confluence of vanity and cynicism that it defied imagination. If you answered either of these, however, you would be wrong. No, the critical juncture occurred in my presence on United Flight 839, from Los Angeles to Sydney, on Monday October 1st 2012.

After a relatively pleasant flight, I was in high spirits and marvelling, as I do with every flight, at the painless and speedy inter-continental migration that United Airlines just provided me with. As the pilot guided the majestic 747 toward the gate, a voice came over the intercom:

“Passengers are asked to de-plane via the front left door.”

I winced; only partially comprehending the linguistic abomination I had just been witness to. The teenage girl sitting across the aisle, whose apprehension of English was scant, confirmed the worst:

“Hay, d’ya reckon dee-plane iz even a propa werd?” she blurted to her mother.

At that point I knew the United flight attendant had committed an offence so grievous, so damning, that it warranted my submitting a formal complaint.
I acknowledge that the English language is a living entity, capable of adaptation to describe the complex world in which we live. But we simply cannot tolerate the mutations of nouns into verbs unless it is absolutely necessary to do so. We in the civilised world have moats, cutlery, encyclopedias, and planes that we ‘disembark’. The savages of this world pillage, plunder and, were they to be instructed as to how they should remove themselves from an aircraft, let there be no doubt they would ‘de-plane’. I leave it to you to determine which side of the fence United stands.

If this crude word finds its way into everyday use, the consequences will be dire. Were people to continue to be told to de-plane, then I should think they might also be reminded not to cannibalise anyone on the way out, such is the degree of incivility implied.

The stakes in this matter are high. This is about more than just a morphologically robust, yet conventionally inaccurate word infiltrating the lexicon. This is about whether we wish to progress and entrench our position as the most intellectually capable of all species, or whether should just climb back into the trees and start throwing faeces.

I call on the good people of United Airlines to disavow the term ‘de-plane,’ and all its variations, in the interests of defending all that is decent and proper in the civilised world. This nonsense can be stopped, and stopped it must be.

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Hitchens died as an atheist, but lived for free speech

There probably isn’t much to say that hasn’t already been said about Christopher Hitchens, who passed away late last year.

Undoubtedly abrasive at times, Hitchens self assurance was both a great asset and flaw, but he could not have made some of his more memorable claims without it. Calling Jerry Falwell a fraud and a charlatan isn’t in itself particularly noteworthy. To do it while his corpse was still warm, however, took bravado and a willingness to strategically pierce the social etiquette that so often provides cover for the cunning and exploitative.

It would be a mistake to say that Hitchens took on easy targets, as is a common criticism of the new atheists. The fact that he was willing to target Mother Teresa suggests that he viewed little as sacred, and his subsequent devotion to undermining the institution of religion suggests that the sacrosanct was always in danger when Hitchens was around.

To be honest, if God existed, and I were him, then I probably would have knocked off Hitchens as well. Although I would have done so before he wrote ‘god is not Great’, and began the process of systematically eviscerating so many religious apologists in various debates over the past 6 years. If you happen to be only a fraction as skeptical of institutionalized theism as he was, then his legacy of rhetoricisms are something to behold.

Christopher was a passionate supporter of free speech, both in theory and practice. Indeed, his defense of free speech seemed to lead him to criticize  religion, which he saw as being a prime instigator of the threats to it. His commitment to resisting censorship is demonstrated by how he dealt with those with whom he most vehemently disagreed – as all true commitment to to free speech must surely be.

Video material from Hitchens earlier years is inevitably more scarce than his recent public appearances – such is the ubiquity of youtube, and digital recordings of events generally. Recently, an interview was posted where Christopher is seen to be hosting, seemingly as a once off, a talk show on CNBC in 1991. It’s fascinating to see him as an interviewer; asking the questions rather than being asked. His subject matter is also surreal, as he calmly converses with a leading member of the ‘White Aryan Resistance’ (WAR), a white seperatist movement that celebrates the birth of Hitler, believes a Zionist occupied Government (ZOG), and the inherent superiority of white-skinned European descendants.

Part 2, Part 3

It’s unclear whether a figure from a group such as WAR would be given the dignity of a prime time televised interview on a major network these days – I suspect not. The imperatives of commercial networks not to alienate audiences are more imposing than ever. Despite the willingess for certain networks to court controversy, this usually takes the form of offensively banal and degrading reality TV shows, rather than the more unpredictable reactions to neo-nazi sentiments. These sorts of discussions may just be the wrong sort of controversy, which media executives would prefer not to deal with.

Hitchens, however, knew precisely how to deal with proponents of abhorrent ideologies. Rather than letting them fester under an excuse of censorship, the preferred course should be to expose them to the light of questioning, civilized debate, and public dismantling of their core arguments. Of course, we can’t spend all of our public discourse defending ourselves against the arguments of bigots, denialists and fundamentalists of any stripe. But periodically engaging with fringe groups that critique our most cherished assumptions can serve to ensure that we know where we stand, as well as undermine their ability to present themselves as victims of unfair marginalization.

Christopher has said that he became a journalist because he didn’t want to rely on the press for information. In subjecting himself to waterboarding in 2008, it was an affirmation of that view. Not content with the euphemization of the practice as ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’, Hitchens could tell us from first hand experience – that if anything constituted the practice of torture, then waterboarding certainly did. In demonstrating this, Hitchens laid bare the depravity of an administration that had found itself defying the Geneva conventions. Citizens in both in the US and abroad began to see the practice for what it was, and his unique form of journalism played no small part in shifting the consensus.

Politically, Hitchens could not be, nor would not let others, box him under any particular label. His contrarianism itself most stark when compared to the tribal nature of so much of todays political discourse. This is something the US media in particular struggled with, as seen in the popular narrative of Hitchens’ apparent shift from left to right, simply because he chose to differ on a single issue – the Iraq war. The reality was of course more complex, and it is fortunate that his prominence as an anti-theist surpassed his reputation as an advocate for war. More importantly, he embodied an independence of mind and interest that will be missed at a time when it’s becoming most needed.

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The Ethics of Trolling Scammers

The golden rule of ethical behavior is that we should treat others as we would like to be treated ourselves. This works out well most of the time, since we generally prefer to be treated well in preference to being treated badly. But what if one someone is deliberately out to treat someone else badly, by deceiving or stealing from them? What’s the ethical thing to do when we know someone is deliberately out to take advantage of us?

The other day I received a phone call from a polite but insistent fellow from ‘Windows Tech Support’, who informed me that my computer was infected with a virus, placed there by hackers. He told me that all I needed to do was follow his instructions to a specific website, upon which he could remove the virus and all would be well.

Unfortunately for him, this wasn’t the first time I’d been alerted to this type of situation. Having received three similar phone calls over the past few months, I established that the company making these calls isn’t really tech support at all. Instead, they attempt to gain remote access to one’s network, and use whatever data they can find for all manner of nefarious purposes.

Knowing this, I didn’t merely hang up, or tell him that I knew it was a scam.  I feigned credulity for about 20 minutes, acting very concerned about the situation he was alerting me to. First, I clumsily attempted to follow his instructions:

Me: “My entire screen is black! Did the hackers do this?!”

Tech Support: “uh sir, is your computer turned on?”

Me: “Let me check……. No. PHEW!”

During idle moments when I pretended to be turning on my computer, I tried to make friendly conversation:

Me: “So where are you calling from?”

Tech Support: “um, I’m calling from Adelaide, Australia” (I’m pretty sure most Australians would know Adelaide is in Australia…)

Me: “Oh really! What’s the weather like there?”

Tech Support: “.. um, cold.” (I check the BOM – 30 degrees and sunny)

He persists though, despite my inability to follow basic instructions, like finding the control key. So, knowing that he’s out to fleece me, I felt that some mind games were in order:

Me: “You guys at tech support do such a great job. Has anyone ever told you that?

Tech Support: “um…”

Me: “I mean, there are terrible people out there, who want to steal my personal information. Can you believe that?!”

Tech Support: “um, please sir, just click on…”

Me: “and all that stands in their way, are good, honest people like yourself! You wouldn’t take advantage of anyone, would you?”

Tech Support: “uh, let me just ask my supervisor…”

Eventually he gave up, after what must have seemed like a very promising start to the call. His time had been thoroughly wasted, and he possibly felt bad about what he was attempting. I had trolled* a guy whom I knew was trying to steal from me. Seemed like a fair trade. But the golden rule isn’t very helpful when someone is doing something that you wouldn’t do yourself. Am I really supposed to ‘love they neighbour’ when my neighbor is a thief trying to steal my things?

Or do I actually have a responsibility to make life difficult for this type of person, by trolling him until he gives up? If I were to just ignore him and hang up, I’m tacitly giving him more opportunity to steal from someone else. That seems to be an ethically dubious position to take, at best.

This of course, begs the question of whether stealing is, in any circumstances, ethical. Stealing a loaf of bread to feed your starving family might be ok, but that wasn’t Mr Tech Support… or was it? On reflection, I realized that I didn’t actually know anything about his situation that lead to his becoming a petty criminal.

Let’s assume he was calling from somewhere in the developing world – the Indian sub continent , judging by his accent. What if his job, to make these calls, was the only job available in his town? Does his interest in making a decent livelihood outweigh my interests in preserving personal data?

There’s obviously  an equity issue here.  Australia currently tops the world in terms of wealth, having one of the highest per-capita GDP’s. Much of that wealth is supported by cheap labour from poorer countries. Could we cashed up Australians be fair game for these sorts of scams, if it means they’re able to have food on their table?

I also realized that I simply assumed that he knew the nature of what he was doing – that he was deliberately deceiving me with the intention of stealing my personal data. But he may have just been following a script, with little or no knowledge that his employer was doing something illegitimate. Then again, is ignorance an excuse on his part?

In any case, I’m not sure whether trolling this guy for an extended period would encourage or discourage this type of practice in the future. I think discouraging these scams is broadly the right thing to do, but it’s not clear whether hanging up or trolling is the more ethical choice. There’s a lot more than the golden rule to consider next time Tech Support calls.

*No definition or description of ‘trolling’ seems adequate in my view. Much like the Matrix, trolling can only be witnessed firsthand. David Thorne’s website is a good place to start.

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