02 Dec What Happens When You Tell Men to Shush on Facebook

From the Spinoff 24.11.16

Comedian and writer Michele A’Court explains why she asked men to pipe down on her Facebook page, and how her request was received. The answer may surprise you…

Two days after the election of President Trump, I tried a social media experiment on my personal Facebook page. I asked men to shut up, and give women a little space to chat.

Here’s why I did that, and what happened next.

Friday morning, November 11, I posted a link to an opinion piece I’d written for the Press about waking up in Trumpland – the nightmares I’d had on election night, my fears for the future, my hope that if “grabbing ‘em by the pussy” becomes the standard White House greeting, Michelle Obama would continue to go high when Trump goes low, meaning she would punch him in the face on inauguration day.

Then I went off to make an emergency episode of our podcast, On the Rag, in which Alex Casey, Leonie Hayden and I talked about our emotional reaction to Trump’s win – the grief and fear – and also the constructive things we can do with those emotions: acknowledge them, share our stories with each other, support the kind of people Trump threatens and other practical actions we can take to deal with all this mad shit.

By the time I got home in the afternoon and looked at my Facebook page, the comments thread below my article about President-elect Trump wasn’t about Trump. It was about someone not mentioned in it – Hillary Clinton. The usual stuff – “Liar! Criminal! Laughs at rape victims! Married to a rapist!” – you know the drill. Remember, this wasn’t a pre-election piece comparing and contrasting two candidates; this was a post-election, “Holy shit! It’s Trump! How do we all feel?” post. But the conversation had been almost instantly hijacked from a discussion about the man who’d been elected to a different one about the woman who didn’t win.

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All (and I mean all) the “But Clinton!” comments were initiated by men. They emanated a lot of heat, shed no new light, and frequently included links to the same old stories that have been circulating for months. There was a lot of detailed talk about rape (again, from men), and personal insults between commenters (both sides). Occasionally, a woman would slip in to say, “I couldn’t sleep after the election either – thanks for letting me know I’m not alone”, but you could look down the thread and see women being squeezed out of the chat. They stopped commenting – apart from one stoic FB friend who kept posting amusing memes. Other than that small highlight, it was dispiriting. Men shouting, women falling silent, and wandering away.

While mulling that over, I read a terrific piece by Guardian columnist Lindy West printed in the New York Times. “Her Loss” was a very personal and emotional reaction to the election result and what it meant for women. West confessed to spending most of the election day in tears.

I cried because I want my daughters to feel that blazing pride, that affirmation of their boundless capacity — not from their husbands, but from their world, from the atmosphere, from inviolable wells of certainty inside themselves. I cried because it’s not fair, and I’m so tired, and every woman I know is so tired. I cried because I don’t even know what it feels like to be taken seriously — not fully, not in that whole, unequivocal, confident way that’s native to handshakes between men. I cried because it does things to you to always come second.

And I wanted to share that on my Facebook page without it leading to another long bullshit thread about the first woman to run for US President allegedly laughing at victims of rape. West’s piece was specifically about how this election felt to women. I specifically wanted women to join in with their responses.

So I posted the link with this at the top: “To all the men who have posted on my page about Hillary Clinton in the last little while, I offer you this. I do not invite you to comment on it. I invite you to read it (your call) and then shut up. And take a moment to think about what the last few days and months have felt like for women like us. Actually, much longer. Because I think this describes it very well.”

Immediately, the same men from my earlier post climbed in, along with several more. “Censorship!” “Sexist!” they cried. I opened a bottle of wine and stayed busy with the delete button for a couple of hours, then edited the top of my post with this: “Perhaps I haven’t been clear: for this one time, on my own personal page, I am not inviting or accepting comments from men and will delete them as soon as I see them. It is not your turn.”

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I was not trying to ban men from Facebook. Ha! As if! I was not even banning them from my page. I have a pretty open policy – most of my posts are set to “public” and I accept friend requests willy-nilly, only unfriending if someone becomes annoying, and blocking if someone becomes abusive.

With this post, I wanted any men who felt so moved to read the article as an insight into one of the “bubbles” that exist on social media. (I’m defining “bubble” here as a group of people who think differently from you.) And in my experience, you get a better insight when you read and think quietly than when you distract yourself by cutting and pasting a link to something which may or may not be related because you didn’t read the original article in the first place.

So I was offering something I thought was terrific for people to read, and then simply asking people who were not women not to comment on this one post, on this one day.

Given that, I’m buggered if I know why any men would want to get amongst it with the chat. But, man, they were keen. Delete, delete, delete.

So far, so predictable, I guess. But then some things happened. A couple of men who seemed quite cross personally messaged me to complain about my “sexism” and “censorship”. So I refilled my glass, and wrote back to each one of them, explaining that I wanted to create a space where women could do the talking about how women felt. That I was thinking of my personal Facebook page as my living room and today I was only inviting women to sit down and chat. Men could observe if they wanted – welcome! – but the conversation was for and about women.

And after the briefest of back-and-forths, each of them suddenly wrote some version of, “OK, cheers!” and we were done. It was way less adversarial than I might have expected. Personal engagement seemed to diffuse the anger quickly. I found myself feeling warmly towards someone whose middle name on their profile is “Feral”.

While hovering over the delete button, I also saw several men writing positive and encouraging comments, and taking on the angry dudes. I deleted those, too (rules are rules) and messaged each of them to explain why. One of them wrote, “Absolutely no worries… Totally respect your request.” Another man re-posted his supportive comment separately and tagged me into it, so it appeared above the original post on my page. I thanked him publicly, and so did fifty other women. If he’d been in my actual living room, I would have poured him a glass of wine, and invited him out on the deck for a chat.

So what happened on the thread? That was the really good bit. Women told personal stories: about what they’ve been saying to their sons and daughters about the election; about feeling physically sick; about their dreams for their daughters; stories about what is happening in their kids’ classrooms; experiences of sexism at work; about racism at school; and admitting to each other that they too cried real tears on election night. Plus dozens of comments about how nice it was to get to say all these things without being shouted down, and thanks. Sure, there was the odd snarly response directed at men who were angry about being silenced – usually some version of, “See how it feels, buddy?” – before I could get to the delete button. But there it was – a long, long list of women being open, and honest, and vulnerable, and kind to each other. A genuine sense of “Me, too!” and “You are not alone”. Social media that was heavy on the “social”.

Another thing I noticed: with one exception, the comments were first-person responses. At the beginning, one woman had simply posted a link to a John Pilger article about liberals being responsible for Trump’s victory. Two women immediately replied, “Yawn”. That was the only external link posted. Which meant that there were no more: “Here, let me slap you with what someone else said,” but a whole conversation consisting of, “This is how I feel, this is what I’ve experienced, this is what I think.” Which is exactly what I wanted to create a space for – a place where women’s voices and real stories were heard.

It was engaging. The post (the link to West’s piece plus my “shush” preamble) was shared 127 times. As well as all the comments, it elicited 1,013 responses. For those who like numbers that included 864 thumbs, 131 hearts, 11 laughs, 4 wows, and 3 angry faces – which I assume were directed at me rather than West’s lovely writing.

There was only one woman who said she didn’t love it. It was, she said, “male bashing” and I should “tear the tab off the toughen-up can” and she would “pity a man” for the backlash he’d get if he’d asked women to shush. To be honest, I think that is effectively what happened when men bombarded my earlier Trump post with “But Hillary!”. Importantly, it also matters that West’s opinion piece wasn’t about men at all – they didn’t get a mention, weren’t being criticised, and there were no allegations against them to defend. It was about women.

Still, this is a useful thing to consider. Here’s my position: If gay people (or people of colour, or Muslims, or any other group targeted by Trump) want to talk about their fears about Trump’s presidency without straight/white/Christian folk leaping in with their reckons, I would totally respect that.

Also, if a man put up a post detailing a man’s emotional response to a major event affecting men in a specific way and asked women to leave men to discuss their own emotional responses amongst themselves with openness and vulnerability, the sisters and I would be fucken rapt. I’d bloody love to see that, and I promise I wouldn’t make a peep in that space if they asked me not to – but I’d read the shit out of it and probably discuss it elsewhere because that would be awesome.

I’m holding onto the hope that this might happen. I had some nice chats on Messenger that seemed to get somewhere. And a few days after the post, someone put this on my page without any other explanation: “In light of Michele A’Court’s post on Saturday, I’d like to apologise to Rosemary for mansplaining her reaction to the US election for her… Still learning.” – John.

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22 Nov Taking It To The Streets

First published in Your Weekend 19 November 2016

There is a t-shirt in one of my drawers which says simply, “I’m Against It”. I bought it during a particularly busy period – the invasion of Iraq, a cricket tour to Zimbabwe, and the imprisonment of Ahmed Zaoui for starters. For a while there, I could barely get it laundered between outings.

 

When I got the t-shirt, I remembered thinking I would have liked to have had it during the early weeks of Springbok tour protests in 1981 before we took to wearing body protection (I fashioned carpet tiles together with bailing twine). In recent years it stayed in the drawer because during the Marriage Equality campaign it would have put me on the wrong side.

 

If I was in America right now, that t-shirt would be getting another turn. Not, as some suggest, because protesters gathering daily on city streets are being paid to turn up (would that be a flat fee or by the hour, and do you get bonuses for placards and/or chanting?) but because the idea of peacefully walking the streets with strangers who share your ideas and anxieties is, quite simply, bloody lovely.

 

You wouldn’t find me damaging private property or throwing a punch, and I’m as nervous as the next person about any escalation to violence. But so far, the thousands protesting in America are exercising their 1st Amendment right without any recourse to the 2nd Amendment. The guy with the gun was a pro-Trump supporter in Portland.

 

Importantly, these protesters are not suggesting the ballot was rigged – they lost, and they know it. But majority rule doesn’t mean minority silence. It was swathes of people feeling they’d been made silent that got America to where it is right now. A long walk, some fresh air and real-world political engagement is possibly just what’s needed.

 

I appreciate those calling for a “wait and see” approach to Trump’s presidency. Perhaps building the wall is a metaphor rather than a construction project, and the mass deportation of millions of undocumented immigrants is another. But the rise in bullying and threatening of Muslims, Latinos, African-Americans, Jews and gays, meanwhile, hasn’t waited till inauguration day.

 

One of the points of protesting is to temper what your government does next. Here’s another metaphor: If someone is coming for you, one of the things a potential victim is supposed to do (something she will be judged on later) is shout “no”. And sound like you mean it.

 

So it seems appropriate that many people in America, afraid of what is coming next, are shouting “no”. Or, as they’ve been chanting in cities throughout America in old-school call-and-response style: “Show me what democracy looks like / This is what democracy looks like.”

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01 Nov What Really Gets On My Titties?

The idea that Paul Henry, Max Key and co are ‘just saying what all guys are thinking’.

Published by the Spinoff ( www.thespinoff.co.nz ) Tuesday 1 November 2016.

Men, it’s time to call a meeting. The agenda? Actually choosing not to mouth off about titties and pussies and riding women, writes Michele A’Court.

I’d like to think there’s a men’s meeting going on somewhere with someone in charge making an important speech. “Fellers, look, you can have your fun and, sure, we all make mistakes. But just calm the fuck down, would you, on the public displays of douchiness – you’re making us all look bad.”

Because with every step forward – men speaking out against family violence, corporations endorsing policies of inclusion, the Icelandic government pledging to close the gender pay gap by 2020, your partner doing shit around the house without making a song and dance about it – just when you think, “We’re getting somewhere!” some numb-nut grabs you by the pussy and pushes us all 50 steps back.

Sometimes I feel like I’m living in a lady-version of The Truman Show – surrounded by good souls who are into fancy shit like consent, and listening, and kindness, and being respectful. We have grown-up conversations about Syria and climate change and medicinal marijuana and TV shows and music and the Dakota Access Pipeline and we drink a bit, and you forget – or can’t even imagine – that there are people out there talking about whether someone’s “titties” are more Palm Springs or Rancho Mirage.

It’s my own fault, I guess. I don’t listen to talkback and I rarely read the comments. I don’t want to look at people in the biscuit aisle at the supermarket and wonder if they’re the person I just heard talking about Muslims and/or solo mums in a way that’s less than elevating.

And so – let’s do this chronologically – Trump was shocking to me. Less what he has said, than the barrage of people defending it as locker-room banter. Really? You guys have a private world where this is OK? Is that really what happens when women aren’t there? Well, fuck me with an orange toupee. I’m going to look at you all a little differently for a while.

And then along comes Max Key with his “real men ride women”. Though it was mostly his Dad’s response that infuriated me – the old diminish-and-dismiss one-two: “Clearly he didn’t mean to make the sort of comment that he made in the way he did, but he fully takes responsibility for it. I’ve told him it’s not appropriate, he’s apologised and assured me he won’t do it again.”

Look, we all love our kids – that’s our job – but that whole first sentence is patently bullshit. A) Max actually said it with his very own voice; B) it’s four words so sod-all wiggle room for getting anything round the wrong way and misrepresenting his intent; C) Max, apparently alone in the car, videoed himself shouting it at the cyclists, then D) hit stop and save on the recording; and E) satisfied with its content, uploaded it to the internet. That was exactly the sort of comment he meant to make. If he’d fucked it up, doubtless he would have driven round the block, come up behind the cyclists one more time and given himself a Take 2.

And then Paul Henry. Again, it’s not what he said that shocked me. Blah blah genius, blah blah hate people. Up until the bit about his fellow diner, my response would have been a solid, “Meh.” And I guess it’s not even that a grown man goes into a lengthy lunchtime riff about breasts that bothers me – now that I’ve seen behind the cyclorama on The Ms Truman Show, I’m getting to grips with the idea that #notallmen are like the pleasant male humans I know personally.

As I’ve said somewhere else, it was the restaurant equivalent of shouting unwarranted commentary from a passing car at a woman trying to go about her day. Whether she heard him or not (maybe she zipped up her jacket because she was suddenly sitting in a draft) he had reduced her to an object for his judgement over quite some period of time. Long enough to ascribe geographical descriptions and ponder the effects of future motherhood on their terrain.

But there are two things that properly get on my own personal tits about this. First, that Henry thought this was appropriate for a news and current affairs host to say in a mainstream media interview. That you can commentate publicly about a real human person’s “titties” one minute, and ask probing questions about the housing crisis, or sexual violence, or an industrial dispute the next. Without your viewers wondering whether your interviewee has, in your expert and well-documented opinion, boobs that owe their provenance to Palm Springs or Rancho Mirage.

And secondly, what annoyed me was not being able to dismiss the “titties” rant as the attitude and behaviour of an outlier. “Paul Henry just says out loud what everyone else is thinking!” Are you? Seriously? And here was me thinking he was saying what other people were too smart to think in the first place and/or too well-mannered to keep to them-fucking-selves. Because it is seriously not helping.

And look, just a brief mention of Anthony Weiner. If that needy little dude’s dick-pics end up being the schlong that breaks the camel’s back and delivers Donald “No-one respects women more than I do” Trump to the Whitehouse, I’m walking off The Ms Truman Show set once and for all.

I like to have people of substance to look up to. Journalists and broadcasters and politicians who are smarter than me, and also kind, and who have a bigger vision than me – but who have me (or someone like us) in mind when they ask their questions or make their decisions. So on a flagship news and current affairs show, I’d like to go, “That guy – he represents me and asks questions on my behalf because he cares about people like me.”

Without wanting to go all Hobson’s Pledge on your arse and get nostalgic for “God Save the Queen” at the movies, wouldn’t it be great to have more men of character and quality just, like, deliberately choosing to not talk about titties and pussies and riding women, or even just using their elevated position to punch up, rather than down.

Because I think it would be in all of our interests to get to a place where, when someone said something offensive about women, our first reaction was not to say, “Well, you know … That’s what men are like.” Someone really should call that meeting.

 

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02 Oct On Refugees, Poisoned Skittles and Sport

From “Your Weekend” magazine 1.10.16

Wife-and-husband social commentators Michele A’Court & Jeremy Elwood write a weekly column. This week, Jeremy goes first…

 

Early this week, a baseball pitcher named Jose Fernandez died in a boating accident off the coast of Miami, Florida. He was originally from Cuba, and defected to the US at the age of 15 on his fourth try, having been caught and imprisoned on the previous three. On that fourth attempt, he dove into the water to rescue a fellow passenger who had been swept overboard, only to discover it was his own mother. He wasn’t a great baseball player as a kid, but he loved the game, so he trained hard and by the time he finished high school, the Miami Marlins were willing to take a gamble and draft him.

 

It worked out pretty well.

 

He was voted rookie of the year in 2013, and this year was on track to finish the season as one of the top pitchers in Major League Baseball.

 

He was 24 years old.

 

It’s an incredible story with a tragic ending, and if you’re a sports fan, or just a human being with a heart, I encourage you to Google his name and read more about it.

 

It also comes on the heels of Donald Trump Junior proving that being a xenophobic douchebag can be hereditary. I don’t encourage you to Google his tweet comparing Syrian refugees to a bowl of poisoned Skittles, as it was so inane that it doesn’t deserve any more attention than it has already had, but if you need to get a frame of reference, go ahead.

 

Ok, done? Need a minute to wash your eyes?

 

What these two stories illustrate to me is the gap between what people fear immigrants will bring to a country and the potential of what they might bring. Those who fear that a few hundred (or even a few thousand, unlikely as that may sound given the reluctance of our politicians to allow a halfway respectable quota in) refugees coming to New Zealand will somehow take over “our” culture, religion or dress sense – you know, like the British did – are not only out of touch with reality, but also blind to more positive possibilities.

 

What if one of those refugees is our next great cricketer? Or writer? Or scientist? Or baseball player? (We do play it here, quite well too.)

 

And if they aren’t, you know what? That’s ok too. They might just be your next mechanic, or hairdresser, or Uber driver. They might be your neighbour, your colleague, or your friend, or you may never meet them, they may have no impact on your life whatsoever.

 

But by allowing them to come here, we would be making an immeasurable difference to theirs, and that’s a gamble I’m willing to make.

 

From Michele A’Court…

 

There are a lot of things I like about sharing a house with someone who was born in a different country from me, who has different interests and passions, and who introduces me to pockets of culture I might have otherwise missed.

 

Baseball, for one. During long, grim New Zealand winters, North America’s favourite summer game plays on our television. This is a game-a-day sport, not a once-a-week fixture. I’ll catch the odd innings as I pass through the living room on my way from office to kitchen, occasionally abandoning work altogether to watch big moments like my baseball hero, the Angels’ Albert Pujols, hit yet another record-breaking home run.

 

But it’s in dealing with life events that baseball most impresses me. The Miami Marlins’ press conference announcing the death of Jose Fernandez was a snapshot of what America – otherwise characterised by a Presidential campaign fuelled with hate, anger and stupidity – looks like at its best.

 

The Marlins are a multi-cultural team – African-American, Latino, white. Players and management spoke in Spanish and English. Everyone talked about being a family. Few families look as ethnically diverse as this, but family isn’t about ethnicity – it’s about living, working and playing together, right? There’s the family we are born into, and then there’s the one we make.

 

Marlins President David Samson said of Jose: “The magnanimity of his personality transcended culture, religion and race… He was a model for Cuban Americans and for all people who need to work harder than most to have freedom… He would say to me, ‘You were born into freedom, you don’t understand freedom really.’”

 

That, Samson said, was the gift Fernandez had given them. The kid from Cuba who had made them understand America better. Which is so often what refugees do.

 

I understand the fear that someone like Donald Trump Jnr is tapping into with his “bowl of Skittles” metaphor. But people aren’t candies and I’m heartened that, in NZ, two recent polls reveal most Kiwis believe we should invite more refugees here, that our current 1,120 a year is not enough.

 

Plus, it is worth remembering, in the interest of perspective, that the people who threaten us aren’t always from somewhere else. After watching the Marlins’ press conference, I watched our local news. Wellington Lions rugby player Losi Filipo was let off charges for assaulting two men and two women because of the effect a conviction would have on his rugby career.

 

If I was Trump, I might ask, “If I had a bowl of thugs and I told you some of them might play rugby really well, would you let them all off without conviction?” Apparently, the answer this week was yes.

 

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18 Sep Too Many Chiefs (not enough women)

First published in “Your Weekend” Saturday 17 September 2016

Murdoch - Chiefs

By Michele A’Court…

After more than a month of the Chiefs making headlines, what have we learnt?

On the one hand, this: That as a society, we don’t respect women who work as strippers. The women we care about (our daughters, sisters, mothers and partners) aren’t strippers, so we can’t empathise with women who are. We assume that women who do this job aren’t honest or trustworthy, or deserving of workplace safety.

Note: this does not apply to male strippers. They’re fun and non-threatening, and they might have other jobs like being a steel worker or Channing Tatum and are just having a bit of fun. It doesn’t define them – it’s probably a hobby.

That men fuelled by alcohol and bro-ness and exposed to nudity are like locomotives – once they’ve built up a head of steam, you can’t expect them to stop. They don’t have brakes. Apparently, they go to their lizard brain and can no longer be expected to tell right from wrong. They will forget you are someone’s daughter, sister, mother or partner.

But on the other hand, we should also learn this: A large number of us will not put up with this any longer.

From here on, no-one can reasonably claim you need hindsight to know that internal investigations are insufficient. Particularly if you are a group that prides itself on having a team culture where you all look out for each other and have each other’s back.

And that if you are investigating these kind of allegations, the first person you should talk to is the person making those allegations. She shouldn’t be the last.

That “consent” means one of the people can ask for whatever it is to stop at any time. Consent is specific to every moment. You – the whole big group of you – are going to have to listen to someone who might be small, young, or even naked and do as she says.

That in some instances, going to the police is not the only valid way to seek redress. Louise Nicholas’s story taught us that – an internal police investigation got exactly nowhere for years. It was the 4th Estate (a newspaper reporter) that eventually brought justice. It is not unreasonable now to think of the 5th Estate (social media) as an appropriate channel to bring this to public attention.

And that if Louise Nicholas offers to help you with the investigation, you should say yes. Several weeks ago.

And also, that if you are the Minister for Women it is your job to have an opinion on the way women are treated and viewed by society. If you can’t comment on the way private organisations treat women, you can’t talk about the wage gap or the need for women on private company boards either. In which case, I don’t know what you are for.

 

By Jeremy Elwood…

 

Since the events of the Chief’s Moronic Monday, and the subsequent wet squib of an inquiry, much of the media focus has been, understandably, on whether this incident is indicative of a deeper problem within New Zealand’s rugby culture.

It’s an obvious target, being something that most Kiwis are familiar with, regardless of their own interest in the sport.

I’ve never liked rugby. I find it a tedious sport to watch, I was rubbish at playing it, and yes, I have a number of bad memories of the “culture”, from school days onwards. So whilst I welcome any critique of it, I also have to admit that the kind of behaviour currently in the spotlight, and the responses to it, is hardly limited to the players and fans of my least favourite sport.

It seems that any time a group of men get together around alcohol and women, the potential to act like animals raises its ugly head. I know, I know, it’s Not All Men. I can admit that without joining in with that petulant cry from blokes who feel like somehow calling out the men who do act this way is an attack on our entire gender.

I see it regularly in my own job. Stag parties, corporate social clubs, birthday groups; we get all of these and more at comedy clubs all the time. Most of them are great, just having a laugh and a good time, but every now and again you get the ones where a mob mentality has taken over and “boys being boys” is on the edge of turning into “grown men being barbarians.” They heckle, they shout abuse (particularly to female comedians), and, more than likely, their next stop after they’ve ruined a comedy night is to go ruin one at a strip club.

This is nothing new. Testosterone plus booze plus sexual frustration plus encouragement from your mates has been a recipe for disaster for centuries. But that doesn’t mean we should let it slide. Brushing it off in the sober light of day as a bit of harmless fun, or even hinting that any woman caught up in the midst of it has in any way encouraged it is a symptom of something far darker than the actions of a few idiots. It’s suggesting that a person’s worth, and right to safety, is predicated on their job, dress sense or gender.

It’s fantastic that this story is refusing to go away. The fact that the Rugby Union were unable to brush this aside is a step forward. There are many more steps to take, though, by people throughout our society who can no longer hide behind a “culture”, rugby or otherwise.

 

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03 Sep Going Out On Your Own Terms – from “Your Weekend”

Jeremy and I watched the Tragically Hip’s last ever concert – the choice they made about how to end their artistic career after lead singer, Gord Downie, was diagnosed with terminal cancer. It made both of us muse about the choices we do (and don’t) get to make about how we end things. This piece was written with huge respect to Downie, and also to Lecretia Seales who fought for the right to end her life on her own terms. http://www.stuff.co.nz/life-style/83577259/jeremy-elwood–michele-acourt-going-out-on-your-own-terms

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16 Feb Why ‘Free Education’ Should Be Free

First published in the Press 3.2.16

 

Gather round current students and graduates – take a break from fretting over your (on average) $20,000 student debt which will hang around your neck for the next nine years – and let me tell you a story.

 

Because we might have been a bunch of feral, pinko-leftie student hippies in the early 1980s, but we were more than a little prescient about the ultimate cost of the introduction of student loans. I recall protesting about it when the idea was, much like you then, just a twinkle in someone’s eye.

 

In the olden days, students got what was pretty close to a literally free “free education”. Bursaries earned at high school covered our annual polytech and student fees, plus we received (I’m pretty sure I have the numbers right) a living allowance of $36 a week.

 

Which may not sound princely, but room and board at a student hostel came to $28 a week, and Fairhall River Claret was $4 a bottle. So with a part-time job and summer work – often via tax-payer funded community schemes – you could afford to splash out on course books and an occasional muesli bar.

 

The wonder of it all was that, at the end of your certificate or diploma or degree, there was no tab to be paid. You were free and clear. There were choices and possibilities. The world was your metaphorical oyster. Which seemed entirely logical – that had been the whole point of investing several years of your young life in this whole higher education malarkey.

 

So without a bill being handed to me at graduation, I can’t tell you what my education cost in dollar terms. Nor can I tell you what my education has been worth to me in dollar terms. I have no idea if anyone has paid me more than they would have if I didn’t have a couple of bits of paper framed on my mother’s wall. It’s never really come up.

 

But I can tell you that one of my bits of paper taught me how to read – critically, and with pleasure – and the other taught me how to write. Both of them taught me how to think and ask questions, and feel a sense of civic and community responsibility. I can also live for long periods on variations of cheese on toast and I’ve seen how you can make a bong out of an apple.

 

I am telling you this because I want you to know that there was a time when you only had to have brains to engage in tertiary study, not money; when the idea of being 23 and $20,000 in debt was not ok; when the general consensus was that all taxpayers would pay for the best brains to get as much education as they could stuff into them because we’d all benefit from having well-educated people in the neighbourhood; when education was a way out of poverty, not into it.

 

And I want you to know that it would not be unreasonable to ask for that again.

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16 Feb Being Poor

When this piece was first published in the Press (23.12.15) people described it as me “getting my rage on”. They meant that in a good way. I’m pleased I did. By way of context, there were two incidents in the week prior involving the NZ Prime Minister – he dismissed a report on Child Poverty; and in the same week participated in a joke about rape (bending down for soap in the showers) on commercial radio.

 

Bloody poor people, am I right? With their drugs and their inability to budget properly and their lack of initiative.

 

Last week a report from the Children’s Commission revealed nearly one-third of Kiwi kids are living in poverty. Our Prime Minister says that’s partly because their parents are too whacked out on drugs to get a job. “Go ask any employer… they’ll tell you, if they drug test people, some of those people that they are testing they cannot hire because that’s the issue.”

 

Sure, that’s not backed up by stuff like facts. Figures released last year suggest very few beneficiaries are taking drugs. Of about 8000 beneficiaries sent for job drug tests, only 22 tested positive or refused to take the tests.

 

But I dunno. I watched the news on Monday and there was a story about Auckland City Mission giving out food parcels. Last week they were visited by 3,000 people. One third of them have never been to a food bank before. They start queuing as early as 1.30am. Someone writes a number on their hands in felt pen and then they wait for up to five hours for food they can’t afford to buy.

 

Lazy, right? Standing around all day. And they’re up that early because of the P. And that look in their eyes as they wait? That’s not sadness and desperation and embarrassment. Stoned.

 

And where does the Children’s Commission get off calling it “child” poverty? It’s like they’re only focused on children, like that’s their area of responsibility. Those 300,000 kids belong to someone. Someone who clearly doesn’t know enough about budgeting to turn the $80 left over each week after rent and bills into 21 nutritious meals for four people. What they need isn’t affordable housing or better pay. They need maths. If they could work out how to divide $80 by 84 meals, they’d be fine.

 

And look, if it’s not the drugs, it’ll be the flat screen TVs and smokes. Though, you know, if you can’t take a holiday at a bach in Maui, you’d probably want to watch a bit of tele on something you got for no deposit, interest free for 3 years, and roll yourself a fag.

 

Because some drugs are ok. Lots of people with money use them. But the good drugs, like a quality pinot or the party stuff the nice kids use for a bit of fun at the school ball.

 

Besides, the Prime Minister points out, when they say “poverty”, it’s not poverty Dehli-style. He means the city, not pastrami on rye. Over there, they’re living on a dollar a day. Which actually, in Dehli, goes a comparatively long way.

 

But like he says, some of the criteria are pretty subjective – like whether you can afford Christmas presents. Christmas presents are a luxury item. We can’t all expect to get them. Though if anyone’s thinking of getting a little something for the Prime Minister, go for your life. Maybe a pay rise of $13,500. Or soap-on-rope so he doesn’t have to bend down in the shower.

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16 Feb What We Tell Our Sons

First published in the Press 11.11.15

 

When my daughter was a teenager, each time she and her friends left our house, frocked up for a party, I’d call down the stairs, “Have fun! Be safe! Count your drinks! And remember, you can always phone me!”

 

I had promised her, made it clear many times, that no matter the time, no matter where she was or what state she was in, I would come if she called. Once, she did call. I drove across town in my pyjamas. We were pleased to see each other. We saved interrogation and explanation for the next day.

 

I was grateful for mobile phones. I couldn’t always reach her (they never answer) but I knew she could always reach me.

 

When I was a teenager and bad things happened, we would sometimes wish we had some kind of evidence – a photo, a message trail – to prove something untoward had occurred. So it wouldn’t only be your word against his. The risk of it turning into he-said-she-said usually meant no-one said anything at all. Imagine, we would sometimes think, if there could have been a picture?

 

Today, there are pictures. Except instead of acting as evidence of a crime, the picture is the crime. Something bad happens, it is photographed, and posted on social media. Where it remains forever.

 

Once again, this weekend, we’re hearing of a group of young men who are holding a competition where the girl is the prey. The winning boy is the one who gets the most young girls drunk, dangles his genitalia over their faces, takes pictures, and posts them on Facebook.

 

Police have used their discretion to not prosecute these boys for sexual misconduct or assault, and have let them off with a warning. It is, police have said before, hard to win a case when the victim can’t effectively give evidence because she was barely conscious.

 

Another thing that is hard is to do is to find anyone this week who agrees with the police. School principals, counsellors who treat adolescents with sexually harmful behaviours, and rape prevention educators are asking for criminal charges to be laid in this case, and they recommend mandatory treatment.

 

Teenage boys, they say, don’t have the developmental maturity or empathy to understand the consequences of their actions. They need the lesson, or they won’t stop.

 

What drives them? Our children are getting their sexual cues from pornography. The porn they have access to is explicit. Possibly more explicit than their parents have ever seen.

 

So we need to be explicit with them. When our sons are leaving the house for a party, we should call down the stairs: “Have fun! Be safe! Don’t dangle your genitalia over anyone’s face! In fact, don’t do anything at all without her consent! And remember, to give consent, she must be conscious!”

 

And we should tell them that if it feels like something bad is about to happen, the only appropriate thing to do with their phone is use it to call us to come pick them up.

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