Rationalism, pluralism and freedom

Liberalism is a philosophy of individual freedom, but liberals disagree on what counts as a threat to freedom. Jacob Levy’s Rationalism, Pluralism, and Freedom explores how liberal thinkers see non-state groups as both sources of and dangers to individual freedom. It traces this tension back through centuries of European and American intellectual history. The issues change but the tensions persist, especially around sensitive matters of personal identity and rights.

Contemporary controversies around non-state groups often involve religious or cultural minorities with views that part from modern norms on women, children and sexuality. In Australia, many religious organisations, for example, oppose gay marriage and fear being forced to conduct gay weddings. But it is not just traditional groups that trigger disputes. A few years ago, a Melbourne gay bar attracted widespread criticism for refusing entry to women and straight men. Different thinkers in the liberal tradition could come down on either side of these debates.

Continue reading “Rationalism, pluralism and freedom”

Should pollsters ask ‘offensive’ questions?

Yesterday the Fairfax broadsheets published some Roy Morgan research on attitudes to homosexuality, including responses to the proposition ‘I believe homosexuality is immoral’. In the Age’s letters page, Benjamin John Doherty objects:

AS A gay man, I find it offensive and astonishing that Roy Morgan Research could ask such a leading question as whether people believe homosexuality is immoral, and then have the results used for serious political analysis.

Gay people are born gay, a simple fact that some heterosexual people seem to have profound difficulties getting their heads around. …

If Mr Morgan and his researchers went around asking people if they thought it was ”immoral” to be white-skinned, Aboriginal or to have red hair, the outcry would be swift and loud, and the results would be denounced as absurd.

Pollsters do actually write survey questions that could cause offence. 20 years ago in Perth a pollster put to its respondents the proposition that ‘most Aborigines are dirty and unkept’ (45% agreed). A 2001 survey asked for responses to the proposition that ‘all races of people are equal’ (12% said no).

This is all legitimate research – pollsters exist to report opinion, whatever it might be. All the major religions in Australia currently or traditionally view homosexual acts as immoral, and that’s the view the Morgan question is alluding to. It’s a little clumsy in blurring desires which are hardwired with actions that are choices (which may be why it gets slightly lower negative results than other questions which specify actions). But for tracking broad opinion trends over time the question is good enough.

Same-sex attitudes, Australia and the UK

A favourite theme of some expat gay friends living in London is how much more progressive Europe is compared to Australia on gay issues. The latest trigger was this story about how, allegedly, straight male UK uni students are now happy to kiss each other on the lips.

I’m quite willing to believe that London, or at least central London, is the gayest place on the planet. But just as data is not the plural of anecdote, a lot of well-tolerated gay men in a concentrated space doesn’t necessarily tell us a lot about attitudes overall. So I went looking for some comparable survey evidence.

The British Survey of Social Attitudes has a very similar questions in similar years to the various Australian surveys I pieced together in this post earlier this year. Continue reading “Same-sex attitudes, Australia and the UK”

Sorting out asylum seeker opinion

Opinion polls haven’t always been helpful in sorting out three distinct issues

1) whether we should take asylum seekers at all (and if so, how many);
2) whether or not asylum seekers who arrive by boat without prior approval should be accepted;
3) whether there are groups we should not take at all, regardless of how or why they come.

Refugee advocates have tended to think that opposition to refugees is motivated by 3, (‘xenophobia’), or to be more precise opposition to Muslim migration and perhaps other groups with a history of political violence (such as Tamils, though I doubt knowledge of the Sri Lankan civil war is widespread in Australia). As refugees tend to be disproportionately from supposedly disfavoured groups, opposing asylum seeker arrivals is a way of keeping them out.

The recent Morgan poll confirms an Essential Research finding last November that there is plurality support for taking asylum seekers. Morgan found 50% support, 41% opposition, and 9% ‘can’t say’. Essential’s figures were 45%/25%/30%, suggesting a lot of ‘soft’ opposition. The differences can probably be explained by polling methods. Essential’s surveys are online, so there is an explicit ‘no answer’ option. Morgan used a telephone poll where only support or oppose were directly offered, with ‘can’t say’ recorded where the respondent couldn’t or wouldn’t choose. If pressed, people with weak opinions tend to go negative. Continue reading “Sorting out asylum seeker opinion”

Do private schools lead to less empathy?

But if a person does their schooling in an expensive private school, plays sport against other private schools, goes on to university with primarily selective and private school graduates, gets a professional job, they might get to know fewer people from different backgrounds, and are less likely to empathise with them.

– commenter Bruce, 23 February

In race relations analysis, this is known as the ‘contact hypothesis’ – that mixing will lead to mutual understanding and improved relations. Under fairly restrictive conditions contact can achieve the desired goals. But absent those conditions contact can have the opposite effect, confirming bad impressions and worsening ill-feeling.

So we can’t be sure that a toffs meets trailer trash school policy would have a positive effect on mutual relations. The poor as an abstract entity may win more empathy than the poor in person. And the rich as a snobbish, privileged presence in the same classroom may inspire more resentment than than the rich as a distant social class.

Whatever the possible outcomes of shared classrooms, analysis of social attitudes by school background suggests that generally where someone went to school doesn’t seem to have a large influence, as the following figures show (all vertical axes show percentages). Continue reading “Do private schools lead to less empathy?”

Do theories of racism explain crimes against international students?

Victoria University has published a lengthy research paper on the ‘community safety’ of international students.

Their survey of international and domestic students at Victorian universities and private providers finds that international students are at greater risk than domestic students of various adverse incidents. But this greater risk is in the context of a more general incivility and crime problem:

Compared with domestic students, international students were significantly more likely to feel unsafe at work (10% vs 5%), to report being verbally abused (58% vs 44%) to report being physically attacked (11% vs 7.5%) and to report being robbed (10% vs 5%). ‘Physical intimidation’ was the only safety threat experienced reported slightly more often by domestic students compared with international students (25% vs 20%).

While the researchers surveyed students and interviewed various ‘stakeholders’, the most important people in understanding the causes of these problems – the perpetrators, or even people from the youth subcultures they come from – don’t get a voice. Instead the report gives us pages of academic theories about racism, little of which seems to me to be helpful in understanding Melbourne’s particular recent issues. Continue reading “Do theories of racism explain crimes against international students?”

Why do Indians suffer the most discrimination?

Unfortunately the new Mapping Social Cohesion study reported last week doesn’t seem to be online anywhere, though I have been given the summary report.

Though it generally shows that ethnic relations in Australia are reasonably good, it provides further evidence that Indians have come from seemingly nowhere as the subject of racism and discrimination to being the lead victim group.

The Indians and Sri Lankans in the survey, recruited from areas of high ethnic diversity, were the most likely to report discrimination on a monthly basis, with 12% saying this was their experience. By contrast, 7% of Middle Eastern background people and 8% of Chinese or Vietnamese background people reported this frequent discrimination (though not reported by ethnicity, by far the most common forms of discrimination were verbal abuse and ‘made to feel that did not belong’.)

A Saulwick poll in 2004 and the earlier 2007 Scanlon report both found opposition to migration from India at under 2%, much lower than the proportions of people opposing Middle Eastern migration or Asian migration (around 7-8%, though both a little hard to work out because of numerous similar options). Continue reading “Why do Indians suffer the most discrimination?”

More racism at government schools

According to the public school lobby, government schools promote ethnic tolerance. But according to a new report on racism and its effects among young Australians, three-quarters of students at government schools in the survey had experienced racism, and that after statistical analysis:

students who attend a catholic school are 1.7 times LESS likely to report experiences of racism than students attending government schools.

Admittedly there were only a few Catholic schools in the survey and we aren’t told anything about the ethnic composition of those schools. Though overall NESB Australians make identical school sector choices as English-speaking Australians, that doesn’t tell us much about any individual school.

However I can think of a couple of plausible reasons why the broad finding might be right. The first is that while the public school lobby focuses on religion as a potential ‘divisive’ force, major religions such as Christianity and Islam are multi-ethnic and so religious identity cuts across ethnic identity. By making a common religious identity more salient, kids at religious schools may focus less on ethnic tribal affiliations.

The second reason is that private schools tend to have stronger discipline, which should reduce racial incidents. Behaviour is much easier to change than attitudes, and so students at schools which police anti-social behaviour effectively are less likely to experience racism even if underlying attitudes are similar to those at other schools.

Conservatism from Deakin to Howard

George Brandis’s Deakin lecture is now online, courtesy The Australian.

One of his points was that John Howard was the first Liberal leader to expressly incorporate conservatism into the party ideology, describing the Liberal Party as the heir to both the conservative and liberal traditions in Australia, and himself as a social conservative and economic liberal.

So far as I can recall that it a correct observation about party rhetoric. What I am less sure of is that Howard – despite his own occasional claim to the contrary – was actually an unusually conservative Liberal prime minister.

Important elements of Liberal ideology from Deakin to Menzies owe more to conservative than liberal thinking, even if neither Deakin nor Menzies ever labelled them as such.

The stand-out example of this is the White Australia Policy. Take this passage from Afred Deakin on the WAP (quoted in Paul Kelly’s The End of Certainty): Continue reading “Conservatism from Deakin to Howard”

Seeing racism where it isn’t

Some people are just too anxious about race and racists. At The Stump, Sophie Black (Crikey‘s deputy editor) writes about last night’s Hey Hey It’s Saturday reunion Harry Connick Jr protest against a ‘Jackson Jive’ Red Faces sketch. Connick’s problem was that the performers had blacked-out faces, which has a cultural meaning in the US that it does not here. But Black sees more sinister potential:

Ray [Hadley] should ask Daryl [Somers] this question over lunch – do Channel 9 capitalise on this incredibly negative publicity by taking the Howard on Hanson approach? Don’t condone any racist undertones, but by all means, exploit the ignited base. Pit the PC snobs against the true blue battlers.

It’s the old assumption that racism is a big part of the Australian psyche, with any reaction to an issue with a racial or ethnic angle evidence for this nasty undercurrent in Australian society, one unscrupulous politicians and – it seems – TV entertainers are just waiting to exploit.

But in this case, if there hadn’t been a Red Faces judge from the old slave-holding, black-lynching American south it’s unlikely there would have been any ‘race’ controversy. Continue reading “Seeing racism where it isn’t”