Archive for November, 2009

Citizen Churl

November 21, 2009

From this time forward

I pledge my loyalty to Australia and its people

whose democratic beliefs I share,

whose rights and liberties I respect, and

whose laws I will uphold and obey.

If you’ve been an Australian citizen since birth, and you’ve ever wondered what the Australian Citizenship Pledge is, that’s it. Prospective Australian citizens have the option of pledging “under God”, but thankfully, this is not compulsory – that is, unless the people running the ceremony make a mistake and seat you in the “under God” section. This is precisely what happened to my friend when he decided, after 18 years as a permanent resident, that he would like to officially become an Australian.

Born in England to a couple of non-Australians, my friend (who I’ll call Dr. Bandit) moved to Australia at the age of four and grew up in the picturesque hills east of Melbourne in the ’90s and early 2000s. As an undergrad, Dr. Bandit realised that his access to HECS was limited by the fact that he wasn’t officially an Australian citizen. So, in order to continue his course, he decided to do the test, take the oath and accept the gift of a showbag, seedling and paper flag from the Australian people.

Now, I’d like to argue that Dr. Bandit’s experience of becoming an Australian is perfectly congruous with what it means, to many, to be Australian. I’m eager to avoid any jingoistic celebrations of ‘Aussie battlerism’, and I don’t want to imply that there’s an overarching meaning associated with being Australian. But there’s something in Dr. Bandit’s story that resonates with me – his experiences seem somewhat transgressive and punkish, kind of like he gave the finger to citizenship while reaping the benefits associated with it. Let me explain.

When it came to the citizenship test, Dr. Bandit’s attitude was blasé. I mean, he’d been through the Victorian public education system, he’d done his primary school projects on ANZAC day and the First Fleet – what questions could they possibly ask him that he wouldn’t know the answer to? The citizenship people gave him a book with all the information he’d need to pass, but he skimmed it, went ‘pffft’ and chucked it aside on the assumption that, well, he’dberight. When he turned up to take the test, however, Dr. Bandit’s examiner advised him to re-read the book, just in case. He skimmed it, went ‘pffft,’ chucked it aside and proceeded to take the test. First, he got a tick for being able to speak English (based purely on the initial pleasantries between him and the examiner,) and answered some questions correctly (tick, tick, tick.) When it came to knowing what documents Australian citizens are entitled to, Dr. Bandit got a little stuck, but the kind examiner prompted him with “for instance, if you wanted to go overseas, you’d need to take your…” Fortunately, Dr. Bandit’s response of “oh. uuuuummm…a passport?” elicited a tick, and he passed the citizenship test, thankfully without having to answer any questions about Sir D-Brad.

The citizenship ceremony took place on the last day of Dr. Bandit’s exams for the semester. Exhausted, he got home from uni after his final exam and decided to celebrate. A couple of hours later, he arrived at the local town hall to take his citizenship oath, fairly stoned and in quite a happy place. He thought it was a little weird that they gave him a card with the “under God” version of the Australian Citizenship Pledge written on it, especially seeing as he’d opted for the non-religious one, but he nevertheless sat down where they told him (in the front row, directly in front of the lectern where the JP stood) and waited to say his pledge, on the assumption that he could just ignore “under God” and stick to saying the secular pledge.

Unfortunately, at Australian citizenship ceremonies, prospective citizens are segregated into those who want to pledge “under God” on one side of the room, and those who don’t on the other. Poor, stoned Dr. Bandit was on the side of the room that was “under God,” and failed to stand when the JP instructed those “under God” to do so. Three times. Eventually he cottoned on, said his pledge under God (much to his confusion) and waited to sing Advance Australia Fair, Verses 1 and 2. Which he’d forgotten the words to, not having sung the national anthem since he was in primary school. After all of the official standing, pledging and singing, it was time for the proud new Australian citizens to recieve their Australian plants and showbags, have photos taken with their families and get their papers signed by an Australian citizen friend. But poor, stoned Dr. Bandit went to the ceremony stag, so he spent the rest of the evening trying to find a “friend” to sign his certificate, eating some fingerfood and stealing a glass. Then he went home.

It’s too bad that while pledging his loyalty to Australia’s democratic beliefs, Dr. Bandit’s own beliefs (that is, his non-belief in God) were so carelessly ignored, albeit due to an administrative error. If becoming an Australian citizen is to be ceremonialised with such solemnity, these kinds of mistakes make a mockery of anyone who sincerely pledges to respect the rights and liberties that are ostensibly granted to all Australian citizens. So, snaps to Dr. Bandit for managing to flout the (drug and property) laws that he pledged to uphold and obey – right before and  directly after he pledged them – under a God that he doesn’t believe in.

Churls?

November 18, 2009

It’s a commonplace of bien-pensant opinion columns that the internet is short on manners: frenzied mobs of pseudonymous bloggers operating beyond the normal reach of social control, ‘nameless and faceless’, without the ‘constraints of every day [sic] decency and politeness’.

In this tale (c/o, in this instance, Clive Hamilton and Monica Dux), norms are enforced by either Leviation or ‘the social gaze’, external instruments which when absent yield a Hobbesian nightmare of virtual lynchings and porn addiction. ‘Home alone in front of my computer’, with my fake online identity, what’s to stop me acting like an abusive jerk?

Maybe we’re all just nasty churls: read a comment thread at random, and it will seem pretty plausible.

This folk account is captured by several notions from biology and behavioural science.

Reciprocal altruism is said to exist in the case of long-term, repeated dyadic interactions between self-regarding individuals, where if you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours — a tit-for-tat relationship that benefits both parties. Say I visit the village grocer once every week: he could cheat today by giving me rotten oranges in exchange for my good money, and I could benefit by giving him counterfeit coins, but neither of us will, because we need to interact again next Wednesday.

Indirect reciprocity, on the other hand, requires third-party observation or reputation effects to impose similar obligations. Not personal but community enforcement occurs, via relatives, neighbours or members of the same group: if it becomes known that I shafted that poor grocer, nobody in the village will be willing to sell me fruit again. A person’s ‘good name’ functions to others as a signal of their trustworthiness.

In our account of cyberspace, however, there are few repeated interactions, and no reliable signals: ‘no one need know your name’ (Dux). This leads inexorably to mutual defection: bloggers can find a wider niche or even a mass audience by publicly towelling some poor, defenceless tenured academic or published author. Commenters derive symbolic compensation by taking down some big shot.  And the victim has no means of recourse, because the exchange is anonymous.

In the absence of reputation effects, so the story goes, every online interaction between individuals is essentially a one-shot affair, with no possibility of future punishment or honest signalling to reduce the incentive for hostility, aggression etc. The outcome resembles something out of Steven Spielberg’s 2005 remake of War of the Worlds, where an alien attack obliterates all human institutions and replaces them with a state of nature — hysterical mobs governed only by the law of the jungle, the war of all against all, willing to tear a little girl (Dakota Fanning) from her father’s car just to save themselves.

Are we churlish bloggers, then, planning to behave like that that mob? Will Churls Gone Wild involve pointless venting, nasty ad hominem attacks, personal vendettas and all the things that so mar ‘the quality of debate in the blogosphere’ (Dux, bis)?

Almost certainly, to speak only of my own contributions. There are plenty of people who deserve it. But hopefully not too often: it would soon grow dreary for author and reader.

And that’s really the point here: the blog format has proved itself a robust form of communication and debate, despite some apparently obvious flaws, because:

  1. Blogs involve assortative interactions: audiences are self-selecting, with a bias towards those who share their interests or opinions.
  2. The marginal payoff to troublemakers falls pretty steeply over time, as boredom sets in or people learn to ignore them.
  3. The intellectual pretensions of the debate participants (authors, commenters) can be immediately interrogated.
  4. There’s not a lot of money involved, so the incentive to write bullshit is limited.

In short, we trust our readers and ourselves. You don’t need to provide us with your full name and contact details, and nor do we, for things to work. (On the other hand, newspapers are not nearly so resilient to bad behaviour, because items 3 and 4 don’t apply there.)

The churls can run wild, and it won’t evince a ‘lowering of standards’ (Dux, al segno).

Instead hopefully, it will involve ceorls, the lowborn, the sans culottes, confronting the numbing blandishments of the media, the lies of Rudd and Obama, the stuff that makes us all so angry that not to respond would send us mad.