All posts by Brian Martin

Brian Martin is professor of social sciences at the University of Wollongong, Australia, and vice president of Whistleblowers Australia. He is the author of a dozen books and hundreds of articles on dissent, nonviolence, scientific controversies, democracy, information issues, education and other topics.

Humans: reconciling bad and good?

I’ve read two books that seem to come to opposite conclusions. They are about humans’ capacity for good and evil. Could both be right?

The first book, by philosopher and psychologist Steven James Bartlett, is titled The Pathology of Man: A Study of Human Evil. It is a huge and wide-ranging study pointing to deep-seated features of human thought and behaviour that are highly damaging to humans and the environment. Bartlett argues that people don’t want to face up to this side of the human species.

The second book is by historian and writer Rutger Bregman, and titled Humankind: A Hopeful History. It is an exposé showing flaws in studies and episodes claiming to show that humans are easily susceptible to doing harm to each other, and an argument that humans have a natural inclination to do good. Bregman argues that people don’t like to acknowledge this inbuilt drive for goodness.

Perhaps these two perspectives can be reconciled by saying that humans have the potential for both bad and good. Yet it seems contradictory that Bartlett says people don’t want to acknowledge human evil whereas Bregman says people don’t want to recognise human goodness. And even if humans have a capacity for both bad and good, do these writers offer insight into what enables the worst and the best?

Here, I’ll first give a brief outline of the ideas in each of these two books. Then I’ll address some key contrasts between them and suggest what we might learn from them.

The pathology of man

Steven Bartlett set out to examine the psychology of human evil. He uses the word “evil” in a clinical rather than a religious sense, to refer to humans harming each other and the environment that supports their life. Evil in this sense includes torture, genocide, war and ecological destruction. Bartlett’s quest is to identify the source of these sorts of harmful activities. His diagnosis: features of human thought and behaviour are pathological. In other words, the human species is diseased. This sounds gloomy indeed.

The Pathology of Man, published in 2005, is lengthy and erudite. Bartlett examined a great range of studies of human evil, for example by prominent figures such as psychiatrist Sigmund Freud, ethologist Konrad Lorenz and peace researcher Lewis Fry Richardson. He made a detailed examination of studies of genocide.

A widely held idea about evil deeds is that they are committed by psychopaths or others who are psychologically deviant. According to this view, evil is done by others, by people who are different from the norm, not like the rest of us who are normal.

Bartlett challenges this view. In a chapter on terrorism, he examines studies of the psychology of terrorists. Far from being mentally ill or deviant according to the usual ways of diagnosing mental illness, most terrorists are psychologically normal.

In his examination of genocide, especially the Holocaust, Bartlett comes to the same conclusion. Leading Nazis as well as men who were killers were, for the most part, psychologically normal.

In another chapter, Bartlett examines war, noting that it fits perfectly his definition of evil. As well as finding that most men who go to war are psychologically normal, he also notes that most people do little or nothing to try to stop war. Indeed, there are many who cheer for the troops and condemn anyone who questions their sacrifice, indeed anyone who is not patriotic. Bartlett says war is a manifestation of a disease afflicting the human species, writing that, “In short, war is a pathology which the great majority of human beings do not want to cure” (p. 211).


A product of human ingenuity

Bartlett also examines human thought and behaviour in relation to ecology. He looks into standard definitions of parasites and concludes that humans are a parasitic species, living off other species and the natural environment, which can be thought of as the host. Furthermore, humans have proliferated to such an extent that they are destroying the host that enables them to live. This, Bartlett says, is an ecological pathology. He writes, “In the human species, the genetic selfishness of the parasite has taken the form of our species’ self-centeredness, our opportunistic exploitation of environmental resources, and our species’ disregard of the degree to which human activity and reproduction displace and exterminate other forms of life.”

Bartlett does not claim that everyone is involved in damaging activities. He recognises that some actively campaign against war and against ecological destruction. However, the efforts of some, or even many, do not alter his diagnosis of the species as a whole.


Steven James Bartlett

It’s not possible in a short exposition to give a sense of the massive scholarship, detailed argumentation and extensive evidence that Bartlett provides in support of his view. Suffice it to say that Bartlett makes a strong case that there is something seriously wrong with the human species, something seemingly deep-seated in patterns of thought and behaviour. (I’ve written elsewhere about some implications of Bartlett’s analysis.)

Humankind

For a complete change, turn to Rutger Bregman’s book Humankind. Bregman sets out to challenge what he sees as a widespread assumption that people are inherently bad. To do this, he describes his investigations into some of the most famous stories and studies that paint humans as ready to hurt each other.

William Golding’s famous novel The Lord of the Flies was published in 1954. It tells the story of a group of British schoolboys who are stranded alone on an island. They start off harmoniously but then gradually turn against each other. Symbolically, they regress to a pre-civilised state involving cults and murder.

The Lord of the Flies was a best-seller and made into a movie. As a moral fable, it was widely seen as an accurate representation of what would happen without adult social control. But, Bregman asked, was it actually accurate? He set out to find a real-life example and after much exploration discovered that a group of schoolboys from Tonga had been stranded for over a year before being rescued. Unlike Golding’s fictional portrayal, the boys cooperated to make life as safe and sound as possible. However, unlike the response to Golding’s novel, the actual story of stranded boys received almost no attention. Bregman concludes that people are primed to think the worst of each other.

Then there are experiments that seem to show the susceptibility of people to doing bad things. In the Stanford prison experiment, run by psychologist Philip Zimbardo, male university students were randomly assigned to be either prisoners or prison guards. The experiment had to be terminated early because the students’ behaviour was becoming too extreme. Ever since, this experiment has been used to show that people can quickly adopt roles.

Bregman started digging and discovered evidence casting doubt on the usual interpretation. Zimbardo and the other experimenters manipulated the situation to foster conflict. Bregman talked to participants in the experiment who said nothing much was happening until they decided to play the roles expected of them. Contrary to Zimbardo’s interpretation, the experiment did not show that the students quickly adopted the stereotypical behaviours of prisoners and prison guards.

Bregman also tackles Stanley Milgram’s famous obedience experiments that showed that a high percentage of Americans were willing to administer serious shocks to a volunteer “learner”, following the instructions of a scientist. Bregman suggests that the experiments didn’t show nearly as much obedience as claimed.

Then there is the famous case of Kitty Genovese who in 1964 was assaulted and murdered outside a New York apartment block as numerous residents watched — and did nothing. This event was trumpeted ever after as showing that bystanders often will do nothing to stop a crime. However, Bregman discovered bystanders who helped. He also found out about journalists who had written cynical narratives about uncaring bystanders and who refused to listen to evidence contradicting their narrative. These journalists wanted people to believe in the worst interpretation of human behaviour.


Kitty Genovese

Bregman’s telling of his investigations into the Stanford prison study, Milgram’s obedience experiments and the Kitty Genovese story are models of engaging writing. In each case, he presents the orthodox view and then tells about his efforts to uncover a deeper, hidden story. Parts of Humankind read like a page-turner novel. There is a mystery, and the truth is stranger than what everyone believed for decades.

As well as critically analysing claims that humans are inherently bad, Bregman describes many examples of humans behaving with remarkable cooperation, sympathy and sacrifice for the common good. He tells about non-agricultural societies that are cooperative and non-aggressive. He presents the evidence that most soldiers do not want to kill. He tells about a prison in Halden, Norway, that is a model of enlightened rehabilitation. The prisoners are supported to become better people, and they have a lower rate of subsequent offences than those who endure prison time based on punishment. Bregman tells about Jos de Blok who runs a large business in the Netherlands that gives great freedom to employees to proceed as they see fit, with striking results. He tells about the altruism of Danish people who helped Jews to escape the country in 1943 to avoid an impending Nazi roundup.

A scene from the prison in Halden

Bregman says there is too much attention on the negative sides of human behaviour, which makes things worse in the manner of a self-fulfilling prophecy. He blames news media for continually focusing on the worst aspects of humans. He argues that humans have a great capacity for good, and that is cause for hope. Humankind is an inspiring book. (Previously I commented favourably on Bregman’s earlier book Utopia for Realists.)


Rutger Bregman

Shortcomings

Before looking at some direct comparisons, it’s worth noting some shortcomings in Bartlett’s and Bregman’s treatments. An obvious criticism of The Pathology of Man is that Bartlett gives little attention to human virtues: it seems to be a relentless focus on flaws. Bartlett acknowledges this one-sidedness, saying it is necessary to counter people’s refusal to face a bitter truth. Another potential shortcoming of The Pathology of Man is its concentration on psychology and neglect of the role of social institutions in shaping human behaviour. I will come back to this.

Humankind can be criticised for an opposite one-sidedness, namely its focus on human goodness. Bregman argues that he is redressing an imbalance and is recommending a positive sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. Some of Bregman’s treatments of case studies can be criticised. Majken Jul Sørensen analysed writings about the Danish nonviolent resistance to the Nazi occupation. She found much excessive glorification, noting that the rescue of Danish Jews was neither as courageous nor as altruistic as normally portrayed. Bregman devoted enormous energies finding flaws in classic research studies and stories that show humans in a bad light but apparently did not devote quite the same critical effort when investigating stories of positive behaviour.

What do people not want to acknowledge?

The most striking contrast between Bartlett and Bregman concerns their views about what people prefer to avoid. Bartlett observes that humans shy away from recognising their capacity for evil.

“There is a strong avoidance-wish among many people that prevents them from recognizing the ugly side of the human species. It is a very nearly automatic resistance, sometimes a repugnance, to consider, even as an abstract possibility, the hypothesis that mankind may in reality not be a source and model of goodness, but rather, and to a significant extent, possesses many of the characteristics that we tend to associate with pathology. This automatic resistance or repugnance usually appears to be both emotional and intellectual in nature. It is deeply rooted—so much so that many people whom one believes to be open-minded and committed to truth in inquiry, as soon as the topic of human evil is brought to their attention, feel called upon to proclaim man’s native goodness and the praiseworthy qualities of the species, in a kind of reflex arc that blinds our species to its own failings.” (p. 7)

Bregman, in contrast, says humans are reluctant to recognise their capacity for good. He writes, “There is a persistent myth that by their very nature humans are selfish, aggressive and quick to panic” (p. 4) and “In nearly every country most people think most other people can’t be trusted” (p. 12). He says, “The question that has long fascinated me is why we take such a negative view of humanity” (p. 12).

This seems like an irreconcilable difference in perspective.

Perhaps Bartlett and Bregman are both right. A key theme in Bartlett’s analysis is that most people who do horrible things are psychologically normal, so when he says that people don’t want to recognise human pathology, he’s referring to people not wanting to recognise the presence of this disease, or flaw, in themselves and those close to them. Instead, evil is always what someone else is doing: enemies, terrorists, genocidal killers.

When Bregman says that people don’t want to recognise human goodness, this may refer especially to the goodness of others. Bregman repeatedly complains about news coverage, which is primarily about bad things that people do — especially bad people somewhere else. It is implying that badness is elsewhere, thereby exempting the media consumer.

The difference between Bartlett’s and Bregman’s assumptions about recognition of evil and good may be the difference between out-groups and in-groups. Perhaps people think differently about these two groups.

Obedience studies

Bregman offers a powerful critique of studies apparently showing that ordinary people — specifically, people in the US — are easily led to do harmful things. For a comparison with Bartlett’s view, it’s convenient to look at Stanley Milgram’s studies of obedience to authority, because Bartlett also addresses them.

Milgram found that most men designated as “teachers” would keep increasing the voltage of the shock to the “learner” (an actor), even when the voltage was apparently causing serious harm. Bregman, with access to video recordings of the experiments, reveals a number of flaws in Milgram’s studies. One of them was that Milgram had no plausible explanation for the results.

Bartlett also cites Milgram’s studies. Without the benefit of Bregman’s analysis, Bartlett is not critical of them. However, Bartlett has a different complaint: given the real-world evidence about obedience from the Holocaust, other genocides and warfare, he argues that Milgram’s studies were unnecessary. This evidence shows that most soldiers will obey orders to kill others.

One of the sources quoted by Bregman is Don Mixon’s 1989 book Obedience and Civilisation. For his PhD research in the early 1970s, Mixon reproduced a version Milgram’s experiments. Mixon says that a key issue is whether the “teachers” in Milgram’s studies — namely, the experimental subjects — believed the “experimenter” or believed their eyes and ears. The nominal experimenter was acting a role for Milgram, and displayed no alarm when the “learner” was crying in pain. Most of the “teachers” believed the “experimenter” when he told them that the “learner” would not be harmed by the shocks.

I knew Don Mixon. He worked in the Psychology Department at the University of Wollongong, and we were co-supervisors for a PhD student.

Mixon argues that Milgram misinterpreted his experiments: they didn’t show obedience to legitimate authority. However, Mixon has something else to say: although Milgram misinterpreted his own experiments, his conclusions about obedience were correct. Mixon says that people are even more obedient to legitimate authority than Milgram concluded. In saying this, Mixon refers to German soldiers in Nazi Germany. This is the same example used by Bartlett to argue that Milgram’s experiments were unnecessary.

This seems a bit complicated, with Bartlett, Bregman, Milgram and Mixon. The takeaway message is that there were serious flaws in Milgram’s studies of obedience to authority. Nevertheless, both Mixon and Bartlett think obedience outside the laboratory is sufficient to show humans’ willingness to harm others. Even Bregman, after showing holes in Milgram’s research, still accepted that they showed worrying levels of willingness to harm others, writing that “No matter how you look at it, Milgram’s results remain seriously disturbing” (p. 169).

The role of hope

Towards the end of The Pathology of Man, Bartlett discusses hope. He notes that most treatments of social problems include some positive angles, some reason to hope for the future. Bartlett says hope, faith and optimism have a downside: they can obscure human shortcomings.  By constantly looking for bright spots, it becomes too easy to turn away from the threatening truth that the human species is itself diseased, with its pathology deeply embedded in human thought and behaviour. Bartlett says that when confronted with bad things, it’s better to deplore than to hope.

Nevertheless, one topic treated by Bartlett has a positive side: moral development. He examines features of individuals who develop a strong set of principles that reject the usual justifications for causing harm, and implement those principles in their lives. An example would be a pacifist who takes a stand against military systems. Bartlett’s view is that few individuals are morally intelligent in this way. Even so, figuring out how to foster this sort of thought and behaviour is a worthy task.

For Bregman, hope is crucial. The subtitle of his book is A Hopeful History. His purpose is to counter the usual negativity about humans and point to their capacity to do good. He introduces the nocebo effect: when people are told they are going to get worse, this can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Constant news coverage of violence and exploitation makes audiences think the world is a terrible place. Bregman says, to the contrary, there are signs of hope even in the most dire circumstances. In his final chapter, he tells about the troops in World War I who, on Christmas Day in 1914, left their trenches and joined with enemy soldiers in a cooperative celebration. If the troops had been left to themselves, the war might have been over then. Commanders had to threaten their own troops with serious retribution to get them back to fighting against the enemy.

Lessons

A key lesson from The Pathology of Man is that ordinary people, who are psychologically normal, have a capacity for evil, for harming others. Furthermore, the human species, made up for the most part of ordinary people, is causing massive damage to the natural world, undermining the systems that enable all life to exist. Only a small proportion of people make concerted efforts to oppose these damaging activities. Governments spend billions of dollars training soldiers for war and developing ever more deadly weapons, yet most citizens either support these preparations or are complacent about them. Bartlett argues that the lack of interest in opposing evil reflects deep-seated flaws in human thought and behaviour. Bartlett would like readers to look into this heart of darkness and truly acknowledge it, because otherwise we are fooling ourselves with superficial optimism.

A key lesson from Humankind is that most people want to do good: they want to cooperate and to help others. We should not assume the worst, namely assume that people will quickly and automatically succumb to their worst impulses, becoming cruel prison guards, harming helpless “learners” or doing nothing about a crime in progress. Bregman thinks there is too much attention to the bad side of human behaviour and that by paying attention to the good side, the positives can be made even stronger, in the manner of a self-fulfilling prophecy: if we believe others will do what’s right, they are more likely to do it.

These seem like contrary lessons, but in principle we can take them both on board. Indeed, it might be argued that by starting with what is good, it’s more possible to act against evil.

The flaw in humans

Bartlett examines human thought and behaviour, delving into what he sees as fundamental flaws. In doing this, he relies on studies of the psychology of evildoers, finding that most are psychologically normal, which is a serious problem: we are all potential or actual perpetrators.

By focusing on psychology, Bartlett gives relatively little attention to the role of social institutions such as the family, patriarchy, bureaucracy, the military, capitalism and the state. Social institutions are in a continual process of change, being the result of human efforts, yet can be remarkably stable in their basic features. Human psychology both shapes social institutions and is shaped by them. If Bartlett has identified a flaw in human thought and behaviour, how is this flaw related to the ways that humans organise their lives?

Concerning this question, Bregman offers insights. Building on studies of human prehistory and present-day non-agricultural societies, he argues that for most of human evolution people lived in small groups that were cooperative and egalitarian. Their lifestyles were ecologically sustainable. They did not manifest the evils of war, genocide and environmental destruction. Nor were racism and economic oppression serious problems.


Agriculture: beginning of the downfall?

Bregman, like a number of other authors, traces the beginning of the downfall to the rise of agriculture. With agriculture, human groups settled in one place, and it was possible to accumulate a surplus of food and material objects. Along with the surplus came hierarchy and a division of labour — and exploitation, oppression and organised violence against other humans.

With this picture of human social evolution, it is possible to see a reconciliation between Bartlett’s and Bregman’s analyses. This starts with the simple observation that humans have capacities for both good and evil, for living together in harmony and for the most appalling actions. How these capacities are allowed, encouraged and channelled depends heavily on the way humans organise their lives, in other words their social arrangements. When they live in autonomous groups of one or two hundred people, hunting and gathering, their positive sides are evoked. When they live in settled communities, creating large surpluses, developing advanced technologies and dominating nature, their negative sides become enabled.

Another crucial factor is hierarchy, in which some people have more power and status than others. Lord Acton famously said, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Bregman cites the fascinating studies by Dacher Keltner on the damaging effects of power on those who have it, including that those with power over others “are more impulsive, self-centred, reckless, arrogant and rude than average” (p. 229). Modern societies are set up with command hierarchies, with some individuals having vastly more power than others, thus fostering corruption and abuse. As as well as Keltner’s research, it is worth exploring the earlier empirical studies of the corruptions of power carried out by psychologist David Kipnis.

Where does this leave us now? Some people, called primitivists, advocate a return to hunter-gatherer lifestyles, but in the foreseeable future this is not feasible for most of the world’s population. A more plausible path forward is to build on the positives of humans and to find ways to counter the negatives. How to do this is not obvious in a world in which scientists design ever more deadly weapons, psychologists design ways to manipulate people, economic systems lead to greater inequality and the environment comes under ever increasing stress due to population growth, affluence and technological change.

The clue may lie in social arrangements. If, as Bregman argues, many of the problems of contemporary societies stem from the rise of agriculture and all that came after, then there still remains the possibility of finding better ways for humans to live together, in other words to create better social institutions.

These need to be something different from capitalism, militarism, states, mass surveillance and other systems that enable domination of humans and the environment. Many activists and social-change agents are challenging these systems and building alternatives. In these efforts, it is worthwhile being inspired by examples of cooperation and altruism, while remaining aware of the dangerous capacities in every one of us.

Bartlett and Bregman each see themselves as voices in the wilderness, challenging serious gaps in people’s understanding of human capacities and predilections. Given their own analyses, it’s quite possible that their diagnoses will be little noticed or actioned. The Pathology of Man, published in 2005, has not received much attention. Nor has there been much further investigation into pathologies in human thought that underlie behavioural pathologies.


Is anybody listening?

A precursor to Humankind was a 1990 book by Alfie Kohn, The Brighter Side of Human Nature. It seemingly did not dent the prevailing views about humans, otherwise presumably Bregman would not have felt the need to write his own book. Humankind is so well written that it may make more of a difference. However, it is one thing to read a book and be alarmed or inspired or both. It is something else to change the way we live in the world.

Brian Martin, bmartin@uow.edu.au

Thanks to Steven Bartlett, Julia LeMonde, Monica O’Dwyer, Majken Sørensen and Pheobe Wenyi Sun for useful comments.

At your best

Do you know for sure when you are being your best possible self? And how can you be that way more often?

            I came across a recommendation for a book titled Exceptional: build your personal highlight reel and unlock your potential by Daniel Cable. The title made me a bit sceptical. A “personal highlight reel” sounds suspect, reminiscent of the US self-help genre that is all about the individual and says nothing about social conditions.

Still, I was intrigued. Even since I was young, I’ve experimented with self-help techniques. They don’t have to encourage self-centredness and self-indulgence. After all, if you can be more effective in achieving your goals, you can be more effective in helping others and in contributing to positive social change. Personally, I didn’t feel a great need to unlock my potential. But I thought, “I’ll give this book a try. Then I can tell others if there is anything from which they might benefit.”

Cable tells about a man named Dave Maher whose friends thought he had died while in hospital. They posted touching comments about him — then he awoke from a month-long coma.

It seems a pity that you have to die before those who know you tell stories of what a wonderful person you were in their lives. So why, Cable asks, do you have to wait? He says there’s a great reluctance to talk about people’s strengths while they’re alive, a reluctance he calls the “eulogy delay.”

            Most people — narcissists excepted — also have a reluctance to talk about their own excellence. Combined with the eulogy delay, the result is a continual focus on shortcomings. Many people are down on themselves, being constantly self-critical. They focus on what they’re doing wrong and spend enormous energy trying to fix their weaknesses. This self-critical attitude is often applied to others. Bosses criticise their subordinates for what they do wrong.

For decades, I’ve seen this orientation to flaws among academics when they comment on each other’s research papers. They focus on mistakes and weaknesses, saying little about strengths. No wonder so many people suffer the imposter syndrome, believing that any day others will discover that they aren’t nearly as good as imagined.

Cable’s programme

Cable shows how to identify and then focus on your strengths. To benefit from this programme, you have to undertake some tasks. Just reading his book is not enough.

The first major task is to write down times when you were at your best. I did this by selecting five categories in my life where I thought I had done well.

I can understand why some people would be reluctant to write about when they’ve been at their best. It might seem too much like self-promotion. And besides, what about all the bad times? A good part of Exceptional involves Cable trying to convince you to get past these sorts of reservations. He’s seen them all before, many times, and argues that they are misguided rationalisations.

After writing about your own highlights, the next major task is more daunting. You write letters to other people in your life telling them when they were at their best. It’s sort of like writing eulogy letters, except they’re still alive.

I knew about writing gratitude letters as a result of co-teaching a class on happiness for nearly a decade. Researchers have identified a number of different activities that make most people happier, including physical activity, relationships, optimism, forgiveness — and expressing gratitude. If, every day or every week, you stop to reflect on three things that you are thankful for, like a friendship, nice weather or listening to music, this is likely to make you happier. It’s simple and easy and remarkably effective. In the happiness class, students were asked to try out an activity shown by research to increase happiness. Many of them chose expressing gratitude.

            There’s also a more powerful method for evoking the benefits of expressing gratitude: writing a gratitude letter. In his book Authentic Happiness, Martin Seligman, the father of positive psychology, tells about doing this. You write a letter to someone important in your life thanking them for everything they’ve been and done for you. For maximum effect, you read it to them in person.

By all accounts, this is a powerful emotional experience for both parties. However, despite knowing about the research, I had never written a gratitude letter. Cable’s programme provided both the stimulus and the rationale for writing letters of gratitude. Well, not exactly, because Cable’s task is to tell others when they’ve been at their best, which is not quite the same. But there’s a significant overlap.

Cable quotes several participants in his classes who say to write as many of these letters as you can, to people in all parts of your life, past and present: family members, friends, work colleagues, neighbours. Here’s the extra part: when you write a letter to one of these individuals saying when you’ve seen them at their best, you also ask them to reciprocate by writing to you saying when you’ve been at your best.

Then, Cable advises, don’t read the replies right away. Wait until you’ve received at least ten responses, find a quiet place and read them all. Powerful indeed.

If you have doubts about your own worth or feel down on yourself in some way, this exercise can be a way to dramatically raise your morale. Moreover, it can shake you up, helping you see better what’s worth doing.


Dan Cable

Continuing

But wait, there are several more chapters in Exceptional to read. Figuring out when you’re at your best should be more than a brief feel-good exercise. You can use the insights gained from your own reflections and from others’ comments about you to identify your signature strengths and practise using them more often.

Signature strengths, also called character strengths, are things like bravery, kindness, humility and humour. There are 24 possibilities in all. Two of mine, according to an online assessment, are creativity and curiosity, and some respondents concurred. One wrote that I “latch onto a new idea or process and stay with it. You test it, integrate it, write about it, share it in all sorts of different ways.”

            You may think that focusing on your strengths is a very self-centred sort of thing to do. However, Cable has observed that it often makes people more other-directed, using their strengths to help others, to make organisations better and to engage in campaigns to improve society.

After receiving comments from many correspondents about my strengths, I felt a sense of responsibility. It’s going to be a challenge to continue to be at my best. My feeling was just what Cable said: “Learning about your most exceptional qualities doesn’t make you arrogant and complacent; instead, it makes you humble and energized to work harder” (p. 163).

Many people take their strengths for granted. Because they seem to come easily, they aren’t valued all that much. Instead, they put more effort into fixing weaknesses. Cable argues against this tendency. He says that you can often do more by building on strengths.

Habits

The biggest challenge is ahead: changing your habits. It might sound wonderful to use your signature strengths more often and more effectively, but this requires change, and this is difficult.

Years ago, I read Charles Duhigg’s book The Power of Habit. It uses engaging stories to explain how habits are broken and formed, offering great insight. I thought the book was fabulous and then discovered that so did lots of other readers. If you can identify your signature strengths, then you can formulate and execute a plan to use them more often and consistently, and to turn doing this into a habit. Not easy but very worthwhile.

I’ve noted some but far from all of the key aspects of Cable’s programme. Should you follow it? He’s the expert at using it, having worked with over a thousand people to develop their personal highlight reels and build on them. That’s why I followed his advice. His programme has strong connections with findings from research on happiness and habits. That gives me confidence.

I think the programme will be especially valuable for anyone who has doubts about their life and where they’re going in it, for anyone who wants to build stronger connections with others important to them, and for anyone who wants to make better choices about what to do with the rest of their life. That sounds like just about everyone. However, I know that overcoming the mental resistance to the activities involved can be enormous.

Last year, one of my most valued colleagues, Mark McLelland, died. Our offices were a few doors apart and we often chatted about common interests, including defending against attacks on academic freedom. We co-supervised two PhD students. I now regret that I never wrote Mark a letter expressing everything I treasured about him.


Mark McLelland

Then I think of others who have died in recent years to whom I now wish I had written a gratitude letter. Cable is quite right about the “eulogy delay.” Henceforth I’ll continue to try to overcome it.

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

A singer and a crooked lawyer

In 1987, I met Delcie Schipp. She was a piano and violin teacher, but her real love was singing. We got together to play trios: Delcie as soprano voice, me on clarinet and Alice Fitzsummons on piano. We were brought together by Wayne Dixon, conductor of the Wollongong Symphony Orchestra, who suggested we might make a good combination.

Once a week, Delcie would pick me up from home and drive us to Alice’s home in southern Wollongong, where we would rehearse a range of pieces for an hour or so. The most famous piece for soprano, clarinet and piano is “Shepherd on the rock” by Schubert. We practised and performed it but soon became tired of it. I tracked down many additional pieces for the combination, plus Delcie sang solos with piano, Alice and I played clarinet and piano pieces, and we even had a couple of pieces for soprano and clarinet.


Brian, Alice and Delcie

            Over the following decade, we enjoyed playing music together, and performed occasionally at music club concerts and other events. We organised several performances at Delcie’s unit in downtown Wollongong. We would invite friends to attend, charging a small amount that we donated to a good cause. Delcie had an excellent grand piano and a large main room. She had some chairs and we encouraged guests to bring pillows to sit on the floor. These were delightful occasions.

During those years, Delcie and I had plenty of opportunities to talk during the 10-minute drives to and from Alice’s place. After a few years, Delcie started telling me about a business matter. She had been involved with a property deal that somehow involved lawyer George Harrison, a prominent figure around Wollongong. The deal had gone wrong in some way, and Delcie — or rather her lawyers — were pursuing Harrison for money. Harrison defended vigorously and the costs kept rising.


George Harrison in front of his Lagoon restaurant, 1987

            She was obviously distressed by the events but, from what she told me, I could never make sense of what had happened. She believed she had been at the mercy of some devious dealing but it seemed the details were beyond her comprehension.

It was only years later, when I read about the matters in the Illawarra Mercury, that I finally understood the sequence of events. In the late 1980s, Delcie had been involved in a property deal with Don Cameron, a real estate developer, and George Harrison, a solicitor. Delcie put up the money and the three of them planned to develop the property together. However, the development never went ahead. Delcie sold the property and was pleased that its value had increased. But she wasn’t happy that Cameron and Harrison each claimed $40,000 from the sale, because they hadn’t proceeded with the planned development.

Delcie’s lawyers pursued the two men for the $80,000. Some ten years later, in 1998, a judge ruled in Delcie’s favour, saying that Harrison had willingly lied under oath. Cameron and Harrison claimed that Delcie was financially shrewd, knowing what was happening the whole time. Delcie said she had been duped. Given that Delcie had never been able to explain to me what had happened, I thought she was telling the truth. The judge, like me, believed her and he thought Harrison was a liar.

Harrison was active in the Labor Party, and in 1999, despite the recent court ruling against him, was elected Lord Mayor of Wollongong.

Cameron bowed out of the court case and Harrison took over the legal defence. Senior Labor Party figures told Harrison to pay up, because the ongoing publicity about the case was bad for the party. But Harrison decided instead to appeal the judge’s decision. In February 2001 the appeal court ruled against him, and he declared that he would pay. But then he didn’t. He went to a higher court.

Due to legal costs and interest, the amount at stake grew, eventually exceeding a million dollars. A newspaper article at the time reported on Harrison’s many properties; he seemed to have the means to pay.

Meanwhile, due to some complex matters to do with legal insurance, it turned out that Delcie owed $700,000 to Harrison’s wife Vania. Delcie couldn’t pay. She had no income. She sold her grand piano. Then she declared bankruptcy.

In 2002, the court of appeals ruled against Harrison. The Law Society struck him off the register of solicitors and he was kicked out of the Labor Party. There were numerous newspaper stories about whether he would pay up, including stories about Delcie pleading with him to do so.

            Then Harrison declared bankruptcy. This meant he had to step down as lord mayor, because bankrupts are not allowed to hold public office. It was amazing. Rather than pay Delcie, Harrison preferred to declare bankruptcy and step away from the most prestigious public office in Wollongong.

During this time, Delcie changed her name. Rather than Delcie Schipp, she became Kathryn Chaffey. She told me she had never liked the name Delcie. It took a while to get used to calling her Kathryn, especially because newspaper stories about her stoush with Harrison still referred to her as Delcie.

Even after both parties had declared bankruptcy, the legal cases continued, but I never heard what happened in the end.

Harrison’s failure to pay was hard on Delcie, and her lawyers were left out of pocket too. She was reported as saying Harrison had destroyed her life. She contracted cancer and died in 2006, aged 70. Years later, in December 2020, Harrison died, also of cancer.


George Harrison in 2017

Are there lessons from this story? I can’t think of any obvious ones, except perhaps that amateur music is more likely to give pleasure than property deals.

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Selected Illawarra Mercury stories

Lisa Carty, “‘Naive woman held to ransom’: judge’s ruling damns solicitor, real estate agent,” 22 July 1998, pp. 1, 3.

Lisa Carty, “Labor heavies tell Lord Mayor: pay up, George,” 5 January 2000, pp. 1–2.

Lisa Carty, “‘I’ll pay’: Harrison loses court appeal,” 21 February 2001, pp. 1, 3.

Lisa Carty and Paul McInerney, “‘Poor’ mayor has a range of rich assets,” 10 March 2001, p. 6.

Lisa Carty, “Bizarre twist: now Schipp owes Vania,” 29 November 2001, p. 9.

Louise Turk, Paul McInerney and Jodie Duffy, “Struck off! Lord Mayor unfit: Law Society,” 29–30 June 2002, pp. 1, 3.

Lisa Carty, “He’s gone: Harrison quits as mayor,” 26 July 2002, pp. 1, 4.

Lisa Carty, “The letter that could have saved George Harrison’s job: Schipp asked for $20,000, the mayor chose bankruptcy,” 27 July 2002, p. 5

Greg Ellis, “George Harrison dies after long cancer fight,” 17 December 2020, p. 6

Prophetic witness against the war machine

On 28 September 2016, a group of five people calling themselves “Peace Pilgrims” entered a prohibited zone around Pine Gap, a US military base in Australia. They were arrested and tried for trespass. The maximum penalty for their act was seven years in prison.

The story of this action and its aftermath is told with care and sympathy by Kieran Finnane in a new book titled Peace Crimes: Pine Gap, National Security and Dissent. Finnane is a long-time resident of Alice Springs, a town in central Australia. Although she was aware of the nearby Pine Gap base, she had never paid much attention to the issues involved until the protesters took their action in 2016. With Peace Crimes, she has provided the most detailed account yet available of this form of protest in Australia and the response of the government to it.

            I’m interested in this story for several reasons. In 1979, I became involved in the peace movement, with a special interest in nonviolent alternatives to military defence. I’ve studied the likely effects of nuclear war and followed disclosures about mass surveillance. Not least, for many years I’ve known one of the Peace Pilgrims, Margaret Pestorius, an incredibly knowledgeable and committed activist.

In the following, I first tell about Pine Gap and the Peace Pilgrims and then present a series of perspectives for understanding one or both of them. I’m omitting a lot of the detail and complexity of the story. For example, in addition to the group of five Peace Pilgrims, another Peace Pilgrim protested individually and was tried at the same time. For these and other aspects, and an engaging narrative, read Peace Crimes.

Pine Gap

Beginning in the 1950s, the US government made arrangements with the Australian government to set up a number of military bases in Australia. Officially they are joint facilities, and in some bases today half the workers are Australians. However, Richard Tanter, who has carried out research on the bases, has a useful counter to the idea that they are genuinely “joint” facilities. He says that considering that the bases were built by the US government, their operations are paid for by the US government and their only functions are as part of a network of US military and spying facilities, it is reasonable to call them US bases to which Australian personnel have a degree of access.


Source: Richard Tanter, “Tightly bound“, GlobalAsia

            For decades, the most important US bases were Pine Gap and Nurrungar in central Australia and North West Cape on the western coast of Western Australia. These days, with changing technology, Pine Gap is the most important base.

One part of the base receives and analyses data from US surveillance satellites that collect vast amounts of electronic communications from land, sea, air and space origins. These satellites are in orbits that position them permanently in the same location above the earth. Another part of the base intercepts transmissions from foreign satellites, especially Russian and Chinese ones. The base also is a relay station for signals indicating potential enemy nuclear missile launches, though this function is now redundant given that signals can go direct to the US via satellite-to-satellite transmissions.


Pine Gap from the north (photo: Felicity Ruby, 23 January 2016)

Pine Gap is part of the Five Eyes network that sucks up electronic communications of all sorts, a massive surveillance operation that aims to collect everything sent via phone, email, social media, you name it. The so-called Five Eyes are the US, Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. They share surveillance information, though the US National Security Agency plays the dominant role.

Over the years, a number of writers and researchers have exposed aspects of this highly secret network. One of them was New Zealand investigator Nicky Hager in his 1996 book Secret Power, which received relatively little public attention. In 2013, Edward Snowden leaked massive numbers of NSA documents to the media, generating international awareness of the extent of government surveillance.

Pine Gap’s surveillance capacities assist in US counter-terrorism and other military operations. US systems collect information about possible human targets. When a decision is made and an opportunity arises, drones are instructed to unleash missiles to destroy a target. Some of these drone attacks are in war zones such as Afghanistan; others are in places like Pakistan and Yemen. Drone killings can be called assassinations. Alleged enemies are not arrested and brought to trial, but simply killed. As well, quite a number of civilians die in the attacks. Via Pine Gap, the Australian government is implicated in a system of extrajudicial murder.

            The most significant US bases were installed in the 1960s when Australia had a conservative government, run by the Liberal-Country Party coalition that had held power since 1949. The opposition Labor Party, at the time having a socialist and nationalist orientation, had a platform that rejected US bases. However, after Labor was elected in 1972, it did nothing to implement its bases policy. Later, after Labor lost office in 1975, opponents of the bases struggled with how to proceed.

In the early 1980s, there was a huge expansion of the worldwide movement against nuclear weapons, which invigorated sentiment against the US bases. Activists argued that the bases contributed to the possibility of nuclear war and made Australia a nuclear target. Indeed, to the extent that nuclear arsenals were “counterforce” — targeted at the enemy’s nuclear war-fighting facilities — then Pine Gap was a prime target in a nuclear exchange. Without US bases, there was little reason for the Soviet military to aim nuclear missiles at Australia.

            Australian anti-base activists argued that the goal should be to get the Labor Party to change its platform to again oppose the bases, and then to get the Labor Party elected. These hopes were forlorn. After Labor was elected in 1983, it took steps to give the impression of Australian partnership in running the bases, while more deeply integrating Australia’s military posture with the US’s.

By the late 1980s, the Australian peace movement was in steep decline. Then in 1989 Eastern European communist regimes collapsed. The Cold War was over, and the Soviet Union dissolved two years later. US bases in Australia fell completely off the public agenda, though they continued their crucial role in US nuclear war-fighting operations, surveillance of electronic communications, and information gathering for military operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere.

Peace Pilgrims

After the 1980s, Australian peace movement activity was low-key except for huge surges in public opposition to foreign wars, including the 1990–1991 Gulf war and the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Some activists, though, maintained attention to US bases. There have been quite a few protests, including major ones at Pine Gap in 1983 (the Women’s Peace Camp), 1987 and 2002. Of special interest here are religiously motivated activists.

            There is a long history of religious opposition to war. In countries with universal male military service, there have been resisters, those who refuse to participate, and many have been driven by their religious beliefs. In the US and several other countries, small numbers of activists have taken direct action against weapons systems, for example sneaking into military bases and using hammers to damage missiles. They are called ploughshares activists, because as Christians they take inspiration from passages in the Bible, such as this one from the book of Isaiah:

“He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”

Ploughshares actions, although occasionally damaging military equipment, are largely symbolic. The activists take full responsibility for their actions and do not attempt to evade arrest. They feel driven to bear witness against war. Some US activists have spent many years in prison. Their stories are documented in The Nuclear Resister, published for many years by Felice and Jack Cohen-Joppa, who I see whenever I visit Tucson, Arizona.

The 2016 action at Pine Gap was in the tradition of radical Christian peace action. The group of five protesters — Franz Dowling, Jim Dowling, Andy Paine, Margaret Pestorius and Tim Webb — expressed their commitment to the Biblical commandment “Thou shalt not kill” and, as well, adopted lives of voluntary poverty and service to others in need.

The contrast between their lives and the mainstream churches is stark. Mainstream Christianity has adapted to the surrounding culture and political system. Soldiers, arms manufacturers and political leaders might be Christians, but have accepted the need for killing, and indeed have supported the development and deployment of weapons systems with the potential for mass slaughter. The Christian vow of poverty — exemplified by the Biblical saying that “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” — has been displaced by materialism. Some churches espouse the “prosperity gospel” that glorifies making money.

The protesters who called themselves “Peace Pilgrims” wanted to intervene against Pine Gap operations to hinder what they saw as its death-dealing. However, border security around the base is tight. The area is actively monitored for trespass. The outer fence is easy to get through, but not the high inner double barbed-wire fence. In practice, the Peace Pilgrims were making a statement by the simple fact of going into a prohibited area.

The Pilgrims made careful preparations. To get as close to the base facilities as they could, they needed to walk through the night in rather treacherous territory. Andy prepared to film the base and their efforts. Margaret brought her viola and Franz his guitar so they could play a lament.


Margaret and Franz

Peace Crimes provides plenty of fascinating detail about the Pilgrims’ preparations, action and arrest. They expected to be arrested, and they were. Then there was a different sort of drama: in the courtroom. The Pilgrims were charged under a piece of federal legislation called the Defence (Special Undertakings) Act. The maximum penalty was seven years in prison.

Finnane attended the case, which went on for days in the Northern Territory Supreme Court, and reported on it in the Alice Springs News.

The prosecution was led by a top-gun lawyer who did everything possible to achieve a conviction and push for harsh penalties, including imprisonment. The government was obviously doing what it could to deter anyone who might try to follow the Pilgrims’ lead.

The Pilgrims had little money and were unable to afford legal representation — so they represented themselves. Margaret and Andy led their effort to develop questions and an argument for the court. They received a bit of free general legal advice, but actually they preferred to run the case themselves since that gave them the most freedom to do it the way they wanted. A lawyer would have been more constrained.

In Peace Crimes, you can read about the legal machinations: decisions about the appropriate jurisdiction, choosing members of the jury, questioning of the judge’s objectivity, attempts to keep the proceedings closed, efforts to exclude evidence and witnesses, giving of evidence and cross-examination, and the subtle factors that determined what could be raised in testimony and what couldn’t. The Pilgrims pleaded not guilty, their grounds being that Pine Gap played an active role in committing crimes, namely in facilitating extrajudicial murder. Peace Crimes also provides fascinating information about the lives of each of the activists.

If you are familiar with any of the issues involved, you may have a view about Pine Gap and the Peace Pilgrims or both. Here, I offer a variety of perspectives for looking at the issues. Each perspective can potentially offer insights.

Moral versus legal

The Pilgrims were driven by a deep sense of what is right and wrong, and they believed that military systems — especially those involved in foreign assassinations — are wrong. They confronted an opponent, comprising the government, the military and parts of the legal system, that justified its position based on law. The court case, described in detail in Peace Crimes, can be read as an extended conflict between morality and legality.


Northern Territory Supreme Court building, Alice Springs

The Pilgrims defended their actions in terms of morality, and tried on every occasion to bring morality into the picture. This occurred when they were arrested and questioned, and it occurred in the courtroom. They liked to bring up Biblical examples of the breaking of unjust laws.

The prosecution, taking its cues from the federal government, attempted to exclude morality from the discussion. The prosecution repeatedly objected to testimony that brought up the Pilgrims’ motivations and instead focused on a narrow legal matter, whether they had knowingly trespassed on the prohibited area around the Pine Gap base. From the prosecution’s viewpoint, it was immaterial why the Pilgrims were there. All that had to be proved was that they were there, aware that they were breaking the law.

Power

The interaction between the Australian government and the Peace Pilgrims can be seen as a power struggle. On the surface, it is a very unequal struggle. The government has the power to make and enforce laws, and has at its disposal police and prisons. Then there is the wider power of the US government and military, which supports the Pine Gap operation.

On the other side, the Pilgrims seem to have relatively little power, but this is deceptive. Why would the Australian government bother with an expensive trial against a seemingly harmless and nonthreatening group of activists who never had any realistic prospect of interrupting activities at the base? The reason is that the Pilgrims represented the potential power of citizen opposition. These few individuals posed no direct threat to Pine Gap operations but if their example were followed, a much greater threat might develop.


The Peace Pilgrims including Paul Christie, third from the right

The Pilgrims, in their action, were setting an example. The government, by prosecuting them, was also trying to set an example.

Nonviolent action

Suppose you want to change the government’s policy on Pine Gap. How could you go about it? You might write scholarly articles, set up a newsletter, lobby politicians, join political parties and campaign for politicians who support your viewpoint. You might launch an online petition or form a citizens group. All these methods are what might be called conventional political action. In Australia, they are commonplace and widely considered acceptable.

At the other end of the spectrum, you might join with a few others to launch an armed attack on Pine Gap or, more easily, on its workers or on politicians supporting it. This approach can be called armed struggle or, by its critics, terrorism.

In between conventional political action and armed struggle are a variety of methods, including ostracism of politicians supporting the base, boycotts of companies supplying it, strikes by workers opposed to the base, sit-ins in parliament — and entering the restricted zone around the base, taking photos and playing music. These sorts of methods are called nonviolent action or, alternatively, civil resistance. They go beyond the routine and acceptable methods but refrain from any physical violence.

The Pilgrims were committed to this sort of action. It can make things difficult for authorities, because it involves noncooperation, yet avoids physical violence and so cannot easily be stigmatised as terrorism.

Within the nonviolence field, two approaches are commonly distinguished: principled and pragmatic. Principled nonviolence, associated with Mohandas Gandhi, is based on a moral commitment. Pragmatic nonviolence, associated with scholar Gene Sharp, is undertaken because it is seen as more effective than violence. The Pilgrims obviously fit into the principled camp. But this distinction is a bit academic in Australia, where all activists refrain from using arms.

Activist and researcher Stellan Vinthagen offers an insightful definition of nonviolence: it is without violence and against violence. The Pilgrims, like most people in their daily lives, did not use physical violence. However, unlike most other people, they acted against violence, namely against Pine Gap and its role in military operations.

Antiwar strategy

Nearly everyone says they are against war. Those who support military defence say it is needed to deter war. Many soldiers are strongly in favour of peace.

The question is not whether to oppose war, but how. For those in what is called the peace movement, who question the current military posture, there have been a variety of views about goals. Some oppose use of Australian troops in foreign wars, as in Afghanistan and Iraq. Some support the Australian government cutting ties with foreign powers and having an independent defence policy. Others favour disarmament. Yet others support development of a nonviolent defence system.

Despite this wide range of visions, amazingly the peace movement has mobilised large numbers of Australians to protest against war and war preparations — but only on some occasions, such as just before the 2003 invasion of Iraq. In between such mobilisations, few have maintained their activism.


Australian rally against 2003 invasion of Iraq

What about strategy for the peace movement? How will it achieve its goals? Some favour public education, aided by critical analyses of military preparations. Others pursue peace movement goals by lobbying politicians and joining political parties. More visible are public protests. Another approach is to undermine the war system by challenging its roots, including the state, militarism and patriarchy.

In this context, the Pilgrims pursue peace by prophetic witness. Through their actions, they show their commitment and their vision of an alternative world. They are less worried about effectiveness than being true to their beliefs.

Evil

Steven Bartlett, a philosopher and psychologist, made an exhaustive study of evil, which he uses in a non-religious sense to refer to the propensity of humans to harm each other and the environment that supports their life. In his epic book The Pathology of Man he traverses a wide range of classic writings about disease, ethology, psychology, genocide, ecological destruction and war. His central conclusion, suggested by the title of his book, is that the human species is pathological, namely having the characteristics of a disease. He argues that aspects of human thought and behaviour are so dysfunctional that they are a danger to survival, yet most humans participating in damaging activities are psychologically normal.

One of Bartlett’s case studies is war. He observes war preparations and the willingness of humans to harm each other, face to face or remotely. War preparations involve only a fraction of the population. What is significant is that so few people do anything to resist. Bartlett concludes that most people do not want to stop war preparations and war. This is a testament to the pathology of the human species.

The stark contrast between the peace Pilgrims and the power of the state used to restrain them is compatible with Bartlett’s analysis. Although there have been large protests at times, most Australians have been content to support or at least tolerate Australian military preparations and their links to foreign wars and assassinations.

One feature of this human shortcoming, according to Bartlett, is the low level of most people’s moral intelligence. Very few develop a strong feeling of disgust about cruelty, violence and other forms of human evil and have the conviction to act on their beliefs. Bartlett’s analysis suggests that the Peace Pilgrims are among these few with high moral intelligence.

Media

From the perspective of communication and the media, the role of Pine Gap and the challenge by the Peace Pilgrims can be seen from several angles. One obvious point is that the role of Pine Gap, or even its existence, receives very little attention. Arguably, Pine Gap is Australia’s most important target in the event of nuclear war, and, if Australia lacked any foreign bases, the country might not be thought worth targeting at all. Yet this existential issue is seemingly off the agenda in the mass media.

No doubt the reluctance to cover Pine Gap-related matters is in part due to the two major political parties having the same stance, which means there are no significant political disagreements to report on. The government’s draconian laws restricting media coverage of matters of “national security” no doubt play a role. Government secrecy about the role of US bases makes reporting more difficult. Also important is the absence of a strong peace movement. Social media are far less inhibited, but even there, Pine Gap is not a major issue.

The Peace Pilgrims, and other direct actions at Pine Gap, provide a news angle. Unusual events, especially arrests, are newsworthy. Imagine that the Pilgrims had asked, “What can we do to generate attention to US bases?” Their protest would have been as good an answer as any.

Finally, there is the important role of Kieran Finnane, the journalist who reported on the protests and trial and whose book Peace Crimes provides an engaging introduction into the issues — and stimulated me to write about it. Those who seek media coverage often want the largest possible audience, but just as important is the depth of impact, which can be influential when only a few individuals are affected. The Peace Pilgrims had a loyal following, in part because of the government’s heavy-handed response. Their action, as a form of communication, was not widely covered but the coverage it did receive has been quite influential.


Kieran Finnane

Moral foundations

Jonathan Haidt has written an insightful book titled The Righteous Mind. In it, he explains research by himself and collaborators concerning what he calls “moral foundations.” These are values that influence what people think is right or wrong. Haidt identifies six principal moral foundations: care, fairness, liberty, authority, loyalty and sanctity. Each one has played a role in human evolution.

Consider care, the value people place on protecting and nurturing others. The protection and support that parents give to their children has obvious survival value. In many cases, people expand their sense of caring to those outside their immediate family or tribe, as when a person risks their life to save a stranger.

Haidt argues that the influence of moral foundations operates on each person’s intuitive, fast acting mind, usually without conscious awareness. Through ingenious experiments, he has shown that people make moral judgements intuitively and then try to justify them with rational arguments, which are sometimes highly contorted. In other words, people commonly reach conclusions quickly and automatically and only justify them later. More intelligent people can be better at coming up with rational-sounding explanations for their intuition-driven choices.

Haidt’s framework can be applied to the contrasting views about Pine Gap and the Peace Pilgrims. Each of the six moral foundations is relevant, but they are applied in quite different ways.

Care for others is a key driving force for the military establishment: the care is for those being defended from enemies. The Peace Pilgrims, in contrast, direct their care concerns to the victims of drone attacks and to the world population threatened by wars, especially nuclear war.

Haidt in The Righteous Mind is especially interested in differences between US liberals and conservatives. He found that liberals draw more from the moral foundations of care, fairness and liberty whereas conservatives draw more evenly from all six foundations. Consider authority, a value commonly associated with conservatives. The military is based on obedience to the authority of the military hierarchy and more generally to the authority of the government. The prosecutions of the Pilgrims were backed by the authority of the state, as manifested in the legal system.

Arguably, the Pilgrims were also drawing on authority. However, in their case, the authorities to which they responded were God and their own consciences.

Another moral foundation is sanctity, which can be expressed in rules for eating and hygiene. For example, many people find the eating of the flesh of certain animals to be disgusting. The Pilgrims might be said to be driven by their concern for the sanctity of human life, including individuals killed, far away, in drone strikes. The role of sanctity for the prosecutors does not seem so obvious until we think of Pine Gap as a sacred territory. Authorities were alarmed about the Pilgrims transgressing on the Pine Gap prohibited zone, and prosecutors took great pains to prevent images of the area surrounding the base being made public or even being seen in open court. It seems as if Pine Gap is analogous to a church; entering its grounds and taking graven images are a sacrilege to its holy mission.


Pine Gap by night. Photo by Kristian Laemmle-Ruff

It would be possible to consider each one of the six moral foundations to see its role in the thinking and actions of the Pilgrims and the defenders of Pine Gap. Each foundation plays a role, but with different anchors. A key point is that the influence of moral foundations is usually unconscious, providing an emotional drive for particular thoughts and actions often without individuals being aware of the source of their thoughts and choice of actions. It is fascinating to imagine that the careful, and sometimes torturous, legal argumentation presented in the trial is a rationalisation for choices influenced by unconscious commitments about what is right and wrong.

Outrage management

When a powerful group does something that others see as wrong, the group can take various steps to reduce the level of public outrage. For example, after the 1991 Dili massacre, when Indonesian troops opened fire on peaceful East Timorese protesters at Santa Cruz cemetery, the Indonesian government and military took steps to reduce international concern. They tried to cover up the existence of the massacre, denigrated the protesters, minimised the scale of the killing, set up investigations and gave minimal sentences to a few low-level perpetrators, and intimidated the surviving East Timorese population.

Despite these efforts, the Dili massacre triggered a large increase in international support for East Timorese independence. The massacre, intended to subjugate the resistance to its rule over East Timor, backfired on the Indonesian government. Perpetrators of a wide range of injustices, from sexual harassment to genocide, use the same outrage-management techniques as those used following the Dili massacre.

The same set of tactics can be observed in relation to Pine Gap, which some people might see as contributing to a number of injustices. The key tactic is cover-up: the intense secrecy about the base and its functions and activities serves to reduce public concern. In relation to drone assassinations, there is an additional tactic: devaluation of the targets, who are portrayed as dangerous terrorists. Then there is the tactic of reinterpretation, namely providing a benign explanation for actions. Defenders of drone killings never use the word assassination. They claim that few civilians are killed, using the euphemism “collateral damage.” Finally, anyone who challenges the programme may be subject to intimidation. This is where the Defence (Special Undertakings) Act comes into play, with its severe penalties for even trivial offences.

The arrest and trial of the Pilgrims can be seen as a form of intimidation of protest, deterring anyone who might follow their example. However, the arrest and trial of the Pilgrims were potentially a new source of public outrage, so it is to be expected that the same sorts of tactics would be used by the government. The tactic of cover-up is most obvious in the concerted attempts by the prosecution to exclude evidence about Pine Gap activities.

The tactic of devaluation is apparent in the prosecution of the Pilgrims as serious criminals who should serve time in prison for their actions. A key tactic of reinterpretation is the assumption underlying the prosecution that the case is about obeying the law, with the possibility of questioning the law off the table.

One of the methods used by powerful perpetrators to reduce outrage from their action is to use official channels to give the appearance of justice. In the case against the Pilgrims, the legal system itself was the most important official channel. By going to court, the prosecution might be seen to reassure observers that it was ensuring justice — even though the legal process in this case was one-sided, with the government throwing enormous resources into the case and using its power to restrict testimony.

Powerful perpetrators do not have it all their own way. The Dili massacre illustrates how attacks can backfire on the perpetrators. To counter the tactics commonly used, challengers can use counter-tactics. They can expose the action, validate the targets, interpret the actions as unfair, avoid official channels and instead mobilise support, and resist intimidation.

The Pilgrims and their supporters used all of these counter-tactics. To counter cover-up, they publicised their arrest and trial.

To counter devaluation, the Pilgrims had only to describe their beliefs and activities: their lives of voluntary poverty and service undermined the prosecution’s portrayal of them as dangerous threats. Furthermore, they organised to get famous and not-so-famous people to write to the Australian Attorney-General requesting that the charges dropped — and to have the letter published in the Saturday Paper.

To counter reinterpretation, they described the prosecution as a gross overreaction, as itself unjust. Rather than relying solely on legal defences, they mobilised support. Finally, to counter intimidation, they valiantly resisted throughout the entire case, refusing to capitulate.

In light of the different methods used by the government and the Pilgrims, did the arrests and prosecution backfire on the government, drawing more attention to Pine Gap and resistance to it than might otherwise be the case? That is hard to judge because there is no easy way to guess what might have happened had the government decided not to press charges. In any case, the issue has not gone away. Pine Gap continues its activities and the Pilgrims, and others, bide their time.


Pine Gap. Photo by Kristian Laemmle-Ruff

Conclusion

Reading Kieran Finnane’s book Peace Crimes inspired me to write something about the issues it raises. One issue is Pine Gap and military bases more generally. Another is the Peace Pilgrims and their principled challenge to military systems. Yet another is the existence of different ways of understanding protests against Pine Gap.

The dominant mainstream framing is that Pine Gap is a valuable part of Australia’s defence and that the Pilgrims, however well intentioned, should not be permitted to threaten the base’s security. Then there is the peace-movement framing, seeing Pine Gap as part of the US military machine that endangers lives around the world. It is useful to understand these positions and to be aware that they are ways of understanding Pine Gap and the Pilgrim challenge — but not the only possible ways. There are many others, including peace movement strategy, the contrast between moral versus legal imperatives, the role of human evil, and outrage management tactics.

Is there a best way of understanding Pine Gap and the Pilgrims? It all depends on your purpose. If you want to pass judgement, some perspectives are more useful than others. If you want to know what you might do to take action, that’s another matter. It is quite useful to draw a key insight from the study of moral foundations, namely that people commonly form a judgement based on their intuitive response and then subsequently find or create rational-sounding justifications for their views. The implication is that it can be extremely difficult to change someone’s mind by providing evidence and rational arguments. When judgements are grounded in gut reactions, changing them usually requires something other than reason.

In the case of Pine Gap and the Pilgrims, a key judgement is whether it is worth paying any attention to them at all. Because there is little mainstream media coverage, many people assume nothing important is happening. If you decide there is, and you want to know more, then it is valuable to seek information from a variety of perspectives. One crucial source is Kieran Finnane’s Peace Crimes.

P.S. The Peace Pilgrims were found guilty. The prosecution had called for imprisonment but the judge instead imposed fines of a few thousand dollars each. For the Pilgrims and their supporters, this was good news.

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

For assistance and valuable comments, thanks to Cate Adams, Sharon Callaghan, Jack Cohen-Joppa, Kieran Finnane, Margaret Pestorius, Yasmin Rittau, Richard Tanter and Tom Weber.

A Greta story

Greta Thunberg is an amazingly influential activist, perhaps the most influential worldwide this century. Appalled by the lack of government action on climate change, in 2018 she staged a one-person protest outside the Swedish parliament building in Stockholm. As a 15-year-old student, she was skipping school to protest. Gradually others joined her, and news reporters took up the story. Through social media, her example triggered student protests around the world.

I have just watched the extraordinary documentary film I am Greta. Acting on a tip, director Nathan Greenberg decided to film Greta’s activities from her very first protest. He had no idea then that she would become world famous within a few months.

The film follows Greta, often accompanied by her father, as she travels around Europe, by train or electric car, giving short talks at prominent meetings, and addressing large protests where she is greeted as a hero.

Greta is not a scientist: she has not made a deep study into the science of climate change. Neither is she a seasoned activist, with special insights into campaigning. She is exactly as she presents herself, a schoolgirl who is disgusted with the world’s leaders for refusing to act on the research showing a pressing need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

In I am Greta, we see her meeting French president Emmanuel Macron, speaking at climate change conferences, meeting the Pope, and speaking at rallies. She was invited to speak at the United Nations in New York. Refusing to fly because of the climate impact, we watch her journey across the Atlantic in a racing yacht.

            Greta has been inspirational to millions around the world, especially young people. Her message is that the world’s elders have failed to protect the Earth, so those who will inherit the Earth, the world’s youth, must protest until action is taken.

Greta’s action served as a spark in a highly receptive social environment. Well before she arrived on the scene, climate change had become the rallying point for the most significant new social movement in decades. There are campaigners and participants across the globe, drawing support from a wide cross section of the population. It is a remarkable movement because, unlike the labour, feminist or anti-racist movements, participants have little to gain for themselves.

Climate change is already having impacts. Yet, to the degree that the movement succeeds, its main beneficiaries will be future generations, many decades in the future. The movement is thus a mobilisation of altruism, of commitment to humankind, other species and the natural environment.

The movement is pitted against formidable foes. Most obvious is the fossil fuel industry, digging up coal, oil and natural gas for profit. Also crucial is social infrastructure and people’s habits, especially those who are affluent. Consumer goods, housing, transport, food production, and consumerism more generally, are built on using lots of energy. As critics have been saying for decades, ever-lasting economic growth is not sustainable.

Greta has been an inspiration because she has expressed a simple truth, that urgent action is needed — and pointed to the failure of leaders. A curious aspect of her fame has been her reception in major world forums. I am Greta shows her giving bluntly-worded speeches to world leaders and receiving rapturous applause. Strange to say, she is lauded for telling leaders that they are not doing what is required. We see her become disillusioned by participating in what seems to be a charade.

By far her biggest impact has been on young people worldwide. Those who attend protests rather than attending classes — sometimes supported by their teachers, sometimes not — become exposed to different truths about society, and experience the exhilaration of taking a public stand in solidarity with others. Greta was the spark for this huge mobilisation and remains an inspiration.

In light of her message and her experience with world leaders, why should she bother addressing their forums? It seems like a contradiction to put effort into addressing the older generation of political leaders, and condemning them, when they seem to be the least responsive audience. Yet there is an intriguing aspect of celebrity involved here. Greta’s biggest impact is the example she sets for young campaigners. By being feted by world leaders, Greta’s own fame increases, and thereby her influence on young admirers.

            Greta has Asperger’s syndrome. In I am Greta, we learn about her struggles, including three years when she was able to interact with only her parents and her dogs. In becoming a popular icon, she has had to push well outside her comfort zone. This is part of what makes her such an inspirational figure.

For any movement, charismatic leaders can play a powerful role but also pose risks. A prominent leader can be tempted by fame and power to forsake the cause. Alternatively, any personal weakness can be a point of attack: discrediting a leader is an often-used way of discrediting a movement.

Greta, so far, has not succumbed to the corruptions of power. Nor has her credibility been dented by those who denounce her. In the film we see and hear from some of her detractors, and in their nasty put-downs it is they who sound like petulant children. In this context, Greta’s single-mindedness about the climate may be her greatest strength.

            I am Greta is a remarkable window into the life of a girl who has become an inspiration to millions worldwide. In being a snapshot, it necessarily leaves the story unfinished — not just Greta’s story, but the story of the climate movement and the future of the Earth. Those who sympathise with the movement can be energised by the film; those who don’t may hate it.

Few of us can ever expect to become Greta-like figures. By the nature of celebrity, there’s room at the top for only a very few. That’s fine. Being an inspirational figure depends on vast numbers of others doing their own bit for the cause — and for those in the climate-change movement, there is plenty to do.

Postscript

As I write this in late October, there have been 1587 ratings of I am Greta on the Internet Movie Database. The average rating is 2.9 which, if sustained, would place the film among the 25 lowest rated movies of all time. Given the film’s good production values and its straightforward narrative, the most plausible explanation for this anomalously low rating is a concerted effort by some climate sceptics to discredit the film and Greta. Reading user reviews and other comments on social media, it is apparent that Greta triggers strong antagonistic emotions in quite a few people, especially men. All I can suggest is that if you don’t believe in climate change induced by human activity and you want to arouse your inner beast, then be sure to watch I am Greta.

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Thanks to Mark Diesendorf and Theresa Huxtable for useful comments.

The virus and the economy

The coronavirus pandemic highlights fundamental shortcomings in the way the economic system is set up.

What is the best way to respond to covid-19? There is commonly assumed to be a trade-off between lives and the economy: precautions and controls are needed to save lives but they cause damage to the economy.

There’s an unstated assumption in this thinking, namely that “the economy” is vital to people’s wellbeing. This needs to be questioned. It has been long known that the Gross Domestic Product or GDP is not an accurate reflection of people’s wellbeing. GDP is boosted by negatives such as traffic accidents, environmental destruction and ill health.

A deeper problem is that people’s happiness levels are not very sensitive to increases in average income, at least above some basic level. Happiness depends more strongly on things like close personal relationships, having a purpose in life, physical activity, expressing gratitude and helping others. In countries with a high GDP per capita, average happiness levels have been mostly stable for decades despite continuing economic growth.

            Another problem is inequality. GDP per capita might be high but hide inequality: the average income might be rising but mainly to benefit the top 10% or top 1%. The more unequal the distribution of income and wealth in a country, the worse off it is in lots of ways, such as more illness, crime and mental disorders.

The economic system

Pandemic control measures have highlighted the problem of thinking of the economy as a universally beneficial entity that needs to be protected and enhanced. The economic system is better understood as a particular way of organising two things: production and distribution.

First think of the production of goods and services, which involves people, skills and technology. Food production, for example, involves growing and harvesting crops and getting them to consumers. We see the results of production around us all the time: streets, hairdressers, schools and mobile devices.


Do you deserve to own a luxury villa?

The second part of the system is distribution, which refers to who gets what. Some people have palatial homes; others are homeless. Some people have access to expensive entertainment; others do not. The assumption underlying the distribution system is that it is based on merit in some way, so those who contribute the most receive the most. This assumption is deeply flawed.

Suppose you were born with a serious brain impairment and your parents abandon you. It will be pretty difficult for you to learn to read and write, much less obtain a high-level job. Do you deserve less than someone born unimpaired into a wealthy family?


Do you deserve to be homeless?

            You may feel that you’ve worked very hard in your life, so you deserve a good salary. But what about someone who worked just as hard but had a bit of bad luck and ended up in an also-ran category? The difference between a sports star and one who didn’t make the grade may be a matter of a few seconds in a race or being injury-free or getting a lucky break. The difference between a CEO and lower-level manager may be only a matter of who you know or of having just the right style and conformity to rise in the organisational hierarchy. The role of luck in success is often neglected.

The way the economic system distributes goods and services to people depends on a whole range of arbitrary arrangements, including laws on inheritance, occupational barriers, and the sorts of employment that receive compensation. Being a parent is usually unpaid, yet it is vital to the operation of the system.

The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the arbitrariness of the distribution system. Entire industries, such as tourism and hospitality, have been devastated. The idea that workers get what they deserve is shown up as misguided. It was misguided before, but now this is more obvious.

Universal basic income?

What is the alternative? One option is a guaranteed annual income, also known as a universal basic income or UBI. Everyone, from newborns to the elderly, would receive a regular income, no strings attached. Anything earned would be in addition.

            Many people respond to the idea of a UBI with a series of objections. How will it be paid for? Who will do the undesirable jobs? Won’t lots of people just decide not to work? There’s a body of research and writing addressing such objections. The calculations about how to pay for a UBI have been carried out. If no one wants to do undesirable jobs, then increase wages. There have been experiments showing that when poor people are given cash, nearly all use it “responsibly.”

The objection that people can’t be trusted to use money responsibly is always used against the poor, not the rich. If people can’t be trusted receiving money they didn’t work for, then inheritance should be abolished. After all, someone inheriting a lot of money can’t be trusted to use it responsibly.

The other side of the UBI issue is its benefits. Millions of workers would be liberated — if they so wished — from what David Graeber calls “bullshit jobs.” These are jobs that benefit no one and could be gotten rid of with no loss of productivity.

            Decades ago, J. W. Smith wrote The World’s Wasted Wealth, documenting the massive amount of production in excess of needs in industrial and post-industrial societies. Smith showed that a large percentage of work in many occupations serves only to redistribute wealth to those occupations, with case studies of insurance, law, transport, agriculture, medicine and welfare. Smith also argued that property rights, by being too great, take wealth from the community, with case studies of land, finance capital, intellectual property and communications. His overall conclusion is that organisation of society is highly wasteful and destructive, all to ensure that privileged groups retain their privilege.

            Work is a vital part of many people’s lives. It gives meaning, provides a connection to others and, bullshit jobs aside, provides some satisfaction for contributing to society. There’s evidence that people gladly accept lower pay if their work helps those with the greatest need. Indeed, research shows that helping other people is a powerful way of increasing happiness.

A UBI would also address the curse of the contemporary economy, job insecurity. In the economic approach called neoliberalism, workers are treated as free agents who have to sell themselves to employers, without guarantees of security. This is supposed to boost “the economy” but sacrifices the wellbeing of a large number of the people who are supposed to be served by the economy.

Job insecurity contributes to the spread of the coronavirus when people who have disease symptoms feel they must show up for their jobs to survive. A UBI would reduce the incentive to work while ill and thus save lives.

Industrial and post-industrial societies have an enormous productive capacity, far greater than necessary to provide necessities to every individual and to provide extra support for those who need it the most. Yet these societies are stuck in economic arrangements that assume scarcity, protect and reward the wealthy and stigmatise the poor and marginalised. Logically, it would make much more sense to celebrate abundance and spread it around. In part, this can be done by expanding the commons, those resources that are available to all. In part, it can be done by designing work around the needs of people rather than fitting people into slots in “the economy.”

What level for society?

In their pioneering book The Spirit Level, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett gathered a range of evidence about the links between economic inequality and the quality of life. They found a remarkable consistency in these links: in just about every way, inequality was associated with bad outcomes for people. When societies are more unequal in income and wealth, they are likely to have more crime, shorter life spans, higher prison populations, more mental illness, worse health and poorer educational performance.

           It is important to note that inequality is not the sole causative factor. For example, a range of socio-cultural factors can affect people’s wellbeing.

A decade later, Wilkinson and Pickett wrote another book, The Inner Level, in which they canvass a wide range of research on the ways that inequality affects people’s behaviour and thinking. Inequality, they argue, makes people more status-sensitive, fosters materialism and makes relationships more difficult. Wilkinson and Pickett write,

“The reality is that inequality causes real suffering, regardless of how we choose to label such distress. Greater inequality heightens social threat and status anxiety, evoking feelings of shame which feed into our instincts for withdrawal, submission and subordination: when the social pyramid gets higher and steeper and status insecurity increases, there are widespread psychological costs. Status competition and anxiety increase, people become less friendly, less altruistic and more likely to put others down.” (p. 56).

Wilkinson and Pickett say that inequality leads to pressure to present yourself to others in a flattering light. It leads to more narcissism, more business psychopaths, less empathy and altruism. Yet there is some hope. Studies show that when rich people think about egalitarian values, they become more ethical. Wilkinson and Pickett cite surveys showing most people would prefer their societies to be more equal economically.

Research on inequality suggests that everyone, including the rich, would be better off if societies were more equal, yet the driving forces pushing for ever greater economic inequality seem relentless, at least since the rise of neoliberalism in the 1980s. How to help counter these forces is a great unanswered question. Suffice it to say that groups are doing what they can to raise awareness, promote alternatives and encourage action.

            In this context, the pandemic is a wildcard. It offers an incentive for communities to pull together and make sacrifices to protect those who are most vulnerable. It sends a message that there is more to life than money and status. Indeed, life itself is at stake. Furthermore, pandemic control measures, by requiring greater distancing between people, have highlighted the importance of personal relationships in wellbeing. By forcing some people to slow down, the control measures have the potential to encourage people to reflect on their lives and priorities.

On the other hand, pandemic control measures are having some disastrous effects, increasing the risk of domestic violence and suicide, while enabling governments to justify draconian powers for surveillance and control of movement. It is possible to lapse into despair at the prospect of a terrible choice between control measures of indefinite duration and a continuing health crisis. A more positive agenda comes from looking at the way the pandemic opens the door to greater thinking of ways to improve people’s lives. It does not come from thinking of a choice between covid-19 and “the economy.” The emphasis needs to be on people’s needs, especially those that come from relationships of mutual support, meaningful work and helping others.

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Thanks to Lyn Carson and Richard Eckersley for helpful comments.

This post was published in Social Medicine and (in Spanish) in Medicina Social in vol. 13, no. 2, May-August 2020.

 

 

 

Be confident — but not too confident

Do you lack confidence? Are you afraid to set up a new business, embark on a new career, commit to a relationship or take up hang gliding?

Don’t worry too much about it. You might be making the right decisions. Being too confident can be worse than not being confident enough.

But how can you tell? Turn to Don A. Moore’s new book Perfectly Confident. It’s about making the best decisions.

            Moore says most popular treatments assume that more confidence is better. People just need to overcome their fears and jump in. This is true for some people and some decisions. But it can also be disastrous.

When you see a sports star making a seemingly brash prediction of winning, you might imagine that being really confident is necessary for success. After all, if you’re not confident, how can you do your best? Not so quick, says Moore. There’s actually little evidence that super-confidence improves performance. Those sports stars have worked hard and long, and may be making reasonable judgements about their chances of victory.

Overconfidence is potentially dangerous and can lead you to take unwarranted risks. If you’ve never tried base jumping, it’s better to be very cautious and prepare carefully before your first jump. Most new small businesses fail within the first year. Perhaps their owners were overconfident.

            There is evidence that most people overestimate how good they are at things. In a classic survey, 93% of US drivers said they ranked in the top half. Most young people think they are more honest than average and better than average at relationships. The reason is that people think, “I’m honest most of the time, so I’m better than average” but don’t stop to think that most other people may think the same way. Moore says the way to fix your perception of superiority is to be more specific. For example, if being a good driver is specified as never having had an accident or a ticket, then fewer people will overestimate their abilities.

There’s another side to people’s thinking about their own capabilities. When it comes to an uncommon skill, like riding a unicycle or subtracting large numbers in your head, most people underestimate their abilities. You might think, “I wouldn’t last three seconds on a unicycle” and forget to think that most other people might have the same difficulty.


Could you unicycle across China?

            One of the methods Moore recommends is to think probabilistically. Consider all possible outcomes of your decision. Consider the new business. You might guess that there’s a 10% chance of making a lot of money, 40% of making a little, 30% of losing a little and 20% of losing a lot. Just writing down the possibilities can be sobering. Overconfident people never stop to think of failure and hence can make unwise decisions. Assigning probabilities also helps in overcoming the tendency to think in terms of yes or no, success or no success.

You also need to weigh up the benefits against the costs. In setting up the business, you might be working 90-hour weeks. This can be exhilarating but it might also be exhausting. You should factor these possibilities into your decision. Vital here is the idea of opportunity cost. All that money and those hours of effort might be invested in some other activity. Thinking in terms of different possible outcomes and opportunity costs can help counter overconfidence.

A confident scholar?

Many times in my career as an academic I’ve had to make decisions about whether to write an article or a book and then, after writing it, where to submit it. When I was first starting out, I’d write an article and then try to figure out where to submit it. Before long, I learned this was not a good strategy, because sometimes there was no suitable outlet. Moore would say I was overconfident and needed to consider the possibility of wasting effort, at least for the purpose of publication, which is crucial for aspiring academics.

These days, before writing an article, I think about where I plan to send it, and the likelihood of it being accepted. Sometimes there is a high-prestige journal that I think could be worth trying. I might estimate the chance of acceptance as 5 percent, one out of twenty. I have to weigh up the effort of tailoring the article to this journal and going through the admission process, along with associated delays, against the 95% chance of rejection.

In many cases, I decide not to bother with the high-status journal and go straight to one where the odds are better. This points to another factor to consider when writing an article: are there fall-back options should my first-choice outlet reject my submission?

Another decision is whether to undertake a PhD. When I did my own PhD, aeons ago, I didn’t think about failure. I took a risk without considering the full range of outcomes. Now, as a potential PhD supervisor, I regularly talk to prospective students. They need to make several decisions: whether to pursue a PhD, what university to attend, what topic and what supervisor. It’s a big decision because writing a PhD thesis requires years of effort. Although about three quarters of students who’ve started with me as their supervisor have graduated, the cost for those who don’t finish can be large: they could have been doing something else with their time and energy. On the other hand, a student can acquire skills and obtain satisfactions along the way, a sort of consolation prize for non-finishers.

            Therefore, in advising prospective students, I point to the large and sustained commitment required and note that most PhD graduates do not obtain academic posts. After reading Moore’s book, in future I’ll recommend that prospective students assign probabilities to different outcomes. That will help counter overconfidence.

For students who are part way through their theses, a more common problem is under confidence. The challenge seems enormous. It can be helpful to have the courage to continue, knowing that most students, including most of those who finish, go through periods of self-doubt.

A confident whistleblower?

Another area where Moore’s recommendations are relevant is whistleblowing. Thinking from the point of view of managers in organisations, he says that being results-oriented is not necessarily a good thing. Being results-oriented often means rewarding employees for success and penalising them for failure.

This sounds logical but it misses an important consideration: sometimes it is wise to take risks even though some of them don’t pan out. If developing a new app costs $1 million and has only a 10% chance of success, it’s still a good bet if success means a return of $100 million. But when employees are penalised for failure, they won’t take risks like this. Apple never would have developed spectacularly profitable devices if it hadn’t supported risk-taking with positive expected returns.

Imagine being a manager and one of your employees reports possibly fraudulent activities in the organisation. You investigate and discover your employee is wrong. Does this warrant a penalty? Moore would say that this whistleblower should be encouraged even if the report was wrong, at least if there’s a reasonable chance it might have been right.

In practice, employees who make allegations of wrongdoing are often penalised even when they’re right, especially when the wrongdoing implicates higher management for being involved or for tolerating it. That’s another story.

            The whistleblower, treated badly, then turns to a watchdog agency such as an ombudsman or anti-corruption agency or court. A good idea? Moore’s advice would be to consider all possible outcomes and assign them probabilities, and also to consider other options. Few whistleblowers do this. They want vindication and assume that some higher authority will provide it. They do not investigate the success rate of previous whistleblowers, which can be abysmal. Because they know they are right, they do not consider the possibility that justice will not be done, and that many previous whistleblowers also knew they were right but failed in their efforts to be vindicated.

Moore recommends learning from experience. When you have a decision to make, assign probabilities to potential outcomes and consider alternative courses of action. When you learn the outcome, go back to your probabilities and figure out whether you may have been too confident or not confident enough. Gradually, over time, you can improve your skill in predicting outcomes.


Don’t just jump in! Learn to predict outcomes.

            This is good advice for many purposes. However, when you’re faced with a decision that is likely to be made just once in a lifetime — like doing a PhD or blowing the whistle — then it’s sensible to learn as much as possible about what others have done in the same situation. Why make your own mistakes when you can learn from others’ mistakes? By undertaking this sort of investigation, you minimise the risk of making a wrong decision. And when things don’t work out, remember that you still might have made the right decision. If you are successful in everything you try, you probably aren’t taking enough risks!

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

 

Judges and sexual harassment

Is Dyson Heydon, a former justice on the High Court, a serial sexual harasser? Maybe so, but there is more to consider: abuse of trust, outrage management techniques and official channels.


Dyson Heydon

Abuse of trust

In 1986, I joined the newly formed Sexual Harassment sub-committee at the University of Wollongong. Its aim was to oppose sexual harassment on campus. It was a sub-committee of the committee overseeing the Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) unit. We were a small group, with members from the EEO unit, academics, research students and undergraduate students. We developed policy proposals, produced leaflets and held stalls at Orientation Week.

Some members of the committee, through their contacts, knew about harassment on campus. Hardly any students were willing to make formal complaints, which didn’t come to our group anyway. But EEO staff knew about patterns, and some other committee members did too.

For example, we heard that a particular lecturer was making unwelcome advances to undergraduate students, none of whom wanted to make a formal complaint. On the committee, we discussed options. We couldn’t approach, much less accuse, the lecturer, as that would violate the students’ confidentiality. We talked about putting graffiti in the women’s toilets. In the end, the EEO Officer decided to offer a workshop on sexual harassment to the entire faculty. In this way, we hoped, the message would get to the lecherous lecturer and his colleagues.

            In 1990, something happened that broadened our concerns. Two undergraduate students accused a man of rape. It turned out that the man, a PhD student, was their tutor in one of their classes. He later went to prison for rape. The Vice-Chancellor put out a statement raising concern about individuals who abuse their “positions of privilege” in relation to students who “may feel their academic progress depends upon compliance with the wishes of a staff member or members.”

On our committee, we took this on board and started investigating the issue of consensual sexual relationships between teachers and students. There were two main problems. One was conflict of interest. If a teacher had a close personal relationship with a student, then the teacher would likely be biased when marking the student’s work. Even if not, there might be a perception of bias.

The solution for conflict of interest is often straightforward. One of my colleagues was married to a student in her class. The relationship was known, and arrangements were made so that he was not in her tutorial group and she had nothing to do with any of his assignments.

However, we learned of cases in which such conflicts of interest were not addressed. In one instance, which I learned about years later, a senior academic was a supervisor for his wife, who was doing a PhD.

The second main problem with close relationships between staff and students was abuse of trust. One of the members of our committee knew of a male colleague who started a relationship with an undergraduate student in his class every year or two. The students who were dumped along the way were often distressed. Some dropped out of university.

Teachers are in a position of trust with students, trust that they will support and nurture their students’ knowledge, understanding and skills. Students often look up to their teachers as experienced and knowledgeable, sometimes even in awe. When a teacher uses this position of authority and status to cultivate a sexual relationship, it undermines the expected professional relationship: it abuses the trust implicit in the teacher-student relationship.

Unlike sexual harassment, abuse of trust isn’t illegal. However, it can be just as damaging.

            In learning about this sort of abuse of trust in university settings, one of our committee members came across a book by Peter Rutter titled Sex in the forbidden zone. The book’s subtitle listed several of the possibilities for abuse: When men in power — therapists, doctors, clergy, teachers and others — betray women’s trust. There is an implicit trust that a doctor, lawyer, teacher or boss will look after the interests of their patient, client, student or subordinate. In each case, there is a possibility of abuse of trust when the person with greater authority uses their position to promote a sexual or romantic relationship.

Heydon, as a judge, obviously was in a position of much greater authority than his associates. For him, or any other judge, to use their position to seek a sexual or romantic relationship is an abuse of trust.

In some cases, such relationships are consensual. A student might welcome, desire or even seek a sexual relationship with their teacher. Sometimes this works out well, leading to long-lasting relationships. However, there is still a serious risk of abuse of trust, as we learned from stories we heard on our committee. The solution for teachers is straightforward: if you want a close personal relationship with a student, wait until they’re no longer in your class or in any way subject to your authority or influence.

Imagine, for the sake of argument, that one of Heydon’s associates welcomed his advances and began a relationship with him. That would be a legal, consensual relationship, not harassment — and it would still be wrong. It would probably involve a conflict of interest and most likely an abuse of trust. In such cases, the onus is on the judge not to initiate such a relationship. Indeed, if an associate took the initiative, the judge should refuse.

Sexual harassment: outrage management

Years after being on the sexual harassment sub-committee, I started studying what happens when a powerful individual or group does something that others think is wrong. An example is the 1991 Dili massacre, when Indonesian troops shot and killed hundreds of peaceful protesters in East Timor’s capital city. Another example is the beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police, also in 1991.


Still from George Holliday’s video of the beating of Rodney King

In these and many other instances, the perpetrator and allies use a variety of methods to reduce public outrage. They cover up the action, devalue the target, reinterpret the events by lying, blaming and reframing, use official channels to give an appearance of justice, and intimidate or reward people involved.

This dynamic applies to sexual harassment. Greg Scott and I examined the techniques used when Anita Hill alleged that Clarence Thomas, a nominee for the US Supreme Court, had harassed her years before.


Anita Hill

Greg and I found evidence of all of the usual techniques to reduce public outrage. For example, after Hill went public, she was the subject of a massive campaign of denigration, including publication of a book, The Real Anita Hill, filled with lies and derogatory material. (The author later recanted.) Thomas reframed Hill’s allegations as part of hearings that were a racial assault on him.

Paula McDonald at the Queensland University of Technology led a study of sexual harassment using this framework, examining testimony in court cases about sexual harassment. Court transcripts revealed that the same techniques were used in case after case.

For years, Heydon paid no penalty for his actions. The primary technique to reduce public outrage was cover-up. Heydon of course didn’t publicise his actions, but neither did others who knew about them. Many of them were afraid to say anything because they were worried about repercussions, for themselves rather than Heydon: their careers might be damaged. This is the technique of unspoken threats, a type of intimidation.

It is possible to counter the techniques that reduce outrage from injustice. The counter-methods are exposing the action, validating the target, interpreting events as unfair, mobilising support and resisting intimidation and rewards. These are the methods that made the Dili massacre, the beating of Rodney King and the sexual predation of Harvey Weinstein counterproductive for the attackers.

In Heydon’s case, outrage was stoked most of all by the breakthrough stories by journalists Kate McClymont and Jacqueline Maley. The stories were enabled by women willing to tell their stories. This was the counter-method of exposing the action.

            In the exposure, the women harassed by Heydon were given respect. In the coverage, they were presented as credible and as talented, conscientious individuals. This was the counter-method of validating the targets.

In the exposure, the events were portrayed as harassment and as wrong. This had particular resonance in the Heydon case because of his symbolic status as a high-level representative of justice and as a self-styled pillar of moral rectitude. This was the counter-method of interpreting events as unjust.

The coverage was enabled by women willing to come forward and tell their stories. The #MeToo movement was instrumental. It triggered a mobilisation of support for targets of harassment and assault.

Finally, several courageous women were willing to go public with their stories, despite the possible damage to their careers and reputations. This was the counter-method of resisting intimidation.

The exposure of Heydon’s harassment thus shows the relevance of all the counter-methods commonly involved in challenging a powerful perpetrator of something deemed wrong.

Official channels

In my just-published book titled Official Channels, I describe my experiences learning about the shortcomings of processes and agencies such as grievance procedures, regulatory bodies, ombudsmen, anti-corruption bodies and courts. Most of the workers in watchdog bodies are doing their best, but the system has inherent shortcomings.

One of the chapters in Official Channels is about sexual harassment. In Australia, like other countries, sexual harassment was a long-standing problem that came on the public agenda due to efforts of feminists. The main response has been setting up of laws and procedures to deal with the problem, but often these only give an illusion of protection. Decades later, sexual harassment and sexual assault remain serious problems.

After Heydon’s harassment was revealed to the public, the first response in many cases was to say that better processes are needed to deal with it. This is nearly always the number-one response. But why would better processes work now when they haven’t before? Furthermore, many of Heydon’s actions involved an abuse of trust, and there is no rule against abuse of trust.

I’m all in favour of more effective regulations, laws and watchdog bodies, but there’s a danger in thinking that this is enough. Several other options are neglected by comparison.

One important option is improved skills. Imagine that those around Heydon had been better prepared to expose and counter his behaviour. This doesn’t just mean the women he targeted, but others too, so-called bystanders, especially those who heard about his actions. Skills against sexual harassment include putting graffiti in women’s toilets — and in men’s toilets. They include being able to use anonymous remailers and set up secure websites. They include being able to make covert recordings, and being able to document events and convey them powerfully to others.


Martha Langelan’s book offers excellent practical advice

            This might sound like putting the onus for action on the target, in effect blaming the victim, but just as much onus needs to be put on others to provide support and take action. Bystander training is valuable in skill development.

Another important option is changing the culture. The legal profession is highly hierarchical, with judges at the apex. A more egalitarian system would reduce the power of elites, empower those lower down and enable stronger challenges to abusers.

Changing the culture might also mean changing expectations so that associates are treated as professionals rather than as personal assistants. It might even mean getting rid of the role of associates altogether, providing support for judges in other ways.

The point here is not to provide a blueprint but to note that there are options besides official channels. Improving skills and changing the culture might not be easy but they show quite a bit of promise, especially considering the failure of decades of official concern about sexual harassment. It is revealing that if official channels were effective, there would have been no need for the #MeToo movement — or for investigative journalists to expose people like Dyson Heydon.

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Thanks to Sharon Callaghan and Qinqing Xu for valuable comments on a draft and to the many individuals over the years who have helped me learn about the issue of sexual harassment and what can be done about it.

Indexing your book

You’ve just written a book and checked the proofs. Now it’s time to prepare the index. How do you go about it?

One option is for someone else to do it. There are some talented indexers available. This is easy for the author, but there’s one catch. Nearly always, you as the author know your material better than anyone. (If you don’t, maybe you’re a celebrity and didn’t write the book with your name listed as the author. In this case, you might learn something by doing the index.)

In my experience, the person most likely to rely on the indexes in my books is me! A few years after writing a book, I want to check a point or a name for something new I’m writing, but I can’t remember the details. So I turn to the index of one of my books.

Back to your book. Let’s assume you’ve decided to prepare the index yourself. How do you start? It’s worth looking at indexes in a variety of books, especially ones similar to yours. You can also read advice on preparing indexes; there is some good material available.

I once read that indexes are typically between 2% and 10% of the length of a book. You can aim for a minimal index, 2% or less, or a comprehensive one, closer to 10%. Sometimes the publisher will impose constraints, for example on the number of pages allowed. By using very small print, you can pack in more entries.

You as the author know your own style and your work habits, and it’s important to find an approach that suits you. What I’ll do here is describe a couple of the ways I’ve gone about indexing in case you might find a useful idea or two. I’ll use examples from my latest book, Official Channels; you can download it for free and see the index for yourself.

Here are the first few entries in the index.

academic exploitation, 81–83, 128–29, 133
acknowledgement practice. See plagiarism
activists, 59, 101–5, 187–89. See also political jiu-jitsu
Acton, Lord, 30, 116–17, 166

A page-by-page approach

Before word processing, indexing involved going through the text page by page, adding entries to a handwritten list. Word processing makes things easier. Here’s one way to proceed. Go through the text page by page. When you see a word that should be in the index, make an entry in your index list, in no particular place. If you see that the word is relevant for several pages, include those pages, but otherwise don’t worry about whether you’ve already included the word. When you get to the end of the book, put everything in alphabetical order. You’ll have to amalgamate entries with the same word. For example, after putting entries into alphabetical order, you might find:

Acton, Lord, 30, 116–17
Acton, Lord, 166

Just put them together to form

Acton, Lord, 30, 116–17, 166

What a computer can’t do well

Assuming you have an electronic copy of your book as it will appear, you can use a computer program that automatically compiles a concordance, which lists every mention of every word. The problem is that the program has no knowledge of what your book is about, so it chooses words without any understanding. That means there’s still a lot of work to do. Eliminating words such as “the” from the list is easy. However, there are two other problems.

Let’s say the program lists Zambia in your index. Did you really discuss Zambia? If you said, “Every country from Albania to Zambia,” then Zambia is not a useful entry. Someone using the index would expect that you’ve said something specific about Zambia. Maybe you did, just not at this particular page.

Suppose the program gives a list of page numbers for “community.” You did discuss the role of the community in your book, but you also used the word in a generic sense, for example, “In this community …” A useful index will include only those pages where there’s a substantive attention to the concept of community. This means that you need to check every instance where you used the word and eliminate the unhelpful instances.

Finding every use of a word is one thing. An index has added value when it includes relevant pages where you didn’t even use a word. Suppose you’re writing about torture. You might have some pages about sensory deprivation where you don’t use the word torture, but it’s useful to include those pages.

Some indexes stick to words found in the text but give little information about the connections between the words. This is where the author, or a highly knowledgeable indexer, can provide guidance, especially using See and See also.

bill of rights. See First Amendment

In my book, I do not discuss the US bill of rights, but do discuss one important part of it, the First Amendment to the US Constitution. Using See does not necessarily imply that the bill of rights is the same as the First Amendment; it just gives an indication of where to look for something relevant to the bill of rights.

courts, 13, 23, 86–87, 109–10, 156–57. See also defamation; First Amendment; law; official channels

See also points to related topics. If I’m trying to think of the First Amendment but can’t remember the name, maybe I’ll think of courts or the law. Under entries for “courts” and “law,” the First Amendment is listed after See also. Unlike the bill of rights, I actually discuss courts, so those page numbers are included.

A skim-and-check approach

After indexing quite a few of my books, I found a method that works well for me. There’s one important requirement: I have a pdf of the entire book. It’s most convenient if page 1 of the book is page 1 of the pdf.

I start by going through the book from page 1. Typically there are one to five entries on each page, though this can vary considerably. On page 5, for example, I discuss the whistleblowing case of Vince Neary, so I begin an entry for him.

Neary, Vince, 5

It’s more than a passing reference: I discuss Vince’s case for several pages. So I look forward to see how long this is.

Neary, Vince, 5–10


Vince Neary

There’s also an entry for State Rail, about which Vince blew the whistle, and “whistleblowing” as a general topic. I add these to my index file, in alphabetical order.

In the text, I say that Vince had come to Australia from England. Should I include “England” in the index? Perhaps, for a very comprehensive index, or maybe if I discuss other individuals from England. But in this book, I don’t discuss England as a country, so I don’t include it in the index.

Another issue: State Rail, for which I’ve created an entry, is a government organisation in the Australian state of New South Wales, commonly abbreviated NSW. Should I include an entry for NSW, with a See cross-reference from “New South Wales”? I know that later in the book I have lengthy treatments of two other NSW organisations. So it would be reasonable to include “NSW” in the index. However, I don’t actually say anything specifically about the state of NSW, for example the population, the government or the climate. Because of this, I decide not to include “NSW” in the index. This is the sort of decision that determines how long the index becomes.

There are numerous decisions of this sort in any index. Should a word be included? What cross-references should be listed? Making decisions requires mental effort. This is why indexing is not a mechanical process — or at least shouldn’t be a mechanical process, if the index is to be really useful. This is also why I don’t work on the index for long stretches of time. An hour per day is plenty. That way I keep fresh, and on the following day my mind has processed some of the issues I had confronted.

To keep everything on the screen, I use two columns and a small font. I keep adding entries and adding page numbers to existing entries until reaching the end of the book. Through this skim stage, I’m not too worried about being comprehensive. The main thing is to pick up all significant topics.

Next I glance through the index to pick up anomalies and start adding See and See also cross-references. Then I start through the index, searching the book pdf for each word or phrase. Proper names are the easiest. One of my entries is Lord Acton. I search the pdf for Acton, noting the pages where it appears. If I picked up all instances in going through the text, the pdf search will find all those instances. Sometimes, though, I missed an instance or incorrectly typed a page number.

For some entries, I don’t want to list every mention in the text. Many of the case studies in my book are Australian, so when I search the pdf for “Australia” there are a lot of hits. If I listed every one, there would be so many pages that the entry would be useless. No one wants to look at 50 or 100 different pages to find what they’re looking for. So I only include those pages where Australia is discussed, not just mentioned. Also, I have considerable discussions about several Australian organisations, for example Whistleblowers Australia. I add “See also Whistleblowers Australia” to the entry and don’t include the pages for Whistleblowers Australia under “Australia” unless there’s a comment about Australia as a country. The result:

Australia, 19, 22–26, 37, 43–47, 77–78, 119, 168–69, 172–75, 179–81. See also ASIC; HCCC; ICAC; Whistleblowers Australia

Because this entry has a fairly long list of pages, it is more unwieldy than most other entries. But it’s still more helpful than if I had listed every page where the word Australia appears. As well, the word “Australia” is not part of the name of the HCCC or ICAC. These are organisations in Australia, so the See also reference goes beyond a simple cross-reference to the word “Australia.”

Next consider a more challenging entry, discussed earlier:

courts, 13, 23, 86–87, 109–10, 156–57. See also defamation; First Amendment; law; official channels

I searched the pdf for the word “court” and decided to list some but not all pages where the word appears. Sometimes in the text I listed several examples of official channels — “grievance procedures, ombudsmen, anti-corruption agencies, and courts.” This sort of reference to courts isn’t worth including in the index because I haven’t said anything much about courts. It’s only when there is some substantive comment about courts that I want to include page numbers.

Along the way, I thought about other areas where courts are regularly involved, leading to See also references to defamation and the First Amendment. Courts are a type of official channel, so there’s a See also reference to official channels. Then, I thought, courts are intimately bound up with the law. At that stage I didn’t even have an entry for law. So I searched the pdf for all mentions, going through the same winnowing process, leading to this:

law, 33, 200–1. See also courts; First Amendment; injustice; official channels; SLAPPs
     and crusades, 44
     defamation, 24–25, 176, 179
     and HCCC, 229
     and myth system, 37–38
     and operational code, 38, 46
     serving power, 33
     whistleblowing, 19, 22–26, 28, 42–43, 45–48

In this entry, I list pages where I discuss law in general at the outset (law, 33, 200–1) and then have sub-entries for when law is part of a discussion of specific topics. Note how these are in alphabetical order in a peculiar way, with the main word potentially either before or after “law”. For example, the first item on the list, “and crusades,” is connected as “law and crusades” whereas the second item, “defamation,” is connected as “defamation law.” The “and” is not taken into account in forming the alphabetical order.

The final sub-entry in this list, “whistleblowing,” is connected to “law” as “whistleblowing law.” Technically, it would be more appropriate to refer to “whistleblower law.” However, elsewhere in the index I made a major entry for “whistleblowing,” and for the purposes of the index it seemed to me unnecessarily discriminating to have separate entries for “whistleblowing” and “whistleblower.” Perhaps on another day I might have chosen differently.

For this index, I laid out the complex entries using the format above. Another option is:

law, 33, 200–1; and crusades, 44; defamation, 24–25, 176, 179; and HCCC, 229; and myth system, 37–38; and operational code, 38, 46; serving power, 33; whistleblowing, 19, 22–26, 28, 42–43, 45–48. See also courts; First Amendment; injustice; official channels; SLAPPs

This format is more compact, and I’ve used it in the past. However, it is not quite as convenient to read.

After completing a draft of the index, it is worthwhile looking through it all again, noting any obvious problems. It is definitely worth checking the alphabetical order. If you use a sort function, it may not result in an order that you want.

There are a few complications in arranging entries in alphabetical order. Consider these two entries:

Whistleblowers Australia, 2, 5, 9, 14–16, 19–20, 52–54, 236–37
Whistleblower’s Survival Guide, 19–20

I’ve ignored the apostrophe for the purposes of alphabetical order, but my sort function put the two entries in reverse order.

Then there are numbers:

Ferguson, Adele, 172–75
5th Pillar, 69
First Amendment, 175–81

I’ve included “5th Pillar” as if it were spelled “Fifth Pillar.” You might prefer to put numbers at the beginning, before letters.

For “#MeToo,” I ignored the #:

medical dominance, 225–27
#MeToo, 114–15
Milošević, Slobodan, 166–67

Then there are titles with indefinite articles:

political jiu-jitsu, 144–52. See also backfire
The Politics of Nonviolent Action, 145
power, 27–29

I could have written the book entry as Politics of Nonviolent Action, The, 145. There are rules for most of these sorts of issues. I usually follow the rules because they are designed to make things consistent and easy, but sometimes I use my own judgement. Given that I’m the one likely to use my index more than anyone else, I want it to be convenient for me.

Ideally, you should find someone to check your index. Spots checks would involve looking at random pages, seeing words or topics, and seeing whether the index includes the words or topics with those pages. Though I can’t remember ever asking anyone to check my indexes, it’s a worthwhile precaution. A friend told me about a book by a well-known author for which the page numbers listed in the index were in disarray, with few of them correct. How could this happen? Imagine that you accidentally use a version of the text with the wrong page numbers — even just an extra paragraph added early in the book could cause subsequent pages to be changed — or the publisher adds a foreword and renumbers all the subsequent pages. Not a pleasant thought.

When preparing an index, sometimes I wish that I could rewrite aspects of the book. The index alerts me to inconsistent uses of words, of words that are overused, of repetitions in the text, and of important concepts that I’ve not addressed. Preparing the index offers a perspective on what you’ve written that may be slightly different from what you gained from the writing and proofreading. If you gain insights from the index, write them down for later. It’s possible you’ll prepare a second edition of your book!

Is there a politics of indexing, in other words does indexing reflect the exercise of power? Any book has a politics in this sense. It’s your way of making sense of something, and in doing this you make assumptions and give a partial perspective via the words you use and don’t use. The index reflects the book’s politics, namely its perspective, and sometimes highlights or accentuates it. Does your index include emotive words such as abuse or exploitation? Does it include contentious topics?

If there’s a book about the politics of indexing, it would be fascinating to look at its index.

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Thanks to Anneleis Humphries and Jason MacLeod for valuable comments on drafts.

Natural talent and beyond

A lot of people believe in natural talent. They believe that some individuals have a genetic advantage, enabling them to perform far better than others. For example, Mozart is assumed to have a natural talent for music and Einstein for physics, and there are numerous star athletes whose performance seems so fantastic that they must be genetic freaks.

Researcher Anders Ericsson challenged this belief. With two colleagues, he studied violinists at a violin academy in Berlin. They divided the students into three groups: the most highly accomplished, those least accomplished and those in between. They then asked students how much violin practice they had undertaken in their lives.

If some of the violin students had natural talent, you would think that they could be in the most highly accomplished group with far less practice than others. But no, all of the top performers had put in large amounts of practice. Although the correlation between practice and performance was far from perfect, nonetheless none of the students seemed to be able to reach the highest level without thousands of hours of practice.

Furthermore, the practice needed to be of a particular type, involving students intensely concentrating on performance challenges at the edge of their abilities, under the guidance of experienced teachers. Ericsson called this “deliberate practice.” Just playing through the same easy pieces didn’t enable improvement. Deliberate practice did.

Ericsson went on to further investigate what is called “expert performance,” which refers to high-level performance in a domain where there are well-established and relatively objective criteria. Such domains include classical music, chess and competitive sports. In art, law or business, for example, measuring performance is more subjective.


Practice is essential for success in classical ballet

            Although practice may be essential for outstanding performance, lots of practice does not guarantee such performance. It is difficult to determine the quality of an individual’s practice, given that this involves the level of focus interacting with the suitability of the challenge for one’s development. One person’s ability and willingness to focus may differ quite a bit from another’s. There is still much to learn about deliberate practice.

The strong interpretation of research on expert performance is that there is no such thing as natural talent. In some sports, like basketball, inherited physical attributes such as height make a difference but, other than this, the key to high-level performance is practice.

When you learned to drive a car, you had to practise. However, most people, after they can drive competently, stop practising. After you obtained your licence, you had no need to continue to improve. You can gain experience by driving a lot, but this does not do much for your skills. If you want to learn to drive a bus or a race car, this requires additional training.

In most domains, people practise until they are competent but then use their skills without additional focused practice. This applies in sales, carpentry, nursing and indeed most occupations.

Not everyone accepts the research on expert performance: belief in natural talent is deep-seated. I’ve often heard people say, “I’m no good at maths.” Underlying such statements is an assumption that they lack natural talent and hence can never hope to achieve even a modest competence. Additionally, some researchers contest claims made by Ericsson and others who study expert performance.

In 2008, science writer Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers was published. Gladwell popularised expert performance research, including the “10,000 hour rule,” the idea that to become a world-class performer in any field, it’s necessary to devote 10,000 hours to deliberate practice. Gladwell gave the example of the Beatles, who spent long hours performing in German night clubs before their breakthrough into stardom. Unfortunately, Gladwell’s account of expert performance research was flawed.

            Ericsson, in collaboration with writer Robert Pool, wrote the book Peak, published in 2016. I reviewed it at the time. Peak provides an accessible treatment of research on expert performance and its implications for a variety of endeavours. Along the way, Ericsson and Pool address Gladwell’s example of the Beatles.

They say that Gladwell had one important point right, namely that developing high-level skills requires a great amount of practice. However, contrary to Gladwell, 10,000 hours is not a special number for attaining world-class status, nor is any “rule” involved. The Beatles did indeed spend many hours performing in German nightclubs, but this was performance, not practice, and would contribute little to their skills. In any case, the Beatles never became great performers. Their most significant contribution was in song-writing, especially by Lennon and McCartney, so attention should be on the amount and quality of time that Lennon and McCartney spent becoming better song-writers.


Lennon and McCartney at work songwriting

            David Epstein is another popular writer who has addressed expert performance. In his 2013 book The Sports Gene, he explored the role of genetics in sporting eminence. It is a fascinating book, with many examples. Epstein gives an account of research on expert performance, arguing that genetic factors play a much greater role. As a counter-example to the requirement for extensive practice, Epstein describes the case of a basketball player named Donald Thomas who jumped an impressive height at his first attempt at the high jump and before long won the world championship.

Ericsson has made a special project of studying claims of elite performance without much prior practice and found all of them wanting. In Peak, Ericsson and Pool point out that Thomas had competed in the high jump in high school. Subsequently, as a basketball player, he prided himself on dunking the ball, something that involves many of the same jumping muscles and skills as the high jump. So actually he could not be considered as lacking practice relevant to high jumping.


Donald Thomas

            Having read The Sports Gene, I saw Epstein’s new book Range, and read it hoping to see how he would respond to Ericsson’s analysis. Range is an engaging account of what it takes to succeed in a variety of fields. Epstein argues that early specialisation and training may not be the best option. Instead, it is worthwhile to explore a range of activities until you find the one that best matches your interests. Range gives many revealing examples of individuals who have sampled diverse careers before finding one at which they excelled. Epstein also tells of how non-specialists can sometimes solve difficult problems that stump specialists.

Range in some ways seems to be a reply to Peak. Indeed, Epstein at various points argues that the 10,000-hour rule is relevant only for a narrow group of individuals and activities. As I read through Range, I found many valuable insights about what it takes to succeed, but also an unfortunate dismissal of insights about expert performance. It makes sense to try out different activities and then to pursue one that appeals to you. But once you’ve obtained what Epstein calls “match quality,” namely matching your interests to an endeavour, then it’s time to put in lots of practice. However, Epstein hardly mentions the effort required after finding your ideal match.

            By my reading, deliberate practice is a necessary counterpart to finding the activity you want to pursue. I asked myself, why didn’t Epstein give due acknowledge to the role of practice? Why didn’t he take on board the arguments in Peak? I can’t answer these questions, but I did make a more detailed analysis of the arguments in Range in the light of expert performance research. This has been useful for my own understanding.

To become a best-selling author, like Gladwell and Epstein, perhaps it helps to make striking and memorable claims. Few scholars are good at this: to be published in academic journals, it’s usually necessary to write in scholarly style, with citations of previous work, exhaustive details about methods and results, and commonly in indigestible prose. When scholars seek to write in a more accessible way, often they are assisted by co-authors or editors, indeed as with Ericsson and Pool’s Peak. Some popularisations are true to the underlying research but others may have misrepresentations. How can you tell the difference? There’s no easy answer. All I can suggest is that if a topic is important to you, it is worthwhile exploring some of the underlying research papers yourself, reading reviews, and looking for contrary points of view. Along the way, you’re developing your own understanding. After a few thousand hours of this exploration, you might become really good at it!

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au