Thinking yourself into a corner

9 09 2012

Yesterday, the Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard’s father died. Although he had battled ill health, it was an unexpected death. The majority of her political opponents, the media, and social media pundits offered her their condolences, and newspaper articles eulogised on his role in bringing up and educating Australia’s first female Prime Minister. Whether you agree with his daughter’s politics or not, he did a good job bringing up his daughter to contribute to public life and achieve on her own terms.

But some social media pundits couldn’t help themselves. They made snarky comments about her, her father and various other personal issues. Speculation ranged from how he felt about her politics to whether the tax payer would pay for his funeral. It was almost like they thought she had arranged this personal tragedy for her own political gain.

Now I can’t help wondering – are these people like this in real life? Or, in real life, are they normal compassionate people who, despite differences of opinion, recognise that a personal tragedy is common to us all, a precondition of being human. People you and I would be happy to know.

There has been a lot of conversation in Australian media and social media about trolls – people who (usually anonymously) frequent social media sites for the purpose of vicious personal attacks. An anti-bullying ambassador, Charlotte Dawson, was hospitalised after vicious attacks on twitter (#diecharlotte) became too much for her.

Who are these people? Why do think they have a right to attack others?

At the same time, US news reported on a 16 year old who called for the assassination of her president, Barack Obama, via twitter. Where does this hatred come from? Why do people think this semi-anonymous (although in the case of the above 16 year old, her twitter handle was in her own name) forum is OK for vitriolic hatred, calls for violence and personal attacks, the sort of behaviour that most of us would not engage in, in real life?

There is a psychological concept called cognitive dissonance. Most of us like not to feel hypocritical. We like to feel we are logical, our thoughts, taken individually or en masse, make sense. We don’t want to seem to contradict ourselves.

So maybe these people have thought themselves into a corner, whereby their unrelenting hatred and attacks in a political context cannot be stopped, even for personal tragedy or common decency. They have objectified the focus of their obsession and no longer see them as sharing the common human experience that unites us. They cannot back down or rethink their position, no matter what.

This is not logic. This is irrational. This is hatred.

There is a level of intellectual sophistication involved in being able to deal with, to hold, two cognitively dissonant thoughts at the same time. Say, hatred for someone’s politics and compassion for them as a person not feeling compatible in one psyche. This sort of sophistication and maturity might not be expected from a 16year old (although her parents should cut off her social media accounts until she understands the concepts of treason and inciting violence as criminal offences) but it would seem the majority of trolls are not under-age.

But just like the metaphorical “paint yourself into a corner”, some people think themselves into small confined positions, from whence they are unable to be flexible and respond to changing conditions. But wouldn’t you rather react and change according to changing conditions (evolution having shown us the options are adaptor die) than make ourself into a public fool and be publicly castigated for your rigidly inflexible position? Let alone possibly do actual harm to another, as occurred with Charlotte Dawson.

An Open letter from over 200 Australian Academics with concerns about treatment of Asylum Seekers – and proposed solutions

21 07 2012

The weblink for this letter is available at the bottom of this posting.


We are academics who have serious concerns about the protection of asylum seekers under the proposed legislation presented to Federal Parliament in the week prior to the winter break. The undersigned represent a substantial proportion of Australia’s leading experts in refugee and asylum seeker research. The strength of our concern is indicated by this unusual cross-disciplinary alliance and our wish to express our views.

The two major political parties claim that the most effective solution is to ‘stop the boats’. However, stopping boats of asylum seekers reaching Australia (if that is even possible) does nothing to address the reasons why people flee persecution in their own countries. Neither does it address the needs of asylum seekers to find a durable solution elsewhere. We argue, therefore, that none of the solutions proposed by either major political party is in fact a solution.

Reasons for our opposition are outlined below. We would prefer a different approach to this issue with a focus on protection to provide durable solutions for asylum seekers and refugees in the region. Refugees must have viable alternatives to jumping on boats; we outline these alternatives at the end of this letter.

Four “solutions” to the “problem” of asylum seekers arriving by boat have been suggested by the two major political parties. All of them fail to address the needs of asylum seekers and undermine Australia’s obligation to implement its responsibilities under the UN Refugee Convention in good faith. Furthermore, they are unlikely to be successful.

The proposed policies and reasons for our opposition

Returning boats to Indonesia. Experience with this policy under the Howard government showed how dangerous it was for both asylum seekers and Australian Navy personnel. Many lives were put at risk; for example, according to a Four Corners report, when SIEV 7 was returned to Indonesian waters in 2001, three men disappeared, presumed drowned, while trying to swim ashore from their stricken boat. There is also the question of incompatibility of the policy with the obligation to rescue those whose lives are imperilled at sea. Furthermore, Indonesia has indicated that it will not accept the towing back of asylum seeker boats to its shores and former Defence Force chief Admiral Chris Barrie has serious reservations about the proposed policy. In short, he does not believe that it will work.

Temporary protection visas. Refugees granted temporary protection visas under the Howard government were precluded from applying for family reunion. Thus, rather than deterring asylum seekers from taking boat journeys to Australia, evidence indicates that these visas encouraged many women and children to do so. For example, most of 353 asylum seekers who died in 2001 when the vessel SIEV X sank en route to Australia were women and children; many of whom had husbands or fathers on temporary protection visas in Australia. Furthermore, those of us who engage with refugees from that era have ample evidence of the mental harms done to individuals because of temporary protection visas; some persisting to the present day.

The Pacific Solution. 1,231 asylum seekers were detained on Nauru under the Howard government; many for a period of years. 484 were eventually resettled in Australia and 274 were resettled in other countries, all either as refugees or on other humanitarian grounds. 473 were returned to their countries of origin, mostly to Afghanistan. Evidence suggests that many of those returned to their country of origin fled soon after they arrived as it was still unsafe for them. Some of these asylum seekers have since returned to Australia and have now been accepted as refugees. Finally, the evidence is clear that asylum seekers (including many children) are being harmed psychologically, particularly when they spend a long time in offshore facilities.

The Malaysian Solution. Refugees’ human rights cannot be adequately protected through this scheme. Malaysia is not a party to the Refugee Convention and does not protect the rights of refugees in practice. For example, refugees have no guarantee that they will not be returned to their countries of origin to face further persecution. If Australia sends asylum seekers to Malaysia without first assessing their refugee claims, it may breach the core prohibitions against refoulement in the Refugee Convention and the Convention against Torture. It would also demonstrate a lack of good faith in the implementation of Australia’s obligations under the Refugee Convention and other core human rights treaties.

We propose the following:
1. Australia should implement its UN Refugee Convention obligations in good faith by processing those asylum seekers who come to Australia and seek protection. We should not shift them to other countries. We cannot encourage other nations to respect the Convention if we blatantly disregard it ourselves. Seeking to move asylum seekers to other countries may achieve short-term domestic political gain, but it will undermine Australia’s efforts to develop a viable regional framework, as it reinforces regional perceptions that Australia is interested in exporting its refugee ‘problem’ rather than collaborating in a genuine multilateral process.

2. Australia should immediately increase its yearly humanitarian intake to 25,000 and resettle refugees from both Indonesia and Malaysia. It should consult with UNHCR to make protection available to asylum seekers who would otherwise seek their own solutions. This should include refugees already en route (that is, in Indonesia and Malaysia) as well as UNHCR priority groups in other countries.

3. Applications should be promptly assessed by the UNHCR in Indonesia and Malaysia so that refugees have viable alternatives to jumping on boats. The more people who do not need to jump on boats, the less deaths there will be at sea. The UNHCR needs to be given more funding by Australia to achieve this. Alternatively, Australia could process asylum seekers in Indonesia themselves and then transport the refugees safely to Australia.

4. Australia should bring an end to the mandatory detention policy and – after health and security checks – allow all asylum seekers to live in the community while their refugee claims are processed. This would follow the Labor Government’s recent initiative of offering bridging visas and community detention to asylum seekers not considered a risk to the community. Legislation should be adopted to enshrine this policy and to ensure that detention is used as a last resort and is not of indefinite duration.

5. There should be judicial oversight in cases where long-term detention is sought. To give but one example, there are over 50 (primarily Tamil) refugees in indefinite detention who have been found to be refugees but have also been assessed to be security risks. This is in part because of a lack of judicial oversight; these refugees are not even aware of the allegations made against them.

To conclude, we believe that any policy should preserve rather than compromise the human rights of asylum seekers – including their right to seek asylum. We need humanitarian policy responses that share responsibility rather than shift the burden.


This is already a very long post, so I have taken off the names of the academics. The names, their positions and University affiliations can be found at this web address , which is also the source of the letter.

Please share this letter. We need some rational and compassionate debate to take the place of the shameful political point-scoring we have seen for at least the last ten years.

People are dying.

(bolding in the article is mine to aid readability)

Australians abroad

12 11 2011

"Tourist Information brochure" (as circulated on Facebook)

It is an Australian tradition that when overseas, we should talk up the dangers of our home continent. We are given lectures on this when we apply for our passports, and reminded at customs each time we exit the country.

We consider it good for the image of our wild and sunburnt country that the rest of the world should both suffer from illusions about the way we live, and should consider it a miracle that any of us survive to adulthood.  We have the distinct advantage of being a long way away from almost everyone else so until recently, very few people had actually been to Australia except Australians.   We could say whatever we liked.

So as a refresher for all Australians, here are some of the terrors we need to talk up when abroad.

1. Sharks.  Australia is a continent surrounded by man-eating white pointer sharks.  And they are hungry.  While they take the occasional Australian, what they really want is a tasty tourist wrapped in a wet-suit.

2. Box Jellyfish.  Seawaters that are not infested with sharks, are infested with Box Jellyfish.  Some waters even have both.  Box Jellyfish have long invisible tentacles which the lay about in the waters and stong any human flesh that comes near.  Incredibly painful by all accounts, the stings can be eased with the application of urine, but CPR may be required (seriously).

3. Stone-fish, scorpion fish, stingrays.  All those pretty and friendly fish that want to play with snorkellers on the reefs.  Stonefish look like rocks on the bottom of the sea, until you tread on them.  Sharp spines delivering agonising poison. Ditto scorpion fish.  And stingrays of course have sharp spines on their tails which they can flick around and stab you with.

Does that just about cover the waterways and beaches? Rule of thumb – a vacant beach is probably vacant for a reason.  Read the signs and ask the locals before going near the water.

4. Crocodiles. So having covered seawater with sharks, jellyfish, scorpion and stone-fish, there are also the hazards of the inland waters.  Crocodiles.   They lie in wait in muddy waters, looking for all the world like a partially submerged log until an unwary toe is dipped in the water.  Sometimes they even come up on land to chase their prey.  There are also salt-water crocodiles that go into the sea and onto the beaches. Crocodile Dundee and Crocodile Hunter made this Australian native famous.  And yes, we all talk like that.

5. Spiders.  Australia has the very venomous Funnel-web spider, and also the red-back spider.  Neither are much fun to encounter.   Australians take them so flippantly that there is a song dedicated to one  “Redback on the Toilet Seat“. He ends up in hospital.

6. Snakes.  Especially terrifying to our friends from New Zealand and Ireland, where they don’t have snakes.  Australia has serious snakes, and lots of them. Seven of the world’s ten most deadly snakes are Australian.  And they like urban areas.  Australians know not to walk through long grass, and if they do, to wear thick boots and make sure they walk slowly making a large amount of noise to scare off any snakes.  (It is actually the tremors in the ground that scare them because snakes don’t have a strong sense of hearing.)

7. Blue-ring Octopus.  A cute little octopus that develops blue rings on its skin when angry.  Likes to live in small containers – shells, discarded bottles and cans etc.  Has a sharp beak on its underside with which it can deliver a poison-laden bite.  Seek help immediately.

8. Drop-bear.  What list would be complete without the drop-bear?  One of the lesser-known marsupials, the drop bear lives in forested areas and sits quietly high up in trees.  When an unsuspecting tourist walks underneath they drop noiselessly from above and crack their skulls with their weight.  No drop-bears have ever been captured, but every Australian knows they are out there.

9. Bunyip.  An Aboriginal legend, Bunyips live in billabongs (waterholes) and make gurgling growling noises as they emerge and submerge.  Aboriginal parents told their children that if they wandered away from the campsite at night, the bunyip would steal them away.

So there it is, the refresher course on the less-cuddly and fluffy Australian animals.  Australian tourists are advised to memorise the list, add in any current details (say, something from recent newspapers) and spread the word.

The final word to our overseas compatriates – if you think the animals are dangerous, wait ’til you meet the humans!

LATE BREAKING UPDATE: On the news tonight (17 November 2011) US President Barack Obama said that Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard had spent the journey to their press conference telling him about all the animals that could kill him in the Northern Territory. No word on whether that included Drop bears and Bunyips. Excellent job, Julia, keeping up our end!

The glass cliff

11 08 2011

photo courtesy Matthias Wesemeyer:

The term “glass ceiling” is used to describe an invisible barrier in the workplace whereby women (as a group rather than as individuals) rise through the workplace ranks to a certain level but can’t seem to get through to the next level – be-it the executive suite or the boardroom. In some industries the glass ceiling exists, in others it no longer applies to women, but perhaps it applies to other groups.

However, a male colleague has introduced me to a new term describing the female experience at work. This lovely man works in a female dominated workplace and has a wife and friends in the same industry, so I suspect this has been a topic of conversation at his dinner table.

I introduce it here for your consideration and opinion.

The glass cliff

The term “glass cliff” was coined in 2004 by Prof Michelle Ryan and Prof Alex Haslam at the University of Exeter to describe a phenomenon where women were appointed to the top job in Fortune 500 companies only after the company had experienced a significant downturn, leaving them in a difficult, sometimes impossible position. The woman is then (to use a rather ironic cliche) left holding the baby – blamed for the failure, and blamed not only as an individual, but as a gender.

This phenomenon is particularly visible in politics. Evidence from Profs Ryan and Haslam showed that in safe political seats, men were more likely to be preselected. Women were more likely to be preselected in risky marginal seats. In Australia we have the examples of the first two women being promoted into the position of Premier, both at times when the party had experienced significant downturn and was facing election defeat (Joan Kirner in Victoria and Carmen Lawrence in Western Australia). The same could be said of Julia Gillard, the first female Prime Minister of Australia. Overseas we have Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir elected as prime minister of Iceland after the country had gone into a major recession.

Failure is not always inevitable – Margaret Thatcher proved herself a survivor despite a series of glass cliffs including an appointment as Education Minister at a time of high student radicalism and riots, and became Prime Minister at a time when the UK had very high unemployment. She wasn’t the Iron Lady for nothing.

It will be interesting to watch Christine Lagarde, newly appointed to the International Monetary Fund after the scandal of Dominic Strauss-Kahn’s exit and revelations about the organisational culture. She is undoubtedly suitably qualified and experienced for the job. If anyone can overcome the issues of the IMF, surely it is she.

It has to be said that these women all took their chances. They probably knew what they were getting into but took the chance because at least it was an opportunity where there were few oppotunities. And yes, some women, like some men, are not good leaders.

And maybe, just maybe, they were being elected / appointed to these positions because it was felt that, as with Christine Lagarde, if anyone could retrieve the irretrievable, it was a woman.

But imagine what the good ones could have done in a good company.

More researchBruckmüller, S. & Branscombe, N. (2010). The glass cliff: When and why women are selected as leaders in crisis contexts. British Journal of Social Psychology, 49 (3), 433-451