Sunday, June 24, 2012

Accountability: when ‘too much’ diminishes its worth

I (want to) trust you to do the right thing

Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.
Confucius, 551 BC - 479 BC

A few comments about ‘accountability’ have crossed the twitter deck this past week or so, much to do with overdoses of the same in education but also, again, with regard to our LNP government in Queensland. It got me thinking…And while I am reluctant to quote twee confucianisms, I just happened upon that one above. It came to symbolise the week I’ve been having.

Accountability and transparency demands are desiccating our education and, if we’re not careful, our governments. For me, of course, the two, education and government, are intricately linked. Often, the accountability we think is required, and the government responses, are horribly at odds. It’s another point of the social contract we seem to have mucked up.

Accountability too, seems to be one of the odd sorts of mechanisms we are to be subjected to at various times of our lives…sometimes it is fair enough, other times it stifles. It is interesting that just as we are emerging from our teen years, in that usual battle of the minds under parental supervision and responsibility, as we learn for ourselves responsibility and, yes, accountability for our actions, we get to taste just that short ‘byte’ of freedom. We should emerge from the home as responsible, respectful junior adults; we get to our jobs—perhaps via university, perhaps through other pathways—and suddenly, we are back to that level of accountability, for everything. (I was once asked how many paperclips I required from the small box of the same...)

The level of accountability demanded of my workplace, the university, for example, is ‘unaccountably’ high. It stifles, it demands of us time that would be better spent teaching, researching, thinking and writing—the reasons most of us get into (or stay in) the academy in the first place. The idea that ‘accountability’ is a priority also tends to stifle the educational promise of students at the tertiary level.

I know, at the beginning of a semester, what I want to teach and what needs to be taught in a course. But I teach very contemporary subjects. Indeed, for one of them, on Northeast Asian security, there is always conjecture at the beginning of the semester as to whether or not the Korean Peninsula will be there at the end of semester… And, if I’m doing my job properly, I also need an element of flexibility to allow students to explore and contemplate the various topics—and I don’t always know where that will go either. I certainly don’t want to stifle them in their prognostications but by the same token, I don’t want them to be ‘locked in’ at the beginning with ‘expectations and outcomes’. Both sides need that element of serendipity of discovery that a good, nay, great tertiary education can give you.

I’ve come to see this level of accountability through the lens of ‘trust’…indeed, the lack of trust and a contrived sense of taxpayer entitlement. It’s a culture that’s been crafted by governments in the last couple of decades and it constructs a very narrow sense of ‘society’ and what we might be. Accountability, to the degree we experience it these days, says to me ‘we don’t trust you to do your job, we need to know everything you are doing and when and how you are doing it’. Perhaps we can ease off a little and we’ll al be less (dis)stressed.

As I was reflecting on the notion of accountability, it occurred to me that here in Queensland we are fast approaching that contrivance of government: the ‘first 100 days report’. Like anything that might have been a good idea at the time, this idea of focussing on the first 100 days has become, I fear, a mechanism of populist accountability that puts the wrong sort of emphasis on what we can expect from our government, and what our government ought to be doing on our behalf.

These ‘first 100 days’ reports are attributed to US President FD Roosevelt’s first one hundred days, as part of the New Deal and a way to restore confidence in the wake of the Great Depression. There might have been good reason for that then. These days, however, it just seems to be an exercise for governments to try and be seen to be ‘doing things’ and sometimes, I suspect, the desire to ‘tick boxes’ overrides the sense and consideration needed to govern well. Indeed, as part of the election campaign, the LNP published a glossy 10-page pamphlet on the first 100 days…pages of dot points and promises of what will be done. Lots of ‘commence’, ‘scope’, ‘establish’, initiate’…but not a lot about what sort of society we might become, the philosophical underpinnings which I think governments should also convey to the populace. I also want a government that will govern beyond the first 100 day 'milestone'. Sometimes, like a semester-long course which is part of a three or four year degree, a little serendipity goes a long way. 

There will be further posts about trust, I think it is something we really need to reinvigorate. These higher levels of accountability have, I think, diminished our ability and our willingness to trust others. We ought to revise our notions of trust—our society depends on it, now more than ever. 

Monday, June 11, 2012

More Queen than Bohemian Rhapsody: This week in Queensland

Our Maj, the Queen, her honours and wistful knights of the pineapple

By sheer coincidence (I’m sure) my theatre subscription play last Saturday was the Dario Fo’s ‘Elizabeth, almost by chance a woman’.  We were aware that it would not be quite what one might anticipate for a day at the theatre and, on the day, by about interval, I was kinda over it. I’m lukewarm about the monarchy at the best of times (though not necessarily a republican—more on that later) and, now that I’ve retired ‘being ironic’ from my lexicon (see last week’s post), I was stuck a bit with a performance that tried quite hard most of the time. I enjoyed watching some of my favourite Brisbane actors tread the Powerhouse boards and I know I’m getting distracted when I start focussing on the music (live and solo in this instance, quite well done).

The coincidence was that this weekend was the first of two public holidays in honour of the Queen, at the end of Queensland Week, with a Queensland Day (6 June) in a week that the Queen celebrated her diamond jubilee and the Queensland Cabinet sought to reinstitute Queen’s Counsel over Senior Counsel silks (though I doubt many will want to be King’s Counsel, when that time comes). More Queen than Bohemian Rhapsody this week!

But as news started to filter through late on Sunday night about the Queen’s Birthday honours suddenly the play resonated more strongly. Perfect timing really. First, former Howard government minister, now ‘professor and chancellor’ Robert Hill was awarded an AC. When news of that ‘well-travelled scholar’, former premier Peter Beattie was to receive the ‘highest’ honour (the ‘not-quite-a-knighthood’) on the Queen’s Birthday I started to feel like I was on stage in a Dario Fo play, (but not as the cross-dressing make-over queen, Grosslady—that was just too perfect for Eugene). Peter Beattie, the now Prof Gareth Evans, Joan Kirner…a proud roll-call of, erm, Labor Party stalwarts accepting humbly, of course, the honour. I have not lived a hypocritical-free life, so I shall not cast stones in their general direction (as a first draft Dario Fo character might say), but really do these people merit such accolades?

In another coincidence, just last week during one of my occasional chats with 612ABC’s Spencer Howson we were talking about the creeping monarchical tendencies of the Newman Government—planting of Jubilee trees (well, OK), the SCs to QCs shift and, we sort of joked, the return of knighthoods (arise Sir Spencer)? I said then I didn’t think such accolades should be given to politicians, sportspeople and celebrities, but to those whose work is essential but goes largely unnoticed. Acknowledging those people in our community is important. Well, well, I wouldn’t have guessed Mr Beattie would come as close as is possible to the gong by week’s end.

The twitterverse had much to say of course. Now, regular readers will know that I am on a mission to recultivate trust in our political institutions, to respect the offices of prime minister, premier and the like; that I really believe that it is not beyond us to renegotiate the social contract. Except…when it comes to politicians getting these gongs. Some in the twitterverse agreed, some didn’t. I just think that politicians by and large have high-profile and public opportunities all the way through their vocational calling. They are reasonably well-remunerated and can quite often pick up post-political careers (though sadly, not quite the case for Joan Kirner, according to today’s news).

The news focus is on the AC and AO winners (and, for the record, I am also a tad sceptical about academics gaining such awards for ‘doing their job’). Occasionally one or two other ‘less notables’ make it through the headline noise. I generally scan the lists to get a sense of who we (or the Queen) are honouring. It is by-and-large the ‘less notables’, the people at the OAM end who contribute selflessly to community; the emergency service personnel who go above and beyond their duty—who see things many of us will never imagine. Today, for example, Gold Coast sporting legend Daphne Pirie, I was pleased to learn was awarded an AO. As a junior hockey player growing up on the Gold Coast in the 1970s, Daphne was an absolute inspiration and developed hockey on the Coast while running a business with her husband and raising a family. To me, it seemed, she spent more time at that Isle of Capri training ground pushing us to be the best we could be, than probably her family saw of her in those years.

I’m not opposed to honouring members of the community who contribute in ways that shepherd us towards being the best we can be, to be a good society, to be a trusting and respectful society. At present, we do this through an honours system which tries to mostly unshackle us from our monarchical cuffs. Just occasionally, we can't quite let go. One day, we may be independent enough to honour our best in other, more original ways.

And if we are in a universe where a former premier really is a well-travelled scholar, (SCHOLAR, mind you!) and can accept an AC on behalf of others ‘who did all the work’, then I fear I really am trapped in a Dario Fo play. Thanks to QTC for preparing me so on Saturday.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Irony, I’m over it. Ironic, I know.

Irony: it will be our undoing and unfettered licence for those we elect

Irony, cynicism, sarcasm. The daily play of teachers everywhere as we are expected to applaud or encourage ‘media-savvy’ students preparing themselves against the vagaries of the real world, to avoid naivety, to circumvent vulnerability.

Irony, cynicism, sarcasm. I’ve been wanting to explore these concepts for a while, in reverse, through the prism of ‘trust’ that underpins my academic writing and thinking. I don’t have as much time to do it these days except here at my Sunday night posting. Such ‘thinking’ doesn’t get one far in the modern academy these days. It’s about outputs, huge grants, contrivances of ‘research’, big bucks. The solitude and engagement required for the modern thinker must be sought elsewhere. Still, I shall leave those issues for another post…

I jotted a ‘note to self’ last Sunday that I must tackle this question of irony. I had used it a few times recently, in partly an ‘ironic’ way, (hehe) but in fact what I was doing was allowing people the get away with being rude, or wrong, or downright insulting and getting away with it because they were being ‘ironic’. Then, in my Twitter timeline a couple of days later, in popped a link to an article by Suzanne Moore of The Guardian ‘I have had enough of irony’ (Wednesday 30 May). In an interesting article her point that the

legacy of postmodernism is this apolitical vacuousness and aesthetic relativism that does not want to call anything absolutely good or bad, that is scared of taking things too seriously

caught my eye because in my work I am trying to get to the bottom of the question of people’s ‘apolitical’ motives, their resistance to trust our elected leaders and those institutions we should trust. My views on ‘trust’ are extensive and subject of further work (the kind of thinking work that doesn’t attract institutional interest or support). I hold the optimistic view that trust in our institutions can be restored and that renegotiation of the social contract is the way to do that.
It is a challenge to teach politics to people when our conditioned reaction is to offer a cynical or sarcastic comment. And there is much in the way our politicians act today that makes it hard for us not to respond in kind. The level of cynicism and ironic response has increased in my classes over the many years I have taught politics to the point that one wonders if teaching is in fact a purposeful vocation anymore.
Now regular readers will probably recall that I haven’t owned a TV since the late 1990s—it blew up the night Cheryl Kernot was featured on the ABC, coincidence, I’m sure—so I have missed a lot of the satire that passes for comedy these days. The Simpsons, Seinfeld, The John Stewart Show and all their derivatives have indeed largely passed me by. Students cite these shows in response to political machinations of the day—they are ironic and cynical and this has become a legitimate form of political discourse. 
But my concern is that if irony and cynicism become our standard response then we are not likely to mend our broken polity. When students are cynical (for which I am reluctant to blame them) I ask them what might they do about it? Cynicism might be OK for the pithy response, but how does that fix things? Seeking answers to these questions often reminds me of the dog chasing its tail—where does the issue begin and will there be an end? On my lesser teaching days, one feels more like the python that started to swallow a tail only to realise too late that it was its own tail—can a python swallow itself?
As is my wont, my ponderings generally lead me to compare expressions in Japanese, just because I can…the English words ‘sarcasm’, ‘irony’ and ‘cynicism’ can all be covered with just one Japanese word hiniku 皮肉 (a combination of ‘skin’ and ‘meat’). There are subtleties and nuances involved, but essentially, to be ironic, is to be cynical, is to be sarcastic, in Japan. Mind you, there are many ways one can play with the language to make a sharp point.
Conversely, in English, our expression of ‘irony’ is a little more complex and can be verbal, situational or dramatic. I wonder if we spent a bit more time thinking about the uses of ‘irony’ we might re-establish a valuable form of rhetoric that might indeed improve our political discourse. Indeed, the philosophical tradition is something I should take up in class more explicitly in future, but for now, consider the following from the Macquarie Dictionary:
‘Irony’ is 1. a figure of speech or literary device in which the literal meaning is the opposite of that intended, esp. as in the Greek sense, when the locution understates the effect intended, employed in ridicule or merely playfully; 2. an ironical utterance or expression; 3. simulated ignorance in discussion (Socratic irony); 4. the quality or effect, or implication of a speech or situation in a play or the like understood by the audience but not grasped by the characters of the piece; 5. an outcome of events contrary to what was, or might have been, expected. [from Gk eironeia, dissimulation, understatement]
Interestingly, the same figure of speech might be delivered ‘in ridicule or merely playfully’. However, I don’t think the term ‘ironic’ as it is used in current discourse really is intended in any of these ways defined by MacDict. If we are to rebuild trust we need to start to call much ‘irony’ and ‘ironic’ remarks for what they are—they can be barbs, they can hurt, they do not advance our betterment as people by and large. They can be just pointless, smarta@$# responses which simply paper over cracks in the veneer of our social and political discourse. We can do much better than that.
Irony, cynicism, sarcasm. I’m not suggesting that these devices don’t have a place in politics (or elsewhere)—used in a proper context they might serve as a reminder to those we elect that they do not have an unfettered run at personal ambition nor ignorance of their mandate. But I’d like us all to think about our ironic tendencies…can we make a more emphatic point because we really thought about it?