Monday, July 09, 2007

Pearson, Greer, Bryson and the Burden of Solution

Given my last few posts have discussed the Burden of Solution, especially with reference to the PM's plan for indigenous communities and LAME Germaine, I thought I'd post extract from an article Jef and I wrote for the skeptic. It extended our entries on The Burden of Proof and the Burden of Solution in Humbug! From The Skeptic. Volume 24, No. 3. Spring, pp, 30-35.

Here's a section of the article on the Burden of Solution written by Jef:

Three Disparate Responses to a Recognised Social Problem:

Alcohol and Violence in Indigenous Communities

a. Noel Pearson

The following extract is from the web-based ATSIC NEWS, Summer 2002. The article comments on a report by Tony Fitzgerald, on “the causes, nature and extent both of breaches of the law and of alcohol and substance abuse… in Cape York Indigenous Communities”. Fitzgerald’s brief was also to suggest approaches and to recommend strategies to address the problem:

In March, Noel Pearson, whose advocacy can be said to have initiated the current focus on the Cape, was named Social Entrepreneur of the Year by the Australia/New Zealand Social Entrepreneurs Network for his work on Cape York Partnerships. Pearson’s speech on that occasion welcomed the Fitzgerald report for focusing attention on the ‘grog problem’, but criticised its author for reflecting ‘traditional thinking about substance abuse strategies’. Fitzgerald emphasises four action areas: controlling supply; prevention; harm reduction; and treatment and rehabilitation.

Pearson said his own analysis of substance abuse as a self-sustaining epidemic, suggests six areas of action, based on building an active intolerance of abuse, and including assistance to communities in managing time and money. In many other areas, however, Fitzgerald’s thinking overlaps with Pearson’s — or perhaps reflects the influence of people like Pearson. Pearson also underlined the need for social entrepreneurs, not welfare bureaucrats; was dismissive of what was implied in the government language of ‘consultation’, and criticised the approach of State Government agencies to Cape York Partnerships.

According to Pearson, they interpret partnerships as ‘a continuation of existing government programs and service delivery with an emphasis on ‘whole of government’ ‘coordination’’. Social entrepreneurship meant seizing opportunities, energising individuals, not providing welfare. Prevailing Indigenous policies are, Pearson said, based on needs and deficiencies, not assets and opportunities. Policies catering to material needs have crushed Indigenous social strengths and are premised ‘upon a conscious or unconscious lack of belief in our capacity as a people’.

It is our view that Noel Pearson is an impressive and positive contributor to public debate on this issue, and has made significant contributions to the development of social policy and programs. He has had a long-standing commitment to addressing the problem of alcohol-related violence in indigenous communities. He analyses the problem, embraces reality, and while at times he may be very critical of others, he suggests possible solutions. His suggestions are ambitious, but they are concrete and reasonable. They could be implemented and trialled, and subjected to evaluation and refinement. He is active, involved and engages in extensive consultation. He is focused on the problem, and he has taken upon himself the burden of solution. So his public statements are credible, and he is worth listening to.

b. Germaine Greer

Germaine Greer is also a contributor to public life in Australia. She also comments on the issue of alcohol abuse in indigenous communities. She is also critical of others, and proposes her own solutions. However her commentaries on the issue of alcohol and violence in indigenous communities are LAME. LAME is an acronym coined by Jef to characterise the variant of the burden of solution fallacy exhibited by needy exhibitionists like Greer. The letters in the acronym correspond to the phrase Look At Me Everybody — a phrase which seems to capture her primary motive for writing about and speaking on contentious social issues in her declining years. Here is an extract from the transcript of an interview of Greer by way of illustration:

Voice over: Australia’s most famous feminist and activist for a myriad of causes, Germaine Greer has taken up the cudgels for Aboriginal Australians in an essay to be published tomorrow. It’s called Whitefella Jump Up: the Shortest Way to Nationhood, and makes the controversial suggestion that we become an Aboriginal republic, perhaps known as the Aboriginal Republic of Australia, so that we will all become Aborigines. And living up to her outrageous reputation in this exclusive interview, Germaine Greer also talks to Jana Wendt about her love of good-looking young boys.

Greer: I live in an Aboriginal country, I was born in an Aboriginal country, I’m third generation born in an Aboriginal country. If I was saying that about France, it would be understood that I was French. If I say it about Australia, could it be understood that I’m Aboriginal? That Australian means something like Aboriginal. It doesn’t mean European, certainly doesn’t mean white Anglo-Saxon Protestant anymore. Perhaps it means that and if it meant that, what would that mean? What can I do with that idea?

Wendt: OK, but in clear terms, to get a grip on what you’re proposing, you are proposing that we consider ourselves to be part of an Aboriginal country, declare ourselves an Aboriginal Republic?

Greer: It would be ridiculous in one sense because Aboriginal is a funny word. It means “there from the beginning”. And so it’s not like saying you’re French or Indian or something. But it seems to me the best word. I mean, there is no reason why you shouldn’t reinvent a word. We could see ourselves as identifying with hunter-gatherer peoples. It would be an amazing thing to do.

Wendt: It’s an amazing proposition, and you know as well as I do, that people listening to you now saying that will say ‘she’s bonkers’.

Perhaps not bonkers, but certainly risible. Some might argue that the articulation of such a bizarre stance is a calculated strategy to garner publicity — the long-standing modus operandi of a LAME commentator seeking to boost sales of her latest book. Whether Greer is bonkers or not, or self-serving or not; she is certainly indulging in a particular variant of the burden of solution fallacy. While she might appear to be “offering a solution” of her own to alcohol and violence, her suggestion is self-evidently irrational and impractical. In our view she is burdening others with the genuine solution — those people who are actually prepared to get involved and to expend real time and energy in taking productive action.

c. Bill Bryson

Many people of compassion and goodwill are deeply concerned about alcohol and violence in indigenous communities, but the vast majority of concerned people do not have the time, ability or opportunity to take concrete steps to address the problem. It is not unreasonable when such people express the view that more needs to be done to address the problem. Nor is it unreasonable when such people admit that they do not themselves have a solution for the problem. Consider the following comment on the issue of alcohol and violence in indigenous communities offered by Bill Bryson, in his book Down Under:

As I sat now on the Todd Street Mall with my coffee and watched the mixed crowds — happy white shoppers with Saturday smiles and a spring in their step, shadowy aborigines with their curious bandages and slow, swaying, knocked-about gait — I realized that I didn’t have the faintest idea what the solution to all this was, what was required to spread the fruits of general Australian prosperity to those who seemed so signally unable to find their way to it. If I were contracted to the Commonwealth of Australia to advise on Aboriginal issues all I could write would be: ‘Do more. Try harder. Start Now.’

So without an original or helpful thought in my head, I just sat for some minutes and watched these poor disconnected people shuffle past. Then I did what most white Australians do. I read my newspaper and drank my coffee and didn’t see them any more. Pp 283,284.

Bryson’s frank bewilderment and mea culpa is a refreshing contrast with the shallow posturing of Greer. His statement is sincere and it represents a respectable position to take on such matters. While he is ‘technically’ burdening Australia and Australians as a whole with the solution to this problem, he is not sanctimonious. He does not engage in pretense or make light of the complexity of the issue. On the evidence of this statement, and the weight of such statements in the rest of his book, we would claim that he is not employing the burden of solution fallacy.

The burden of solution fallacy requires the sanctimonious criticism of the actions of others, along with an express statement (or an implication) that the critic knows what the solution is. In the face of any complex social issue, few of us can aspire to the level of contribution made by a Pearson. But at least we can all strive to be a Bryson. At all costs, we should avoid descent into the deluded fantasy-world of a LAME Greer.