Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Learning to act right (26)… My rage and being right…the making of a fundamentalist?

Learning to act right (26)… My rage and being right…the making of a fundamentalist?
Torrey Orton w/ Charles Brass*
April 17, 2012

My ethical / emotional fumblings at the Fertility Control Centre 
This paper is another step in the process of our attempting to understand what we are doing at the Fertility Control Clinic. Since we and the protestors are de facto actors in dramas beyond our personal reach, making sense is difficult. For lack of sense, the effort to continue defending the Clinic is much larger than the four hours a week we usually spend there. This is one part of that effort. See here for the broader context of this paper. We have been at this work for nine months now.

I have a problem. I can't keep my temper when I see a Fertility Control Clinic patient, especially one who is visibly distressed, being verbally assaulted by self-righteous moral prigs with offers of help to continue an unwanted pregnancy. The assailants go beyond merely offering a leaflet to pursuing the patients with closing words something to the effect: "Don't kill your little baby". Remember, these patients are coming for a wholly legal service, which in no respect implies they are murdering anything!!! Quite the contrary. The protestors' injunction is a grossly immoral assault. And it is applied to any female entering the Clinic, though many do for generic sexual health issues. A few stray passers-by get the same treatment, minus the baby killing accusation.

When I see such assaults (which happen on multiple occasions during any morning at the clinic) I flare red in my gut and my thinking more or less stops. I sometimes verbally counter-assault the offending protestor(s), and sometimes their home team facilitators. The latter are protestors who do at other times admit freely that their colleagues' behaviour is inappropriate. And, like many team members in all walks of life, they cannot rein in the abuses by their own. They cannot because membership and identity come before truth and justice for us all much of the time. As Camus said, "I believe in justice, but I will defend my mother before justice". See the fate of whistle blowers in any culture for a short history of this human ailment.

I flare because of a certain conviction I am right. The flare's strength tells me how strongly I hold that conviction about any particular assault. Hence, I call some of their language "a grossly immoral assault" above. However, I can see how close this is to their opposing position on the same matters. This kind of certainty process is the making and sustaining of fundamentalists, of me as much as them. It is a process fed, driven even for me, by bringing together a number of threatening factors under one trigger. I know my own, I think.

I know theirs are quite variable in intensity, as are their respective behaviours towards patients. I treat their behaviour as one thing because the patients' primary experience is of their worst behaving members, couched in the context of the HoGPIs' simple presence being experienced as an expression of disapproval by patients. Patient vulnerability at the moment of arrival varies, but the HoGPIs show no capacity to recognise and act on this awareness, as demonstrated by the persistence of their assaultive behaviours.

Collateral contributions to my rage
For me the initial trigger of my rage is the patient abuse by HoGPIs. Some of the collateral threats are also ethical ones more or less tangentially related to that trigger. Here are three of them – a suite of moral obligations foregone by the protestors, which in my view are grounds for a judgment of major hypocrisy against them.

But first, what is an obligation? For these purposes, it is an action required to sustain the meaning of another value. So, if the values (so-described pro-life values) that HoGPIs espouse are rooted in an institution that devalues life in its other actions (unprosecuted priestly paedophilia, for example) we can wonder about what their real values are. This is clearly the case where authorities debase their espoused values by practicing, or allowing to be practised, values which contradict the espoused ones. The fading of the enlightenment project in the light of late capitalism is rife with such contradictions. Our political and commercial authorities resist with similar vigour and tactics to the Catholic resistance: denial, obfuscation and finally pretences to acknowledgement. The Church's Melbourne Response is one such tactic. It is in turn under attack by local members of the priesthood concerned citizens and victims groups for failing tests of transparency, fairness and legitimacy.

What makes an obligation command our attention?
Then, why do these three 'obligations' count as obligations? First, because they are couched within an organisation – the Catholic Church – which is openly and happily hierarchical in its authority, infallible in its claims and so authorising infallibility in their application by the community of its parishioners. The Church's actual fallibility in matters sexual is increasingly on public display across the world, accentuated by its pathetic denials for decades.

Second, the organisation is trying to step into the domain of democratic government with an infallible dictum; that is, to impose a behaviour (notably a negative one: things not to do – abortion, contraception, multiple self-identified sexualities) which is a matter of personal and familial choice. Its agents – the HoGPIs – make it clear in their documentation and on-site behaviour that these matters are never negotiable options for Catholic humans.

Two laws – religious and legal
There are two 'laws' here: the law of the land and the 'law' of God. The second enjoys a special place in the law of the land – namely, being religious and therefore unassailable. This is the source of the Church's effective, to date, claim in Victoria to keeping the handling of what are illegal behaviours (child abuses!!) in house – that is, outside the jurisdiction of the law of the land!! On site at the Clinic, HoGPIs have no qualms about using any tactic they can to influence patients, and deflect defenders. Two laws yield different rules of engagement. We cannot act within their rules, because we do not play by their law.

The nature of the religious law on certain things is to claim superiority over the law of the land, handing therewith to its organisational practitioners a right to disregard the rights of those acting under the law of the land – e.g. patients seeking sexual health advice and abortion services. One need only see what's happening these days in the US and UK for a glimpse of how all sexual health issues are being presented by religious conservatives as matters for reduction to family rights issues – another haven of miscreants and upper-middle class rent seekers. The step from constraining abortion rights to removing contraception rights is small, and the action of HoGPIs at the FCC are in fact constraints of both for patients.

Third, the Church's sexual fallibility partly derives from their one-sex leadership policy. Ours is not a one-sex universe (yet). Continuing to focus on female sexual outcomes as their only locus of control unbalances the responsibility equation. What would a family life campaign look like which especially stigmatised male sexual irresponsibility and was led by nuns and sisters with priests and bishops in the background as support troops?

I will accept that a collateral damage of my seeking to protect FCC patients from unwarranted assaults is facilitating abortion when the HoGPIs accept that one collateral responsibility of theirs is pursuing and preventing priestly predations! That their systemic avoidance response is so untouchable isn't surprising when the Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne Denis Hart said on the ABC at a press conference he convened on April 14, 2012 afternoon that what happened in the diocese of Bendigo for decades in the mid 1900's isn't the business of the diocese of Melbourne. As if all Catholics are not tainted by this??

At last, the 3 obligations
One of the HoGPIs home team members is a priest in training who is a "prayer", that is, one of those protestors who only recite prayers and sing hymns, never approaching the patients in any other way. He is among the facilitators of the assaults on patients. Uniformly, they refuse an implicit moral obligation of their working under the headings and formulas of the Catholic Church's judgments on matters of life/death. This obligation is to restrain behaviour which exceeds the range appropriate to normal human interactions for reasonable discourse – that is, not harassing or demonising, the FCC patients. These limits are published in the Forty Days for Life website. They are routinely disregarded both by assaultive HoGPIs and their facilitating colleagues.

A second obligation arises from the continuing history of unprosecuted sexual exploitations carried out by priests and brothers under the umbrella of the same church which authorises the demonising of unknown others for using their legally authorised rights - access to abortion, same sex relationships, contraception, etc. The HoGPIs failure to engage themselves with this history is an implicit endorsement of the abuses and abusers. Expecting consistency about such matters is not nit-picking because the sexual failures of the church are in the same moral domain as the patients' rights. In Australia, paedophilia is a distorted sexuality, both in law and religion. Abortion and contraception are only seen as distorted in some religious practices.

In the same vein, this hypocrisy is more than the banal variety of everyday life because the Church's claims about life and death are made without exceptions allowed, absolutely, and so must be sustained by absolutely reliable behaviours by practitioners and priests and sisters and brothers…!! We know, however, that the level of everyday Catholic practitioner support for these rules is less than 20%. They, the communicant masses, are of course vilified mildly by descriptions claiming they aren't the real Catholic thing…just liturgical communicants, perhaps.

A third obligation is to assail (to evangelise, in religious idiom) their own fellow believers who do not follow the teachings the Church espouses on matters of sexualities. Some 80% of practicing Catholics use contraception, and/or avail themselves of abortion when necessary and / or, as appropriate, couple same-sexually if not merely claim their sexuality publically. One protestor acknowledged their failing when I pointed it out to him and waved it away as a lost cause.

Other factors contributing to my rage
Beyond these three factors are those derived from my appreciation and judgment about the current state of our small corner of the universe – mostly sad, enraged…depressed. Overall, powerlessly assaulted myself, but not to my face like the patients are by the HoGPIs. These feelings have nowhere practical to go…as many have noticed, our politics are close to terminally damaged as are the surrounding social structures – family associations, work – all consumercialised in the one size economic containers that pass for the best living standards in the history of humanity…

So, it is easy for these feelings to attach to any available, apparently relevant outlet: fundamentalist depredations of the weak, for instance. My feelings system decides what such outlets are. And maybe, as Charles suggested, it's not the HoGPI assaults on patients which trigger my responses but these other factors triggering first – hard to tell. I'll watch a little more closely the next time I take the street at the FCC.

Some of our FCC defence colleagues cannot speak to the HoGPIs because they are so angry at their behaviour (and attitudes and values and…). Some of us think they don't deserve normal human treatment because of their blind devotion to their rightness. For months, Charles and I have related to them as human, though not all were interested in being treated as human by us for fear of corruption of their beliefs/faith. They were right, since some of those who do talk to us acknowledge some growth in their views of the whole situation and other related matters.

For me their way of holding their morality at the FCC – as incontrovertibly true / right – conflicts loudly with my number one professional principle: that everyone is capable of learning to some degree and my job is to identify and support that capability (in other words to treat them all as human), and so the door to a hope condemned to failure opens once again, and I get another kind of rage – that of the helpless child confronted with a necessary but unachievable objective.

How to act in this conflicted context?
One option is to treat HoGPIs as morally dead human ciphers, the way they view and treat patients, and to systematically abuse HoGPIs quietly about the moral obligations they are failing to acknowledge or fulfil in their "helping" activities. That they know they are breaching such obligations is clear whenever I mention them quietly; they flinch and deny the connections suggested…akin to their hidden camera work: acts of shame caught out. It's not true they are "morally dead". But their morality is deadly for patients. Not surprisingly, they very seldom get any patient uptake even if their handouts are accepted. This does not teach them anything about approaching others. Is punishment their real personal objective?

This option of treating them as morally dead is encouraged by the black/white, right/wrong universe which emerges unavoidably for me during patient arrivals at the FCC. At those times I must be clear whose side I am on, and that is not in doubt. Not fronting up to the harassment means another patient is assailed wrongfully. These moments are the "certainty process" I mentioned at the beginning of this discussion. They are also radicalising moments as a result, since each encounter with the HoGPIs' group indifference to patient pain encourages a more robust intervention from us which attracts more robust ones from them. And around it goes.

To possibly achieve some reduction in patient pain, be consistent with our commitment to non-violent counter-protest and maintain some sense of our moral integrity, we are moving towards an agreed tactic of active blocking HoGPIs when they breach the harassment barrier – when they step beyond a patient refusal of their offer and continue verbal assault. The block is physical, moving between them and the patients and accompanied with words to the effect: "They said no." No belittling, demeaning or demonising allowed towards HoGPIs. Just a block between them and the patients, and a reminder they have stepped over the legal line into harassment (a line they know because they act within it when police and local council law officers are present).

We also continue the effort to get all HoGPIs to respect the white line separating them from the public walk space.

*I credit Charles with part authorship because his persistent demand for clarity of expression and convincing argument has been essential in pushing me through this morass. Failures in these regards are wholly my responsibility, much as I'd like to share them.

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