Monday, January 7, 2013

Amanda Vanstone thinks you should stop whingeing and get on with it

Australian parliamentarian Amanda Vanstone has an op ed piece in the Age today entitled Stop Whingeing and Get Up Early to Beat the January Blues.

Now, it's fair to say that it is not my usual practice to read op eds by politicians, even if on ostensibly non-partisan subjects. They are, almost without exception, offputting exercises in (very) thinly veiled pot-stirring of one kind or another. If I want to read poorly-written, badly-argued, tone-deaf, simplistic attempts at addressing ish-ewes, I can always dig up my own year 10 essays and treat myself to a feast of Why Euthanasia Should Be Banned, Why Beauty Pageants are Great for Self Esteem, and Why Affirmative Action Is Unfair, to cite three of my more cringeworthy efforts. (I cite my 15-year-old self and her obnoxious, simplistic views as solid-gold evidence that people can change with time and maturity, for the better, if they are open to it).

However, I did read this little gem by Vanstone, and I even read the comments, of which there are many. I found it, predictably, offputting and hackle-raising, but there was one aspect of both my own reaction and that of some of the more thoughtful commenters that I found rather interesting. I'll elaborate on that in a moment.

Before I get into what I thought was the one complexity worth unpicking in the piece, I should provide a brief summary. This is not as easy as it sounds, as the article is not a model of clarity and logic, to say the least. However, I think the take-home points can be characterised thusly:

- You should work harder. And longer. Don't forget longer.

- Employers are entitled to expect this extra effort without extra remuneration. And
to base promotional ("getting ahead") decisions on it.

- Volunteers are great! So are people in caring professions! They do what they do *for the love of all humanity* and aren't they GREAT! (PS That's why we don't need to pay them at all / more, or listen to them when they express the need for better wages, because they are doing it for the love and that's GREAT!)

- If hard things happen to you (like, say, cancer), you shouldn't sit around and feel sorry for yourself; just get on with life! Keep on keeping on! No one rewards a malingerer (even one who's actually, well, really sick...)

- Parents should raise kids not to be spoiled brats. The way they should do this is to run their own businesses, and / or work a lot. This is the one right way to be a modern parent. Sorry, I meant a mother, not parent, of course. My bad! Suggesting outcomes for children might be based on both parents' input as well as lots of other factors! Sheesh.

She also throws a bone to the anti-parliament sentiment abroad, by noting (correctly) that the general behavioural level in Australian parliaments is pretty poor, and that we shouldn't use parliament as a guide for decency and common sense. (Truefact. Hard to disagree with her there).

Putting aside the little bit about parliament, it's a pretty paint-by-numbers conservative bootstrappin' wealth-is-success poverty-is-cos-you-just-werent-trying rant. I would've dismissed it as such without a second thought, except for the sub-theme that Vanstone employed, which was:

"Australia is turning into a nation of whingers."

I think this is false and a really damaging characterisation of people expressing genuine dissatisfaction with their lives and the polity in which they live them; buuuuuut, strip away the pejorative language and unpick the idea behind it (and behind all of Vanstone's "heartwarming stories of ordinary folk" schtick) and there is something in there about self-motivation and the ability to change your approach, if not your circumstances.

And that's where I have difficulty, because I know, I can smell, that this is a completely disingenuous trick being used by Vanstone to camoflage her Tory agenda, but I sort of agree that prolonged negativity is not a helpful approach to life for most people, and that to achieve goals, you need to work at them and want them and believe you can reach them. (Belief and aims aren't enough, as I wrote about last year, but without them, and without work, you probably won't even start to climb the mountain).

A lot of the more reasoned commenters seemed to me to be struggling with this same thing - an acceptance of the core notion that attitude matters, and work matters, while completely resiling from Vanstone's shifty right-wing morphing of this into the idea that this therefore means that everything you (don't) get financially is your own fault, coupled with and also, stop being sad and hurt about sad, hurtful things, because it makes me uncomfortable, and I would rather interact with you as a Strong, Stoic, Survivor type, mmmm'K? One commenter sliced through the spin really incisively but concluded by noting that he himself felt that changing his own attitude was what had led him to the place in his life where he's now happy. (Importantly, he didn't say "rich" or even "successful" - because these are not universal measures, funnily enough).

I wonder - and this is not the first time I've wondered this - if there is a compassionate, human-honouring way to phrase the ideas that attitude matters, and that chosen work of all kinds - paid, intellectual, volunteer, domestic, nurturing - where one has the capacity for it, is primarily an individual and social good. I would like to be able to express this without judgement of other people's choices, lives, or realities. I would like to be able to hold this position without the grim conviction that it's usually (always?) parlayed into a critique of people who don't or can't do things in the same way.

One thing I'm sure of, though. If there is a respectful, inclusive way to capture this thought, Vanstone hasn't done it in this article.

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