Age is a number

The polls have closed in Scotland and the count has started. Aside from the excitement of a nation voting on whether or not to become independent (peacefully!), there are a few other quirks about the referendum that have drawn notice. One is that 16 year olds were eligible to vote.

Some people think this is a bad idea. Some think it’s “insane”, even. Typically the argument is that the brain of a 16 year old isn’t fully developed enough to understand the consequences of their actions.

I am extremely uncomfortable with that argument for several reasons. Firstly, the fact that that’s exactly the same argument that was used to deny women and various ethnic groups suffrage in the past (and in a couple of places even today). This will be rebutted with the assumption that our knowledge of the brain is better now, but during those previous debates they assumed their knowledge of the brain was correct too. The fact is, we know very little about the brain. They’ve just found a woman in China who’s 24 years old and has no cerebellum, the part of the brain responsible for fine motor control, balance, motor learning and speech. Normally when this happens, the person dies quite young. In her case she had the symptoms of a minor to moderate impairment – difficulty walking, slurred speech, late development of both (speaking at 6, walking at 7). Why? Science doesn’t fucking know. The assumption is that other parts of the brain took up the slack. The brain is the least understood part of the human body.

Basing civil rights on mental abilities is really gross. It’s lead to intelligence tests that were rigged for failure. It’s lead to people with any sort of mental impairment being barred from voting (and the history of insanity is pretty fascinating for how mental impairment has been assessed over the years). There are plenty of adults who don’t grasp consequences very well who are nonetheless strongly encouraged to vote. You can vote with a concussion if you want. You can vote no matter what your educational level. There’s no obligation to even read up on the candidates or parties, you can go in there drunk with absolutely zero clues about any of it, pick two options at random, and it’s still a legitimate vote. The fact that we have a tradition of satirical political parties should be some indication that this is not some holy rite that only the most worthy should be blessed enough to take part in.

Meanwhile we let 16 year olds make all sorts of decisions that affect their future in dramatic ways. Pick school subjects, drop out, have children, leave home (in certain circumstances), drive. Car crashes are a major killer, particularly affecting Maori youth, especially rurally.

If 16 year olds are allowed to participate in adult society, and be quite strongly affected by decisions made there (eg youth wages, employment law, tertiary policy, apprenticeship schemes), I think it’s a little outlandish to consider the idea of allowing them to vote to be “insane”. 16 year olds are fairly likely to be taking or have taken civics classes fairly recently, and still have that information fresh in their minds. They are a lot more intelligent than people give them credit for. Not all of them will want to vote, and when you look at the places where they’re allowed to you’ll usually find that at 16 you’re able, but at 18 it becomes compulsory (either to just enrol or also vote), or 16 year olds are only able to vote in particular kinds of election but not all of them. But 16 year olds are right on the cusp of entering the adult world and the decisions people make here tomorrow will affect them strongly. Very strongly, considering some of the areas that have been policy focuses lately. Someone who’s in Year 13 this year and hasn’t turned 18 yet won’t have a chance to vote until they’ve already been in the workforce or higher education (ideally), raising a small child (also pretty hard work), or stuck on a benefit (increasingly more realistically) for two and a half years. That would have been me if you shifted my birth year – I didn’t turn 18 until just after I started university. And yet they have no say whatsoever on who gets to define the terms of their participation for those nearly three years. Looking at it through a civil rights framework, I just don’t think that’s fair. I want to encourage young people to take an interest in politics early. Maybe if we can catch these 16 year olds, it will be one of the factors we need to improve youth engagement. That can’t be a bad thing.

State of the Pakeha

God, I know, I still exist. Fourth anniversary of the first quake and all.

This has been a busy semester for me so far and with my contact courses over I’m using the rest of the break to attempt to catch up on naps. Soon I’ll be starting to look at the next round of assignments due in the first half of October – research projects, research proposals, long essays. I’m also supposed to get a journal and start jotting down ideas for a Masters dissertation. Not because I’m enrolled in a Masters, just because I’ve been told that I will be.

Anyway, I’m working the election again, so the usual “not allowed to discuss politics” rules apply. But hey, money!

Home again

I arrived in Christchurch this evening for a week visiting home, basically completely due to my sister deciding that Matariki should be a time the family is together and booking flights. Our flight landed here at 6.30, which at this time of year means night time, the first time I’ve overflown the city at night since the earthquakes. There are… some significant patches of certain areas where no lights are on.

So far it’s just been readjusting to how my family socialises together, which involves a lot of talking over each other, meandering trains of thought, and increasing numbers of conversations about the buying of property, getting the best rate of return on money, tax reduction, and how you should be putting a quarter of your income away for retirement from your early 30s. Even on my meagre income that’s about twice what I spend on food, so I feel that’s not a thing I’ll be doing quite yet (though technically I have about eight months until I’m 30). In the morning we’re getting picked up by our kaiako to go to market, and then we’ll probably end up at her house where I can get some dog cuddles and we may work on the old practice tukutuku panel that we had left unfinished for some other weavers to do. They never really did, so we’re going to get it finished for an exhibition of the group’s work that’s going to be on soon. Tentatively we might hit Orana Park on Wednesday, and one weekday I’ll head into town for some photos of the rebuild changes. Apart from that we’ll see.

Hair

I’m as surprised as anyone to find out I have really strong opinions about this. I suppose it’s something you don’t really think about until it becomes relevant. But in the wake of the court ruling that the suspension of a male student for having his hair too long (or, technically, for not cutting it when told) was unlawful, people have been talking a lot about what rules schools should be allowed to set.

It seems like the main thrust of the argument in support of the school is something like: Kids need to learn to follow rules. There’s a bit of other stuff mixed in, like it’s not about whether the rule is okay, it’s about the school being able to enforce the rule, and not undermining them, because otherwise kids won’t learn how to follow rules. I’ve seen it said a few different ways, but that basically seems to be the gist.

The thing is, we’re not talking about five year olds, we’re talking about fifteen year olds. If a fifteen year old doesn’t know how to follow rules something’s pretty irreparably broken. Is this kid able to turn up to school on time? Does he do his school work? Is he managing not to commit violence when upset or frustrated? Does he more or less tell the truth? Does he pay bus fares and not shop lift? Is he able to assess how to act around different people depending on where they fall in a social hierarchy in comparison to him? Can he line up when appropriate and wait his turn? Does he follow every single other rule except this one? Congratulations. He knows how to follow rules. It’s just that this rule is stupid. And after fifteen years of teaching a kid to follow rules, I think it’s about time to support them in learning to recognise when rules are stupid and challenge them. There are countless examples through history of rules that needed to be challenged. No, this isn’t a Godwin, I’m talking relatively small things that were nonetheless harmful and oppressive. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from all my policy classes, it’s that rules can have far-reaching effects and they need to be assessed sometimes to see whether they’re actually doing any good.

In this situation, the rule is not doing any good. There’s nothing wrong with a school saying students should wear a uniform or be tidy. But hair is actually a deeply personal and culturally important thing, and not one that really has any impact on other people unless, I don’t know, you fashion it with razor blades hanging from it or it smells awful or something. The idea that men have to have short hair is by no means universal – in fact I’m willing to bet it’s the case in a significant minority¬†of cultures, and given that we’re making efforts to be a multicultural country, that’s a fairly important point.

The obvious response to that, I suppose, though not one I’ve actually seen, is that schools could make exceptions for students with deeply held religious or cultural views. The problem with that is that a) students shouldn’t have to justify their cultures, and b) when you restrict it to only students with “legitimate” reasons for exception, those students become very visibly Different. They suddenly have to become a spokesperson for their culture and constantly field questions about why they’re allowed long hair when everyone else isn’t while they’re just trying to go to school, whereas if everyone is allowed longer hair it’s just another personal choice that doesn’t need to be constantly justified and explained.

There is, of course, also a gender dimension. I saw a stat the other day that about 40% of non-cis people don’t identify with the gender binary, so it’s not only a case of specifically mtf transgender students. Anyone might want to play with their gender presentation and to be honest when you’re a teenager can often be the best time to do it. (Or at least, it would be if we could make a serious attempt to reduce gender identity related bullying.) It’s a time of life where most people are figuring out who they are – they’re old enough that they’re not so completely under their parents thumbs and they can go through phases, play with styles, try things out to see if they work without necessarily being expected to stick with them.

Let’s be real. With increasing inequality in this country, what school you go to often matters far more than it should. And kids are legally obliged to attend school. It’s not reasonable to just say the market will decide and people don’t have to send their kids there if they don’t want to follow rules, especially a rule that will disproportionately affect boys from non-European cultures or who are gender non-conforming. Courts have always had the right to tell schools that they can’t enforce harmful and oppressive rules, and if we’re going to worry about undermining institutions, I’d far rather undermine the school than the court.

Self-care and loneliness

One thing I really hate about mood disorders is the way the faintest whiff of criticism can send me into an utter tailspin for days. There’s this feeling of complete self-loathing and hopelessness and anger, while at the same time your rational brain is saying “actually, that’s valid, and also not a big deal, I can work on that” (but also “even though everyone probably hates me now”). And you don’t ever want people to realise how it affects you because you don’t want anyone to feel like they have to treat you with kid gloves or be scared of disagreeing with you. Realising you were doing something that annoyed people and they were all talking about it privately but no one wanted to approach you because you were too unstable would be even worse, so you have to keep the emotional reaction to yourself – you can’t let these people see it, and you can’t tell anyone else because you’re so aware that it’s such a tiny thing that even thinking about how to word it feels so stupid you can’t bear it.

Boyd-Wilson (TW: Rape Culture)

Don’t get raped.

That’s essentially what the message has been, the last few days. The Boyd-Wilson path is pretty notorious in Wellington and it’s in the news again with two attacks committed there in as many days. The police response has been to tell people to simply not walk there, as though they’re simply ceding that territory to predatory offenders. There’s a lot more that could be done – making sure patrols regularly go past, cutting down the covering trees, installing proper lighting – and in fact those latter two suggestions have been put forward many times… dating back at least nineteen years, according to someone who was targeted there back in 1995.

The problem is that Boyd-Wilson is the best access to a lot of student flats. Some people walk or run there for fun, others do it because they want to go home. Back in the day when I worked Saturday nights at Church Corner and lived in town, if I missed the last bus home I had to walk through Hagley Park, which is at least as notorious in Christchurch as Boyd-Wilson is in Wellington, I’m sure. Once I tried to walk around it and it added somewhere between half an hour and an hour to my trip – and I still ended up on the northern edge. Hagley Park is bigger than Boyd-Wilson, sure, but the principle is the same. It’s a pedestrian thoroughfare where people need to travel and they should be able to do so safely.

Victoria University is responsible for Boyd-Wilson. Their security office (“Campus Care”) can be reached by phone, 04 463 5398, or email, campus-care@vuw.ac.nz. It’s well past time for them to take some action to protect students (and anyone else who uses the area) instead of putting the onus on them to go around it – something which this map shows is more than a minor inconvenience.

Equality of opportunity without equality of outcome

The one really big reason I don’t believe in market liberalism and the social meritocracy is that if it works at all, it only works for one generation. You know that old joke about how to make a small fortune on the stock market? (Start with a big fortune.) Kids born to rich parents just plain have more opportunities than kids born to poor parents. It’s not because of anything they did. They aren’t necessarily better. They’re just lucky. And when the same pattern repeats itself over and over through the generations, the difference becomes even more entrenched. I don’t think that all rich people are lazy and coast along on inherited wealth, plenty of them work hard, but so many of them refuse to recognise that working hard was not the only reason for their success. They’d rather assume that if you have less money it’s because you deserve less money.

The problem is that so many kids are born with less money, and it shapes their entire lives. Intergenerational poverty is about more than just not having much money – it has so many other effects.
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In more personal news

Moving back a bit from the bigger picture I had a big day yesterday with an early doctor’s visit and then a trip to the zoo (always good exercise in Wellington). I had a fairly thorough chat with my doctor with the main topic being finding somewhere other than the Phobic Trust as well as discussion of what else might be useful. I get the feeling he didn’t quite grasp the full impact of me saying I’ve had a rough couple of months and needed a medical certificate for dropping one of my papers because he made the comment that it would be good to consider doing part time study and part time work. Which it probably would be… in the future. Next year, next summer, next semester, I’m not sure which, but right now I’m definitely not up to it. Of course even if I were, it’s not really as easy as all that, is it? He doesn’t want me doing something menial and I don’t want to either (he gave specific examples of cleaning and Muffin Break, where I worked for a while about ten years ago) which restricts the options rather a lot because most of the more skilled jobs require qualifications which I don’t have yet. The absolute ideal would be part time work from home when I’m able – freelancing, maybe – but, really, how many jobs like that are there, and how many other people want them? Because I generally feel that one of the biggest barriers for me is that my ability to work is so unpredictable. That’s why I like doing extramural study, because I don’t have to worry about missing classes.

The other big barrier of course is balancing income – if I drop below full-time study I have to work enough to earn at least $250/week after tax. That means 7 papers over three semesters. I think it would be difficult to argue for limited full-time status on the grounds of illness if the reason I’m not studying full-time is so I can work as well. So to the above requirements you then have to add decent pay because even on $25/hr I’d have to work at least 12 hours or so, plus manage 1-2 (preferably 2) papers, which are all getting towards 300 level now, and that’s a lot more than I’m doing at the moment. And I think the most I’ve gotten at any job was something over $18/hr, which included holiday pay because we were technically casual staff. It would I think be more plausible to maintain the level of study I have planned and do a few hours a week of something, like 4-6 maybe, and get a lower student allowance rate. At that point though it becomes pretty dependant on location, because it quickly becomes not particularly worthwhile if I have to train and bus to and then bus and train from a 4 hour job.

Wrestling with the narrative

Sarah is on holiday in Melbourne, and suddenly the news cycle is being spammed with a press release from Paula Bennett about the thousands upon thousands of beneficiaries traveling overseas. Typically for a Bennett press release, there’s no real breakdown of the numbers. It’s just “these people are going overseas!” We’re apparently supposed to assume they’re all doing something dodgy, especially with the quotes about WINZ checking with Customs to catch people out, but there’s absolutely no evidence given for this whatsoever.

Personally I’m pretty sure that at least 95% of these people fall into (at least) one of the following categories:
- family or friends paid for a vacation for whatever reason
- it was already booked and paid for before they went on a benefit
- they’re traveling for an emergency or very special occasion
- they’re relocating to cut costs/look for work in a better market

I strongly doubt there are many beneficiaries who are paying for their own holidays out of their benefits.

HOWEVER. Even if they were, who cares? Remember, beneficiaries are not just people who don’t have a job but could be working. Not even the Jobseekers Allowance is only people on unemployment because they merged it with the sickness benefit. Some beneficiaries are on welfare their entire lives because they can’t work. But they get lumped in to this punitive authoritarian culture we have where they’re not allowed anything nice, ever, and they’re always assumed to be trying to get one over on the government. But to be honest, if a beneficiary is able to budget carefully enough to save up for a holiday, they fucking deserve it. That goes for all of them, sick/disabled or not. Because living on a benefit is fucking hard. The kind of constant stress it creates is dangerous and bad for you and having to spend all your energy on the basic necessities of living means it’s incredibly difficult to work to improve your situation. Getting away for a week or whatever and having some time to relax and clear your head is probably actually pretty damn helpful.

I feel like a lot of this really is down to jealousy. I see so many people who should know better saying that they work and they can’t afford whatever the big scandal is this time, and actually that’s kind of bullshit. They choose not to prioritise it. It’s not the same thing. And in this situation when the kerfuffle is over overseas travel, the assumption is that it’s something that’s 100% desirable when there are so many reasons where that would not be the case. Like going to a funeral, or to help with a sick relative. Or even something that seems good, like a wedding, but even if everything is paid for going overseas means getting your benefit cut but you still have to pay your bills, so that’s going to lead to some pretty fucking stressful times. If you would like to swap that with your comfortable secure income, seriously, get in touch, because I would fucking LOVE to. A full-time job at minimum wage is nearly $500 a week, let alone people who are earning enough to have a mortgage, and if it comes with no one obsessing over what I spend my money on and not having to get permission for the stupidest things, BRING IT ON. Unfortunately no one is ever going to take me up on this because despite the trappings of jealousy and resentment everyone knows on some level that being a beneficiary sucks.

Apparently some people think this is a good thing.
Edit: There’s a response article up on the Herald today that includes this quote:

“It proves nearly 10 per cent who have been job tested can afford to go overseas. I think a lot of the time someone else has paid, but it’s still what many New Zealanders would consider a luxury.” (emphasis mine)

Again, remember that the JSA includes sickness beneficiaries.