Thursday, September 10, 2009

Steve Fielding: "Blame My Jeans"

From the Age:

STEVE Fielding says a life-long learning difficulty is to blame for his occasional mangling of words, but the Family First senator does not want people feeling sorry for him.


Speaking to The Age, Senator Fielding, 48, said the mistakes were a result of a learning difficulty he’d had most of his life.


The father of three declined to specify what his learning difficulty was, but said he saw similar speech patterns emerging in one of his sons, for whom he had arranged special treatment. Senator Fielding said people with speech difficulties often faced ridicule.

I'm presently reading the Blank Slate by Steven Pinker (a book which makes the case that human mind does not begin as a "blank slate" that is gradually filled up by experience, but rather that many mental proclivities are actually predetermined by genes) so I don't have any difficulty believing that some people may be genetically predisposed to abberant patterns of speech. While medical science apparently has no name for this strange disorder - typified, apparently, by the rather gentle symptoms of sub-par spelling and the occasional malapropism - I think I'm still prepared to take Fielding at his word here: many people are likely just congentially predisposed to better or worse language skills than others. Those predisposed to poor language skills should not - as Fielding rightly points out - be punished or ridiculed for mental traits that they have little to no control over. So far so good then, but how far is Fielding willing to go in his defense of the realities of biological determinism?

We should not waste money "mopping up after drunks", he writes. Alcohol abuse is, afterall, "a cultural problem that needs actions [sic] that would lead to responsible drinking". This despite the multitude of evidence suggesting that alcohol abuse can be tied to a number of genetic (as opposed to cultural) factors. What about the idea of introducing "tougher [criminal] penalties" as a means of "solving our culture of binge drinking [and] alcohol-fuelled street violence"? Again, there is quite ample evidence which suggests significant variation amongst individuals in their capacity for empathy, impulse-control and many other mental traits that are necessary to curb violent instincts and to adhere to socially acceptable forms of conduct, sure signs that even violent crime may be partly determined by genetic factors. And as for homosexuals? Fielding seeks to deny them equal rights purely on the basis of their congenital sexual disposition: hard not to see the hypocracy there.

Now of course I am not suggesting that we shouldn't treat alcoholism or punish violent offenders simply because there may be a genetic basis for such behaviour, but it does suggest to me that we should approach such topics with the same degree of compassion, understanding and realism that Steve Fielding would have us approach his minor learning disability with. Just as we should not leap to prejudiced conclusions about someone who has difficulties with spelling, we should also not leap to prejudiced conlcusions about people who abuse alcohol or commit crimes. When Fielding advocates tougher sentencing for criminals, or depriving gays of equal rights, he is really just making the erroneous assumption that people act the way they do as a consequence of choices that they have freely made. The possibility that there are any circumstances which may exist beyond the control of these individuals which may account for the kind of behaviour he wishes to morally censure just doesn't cross his mind. He lives in a simple, Christian fundamentalist world of good and evil and the godless philosophy of biological determinism is only to be invoked where personally convenient.

But the most frustrating thing is that Fielding's disorder doesn't seem to have brought him the degree of humility in making judgements that it probably should. There is, of course, nothing inherently wrong about being unable to spell or pronounce the word "fiscal", but it makes Fielding's vainglorious grandstanding on any number of fiscal issues (particularly the stimulus package) all the more outrageous. A man with a learning disorder should act with the understanding that his comprehension of a given issue may be hampered for reasons completely beyond his control, meaning he should probably think twice before boasting with unchecked certainty that the world's scientists have "yet to prove that man made carbon dioxide emissions are the main driver behind climate change". One can certainly forgive a man the occasional slip of the tongue, but one cannot so easily forgive such a man when he is prone to such displays of hubris and ideological rigidity.

One more year until we get to vote the donut dhimwitt dimwit out.

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