Catholic ethics and moral leadership on marriage

It’s an odd quirk of my upbringing that one of my babysitters as a young child was the future Archbishop of Sydney, Dr Anthony Fisher OP, back when he was a Dominican brother at our local parish. He was a great babysitter — a very gentle man. My mother studied with him at the local theological college. She jokingly relates that when they met in their first week of classes, she thought he was alright, because he was the only Dominican brother not wearing robes; of course, it turned out they just hadn’t arrived yet.

Fisher later completed his PhD in bioethics at Oxford, looking at IVF issues. I read the book published from his thesis when I was studying undergraduate bioethics and wondered if, perhaps, wanting to reach a wider audience, he had omitted key aspects of his argument. In hindsight I recognise it had Catholic belief as a hidden premise. As a gay kid I grew up in constant exposure to the hypocrisy of the Church’s teachings on love, and thus I cannot supply the hidden premise that makes Fisher’s analysis work.

This problem affects the Catholic doctrine on same-sex marriage as well. It poses a question: why should the Catholic position on marriage apply to all people in Australian society, including those who don’t believe in Catholicism? (Or who believe in different faiths, or don’t believe at all?) The church would claim it has a special expertise on marriage and child-rearing, and that it plays a role of moral leadership on behalf of the nation. But here, the way its arguments are premised on faith becomes a huge problem, because they cannot be reasonably accepted by people who don’t accept that premise. And so we see two things happening.

One is an appeal to the harm that will be suffered by children if same-sex marriage is permitted — an argument tailored for liberal democracy, which uses the harm principle to mediate between incommensurable systems of belief. But again, particular aspects of Catholic teaching strongly inflect the harm perceived in same-sex relationships, such as the role the complementarity of gender plays in Catholic ideas of ‘natural law’. If you don’t hold with those ideas, you probably don’t perceive that harm, except as a vestige of a more generalised homophobia which descends from those teachings.

The other is just the naked use of power — what Foucault calls ‘non-discursive relations’. (You read that correctly: Foucault never held that there is nothing outside of discourse; that’s an invention of film and cultural studies.) We see this in the threat to sack anyone who marries a same-sex partner or even expresses support for same-sex marriage — and that’s no idle threat, given that Catholic agencies are, all-up, one of Australia’s largest non-government employers. We see it as well in the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney threatening to breach its contracts with any corporation that comes out in support of same-sex marriage. This approach exposes the weakness of its teachings, if it can’t persuade rational observers to its position and must instead threaten their ability to put bread on the table.

But even if we concede, for a moment, that there is something to Catholic ethics, it isn’t at all clear that its position on marriage is justified. The one thing Catholicism is known for is a principled objection to utilitarian ethics — which suggests that the good is whatever brings the greatest happiness to the largest number of people. A criticism of utilitarianism, from its earliest days, is that it can be used to justify majoritarian abuse of minorities: for instance, experimentation on a small number of people if it benefits a much larger number, or torture of people accused of terrorism if it might ensure the security of the population. Utilitarians have developed different forms of their approach that don’t suffer from these problems. But there’s something quite valuable in the Catholic insistence on human dignity — that even the most benighted human life has inherent dignity and, as a consequence, nobody’s wellbeing should be sacrificed, even if it leads to the benefit of the majority.

This focus on human dignity is the basis of the Catholic claim to moral leadership in modern society. And it’s what gets the Catholic church into trouble on marriage. Their position is that a small minority — queer people — should be denied marriage rights, because society as a whole is better off if marriage is restricted to male-female couples for the purposes of reproduction. This is a plainly utilitarian argument. It is no different from saying torture is acceptable if it leads to national security.

If you think the analogy there is inflammatory, you are probably not exposed to the kind of suffering the plebiscite is causing queer people. (Either not exposed, or aware and not taking it seriously.) This distress is an acute form of the chronic fear and insecurity that families with same-sex parents experience in the absence of marriage rights. For example, my friend who rides home from work knowing that if she gets hit by a car and killed, her biological family have presumed custody over her adopted son, rather than her de facto wife.

And the Catholic church position on marriage reflects an acute theological error: It protects a particular image of what a dignified life looks like, rather than protecting the dignity of actually-existing humans in all their diversity, notwithstanding the beliefs or the interests of the majority.

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Entanglements of trauma in Australia’s divisive debate over same sex marriage

There have been some callous responses to the pain that is being felt as a result of the debate over the plebiscite (e.g. Matt Canavan’s ‘grow a spine’ remarks) and some genuinely stupid ones (e.g. Mark Kenny thinking a little bit of stress and distress is okay if the majority of gay people are better off).

There were stats released today showing a 20% increase in calls to hotlines, which doesn’t sound like much, so I wanted to write a bit about what we know about community trauma. It’s a complicated area to write about.

First of all, I’m really conscious we’re having a national debate about the trauma being experienced as a result of this single event in a high-profile community of middle-class white people, and meanwhile, we’re not talking about the experiences of Aboriginal people, families and communities, or refugees in offshore concentration camps. Secondly, it requires making careful distinctions between a bunch of related categories — while understanding how they are interlinked in our persons, our history and our modes of relationship.

The literature on collective trauma is strongly influenced by the work of Kai Erikson, a sociologist who wrote about his work with communities in the aftermath of specific events, such as the collapse of a tailings dam that swept away a whole valley in rural Buffalo Creek (see photo above). About ‘collective trauma’ he wrote:

‘“I”‘, he writes, ‘continue to exist. “You” continue to exist, though distant and hard to relate to. But “we” no longer exist as a connected pair or as linked cells in a larger communal body.’ (Erikson 1976,154).

There are further distinctions that can be made between complex trauma (in which responses to trauma become interwoven with the development of personality in a particular individual), constant trauma (which refers to the present-day experience of Aboriginal people in communities holding multiple funerals every year for their young, and probably also describes the more time-limited experience of communities grappling with deaths from AIDS in the era before effective treatment), and finally, what I call traumatised community — a mode of community that emerges in the aftermath of a shared experience of collective trauma.

People in queer communities have experience of all three, but in different measure and mixture depending on the person and the community. A queer person who has had to flee an unsafe home environment into homelessness or insecure housing may have experience of constant trauma. Someone who grew up in a profoundly homophobic family or community context may have complex trauma. Someone who lived through the AIDS crisis may have past experiences of constant trauma and may now live in traumatised community — modes of relationship that unconsciously reproduce traumatic experiences. And we bring all these forms of vulnerability into how we experience and respond to the debate being had about our human rights and dignity.

We should not expect that there will be a simple, linear, ‘dose-response’ relationship between this debate and the effects on our mental health and our ways of being together in community. It just doesn’t work like that.

Erikson, for instance, describes how experiences and practices of community can intensify in the aftermath of a tragic event, as people pull together (like a muscle contracting) to cope with the immediate, physical destruction — in ‘disaster response’. We’re seeing that in the powerful acts of resistance that queer people have undertaken — such as raising funds for queer young people’s mental health services and launching hashtag campaigns to bring much needed floof into social media timelines poisoned by toxic debate. (Both of these initiated by the incredible Amy Coopes.)

But once the initial phase of disaster response subsides, Erikson describes (in the case of collective trauma) a slow and unstoppable loss of meaning and drifting apart, as if the connective tissues of community had been denatured.

We have already seen a certain amount of tension dissipating from those bonds as the crisis around HIV/AIDS has subsided, but the queer communities haven’t by any means dissolved. I think there is, however, a generation of people who lived through the intensity of constant trauma and who can’t easily understand that even those who didn’t may still be grappling with complex trauma resulting from experiences of homophobia and transphobia. This difficulty informs the ‘toughen up princess’ and ‘special snowflake’ discourse I see from some elders.

Perhaps the ongoingness of our connection reflects the powerful strengths our communities have for artistic and cultural meaning-making in the service of joy and political resistance. Kane Race’s work on dance parties is testament to this. And perhaps we are also held together by the recognition that trauma is ongoing — in the bullying of Safe Schools by The Australian, in the experiences of the trans and queer kids that program was designed to help protect, in the experiences of queer kids in Catholic and Christian evangelical schools.

As Kilhefner argues, one of the key functions of community is to help youth become adults, and in the process, adults to become elders. The collective importance of this task may reflect the fact it contains the prospect of repair: we can’t change our own upbringings, but we can turn it into energy that we direct towards making it safer for future kids in the same boat, drawing a line under our own experiences and creating an ending to the narrative.

But traumatised community is no simple thing, and it can work to powerfully undercut these intentions — for instance, the ‘eating our young’ dynamic that pervades so many organisations long after traumatic events have passed, and that are reproduced in organisational culture, in what issues are seen as sensitive, in what lines are drawn between insiders and outsiders, long after the people who first participated in fights over those issues have left, or died. Having experienced that first-hand, I have reason to worry about the long-term consequences of this toxic debate on our practices of community.

And if Erikson is right, we should look for a wave of people feeling lost, people needing help, and people considering suicide, not at the peak of the crisis but in the years and months ahead as the immediate protective response to the current debate begins to dissipate.

What the ‘no’ case borrows from Trump

Patricia Karvelas is hosting RN Breakfast this week and this morning she interviewed two Liberal party officials about the forthcoming postal survey on legalising marriage for consenting adults regardless of gender.*

The guests were Christine Forster, Sydney City councillor for the Liberal party, lesbian advocate for equality and sister of former PM Tony Abbott, and Karina Okotel, Vice-President of both the Federal and Victorian Liberal parties.

It helped me crystallise my thoughts about how the ‘no’ case has been argued. In particular, the way it borrows tactics from the Trump and Brexit campaigns.

First of all, the ‘no’ campaign seeks to catalyse a groundswell of prejudice. This has a couple of effects: just as it did for Trump, it works as an informal ‘get out the vote’ campaign.

And it does that by provoking strong emotions among its primary audience by linking the marriage proposal to the campaign against Safe Schools — just as Trump did by linking Hillary (and indeed the Washington mainstream) to the industrial consequences of NAFTA and the economic ascendancy of China.

In its secondary audience, i.e. its opponents, the groundswell of prejudice stirred up by the ‘no’ case has translated into a distributed campaign of homophobic abuse — which is also intended to provoke strong emotions of anger and distress that wear down (and ultimately silence) advocates for the ‘yes’ case.

Finally, and this is what worries me the most: the ‘no’ case have clearly spent some time with strategic communications experts to develop a clear and simple, action-focused message: ‘it’s okay to say no’. This is the equivalent of Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’ slogan.

There is clearly a digital media astroturf campaign underway, with social media accounts that are recently created and only have a couple of friends/followers repeating variations of the linkage and the message in the comments of any article published about the postal survey.

The message functions in a couple of ways: it provides language to people who have feelings but don’t have clearly articulated arguments against the proposal; it models a particular affective stance of feeling ‘bullied’ by people who are advocating for their own rights.

It borrows the language of consent from initiatives to prevent child abuse and sexual assault — a semantic move we call ‘dog-whistling’ in Australia and that communications researchers call ‘priming’, one that, in this case, links homosexuality with paedophilia. I have written about this move before.

But it’s the simplicity of the message that has the greatest effect, given the ‘yes’ case is being run by a coalition of groups with no clear leader and no single message.

I attended the Sydney rally/march on the weekend. The crowd was absolutely massive, filling the Town Hall Square and squeezing past the light rail works on George Street to fill the intersection to the edges of QVB and the Galeries. I was standing with my sister in line of sight to the speakers’ platform, but the sound system didn’t reach us. So the vast majority of that crowd stood there for two hours of speeches they couldn’t hear, before marching to Circular Quay.

That’s a metaphor — it suggests the small-L gay liberals are running the show, and they just don’t have experience of organising social change movements, because they imagine social change happens via deliberative democracy. Christine Forster tried to dismiss Karina Okotel’s fear-mongering about the ‘overseas experience’ as ‘isolated examples driven by activists.

Media advocacy isn’t a polite, rational discussion, though; it’s a blood sport, and right now, we’re bleeding.

Daniel Reeders is a PhD student in regulation and governance who analyses the role of culture in the regulation of health.


* MCARG for short. I have queer politics that cause me to choke on the words ‘marriage equality’ — marriage is a profoundly exclusive social institution — while ‘same sex marriage’ throws my trans and nonbinary friends under the bus. (‘Same sex marriage’ is the wording that will be used on the survey form.)

The great distraction

A meme crossed my twitter feed that claims to represent the views of Archbishop of Sydney, Dr Anthony Fisher OP. It lists five areas in which it claims ‘overseas experience’ has shown the potential for a loss of freedom should equal marriage legislation pass.

Fisher on SSM.jpg

  1. Freedom of religion
    People of faith and churches are already entitled to protections against discrimination and exemptions from laws preventing discrimination. For example, a religious school would be perfectly within its rights under current law to sack a teacher who married a partner of the same gender. Similarly, nothing in the current anti-discrimination law or the proposal for marriage equality would prevent religious schools from teaching children that gay people are depraved, etc, as they have done for centuries. Of course, there are still gay students in those schools, and gay communities will continue to have to mobilise to provide counselling and access to mental health care to mop up the damage in adulthood.
  2. Freedom of speech
    See answer to #1.
  3. Freedom of education
    See answer to #1 regarding faith-based schools. This item claims legislation on marriage for consenting adults regardless of gender would prevent parents removing their children from ‘radical gender programmes’ in state schools. Any parent can visit the Safe Schools website and view all the materials used in the programme — and you can make up your own mind whether these are ‘radical’. After all, this is about parents’ rights to make their own decisions, right? Unfortunately, the same can not be said for all the different Christian groups that offer ‘religious instruction’ classes in state schools.
  4. Freedom of association
    See answer to #1.
  5. Freedom of employment
    See answer to #1.

Notice a theme here? All of these claims depend on ordinary Australians not knowing that freedom of religion is guaranteed in s116 of the Australian Constitution, and in anti-discrimination lawand religious institutions are explicitly exempted from anti-discrimination law regarding sex, gender and sexuality.

What the meme doesn’t make explicit is that what all of these list items are talking about is the freedom to discriminate against gay people without legal or social consequences.

What this meme really objects to is not marriage equality, but changes in Australian society that treat same sex attracted and sex and gender diverse people as human beings deserving the same rights — and the same protections, including from discrimination.

But we are a long way from that. The proposal for marriage equality has important practical consequences for the many queer parents raising kids without the full protection of the rights currently afforded to heterosexual married couples. And it would remove a powerful insult to the human dignity of queer people in Australia.

Human dignity is something that churches were once concerned to promote — but right now, many church leaders are visibly more concerned to protect their right to discriminate. My hope is that Australian voters will see this for the mean-spirited bullshit that it is, and vote YES regardless.

Postscript

Here’s some ‘overseas experience’ for you:

new zealand SSM.jpg

Place of Pride

The placement of the Pride Centre reflects a desire to revive St Kilda as a tourist destination rather than the changing needs of Victoria’s queer communities.

There’s a striking method used to visualise the distribution of inequity — it’s the simple train network map. In Glasgow, famously, each additional stop on your train journey home corresponds to two years off your life expectancy for men, and 1.2 years for women. Similar effects are found in other cities, including Melbourne.

This reflects a difference in wealth — people who can afford to live in the inner suburbs are more well-off than people living further out. But research also shows that the further you have to travel to your nearest health clinic, the less often you’ll make the trip. So the placement of services is materially relevant to the fairness of our society.

It’s great that the Andrews Labor government in Victoria has announced $15m funding for a Pride Centre — a landmark central location for queer community organisations, cultural events and ‘health and advisory services.’ The work-up of this proposal has been entrusted to a Board with substantial project management and financial management experience, which may help it avoid the sad fate of the London Lesbian and Gay Centre in the 1980s.

But the agreement to place the centre in St Kilda is catastrophically dumb a shame. It shows the blind spots of a Board made up of middle-class professionals: they haven’t thought about taken travel time seriously as a barrier.* St Kilda is not on a train line. Google reports it takes about 30 minutes to get there from Flinders Street, on a tram that services busy St Kilda Rd, and over an hour from Footscray, the inner-most suburb in the West.**

Edit: some have interpreted this remark as ‘blaming the Board’ when its hands were tied by the lack of alternative sites offered by councils within the EOI process. This misses the point that the Board designed the EOI process, seeking applications from councils — which basically guaranteed the Pride Centre would be placed in a wealthier local government area.

I would argue that if the EOI process didn’t turn up an appropriate site, it could have chosen a temporary site to accommodate organisations with a fixed timeline to move from their current facilities, and gone back to the State Government to explore options for a more centrally-located sites. There is recent precedent for taking this approach — both the Melbourne Recital Centre and the Library at the Dock were built via public-private partnerships in exchange for relief of contractual obligations or as planning conditions.

** Comments have also noted there’s the 96 from Southern Cross. I used to take this tram every fortnight, and it takes 20-30 minutes, mostly due to delays at stops and intersections between the station to the start of the light rail section. 

st kilda

Actual re-enactment of St Kilda’s location.

My guess is the Pride Centre placement reflects the history of the queer communities, rather than our present and our future. Our future includes a shift away from the traditional centres of queer community life, driven partly by rising house prices, but also by the way increasing acceptance of queer people has decreased the need to clump together for safety.

Let me give an example from my own experience. I don’t drive, and even when I lived in Prahran, it took about 30 minutes to get to the Centre Clinic in Fitzroy St. Later, like a lot of queer people, I got priced out of renting in the traditional gay enclave, and moved to the Western suburbs. When I lived in Footscray, I travelled across town to see a doctor at Prahran Market Clinic, forty-five minutes each way, because there weren’t any queer community-controlled health and support services in the Western suburbs.

Travel time becomes an issue when you need sexual health care every three months. Incredibly, unless you’re okay with the conveyor-belt experience at Melbourne Sexual Health Centre, there is no free walk-in sexual health service within walking distance of a train station. This is a problem when our HIV prevention strategy emphasises regular testing and early treatment to bring the HIV epidemic under control.

However, I’m conscious that HIV risk has long dictated funding for service provision to queer communities, often to the exclusion of queer women and families. The research is also clear that involvement in community leads to improved mental health and resilience to stigma and prejudice. Placing the Pride Centre in St Kilda fails on this count as well.

Research by Flood and Hamilton, although now quite old, showed a clear gradient in acceptance of same-sex relationships – highest in cities and decreasing in outer suburban, regional and rural areas. People who live further out have the greatest need for a safe, centrally-accessible space where they can take part in queer cultural events and community activities. Meeting these needs is more important than reviving St Kilda as a tourist destination and Melbourne’s answer to the Castro.

Melbourne is the same size as London, with half the population, creating a need for people in emerging population centres like Werribee, Melton and Cranbourne to travel more than an hour to access essential services. In our transit architecture, train lines are the arteries, while bus routes slowly wind across the suburbs like varicose veins.

Locating the Pride Centre in St Kilda ignores the needs of queer people in emerging population centres in the West, the outer North, and the outer South-East. The Pride Centre Essential services must be located near a major train station, within easy reach of the centre of Melbourne’s hub-and-spoke transit network. In creating a centre to celebrate the triumph of queer community over historical inequities, the Andrews Government should not be creating new ones.

 

Messages as ‘cultural resources’

When the Trump campaign tweets, it seems to be a progressive instinct to reply “But facts!” But the point of a political message is not its truth value but what it does. Trump’s on-message tweets — when he’s not whining like a manbaby about his press — often seek to furnish his supporters with replies to common objections to his presidency that come up in everyday face-to-face discourse. ‘Oh, that judge in the Trump University case? I heard he’s Mexican, soo…’

For now, I am tentatively locating the empirical component of my PhD within linguistic anthropology. Here’s how Alessandro Duranti distinguishes that field from others:

What is unique about linguistic anthropology lies somewhere else, namely, in its interest in speakers as social actors, in language as both a resource for and a product of social interaction, in speech communities as simultaneously real and imaginary entities whose boundaries are constantly being reshaped and negotiated through myriad acts of speaking. (source)

‘Language as a resource for social interaction’ is a useful way of thinking about political messages. For instance, in a discussion panel I convened last year as part of the RegNet Conversations series on resistance, I argued that the Trump and Brexit votes can be understood, at least in part, as protest against bipartisan political support for neoliberal social and economic policy.

Just yesterday, my local member Andrew Leigh e-mailed his constituents about ‘the progressive case for competition’, in which he argued that ‘uncompetitive markets are a key driver of rising wage inequality’. The progressive side of politics has failed to offer working and welfare class voters cultural resources to protest the impacts of globalisation in ways that don’t draw on existing vocabularies of anti-immigration, sexism and racism.

I think we’re all a bit sick of reading think-pieces about the Trump result. Here’s a different example: recent articles have reported on research that argues that moderate drinking confers a health benefit. This is a classic example of a message — a cultural resource that can be used, in this case, stored away and recalled when needed in order to question future messages about alcohol being a health risk.

blame-and-punish-the-individual-andrew-sampson-1-sep-2011

Outside Richmond Station in Melbourne (Andrew Sampson, Sep 2011)

‘Messaging’ is a key tool of lobby groups. In the case of the alcohol research, there was an article recently by Professor Charles J Holahan from a prestigious university in the United States, which did not disclose any conflicting interests. Reading his faculty bio, however, revealed that much earlier in his career, he had accepted funding from the ‘ABMRF/Foundation for Alcohol Research’.

 

The Foundation describes its approach in these words:

The Foundation’s unique partnership between academia and industry grew out of a shared concern over the lack of factual information about the health effects of alcohol for the vast majority of consumers who drink in moderation. (…)  Established scientists formulated epidemiologic studies to understand the effects of moderate consumption of alcohol. (source; my emphasis)

In fact, the ABMRF makes a point of funding early career researchers:

  • Highest priority is given to young investigators, new to the field or trained in the field, to start a new line of independent research. 
  • The next level of priority is given to investigators outside alcohol research bringing an innovative idea to the field. 
  • Lowest priority is given to established investigators in the alcohol research field unless the application offers an extraordinary new idea. (source)

The study I read recently might not have been funded by this foundation, but for the researcher who led the study, receiving this funding early in his career may have increased the likelihood of him continuing to work on the issue of moderate drinking — and publishing results that confirm, rather than overturn, his earlier findings.

Funding research that focuses on moderate drinking almost guarantees a steady stream of research publications and news coverage of studies finding little harmful impact from alcohol usage. (Bernard Keane is convinced by this data. Actual experts, not so much.)

The political effect of this stream of research is to support the moralising framing adopted by the Australian industry lobby for licensed establishments, suggesting the problem is individuals making unhealthy choices, rather than the widespread availability of cheap drinks.

For me, this is a nice example of why the “But facts!” response misses the point of political messaging. The message can be true and still have effects that we might want to challenge.

 

Why study stigma?

Just before the December break, I asked my Facebook Brains Trust (FBT) what questions they have about stigma. As always, the answers were exceptionally thoughtful — I’m lucky to be friends with intellectually and emotionally generous people. Here are some of their questions:

  • I want to know if HIV stigma can be eliminated, or even significantly reduced. I want to know this so that I can see clearly whether we should be trying to eliminate it or learning how to live better with it.
  • I want to know how we can effectively measure stigma in a meaningfully qualitative and quantitative way, so that we can assess the impact of both our work and the impact of other changes in the broader social environment.
  • The question of untangling HIV stigma from all the associated stigmas (drug use, sex, homosexuality, race, etc etc) – how intersectionality plays into it; what other stigmas inform HIV stigma & what can be done about that.
  • Is the educational investment required to de-stigmatise the opinions of one average person with no understanding of the stigmatised issue so great that it could never be scaled up to the population level and/or expanded across all stigmatised issues?
  • What is the cost benefit threshold at which someone who benefits from stigma begins to feel compelled to divest from it?
  • Why 30 years of effort addressing HIV stigma seems to have had so little impact.

Thanks to Paul Kidd, Jason Appleby, Jed Barnum, Aaron Cogle and Bernard Gardiner for these questions. I’ll be keeping them in mind.

So why study stigma? In part, it’s to answer questions like these. They concern human suffering and the scope of our potential to end it. That’s my starting point. But I’m also coming from a decade as a practitioner in a genuinely community-based response to a public health concern — the Australian response to HIV. That experience, and my work with Dr Graham Brown, has posed some thorny questions about how public health decision-makers think about the complex social systems this work is engaging with.

If this thinking is simplistic, the interventions that get funded may not take advantage of the full capabilities of the networks, cultures and communities they take place within. Or they might take an overly rosy view of ‘community’ and miss out on some of the harmful dynamics that can exist in a close-knit network of people.

Although stigma is a horrible thing, it has one helpful property: the minute you are thinking about stigma, you are immediately thinking about ‘sociality’ as well — the whole complex of ways of living in relationship with others. Thus, studying stigma is a ‘can-opener’ that lets me explore how public health thinks about ‘the social’.

Why do I want to do that?

Currently, we have a case study of effective community-based prevention in the Australian response to HIV — but it is very much an exception to the norm in the wider health system, and as the meaning of HIV changes, this places pressure on funding and policy support for the exception to continue.

In order for the HIV model to survive, we need to understand it, theorise it, and promote it as a model (with appropriate adaptations) for other public health issues. The foundational stories that we told to get it started are based in political movements from the 70s and 80s that are no longer salient to politicians and policy-makers, so we need to articulate it in the language that resonates with contemporary public health in the 21st century.

My comparison case is the policy response to obesity. In case this seems odd, remember that the social movement that underpinned Australia’s community-based response to HIV came out of a movement created to challenge anti-homosexual stigma. I think we are seeing the same thing happening with obesity, with the emergence of the Health At Every Size (HAES) movement.

Very often the target of fat activism is public health messaging about healthy eating and body size, and I’m aware of clinicians who are frustrated by the challenge fat activism poses to their authority over what they see as the medical problem of obesity. The same battles were fought in HIV activism.

These battles obscure the potential for the HAES movement, via its crystallisation in myriad blogs, twitter networks, on tumblr and in Facebook groups, to become the social substrate for community-based health promotion. The essential challenge here is the same: it is the need to support public health decision-makers in thinking about these social systems as having capabilities — and developing practices that engage them effectively.

My proposed study involves observing the development of interventions in HIV and obesity, in Australia and overseas, and paying attention to how the stakeholders at each site talk about the task of engaging with complex social systems (such as networks, cultures and communities). I will analyse the policy context and project documentation in order to tell the story of how a particular campaign message slowly crystallises out of a cloud of talk and text. By collecting and analysing this data, and comparing it across health issues, countries, and established/emerging responses, I aim to develop a theory of engagement for researchers in public health as well as practical guidelines for funders, policy-makers and practitioners.

In the longer term, however, I would like to end up researching public health from an academic department focused on culture and communications, rather than being the ‘culture guy’ in a public health department. In my first year of the PhD, I already had the bones of the project in place, and I did a lot of reading across the different disciplines to locate my project and a possible career path.

My provisional location — basecamp, if you like — is communications ethnography. I’m located for now in a centre focused on regulation and governance, which is a great fit for my perspective on public health. I’m drawing on linguistic and visual anthropology to ground my analysis of campaign documents and images. But all of that is subject to change: my task for this year is to take my pockets full of preconceptions and go and get mugged by reality.