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Virtue signalling

What does "virtue signalling" mean? And is it a helpful idea in conversation? My latest essay for The New Philosopher discusses this popular concept. Certain phrases are epitaphs for good debate. The conversation might continue, but in a deadened form: a petty spat, or series of monologues. For example: “that’s just your opinion”, “check your privilege” and “as an x, I’m offended”. They often reveal the speaker’s lack of goodwill or good faith, or they demonstrate what philosophers call ‘incommensurability’: the participants have not only competing ideas and values, but also competing standards of ideas and values. They’re talking past each other. But there is more: they’re sometimes talking

How to get into reading

I recently had a piece on The Art of Reading in the UK's The Big Issue magazine: 'How to get into reading'. What you are doing right now is astonishing: reading. We often take it for granted, because the basic skills are gained so early. By the time we’re adults, the letters are transparent: we move straight from lines to universes. This is one reason why reading is so neglected as a craft. Like spectacles, it’s so close to us we can’t see it. Reading is also more private—it lacks the public kudos of authorship. So we hear a great deal about writing: festivals, ‘how to’ guides in newspapers and magazines, courses, alongside raves and rages about individual authors. Readers remain out of the

Public writers, private lives

How do writers live? We're familiar with festival performances or Hollywood tropes. But how do actual authors negotiate money, career, marriage, parenthood and identity? A little while ago, Ruth Quibell and I spoke to a number of writers from Australia and abroad (chiefly the UK & US) about their daily lives. The result was "Public Writers, Private Lives", a feature for Island 135. You can read the whole essay here. And here's a sample: The public face of writing is an edited, commercial one. Beyond book signings, blurbs and bullish advances are two stubborn tropes: writers are idiots, and writers are butterflies. Idiot, from the ancient Greek idiotes, is someone who refuses community; a rec

Stupid idiots

Not long ago I wrote a short essay for Island magazine #145: 'Stupid Idiots'. It's on Australia's political slurs, and how maddeningly unambitious they are. I'm suggesting we try harder to insult one another, starting with these two recommendations: 'stupid' and 'idiot'. A sample: Of all the disappointments falling from the low-hanging piñata of Australian politics, the most banal are the insults. From the snarling sexism of ‘ditch the witch’—it rhymes, so it must be true and clever—to the clumsy class analysis of ‘spiv’, we are making a graveyard of slurs. Mark Latham offered the occasional zinger-like ‘conga line of suckholes’, but his recent diatribes are less like witty ripostes and mo

In praise of independent bookshops

Long before I heard a clerk spelling out 'C-A-R-L M-A-R-K-S' in a Borders many years ago, I had my doubts about the big chain bookstores. When I'm seeking new spoils--from novels to philosophy, poetry to comics--I try to support independent bookshops. But why? Prompted by the recent Independent Bookshop Week, I wrote a brief celebration of these excellent establishments for Meanjin magazine (another fine old literary institution). A sample: ‘Now I know what I’ve been faking all these years.’ So says Private Benjamin in the film of the same name, after a tryst with her lover. I felt this way about my first independent bookshop. I had been making all the right noises for years, but suddenly I

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