Do You Really Want a Tester?

This essay is targeted at the managers of the digital development (IT) section of businesses that want to make or save money. It will come as a surprise to some people, that there is more than one “school” of testing. I have been exposed to two extremes, and through my 12 years of experience, and with personal integrity, have accepted one of them as supporting and representing the high standard of professionalism that I endeavour to offer my employer. This is probably not the one you are acquainted with. Allow me, please, to enlighten you.

Testing is a specialised cognitive skill. As with any such skills, from people management to oil painting, it cannot be reduced to a number of steps (and because of that it can’t be done by a machine – more about that later). A test case is not a test. At best, it is a test guide or idea. There is no way a “test case” could ever be written to represent all the analysis that a tester does, intrinsically, heuristically, and because it is impossible to do 100% testing there is no way that producing “comprehensive test cases” ever comes close to representing the test coverage or the actual analysis done. If a confirmation can be done by a machine, then it is a “check”, not a test. Testing involves mindful discerning analysis of the observations made during deliberate experimentation.

As a simplistic example of this, imagine a “test case” that confirms that Box C shows the factor of boxes A and B. If this “test case” was automated, we’d have to set the values of boxes A (6) and B (7) so we know that Box C will get the same results each time. A coded check would confirm that 42 shows in Box C: pass. A person checking would intrinsically notice if the result displays aligned properly, in the correct format, font and size and colour, in base 10, if it took a long time to display, or if Outlook crashed when the result displayed. A person testing could change Box B to 8 and see Box C does not change from 42 – turns out that was hard-coded so the auto-check would pass… There are infinite tests that could be done: even having different programs open at the same time on your computer can affect a function. A business is not going to ask a tester to test every possible combination of programs, browsers, operating systems, settings…

What would a “pass” on this test reveal? If it is done by a different tester in a slightly different way eg inputting Box B before content in Box A, or tabbing instead of mouse clicks is that a different test? It could get a different result. Also, if it fails the first 2 times, works on the third, is broken by a regression issue, fixed and is currently working at release, that usually shows as Count of Test Case = 1, Pass = 1, 100% Pass – and tells us nothing about the potential risks of the function.

At best, a passing test is a rumour of success… A failing test is an allegation of failure. – M Bolton

We should also keep in mind that “test cases” do not appear out of thin air. Since they are usually expected to be produced in advance of the tester getting access to the product, they are generally based around the testers’ other available oracles, for example the BRD. If these “test cases” are to accurately reflect the main functional requirements of the product, it means the design and requirements need to be produced to a high standard as well. It is not reasonable to expect better detail from test cases than the rest of the project documentation. Waterfall methodology is fundamentally flawed. Can any business really believe that they are going to design an entire 6 month project 100% correctly from the start? If the business is interested in making money and being at the cutting edge of digital development and consumer interests, they should be working iteratively from Minimum Viable Product and enhancing from there, and that does not support the argument for the creation of a complete suite of static “test cases” before testing even starts.

The expectation of and reliance on “test cases” and automation in many digital workplaces indicates a fundamental lack of understanding of what testing actually is. This is commonly enabled and enforced by members of the test community itself, many of whom have never questioned the inconsistencies inherent in the establishment process (which shows an indicative lack of discernment for people who should be professional sceptics). I have heard various dogma about why people think we need test cases. I say “dogma” because, if they were arguments, they would be dropped when the people who believed them were given a compelling rational counter-argument that clearly disproved the belief…

  • “We have written test cases so new testers know how to test a system.”
    • First, test cases are not designed to teach anything. They don’t explain what user need the program is supposed to address or how the user is anticipated to use it, or what the out of the various functions mean to the user, or why the designer decided to choose one function over a different one, or the business priorities with respect to the program.
    • Second, you would think that, if you’ve hired an experienced professional tester, they’d already know how to test. All they need to do is learn what the program is for and how to use it, experiment, and question to start getting a feel for the product and the project.
    • Third, if you want to teach someone to test (ie use critical thinking, structured analysis, intuitive leaps and intelligent informed reasoning supporting their reports), you have to encourage them to think far beyond learning to follow a set of mindless, repetitive steps that can in fact get in the way of analytical thinking.
  • “… so we can get test coverage and test progression metrics.”
    • It is not true that all tests are equal. A fail in one critical path is worth far more than 10 typos in page content, yet each test case is counted equally when “pass rates” are calculated.
    • Does the metric really reflect the value you want to measure? 80% of the test cases may be run, but that’s because they were easy – the remaining 20% may take 80% of the time, so this doesn’t show how close we are to completion.
    • There are many more such inconsistencies with this idea. I recommend reading this article here before considering reducing tests and test activities to numbers.
  • “… so we can prove coverage and compliance.”
    • As I pointed out above – we will never have complete coverage, and any set of documentation that says otherwise is false.
    • This also assumes that every tester follows every written step, every time they do the tests, which I don’t think is a universal truth. It seems to me far more useful to inform the test professional of the details if you feel you are somehow obliged to run specific tests on certain occasions, and allow them to determine the constraints of that requirement.
  • “…to have a set of “standardised” regression tests.”
    • No tester will ever follow a set of instructions the same way twice, and a different tester will behave significantly different with the same instructions, so the idea of standardisation is completely illogical, unless the checks are run by a machine in an otherwise closed environment.
    • Even the best testers will begin to miss things when asked to mindlessly follow the same set of checks and tests every time the program is updated. Intelligent people get bored with repetition, and rush things, to get it over with. It is not testing if your mind is not engaged.
    • A (usually) truncated set of tests such as this will obfuscate the areas of change and real risk. Instead of a wild shot-gun blast of tests in the general direction of the potentially affected areas, it is far more efficient and effective to work with the developers to understand what code was changed, and where that code is used, and then target the testing to the areas of most risk. Regression defects may appear random on the surface, but they always have a cause. Working with the devs also helps them understand how they have to think about more than just the function under work, so they write better code.
  • “…so someone knows where to pick up if your tester gets hit by a bus.”
    • This is the best reason I have seen, but still, if your tester has been giving clear and informative progress and issue reports along the way, it should be obvious what they have done, and any good tester should be able to see what yet needs to be done. Progress reports that say “Of 33 test cases, I have run 17, and 5 of these have failed” do not actually tell a replacement tester what testing has been done.

I was appalled to see, in the results of a job search, the term “Automated tester” being commonly used. Gone is the facade of testers being “test automation engineers” – they now say explicitly that testing can be done by a robot. We have cheapened our profession so much, allowing people to believe that what we do can be reduced to a series of steps, and our valuable analysis is just a number, that they now rationally but erroneously intend to replace us with machines. I’m not even particularly concerned for my job: this is disastrous for our digital future, as our increased use of, reliance on, and integration with digital solutions that have no better critical functional analysis than an automated check.

The only real thing that testers produce are reports on the state of the product under test, for the business to decide if they are happy to release the product or not. This is what I do, and I try to do it to the best of my ability. If the business requires their testers to conform to bad testing practices, they will get poorly tested products, misleading metrics and a false sense of security, and it will cost more in time and issues. If your tester is informed, professional, and has integrity, but cannot change the way things are done, they will leave you. If you want to just wave a “tester” at the product to get the rubber stamp and don’t want real information to burst your bubble, why pay professional prices? An office temp could do it. If you really want a tester, who gives you good information, so you can have justified confidence in your product, let them do their job properly.

The established process wastes significant time and money on writing and/or running symbolic ritualistic checks, gives people meaningless or misleading numbers,  and then allows people to naively believe that these prove something by which they could make reliable project decisions. This process I reject, as insufficient for good testing: wasteful, unprofessional, limiting, unethical, ignorant, dogmatic rubbish. And yet, this latter kind of testing is what the majority of potential employers look for, knowing no other way. If your organisation can afford to waste huge amounts of money on bad practices, bureaucratic rituals, shoddy products and customer dissatisfaction (eg, in my experience this means government, banks and insurance companies) and that is how your company operates, you don’t need or want a tester like me.

This essay is targeted at the managers of the digital development (IT) section of businesses that want to make or save money. A professional tester should be sceptical, especially of their own perceptions, asking questions, learning new test techniques and skills, efficiently targeting their testing to the areas of most risk, owning and learning from their mistakes, working to inform the stakeholders about risks, uncertainty, what kind of bugs they are getting, what other issues the project faces, the state of the product, and how the tester know their testing is sufficient for the needs of the business. If this is what your business wants, then you actually do want a tester. I am in awe of the people who represent this kind of testing: I am inspired, challenged, and constantly reminded that there are brilliant thinkers in the world, who work with vast integrity, and I want to be counted amongst them.

NZ Election: Repeal HSW, Revive ACC

Our country and people benefit from our fearless active and adventurous nature. As examples, we invented flying before the Wright brothers, we invented bungy jumping, a Kiwi scaled Mt Everest, the All Blacks are the greatest rugby team on Earth, and our country income and image thrives on adventure tourism. We cycle, hike, hunt, climb, play silly games, swim, explore, DIY, dance and consequently combat issues such as a greater risk of obesity and other such diseases, CO2 emissions, and institutionalised helplessness. Kiwis have always been, are, and should be brave, active, mobile, inventive, and adventurous by nature.

This is all at risk. There are two parts to this story: ACC and the Health and Safety in the Workplace Act.

ACC is (literally) a brilliant idea. Rather than having to find someone to blame and sue to cover expensive medical bills, Kiwis and visitors to NZ can live their lives and have adventures and know that the government will get them back onto their feet and into life again (as much as possible) if they get hurt in an accident. No-one wants to get injured – we don’t go out looking for it – but accidents can happen when you get off your couch, and even sometimes when you don’t, and facing your fears to accomplish something awesome is easier when it does not include both the fear of personal pain and injury and crippling financial debt that could drag down your community as well.

It all comes down to who is going to take responsibility for someone’s injury and rehab costs. If you can’t work because of an injury you can’t make the money you need to pay for it, so you have to look for someone else to foot the bill. If the government isn’t going to do it, people then have to think about who will? Insurance has exclusions for physical or perceived risky pursuits: it is not in their interest to pay out for a possible injury in an activity that has a certain level of risk. While they might pay out if someone drives into you, they most certainly would not be covering you for stock-car racing, unless you pay stupid amounts of premiums.

That leaves litigation. The consequence of America’s system is that people will not give someone CPR when they need it, because if they cause any injury (eg like a broken rib, which can happen) they fear they will be sued for the medical costs. This is a reasonable fear: given the costs of medicine in the US (because doctors have to pay so much in personal liability insurance, because they get sued too), there’s a good chance the injured party will need to find someone to blame to avoid financial disaster. Instead, you could be bankrupted just for trying to save someone’s life. If you have people who rely on your money (eg your family) you would be risking their future for a stranger. Not a good incentive to help, and even less incentive for supplying a product or service that can in any way damage someone (eg a hot coffee http://www.stellaawards.com/) without a comprehensive series of warnings and legal waivers. Blame and fear tears America apart. I think you will agree with me that we don’t want this in NZ.

In my (educated) opinion, ACC has more impact on the Kiwi culture than any other government service (eg education, health and police), and this is why I am so surprised that ACC policy doesn’t even get a mention in most parties’ policies. I decide who to vote for based on their attitude to ACC. The government doesn’t really want the cost, but the alternative, allowing people to sue for personal injury like the Americans do, is far worse. How much is the brave community of NZ worth?

We don’t have the right to sue for our medical costs in NZ: we traded-off the right to have ACC. This means that ACC had better cover accidental injuries comprehensively because we commonly have no further recourse. But instead I see ACC being undermined and no rights to sue being re-introduced.

  • Businesses and sports are being levied according to their risk, which is a disincentive to start a business in anything adventurous. If ACC is a government department, created for the good of the country, paid for by taxes, and enjoyed by all equally, why are some ventures penalised by higher costs? Sure, they might have more injuries, but do we imagine they want these injuries, or get them from being more careless or stupid than people in low risk occupations? Do we imagine that we’d be better off without these occupations? Wouldn’t they already be paying more to attract employees? Wouldn’t the levy be better spent to minimise those injury risks?
  • People are now being denied ACC help when the injuries can be blamed on age and existing conditions. While it may be true that a broken limb or spinal injury might not have happened if the person was younger, or hadn’t had a similar injury in the past, or wear-and-tear, it doesn’t change the fact that the injury would not have happened except for the accident. People are living with injuries and costs from accidents because ACC is judging their claims like a commercial insurance provider, where it is in their interest to not pay out. It is not in the countries’ best interest, however. Do we really want to dis-incentivise older and previously injured people from getting off the couch and into life? Are they really that worthless to NZ?

And then the Pike River disaster happened. Somehow the people who ran the mine were not criminally negligent or otherwise legally responsible, and yet NZ (rightly or wrongly) thought they should be, for justice to be properly served. The Health and Safety at Work Act 2015 was passed to law, and WorkSafe Crown Agency created to interpret the requirements to everyday life. The gist of it is, the ‘person conducting a business or an undertaking’ (PCBU) can be held criminally liable if someone is killed or injured whilst participating in the undertaking.

The law and it’s (WorkSafe and layperson) interpretation is having a serious effect on NZ culture. Here is a list of things I have been told about, as someone who does adventure activities:

  1. A kite-boarding teacher shutting up shop because, while they taught safety and had a definite positive motivation for ensuring the safety of the students, they didn’t want to be responsible for the people who didn’t learn fast enough to avoid injury. I’m sure there will be many more such stories. As above, when choosing to help a stranger, why would you do it when there is a risk they could get damaged and destroy your life? There’s a good chance that they were doing enough to satisfy WorkSafe, in the event of an injury, but many people don’t have the time, financial or cognitive resources to study and understand how the new law applies to them specifically, even if they had the inclination. It’s one thing to be willing to patch someone up as a part of your small busy business, and quite another to commit to understanding such heavy legislation and all the implications, and get all the requisite bureaucratic documentation together whenever it’s required.
  2. Schools closing playgrounds and cancelling school camping trips, to protect teachers and supervisors from the legal consequences of a kid hurting themselves. Cotton-wool parenting (Google it – too many studies to list) doesn’t work. If kids don’t have the opportunity to hurt themselves in childhood, they get to their teen lives thinking they can’t be hurt. They also lack physical literacy and resilience, self-confidence and independence, risk assessment skills and good responsible decision making, and opportunities to learn, grow, and earn the trust and respect of their family and peers.
  3. PCBU’s being so freaked out by the Damocles’ Sword of criminal liability they refuse to let risk-based performers do their job… I’ve heard of circus performers being told they cannot do a number of their acts, because of the risk (the risk is what makes it an act!) and in one case a pair of stilt walkers forced to walk half a kilometre around a water feature because the organisers did not want the risk of them walking across a bridge (as if falling off stilts elsewhere is safer). The vast majority of professional circus performers know the risks, and do what they need to to mitigate the risks themselves. Having ignorant PCBU’s dictating or (worse) helping with the safety measures just adds complexity and unknowns to something that is already tricky.
  4. Home businesses having to write up risk assessments and mitigation plans for employees that come to their home – common sense is no longer enough. It is also apparently not enough that the people you are responsible for just sign a waiver – you have to be able to demonstrate that they have been informed of and understand the risks they face and the mitigation of which they need to be aware. We’re holding the bubble-wrap on with rolls of red tape.

We should also keep in mind that there is a theory that adults, when they have reason to believe they can’t be hurt, act with less care and personal responsibility to themselves and others. Legislation that allows people to believe that, in order to protect themselves from legal consequences, a PCBU will have made the activity safe for participants will almost certainly result in the participant taking less care themselves, putting themselves, others, and the PCBU at more risk.

The law was never meant to do this! It was written to ensure that the people behind an incident like Pike River can be made accountable. It was not made to add the fear of explicit legal responsibility for other people onto our shared adventures. It was not meant to undermine the value and liberty we get from ACC by finding someone to blame for our accidents, or cost so much, because while it might incidentally reduce the annual costs to ACC, it will cost businesses around NZ real money in legal and bureaucratic fees and time. It is not supposed to cause conflict between a risk expert voluntarily accepting risk and “reasonably practicable” mitigation and a layperson’s involuntary exposure and perception bias. It is, whether it was meant to or not, destroying undertakings that represent our way of life, heritage and culture.

I will be repealing this law, for the sake of NZ, to enable us all to take responsibility for ourselves on our adventures, and believe in our government safety nets, and bring back our culture of brave, adventurous, fun-loving and caring Kiwis. It would be great if you want to help.

The Serenity Prayer

Facebook reminded me that I wrote this back in 2014… Definitely worth saving, I think

I’ve been thinking about the Serenity Prayer, in relation to current events. A lot of people in my life are motivated to vote, and angry/disappointed with politicians (for lots of reasons). Gvmt level bullshit is something I do not believe I can change (at all – I radically accept that politicians are the worst people to be in control of a country, and yet, they are), but I did vote, mostly cos not to do so is basically a vote in favour of (right wing) conservatism, and I didn’t want to give them the satisfaction.
I do believe I can possibly change things in my smaller communities. I will act to defend people, and their rights and liberties, against the imposition of unjust rules, (formal or implied) traditions and policies we create in our social groups, and that’s where courage becomes an issue. There is commonly no process in place that one can follow to bring the issue to people’s attention and get it addressed in a formal, un-emotive manner. Trying to change something amongst the people you interact with on a regular basis is therefore fraught with difficulties. The people who made the situation (our leaders and bosses) feel threatened in their authority, compassion and intelligence. The people who do not suffer from the thing that needs to be changed commonly don’t see the issue, and fight to keep the status quo. The people who do suffer tend to keep their heads down, because, as the Russians say, it can always get worse, they are already disenfranchised, and they see the flak I get.
Wisdom. I have come to define this as an ability to correctly judge more of the consequences of actions. This comes from experience, if one chooses to learn from experience. I define ethical good as overall positive social consequences. I’m starting to wonder, given my more common failures and the resultant social isolation, if I really do have any ability to cause any policy change in a social group, and if I’m right to try. Should I, on seeing community injustice, just accept that this is what we do to each other, and that the disenfranchised had just better learn to look after themselves? It is definitely right to stand for better social policies IF you know you will succeed, but if you fail you do not achieve much positive social consequence (except maybe giving some validation to the afflicted) and commonly dissent has immediate negative social consequences. If it was law, like changing the laws regarding homosexuality, it will continue long enough to show positive change from building dissent, but these social groups are more ephemeral or, in the case of work, impersonal. Who does have the ability to turn the juggernauts of our leaders’ self-indulgent social privilege and entitlement around? How do they do it? How can we hope to make a better world for ourselves if all we can do is watch as the social groups we value create their own victims?
Gods. Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

via (95) Anna Cruse – I’ve been thinking about the Serenity Prayer, in…

Ethics: The First Principle

Back in 2000 I went back to University to write a dissertation about Ethics. I had some ideas bumping around in my head from a couple of papers (Certificates of Proficiency) I had done in the Philosophy of Religion and Applied Ethics, and I thought I had the answer to the Consequentialist argument of what makes an action “good”. Analogous to people who do Psychology to work out what’s going on in their own heads, I wanted to do Ethics because I needed to know what made an action right or wrong. Dogma, religion, culture and appeals to being “nice” did not suffice for me: I’m too sceptical. How did I even know I was being “nice”, if I couldn’t judge my action by some objective criteria and account for all the affected parties, including myself? It’s easy for an intelligent person to justify their actions if they don’t have principles. I also don’t believe in a God that judges my actions and will hold me accountable after my demise. Anyway, that’s a lousy reason to behave well to others, the idea that one is only acting “good” to avoid punishment. Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development has that motivation on the bottom of the stack, and I agree with him (in that matter). I managed to convince the Department of Philosophy to take me on doing a Graduate Diploma of Arts, even though my first degree was a Bachelor of Science, based on my performance in the CoPs, and I got to work.

To cut a long story short, my initial argument had the right focus but the wrong target. This was pointed out to me by my supervisor about 2 months into the 8-9 months that I had, and after fighting it a bit I realised she was right. That’s when I hit on the argument that could withstand scrutiny, and made everything make sense. I got an A for that dissertation, and my supervisor said the only reason I didn’t get an A+ is because she wasn’t qualified to judge some of the supporting arguments, since I had pulled in content from Psychology, Political Science, Sociology, and anywhere else I could find a connection.

I determined that I had to turn the dissertation into a book, one that everybody could understand, so that everyone could know (if they cared) what the objective basis was for our intuited moral beliefs and judgements, so they could judge or at least argue the correctness of those beliefs and judgements. My working title is “The First Principle”, and past coming up with that, this has proven to be harder than it sounds.

  1. I had to concentrate a huge amount of my initial writing down into very dense philosophical language to keep within my word limit, even with significant appendices, and re-translating that back into readable, engaging and commonly understandable English is a mission
  2. I’m not convinced my initial dissertation structure is right for a book
  3. I have thought of more things I want to add, and I wonder if some things are just distractions. Specifically, do I research more and throw in citations for everything (it’s easy to see where I wrote something as an essay for a university paper), or is there a point where my own thoughts have stand-alone value, even if they are similar to someone else’s?
  4. Real life gets in the way: I don’t have a lot of time to redesign, translate and write when I have a full time job

So I have determined that I will take bits out of the book-to-be and publish them as blog articles because…

  1. I think a lot of my readers will find this stuff interesting, and enjoy the opportunity to discuss and debate the ideas
  2. Reformatting it for the blog will likely give me some insights into how I can make the rest of the translation easier for myself
  3. It gets at least some of it out there, in case I get hit by a bus
  4. Now I’m working again it give me easy content to keep the blog going
  5. Maybe someone will decide it’s worth helping me become an author

I’ll put such posts under the Ethics tag. I know there already are other (non-book) blogs tagged that way, too, but that’s OK – I’m sure I can count such posts as potential new material. I hope y’all find this motivating ☺

You Should Not Read This…

So – you ignored my patronising advice. Good for you 🙂

There are some words that, when I hear them, instantly raise red flags around the communication. One of these is the word “should”. Every time I hear someone say this I know they are talking about an idealised, romantic view of the world and commonly not about reality. Here are some examples…

As a tester, I hear the word “should” a lot. “The content from this field should populate the corresponding field on the admin page”. “The import should take no longer than 5 min”. “The user should be aware that they can’t add a link to this content”. Testers are professional sceptics. When we hear the word “should” we say “Reeeally? I’m going to have a look at that…” It’s surprising how often statements like these are wrong, completely or partially. One of the things that catch developers out is the belief that their “should” will apply in all circumstances. Yes, a name entered into the Name field is saved to the database… except when that name contains an apostrophe (common in Polynesian names), a hyphen or a space, or some strange German letter… And even if a user “should” know better, what happens is they accidentally add a link (in a cut and paste, for instance)? Does the app up and die? It probably shouldn’t do that.

As someone who studies ethics, however, one is aware of far less amusing failures of the word “should”. “People should protect the environment, if they are rational”. “There should be no discrimination in the workforce”. “People can believe what they want, but they should not act to harm other people or communities”. What people are really saying, when they say “should” is the opposite: people DON’T protect the environment, there IS discrimination, and people DO act according to their beliefs, even when it harms others. After making these pronouncements ethicists then allow themselves to feel disappointed at the way people actually behave. We need to accept the reality of what we are talking about. Ethics are too often about dreams and utopian ideals, and not about reality, and it’s far too easy for a privileged, educated Westerner to accept the constraints of their own ethical pronouncements and just assume that if they can and will, anyone can and will. Until ethicists make statements that are both possible and compelling to the general population, or at least law-makers, ethics fails to be a practical study and is instead just a means to designate various things that would be valued, if we were rational. We need to find the statements that make the following true:

  • People CAN AND WILL protect the environment when…
  • There WILL be no discrimination when…
  • People WILL NOT hurt each other when…

Anyway, who listens when other people tell you what you “should” do? You’re reading this, right? Unsolicited advice, or just basic patronising authorities (warranted or not) are generally ignored unless someone really has an interest in the topic and no clue what to do. In my experience, they only time pronouncing “should” has any effect is when people turn it on themselves: “I should go on a diet”. “I should not pay so much attention to negative people”. “This should not happen to me”. This has an effect because, rather than achieving these high aspirations, we fail to achieve them (or even properly start them) and then have an excuse to beat ourselves up. It’s a self-imposed goad with no plan to get the carrot. One of my couchsurfers put it very well when she related being told to “Stop shoulding all over yourself”. Once again, when we say should, we are being unrealistic, and talking about dreams instead of realising them. We need to accept that we are NOT going to go on a diet, unless something changes, and then we might. We only change when we actually do something, and keep at it, however that comes about, and then there is no more “should”.

A Humanist Perspective on Force and Violence

Here’s something from the past that adds to my views on self defence. I wrote this article back in the ’90s and it was published in the NZ Humanist magazine and got some good reviews. Reading it again now I would probably use less abrasive language, but there were some things going on in my life at the time that coloured my perspective somewhat. I have left it as I wrote it, partially because I’d like the ideas to be challenging, but also because I think my readers would like to see how I’ve changed over time. It’s good to see people can change for the better

I should explain the rude view of pacifists. At the time I ran a group at University called Pagan Revivalists. We would have regular meetings and invite people of related paths to come and tell us about their beliefs and values. Given the extremely diverse nature of the attendees (from Dianic witchcraft to the OTO), the discussion and questions at these meetings could be quite lively. We had a New Age guru of some kind come to address us. He looked like the Euro vision of Jesus and was acceptance, love and pacifism personified. I watched his followers: these women (all were women) threw themselves in the way of any potential challenge like they were all attacks. They wore the stress of their protective vigilance on their faces. They were afraid he would get hurt and loose his inner calm, and that made them aggressive and frantic to protect this precious soul. My thought was that this is the price of culpable innocence: other people have to pay dearly to protect his purity. Without them he has two choices in an unpleasant situation – lose the pacifism or suffer.

I do think peace is ideal. I’m sure most of my readers have heard the saying “fighting for peace is like f*cking for virginity”. If one thought that virginity was valuable, if one person sacrificed that valuable thing so that those who would fornicate in spite of the loss of value could do so without affecting all those who wanted to stay unsullied, then that person has acted to increase the overall amount of good. Utilitarian argument, but still worth thinking about, since a decrease in acts and victims of violence is usually what we try to achieve, when we promote peace.

A Humanist Perspective on Force and Violence

By Anna Cruse

What is the right stance for a Humanist to take on issues of force and violence? Is ANY such behaviour acceptable to our principles? If yes, in what circumstances? Are there times when a Humanist ought to take such a stance – when it is right and good, necessary and sufficient – or is the proper expression of Humanism to be the ultimate pacifist? Should we accept that “human nature” will never be civilized enough to make such resort unnecessary, or is our rejection of such means the only way to stop the use of force and violence in our society? Is the use of force and violence a) always evil b) a necessary evil c) sometimes right, sometimes wrong d) the last resort e) a tool Humanists have to learn to use appropriately?

I should perhaps start with some real life examples of times when people have to make the choice to use or not use force and violence. As you read these examples, think about what you would do.

  1. Two kids get into a fight in the schoolyard, and force is necessary to separate them

  2. A young adult snatches a purse and runs your way

  3. You catch a stranger in your house

  4. Two men get into a fight outside a pub, and if someone doesn’t drag the bigger off the smaller will be badly hurt, probably hospitalized, maybe killed (it only takes one punch to kill, if it lands just so, and this happens by accident too many times)

  5. Two policemen are beating a cowering student

  6. A 42 year old man with the mental capacity of an 8 year old throws a tanty and starts pummelling his 80 year old mother

  7. Your teenager starts pushing you and your partner around

  8. You are surrounded by a gang of youths. It could even include your teenager. You believe that they intend to hurt you

  9. A 14 year old pulls a gun at the highschool

  10. A neighbour wants to run into a burning building to rescue her beloved poodle

  11. The secret police are dragging off a neighbour in the middle of the night

  12. A man is kidnapping his own child. The mother is screaming for help.

  13. You have a friend trapped in one of those brainwash cults. She has not asked you for help

  14. Your 17 year old offspring is about to get into a car with his / her obviously inebriated girl / boyfriend driving

  15. A load of pipes has come loose and is about to roll over someone. You could tackle them out of the way

  16. Someone is about to take a suicide jump. You could stop them

  17. Someone is trapped in a burning car begging to be killed. You have a gun

  18. Your cancer riddled grandma asks you to help her die. You have a pillow

  19. A colleague is about to destroy the evidence of company complicity in an ecological poisoning issue

That’s probably enough. What would a Humanist do? What levels of force and/or violence are right (if any)?

There is an argument that if one wants to stop the use of force and violence in society, then one should never use it oneself. Indeed, if a Humanist believes that the use of force or violence is wrong it would be hypocrisy if they resorted to its use. But some of the examples above, whilst all suggesting levels of force and violence, have been upheld as human rights or responsibilities. That is what Humanism is about, after all.

John Stuart Mill, in On Liberty argues that the only time that a person can legitimately impose their will upon another is in self-defence, and this includes the defence of one’s society (aka the Liberty Principle). But is it self-defence if you throw the first punch? Would you clobber the purse-snatcher, tackle the home invader, or snatch the evidence from the eco-poisoner? I’ve known of people set upon by gangs. Letting them throw the first punch is stupidity bordering on suicide (or is it martyrdom, for pacifists?) The law allows you to defend yourself to the limit necessary to stop the attack, and to make sure it doesn’t restart. Your response is deemed appropriate or not according to your belief about what was necessary at the time. There is no reason why this should be different if the attackers are your children. A law against “reasonable” anything is an unreasonable law, by definition. If teachers can’t use reasonable force, school brawlers can’t be separated.

This doesn’t mean the Law is necessarily right, either. There are several examples above where doing the right thing could easily involve breaking the law.

We are comfortable with the idea of imposing our will on those not capable of making good decisions for themselves (children and the mentally impaired). But what about the 17 year old about to get into a car with a drunk driver. Does it make a difference if they’re not our offspring? What about brainwashed (psychologically dependent) friends? Should neighbours be allowed to throw themselves to their deaths, deliberately or for reasons we don’t accept or understand? And where does suicide become euthanasia? Euthanasia is a hot topic in Humanist discussion. Many argue that active euthanasia can sometimes be the only humane option. Would you be that humane?

There are three hurdles a person has to cross before they act in these circumstances.

  1. They have to know something is wrong. People won’t resist a police state if they believe it to be the way things are supposed to be. Ignorance and naivety can make people think they don’t have to do something. Humanists acting according to the way things “should” be with no regard to how things ARE are guilty of this.

  2. They have to know they can do something. The best way to keep a captive is to make them believe they can’t escape. The subset of people in history who haven’t had a right to defend themselves against another group were called slaves. Take away a person’s choices, and that’s where it leads. People without recourse are the victims to those with no conscience. Those of us who are suitably fit can use force and violence: we have no excuses, here.

  3. They have to choose to act. If we know something is wrong and we can do something about it and we don’t it could be “bystander apathy” (in the case of us watching other people) but I think better words are cowardice, irresponsibility, and laziness. These are not Humanist traits.

I never want to be the kind of Humanist who sits around whining about how bad things are, but never acting to fix it. I don’t want to be so concerned with my own security, social or self-image that I allow myself or others to suffer when I can do something about it, even if it involves force, violence, risk, or legal issues (even for pacifists, who require others to do the dirty work for them, if they’re not to become victims). When the world becomes a perfect place where force and violence are no longer necessary for right ends to come about, I won’t use it. Until then, as a Humanist, I am not going to relinquish that tool.

Anarchy for Beginners

Anarchy: absence of government and absolute freedom of the individual, regarded as a political ideal. (Google definition)

I do not use the word anarchy to describe chaos. That’s a different thing.

I am an anarchist. In other words, I am a romantic, a political idealist, and I believe in liberty, as defined in J.S Mill’s On Liberty, when the only time a person has the right to infringe another’s liberty is in their self defence, or the defence of their community, and only then if the interference is not worse than the offence they are trying to stop.

In my idealistic dreams, we have free speech, and we all respect that, because we know that, even if someone says something that is wrong, misleading or offensive, we need to hear it so we can keep alive the proofs, and not rely on unsupported dogma and fashionable ideas to stop the misinformation and rhetoric. When I was about 20 I met someone who claimed he believed the world was flat. All the trite “proofs” I had that it was, in fact, spherical, he countered happily – no doubt he had heard them before. Because I didn’t know how to prove the Earth was spherical, all I had was the insufficient dogma of my education.

This was a defining moment for me. If we care about the truth of something, we have to know that truth for ourselves, and if it is something that someone else would argue against, we had better know their arguments and the answer for them in advance, or how could we discredit their arguments to our own satisfaction? How could we not allow ourselves to be rationally swayed by their more compelling arguments? There’s a big difference between wanting to believe something is true, and knowing it is true. As Michael Freedman used to say: “Believe nothing, question everything. Discover the truth for yourself.” I studied ethics to know what really made an action right or wrong, and I’m employed as a professional sceptic: a test analyst. (If you don’t believe that’s what a tester is, watch their faces when a dev says “it should work like this…”)

Of course, in reality, this is not how free speech works. Humans tend to be:

  • gullible or lazy – we’ll let others tell us how the world works. This is the legacy of a spoon-fed “education”
  • biased, prejudiced, and disinclined to question things we want to believe
  • emotional and easily stirred to irrational responses
  • attuned to sensationalism, self-interest and scaremongering

So anything said could be believed without question or not properly debated in an equal and open forum.

Anarchy is also about freedom of action, with the qualifier above that people can rightly stop you if your actions interfere with their actions enough. No-one has any right to say what you can and can’t do with your adult self past that. I’ll dress how I like, have sex and form relationships with whomever I want (assuming they want to, as well). I will choose what I read or watch. I’ll imbibe what I want and take my own risks, and from there, I will accept the consequences of these actions. These consequences might include the risk of illness or injury, isolating myself from other people, failure and ruin, but if that’s the risk I’m willing to take, it’s my choice to make. There are complications, of course, like if you have dependants, and when exactly someone is considered adult enough to take those risks, but I dare say that by now I might be considered enough in command of my own faculties to make those decisions.

The consequences of enforcing safety through laws and standards is a vicious cycle of a blithely careless population who do not take responsibility for their own injuries, and a more and more restrictive set of laws to protect them from their carelessness, since no-one else wants to be responsible for them, either. These laws are called “patronising”, but I generally call them “matronising”, as they are far more like how mothers treat their children, keeping them anxious, fearful and dependant for as long as possible. Another term I use is “smother love”. You do not show you care by disenfranchising another of their personal responsibility. You instead make them dependent, needy, and define, reinforce and validate their weaknesses.

Once again, in real life this gets complicated. We live in groups with various rules and laws against our personal autonomy, and some ability to hurt us in the enforcement, and about the most choice we have is which groups we allow to tell us what to do, and whether we obey them or not. I choose to subject myself to the laws of NZ, for instance, and because I don’t want to spend time in prison I don’t get caught breaking them. I have a t-shirt that says “No-one rules, if no-one obeys” and that is always an option. Conscientious objectors have existed throughout human history, and paid the price for their disobedience, but they have also been the ones that have brought about change in the rules.

To me, the strongest weapon of the anarchist is not freedom of speech or action, but the freedom to NOT do what someone expects or orders. I recommend reading And Then There Were None by Eric Frank Russell. It changed my life. The anarchist community of the story had an unbeatable weapon: each had a plaque with the words “I won’t” pressed into it. We, in our Western communities at least, are very good at imposing our will on others. We will order, ask or expect people to do things with no right to do so, no contract or agreement, and no thought that they might say “no”, and we commonly take offence, or are at least surprised if they actually refuse. We also commonly don’t even acknowledge when they do comply with our illegitimate requests. We task each other to establish dominance, we take each other for granted all the time, we assume that they will want what we want and do what we want. Our society accepts this pervasive coerciveness as normal, without comment. We expect polite compliance to our impolite impositions. There are several breeds of people who can’t say “no”, all with their own pathology, and these come about because we want to please and be appreciated by others, and to avoid awkwardness and confrontation.

Learning to say “I won’t” was one of the best things I have done for myself. For instance, unless I choose to for my own reasons, I won’t:

  • Take responsibility for another person’s mistakes
  • Tolerate being treated rudely, unfairly, with disregard or contempt
  • Allow myself to be coerced into a decision or action just because someone has acted in a nice or helpful manner to me in the past. This is a biggie: our ideas of reciprocity don’t apparently allow us to choose how we reciprocate, if it’s not negotiated in advance. Nowadays, unless I know someone very well, and can trust they won’t expect me to do something I don’t want to do, I will ask someone if their contribution is a gift, in which case I will accept it as such, with nothing owed, or I will make explicit my intention to pay them and negotiate the terms to nullify the debt
  • Allow myself to be puppetted by or bullied through my emotional tendencies, for example, desire to be accepted, polite or kind, or by my principles, such as honesty, generosity, friendship or integrity. If someone is using these things to get me to do something that I don’t want to do I will drop it, and pick it up again later, when it’s not longer poisonous. We only keep these things for our self respect, and if they cost our self respect to keep, they are no longer useful. A simple example is when the sleazy Uncle wants to give you a friendly shoulder massage. Are you polite, or do you say no?

Anarchists can have leaders, but they don’t have rulers. We can accept that someone is an authority on some topic, but deny that it gives them authority over us. We choose to cooperate because it is in our own best interests, as social creatures, but we don’t have to. Anarchists should not give orders where they have no right to do so, or dictate how a person should live. They should say “please” when they make a request, and “thank you” after, to show it is a request, and they should accept “no” to a request with no displeasure. They should not coerce, impose or assume compliance. I like being an anarchist – it makes me both free, and a better person to other people.