Sunday, March 22, 2015

Criminalizing Protest

Now, legitimate protest is under threat once again. Not just overseas, in some far-off dictatorship with cockroach-infested prisons, but here, where the divide is economic and political and increasingly bitter. It's environmentalists who are the new fifth columnists, and new mechanisms are being forged to squash them.
That's from Elizabeth Renzetti's article yesterday. We're no longer environmentalists who recognize the need to keep fossil fuels in the ground, we're "anti-petroleum extremists."

This two-minute video explains the importance of being anti-petroleum (h/t Lorne):

Bill C-51will criminalize "activities that undermine the security...economic or financial stability of Canada." They're hoping we'll all stay home, cowering rather than marching.

Climate activist and artist Franke James (that's her work at the right here) wrote a book about her experiences being denied a chance to tour with her work:
It’s very Orwellian to see that I was being censured because of the way that I thought. They were telling me ‘do not talk about climate change.’ That is a really horrible thing for them to be doing; we need to be talking about climate change, it’s not about to disappear. We have to figure out strategies. 

In fact, I think we should be taking about it more than most things until we get a solid and serious plan of action ironed out. Paris is cutting driving in half because they've hit emergency air pollution levels. We need to act BEFORE we get to a state of emergency.

On April 11th, all the premiers will be in Quebec City to discuss climate change and a national energy strategy in order to, according to Couillard, "pave our way to the Paris conference of 2015 with concrete commitments." An Act on Climate March is being planned for the same time and place to show them that we want to keep fossil fuels where they are. It'll be family friendly event that uses people to make a huge thermometer. Let's show them we're not ready to cower.

On Teaching Topics Instead of Subjects

Finland's got one of the best education systems in the world, but it doesn't follow that every idea they have is necessarily and entirely a good idea.  This newest one seems to be forced on them rather than born out of teacher innovation.

Their newest idea is to get rid of subjects and to teach by topics instead.  So instead of history class, you'd have a class on the European Union that incorporates history, geography, economics, and language. Their goal is "to prepare people for working make the changes to education necessary for industry and modern society." Students in vocational streams will take courses geared towards their vocation, like "cafeteria services" which incorporates math, language, and communication skills. This is a means of further streaming students based on their abilities and interests.

At the vocational end, that could be very useful for any students who have a pretty clear vision of their future. If they can spend time immersed in a few different careers for the last few years of school, then they can come out well prepared for the job market. Too bad we used to do that but stopped in favour of integration. We had an entire vocational school fully equipped and geared towards learning specific occupations, but we closed it over ten years ago in the wake of the destreaming song and dance.  

But I'm really curious what their course offerings will look like for the more academic stream. So far it sounds like they'll just try this approach for part of each year, but what would happen if it were stretched out to be the primary means of delivery? What would the students get to choose each year if not math, science, English, history...?  Is "The European Union" one course taught all year in great depth, or just a topic within a broader course? Where does differentiating equations fit in? And in applying for university, how will they know if you've gotten enough math to get into a math program?  Entrance exams would work, and I could get behind that.

The approach is interesting in that teachers who adopt the new system get their pay "topped-up." And once they start, they don't want to go back. Does that speak for the benefits of the new approach, or have they just gotten used to the money?

One concern, however, having taught grade 10 careers, is that many students don't have a clue what they want to do in life. For many, having general skills in many areas is more beneficial than being more focused towards specific topics. I always caution them not to close any doors. They might hate math now, but if they stop taking it, they'll cut off many fields that they might find they love later on.

My bigger concern is around specialization. As students move up in the grades, it's imperative that they have teachers who are specialists in their area. The article suggests teachers will work together to co-teach classes, and I'll be interested to see how that ends up running. I taught in a program that aimed for some of the same goals, and suddenly I was teaching academic English (I fear) horribly. I haven't the background nor a passion for the subject. The following year, at my insistence, I started co-teaching with an English teacher, and we ended up dividing the class into periods, as if they had two separate subjects anyway, because it was easier for us and clearer for the kids. Neither teachers nor students found benefits in mixing civics and English, which created the ridiculous restriction of limiting novels studied to those with a political focus.

And it's not to say subject teaching has hard walls around it currently. When I teach philosophy, I bring in history and science and English to augment the content. And in social sciences, I often get into economics and statistics. That happens pretty naturally. I can't imagine any teacher preventing that from happening: "Stop calculating your percentage grade during a history course. That's for math class. We're just doing history here!" How is it possible to teach history without getting into geography a bit?

If, however, the current curriculum were looser, then we could get much more in-depth into topics within each subject. I sometimes have students very interested in one idea, but we have to move on to cover all the necessary essential learnings. I used to let the students lead the show and often didn't get to the final unit of study, so I just took it off the exam. That's not possible anymore.

I found the link to this article on a friend's facebook page and expressed my concerns in a comment thread there, and I was met with two objections: that now education can be more progressive and innovative, and that this new system will teach students how to think instead of what to think.

I'm not clear how making teachers shove subjects together under topics will necessarily lead to student innovation or critical thinking. It could lead to that, but it depends on how openly the topics are presented. And what both of those comments suggest is that students aren't challenged to be innovative or to think in our current system that divides content by subject. How does teaching by subject tell students what to think beyond basic information like WWI started in 1914 or y=mx+b? I don't know about other subjects, but, in a history department, we're all about critical thinking: always questioning interpretations and perspectives.

Finally, I'm concerned that Finland is changing its excellent system for the sake of change. New isn't always better. Sometimes it's good to keep in mind the adage, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it."

Friday, March 20, 2015

Changing the Curriculum

Months ago, Kathleen Wynne proposed guidelines for sex ed in Ontario, and many parents are still furious.  A group called Campaign Life Coalition has put quite a spin on it all.  In grade one, kids learn all the correct names for all the parts of their body. CLC calls that "graphic lessons on sexual body parts." And at grade three, when kids learn about fluid gender identity, they call it "normalizing a mental disorder." The teachers will also "normalize homosexual family structures without regard for the religious/moral beliefs of families." Piece of work.

Wynne tried this before, but backed down because of parental concerns. But this time she's forging ahead. I hope she stays the course. As a parent, I want all kids to know their bodies and understand the diversity of people and family structures so that difference isn't fodder for bullying - like it sometimes is in Queen's Park. Some kids don't have understanding parents to whom they can openly ask, "Why did Billy call me a c*nt?" Little kids know a shocking number of words for their body parts already; wouldn't it be great if they also learned the right ones? And as a high school teacher, I see the results of kids being ostracized throughout grade school. We need this education to start as early as possible.

My spin on it is that some parents are protesting because they want to maintain bigoted views through the next generation of children, and the education system is stymying their efforts. Knowing about sex doesn't make kids have sex, but knowing about "no means no" could help prevent sexual abuse.  We worry too much about the lost innocence of children through education unwilling to acknowledge that many lose their innocence though ignorant information on the playground - and sometimes from home. We need kids to know the correct information before they hear too much misinformation.

But wouldn't it be amazing if Wynne also revamped the environmental science curriculum to start at grade one? Imagine if little kids understood that climate change is real, and caused by people. What if we told them, at school, that they could help save the world by walking instead of driving, by turning the A/C off and the heat down, by eating tofu dogs instead of meat by-products dyed pink, and by reducing the amount of toys they buy?

When the blue box recycling program was introduced, kids heard about it at school and went home to guilt their parents into recycling.  It worked! When I was a kid, school was all about preventing littering, and that worked too - but once it stopped being a concern, it stopped being taught, and now kids will toss wrappers on the ground without a second thought. I had a young boy try to convince me that it's okay he dropped his garbage because the wind will just take it away. When we stop teaching it, they stop learning it.

Can we combat our current crisis by getting children on board with the nag factor forcing parents to walk to the store every time?  Yes, there will be an outcry from parents who think the school board is shoving a belief system down their children's throats, but we can just forge ahead with the plan for the benefit of everyone. Earth is quickly becoming inhospitable to life, and we are sadly running out of time for interventions.

ETA:  Here's what one 6-year-old had to say:

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The Danger of New Atheists

I'll be busy for the next few weeks, so this will be quick, but something I've been looking at in depth is a total take-down of the Sam Harris style of doing philosophy, firstly, but more importantly of the New Atheists' propagation of bigotry.

I've had a few incidents in my classes that have illustrated the potential of the New Atheists' message to go down a dark path.  If my students are picking up on this ideology, then others are too.

Now three young students have died at the hands of a "New Atheist."  This group (including Harris, Dawkins, Maher...) is less about being atheistic, and more about being anti-theist.  And, ironically, it's extremist in its insistence of demolishing religious groups.

Any hate-filled group, zealous in its intentions, is a concern.  This group is no different.  

Thursday, January 22, 2015

This Changes Nothing

The US Senate voted that climate change is real, and many of my Facebook friends are celebrating.  But I don't think they actually read beyond the headlines on this one.  "Finally!"  "This is great!" and "Today's a great day!"  are inappropriate responses to this vote.

The vote was specifically on whether or not climate change is real WITHOUT any cause attributed to it.  So is the climate changing?  Yes - decided by a 98 to 1 margin.  But is climate change affected by human behaviour (the question the we need the Senate to affirm)?   Well, not so fast.

Senator Jim Inhofe, a climate denier, voted yes, but commented:  "The climate is changing. The climate has always changed, [the real "hoax" is] that there are some people that are so arrogant to think [that they can change the climate]."

When asked if there's a human connection to the change in our climate, most Republicans voted "No":
...the Senate voted on a second amendment...that acknowledged human activity is contributing to climate change. That measure fell one vote short of the 60 needed to pass, at 59 to 40.... The Senate held a third vote on an amendment... that went even further, stating that climate change is real and "human activity significantly contributes" to it. That measure, too, went down, by a vote of 50 to 49.
Or as Inhofe put it so eloquently:  "Man cannot change climate."

There is just so much wrong with those four words.

If climate change has nothing to do with human behaviour then we can carry on as usual.  If burning more fossil fuels doesn't have any effect on our ecosystems, then bring on the pipelines!  The fact that we're deciding on scientific facts with a vote from people who don't hesitate to remind us that they're not scientists is ridiculous in the first place.

This isn't a victory, kids.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

The Post In Which I Get Cranky on Climate Change

When people talk about the effects of climate change, they often worry about water burying some prized beach-front real estate, but an article in Thursday's Guardian, "Seven ways climate change could kill you," reminds us that by about 15 years from now, we'll be losing a quarter of a million people each year just to health implications from rising GHGs (asthma, disease, heat exhaustion...).  And very few groups, the film Interstellar being a rare exception, talk about the changing gases in our atmosphere.  The ocean trumps the rainforest as our real lungs, and as it acidifies, more plant life will die off, and we'll end up with less oxygen and more sulphur in the air we breath.  Kolbert's Sixth Extinction agrees that many will die by suffocation.

More and more we're hearing about the risks we're facing, yet nothing's really being altered - not the way we live nor the types of corporations that are on top of the game.

Some feel strongly that we'll save the world with carbon capture and geo-engineering.  Naomi Klein's book, This Changes Everything, clearly outlines the problems with both, painting a particularly frightening picture of the risks of geo-engineering.

From what I've read from many sources so far, it's very clear that we need to stop fracking completely, and phase out coal and oil immediately, then increase subsidies for solar and wind and other renewable efforts.  But our lives really DO have to change in the process - pretty dramatically, but not unbearably.  We're past the point of asking nicely.  Most people won't do anything they don't absolutely have to do.  We need to force people, ourselves, to stop using fossil fuels.  But many politicians are useless in this arena.  Can we convince shareholders to stop backing certain industries?  Is social pressure enough?  Can we shame one another into better behaviour??  Let's find out!

I tend to tip toe around this stuff to avoid offending people and to avoid being seen as a crazy hippie.  But I suddenly feel like there have been enough books and articles and reports published lately that are so clearly on this side, that maybe I'll no longer look like a radical if I insist, right out loud, that we have to change how we live.  I think it's time people be offended.

Stop flying.  Planes have to be grounded for all but the most clearly necessary flights.  The travel industry as we know it needs to be shut down, today.  Yes, that means you won't get back to that beautiful spot you found years ago, but that's a small price to pay for air we can breathe painlessly.  Flights carrying CEOs and politicians must be grounded and Skype used instead for the vast majority of international meetings.  Learning about other cultures, and helping people around the world, has to be done online from home.  School groups who want to travel to far-off lands to build playgrounds for less fortunate children have to recognize that they're adding to the likelihood of that very area being washed into the ocean.  Enough already.  Seeing the world is a luxury we no longer have. Period.

Our local hydro company has a Peak Saver incentive that automatically saves energy for residential consumers.  I called to find out how to get involved, and they said it only works for people with an air conditioner.  What the gizmo does is turn down the air conditioner at peak times.  So, rather than encourage people to stop installing A/C in the first place, we've found a way to control it as needed to keep the grid intact.  We are being far too kind in our implementation of necessary measures continuing to focus on the immediate issues instead of the very near future.  We need to ban A/C except for people who need it for health reasons.  Passes should be issued the way we do for disabled parking.  Many of my neighbours got A/C when they started a family - they did it for the baby.  But the babies would be better off learning to acclimatize to our climate than having more GHGs added to the atmosphere in their names.  I saw Stephen Lewis speak after he spent five years in Africa, and he chastised the audience for having A/C in Canadian homes.  He's right.  We should be embarrassed.

And then there's the car issue.  We have to live closer to where we work, and/or start taking the bus.  If you think it's yucky on the bus, or it's just too inconvenient, then get over yourself.

Finally, we have to stop eating meat, or at least reduce consumption enough to make it a rare treat - like the orange we used to get in the toe of our Christmas stocking.   Chris Hedges has written a few articles lately on becoming a reluctant vegetarian.  He reports, "Animal agriculture is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than all worldwide transportation combined—cars, trucks, trains, ships and planes."  And, with respect to what used to be rare Christmas oranges, we have to reduce long-distance food consumption as well.

There are many more things that need to change, but these are just four that impact the world significantly, and that we can change TODAY.  Right. This. Freaking. Minute.

Collectively, we are too stupid to live.  We are childlike in our inability to see the longterm effects of our current actions.  It's time to grow up and accept the sacrifice of not seeing Aunt Bessy ever again, of sipping lemonade in slow motion on the front porch during a few sweltering hot weeks in summer, of walking and biking and bussing everywhere we go, of having a pint without ordering wings.  Stop whining, and make it happen; or recognize that you're contributing to the death of most the mammals on the planet - include us.

Just sayin'.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

On the Hidden Sickness of the Heart

Scott Long wrote an excellent article separating the act of supporting free speech from the act of supporting the words and images created by Charlie Hebdo.  But I disagree with this one bit:
"Words don't kill..."
As I said in a comment there, too many young people have lost lives as a direct results of malicious words and images.  We can't ignore that reality.  In my lifetime, I've seen a change in the way we talk that developed through punishments for transgressions of the new rules.  We use gender-inclusive language in scholarly writing, and professionals and politicians can no longer easily get away with cavalierly making racist, sexist, or homophobic slurs.  We recognize that words seep into our subconscious in a way we can't prevent when they're out there at large, repeated and bombarding us at every turn.

The subtle restrictions in our language, I believe, have played a part in changing in our attitudes and behaviours.  They're not the complete answer, of course, but they do have a significant impact.  The recent events have provoked some prejudicial words and views floating around social media.  We would be wise to remember this recent reaction:

Or check out how the Swedish "love-bombed" a mosque.

Long's article hits on something explained by Catarina Dutilh at New APPS, that,
" its core, the Enlightenment is not a tolerant movement: its ideals may be described as corresponding to “the ambition of shaping individual and social development on the basis of better and more reliable knowledge than the tangled, confused, half-articulate but deeply rooted conceptual systems inherited from our ancestors." 
Long's words:
"To defend satire because it’s indiscriminate is to admit that it discriminates against the defenseless....[This is] the truth about satire. It’s an exercise in power. It claims superiority, it aspires to win, and hence it always looms over the weak, in judgment. If it attacks the powerful, that’s because there is appetite underneath its asperity: it wants what they have....They know that while [Voltaire's] contempt amuses when directed at the potent and impervious Pope, it turns dark and sour when defaming a weak and despised community. Satire can sometimes liberate us, but it is not immune from our prejudices or untainted by our hatreds. It shouldn’t douse our critical capacities; calling something “satire” doesn’t exempt it from judgment. The superiority the satirist claims over the helpless can be both smug and sinister."
The movement we've celebrated that has us in this self-righteous state of knowledge is not founded on world peace or compassion or kindness, but on escaping religious ideologies.  It's a noble path if it takes us from powers that prevent us from open critical thought, but the path leads to a cliff when it continues unabated once religious ideas are no longer a threat as a forced belief system.

It's absolutely true that religious texts have portions that provoke hatred and intolerance of others:

But, the New Atheists also have their intolerant passages that can inspire their followers:  There's Richard Dawkins' famous tweet comparing Islam with Nazism: "Of course you can have an opinion about Islam without having read Qur'an. You don't have to read Mein Kampf to have an opinion about nazism."  And Bill Maher and Christopher Hitchens are no more accepting of differences.  We can find hatred within every faction of society.

At least religious texts also have portions insisting on the tolerance of all:

There's Hillel's famous description of the main message of Judaism:  "That which is hateful to yourself, do not do unto others. That is the heart of the Torah; all the rest is commentary. Now go and study!"  And there's the Christian rule:  "'Love your neighbour as yourself.' There is no commandment greater..." (Mark 12:31).

Similarly, the Qur'an instructs followers to,
" kindness to parents, and to kindred, and orphans, and the needy, and to the neighbor that is a kinsman and the neighbor that is a stranger, and the companion by your side, and the wayfarer, and those whom your right hands possess. Surely, Allah loves not the proud and the boastful" (4:37). 
Religion doesn't make us hate one another; that's a red herring.  We have the capacity to choose to follow some ideas over others in any doctrine.  I respect Chomsky's views, but I differ from him on the right to free speech.  We can be followers of Plato without condoning slavery.

Basic human nature may be the real villain here.  Zimbardo's famous experiment got to the heart of this reality, and Nietzsche recognized it almost a century earlier in this passage, 
“Somebody remarked: ‘I can tell by my own reaction to it that this book is harmful.’ But let him only wait and perhaps one day he will admit to himself that this same book has done him a great service by bringing out the hidden sickness of the heart and making it visible."
Knowing that it's possible to let this cruel part of ourselves flourish means we have to, individually and personally, work at keeping the sickness in ourselves in check.  And if we have any hope of surviving the next few decades intact, we also have to help one another make choices based on compassion and tolerance, loudly clarifying our intolerance of prejudices.  And, no, that's not a hypocrisy.  It's a necessity.   

ETA - Russell Brand made a similar point that we have to check our own selves to begin to affect change on a larger scale.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

On Restricting Free Speech

 “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” – Evelyn Beatrice Hall

I'm not so sure I agree with Ms. Hall's famously misattributed line.  People say some truly cruel things, and I'm not convinced we should have a right to be publicly malicious.  As always, I say too many things in one crazy long post instead of breaking it up into many separate issues, but I tend to see issues too interconnected to separate.  So there it is.

Let's begin by contemplating on some different scenarios: some fictitious for comparison purposes, others all too real:

1. People joking online about chloroforming and hate raping their fellow classmates.
2. People joking in a private room about hate raping classmates.
3. People standing in the cold to lambast a comedian and trying to convince people not to support him because he allegedly did some nasty things, even though he was not yet tried in a court of law.
4. People chanting, "We believe the women" as he tries to speak, trying to deny his ability to speak even though his words - mainly - aren't offensive - certainly not relative to many comedians.
5. People chanting, "bully" as a troublesome classmate tries to speak.
6. People drawing and distributing funny cartoons sexualizing sacred figures and negatively stereotyping certain religious groups.
7. People drawing funny pictures of dicks in class.
8. People making a funny film depicting the execution of a character who's imitating a real person.
9. People petitioning the Prime Minister with an onslaught of spiteful, defamatory comments.
10. People petitioning a teacher with an onslaught of spiteful, defamatory comments.
11. A teacher using the word "dicks" on a public blog.

These are dramatically different situations, but they all provoke the question: What should we be allowed to say?  I use these examples framed this way because all week I've been dwelling on some of them, and I've found myself changing sides swayed by different types of details.  I'm attempting to develop a more consistent way to approach these issues here, or at the very least to figure out why some words and scenarios bother me more than others.  This might be messy.

First, I think it's vitally important that people be allowed to openly criticize authority figures.  The most dangerous loss of freedom is the inability to speak out against government.  But I'm a sensitive sort - or maybe a reasonable sort - and as much as I hate our current PM for the stance he's taken over his lengthy time in office, I'm jarred by some ad hominem comments people make about him as a person - even though from time to time I may let slip horrible things myself.  There's a part of me that often (but not always - it's messy!) remembers that he's someone's dad.  We definitely need him out of office, but we don't need him personally destroyed in the process.  He is a human being....who has way too much power for my liking.  But, I maintain that he still has a right to be treated with dignity as we vote him out of office.

I don't think it's a problem to openly criticize Harper's blindness to longterm effects, nor his lack of transparency, nor his controlling nature with his caucus.  It's the "hope he dies and burns in hell" path that could easily be shut down without affecting democratic freedoms.  Venting and criticizing are two different things with a different purpose and, as such, deserve a different forum.  Venting is what we do with a close friend listening privately; it has no place in a public debate.  This distinction is all the more important when openly criticizing people in positions of power further down the line - like MPs that you're likely to see in your grocery story, or local journalists, or even teachers who didn't sign up to be in the public eye in the same way politicians and journalists do.  With open access to an online forum seen by millions, it has become far more important to teach argumentation skills at a young age, and to offer reminders everywhere.  But if we can't teach people to stop venting in public places, to actually control their own outrage like a theoretical grown-up might do, then I think (big breath) we need to have some legislation in place to prevent or punish this action.  

For criticism to be valued, it must be valuable.  And too many arguments seeking to attack a position, end up bludgeoning a person instead.  The typical arguments used online is well illustrated here:

Graphic based on Paul Graham's "How to Disagree" 

A similar distinction might be noticed in satire as illustrated in this Sacco cartoon.  Satire is important because humour allows people to get away with saying thing others might fear to say too restrained by political correctness.  The Daily Show, Colbert Report, and Last Week Tonight are excellent examples of satire being a public service.  But I believe satire should still be restrained by basic human decency - NOT from a fear of offending the sensitive who might be in need of some constructive criticism, but from a civilized distaste for causing unwarranted harm to other human beings.  Intentionally causing harm to a person or group who are doing nothing wrong - nothing that needs to be called to the fore at least - is either an act of, if ignorant to the effect, a moron, or, if unconcerned with the harm being caused, a psychopath.  Both need to be addressed.

We don't have any hesitation warning students that if they say cruel things about another student online, they'll be dealt with seriously. My region's school board site says, "cyber bullying includes the use of email, text messages, and internet social networking sites to threaten, harass, embarrass, socially exclude, or damage reputations and friendships."  Students get in trouble pretty quickly when they harass other students online.  At the very least, they're called out on it by a VP.  Sometimes just a chat that makes it clear that people know what you did, and a clarification around the problem with the words used, can be enough to deter further actions.  At our board, we openly restrict free speech that happens outside of the school day and off school property because we know it has effects within the school.  Yet the idea of implementing something similar at the national level is abhorrent to many people.  I might be more understanding of the insistence that adults should be able to speak freely if they actually spoke like adults more consistently.

I'm also concerned about the shift towards a more vigilante justice driven by a mob mentality out for blood. I'm a strong feminist and want to change the barriers in place that prevent women from being all they can be, and I want to help create a world free from sexual harassment, abuse, and assault.  But I want to do it in the most respectful way possible ever emulating the ideal of treating others as I'd like to be treated along the way.  The mobs gathering to pressure Dalhousie to expel students for heinous online comments is an example of this trend.  I believe there should be consequences for the "gentlemen," but the consequences should fit the crime.  They acted stupidly, but the fact that they intended their comments to remain private suggests to me that they didn't intend any malice.  I'd rather see them apologize to each woman in their class individually following a restorative justice model, as well as see a public apology offered, than to have their education voided at this stage of the game.  I think it's possible for someone be an excellent dentist even if he has a warped sense of humour.  Part of my argument is predicated on the belief that what we say privately doesn't always have a clear correlation with our public behaviour or our authentic attitude - i.e. I don't believe their words are necessarily a peek inside their conscience revealing potential for future violent actions.

And it goes without saying that nobody should be shot for what they write, say, or believe.

In cases like the Dalhousie incident, I ask myself, "To what extent could that have been me?"  I have a strong interest in politics, but would never dream of running for office because I know I can't always hold my tongue.  My words have offended people in the past, and it took until I was well into my 20s to stop insisting people shouldn't be offended by mere words, and instead to begin to apologize sincerely for the unintended effects of my actions.  I say stupid things all the time, and my sense of humour can be very dark even including Bill Burr's style of comedy that stands counter to many of my personal beliefs.  It terrifies me that, as a teacher, one wrong comment could possibly cost me my job.  Any rules or legislation governing this arena have to be able to separate the stupid from the malicious.  Yes, that can be very difficult to ascertain, which is why it belongs in the hands of a judge and jury and not a crowd.

BUT that mob pressuring the school, really, is just a collection of individuals providing their opinion to the dean - much like I'm doing here.  I'm just hoping the dean doesn't bow to popular opinion on this one.  This brings me to another part of the conundrum:  the effect of words depends on the thickness of the hide of the listener.  We never really know how much another can take, so we must be careful.

As always, I had an interesting discussion with some students on this topic.  One leaned heavily to the side of total free speech with the development of a thick skin, and solved the problem of hurtful comments like this (loosely paraphrased):  "We must teach people to be rational even if it means brainwashing the less logically-minded, so that when someone says something critical, they'll be able to evaluate it rationally.  If there's some merit to the comment, they can take it into consideration and possibly amend their position.  If there's no merit to the comment, they can simply toss it aside as a piece of foolishness."

But, I argued, many people, even rational, logical people, can't easily toss meritless comments aside.  That act involves more than a steady intellect.  I wonder if it's only a rare person that can be honestly unaffected by a barrage of barbed criticism - and I further wonder if it's perhaps more a case of social obliviousness than a rising above the fray.  But, furthermore, it can be downright dangerous to simply ignore sexually aggressive comments because we do never know when they might be put into action.  And for the masses, even being cursed at regularly can erode the strongest will.  It makes far more sense to stop this problem at the top of the river where people are being thrown in, than to keep trying to rescue people further down.

David Brooks, in an excellent article in the New York Times, suggests that we should use social punishments rather than legislation because people can overreact to minor offences,
If you try to pull off this delicate balance with law, speech codes and banned speakers, you’ll end up with crude censorship and a strangled conversation....Fortunately, social manners are more malleable and supple than laws and codes. Most societies have successfully maintained standards of civility and respect while keeping open avenues for those who are funny, uncivil and offensive.
This is similar to the idea of the student just mentioned above, and I disagree for similar reasons.  I fear it's not the case that the social provocation of manners will be enough to eradicate this phenomenon of open cruelty available en masse.  Social forces can do wonders as is clear with the change in our day-to-day language.  In my high school days in the late 70s/early 80s, teachers used some racial slurs that we wouldn't hear from some of our most corrupted charges today.  I had a university professor tell our class, "The only good Indian is a dead Indian."  Social denunciation can clearly work, but it's a slow and imperfect practice to depend on for necessary change.

Like my student, Brooks expects us to be able to relegate offensive comments to a different place in society where they have no traction, but I believe that just isn't possible for the average user of social media.  It's just not a viable solution.  And, while it's true that some authorities have gone too far punishing minor transgressions as Brooks points out, keeping this issue off the legal books entirely tosses the baby with the bathwater.  Because it's not currently always done well, is not to say it shouldn't be done at all and be improved.  We need to provide punishable rules around intentional cruelty, but we must be much more careful around how this type of regulation is implemented, and, as always, ensuring that the punishment fits the crime.    

A different student in my class made a similar argument that we should have total free speech, and people should just individually retaliate against comments against them.  If women are made uncomfortable or fearful by a group of guys making rape jokes, they can take revenge with slanderous comments about specific gentlemen's sexual inadequacies and abilities.  But, I countered, where does that get us as a society trying to live and work together?

I don't want to live in a society where my emotional stability or even just my reputation could be destroyed because we deem the protection of free speech so important such that haters are permitted to craft the cruelest comments for online consumption undeterred by any legal restrictions.

We don’t have unqualified freedom of speech here in Canada. It's an indictable offence for anybody to "incite hatred against any identifiable group where such incitement is likely to lead to a breach of the peace."  But since the Harper government repealed section 13 of the Human Rights Act so, as far as I understand this, it's no longer a crime to use hate speech on the internet (made effective last June but with much controversy).  We also have a right to sue for defamation. Ontario legislation "prohibits the dissemination of defamatory comments, specifically, spoken or written words that discredit an individual in the estimation of right-thinking members of society generally" and that includes on-line comments, if you can find out who made them (which is a different issue entirely).   Specifically defamation is written as,
"The act of harming the reputation of another by making a false statement to a third person…A false written or oral statement that damages another's reputation....A statement that tends to injure the reputation of a person referred to in it. The statement is likely to lower that person in the estimation of reasonable people and in particular to cause that person to be regarded with feelings of hatred, contempt, ridicule, fear, or dislike.
Unlike many, I like some restrictions on our freedom of speech.  I don't buy the slippery slope argument that any restrictions at all will send us down a path towards a V for Vendetta situation.  Like I believe we can legalize marijuana without eventually legalizing heroin, and like I believe we can legalize same sex marriage without it leading to people marrying sheep or shoes, on this front, I believe we can criminalize hateful comments against identifiable groups or intentionally destructive comments against individuals while still retaining the right to criticize people even in a position of power openly and without penalty beyond a verbal claim to the contrary, AND while still retaining the right to speak our oppositional opinions freely, and to continue to joke around with one another.

It can be important to speak uncomfortable truths that others don't feel allowed to say couched in comedy.  Dark humour can also be a means of coping with trauma.  Legislating intentional malice shouldn't have any effect on our ability to make one another laugh.  It's not about stopping any potentially offensive remark made, but about stopping the maliciousness that's beginning to rule parts of the internet and spill out into our daily lives.

Unlike many crimes, this type of legislation can't be measured by the effect on the victim, with victim impact statements read in court, or else every easily-slighted person will have 911 on speed dial.  It has to look at intention and motive and the measure the words and actions against a set standard of reasonable harm.  It could be set up as an extension to our existing hate crime laws.  I don't think it will be easy to craft such a document, but I think it's no less necessary.

Something like that.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

On Chomsky's Driving Forces in US Foreign Policy

On Chomsky’s “Driving Forces in US Foreign Policy.” This talk is from last summer, but it just caught up to me now.  I've summarized bits of the 2-hour long talk and discussion.  It's all Chomsky's words, but the paragraphs are differently ordered under headings below:

On Global Warming and Nuclear Weapons 

The security of state power and concentrated private power is a driving force in state policy. What about security of the population? It’s easy to demonstrate that that’s a minor concern for state policy planners. Any literate person should be doubtless aware that global warming and nuclear weapons are dire threats to the security of the population. State policy is dedicated to accelerating the threats in both cases in the interest of primary concerns: it’s state power and concentrated private power that largely determine state policy.

In the case of global warming, it’s so obvious. It does illustrate very clearly the concern for security and certainly not for the population. It also illustrates the moral calculus of contemporary neo-liberalism of state capitalism. The fate of our grandchildren counts for absolutely nothing in comparison with the need to make more money tomorrow. That’s the driving principle of what’s called capitalism today.

It’s interesting to look at how the propaganda works. In the United States there’s a policy, there’s nothing secret about it, to try to convince the public either global warming isn’t real at all, or if it is, it has nothing to do with human activity. The policy has had some impact. The United States ranks lower in public concern of global warming…..It’s stratified, so among Republicans it’s one of the lowest in the world. The Columbia Journalism Review has a current article about this: one piece requires a counter piece, which leads to confusion on the part of the population. But there’s certainly no doctrine of fair and balance reporting in everything. If an article is denouncing Putin, there doesn’t have to run an opposing piece. The actual media doctrine of fair and balance holds in one case: when the concerns of private power are threatened. Nowhere else.

For the first time in history, we face the possibility of destroying decent existence, and NOT in the distant future. For this reason alone, it’s imperative to sweep away the ideological clouds and face honestly and realistically how policy decisions are made and what we can do to alter them before it’s too late.

On Western Control 

The Arab Spring broke a logjam in the Arab world. …The west is certainly going to try to prevent independent developments, but they may not succeed. There’s one striking example that you should pay attention to, and that’s South America. For 500 years, since the conquistadors, South America has been controlled by central powers, and for the last century and a half, largely the United States. Now South America has become the most free part of the world. In the western hemisphere, the United States and Canada are more isolated. Take a look at hemispheric conferences. The US and Canada are alone against the rest of Latin America. There was a dramatic illustration of this recently: Open Forum did a study of rendition: one of the most extreme forms of barbaric torture humans have developed. If the US wants someone tortured, they send them to countries to be tortured there so we can say we didn’t have anything to do with it.

Most of Europe participated in rendition by cooperating with the United States. One region of the world refused to participate: Latin America. Which is amazing. First of all it’s been under total US control for the last century, and during this period, it was the world center of torture…. Now it’s the one region that refused to participate in US administered torture. That’s the kind of thing that could happen – and it could happen in the Middle East….

In the history of imperialism, most crimes were carried out by mercenaries. Black fighters were used to control groups in South Africa. In India, Indian fighters were used. The US deviated from the pattern by sending its own soldiers. But you can’t take people off the street to turn them into fighters. The US army fell apart – soldiers began killing officers, got hooked on drugs. So they moved to a professional army in more recent years, back to imperial patterns and mercenaries.  They're called contractors now [like Blackwater / Academi]. Look at Iraq and Afghanistan, they have many contractors – but that’s the traditional imperial pattern. It makes sense to keep your own civilians away from the fighting and hand that out to professional killers.

We don’t have to tolerate that, of course. That’s up to us.

On Saviours

It’s true that people are always waiting for a saviour, and no saviour’s going to come. That’s not how things work. People can create the conditions under which some decent person may become a spokesperson, but they don’t come from above and organize the movement. Take Martin Luther King, a very significant person. I respect him a lot, and he would be the first to tell you that he did not create the civil rights movement. The civil rights movement was created by young black activists in the south that sat in at lunch counters, rode freedom buses, got beat up and killed,…. and Martin Luther King was a spokesperson for them. That’s how leaders come. But notice what happened with Martin Luther King – there’s a national holiday…but the rhetoric stops with his ‘I have a dream speech’ in Washington….he didn’t stop there.

He went on to confront class issues in the North. When he was assassinated, he was supporting a public sanitation workers strike – and he was on his way to lead a march on Washington to form a poor people’s movement to strike at class issues. He was assassinated. The march took place anyway led by his widow. That part of Martin Luther King’s history is gone. It’s fine to attack the racist chair of Alabama, but don’t look too closely of what we’re doing. That’s the fault of people like us who didn’t do the things we should have done. You won’t get a leader who will save you until you do the work, and then you’ll get a spokesperson.

On Personal Efforts:  Political Transparency, OWS, Revolutions, and Capitalism

Samuel Huntington said, “Power must remain in the dark. Exposed to the sunlight, it begins to evaporate.”  That’s what lies behind what we’re talking about. One thing you can do is to expose power to the sunlight to let it evaporate. Exposing power to the sunlight has to be a preliminary to the only thing that has ever worked in history: mass popular organization. And that has achieved plenty of results…. The power is actually in the hands of people like you, but it has to be exercised. And that requires organization and action. As an individual you can do very little. But when you get together you can do almost anything. And that’s been demonstrated over and over again through history.

You mentioned Occupy, and that’s interesting and important. If I had been asked myself should people occupy Zuccotti Park in New York, I’d say no and I would have been wrong. It was remarkably successful. Within days, weeks, there were hundreds of occupy movements across the country and worldwide. I actually spoke at an occupy event in Australia. It lit a spark which had a real impact and it changed a lot of things: it changed the discourse and put equality on the agenda for the first time, and now phrases like the 1% is common coin. But remember that occupy was a tactic, not a movement. Every tactic has diminishing returns, and this one in particular couldn’t continue over the winter. So it has to turn into a movement, and to some extent it has.

There are no magic tricks. That’s the one that’s worked throughout history. There’s always regression – power systems don’t say, “Thank-you we’re going to give you the power.” They try to maintain themselves, and that’s class struggle. It goes on through history, and it will continue.

As individuals there’s very little we can do to confront the problems we face, but if people get together, then they can do a great deal. They belong to something. It’s happened all the time in the past – for thousands of years. It’s how feudalism was overthrown, it’s how slavery was overthrown in recent years, it’s how women were able to get minimal or relatively equal rights.

During the French Revolution, people carried things forward, but there was a regression, which is very common. Power systems do not give up willingly. They’ll fight back. We can then go on from a higher plane. Capitalists will only win if you let them win.

We should recognize that what exists isn’t remotely like capitalism. There is a system of corporate power but …lots of ways to overcome it and remove it, and some of them are happening right now. Take the United States, the industrial region has declined seriously because of a decision to undermine manufacturing – there is a reaction – worker-owned industry which is spreading over the region. A couple years ago Obama nationalize the auto industry….He could have handed it over to the work-force to let them produce the things that the country really needs. That could have been done, and would have been done – but we can only blame it on the failure of people like us to do what we should have been doing.

Look at the women’s movement in US history just after the American Revolution. According to British law, women were not person, but the property of her father, which was handed over to the husband. One of the arguments against women having the vote is that it would be unfair to unmarried men, because married men would get two votes because obviously the property votes as the owner does. It wasn’t until the 1960s that it totally collapsed….And then as recently as 1975, the supreme court recognized that women are legally called peers… that’s a big change….When I started at MIT in the 1950s, the halls were full of white males, obedient, deferential. Today it’s half women, one third minorities, and informal relations, which matters a lot. Those are big changes. They came by organized, activist efforts, which met a lot of resistance, but won a lot of games.

[Refering to the number of people at his talks:] People are interested but atomized, not organized. You have to have enough privilege to spend your time doing research. That’s how popular movements get organized. And when they’re powerful enough, change happens. Pick the forms of activism that makes sense.

There are no formulas. And there are no limits.

Monday, December 29, 2014

On Acting Nice

I've been watching lots of movies and thinking about this bit from Aristotle:
"But we get the virtues by having first performed the energies, as is the case also in all the other arts; for those things which we must do after having learnt them we learn to do by doing them; as, for example, by building houses men become builders, and by playing on the harp, harp-players; thus, also, by doing just actions we become just, by performing temperate actions, temperate, and by performing brave actions we become brave.  Moreover, that which happens in all states bears testimony to this; for legislators, by giving their citizens good habits, make them good; and this is the intention of every lawgiver, and all that do not do it well fail; and this makes all the difference between states, whether they be good or bad.... 
Again, every virtue is produced and corrupted from and by means of the same causes; and in like manner every art; for from playing on the harp people become both good and bad harp-players...for if this were not the case, there would be no need of a person to teach, and all would have been by birth, some good and some bad. The same holds good in the case of the virtues also; for by performing those actions which occur in our intercourse with other men, some of us become just and some unjust....It does not therefore make a slight, but an important, nay, rather, the whole difference, whether we have been brought up in these habits or in others from childhood" (Nicomachean Ethics Book II, Chapter 1).
If it's the case that watching shows regularly can influence our actions towards others (as I suggested here), would it not follow that it's even more influential to act out the actions in the shows regularly?

It's not uncommon for actors in films and shows and plays who are playing the part of lovers to actually fall in love.  It could just be the case that two people working together fall for one another through proximity alone, but then why don't more actors fall for the camera operators or stage hands or secondary players.  I think there's something about saying the lines to one another over and over, or even just staring into one another's eyes, that creates the feeling.

But I'm curious about more villainous and harmful acts - more harmful than a new attraction ending an old relationship, and how Artistotle's ideas connect significantly with recent findings on neural pathways in the brain.
The brain gets accustomed to our typical activities and changes when they stop or when new activities start: “neurons seem to ‘want’ to receive input….When their usual input disappears, they start responding to the next best thing” (29)....Once we’ve wired new circuitry in our brain…’we long to keep it activated.’ That’s the way the brain fine-tunes its operations. Routine activities are carried out ever more quickly and efficiently, while unused circuits are pruned away” (34).
The key difference in current brain science and Aristotle's contemplations is that we now believe that childhood isn't the end all and be all of brain development.  We can alter the pathways through our behaviour as adults. There is ever time to change, albeit it can be a more difficult battle to change the pathways than to create them in the first place.

In Birdman, the play inside the film ends with a suicide.  As a theatre piece with a long run, the actor would be shooting himself in the head every night.  Does that repeated act on stage make it easier to carry out in real life?  In Nightcrawler, Gyllenhaal altered the way he moved, his facial gestures, and his speech to become utterly creepy.  How well does he turn that off when he's not on the set?  How quickly does the creepiness re-enter in inopportune times when his ego's depleted, like during an argument.  After many childhood dance recitals, when asked to ad lib a dance for an audition (a lifetime ago), I reverted immediately to a collection of moves from past dances.  The body memory had created a pathway that was easiest to find in a pinch.

But the actors in our lives who, for instance, pretend to be nice for their own gain, they don't become nicer over time.  Their pretending is part of the action to the point that their nice-act becomes hard to stop.  It becomes difficult to be authentically kind or thoughtful.  Is it the case, then, that stage actors have a harder time turning off the pretending, than turning off the current characters they're embodying for part of each day?  

As a teacher, I have developed certain traits that have spilled over into my "real" life, but many of these are useful.  I stay calm and can often diffuse a situation when others are arguing angrily.  I listen patiently to the least-interesting conversations.  But then I also really want to impart information wherever I go, and tell others what to do and when to speak.  These are habits I actively repress outside of my job - and not always well.  However, during my classes, I'm not actively pretending to be a teacher.  I'm behaving appropriately as a good role model of behaviour, which, I think, is what Aristotle suggests we do.  We should act kindly and courageously as if we're role models for the world to follow.  And sometimes pretending to be kind and acting on it, not for self-gain, but as a means of practicing, can create an authentic kindness.

It's a similar problem found in self-help books that encourage us to think happy thoughts.  While smiling can actually make us feel a little happier, focusing on acting happy can have the reverse effect because somewhere inside we know it's an act.

The implications of all this isn't just a watchful eye over the behaviours of our children, but of ourselves, of our smallest actions that can get embedded as habits. And if it's the case that pretending is attached to the action being pretended, then it seems to follow that we can allow sword fights with sticks, or water gun fights, or teasing when it's very clear that it's a game (and not just a consequence-free passive-aggressive act of anger or retaliation).  And our actors won't be unduly corrupted by their actions.   But only if it all starts with the right attitude towards the good.    

On Pseudonymns

A post at Feminist Philosophers discusses why some bloggers feel the need to write under an alias, and the respect this decision necessitates.  The reasons are primarily around safety.  Bloggers - particularly female bloggers - can get some nasty comments.  Sexually aggressive comments are the pinnacle of this escapade.

I used to write under a pseudonym.  When I was on mat leave with my youngest, now ten, I wrote a mommy blog that got about 100 times the traffic as this blog.  I was able to write a few times a day, targeting a niche audience.  I wrote short posts about babies, sex, and the trials and tribulations of a relationship going sour.  In some blogging circles, it was gold.  But I stopped because a couple wankers went to town on the hate-rape comments.  I had a blog-specific e-mail that filled with the vitriol daily.   I blocked them, but they kept coming back with different identities.  Or there were a lot of them - but the consistency of the posts, times of day they'd arrive, wordings, etc. made me think there were only two or three.

It was enough for me to pack it in.  I had better things to do anyway.

Now, curiously, I write with my real name and photo and lots of details about where I live and work.

Seems crazy, right?  Am I just baiting the creepers to come find me?

I actually started writing without a pseudonym in part because, when I had one, I always worried that I'd be found out.  I worried that something I wrote could be traced to me and cause me to lose my job.   (Good teachers don't talk about sex on the interwebs.)  Without an alias, I'm more careful to write as if everyone I know is reading.  I don't have to worry about being found out if I'm out already.  Secrecy is always so burdensome.

Writing personal crap is fascinating reading to many, but it's limited.  It's hard to do it well without getting sucked into whining to get the rewards of multiple ((((hugs)))) in the hundreds of comments following.  It can lead to self-absorbed writing that only barely mimics more interesting self-exploration.

I don't write on a personal level much here, so that distances me from any audience.  And I don't have much traffic, so I can still get my long-winded thoughts down, get the occasional comment or two, and avoid any obnoxious e-mails.  Keeping it real, keeps me much more authentic and thinking, rather than barfing out a free-for-all of gossipy rants.

But I also wonder if safety through anonymity is illusory.  At school we're warned that, even if we write under a pseudonym, if we're found out through a search of IP addresses, then we're still on the hook for everything we say.  And it's similar for people writing for safety from predators.  Anyone can be found now.

But beyond being found, I think people act differently towards a real name (or a reasonable facsimile) and a fake one.  I think it's harder to slam people when you're looking their photo in the eye and addressing them by name.  I might have an easier time saying something snide to Giraffeboy37 with an avatar than I would to Dave in his Christmas sweater.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Harris on Harper

Michael Harris discusses union busting tactics, forcing members out of office, refusing compensation for veterans, and other scandals of the Harper years - so far.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Newsroom: On Journalism, the Environment, and Sexism

I just finished watching the final season of The Newsroom as it appears catching up on shows is becoming a personal tradition on the first day of any holiday.  It was a cringe-worthy six hours with a few redeeming story-lines.  Here be ton o' SPOILERS including the fact that it ends with a wedding, a funeral, and a baby - the holy trinity of lazy plot lines.


The themes of the show were timely in that we're discussing media integrity in my class.  But we watched Peace, Propaganda, and the Promised Land instead.  The Newsroom is a fantasy news show the way The West Wing was a fantasy political show, so we can have higher hopes than is typical.  Unfortunately, we end up disappointed.  They harped on the reality that facts much be checked carefully, and they had one bit of moral soul-searching as Maggie decided against using a scoop she got in an unethical manner all scrunched down in a chair.

But the big message of the season is that social media is full of dangerous lies.  In several episodes they contrast a populist and speedy bit of intel with a more accurate but slow and steady bit to show us how real news must work.  They came across more as flummoxed luddites baffled by the existence of blogs than righteous journalists.  The only social media that seems to exist is the likes of Buzzfeed and Gawker.  There aren't journalist bloggers informing the world, nor are there people live-tweeting events as they happen, and the ACN's twitter feed gets used by a sleepy girl who says stupid things that makes the company look bad.  It's boringly two-dimensional.

Media is changing, but it's not wise to slander all social media with such a broad brush in the hopes that it will send us scurrying to network news channels.  What has to happen now is that we each have to follow well - choose carefully where we get information in the first place.  Then we have to fact check our own sources through multiple credible sources.  AND we have to THINK about what we're reading or watching.  Always with the thinking.  Most people won't do any of that, and they'll stay in the dark, ignorant to world news.  Nothing new.  But, as the show suggests, it can be dangerous if the masses people believe rumours.  Still nothing new.  Even their own newsroom was wrong in the past.  They don't forget that, but they also don't really remember it when it comes to this argument.


Maggie struggles to make the environment interesting and Jim mocks her efforts in the most douchie way possible and makes her beg for his help.  Cute.  She's a top reporter now, but can't find an angle for a major story because we all know the environment is SOOO booorrrring!

The EPA top dog is interviewed, and tells Will of an apocalypse coming within 80 years or so and that he thinks we're doomed no matter what we do now because we've missed our chance to save the day.  Mother Jones fact checked the speech and found the numbers pretty accurate, but the numbers are publicly available and not really the big secret the episode made them out to be.

Grist has this to say,
"There is no line you cross where bad weather becomes a "failure of the planet," such that we'll be able to identify the first person to die from such a failure. It's not going to be that dramatic.  Making it sound like there's going to be some sudden break only makes people blind to the incremental changes already underway. It makes them think climate change is something that might happen, something we might or might no avoid, rather than something that's already underway and has to be managed." 
And both say his level of resignation is not yet necessary.  We still have a fighting chance.  The real EPA still suggests we can save the world by changing the kinds of lightbulbs we use!  It would have been easier done sooner, yes, but it's still possible to slow things down.

But just because it's not as dramatic as a meteor strike doesn't mean it's not newsworthy or interesting.

And then they all moved on and never spoke of it again.


Emily Nussbaum's article in the New Yorker points out that the show is "consistently worried about scurrilous sexual gossip directed at prominent men."  It might be something men fear because it seems to be one of few ways of actually taking them down.  Inside Job painted a portrait of financiers who bring prostitutes on the road with them, but then only the disliked in the group - the ones not playing ball - are actively destroyed by their libido being outed.  I got the sense from that film that it's a normal part of the culture that's dragged out into public forums only if necessary.  It's like the law for open carry - which, in my parts, means having an open case of beer in your trunk.  It's technically illegal, but everyone does it.  But if cops want to arrest you for something else, they can bring you in for that opened case.  If the analogy is remotely accurate, then it's very clever of men to get everyone involved in something they can use against them later!

The show tries with a variety of men and women, but they all still fall into pat and dull stereotypes.  They are many annoyingly dumb men who still have more options and control than their clever female counterparts.  Only the one guy in the group doesn't clue in to the fact that Mac is pregnant.  The  male twin is baffled by anything going on during a billion dollar acquisition.  And all the men are stereotypically fearful of relationships.  I've never actually met an adult man like that in real life, but there are scores of them on TV.

And it seems like most of the women get or keep jobs because of their sexual relationships with the men in the office.

Some superficial attempts at being pro-woman actually make things worse:  Like when Maggie tries to convince Jim to be supportive of his girlfriend even when Hallie just wrote an exposé of their relationship that barely concealed his identity.  Men should be supportive of women no matter what nasty stuff they do.  Or when Will admonishes his cell-mate for hitting a girl.  Of course domestic violence is a horrible crime, and they pointed out this must be his third strike to end up in jail, but Will's speech has something about it that doesn't sit well.  It promotes a chivalry that still allows for more subtle sexism.

Jim got Maggie a job - implying she'd be lost without him - but then he tried to save her from leaving by offering her a promotion.  At least she chose to leave anyway, and he supported her.  There's that; so she didn't waste her time training him to support women for nothing (a necessary move because he's so dumb). Then a male subordinate is told of his female boss' promotion before the boss - who only hears about it as the subordinate announces it!  When would anything like that ever happen?

And then there's the weird chat Don and a rape victim have in her dorm room.  But that's been talked about all over the interwebs.  The moral is to never judge anyone until after s/he's been to court.  Reporters shouldn't interview anybody whose words could damage someone who hasn't officially been charged with a crime, even if they're unlikely to ever be charged.  Well, unless they're rich and powerful.  But if a girl has been assaulted, and went to the police, and no arrests were made, then she should just be quiet about it.  Only a judge can determine if a crime was committed. Once again, things can't be left to the court of public opinion.  The right people have to tell us what to think, not teach us how to think for ourselves.

And then there was...

- a Human Resources officer following around a dating couple to prove they're dating, threatening to separate them, because, it turns out, he thought it would be funny.  He was actually a fan of their awesome love  (or something like that).  And he apparently had nothing else to do with his days.  And this was after doing nothing about an employee who openly admitted to sleeping with many women on staff which was clearly causing problems in the office.

- an ethic professor who is totally clueless about personal discretion - but was sensitive enough to  somehow recognize that Maggie is really in love with Jim even though there's zero chemistry between them.

- a brilliant lawyer turned journalist who can't, for the life of him, remember anybody's name, but doesn't think it would be a problem to refer to people by racist names as a fill-in.

- an executive producer who ties her hair back whenever there's work to be done, but always leave the front bit in her face and often right in front of her eyes - the bit that would typically be the whole point of tying it back in the first place.  

- a newsroom dedicated to integrity, but quick to hide a friend who commits a felony.

After all this, it was entertaining.  It just wasn't excellent entertainment.    

Sunday, December 14, 2014

On Sex Ed, Double Standards, and the Red Herring of Consent

My philosophy class discussed Erin Anderson's article from Friday's Globe and Mail, and it provoked a whole gamut of topics.  I'll try to encapsulate some of them here.  The article starts with an important question:
"The question left is whether we'll waste this moment, leaving the teenagers today to have the same conversation decades from now.  It's time to talk about solutions - in the courts, on the Internet and in our schools."


The article calls for better sex ed in the high schools.  I agree, but what Anderson fails to realize is that, while Ontario students must take one Health and Physical Education credit to graduate, they can take it in any grade.  They don't all have to take the grade 9 health curriculum that focuses on sex ed.  And there were many stories from my class of some of the fear-inducing or just plain silly lessons from middle school health classes.  Sex ed must be improved dramatically to include "consent training" and "bystander training," as the article points out, but I think that has to happen outside of health class as well.  It must be part of mandatory courses, and I think it's particularly suited to fit randomly throughout English and civics courses.

Luckily, new curriculum documents (I believe for all courses) have or will have "front pages" - a reference to the preamble before the actual essential course learnings - that demand a focus on environmental education, healthy relationships, equity and inclusive education, and financial literacy as it applies to the subject area.  History got a curricular make-over just this past year, and the new Social Science blurb (p 41) on healthy relationships sounds pretty good:
"Healthy relationships are based on respect, caring, empathy, trust, and dignity, and thrive in an environment in which diversity is honoured and accepted.  Healthy relationships do not tolerate abusive, controlling, violent, bullying/harassing, or other inappropriate behaviours."  
This is or will be an actual part of every course now which is much more effective than forcing it into a few weeks of one course.  In teachers' college, we had a week of equity and inclusion studies that many deemed "pink week," and ridiculed it as such.  When I taught Careers, I tossed in an article about sexual harassment in the workplace in the middle of discussing employee dynamics, with no discernible backlash from students.  If we can sneak this type of education in throughout all our courses, it could actually foster a cultural shift.  I'm ever optimistic!

But, of course, we have to make sure it's addressed well.


But one problem I have with Anderson's article, is the way it frames the issue of sexual assault as a matter of innocently misunderstood signals.  Yes, that happens here and there as we continue to see the rape myth perpetuated in films enough that some might still think resistance is part of the mating dance.  But I think it can often be an excuse for behaviour - "It was all just an honest mistake!" - and part of a larger issue of a lack of respect for women in general.  The fact that the article started with a discussion about Jian Ghomeshi makes it curious that it went down the "consent training" road.  From all reports, it's pretty clear that JG didn't misunderstand the signals he was getting.  He just wanted to hurt some women.

And, skirting an uncomfortable issue but no less relevant to my argument, my students got into a good analysis of the double standard.  "Men can have many partners and be cool, but women can't."  "Even if guys are okay with a girl who's slept around, girls like that have to deal with the consequences that no guy will actually date her."

Still.  In 2014.

Of course no discussion on this topic is complete without the requisite Breakfast Club double-edged sword speech:

My questions, as always, is "Why?"  Why does that happen?  What cultural forces maintain that dichotomy that hasn't budged since I was in high school in the early 80s.  I watched all sorts of gains made in racial issues and LGBTQ issues, but this one hasn't moved.  Do we want it to continue for some reason?  Who's benefitting from it?  Why won't it die??


Some said it's part of nature.  I guess since women have children, we have to protect them from being tainted with bad seed.  Many philosophers over the centuries have written about the importance of knowing for sure that a wife's children are actually her husband's, so a chaste woman is necessary to ensure proper lineage.

Almost 200 years ago, Schopenhauer said it's natural for men to be okay with multiple partners. Their will to live is satisfied by the possession of love - i.e. sex - regardless whether or not the desire is shared by the woman:
“But yet that in every case of falling in love, … the essential matter is not the reciprocation of love, but possession, i.e., the physical enjoyment. The certainty of the former can therefore by no means console us for the want of the latter; on the contrary, in such a situation many a man has shot himself. On the other hand, persons [i.e. men] who are deeply in love, and can obtain no return of it, are contented with possession, i.e., with the physical enjoyment. This is proved by all forced marriages, and also by the frequent purchase of the favor of a woman, in spite of her dislike, by large presents and other sacrifices, nay, even by cases of rape.” 
And, he continues, women are biologically determined to want love more than sex so they, and their children, can live securely.

Nowadays many of us call that essentialism and believe we are more than our biological or evolutionary mechanisms.  Our brains are more complex and efficiently designed than most of the other animals with segregated gender roles.  And, since we have birth control and DNA testing, how much does it matter if women have a variety of partners?  So why is this still maintained so vociferously?

There's another bit of biology that came up though - that the act of penetrating is different than being penetrated.  That women are a vessel that contains men's semen.  If she's been with 50 men, then she'll be "loose."  I countered that women give birth and bounce right back, but I should have argued that she could be with one man 50 times and not raise the same concerns.  It's the "kill count" that matters.  It's the image of the hot dogs down the hallway, the jizz bucket, sloppy seconds, damaged goods - as if sexually active women don't bathe and sex destroys their genitals - but only if it's with many men.  They can be tainted in a way that men can't because men leave something behind, deep inside, that seems to leave a lasting mark - forever.

But the vagina cleans itself out, kids.  Regularly.  Geez!

I can't scoff too much because I remember being in grade 12,  just when AIDS was first discussed, and, because it seemed relegated to gay men and prostitutes, my group of friends surmised that if one man's sperm touches another man's sperm it's actually fatal!   That's why sex education is so important.

But their imagery paints a picture that can be hard to shake.

ETA - And four classes later, someone raised the "vaginal looseness" argument AGAIN, so I was able to discuss the 50 times vs 50 people argument after all (and reiterate that they really need better sex ed classes).  But another argument was added to the fray:
"If a woman's vagina couldn't go back, then the tampon industry would go under because sexually active women's tampons would be falling out all over the place.  So if a woman's vagina can accommodate a tampon, it's likely small enough for your needs."
Whatever works to get the point across.


It's all because of religion.  Like the biology explanation, I think this is too simplistic. And there were myriad sexual restrictions long before the Christians ruined all the fun.

The Code of Hammurabi - written centuries before Genesis - states:
142. If a woman wishes to divorce her husband and refuses him sexual rights, an inquiry shall be held. If she has not committed adultery but her husband has, she may take her dowry and return to her father's house. 143. If she has committed adultery, then she shall be executed by being thrown into the water.....154. If a free man has sexual relations with his daughter, that man shall be exiled....159. If the first wife and a female slave of a free man both bear him sons, and the father acknowledges the sons of the female slave as his own, then the sons of the female slave shall share equally with the sons of the first wife in the paternal inheritance after the death of the father....171. If the father did not acknowledge the sons of the female slave as his own, then the sons have no right to share in the paternal inheritance; but both the female slave and her sons shall be given their freedom.
Sexual restrictions are part of society to maintain social order.  Sometimes they're officially legislated, but it's an easier time to keep order if they're part of the social fabric.  It can cause conflicts if we all sleep with anyone without respect for who's bothered by our shenanigans.  So my beginning position is that there is an order that is somewhat maintained by the sexual double standard.  Maybe if we can get to the perceived necessity for the structure, we can dismantle the attitudes.

Social Control

We ran out of time before I could postulate my own theories, but I think it's mainly about control.

If sexually confident women - or even just attractive women -  are sluts, then it reduces the competition for nice hetero girls.  So girls definitely benefit from reinforcing the dichotomy even if it's to their own detriment later.  It can be a means for girls to keep other girls from their guy by labelling them as diseased so that they become less attractive to their potential mate and even shameful to be seen with.  The solution to this dynamic is to recognize the abundance of potential mates available.  We don't need to complete with each other.  If she likes him, and he likes her back, let him go.  There are plenty to go around.

But I think for men the dynamic is perpetuated because many guys still like the upper hand in a relationship.  Not nearly all, of course.  There are confident men who can be with an experienced woman, but some really can't.  Like Silent Bob explains in Chasing Amy:

Personally, if a man has kept himself chaste and demands the same of a woman, I can respect that.  But if a man has seen some action, or tried to, and has a different standard for the women he dates, then I really can't tolerate that hypocrisy.

As I said in a previous post, saying no can precipitate retaliation of the weirdest sort.  I once turned down a guy just on a date to a movie, and he denigrated me to his friends mercilessly.  And it was just a movie, AND I was in a relationship at the time.  Some people don't take rejection well.  It's not the problem of the nay sayer, but that retaliation, unfortunately, is something women sometimes have to cope with.  So some girls say yes when they don't want to. And then they're ruined in the eyes of the Silent Bobs of the world.  But some girls want to say yes because they want to.  And that should be okay.

Here's the dynamic I think's at play:

Last summer I went on a date with a guy who I discovered, part way through the meal, loves Stephen Harper.  He challenged me to say one bad thing about him.  I listed a medley of dismantled environmental laws and regulations that are permanently destructive to Canada, not to mention the stranglehold he has on scientists.  But, I think separate from his politics, this guy's response was very interesting:
"Yes but, you can't talk about that because I don't know anything about the environment.  It's not fair because you're an environmentalist, and that's not my field."
So... let's get this straight.  I shouldn't discuss any piece of knowledge I have that a man doesn't have during a debate?   This man anyway.

But it's not just this one guy.  I've seen that same type of response here and there in other relationships over the years.  An early boyfriend whined that I'm so much more worldly than he because I lived in Ottawa for a year - Ottawa - so we just don't fit.  And a male friend insisted I didn't influence his musical tastes even though he hadn't heard of Ween or Primus before he met me and now is a rabid follower of both.  It feels to me like it couldn't be possible for him to have been influenced musically by a woman.  I could be wrong on this, of course, but it feels like a significant behaviour - a dynamic primarily between two sexes.

There's an insecurity there.  A fear.   And it hinges on what real men do and don't do.  Real men don't learn things from women, and part of that means that they should be the most experienced in the bedroom.  And the underlying current here, is that women don't have the status to teach, to know, to have seen more things - and they won't be respected if they have.  This likely ties in with the reality that smart, successful women are often single:
A study conducted with 121 British participants reported findings that females with high intelligence in male/female relationships were seen as problematic. Their intelligence were predicted to cause problems in the relationships. Whereas, high intelligence in the male partner was not seen as problematic, but desirable.
My sense is that until we can address this behaviour and belief system, we're going to be stuck with the double standard and with the sexual assaults.  It's all part and parcel of the same mentality:  This woman isn't really worth anything, so I can use her as a sex toy, as a punching bag, as a maid, as a nanny for my kids....

But then there's this guy, Terry Crews on Manhood, Feminism, and the Mindset that Leads to Rape:

"People are scared of being controlled....Feminism is not saying women are better than men....We're talking about... true gender equality.  But the problem is that men have always felt that they're more valuable....I have been that guy....Men have been manipulated to chase their win....You have to know you're already valuable."
People are getting their sense of value from their conquests, from their stuff, from their trophies, instead of from within.  Some men have a sense of entitlement over women and see women as a trophy that they deserve, whether she likes him or not.  And, I think, part of that includes wanting to be the only man the woman has ever known.  Crews says, "Never should that ever be accepted."

He suggests that men have to step up the join the battle against the patriarchal mindset that damages everyone:
"I relate it to...civil rights....Let's say the people who were silent....and the black school with two books, and the white school had everything, and you were quiet.  You were accepting it.  Same thing with men right now. You're not saying anything, you are, by your silence, accepting it.... 
The big thing for me is just that when you see another person as your equal there are things you just won't do....You would only go ahead when someone says no unless you feel you own them, you're above feel they're your property.... 
We're not battling people, we're battling a mindset....It's like cutting a tree down by the leaves, it just grows back....nobody's getting at the stump.  The stump is the mindset that people feel they're more valuable than one another.....You think you're better than everybody.  The issue is every man wants intimacy....all intimacy is [that] you want to be known...and loved....Sex comes later.  The problem is people are chasing sex to chase intimacy, and you'll never be satisfied."  
Men are weaker, more fragile, more vulnerable than they feel they could ever admit. De Beauvoir discussed this at length almost 70 years ago.  Hiding that fragility is a huge burden to maintain.  Crews says, "Admit you don't have it....Keep a moment where that pride is out of here."  And maybe we can stop the competitions, and begin to see one another with respect, on an even plane, as actual equals.


The only discussion I cut off during the class was this one.  Like the evolution vs creation debate, and the climate change vs natural fluctuations debate, saying some women lie to ruin men's lives doesn't rate an equal billing with some women get raped.  'Nough said.