Category Archives: Health & Environment

Women need fierce leaders

Some people are calling for the resignation of a Progressive Conservative bigwig who mocked the weight of Alberta’s Health Minister. I won’t repeat his words here, but suffice it to say that he claimed that a woman who is overweight is not qualified to set health policy.

Criticizing someone’s appearance rather than their conduct is superficial and childish. It’s a classic straw [wo]man tactic. Women are scrutinized at a rate much higher than what men experience, especially when they occupy prominent positions, so it can’t be explained away simply as fatphobia or body shaming. In their article on the Health Minister the National Post consulted Clare Beckton, executive director of Centre for Women in Politics and Public Leadership, who said that the comments would never have been made about a male politician. She said:

“It’s misogynist. It’s inappropriate… Since when has appearance had anything to do with legitimacy in terms of your intelligence and ability to be a legislator?”

Beckton said the body-shaming episode is evidence that stereotyping and bias against women politicians are still real issues.

She’s exactly right. But then… this:

“There are a certain number of people who still want to pull women down,” she said. “It’s a small minority of men who would make these kinds of comments. They’re not the majority.”

What purpose does this statement serve?

Here we see another example of hedging what would otherwise be insightful analysis with yet more #NotAllMen apologism. This is the sort of thing you might expect to hear from a random man pulled off the street. But we’re talking about a spokeswoman for a women’s organization. One that advocates for female leadership, no less. One might assume that by extension this makes the Centre for Women in Politics and Public Leadership a feminist organization. Is it? Perhaps a bit of skepticism is in order.

A Google domain search shows that the word ‘feminism’ hasn’t appeared on the Centre’s website since 2012 (one of two times, the first being in 2011).

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There are several mentions of the word ‘sexism’.

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Not too many. And we know that sexism is a friendly way to say ‘patriarchy’, and that word doesn’t show up once on the site.

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On its website, the Centre states that it “works with a wide range of partners to enhance women’s influence and leadership in public life, in Canada and internationally”. When you click on the link to their sponsors, only one is listed: Goldcorp. A corporation that according to the Mexican Network of Mining-Affected Peoples operates on 85% of indigenous territory and whose activities have contaminated their environment. Volumes of human rights and environmental abuses have been documented, particularly in jurisdictions where Goldcorp enjoys weak regulation and enforcement.

Is it a coincidence that the Centre for Women in Politics and Public Leadership is publishing reports such as The Pathway Forward: Creating Gender Inclusive Leadership in Mining and Resources? Here’s an excerpt:

The mining industry has the opportunity now to take leadership to capitalize on women’s untapped potential by increasing women’s participation on mining boards, in senior leadership positions and entry level positions.

In other words, let’s bring women – whom we didn’t care about until relatively recently – on board so we can exploit their labour too, all while scoring brownie points. What I want to know is why women are being asked to participate in ecocide. Why are we being encouraged to imagine the world, as women and workers, from a capitalist lens? Is that the compromise we’re supposed to make in order to be recognized as human beings and included in the economy – not even afforded the room to consider whether or not this is how we want to live? Radical feminists want to build a society that reflects women’s needs and worldviews, including those that challenge the current economic and social systems. We want liberation, not inclusion.

It becomes increasingly clear why the National Post, a conservative publication, would choose to print comments filtered through organizations like the Centre for Women in Politics and Public Leadership. They knew they weren’t going to get a fundamentally critical analysis.

Feminism isn’t just about gender equality in the sense of having equal representation in government roles, executive positions, etc. This is just one of many necessary ingredients. Time and time again, we see that women have been socialized to internalize patriarchal attitudes and ideologies. There are powerful women who hope to gain the support of other women because of their shared sex, but such blind allegiance can be dangerous. Hillary Clinton may say a lot of great things about women’s rights but she also happens to be a shill for the military industrial complex. There can be no liberation for anyone, women especially, under imperialism and colonialism. It’s deeply racist to advocate for reproductive rights at home while sanctioning the massacre and torture of women abroad.

Women often compromise for the sake of likability and even safety, particularly when they represent an organization that wants to appeal to a wider audience. Sometimes we don’t have a choice. Clare Beckton seems to grasp the issues. She’s an intelligent woman doing important advocacy work. I just have a very difficult time accepting a woman of her knowledge and influence peddling what she must know is a falsehood; that a small minority of men are misogynists. How is that possible when misogyny is so rampant? Behaviour characterized by sexism and stereotyping is by definition systemic and thus cannot be the fault of a handful of people. It’s so much deeper than that.

My hope is that the women who speak for all of us will follow their feminist analysis to its logical conclusion, speak their truth as women, and resist the temptation to dress up controversial opinions in pretty packaging because when people look inside, they’re not going to like what they see anyway. Forget likability. Forget compromise. Women need fierce leaders.

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Dogma is the problem: religion, secularism, and moral progress

Quick disclaimer so I don’t look like a complete idiot: In this post I discuss secularism and atheism sometimes interchangeably because this is how they’re often discussed – and perhaps I should not have done that because it contributes to the confusion that arises when people fail to acknowledge that there is in fact an important distinction between the two. I may return at a later date and clean up this language. My apologies.

In my last post I wrote about the morality of vegetarianism, specifically why being vegan or vegetarian does not necessarily represent a form of moral progress or enlightenment. Recently I came across an article by Michael Shermer entitled Bill Maher is right about religion: The Orwellian ridiculousness of Jesus, and the truth about moral progress in Salon. Sometimes Bill Maher is funny and he’s made some good points. But his tendency to be proudly ignorant and disrespectful, especially where culture and religion are concerned, makes him one of the last people I would turn to for guidance on the topic of moral progress.

My ethics in this area can be summed up thus: Never allow yourself to be silenced because you have something inconvenient to say, but don’t be an asshole about it. Most people avoid pompous blowhards for good reason. One can hardly trust the motives of a person who has already decided they know everything.

I’m not here to defend religion. I’m a Buddhist, first and foremost, with a lot of nature-based spirituality in the mix. Even though there’s something about Wicca and witchcraft that have always attracted me I don’t perform rituals or cast spells. It feels silly and contrived to me. I don’t pray or worship, although reverence toward nature is part of my worldview. I practice Vipassana meditation which involves an exercise called metta bhavana, commonly described as loving-kindness meditation or the cultivation of benevolence. Deities don’t figure into my spirituality; I don’t believe in God if by God we mean anything remotely resembling the Judeo-Christian male godhead. I was raised in a Catholic family but I’m not Christian in the sense that I don’t believe Jesus was born of a virgin and remained celibate, and that he rose from the dead as described by the Bible. I don’t agree that simply believing that he’s the Son of God will save me from Hell (which I don’t believe in either). I will never accept something as fact simply because someone somewhere wrote something down. I’ve always felt inspired, however, by Jesus of Nazareth, a man who preached love and stood up to injustice and was predictably murdered for it. What about reincarnation? I’ve never really given the idea much importance. Doing the right thing out of fear or a sense of insecurity doesn’t seem very right to me. And while I don’t think it’s lights out when our bodies cease to function, I’m willing to accept that this could be how things end. The Law of Thermodynamics tells us that energy can neither be created nor destroyed. If this is all that underpins the concept of eternal life or resurrection, I’m okay with that. I think it’s healthy for me to accept that everything is impermanent. Everything is also energy and energy never really ‘leaves’, nor is it distinct in the way we like to think it is.

Paulo Coelho theorizes [YouTube] that when we die, the question that will be asked of us won’t be what sins we committed but rather: Did you love enough? Truth is, when our candle goes out, none of us knows what will happen until it happens. Some of us have had what we believe to be paranormal experiences. There’s a lot we don’t know about our planet or our universe and science may not be able to answer many of our enduring questions. Humans are also capable of believing what they want to or what others want them to. I think a lot of people believe crazy things, religious and otherwise. But there are more important things in life than who is right about spirituality and religion. What good is your faith if you don’t respect others? Likewise, what good is your rejection of religion if you don’t do the same?

Michael Shermer writes:

Most moral progress is the result of science, reason, and secular values developed during the Enlightenment.

Woah. What?!?

What about societies that existed before the “Enlightenment” and those that emerged (and continue to exist) outside of Western science and culture? Are they primitive? Does the fact that a society isn’t secular preclude it from offering values we can learn from? Why would their values be inferior, or any different, for that matter? Why aren’t we counting the knowledge and stewardship of indigenous peoples in what is termed moral “progress” by those who control popular discourse?

Clearly Shermer has made no attempt to educate himself about the incredible work done by many non-secular people across cultures and traditions over time including (imagine this!) Islamic scholars, thinkers, and technicians such as Avicenna, dubbed the father of early modern medicine. Wise women (witches), wise men, and shamans are frequently portrayed as superstitious charlatans in the modern imagination. What isn’t so well known is that many witches and healers were demonized because they were less invasive and more successful than doctors whose outlandish theories (science, back then) led them to violate the bodies of the living and the dead. When we heap praise on Ancient Greece for its contributions to Western civilization, let’s not forget that the Greeks were Pagans, and that didn’t stop them from being brilliant human beings.

The suggestion that reason and sound morality can only come from a secular or atheist mind – and is necessarily absent in religious people – is rendered preposterous by even a cursory review of world history. More importantly, however, this type of posturing is irresponsible. I’ve seem many people take the Western liberal commitment to secularism to extremes with the result of dismissing the legitimate experiences of many people; this tendency continues to be used in order to justify colonization and genocide particularly in a passive way, including among self-professed liberals who, if they were being consistent progressive, would reject rhetoric of this kind. Although Shermer and those like him aren’t coming right out and saying it, what people are really saying when they claim that “most moral progress is the result of science, reason, and secular values developed during the Enlightenment” is that European men are the moral compass of the world and without them, we would be savages. What a steaming, putrid pile of horse shit.

I think we need to be very careful in equating secularism with enlightenment. There are many illusions we can cling to and an awful lot of damage we can cause (and have) outside of a spiritual or religious ideology. We need to look at the core problem as one of dogma. Western science preaches reductionism, which seeks to isolate phenomena, introducing the notion of separateness into our perception where none exists in reality. We live in a world in which everything is interconnected and interdependent. We barely understand these processes today even with all of our modern technology. Discovery Channel’s Earth From Space [YouTube] is a mind-blowing documentary that helps us to understand how so many of our planet’s systems overlap and work together through the use of satellites, and yet this knowledge has not inspired us to stop devouring the planet’s resources at an unsustainable rate. A paradigm shift in thinking, not data or gadgets, is the key to determining our future. Western science will not save us. Western values, whatever we believe them to be, aren’t doing much good on that front either.

We’ve also lost a great deal of knowledge precisely because we’ve been told that there’s a special strata of people who are more intelligent and more worthy. If this doesn’t feed the idea of supremacy, particularly white/European/Western supremacy, I don’t know what does. We must eliminate this intellectual cancer from our psychology permanently.

Reductionism misses much of what we can’t see, measure, or articulate even through our own languages. It represents a compartmentalized framework that can’t grasp a holistic reality. Atheism and secularism aren’t in and of themselves antidotes to this problem. And what about science? Science is nothing more than a human construct that we’ve put into practice in order to better understand our world. It has never been confined to one continent or one period in time. And yet, it’s still not “the whole truth and nothing but the truth”.

The very concept of moral progress is false. How can we possibly say we’re more evolved today as a species than we were even one thousand years ago? We subjugate sectors of the population based on race, gender, economic standing, etc. A tiny percentage of the global population owns and controls the world’s wealth and resources and nowhere is this more pronounced than in Western, secular countries. That’s moral progress? The consumption on which our lifestyle is based requires resources plundered from elsewhere. This necessitates corporate and state imperialism and even war. We are the new conquistadors. Technology may have advanced, but where has that gotten us? Who’s benefiting? Who’s paying the price for this “progress”? Morality is quite frankly nowhere to be found in all of this and yet Shermer wants us to believe that the boogeyman we should fear is religion. I don’t buy it.

While Carl Sagan was critical of religion, more specifically he was critical of dogma and recognized that atheists don’t have a monopoly on the truth:

An atheist is someone who is certain that God does not exist, someone who has compelling evidence against the existence of God. I know of no such compelling evidence. Because God can be relegated to remote times and places and to ultimate causes, we would have to know a great deal more about the universe than we do now to be sure that no such God exists. To be certain of the existence of God and to be certain of the nonexistence of God seem to me to be the confident extremes in a subject so riddled with doubt and uncertainty as to inspire very little confidence indeed. A wide range of intermediate positions seems admissible.

I’m tired of atheists and secularists advertizing their ideologies to the rest of the world as though they’re not just as susceptible to errors in perception and judgement as everyone else. Religion brainwashes people. It gives them a crutch. A reason to hate. A reason to die. But also a reason to live. Sometimes a reason to love. After tragic events such as the recent attacks in Paris, I inevitably hear people say that perpetrators who call themselves Muslims are ruining it for all the “normal” or “good” ones. Why? Why should members of any religion have to prove they’re not homogenous or inherently crazy and violent? Are the rest of us, who are supposedly so much more reasonable than these extremists or mentally unstable individuals, really not capable of figuring that out on our own? When NATO members bomb innocent people in countries whose governments aren’t actually invading entire regions for geopolitical control, how can we say that this is all happening because they’re backward people who don’t share our values and need to be saved by us? Messiah complex, anyone? This is the modus operandi of imperialism.

Western morality as defined by state and corporate puppets is largely self-validating. Why are countries like Saudi Arabia and Israel not sanctioned while others are? Why does our anti-money laundering and anti-corruption policy deem certain businesses high risk when they operate in particular jurisdictions but not in terms of how they turn a profit in the first place? We’ve increased our scrutiny of financial institutions and the precious metals trade only to scale it back or fail to enforce laws altogether. Most industries exploit workers, natural resources, and local communities unless there’s regulation or public resistance preventing them from doing so. Our leaders don’t question “free” trade and globalization schemes that involve the privatization of local resources, land grabs, vulture capital-backed polluting industries, austerity (i.e. the gutting of social programs), and export-driven markets that weaken local economies. They want us to believe that this system is a natural expression of modern economics because identifying ourselves as the winners means we have to talk about the losers. Our hypocrisy is sickening. Once again, I ask: Is this moral progress?

In contrast to the capitalist banking system, Islamic banking actually prohibits the charging of interest, specifically money earned on the lending out of money itself. The Institute of Islamic Banking and Insurance explains that:

Money in Islam is not regarded as an asset from which it is ethically permissible to earn a direct return. Money tends to be viewed purely as a medium of exchange. Interest can lead to injustice and exploitation in society; The Qur’an (2:279) characterises it as unfair, as implied by the word zulm (oppression, exploitation, opposite of adl i.e. justice). [Edited to correct one grammatical error]

You know what? I’m not about to convert to any religion but I absolutely agree with this tenet and I don’t see why we should have to determine its merit based on whether it’s secular or religious. Obviously it can be both, so there goes the assumption that values have to fit into an ‘either/or’ type of classification.

I’d like to sit Michael Shermer down over a nice cup of tea and ask him why, if we’ve developed so much, we have more global conflict than ever and we’re jeopardizing our own survival and that of millions of other species. Even as our own scientific process proves this to be true, nothing we’re doing offers a systemic solution to this problem.

Who gets to define enlightenment? Shouldn’t it be up to all of us? Don’t we all have that right, whether we’re spiritual, religious, agnostic or atheist? Don’t we share this planet with each other? Don’t we need each other?

Arrogance is another form of dogma and just like every other type of dogma, it arises from ego. Anyone who forgets this is prone to reproducing the same sort of closed-mindedness they criticize in others. Religion is just one possible vehicle of delusion. Anyone can get behind the wheel of their mind and drive it into confusion. As long as we’re convinced that the enemy is some external threat, personal responsibility is no longer necessary. This is fertile ground for binary thinking, xenophobia, racism, exceptionalism, and, of course, war and misery, among other things.

Governments should be secular because neutrality is necessary in order to respect the diversity and freedom of the people. But that doesn’t mean we should pretend we’re something we’re not. It also doesn’t mean we should be hostile or disrespectful toward what is an important part of many people’s lives. Especially when we’re talking about marginalized people who are targets of institutional violence. Karl Marx was under the impression that people would have no need for spirituality in a post-capitalist world. We haven’t gotten there yet but I sincerely doubt that we’d all suddenly become secular or atheist simply because we own the product of our own labour.

Maybe it’s tempting for secularists to cling to the idea of moral progress because it gives them hope that someday they’ll have proof that humans aren’t inherently spiritual after all. The reality is that some people are spiritual and some aren’t, and every individual can change their status at any point in time for pretty much any reason or no reason at all. Leftists – and I count myself among this broad category for better or for worse – exist within a culture of secularism to the extent that many chanted “Je Suis Charlie” while denying vehemently that Charlie Hebdo is racist. They’re wrong. If you’re a so-called progressive and you won’t stand up to Islamophobia because you don’t like religion, you don’t get social justice.

Our biggest threat doesn’t lie in other people or in other ideologies. It’s in ourselves; in the ego’s tendency to seek self-gratification over the self-denying work of observing our own emotions, thoughts, and actions. Being a Muslim doesn’t make one a better person than anyone else. Neither does being Jewish, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Pagan, atheist – whatever. It’s one thing to be proud of our heritage and traditions but quite another to delude ourselves into thinking that because we’ve come to believe or reject a spiritual precept, that makes us superior to anyone else. The only thing that makes us good people is how we treat other beings.

Have we loved enough?

The very purpose of religion is to control yourself, not to criticize others. Rather, we must criticize ourselves. How much am I doing about my anger? About my attachment, about my hatred, about my pride, my jealousy? These are the things which we must check in daily life.

– Dalai Lama

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The case against vegetarianism

It might seem odd, even hypocritical, for an environmentalist and Buddhist such as myself to come out in favour of eating meat. There are many great reasons to practice vegetarianism and it’s a personal choice that I respect. I’ve noticed that at social gatherings the topic comes up frequently and there’s a growing awareness of dietary diversity. I think it’s great that people are willing to accommodate each other now more than ever.

Another thing I notice, though, is that when people talk about eating meat they often express guilt, like it’s not the socially evolved or politically correct thing to do. So in today’s post I’d like to share some of my thoughts on the topic and explore the discourse around vegetarianism.

I’ve taken a shot at being a vegetarian and it wasn’t my thing. Ultimately, I just don’t believe that eating meat is wrong. Not only do I not feel bad about it, but it’s a conscious choice that reflects my understanding of how I fit into the natural order of things.

To start with, animal rights are important to me. No, really – they are.

PETA

I’m not a big fan of PETA but I do use their search engine to identify cruelty-free companies. Some might say it’s a contradiction for me to be concerned about testing on animals while, well… eating them (and enthusiastically, at that!). Following are some valid questions along with my best crack at what I trust are sensible answers.

“But aren’t you a Buddhist?”

In spiritual traditions that sanction a carnivorous diet there tend to be rules around how it should be approached. Of course, in some religions it’s altogether forbidden. Many (and possibly most) Buddhists are indeed vegetarian. Buddhism teaches ahimsa – the principle of non-harming – and of course this is part of the more fundamental teaching that it’s wrong to kill. However, there are many variations of Buddhist practice. Some Buddhist texts discuss the concept of “clean” meat and some Tibetan Buddhists including Tenzin Gyatso (the Dalai Lama himself) are not vegetarian. Ultimately, if a Buddhist is truly concerned about contravening the texts and teachings on this matter, the safe bet would be to cut out meat entirely or to only eat certain types of meat as directed. It’s evident why anyone regardless of persuasion would believe that killing is wrong, but the Buddha had a much more nuanced understanding than categorical dos and don’ts. Surely there are instances in which it might be acceptable. Personally, I’m satisfied that nutrition and hence sustenance are good reasons, in keeping with certain conditions which I’ll address further below.

“You’re an environmentalist, right?”

Much has been reported about the ecological impact of Western meat-heavy diets. I think it’s fair to say that we eat way too much meat and need to cut back substantially. Livestock do contribute to global warming by releasing an awful lot of methane, which is a much more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. There’s no getting away from the fact that the list of environmental impacts is long, but it’s important to ask why. For me the overriding problem is the way we produce food – namely factory farming and industrial agriculture. Methane emissions can be largely attributed to the diet that livestock are fed. Cows simply shouldn’t be fed corn, soy, or other grains because they can’t properly digest these foods, so I’m happy to see that grass-fed beef is becoming increasingly accessible. While this means that more land will be required for pasture, less land will be necessary for the crops dedicated to this feed. Monoculture or cash crops themselves are bad for biodiversity and involve the use of GMO seeds, pesticides, herbicides, etc., all of which are prevalent in this model of food production. This system treats both animals and plants as just another raw input or commodity. The only value they’re assumed to have is in the profit they generate and that’s not a healthy, mindful or ethical way to nourish our bodies or participate in the processes of nature.

“Shouldn’t we know better by now?”

While I think it’s legitimate and commendable that many people are analyzing their food consumption and make changes out of consideration for animal welfare and our environment, it’s also part of a popular trend. There’s a degree to which being vegetarian, and vegan even more so, gives one an image boost in some circles. But honestly, I don’t see why it should. It’s one thing to use persuasion to further important causes; it’s another to wear one’s vegetarianism as a badge. You’re vegan? Okey dokey. But really… so what? It shouldn’t be an excuse for self-congratulation.

I simply don’t believe that observing a vegetarian diet makes one a better person. Part of my reason for saying this is the logical insinuation inherent in such a belief. Is vegetarianism actually a criterion for enlightenment and civilization? Did our non-vegetarian ancestors just not know any better? What about indigenous peoples who not only live off the land and depend on animals for their survival (food, clothing, etc.) but have woven the existence of these life forms into their very cosmologies? Are these people somehow less evolved than modern vegetarians? Certainly not. There’s no correlation whatsoever between a culture’s propensity to eat meat and their evolution as human beings. In fact, it’s the societies that live closest to nature, firmly embedded within it, that are most involved in hunting animals.

Why do such people have a profound understanding of and respect for animals and yet see nothing wrong in eating them? It’s a matter of cultural paradigm that involves a deep and complex appreciation for the interdependency of all life forms on our planet. Relationship is key. So is an understanding of the origin and meaning of life.

Organic matter is composed of both plant and animal matter. It’s not as though Mother Nature places dead plants and dead animals in different compost bins; it’s all part of one cyclical system. All organic matter originates from the same plant-animal process of death and rebirth. We can follow a vegan diet, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but understanding the process of life on this planet means understanding that even the plants we eat ultimately come from both plant and animal sources. Any separation of the two is entirely illusory. It’s socially constructed.

“How can you kill something you love?”

Quite simply, life is death and death is life. We as a species would have never evolved to the present had we not eaten animals. We are animals. We can choose whether to eat other animals (at least those of us who feel being vegetarian wouldn’t be detrimental to our health) – but having that choice doesn’t say anything about what that choice should be. When we observe carnivores or omnivores we see that there is some natural law whereby they never cause unnecessary suffering, and yet they don’t hesitate before eating each other alive. Nature doesn’t ‘think’ that this pain or death is wrong. It’s just part of life. It’s part of nature itself.

From a Western modern anthropocentric standpoint, death is bad. But every spiritual tradition teaches the cyclical nature of existence and treats life and death as interchangeable. Even in Judeo-Christian religions that place human beings above other species, nature is still understood as being simultaneously destructive and creative. The idea of resurrection and the salvation it supposedly brings is based on the reality that death is life.

It’s the practice of cooperation and respect that determines the dignity of relationships between entities. I have a feeling that the deeper our disconnect from nature, the easier it is to forget this. There’s something about vegetarianism that for me personally would represent a kind of implied separation between myself and other forms of life on Earth, as weird as that might sound. I just don’t feel guilty when I eat meat. Instead, I’m grateful for that sustenance.

“Life and death are one thread, the same line viewed from different sides.”
– Lao Tzu

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What will it take to end sexism?

The topics of gender-based discrimination and abuse continue to pop up in the Canadian media. Personally, I’m still rattled about how conversations about the Jian Ghomeshi scandal have exposed our limits to addressing sexism. It brought me to many videos and articles that helped me probe how I feel about these topics more deeply, especially since I realized how much this has affected me on an emotional level. Looking back on my past, I realized that I’ve been sexually assaulted many times but have never really acknowledged it. Firstly because each time it’s happened it became more normalized in my imagination and secondly because it was almost always at the hands of men I knew and trusted. With each incident, I told myself it could have been worse so it wasn’t that big a deal. They weren’t things you could tell the police about and expect action to be taken. Ubiquity and powerlessness lead to acceptance. But together, these things add up. And while it may seem like we’re getting somewhere because we keep hearing about new allegations of sexual harassment even within government, this isn’t what I would call progress.

While we’re okay with discussing violence against women and sexual misconduct in the public sphere, we should pay close attention to what happens when we land on the concepts of patriarchy and privilege. It quickly becomes apparent just how resistant many people are to acknowledging the fundamental machinations that produce gender-based injustice.

In a recent article, writer Denise Balkissoon articulated something very important while making many men uncomfortable in the process (take a look at the comment section). In Sorry, we haven’t reached a ‘watershed’ on violence against women, Balkissoon says:

I don’t get what is known now that was a mystery yesterday – or why what was ignored yesterday is now so urgent to address. All that’s different now is that we know one guy’s name, and that guy happens to be famous.

This is a sobering point. Why haven’t all the shocking stories we’ve heard jolted us into making substantial progress? What will it take to change things? Every time we try to take a step forward we’re met with a backlash. Expecting that the problem would go away if only women would come forward is unrealistic and unfair. These things don’t happen because of the conduct of the victims. And in addition to being discouraged from coming forward or fighting back, doing so may actually place us in greater danger, as comedian Amanda Seales explains in the video below. She cites the case of a woman who was murdered in Detroit after rejecting a man who asked for her number (of course, the clueless dolt debating her thinks she could have solved the issue by carrying a gun). As much as this guy pisses me off though, watching this is a guilty pleasure because Seales’ facial expressions are priceless.


I’m sick and tired of being smeared for standing up to sexism. There’s a plethora of labels and insults reserved for women like me. The moment I try to get to the root of the problem, I’m met with hatred and disdain. It happens all the time and it can’t be dismissed simply because it’s trollish behaviour. These trolls work with us and ride the subway with us. They’re real people and this is not a game. We need to stop bullshitting each other about how serious this problem is. And not only does the “not all men” excuse do nothing to neutralize the impact of sexism, but as Michael Laxer explains with razor-sharp precision, actually, it is all men:

We, collectively, and most commonly as individuals, are responsible for creating the conditions that not only facilitate Ghomeshi, but that ensure he will exist. This is a very uncomfortable and inconvenient truth. It is all men and the society that they produced that allowed a misogynist, alleged serial abuser to rise to and feel comfortable within the halls of media and fame, despite the now known and clear indications that he was a predator all along and that many, many people could have done something about it but did not.

That’s the ugly thing about privilege: even individuals who aren’t actively abusive benefit from it. Another great point by Root Veg quoted from the comment section of Laxer’s article:

You all benefit from the Jian Ghomeshis of this world, not just because it ensures men’s dominant status, but because other men’s terrorism of women lowers the bar for your qualification as a Good Guy to the absolute bare minimum.

This one hit me like a punch to the face. Now I understand what had me on high alert when I learned about the social media campaign known as MANifestChange. MANifestChange among other things encourages men to speak out by snapping a picture of themselves and pledging to help fight violence against women. Awesome! Or is it?

What I like about this idea is that it places the onus on males to do something. I’m glad there are men out there who want to end patriarchy. I’m just not sure that challenging male privilege means taking cookie-winning selfies. If you’re a man with a conscience, the best thing you can do to help us gals out is to actively challenge your male privilege on a daily basis. It’s hard work. You probably won’t relish the effort involved or the flack you’re going to get. But guess what? If it’s not inconveniencing you, it’s not really helping.

While participating in initiatives like MANifestChange can be just a part of the work someone does, this aspect of the campaign still bugs me. It’s cute. It’s fun. Guys score brownie points with the ladies. And see, I think that’s the problem. This isn’t supposed to make you look good whether you mean it to or not. That’s not what this is about. I don’t need to see a closeup of your mug so we can appreciate how nice a guy you are. Just be that guy. Do it anonymously. Like the philanthropist who donates to a hospital but refuses to put their name on a plaque. That’s how you make sure it’s 100% not about you.

I know we all want to support each other in solidarity and be nice by acknowledging that every little bit counts. But is it really true that every little bit counts in a good way?

How effective is a campaign like HeForShe in addressing oppression, for example? Sometimes what we gain in attracting attention to our cause by putting a celebrity in front of the microphone is erased when they stumble over their own privilege and ignorance, thus undermining our ability to have a really deep conversation. These incidents remind us that within movements of the oppressed, some of us (e.g. white females) still don’t get it and that’s usually because we have privileges of our own that need to be checked. Mia McKenzie’s Why I’m Not Really Here For Emma Watson’s Feminism Speech At the U.N. is a must read because it elevates some important caveats about privilege and how centering these issues on the privileged (e.g. “Guys suffer from patriarchy too!”) is a really good way of protecting them from acknowledging that they’re, well, privileged.

Thankfully, the folks at MANifestChange seem to have a lot more up their sleeve:

Like many people who possess privilege, many males are willing to acknowledge that sexism exists but tend to assume they’re not part of it. By looking at the representations of women in video games, Anita Sarkeesian holds up a mirror to society and the results are horrifying. Yes, we know that women are constantly eroticized and objectified, but does its deeply systemic nature blind us to just how bad it is? I don’t play the kinds of games that Sarkeesian reviews in the video below (not many women do), so I was legitimately shocked when I saw how normalized it is in the minds of boys and men alike (please note the content warning):


Challenging your own privilege isn’t supposed to be fun because it means denying your ego and giving something up. That’s why people feel threatened when they’re called to do it. It means being silent and letting people share their views and experiences, and then taking the time to seriously think about what they have to say. In our rapid fire culture of communication, the fact that we’re hardwired to react doesn’t help. But I don’t believe that sexism is any less of an issue than it was three decades ago. So while sympathy may be a nice gesture, it’s just another way of avoiding the problem. And empathy is the bare minimum we should be able to expect from decent people anyway. Much work remains to be done.

 

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Whose economy? How privilege shapes economic discourse

A man who might become Canada’s next Prime Minister was mocked last week for his reaction when confronted with the claim that the middle class is doing quite well, contrary to his assertions.

There’s no point in arguing about whether Justin Trudeau is competent when all he could squeeze out of his brain was a regurgitation of campaign talking points: “We’re talking about people here in a way that is giving them the capacity to be part of strong and vibrant communities.”

What does that even mean?

The New York Times report in question has limited value where this issue is concerned because its findings are relative, not absolute. It doesn’t actually establish that the Canadian middle class is doing well; it just says that for the first time ever, our middle class is doing better than that of our American counterparts. Which isn’t terribly exciting considering how much of a beating they’ve taken.

There are a lot of factors to take into account when judging how well a certain income group – or any group – is doing. Are they making progressively more money to compensate for inflation? Are they getting more for the taxes they pay? Are they in a better position to secure adequate housing? Are they able to save more money, or are they taking on more debt? Has the group shrunk or expanded? Do they have equitable and sufficient access to quality healthcare, or education? Are they struggling to pay utilities? Can they afford to eat healthy food? What about exposure to toxins and pollution? Crime and incarceration rates?

Most importantly, when we talk about class it’s not a simple question of economic difference; we’re talking about human beings and all the social, cultural, and political realities they face. Class isn’t just about how much money you make. In many cases, class is the colour of your skin or the neighbourhood you live in.

What we really need to consider is whether we can base our understanding of the state of our economy on the state of the middle class. Defining the middle class is no easy task to begin with (MSN Money suggests these 9 ways to tell if you’re middle class). According to the results of this Gallup poll, it appears that Americans are most likely to self-identify as middle class (Republicans even more so), although the Pew Research Center has reported that this number has dropped sharply in recent years. Meanwhile, rich people don’t even think they’re rich.

There it is again.

Middle class, middle class, MIDDLE CLASS!

It’s true that middle class incomes have stagnated. Even Statistics Canada has confirmed it. But it’s not an accident that the experiences and interests of the middle class dominate our political and economic discourse. If we ever needed proof that Canada is a stratified society shaped by the privileged, it’s made abundantly clear by the frequent mention of the middle class, especially in the run-up to elections. And Trudeau really wants us to know that he cares about the middle class:

“Liberals in Quebec and across the country are focused on jobs, the economy, and growing the middle class.”

One question keeps popping into my mind: What’s wrong with talking about, say, the working class? What’s wrong with being working class? Believe it or not, there was a time when being a member of the proletariat was a source of pride and dignity, and still is to many Canadians – only you wouldn’t guess it by listening to the talking heads.

If we really want to know how “the economy” is doing, we have to talk about how everyone is doing. Mainstream discourse would have us believe that the middle class is the ultimate barometer of economic prosperity and stability; as long as the middle class is doing okay, apparently we have nothing to worry about.

But who’s we? And whose economy are we talking about? There can be no doubt that Canada’s income gap has been growing at an alarming rate. Wealth inequality is a serious problem here as in other so-called developed nations. It does affect the middle class, but it affects the poor and working class even more. Yet somehow, we’re not allowed to talk about this. We’re not given the license to focus our attention on the people who need it most.

There are several factors involved in this process, including disillusionment and apathy, which result in lower voter turnout and less worker organizing (is it any surprise that the Harper government targeted the perceived threat of a more motivated electorate through the Fair Elections Act?). The privileged classes, in no small part due to their control of the corporate media, have effectively brainwashed Canadians as a whole to demonize the very groups that have fought for the rights of not only working people but all Canadians. Namely, workers’ collectives, cooperatives and unions – you know, those pesky good-for-nothings who brought us better wages, higher labour standards, universal healthcare, and basically everything else that government and the private sector would never voluntarily let us have. But when it comes to the working class, the poor, and people of colour voting against their own self-interest, Ford Nation is the perfect example: this “man of the people” consistently votes against initiatives that seek to alleviate hardship experienced by children, low income earners, the homeless, the LGBT community, women, immigrants, etc.

Then of course, there’s the privileged themselves – people of means who are economically insulated from these concerns. Some seek to keep more for themselves, either consciously or subconsciously. But more than that, the simple fact is that the privileged can afford to live in blissful ignorance (or willful ignorance, depending on how you see it). That’s what it means to be privileged. Those who have the least to worry about, who shoulder the least amount of risk and impact, are narrowing the discussion so that we don’t even have to consider that perhaps we should do something about the disproportionate burden we place on the working poor, including that of taxation. We should be additionally worried that Thomas Mulcair, the leader of the only left-ish political party with opposition potential, thinks that the idea of taxing people fairly (i.e. raising tax rates on even some income brackets) is out of the question. Canada’s historically labour-aligned party, afraid to talk about progressive taxation? That’s scary.

I’m not Barack Obama’s biggest fan, but this is the kind of discourse we desperately need to encourage:

Until it becomes painfully clear that too many people are rich while too many are poor for no good reason (which I think is already the case, but obviously not enough people are willing to admit it yet), it looks like we’ll be stuck with politicians who want to keep us hooked on amorphous concepts like the economy, prosperity, and growth. Trudeau, for one, has made it clear that what he’s really worried about is the possibility that “the middle class will stop supporting a growth agenda”.  Now why, one wonders, would they do that? Maybe because they’re slowly questioning neoliberal and conservative rhetoric and opening their minds to new ideas – ideas that are transparent and meaningful?

“The few own the many because they possess the means of livelihood of all… The country is governed for the richest, for the corporations, the bankers, the land speculators, and for the exploiters of labor. The majority of mankind are working people. So long as their fair demands – the ownership and control of their livelihoods – are set at naught, we can have neither men’s rights nor women’s rights. The majority of mankind is ground down by industrial oppression in order that the small remnant may live in ease.”
― Helen Keller in Rebel Lives: Helen Keller

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The hypocrisy of grief

Nelson_MandelaOne of the greatest visionaries and leaders of our time has passed away. Judging by all of the outpouring of sadness I’m hearing and seeing, pretty much everyone is sad. And they should be.

My personal feeling is that most people have shown genuine respect and admiration for everything that Nelson Mandela accomplished and represented, even if they wasted no time in hopping on to their social media accounts to log their grief. The reactions seem to suggest that we’re all staunch supporters of freedom and justice.

It’s easy to love Nelson Mandela. It’s easy to appreciate the ideals of love, integrity, peace and justice. Most people do on principle. But not everyone. And because they know that they would be vilified and shunned if they admitted who they really are, every politician – whether a true devotee of Mandela or not – is tripping over themselves to make sure that we know that they’re sad he’s gone.

Primer Minister Stephen Harper:

“He showed how people can shape better tomorrows and do so in their own time. Nelson Mandela’s long march to freedom, his grace and humility throughout that walk, and the bridge to the future he built for his people as he proceeded along it ensures that his remarkable example will inform others for generations.”

This, from a man who has categorically denied Canada’s colonial history and completely ignores sweeping protests for human rights by First Nations. What did he have to say about the group of brave young people who trekked over 1,600 km through the harsh North earlier this year in the name of freedom and solidarity? Not a word. I guess that wasn’t worth the brownie points.  (I wrote about this at length here).

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford:

“We join the people of South Africa in mourning the loss of Nelson Mandela, a true leader and advocate for freedom and democracy. Mandela dedicated his life to social justice in South Africa and around the world. As President of South Africa, he introduced a new constitution and launched numerous reforms and policies for the benefit of all South African people.”

This, just a few days after this wealthy self-described defender of the poor and marginalized said, “I don’t believe in all this public-funded health care, we can’t afford it. If you want health care, you pay for it.” When responding to a proposal that councillors hold public meetings to consider establishing new homeless shelters, he asked, “Why don’t we have a public lynching?” (video link)

Oh, the hypocrisy.

As for the rest of us who so readily grieve the passing of this great man, can we say that our own values and actions truly align with his message? Or do we come up short when our attention returns to our own interests? In so-called Western democracies, although we hail figures like Mandela as beacons of courage and hope, we do so only to the extent that our own comfort – both physical and ideological – will allow. Let’s face it: while Nelson Mandela was always respectful and kind, he was an unapologetic radical who never compromised when it came to condemning systems, practices and regimes that place profit or self-interest above justice, peace, and equality. Hoarding huge amounts of wealth while millions starve? Unacceptable. Denying people healthcare and critical support because they can’t afford it? Unacceptable. Austerity programs that gut public education while subsidising billion-dollar corporations? Unacceptable. Military occupations, indefinite detention and secretive surveillance programs? Unacceptable! If we connect with the essence of Mandela’s goals, we can’t possibly allow these types of policies to continue.

To hear some people lament the passing of Mandela, one would think that all is lost. “They don’t make people like him anymore,” they say. And why exactly do they think they are so not “like him”? He deserves all of the praise he gets, and all of the mourning too. But we’re wrong if we think we can distance ourselves from our responsibilities by placing him on a pedestal. No one appointed Mandela the saviour of South Africa. He was not a privileged man, or a prodigy with special talents beyond the capabilities of each and every one of us.

Now is not the time to pay lip service to ideals. Let’s think of Mandela the next time we read the newspaper, see a protest or cast our vote, and not remain silent and complacent. Instead, let’s remember how just one person can transform the world when they transcend their own self-interest and identity to channel the spirit of the people. Let’s carry on his work – our work – with dignity, clarity, openness, honesty, and love. If nothing else, what Mandela proved was that it can be done. In his own words:

“I had no epiphany, no singular revelation, no moment of truth, but a steady accumulation of a thousand slights, a thousand indignities and a thousand unremembered moments produced in me an anger, a rebelliousness, a desire to fight the system that imprisoned my people. There was no particular day on which I said, Henceforth I will devote myself to the liberation of my people; instead, I simply found myself doing so, and could not do otherwise.”

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Opinion polls and public ‘support’ of the Keystone XL pipeline

Today, the Financial Post proclaimed that a recent United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection poll indicates “overwhelming” support of the American people for the pending Keystone XL pipeline. That it does not.

Polling design greatly influences the nature and quality of responses. One of the most common ways in which responses are rendered unreliable is by framing a question in a way that misrepresents or omits key information that would significantly influence a respondent’s opinion. In this way, polls can be commissioned to produce justification for particular policies.

What makes the Financial Post’s interpretation of the poll incorrect is the way in which the question was presented:

The President is deciding whether to build the Keystone X-L Pipeline to carry oil from Canada to the United States. Supporters of the pipeline say it will ease America’s dependence on Mideast oil and create jobs. Opponents fear the environmental impact of building a pipeline. What about you – do you support or oppose building the Keystone XL pipeline?

What is particularly problematic about claiming public support for the pipeline based on this one poll question is that the public at large is relatively undereducated about the pipeline proposal to begin with – particularly with respect to the efficacy of arguments regarding the political, social, economic and environmental implications. This is partly the result of very aggressive PR, lobbying and election financing by the wealthiest, most powerful industry on the planet, with the Koch brothers alone both directly and indirectly having spent millions of dollars on the 2012 election. In April 2013, the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication reported that despite their finding that fewer than half of respondents were following news about the Keystone XL pipeline, a majority still supported building it. This, despite the fact that according to the same poll, a large majority of respondents supported a U.S. effort to reduce global warming even if it has economic costs.

A critical piece of the puzzle is missing from the question posed in the United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection poll: the fact that the pipeline will not simply “carry oil from Canada to the United States”. It fails to mention the intention of refining and exporting the “oil”. What is described as oil is in fact crude bitumen, a thick, heavy and highly corrosive semi-solid substance. It differs from conventional oil in a number of important ways that, if respondents were aware of them, have the potential of producing different poll responses.

Because the question itself also offers oversimplified justifications for and against the pipeline, rather than simply asking the respondent’s opinion as it exists, it is suggestive. A respondent who is naturally unconcerned about environmental issues or even climate change is more likely to state that they support the pipeline especially when they are presented with an argument, whether well-founded or not, that it will create jobs and is intended to supply domestic markets. If on the other hand the poll followed up with a question asking whether respondents would be as supportive of the pipeline if they knew that the State Department’s environmental impact statement was authored by TransCanada (which is currently building the pipeline), the promises of job creation in comparable situations have not materialized and the refineries are strategically placed to service foreign markets, would respondents still indicate “overwhelming” support?

Figure into this picture also the magnitude and ubiquity of public resistance and the fact that over one million comments were registered voicing opposition to the pipeline. In the face of an unprecedented global issue – one that could affect every aspect of life on this planet – we can’t afford to rely on the dubious science of public opinion polls, which in ideal circumstances are not necessarily the greatest measure of public opinion. Far more important than trying to figure out what random people think is educating ourselves and discussing at length, from every angle, just what the proposed Keystone XL pipeline would really entail. Do we make this decision based on sheer popularity, or the merit of the arguments before us? That is the real question.

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