When are you old enough for a double standard?

2015/06/30

The other day on the radio I overheard the tail end of a discussion around a recent incident where a swimming pool attendant confronted an eight-year-old girl who was not wearing a top. (Here are a couple of articles about the incident: 1, 2.)

At the end, the radio host asked listeners to let them know: What do you think is the right age at which girls should be required to wear tops when swimming? I missed most of the radio piece, but I can imagine arguments – the prudes on the one side, the nudists on the other side, and a lot of sensible people who are neither prudes nor nudists taking positions between.

But the obvious answer lodged itself in my head pretty quickly. Girls should be required to wear tops at the same age that boys are.

If you think (as the City of Guelph apparently does) that “females ages four and older must wear a bathing top” in public pools, then require males four and older to do the same. Surely covered male bodies won’t offend anyone, so that should be an easy sell, right?

On the other hand, if we are unable or unwilling to make men and boys relinquish a freedom, then perhaps we should not be so ready to take that freedom from women and girls either.

I have a mountain of points I would like to make on this issue, but I suspect I would just fall into ranting tl;dr territory. So instead I’m going to leave it there. What do you think? Is there an appropriate age to require people to cover up? Is there any good reason to restrict one group more than another in this sort of issue? Let me know in the comments.

A new voice in the Tapestry

2015/06/08

CBC_Logo_1992-Present

In the car going grocery shopping on Sunday, I heard a voice on CBC that I recognized from secular podcasts I regularly follow: Mandisa Thomas. Then there was an interview with Karl Giberson, a physicist who learned how to break the literalist Creationist mold as he learned about how science really works, and what it reveals (without abandoning his Christianity).

The show is Tapestry, a weekly show airing on Sundays, also available as a podcast. The website says about the show:

Governments change, economies tumble and soar, and headlines trumpet the scandal of the day. All the while, Tapestry deals with the more subtle news of life — a thoughtful consideration of what it means to be human.

Tapestry is the place where you can wonder about the big questions you’ve been too busy to consider during the week.  We’ll hear rabbis and gardeners getting equal time on the topic of belief. Science-fiction writers and physicist-priests kick around the world’s great creation myths.  Athletes explore the hero’s journey as a spiritual metaphor, and musicians make the connection between song and the human spirit.

We’ll also meet regular people just trying to make sense of the world, whether they’re finding their way as believers or atheists – or everything in-between.

What stands out to me is that this show is clearly about the topics that religions try to address (and, often, to monopolize). It’s about “what it means to be human”. But, unlike many radio shows addressing these topics, this one doesn’t even pretend that religions have a key (or even particularly special) place in this conversation. Guests are “rabbis and gardeners … science-fiction writers and physicist-priests … athletes … musicians … regular people … believers or atheists – or everything in-between”.

I have gone back now and listened to the whole episode. (The opening interview, which I had initially missed, was with James Grupa, a teacher of evolution at a university in Kentucky.) It’s a fascinating way of approaching this conversation – dismissing neither non-religious voices (like some shows do) nor religious voices (like many atheist blogs and podcasts do that I listen to).

I’ve subscribed to their podcast feed – I look forward to seeing what else they have, upcoming and in their archives. I’ll let you know if I come across any particular gems.

If you know the show or another that fills a similar niche, please leave a link to any episode you think is especially worth checking out.

Facing our demons

2015/06/06

For the past six years, Canada has been undergoing some serious self-examination in the form of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Its final recommendations are finally released – leaving the nation to digest them and think about how to move forward.

The backstory is a deep history of abuse, neglect, and antagonism between the European colonial culture of Canada and the indigenous cultures that were pushed aside, stomped on, all but annihilated.

I grew up in rural Alberta knowing very little about our First Nations, and the relationship between them and my own culture. I remember hearing sentiments such as “I was born here – I’m as native a Canadian as any of them.” I remember people saying that the alcoholism and other problems rampant on native reserves were their problems, not ours. I remember knowing one native person – she was at our school for a year or so. She did wonderful native art, but I never asked about her culture, her background.

I remember a persistent sense that, whatever the history, the relationship between our First Nations – the Indians – and the rest of Canada was unresolved. Unsatisfactory. Broken, somehow.

I didn’t know about residential schools (the last of which closed in 1996) until very recently, as the TRC began disseminating its findings.

There are many things that need to be said, and I do not feel qualified. I do not know enough about the experiences of First Nations people to truly address their sense of injustice. I do not work in a caring profession, where I could offer direct assistance.

But I do know that I grew up in a culture that worked to deny responsibility, to push it back onto the victims. I understand that urge. I never sent anyone to a residential school. I never stole anyone’s land, attempted to destroy their culture. When someone points to me, to my culture, and says that we are responsible, it feels like a personal insult.

And yet …

I grew up on a farm, with great open spaces, clean air, and a rich cycle of seasons. I would not have had that childhood if not for the forcible removal of the earlier inhabitants from that land.

True, it wasn’t me that did the deed. But I benefited and other suffered for it. Doesn’t that leave me with some responsibility? It’s not my job to single-handedly solve the problems. (What an ass-backwards solution that would be, eh? “My ancestors wrecked your culture by imposing their solutions on you. Let me fix things by imposing my solutions on you.”) But, until I recognize that the problem is at least partly mine, I can only remain a barrier to a solution. I have to own the demons of our shared past. An analogy might be finding a bit of garbage by a path. It wasn’t me that did the littering. But if the litterer is nowhere to be found, my choice is to leave the garbage there, or to pick it up. I choose to pick it up.

What can I do? I can express my sorrow for what happened. I can assert that it was unjust, unfair. I can look through the recommendations of the TRC report, and talk to my First Nations neighbours, colleagues, students, to see what I can do, either in my own work or with my voice as a voter and citizen, to help in the reconciliation and healing process.

It feels unfair – it is unfair – that I have to deal with the mess the early colonizers created (and continued to create well into my own lifetime). And it’s unfair that my Cree, Stoney, Dene, and other First Nations neighbours have to deal with the mess too. But the mess exists, and the perpetrators are mostly dead – beyond our power to make them fix things. So we who remain will deal with it.

It won’t be a comfortable path. But, now that I have met some First Nations friends, worked with them, I know that it will be worth the effort. I want to live in a whole, united country, not one torn along its very foundation.

Since I drafted this post, the Alberta government has committed to expanding previous “residential school” content in the K-12 curriculum to “to ensure students learn about the legacy of abuse.” Concrete progress from our new government, days after they were sworn in.

Secular parent advocacy in Alberta

2015/06/04

This is just a quick cheerleading post. I want to highlight a rather cool Facebook group: Alberta Parents for Unbiased Public Inclusive Learning. That’s “A PUPIL” for short.

They’re not new, and I’ve been a member of the group for a little while now. But as I become slightly more active on Facebook, I’ve become aware of how active the group is at alerting people to issues coming up across Alberta – not just around school prayer, but around sex education and other issues that bear on that idea of unbiased and inclusive public education in our province. (Most of those links are to newspaper articles that have been posted on the group.)

They also have a Twitter account, but it seems to be dormant right now.

Kudos to the group’s organizers and its over 200 members for keeping these issues visible and injecting some secular sanity where, sometimes, either populism or the spirit of compromise are taken too far, and allowed to swallow up basic principles of equality and good education.

Don’t pray on my kids

2015/06/02

Oh, my dear Alberta.

Yes, we have just ousted a party that had been in power long enough to get a real sense of entitlement going.

We are still a socially-conservative province (though perhaps not so conservative as we might think). So we do occasionally get the same issues cropping up here as our southern neighbours get regularly. Today, I’m going to deal with the issue of school prayer.

Most recently, it is a school in Taber, in southern Alberta: Dr. Hamman Elementary School. What’s particularly interesting here is that they stopped morning prayers back in 2013. But the board has decided to reinstate them. (1, 2)

According to the article, they stopped prayers in response to complaints from parents. And now they’ve done a survey, where around 73% of families (91% of respondents) said they wanted prayer. So they’re bringing it back.

I understand that we need to respect everyone’s rights. And, to that end, I would say the obvious solution is for schools not to officially promote any particular kind of prayer. Does that sound one-sided and biased? It sure is one-sided, because the truth is one-sided. Anyone arguing for compassion, religious freedom, respectful education should be on the side of no school-led prayers. Here are the arguments I’ve come across:

Reasons for school prayer:

  • “It acknowledges the Christian heritage of our country.” Really? We have to alienate students who don’t share those beliefs, in order to respect and remember our heritage? Nonsense.
  • “It promotes community cohesion.” Except if you aren’t a member of one of the Christian churches behind this move. I guess the rest of us can just stand outside while the rest of you cohere our community, eh?
  • “It supports the right to religious freedom of the majority of students.” This is a right that people have with or without government-sponsored prayer. Those students who want to pray can do so anyway. Honestly, nothing is stopping them. That’s the same religious liberty that non-Christians are content with in schools.*

Reasons against school prayer:

  • It promotes one religion above others – something a secular school system has no place doing.
  • It makes some students feel ostracised. This marginalization is more of a problem in more Christian-dominant communities, so using a petition or survey as this school council did is exactly backwards (if students’ well-being is important).
  • It opens authorities to the embarrassment and expense of lawsuits, launched on behalf of marginalized students and families.
  • Assuming school prayer is allowed, the principle of equality suggests that non-Christian invocations should also be allowed. Perhaps we could spend the first hours of every school day reciting the basic creeds of all religious groups that students might belong to. How would you feel about your kids learning Buddhist meditation? The Muslim salat? No? Now maybe you see how some of us feel about you pushing prayer on our kids.

Honestly, people: the cause of religious liberty is, in this as in so many other cases, promoted by ensuring a secular public sphere (ie, a public sphere that isn’t bent on imposing one particular form of religion over any other).

Footnote:

* I have occasionally heard the claim from religious that they are actively prevented from praying in public spaces. I have yet to hear any substantial evidence that this is the case, but let me be clear. Preventing someone from praying (so long as they aren’t disrupting others’ freedom to go about their business) is not okay. If you feel you are being unjustly prevented from exercising your religious freedom, let me know. I condemn any unnecessary infringement on religious freedom, and would happily use my little soapbox here to speak against it.

[Edit: I’ve just seen this editorial from the Taber Times, which states things very clearly and eloquently.]

Feminism

2015/05/29

So many things need to be said here.

Fortunately, others have said the most important things already. There’s Emma Watson’s UN speech on the He For She initiative:

Then there’s Laci Green’s whole YouTube output. Especially videos like this one:

There’s the Skepchick network, and feminist movements in various places and worldviews (there are feminists in India, Africa, China, even Canada; there are Christian feminists, Muslim feminists, Atheist feminists, Republican feminists).

So what can I offer? Well, first and most importantly, I can declare my support for real legal and social equality for men, women, and people of other gender identities. I do this by calling myself a feminist.

The very least someone like me can do is to voice support for gender equality. I claim the right for my wife, my daughter, and all women to be assertive, to have their work valued and their ideas respected, to retain autonomy over their bodies. I claim the right for myself, my son, and all men to be emotionally vulnerable, to be nurturing, and to find pride in lifting others up. I claim the right for all people to be who they are, without deference to cultural or religious expectations. I am a feminist.

Second, as a linguist, perhaps I can address the issue that many people have with using the word “feminism” to point to gender equality:

Words mean what people use them to mean.* And it seems to me that most people who call themselves feminists use the word to mean they support gender equality. In Canada and around the world, the most numerous and drastic victims of gender inequality (of most sorts of inequality, really) are women.

This tells me that highlighting women in the term is justified.

And if you pay attention to the mainstream, sensible feminists (such as in He For She, or Laci Green’s stuff linked above), you’ll see that modern feminists specifically identify harms done to men as part of the endemic sexism in our culture – and they work against that too. And the same people, in my experience, also support real help for transgender and other marginalized gender identities. So there is no credible argument that feminism excludes anyone.

Still hung up on the fact that “feminine” is in the name? Really? So, do you object to the term “Caucasian” for “white person”, whenever that white person doesn’t trace their ancestry from Caucasia? Do you avoid calling this language “English” because most people who use it are not in or from England, and most English words come from other places originally? I’m gonna guess not.

Call yourself what you will. If you are in favour of equality, including acting to remove systematic privilege that men still enjoy (as well as the odd point where men are “oppressed”), then you are a feminist, in the sense that it seems to be used most often and productively. Welcome to the fold!

Footnote:

* I say this with the authority of a trained and practicing linguist – a scientist of language.

 

Rant of a *real* fiscal conservative

2015/05/27

Greta Christina has managed to do one of the most annoying things someone can do on the Internet.

She has taken a position that I thought was rather sensible, a bridge between supposedly irreconcilable camps, and exposed it as a sham. A farce. An illusion.

Dammit, Greta, is nothing sacred to you? Oh, right. Anyway, the position in  question is that of the “socially liberal, fiscally conservative”. I had begun to identify tentatively with the label myself.

Her thorough and well-referenced take-down points out that most of the fiscally conservative positions defended by those who like this label are inherently antagonistic to social liberalism. Cutting taxes, shrinking government, deregulating business – all of these have the effect of marginalizing the marginalized, of deepening the social fissures in society (almost all of which have a huge economic angle).

I can’t think of anything to refute the substance of her message.

And yet … there is a linguistic mis-step that irks me. I don’t know if this is a quibble worth clinging to, or if I should just let it go, adapt my vocabulary. Let me know what you think.

You see, what I think when I hear the words “fiscal conservative” is that the government aims to conserve spending – to find the most economically efficient way to achieve a particular goal.

Let’s take health care as an example. The fiscally conservative position would be to use whatever system results in spending the least per procedure, so that more could be achieved with less. Now, the analyses I’ve seen [1,2,3] show that socialized health care is actually more financially efficient than private health care. The first of those points out that per-capita spending on health in Canada in 2009 was about 55% what it was in the US that year.* The most obvious difference between these systems is that we have a health care system in Canada that is more publicly funded than the American system. I can hear the right-wingers crying out that this is obviously false – there must be some mistake. But I don’t hear them offering actually actual evidence-based rebuttal. Instead, they are relying on their ideological commitments.

So, for health care, the fiscally conservative solution is also (happy coincidence) the socially liberal solution. Cool.

Now, I confess that I haven’t worked through all of the issues out there. I suspect that some issues, such as same-sex marriage, have little to no fiscal angle at all. Okay, legalizing it avoids costly human rights trials, and opens up economic niches that are otherwise unavailable. But really, it’s largely an economic non-issue. And other issues, such as tax regimes designed to reduce income inequalities, are not transparently fiscally conservative. So it’s at least plausible that social liberalism and fiscal conservatism occasionally come into conflict.

I guess my big issue with the approach Greta Christina takes is that it grants the self-proclaimed conservatives too much. A government that chooses expensive wars, or criminalizes so many behaviours that it can’t keep up with the self-imposed demand for incarceration space, should not be allowed to label itself “conservative” without eyebrows being raised. The Republican Party in the US is not fiscally conservative. The Progressive Conservative Party of Alberta is not fiscally conservative. At least, not in the ways that are important to the lives of average citizens.

I suspect that, on substance, Greta Christina and I would not disagree about much here. What I’m not sure of is whether we could agree on the appropriate use of the language. I feel the same way about this as I do about religious folks trying to “own” the language of morality and family values: they don’t have the corner on that market, and often the people they oppose are doing the real thing even better than they are.

What do you think?

Footnote:

* Yes, I know there are many potential confounds in that data. Maybe Americans are less healthy. Maybe things are more expensive there. But for the cost to be almost double what our Canadian system is, you would expect there to be profound and obvious evidence of such things. And I don’t see it.

Big Girls (redux)

2015/05/25

Way back in the early days of this blog, I wrote a post about women and body size.

I was just listening to that Mika song again – “Big Girl, You Are Beautiful” – and it got me thinking. I thought maybe I could repost that article. Maybe even update it a little.

After all, the baby girl that I talk about is now a seven-year-old in grade 2, still big for her age (tall enough to pass for 9). She’s starting to be aware of some of society’s attitudes to women’s body size.

I thought perhaps I could introduce a bit more subtlety. For example, despite what I said in that article, it is often possible, with a lot of work and long-lasting lifestyle changes, to change one’s weight into a more healthy range. One prominent example in my mind is Greta Christina’s journey, precipitated by joint problems in her knee.

Or perhaps I could point out that, in celebrating big bodies, I am not trying to denigrate those who possess conventional beauty. Just like I can celebrate same-sex marriage without diminishing other types, or enjoy Alberta weather without sneering at Massachussetts weather. Enjoyment of something is often just about enjoying that thing, not about being repelled by alternatives. It’s not a zero-sum game.

There’s all sorts of stuff I could talk about, but everything I try to say seems to be captured far more wonderfully by the song I posted back then. Yes, it leans ever so slightly toward salaciousness – suggesting, perhaps, that being sexy is the point of femininity, and that “even fat girls can be sexy”. But watch the dancers. Watch the passersby. This video isn’t about sex. It’s about fun.

It’s about people celebrating who they are; about celebrating each other for who we are.

If you can hold onto that fact – the fact that every person, including yourself, is worth celebrating – then you’re on the right track for an awesome and fulfilling life.

Orange Province

2015/05/23

Yes, I know, it’s rather old news now: Alberta’s election brought in a majority NDP government. That’s the left-most of the main four parties in Canada’s most traditionally right-wing province. (Our official opposition, of course, is the Wildrose party – the right-most party.)

The People's Republic of Albertastan

Reactions are delightful. My favorite was federal (Conservative) justice minister Peter MacKay commenting that “It’s Albertastan now.” And then the inspired and playful response by Alberta designer Laura Lynn Johnston. (Get your own here.)

At 58.4% turnout, this is the highest-participation election (by a small margin) since 1993. That’s encouraging. I am still amazed that two out of five eligible voters felt it wasn’t worth their time, but it’s hard to feel too sorry for people who don’t make this least effort to participate.

I did see one or two comments on Facebook before the election to the effect of “If the NDP get in, I’m moving!” Again, I’m not shedding any tears. Not only am I completely delighted that we have this new, forward-looking government. I also think that, if you see a problem in your home, the most cowardly response is to move out. If you really believe it’s a bad thing to have an NDP government, then stick around and participate. Keep an eye on them. Call them out. Vote again in four years. But if you run away? Then you lose any claim on the future of our wonderful province.

Ah – I didn’t mean for this to be a ranting post. I wanted to do a post-election wrap-up, following the pre-election posts I put up here and here (mainly urging people to vote, although you could probably guess even then who I wanted in).

I hope this upheaval sends a message to politicians and voters on the federal level: we’re due for a parliamentary election in Canada some time later this year.

I’ll get around to commenting on that – what I think of the different parties, their leaders, and what I hope for Canada after the election. For now, I think I’ll just sit back and enjoy some Orange Crush.

Cycling empiricism

2015/05/21

The snow has cleared here, for the fourth and (I hope) final time this spring. Flowers are blooming, leaves are greening, and those like me who take a break from cycling during the winter are getting back into it.

So I was intrigued to see an article at the excellent Science-Based Medicine site titled “Do Helmets Prevent Head Injuries?“. In it, Dr. Harriet Hall examines the evidence for the actual benefits of cycling helmets.

I’ve seen the controversy before. On the one hand, the physics and physiology seem to obviously favour wearing a helmet. On the other hand, questions of population self-selection, risk perception and compensation behaviour can push the evidence in the other direction. And any halfway-conscious Internet denizen can find passionate arguments both for and against the use of bicycle helmets. (Interestingly, sites about kids promote helmet use, while pages I found about helmet use in general are almost all either neutral or against helmet use.)

Dr. Hall’s conclusion from the actual evidence is that “the science of protection is clear: helmets offer a significant benefit.”

That sounds clear enough to me. Keep in mind (my fellow cyclists and would-be cyclists) that many of the “dangers” of helmet use are easily overcome through awareness. For example, people tend to take more risks when they think they are protected. So, wear your helmet but remember that you are still vulnerable, and those cars still outweigh you many times over.

On the other hand, she notes that “The advisability of helmet laws is an entirely different question.” Too many social and other factors prevent us from being able to draw a clear line between requiring people to have helmets and any net benefit or harm. That’s fine by me. My general position (like that of most people who value individual liberty) is that we should not force people to do something unless we have a really good idea that it will produce good and prevent harm, and we know that there is no reasonable way to produce that good or prevent that harm without restricting people’s freedom.

So get out there and ride a bike. Wear a helmet. Encourage your kids and friends to wear helmets. But don’t use the law to force people to wear helmets.


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