Archive for the ‘community’ Category

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.]

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.

Voting

2015/05/01

I know, I just posted about the election.

What can I say? I live in a province that has been governed by the same party for more than my entire life, and all of the polls are suggesting that this streak will end on Tuesday. For over four decades, the centre-right Progressive Conservative (PC) party has formed the government. Now, it is looking entirely possible that the left-of-centre New Democratic Party (NDP) will not only have more seats than their opponents, but will form a majority.

The projection website ThreeHundredEight, run by writer Éric Grenier, presents the results of the latest (final) polls here. While Grenier is prudently cautious in his interpretation, he points out that the NDP’s “minimum seat haul is projected to be 25 seats – which would count as a historic best.”

There are four main parties in contention here. Roughly from right to left, they are the Wildrose, the PCs, the Liberals, and the NDP. (There are other parties in some ridings, but for my constituency we only have candidates from these four, so I’m basically ignoring the others.)

Now, it’s easy to feel discouraged. I looked through the platforms of all of these parties. Easily 95% of the claims in each were gassing on about trigger issues, without any specifics. They give the impression of meaningful promises, without being particularly specific. And of course, I am only one of about 4 million people in the province.* In my riding, there are somewhere north of 30 000 voters, though fewer than half of them bothered to actually participate in the last election.

So what do I want to say here? Well, I really feel like it’s time to stir things up, so I would love to promote the NDP as the party to do that. But even worse than the fact that the PCs seem to be taking their position as Alberta’s governing party for granted is the fact that more than half of the people who have the power to say something about this don’t bother.

Seriously, people? Everyone complains about politics, but it looks like three out of every five complainers have literally not done the first, most straightforward thing they could do about it.

So I have a few bits of advice for my fellow Albertans. (Those of you outside of Alberta, most of this advice could easily translate to you when the next election comes around.)

To those who lean left: Get out there and vote on Tuesday. Show the wary pollsters that sometimes an extreme prediction actually means we’re going to have extreme weather. There is a real chance that Canada’s famously most-conservative, most corporate, most environmentally irresponsible province could start a new page in history on Tuesday. This will only happen if you actually vote. Those poll results will only translate into reality if you actually go and vote. Vote early if Tuesday doesn’t work for you. Check out the Elections Alberta website for where you can vote – early or on the day.

To those who lean right: The PCs and Wildrose are in a dead heat for opposition. It looks to me like Wildrose is more fiscally conservative, and the PCs are more socially conservative. You may hate the thought of splitting the conservative vote, but even worse is making sure it doesn’t show up. Are you really prepared to let some socialist upstart walk into our legislature and overturn forty years of conservative leadership? All parties are talking about environmental stewardship. Do you think conservatives can achieve that more responsibly, and at less cost to the economy than the Liberals or NDP? Then tell us all. Get out on Tuesday and vote. Or vote in advance polls. Check out the Elections Alberta website for where you can vote – early or on the day.

To those in the centre: Politics is not all about right and left. Those are convenient fictions to let us think less while making important choices about our political lives. Being centre doesn’t mean being undecided; nor does it mean that your vote doesn’t matter. The parties all make particular claims about where we should get money from, how we should spend it, and how we should treat each other – from wealthy corporations and employers, to working families, to vulnerable people of all sorts. Your vote is your voice. Tuesday is a day when you will be heard more loudly by your government than any time in the next three or four years. Vote for a person you trust. Vote for a party you believe in. Vote strategically to block a hated alternative. (I’d prefer you didn’t, and so do these folks. I think that’s a whole separate post.) Whoever you support, however strongly or weakly, for whatever reasons, your hope that they get in will only make a difference if you back it up with a mark on a ballot. Vote. Check out the Elections Alberta website for where you can vote – early or on the day.

So whether the polls have you terrified or excited or indifferent, you have plenty of reasons to vote, and no excuses not to.

Footnote:

* I’m guessing this based on the 2011 number here (3.6 million) and the 2015 summer projection reported here (4.2 milion).

Fit in or fuck off

2015/04/28

A couple of days ago, I saw a bumper sticker with  Canadian flag image over the words “Fit in or fuck off”. (Actually, I think it was in all caps, but I’ve toned it down to avoid offending anyone.)

My first reaction, as a red-blooded Canadian, was to question the ancestry, physiology, and various appetites of the driver in various creative monosyllables. My Canada welcomes a diverse range of people. My Canada is a delightfully multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-religious country. People who don’t fit in stand out, and those who stand out have been among the greatest contributors to our national and global heritage.

I got home and started unloading my rant on my patient and understanding life partner.

I got about as far as the content of the bumper sticker and she nodded. “Sure,” she said. “We’re a multi-cultural society . The only people who don’t fit in are the bigots.”

Oh how I love her.

So, in the end, I agree with the bumper sticker. Everyone who wants to is welcome to fit themselves in to the rich, multicoloured tapestry of Canadian society. And if they aren’t willing to live alongside the rest of us in peace and cooperation, they can f[ly] off.

Canada flag

Openly Secular

2015/04/23

openly-secular-logoToday is Openly Secular Day. It’s a reminder to non-believers of the benefits of being open about your non-belief. It’s also a gentle nudge to those of us who are able to be open, to tell friends, family, and others who we are and what we believe. At the Openly Secular website, there are videos of many people, of varying levels of fame, discussing their atheism.

I don’t think anyone reading this blog will be surprised to learn that I am not religious. But maybe some of you also identify as atheists, humanists, or some other non-believing label, and have not yet told anyone. If you want some practice, I invite you to try it out here.

Or, if you need a venue that’s a little less public, message me privately.

Now, I also know that there are many people in my circle of family, friends, and readers who are not secular – who hold some form of religious belief. That’s awesome. But this post is not the place to hash out the arguments (any more than a church service is a good place for an atheist to start putting forth arguments against God’s existence or Jesus’ divinity).

Oh, and if you’re reading this one some other day, it’s still a good time to come out, however you are able and comfortable. And if you are not able to come out, that’s okay. There are certainly times and places where it is not only uncomfortable but frankly unwise to talk about this stuff. I may be open about my atheism, but I never, ever discuss it in my university classes. It just isn’t the place for it – my role there is as an authority on linguistics, and I don’t want any student to get the impression that they would experience negative consequences for being open (vocally or visibly) about holding some other belief.

The duality of humanism and atheism

2014/10/07

P.Z. Myers has a touching reflection on the two sides of being a nonbeliever these days.

On the one hand, there are so many things in the world – attitudes, laws, beliefs, and actions – that can drive you to the rejecting, negative stance embodied in the term “atheism”.

On the other hand, the world abounds with amazing facts to discover, delightful experiences to savour, and inspiring goals to strive for – all things that fuel the more affirming, positive stance that is captured in the term “humanism”.

Like Myers, I oscillate between the two. Sometimes it is important to rally around the flag of No, to assert the value (sometimes even the simple right) to withholding assent or belief. I am an atheist. At other times, it is more fulfilling, more productive, and more honest to focus on what we do value, what we do believe. I am also a humanist.

It sounds like Myers is beginning to despair at the state of organized atheism lately – the prevalence of sexism, tribalism, and of unthinking, reflexive responses to criticism. This is disappointing. Not that any other community is better, but we like to define ourselves specifically by our self-correction, our openness to criticism, and our freedom from dogmatic groupthink.

But, just as I refuse to let religious conservatives own the language of morality and family values, I am not about to let the negative elements own the atheism brand. Neither is Myers.

Atheism does not justify sexism. It does not have prophets or irreproachable spokespeople.

Nor (contra what Myers seems at one point to suggest) does humanism ignore the ugliness in the world.

Still … like Myers, I find myself sometimes drawn to one of these labels, sometimes to the other. Do you find that? Are you more inclined to cling to one label in certain moods, and another in other moods? Do your oscillations fit the angry=atheism, optimistic=humanism map that Myers expresses, or do you have different associations (or labels)?


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