Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Illnesses in metaphor


I just read a line in a news article that made me wonder about the connotations of different types of disease in our language.

The article is about a sex video which was made against the wishes of at least one of the participants, and shared on a popular website. It ends with this quote from a lawyer:

I know some like to call it viral, but in this case, it was cancer.

His meaning is clear in the context: we talk about things going “viral” on the Internet in a value-neutral or even value-positive way: it just means lots of people are watching, reading, sharing. It is exciting for something you make to “go viral”.

But the popularity of this video, which the participants had requested be taken down, was not value-neutral or positive. It was damaging.

Which brings us to the language used by the lawyer. What’s particularly interesting is that, at a gut level, I get it – it makes sense – but intellectually I’m trying to work out why.

I mean, nobody likes to get sick. But viruses have just as much potential as cancers to make our lives miserable, and to kill us or those we love. So why the hating on cancer in this social-media metaphor, while viruses get off easy?

I think it comes down to personal experience. (As always.)

We all have experience of getting a bit of a cold, and getting over it. Sure, viruses in the news are alarming and scary – like Zika or Ebola a bad flu pandemic, but our personal experience of viruses is normally of a mild inconvenience. It’s the infectiousness – the ease and speed of the spread – that is prominent. So that’s what gets translated into the metaphor.

But cancer? You would be hard-pressed to find someone who has an indifferent experience of cancer. Some people beat it – more and more every year, thanks to medical science. But the cancer, and especially its spread, is invariably the bad-guy, the boogeyman, the awful thing that you feel powerless to stop.



* This blog post is about the language in that last line, so I’m not going to get into the case itself. If you really want to learn more, here is the article I’m referring to.

A new anti-abortion meme


I am apalled and saddened that yet another person has taken the hate-tinted rhetoric of the anti-abortion movement as inspiration to actually kill, injure, and terrorize people. I am not surprised, but it is still awful. (And no, contrary to some people’s hype, this does not mean that I think all anti-abortion activists are terrorists. Only the ones who incite terror. Many of the others make a climate where those toxic attitudes can fester and grow – this doesn’t quite make them terrorists, but nor does it leave them entirely blameless.)

Anyway, this article is not about that.

This article is about a rhetorical trick that I first witnessed a few months ago on my own campus, here at the University of Alberta. An anti-abortion display was up in the Student Union building, by the “UAlberta Pro-Life” group. and I was curious how my in-person discussion skills would measure up. So I approached the stall, politely asked about their stance (do they advocate banning abortion – not okay – or do they simply try to persuade people not to choose abortions – perfectly fine, if done sensetively). I saw a leaflet with this message on it:

‘It’s a girl!’ shouldn’t be a death sentence.

Canadian law allows for babies to be aborted if the parents want a child of the other sex. Most often, it is girls who are aborted.

Well, that is rather dismaying. I tried probing for more details, but apparently the display was meant to get people to come to a film screening the group was holding a few days later. The person at the stall gently deflected my questions, suggesting I come to the showing. I excused myself and moved off.

Not long after, I noticed this at an LRT station:

sex selection ad.jpg

So it’s not a one-off. This seems to be a new angle in the rhetoric employed by the anti-abortionists. And it’s (at least in the ad) very subtle: unless you catch the rhetorical dog whistle “Every life begins at conception”, you might not even know that this poster is about abortion at all, and that the group sponsoring it opposes all abortions.

I can see the appeal of this tactic. There is no “we want to take away your rights” message up front. There is just a vague and (please note) number-free warning about a cultural practice that many of us find rather barbaric.

What could be wrong with trying to combat that?

Well, nothing.

Until you try to work out how you could prevent this. Do you deny access to the tests that reveal the baby’s sex? What if these tests, like the now-ubiquitous ultrasound scan, also have other medical functions? That’s not on.

Do you perform the tests, but refuse to tell parents the sex of the child? This is the path taken in some places – such as some NHS hospitals in the UK (ref, ref), including the one where Deena had ultrasound scans during her pregnancies. This can work, but it is easy to circumvent and has a very paternalistic air to it.

Or do you restrict abortion access? For example, only allow abortions before such tests are carried out. Or (also rather chillingly Orwellian) impose a cultural test: if the parents are from a culture with a reputation for sex-selection, then they are denied access to abortions, or denied information about their baby’s sex.

I want to be really clear here: the idea that one should abort a female fetus just because it is female is abhorrent, and has no place in a modern liberal democracy such as Canada.

What I’m worried about is letting in a solution that is worse than the problem. I am worried about just what these anti-abortion groups are probably hoping for: that disgust at sex-selective abortion will drive us to take away important, hard-won rights of women to bodily autonomy and reproductive choice.

But then, I’m a liberal – in the classical sense, of wanting to retain as much liberty as I reasonably can for me and everyone else in society. When someone says “We need a law“, the first response should be, “Have you tried everything else first?”

But that’s the tough part. Because in this case, “everything else” includes all sorts of hard work that involves actually getting to know people, engaging with them. It involves public awareness campaigns. It involves educating and empowering women across the country, from all cultural backgrounds, about their rights and options. It involves making the full spectrum of reproductive options known (comprehensive sex education!) and available to people who are old enough to reproduce.

Some of these things are icky and uncomfortable. Some of them go against other values that many in the anti-abortion camp hold. Reproductive choice? Sex education? Empowering women? No, it’s much easier to just get a law passed. Then we don’t have to think about it – it’s the doctors, lawyers, and courts who can deal with it, in a nice, sanitary, invisible way.

In this article, I have not discussed the arguments for or against keeping abortion legal and easily available to women. There is a time and place for that discussion. In my opinion, that time and place was during Henry Morgantaler’s long campaign. Since January 1988, Canada has had no legal impediment to abortion access. I encourage you to read this fascinating summary of the history of abortion law in Canada.

At some point in the future, I may spend some pixels on the dead-obvious reasons why even fetal personhood rights should not bar a woman from exercising control over her own body. But for now, I am happy to say that our current prime minister, Justin Trudeau is upholding the values of most Canadians on this issue: that abortion is a woman’s choice, end of story. (Justin Trudeau is the son of former prime minister Pierre Trudeau, who as justice minister in 1967 introduced the bill that started to make abortion legal in Canada.)


Greta FTW


This is why I like reading Greta Christina.

You’re probably right. You have more experience, more expertise, and more knowledge in this area than I do. My mistake.

(If you don’t know the backstory, do follow her links. It’s an interesting back-and-forth.)

This is a sentiment that I need to express more often. It’s something more people – especially those in positions of authority – need to say (and mean it) more often.

I’m so glad we have people of this calibre in the humanist/atheist community. We’re all human, all fallible and emotional and irrational. That’s just fine, so long as we are ready to change direction when we make mistakes.

Sometimes this means setting aside your ego. Or, perhaps even better, learning to see this sort of self-correction as a win. To really feel that owning up to a mistake is a noble and rewarding act.

Anyway, that’s all for now. Yay Greta Christina!