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.

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.

Cranky about voting

2015/04/22

500px-Flag_of_Alberta.svgIt’s election season again here in Alberta.

Last time I ranted about this (here, here, and here), I was living abroad. Now, I’m right in the thick of it. I’ve been living back in Alberta with my family now for four years. We have put down roots here – bought a house, established good jobs in the city in our chosen fields, reconnected with family and friends.

And I have a whole new swath of rants. Most of them, I will confine to private complaints shared with Deena, but I think a few deserve to be aired more widely.

First, on a personal note, I want to declare my deep dissatisfaction with politics. It’s an ugly, depressing, foul window into the dank recesses of human nature, recesses that are more concerned with power and image than with substance. So, you know, politics. What are you gonna do?

With that out of the way, I want to offer a little meta-observation. I noticed, as I was browsing the platforms of our parties and candidates, that my own impulse to tribalism kept wanting to take over. For candidates or parties that I identify with, I want to let vagueness slide. “It’s a platform – they only have room for so much detail.” “I’m sure they would work that out in a way I like.” And if I don’t identify with them – especially if I identify myself in opposition to them – they get the opposite: “They’re evading responsibility by offering empty words.” “I just know they’d find a way to wiggle out of that (apparently sensible) commitment.” Even when they’re not vague, I am inclined to trust or distrust specifics according to my own prejudices.

This is a very important thing to remember. I really don’t like the idea of identity politics – of saying, “This is my team, so I’ll ignore their faults and exaggerate their virtues and treat anyone on another team as the enemy.” That’s divisive and unhelpful, but it is a deeply human way to look at the world. One of many human traits that this humanist strives to overcome.

And, getting past that, I see that most of the parties are essentially saying exactly the same thing. Even when it sounds like they’re not. For example, the Wildrose Party* promises to “Expand the use of clean burning Alberta natural gas and propane for industrial and residential electricity production and transportation”. Which is all about promoting Alberta’s fossil-fuel-based natural resource economy. On the other hand, the Liberal Party promises to “phase out coal-fired power plants by 2025”: a clear commitment to cleaner energy, reducing our reliance on the worst-polluting energy sources.

But, on reflection, it occurred to me that both of these policies could be met with the same action (moving from coal power plants to gas and propane power plants). The same action, with two very different spins. (I don’t know that both parties have the same actual plan in mind, it’s just that their promises aren’t as different as they first seem.)

None of the parties are very heavy on specifics (except, it seems, for the New Democratic Party, the NDP**). And where they give specifics, I confess that I’m not qualified to judge what they really mean. I wish we had the folks from BBC’s More or Less program reviewing our election campaigns. Listening to their recent election coverage (round 1, round 2), I feel a twinge of numerical envy. (If anyone out there knows of people who are doing this, in Alberta or in Canada more generally, please let me know!)

At the end of the day, I have the same choice that citizens in democratic countries everywhere have to make: which person or party is the least bad?

I am zeroing in on my favorite. I don’t think I’ll have to resort to ballot eating. But I would like to close with two pleas which I have made before.

First, if you can votedo it! For all that we whinge and complain about the type of people that we have to choose between in our political system, democracy is still less bad than any of the alternatives. And if you’re going to vote, have a little respect for the power you are wielding and try to get informed. Don’t just vote along identity lines. Find out who is actually promising what, and vote for the person you think will create the change you want (or prevent the change you don’t want). I honestly mean this, whether you vote the way I do or not.

And second, can we please, please try something more informative than a single-mark ballot? Transferable votes are easy to fill out, and give me the option to vote my conscience without worrying that I’m letting the Awfuls in by not voting for the mediocre-but-more-likely-to-win party. As it is, I am sometimes inclined to give the whole thing a miss because it seems so likely my vote will end up counting for nothing. Electoral reform could help to solve the voter apathy problem that is rampant in Alberta, as in so many other places.

Okay, I’m done for today. Maybe my next post won’t be a rant. Have I become a cranky old man? Might have to merge with The Not-Quite-So-Friendly Humanist (written by an old friend of mine). Or start the “No Longer Friendly Humanist”.

Footnotes:

* The Wildrose Party is our current contender for far-right – think a slightly more moderate Republican party. (Oh, how I’m glad to be Canadian!) The wild rose is the provincial flower of Alberta.

** The NDP is the most left-leaning of the main four parties. Roughly, from left to right, they are conventionally ordered NDP, Liberal, PC (Progressive Conservatives), Wildrose.

Apologetics

2015/04/22

Hi, my name is Tim, and I have a problem with apologetics.

On the one hand, I want to remain open-minded: open to new ideas that don’t fit with my existing beliefs; open to the possibility that I’m wrong about important things. I want to be a person who can see both the positive and the negative of an idea, whether it’s an idea I want to believe, or one I want to reject, or one that I’m indifferent to.

On the other hand, I’ve read a few works of religious apologetics. They have all been singularly lacking in philosophical rigour, scientific literacy, or open-mindedness. They have been disappointing. And that makes it hard to give the next work of apologetics a fair hearing, because I can already hear all of my well-exercised objections starting to clamour for attention, almost as soon as I open the cover.

So, when I crack into a new work of apologetics, I feel the cynicism, the disgust, and the contempt start to bubble up. And that’s not the type of person I want to be. I am not a cynic. I am not a contemptuous person.

My solution, for the moment, is to go cold-turkey on reading apologetics. No more giving them the benefit of the doubt. No more slogging through mind-numbing obsequiousness or self-congratulatory drivel to determine whether some new apologist has an amazing insight that I haven’t yet come across.

If you are a believer and think there is a knock-down argument, or even just a thought-provoking speculation, that I should be exposed to, please share it with me in the comments section. I am still determined to remain open to dialogue.

Anyway, rant over. Also, happy Earth Day everyone!