Movie Friday: Kavita Ramdas

Since I gave the stage to the ladies yesterday, I thought I’d keep the ball rolling with this excellent talk from Kavita Ramdas at TED:

Kavita masterfully separates cultural traditions from religious reasoning in this talk, in which she highlights three specific contributions that women have made – exploiting cultural expression to enact social change. It’s a sobering reminder to me that while I can rail against sexism and talk about equal rights until I am blue in the face (or, I guess, navy blue), there is another piece that is needed:

“…women make change, but not in circumstances of their own choosing. They have to negotiate; they have to subvert tradition that once silenced them in order to give voice to new aspirations. And they need allies from their community.”

I promise that I will continue to be as much an ally as I can, and I hope that you will join me in helping make positive change for all people, regardless of sex.

A remarkable article

Continuing with today’s theme, Brian has shared with me a fantastic article about the abduction, rape and subjugation of women in Ethiopia.

Nurame was in her bed when she was woken by an angry mêlée. In her family’s hut there were grown men – an incredible number, 10 or more, all in their 30s, all standing over her father, shouting. They reached for her. At night here, where there is no electricity, perfect darkness falls, and everything becomes a shadow-play of barely visible flickers. But even though she was eight years old, she suspected at once what was happening. She had heard whispers that, when a girl is considered ready for marriage, a man will seize her, and rape her, and then she must serve him for the rest of her life.

This practice has apparently (it is news to me) become endemic in Ethiopia. I spoke at length in a previous post about my feelings on female genital mutilation, and the systematic brutalization of women that happens all around the world. This article puts these atrocities into perspective, and profiles the exploits of a particularly impressive woman who has become the face of the rebellion against this practice:

When [Boge] was told this was her culture and she had to accept it, she found the argument ridiculous. “I thought – how can this be my culture, if it kills me?” she says, leaning forward. “What is culture? It is something that is constantly changing. In Europe, you burned witches. That culture changed. Every woman has a sense of her own dignity. I knew I was not a cow, a chattel, and I did not want to be treated like one. No woman wants to be abducted or cut up. This is true whatever your culture. Culture is not stagnant – it is transient.”

It makes me incredibly happy to see people reject the arch-liberal excuse of “that’s just how they do things in their culture.” It’s a pernicious lie that permits the continuation of horrible and terrifying practices all over the world.

Interestingly, the article also spends a good deal of time talking to the men, and getting their perspective:

When Boge first arrived in this area, he was sceptical. Why are these women trying to change the way things have worked here for as long as anyone can remember? What good can come of it? “I went to see the video of the circumcision taking place, and I was shocked. I didn’t know it was so violent, so bloody. That was the first time I began to think,” he says, lighting a cigarette. His wife – who was only 16 when she was seized – began to attend the KMG meetings and talk about the feelings she had long interred.

These are not bad people, these are regular people seized by a bad idea. Like pseudoscience, or religion, or any other number of bad ideas, they can be challenged and people can be convinced to abandon them. Will everyone abandon the bad ideas? Certainly not. But if enough people do, it can affect a sea change that reaches out and affects the entire society. That’s the way we have to do things in any culture I want to be a part of.

Do yourself a favour, read the whole thing.

Sexism? Only if you… y’know… LOOK for it

A friend of mine sent me a newspaper article that made my heart hurt:

A young black woman working in the medical imaging department at Toronto Western Hospital was sexually harassed and the object of racial taunts in what a hospital investigation concluded was a “poisoned work environment.”

There are three things you should know to put this story in context. The first is that Toronto is the most ethnically diverse city in Canada, and one of the most in the world (more so than Miami, Los Angeles or New York City), having a black population of about 350,000 people (7% of the total metro population). The second is that members of ethnic minorities are disproportionately represented at the lower levels of health care hierarchy (orderlies, custodial workers, nursing assistants) but are underrepresented at the higher levels (doctors, RNs, managers). The third is that while women far and away receive more undergraduate degrees in health-related professions than men do, this trend all but disappears at the graduate and professional level (while this seems to be changing, it is depressingly going in the favour of the opposite gender gap, which is no better). This information is relevant because a black woman who had the education and drive to gain the training required to be a medical imaging technologist is both remarkable and significantly important to a hospital in Toronto.

Instead of recognizing this, Toronto Western Hospital subjected Stacey Walker to months of both racial and sexual harassment, then ignored her complaints for 16 months.

I am sensitive to the fact that there is a significant grey area when it comes to what is and is not acceptable banter in the workplace. I received a text message joke from a friend, and as I was sharing it with the guy I share my desk with, I realized how incredibly sexist it was. Most of the people I work with are women, and my voice isn’t exactly quiet. While it wasn’t an overt kind of sexism, it was still not cool (although it was pretty funny). It can be tough to know where the line is. It is for that reason that there are procedures in place at any workplace to report incidents of sexual harassment and racial insensitivity – they protect both the (hopefully naive) perpetrators and the victims. However, when such reports are ignored, it is strongly indicative of a systemic environment of sexism and racism. The managers may not do it, but they tolerate it.

Of course, the immediate reaction is to blame the victim:

According to the report, the senior technologist admitted to conduct the investigators deemed was sexual harassment. The technologist is quoted in the report describing Walker as a “very troubled, insecure individual” who has “mental issues.”

‘Well sure, I did it, but it was that bitch’s fault for being so crazy!’ It doesn’t matter if she has “mental issues” (read: a uterus) or not, you violated policy, ignored warnings, and behaved not only inappropriately, but in such a way as to compromise her job performance and the safety of her patients. The fact that this kind of effect isn’t obvious to this man is strongly indicative of the power imbalance present in the hospital – it is not just an isolated incident.

As I’ve said before, when a culture of racism (or sexism, in this case) is allowed to propagate by simply masking it and pretending it isn’t there, there will be periodic incidents that are indicative of the real underlying problem. You can’t substitute cologne for bathing, and you can’t substitute “I’m not racist” or “I’m not sexist” for actual progress.

There’s a group of women in India who seem to have the right idea:

Scores of young girls and women applaud the display, and then learn for themselves how to fight back against “eve-teasing” — the south Asian term for sexual harassment in public places. Women across India are often victims of provocative remarks, aggressive male posturing and even physical assaults such as groping on the street and in crowded buses and trains.

In an attempt to combat both the perpetrators of harassment and the underlying culture that seems to permit men to objectify and systematically exploit women, Radha Sharma is instructing women in self-defense. The offshoot of knowing how to fight back is that you internalize the idea that you can fight back, and that it is not all right to allow bullies to have their way. Considering a recent case in which the suicide of a Bangladeshi girl was directly linked to this “Eve teasing” (what a disgustingly euphemistic term for such a horrible practice), such an approach is timely. It’s somewhat more socially effective than a rape-deterring program in South Africa, in which women wear condoms with spiked teeth inside their vaginas (sort of like the “bait car” idea except it maims your penis).

The way to combat sexism and racism is exactly what these Indian women and Ms. Walker have done – talk about it. Don’t stop talking about it until changes are made. Don’t stop fighting until the problem is solved. Don’t simply go along with the crowd, or accept vague promises in lieu of action. Don’t buy the lie that since most people are good, we should pat ourselves on the back and pretend the problem isn’t there. It takes consistent and assertive action to make social changes, but it is definitely possible.

Quick reply from Hedy Fry

It looks like the procedures have changed a bit at Hedy Fry’s campaign office, as I got a short reply in just slightly over 24 hours. This is the response I got regarding the changes to the census.

It’s not much:

Dear Mr. C________,

Thank you for your e-mail regarding the long census form. Dr. Fry appreciates your concerns in this matter. I will bring your letter to her attention.

Kind Regards,

Office of the Hon. Dr. Hedy Fry, P.C.
Member of Parliament for Vancouver Centre

But it’s something. I didn’t get a letter like this from my past e-mails, though I always have (eventually) received a response.  I will update if/when I hear back from the MP herself, and will post details of my previous correspondence as I find time to do so.

Dear Mr. Cromwell,

Thank you for your email regarding the long census form. Dr. Fry appreciates your concerns in this matter. I will bring your letter to her attention.

Kind regards,

Office of the Hon. Dr. Hedy Fry, P.C/Bureau de l’hon. Hedy Fry, C.P.

Member of Parliament for Vancouver Centre/Députée de Vancouver-Centre

Chair of the BC Liberal Caucus/Présidente du caucus de la C.-B
Room 583, Confederation Bldg/Pièce 583, Édifice de la Confédération
House of Commons/Chambres des Communes
Ottawa, ON, K1A 0A6
Tel/Tél: (613) 992-3213

Fax/Téléc: (613) 995-0056

Email/Courriel: [email protected]

How NOT to do secularism

We secularists are in a tough spot. Religion has dominated the political and social landscape for so long that it is held by many to be an intrinsic value, and one that ought to be free from criticism. Of course this is nothing but special pleading – no ideas are sacred, criticism is the only way we figure out which ideas are good. That being said, there is a reality that the challenge of secular society must take into account that people do have an intrinsic right to belief and conscience, and we have to respect those rights. However, if the goal is to create a society that establishes equal rights for all people, the secular agenda will often come into conflict with the religious agenda. In cases like that, there is a right way to handle it, and an unbelievably stupid way to handle it.

So now it’s time for another “Good Idea, Bad Idea”

Good idea: treating a church with the same respect that you would treat any other business in the conduct of a criminal investigation.

Bad idea: drilling holes in the tombs of dead people to find non-existent hidden documents:

As well as searching a couple of main Church offices and a cardinal’s home, [Belgian] police had drilled holes in two archbishops’ tombs, said the Church.

Personally, I don’t share our society’s taboo about death. Once you’re dead, that’s it. You’re beyond caring about what happens to your body after you die – “you” don’t exist anymore. You could dress up my dead body in a Klan robe if you wanted to… I’d be too dead to notice. However, the way we treat our dead does have consequences for those who are still alive. We respect the integrity of the dead person out of respect for those who knew him/her, and because it shocks the conscience to see a body’s resting place violated. There are occasions in which it is reasonable to violate this respect, if the consequences to the living warrant it. However, drilling holes in tombs to find allegedly secreted documents of sexual abuse is extreme, and doesn’t do our side any favours. Just because some priests have done horrible things does not in any way justify the mistreatment of priests in general. They have the same rights as any person, and should be treated with the respect we extend to anyone else. Bad job, Belgium. I prefer my Tomb Raiders to look like this:

Good idea: granting freedom of religion and freedom of conscience to people.

Bad idea: letting “freedom of religion” trump reason in the court of law:

In a decision handed down Friday, Justice Gérard Dugré agreed with Loyola’s opposition to teaching [a provincially-mandated course on ethics and morality] on the grounds of religious freedom. Loyola argued the course was redundant because the school already offers instruction on ethics and morality from a Catholic point of view.

As much as I hate to dictate interpretation of the Charter to a provincial judge, Justice Dugré has fundamentally misapplied the concept of freedom of religion. Freedom of religion means, at its essence, that individuals are free to believe and practice as they like. It does not grant special immunity to people from hearing ideas they don’t like, or that conflict with their prejudices set down in magic books. The province of Quebec mandated that all schools must provide instruction in ethics. I am not sure how easy it is to teach ethics to schoolchildren, since their brains are not sufficiently mature to reason abstractly, but surely people of any age can be taught not only what is right and wrong, but be at least introduced to the reasons why. That’s what ethics is – a branch of philosophy that deals in why things are good or bad, not simply a list of commandments.

I have received religious “moral” instruction. Catholic morality is based on the idea of the supremacy of Yahweh, in the teachings of His son Jesus of Nazareth, and the Holy Spirit of Yahweh that dwells within all people. According to Catholic teaching, the Holy Spirit reveals right and wrong to faithful believers, who may use doctrine and scripture (if you have to) to discern between the righteous voice of God and the evil temptations of the Devil.

Of course this is wildly impractical, since it doesn’t really help you work through what is good and what is bad in those situations where doctrine is ambiguous and scripture is contradictory. It also begs the question of how we know doctrine and/or scripture are correct. It’s basically just paternalism – “we know what’s right and wrong. If you get confused, blow this whistle and I’ll come help you.” Religious doctrine and scripture can equally be used for good or for evil.

Requiring students to learn about ethics and the religious teachings of other groups is a great way to instruct them on what processes are available to them to work through issues of right and wrong. If that process conflicts with their religious sensibilities (or, more accurately, those of their parents), then a frank discussion is required. That’s the way freedom of religion works – we can’t tell you what to think, but we can equip you with tools so you know how to think. Education is the purview of the provincial government, who passed a law requiring students to learn ethics. Unless you can demonstrate that the law violates the Charter, the government is free to pass it.

However, it is absolutely false to claim that requiring private schools to abide by the curriculum infringes on freedom of religion. It is no more true than it is to say that laws against murdering your children violate the religious freedom to conduct honour killings, or that laws requiring vaccinations to go to public school violate your religious freedom to stave off measles with a bag of dried chicken heads and a sharp stick. Justice Dugré has acquiesced to the special pleading of this Catholic school, that they should not have to teach their students anything that doesn’t agree with their Christian beliefs. Would we tolerate this same exception for Creationism instead of science, or scripture instead of literature, or prayer instead of phys-ed? I sincerely hope not.

Secular society has to respect the rights of religious people in the same way it has to respect the rights of irreligious people. No group should get special privileges by virtue of group membership, nor should they be unduly punished in the same token. Treat all people fairly under the law – that’s a good idea.

My new hobby

As the blurb on the top of the homepage says, I am a scientist by day and a musician by night. In between those two things, I try my best to stay in touch with what’s going on around the world and in my own community. From time to time (actually, on average once a weekday :P) I find something relevant in the news that I think warrants sharing. In my own small way, I like to think I am contributing to a solution by calling attention to problems.

Another thing I have just started to do along those lines is to write letters to my member of parliament. There are a handful of issues I’ve felt strongly enough about to write letters, including a decision to add a former GSK executive to CIHR’s board (those of you in the health research field are gasping and shaking your heads, those of you in other jobs are probably wondering what the hell a GSK is), the parliamentary board of internal economy refusing to allow the auditor general access to details from MPs expense accounts, and today the decision by the Harper government to change the 2011 census in such a way as to make data reporting voluntary rather than mandatory (with thanks to Reka Pataky for bringing the issue to my attention). The letter I wrote to my MP Hedy Fry reads as follows:

Dear Member Fry,

I am writing to inform you of my disapproval and concern regarding the changes to the long-form questionnaire of the 2011 Canadian census. This is a major decision that was carried out with no consultation. It will drastically change the information we have about the Canadian population – information that is vital to decisions on economic, social, health, and policy matters.

The switch to a voluntary survey for 2011 will render the long-form data biased, unreliable, and largely worthless given that only those who choose to respond will respond. Sample data that are collected voluntarily cannot be declared representative of the population from which they were collected, and as such, cannot be used reliably to draw inferences or make decisions about that population. This change to the census will eliminate one of the most important data sources available to researchers, policy makers and the general public.

This of course is to say nothing of the fact that the poorest Canadians, who are already under-represented by the census (and therefore by government services) will be further disenfranchised. I can only interpret this action as a deliberate attempt by the federal government to justify cutting services to those who need them most. As a health researcher, I know that it is crucial that we have accurate and comprehensive information on vulnerable populations, and the census is one of the primary sources of such information. These concerns stand in addition to those posed by the business community, who use this data for marketing campaigns and to plan where to target specific business expansion.

In short, the Canadian census, one of the most important data sources in Canada renowned in the world for its content and representativeness, will be under-minded by the decision to change to a voluntary survey. To perform such a drastic change without broad consultation and consideration of the consequences to the Canadian population is extremely disturbing. I hope that you will represent Canadians in speaking out against this unwarranted change.

Sincerely,

[Signed]

The sections in bold are my own addition to a form letter originating with Perry Hystad, a PhD candidate at UBC. I e-mailed a copy of the letter to Member Fry’s parliament e-mail, and have sent hard copies to her Vancouver constituency office and to her Ottawa parliamentary office. Previous response times to my e-mails and letters has been about 6 weeks.

I encourage all of you to send a copy of this letter to your own MP, as this is an issue that will affect all of us. The census affects funding for programs, political representation, business and housing initiatives… basically any services you want from the government and a number of private-sector issues as well.

So, as a new feature here on the Manifesto, I will periodically post the issues I write letters about, copies of the letters I write, and the responses I get from MPs. If there’s an issue you think I should feature or write about, please write it in the comments section of any post. If you share my enthusiasm for getting the attention of government, please write your own letters (or feel free to copy mine).

Why I was wrong (and why it doesn’t matter)

It seems like only yesterday I was talking about how I would try my best to admit when something I’ve said is incorrect. Weeks ago, I attacked the idea that Canada is founded on Judeo-Christian principles, pointing out the number of ways the Charter diverges from both Jewish and Christian scripture. I gave credit to Enlightenment-era philosophers for the idea of separation between church and state – an idea which manifests itself in the statues enshrining freedom of religion and freedom of conscience.

It appears that I was wrong.

While poking around the blogroll of another Vancouver blogger who posts comments here occasionally, and who I often find myself disagreeing with (though we do share some core ideas), I found a particularly brainless post by a Toronto-based theology professor named Chris Carter. Mr. Carter (I am purposefully withholding the honorific title of “Doctor” since his degree is in theology – Mr. Carter, you have a degree in baloney!) attempted to turn logic completely upside-down and claim that Christians are tolerant of the mean old gays, who are forcing good Christians to abandon their religious convictions and (gasp, horror) grant gay people equal rights under the law. I pointed out that not only was Mr. Carter’s assertion that Christianity is tolerant of gays completely factually inaccurate (we don’t have to look much further than ultra-Christian Malawi, Uganda or the United States to see that this isn’t the case), but that the tolerance gays have seen in more developed countries (ignoring the USA for a second) has been opposed by Christianity at every turn. I pointed out that religious involvement in the passage of laws stands opposed to the idea of separation of church and state, and that recognizing the prejudice of Christians stands opposed to the development of secular society.

All of this was true, but I mistakenly gave credit to the wrong people.

Mr. Carter correctly pointed out that the separation of Church and state seems to have its origin in the Doctrine of the Two Kingdoms as proposed by Martin Luther (although he mistakenly gave credit to St. Augustine who had a similar idea but stated that the heavenly kingdom outranks the earthly kingdom). The doctrine basically posits that there are two authorities – one for civil “earthly” laws and one for supernatural “heavenly” laws. He stated in no uncertain terms that the two should be kept separate. Insofar as Luther used passages from the Bible (specifically the “render unto Caesar” bit) as justification for this doctrine, it is in fact an explicitly Christian idea to separate church from state. While this seems to stand at odds with CLS’s account of the evolution of religious tolerance in the West, I am willing to accede the point that freedom of religion is a Christian idea, the origin of which is explicitly rooted in a specific interpretation of the teachings of Jesus.

Luckily for me though, none of that matters.

Freedom of religion (and its corollary, freedom from religion) is a good idea even when you take Jesus and God out of the mix. The modern-day interpretation of the separation of church and state does not rely on the supremacy of the church in matters of the supernatural; rather, it is rooted in the idea that equal rights for all people is practical and good for the development of a just society. While the origin of the concept seems to be based on scripture, it doesn’t need scripture to work. Charity is another great example of this. Jesus had a great number of things to say about being charitable to the poor, but that doesn’t mean that you have to believe in Jesus to be charitable. The idea is good because it works, not because YahwAlladdha smiles upon it. Take the supernatural justification out of the picture and the whole idea remains just as intact as it was when it was religiously-justified.

Other ideas – such as the “unnatural nature” of homosexuality, or the sacredness of a fertilized embryo, or the immorality of premarital sex – do not hold up under irreligious scrutiny. These ideas only work if both sides agree that there is a God, and that he hates humans so much that he will damn them (and only them) to eternal torture for having certain kinds of sex or getting certain surgical procedures. Once one side says “yeah, but how do you know God exists?”, then the whole idea is forced to stand on its merits in the observable world.

The separation of church and state does stand up to irreligious scrutiny. When we take God out of the picture, we see that a society that is founded on equal rights and justice is best served when the personal myths of one particular group are not allowed to trump the observable consequences to any person or group of people. The fact that a Christian developed the idea is an interesting fact, but does not somehow grant legitimacy to other Christian ideas, particularly those that are deleterious to society or individuals.

So to you, readers, and to Mr. Carter, I offer a retraction of the statement that the separation of church and state had its origin in the Enlightenment. As far as I can tell it was developed by a Christian philosopher, with explicitly Christian justification. A good idea is a good idea, and I’m happy to give credit where it’s due. Luckily for me, and for the world, this does not matter at all – it’s a good idea that stands on its own even when Jesus is completely removed from the picture.

What does it all mean?

I started writing short stories when I was a little kid – most of them were blatant rip-offs of movies or video games (or sometimes other books). As I got older, I became more interested in writing scripts for movies or (because I was involved in drama) plays. This interest matured into allegorical social commentary in my later years of high school. One of my favourite scripts (that I have since lost since my computer was stolen a couple years ago) was a pseudo-absurdist comedy based largely on Waiting For Godot and Clerks, in which the taboos of our attitudes towards male homosexuality were explored and derided. I was also occasionally featured on a now-defunct website called Flatplanet.net, which has since turned into a pro-Israeli personal blog.

Throughout the first few years of university, I partnered with an online friend to write Porocrom’s Crappaper, in which Poromenos and I highlighted and mocked social conventions and marketing. We had a decent 2-year run, in which I later expanded to do a little music criticism. About a year after we stopped contributing to Porocrom, I started chronicling the various vacations and things that I did on Facebook. When a news article caught my attention, or I had some particular issue or another on my mind, I’d dash off a quick essay about it.

Why is this relevant?

I started this blog back in February, and got into it seriously in March. I didn’t really have an overall theme for what I’d be writing about at the time. It was basically going to be a continuation of the essays I had written about various things, in an effort to consolidate my various personal interests and thoughts about issues into one coherent narrative. I looked at other blogs, and the ones I liked the most were the ones that are based around one central idea, with a handful of topics related to that idea making frequent appearances. I tried to adopt this idea, to talk about a few things that I thought were important: free speech, religion, and race. Because I am a proud Canadian, I wanted to highlight these things from a Canadian perspective.

So I have established my sub-topics, but my central idea seems somewhat more elusive. While I have tried before to tie the themes of race, religion and free speech together, there is much more overlap between religion and free speech than there is between race and anything else. More and more I’ve been bringing in issues of sex and gender, particularly related to gay men and the rights of women. Neither of these things are intrinsically linked to free speech, religion or race, but they seem to be coming up again and again.

What’s the theme here?

The very first post of this blog was called the Foundations of the Manifesto, in which I tried to define what I would be writing about as well as railing against. Not having the benefit of being able to look back on the past 4 months and see what seems to be important to me these days (a process called ‘revealed preference’ in economics) the post was pretty vague. The virtue of putting my ideas out in public is that it forces me to defend them against people who disagree with me. I’ve crossed swords with religious folks, conservative folks, and folks who apparently just plain don’t like me. In some of those cases I’ve had to retreat from a position; in some of those cases I’ve been able to successfully demonstrate my position. As this process continues, I’m sure I’ll have to write many more retractions or clarifications.

As my ideas become more refined and polished, a theme will become much more clear. As it is right now, I can point vaguely to the glimmer of a coherent central idea for this blog. Contrary to much propaganda, democracy is absolutely not the best political system for ensuring the long-term prosperity of a society. Democracy is, ostensibly, founded upon the idea that all people should have equal say in how decisions are made. By its very nature, democratic systems are slaves to the will of the majority. This wouldn’t be a problem if the majority was consistently correct; however, what history shows us again and again is that the majority  often makes horrendously evil decisions that benefit members of the majority, but cause undue suffering among the minority. I’m thinking specifically of slavery here, but it could equally apply to genocide, the treatment of women, or the exploitation of developing countries by colonial powers. The will of the largest group of people is not necessarily what is best, and most of the social victories we’ve achieved in North America over the past couple of hundred years have been when the will of the majority was flouted by a strong minority.

The “best” political system is one in which the right decision will always be made for the people in general. This is sometimes referred to as a “benign dictatorship”, in which one person has absolute power to enact laws for the betterment of society. Of course this is a completely impractical fiction. Every dictatorship we’ve ever seen has resulted in corruption and the exploitation of people. It is impossible to put any one person (or group of people) in absolute control – there will always be flaws and corruption that will ultimately result in suffering. However, we have established a system that attempts to approximate this benign dictatorship; we place authority in the courts to overturn the will of the majority if the will violates the spirit of the law. In that sense the will of the people is limited by the constraints of the law, such that it doesn’t matter how popular a thing might be, the laws must be made for the right reasons, reasons that are founded in logic and evidence.

Neither is democracy the best social system for the same reasons. The best social system is a meritocracy, in which the people who rise to power and prominence are those who, by virtue of hard work and natural talent are demonstrably higher achievers. Success in a meritocracy is predicated not on accidents of birth, or the affluence of your family group, but on an individual’s ability to produce and achieve. It is this kind of system that is modeled (albeit a bit overbearingly) in the writings of Ayn Rand; an author who, despite being reviled by pretty much everyone I know, actually had some excellent ideas. The heroes in Rand’s novels are people who have innate talent and drive to create and achieve, and who are set against a system that seems hell-bent on putting up roadblocks to progress (my point of divergence from Rand comes at this point, where she says that any attempt to level the playing field is evil).

What does this have to do with anything?

Similarly, my interest is in creating a system which prioritizes what is right over what is popular. 50 million Elvis fans can be wrong. An idea should be judged by its merits, not by how many people agree with it. Ditto for people. Advocating for the rights of women, the rights of homosexuals, the rights of racial minorities… these are all intrinsically linked to this idea that a meritocracy is to be desired. One should not be born into handicap simply because they are female, or gay, or black. Our system of laws should treat all people equally, and attempts to do so are laudable. Such attempts are only possible when the free speech of all citizens is protected. I am uncomfortable with banning racists or Holocaust deniers from speaking because the justification is that their speech is unpopular. Martin Luther King wasn’t popular in his day either. Do I agree with racists? Absolutely not. But any time we allow the government to arbitrarily decide that one group isn’t allowed to speak based on the fact that the majority of people don’t like it, we open up the possibility that such restrictions are possible on any unpopular speech. One such unpopular type of speech is criticism of religion, which is a fundamentally bad system of ideas. Being able to discuss, debate, and refute religious ideology is only possible when all speech is protected (except, of course, that speech which directly results in demonstrable harm to individuals).

So there it is, all threads tied together. The point of this blog is to advocate the promotion of good ideas that are based on evidence and critical thinking rather than just whatever seems popular at the moment. The point of this blog is to advocate such promotion because it will lead to an egalitarian meritocracy that is founded on principles of justice for all people. When and if my positions can be demonstrated to be either partially or wholly false, I will always do my best to adapt them to reflect that (you’ll have to forgive me if it takes me a while, nobody likes to be proven wrong). I value those who disagree with my positions – although it’s always nice to hear from those of you who think I’m right on.

========================================

TL;DR: The central idea of this blog is still evolving, but seems to be approaching advocacy of a position that promotes critical thinking and equal rights as a method to achieve a merit- and justice-based society rather than one in which whatever is popular rules.

What you missed this week: June 28th – July 2nd

What kinds of shenanigans did I get up to this week?:

Cripes! That’s a lot of shenanigans! What’s next week?:

  • I’m going to try again to tie this whole thing together;
  • I have to backtrack a bit on something I’ve said before;
  • We’re going to see some pretty bad attempts to get secularism working;
  • A disgusting example of sexism; and
  • Another TED talk.

So make sure you’re keeping your face glued to the screen!

Movie Friday: Louis CK

More standup for you today. This time it’s from perhaps my all-time favourite comedian, Louis CK. He’s been on Parks and Recreation, and was in The Invention of Lying as well (movie with a great concept but poor execution). Listening to him is like hearing my own brain talk to me, but it’s way funnier than I am.

Here’s Louis on white privilege:

On the difference between girls and women:

And one of his perhaps best-known bits, on why everything is amazing, but nobody is happy:

I’m pumped that he’s finally getting another shot at getting his own show on FX. He had one on HBO, which was amazing, but got canceled because HBO doesn’t really like laugh-track comedies. If you ever want to know what I think about something, but you want it to be much funnier than I could ever make it, ask Louis.