China jails 3 people for speaking out against rape

Good GOD I’m glad I don’t live in China:

Fan Yanqiong, Wu Huaying and You Jingyou were found guilty of slander and harming state interests, in a trial which attracted protests outside court. They had posted videos online in which the woman said her daughter died after being raped by thugs linked to police.

Does there have to be any more evidence that free speech is a good idea? How can anyone defend the right of the state to put people in prison because it “harms state interests” to speak out against the rape of a young girl? I can imagine fewer things more horrible than experiencing the rape and death of your daughter (maybe getting sprayed with motherfucking acid, but it’s a close second). Imagine going through that horrifying ordeal, and then being thrown in jail because you talked about it. Any attempt on China’s part to claim a positive human rights record is a line of bullshit as long as they allow practices like this to even be a remote possibility.

But it doesn’t stop there. You don’t even have to slander the government, just criticize them and get locked up:

A Tibetan writer who had signed an open letter critical of the Chinese government’s quake relief efforts in western Qinghai province has been detained by police, according to a family friend.

The writer, pseudonym Zhogs Dung, is apparently a regular critic of the government. You have to admire the grapefruit-seized balls it takes to be a regular critic of a government that locks you up if your kid gets raped. After the recent earthquake, Zhogs posted a criticism of the government’s efforts, saying it was better to send money through someone you knew because of widespread corruption. “Corrupt, are we?” said the government “we’ll show you how not corrupt we are, by arresting you and refusing to say why you’re being charged!” Someone’s been paying attention to the USA’s practices with “foreign combatants” at Gitmo.

But to be fair, China does allow some free speech, as long as you’re a multi-million dollar corporation, but then you don’t get much of a choice:

China is poised to pass a law requiring telecommunications and internet companies to report any revelation of state secrets, potentially forcing businesses to collaborate with the country’s vast security apparatus that stifles political dissent.

“Information should be free!” says China. Well, “free” so long as the government wants to know it. If you as a citizen want to know what the government is doing, then you’re out of luck. But if the government wants to hack your private information… well then you’re also out of luck. Basically, if you live in China, you’re shit out of luck.

I realize that it’s an incredible privilege I enjoy, being able to insult the Chinese, American, Canadian, Indonesian (and on, and on) governments without fear of being put in jail. I take this gift seriously, which is why I promise to keep bringing stuff like this up. Free speech is bloody inconvenient. It’s probably the hardest thing to make practical. However, it’s of vital importance to the health of society. Abrogation of free speech is a threat to civilization everywhere. The only way we were able to claw western Europe out of the dark ages was through the increased availability of information and free speech. Persia and China seem poised to take a huge jump back into the good old days of religious (or secular totalitarian) domination of law and political systems, with the United States not lingering too far behind. Now more than ever (well… maybe not more than ever, but still now) we need to stand up with one voice and say that free speech is the right of every human person, and the only way to secure a free, peaceful world.

It’s a tough world out there, ladies

I mentioned this last week – as much as I make jokes at the expense of women, I do consider myself a feminist (insofar as I think all people should receive equal rights and equal protections under the law). I also see a great deal of parallel between women’s struggle for civil rights and the black struggle for same. Both are historically-repressed groups that were denied fundamental rights and freedoms based on deep-seated prejudice; both groups had to fight legendary battles to achieve recognition as human beings; and both groups are facing a kind of “hidden” “polite” form of prejudice today. We look at our history and say “black people/women have achieved equality, so we can stop worrying about a solved problem.” While the major injustices have been overturned, it will take far longer than a few decades to truly level the playing field to a point where groups are actually “equal”.

And there’s still a lot of women, both in places close to home and far away, who still face major oppression and violence as they pursue their human rights.

Polygamy is one of those things; on paper it seems innocuous enough, but in practice it almost always means horrible repression and abuse of women by men. There are people who try to dress it up prettily, using diplomatic language to make it seem as though it’s not a practice that springs from a view that women are mindless cattle. Apparently, none of those people live in Malawi:

A spokesman for the Muslim Association of Malawi told the BBC… if polygamy were banned, many women would be left without a husband and become prostitutes.

I consider myself lucky to have many female friends. The majority of those friends are unmarried. I am reasonably sure, that none of those unmarried friends are prostitutes (I tried to ask, to get you more precise numbers, but only got slapped in the face for my efforts).

This part is my favourite:

“Every woman has the right to be under the shelter of a man.”

See? They’re crusading for women’s rights! Every woman has the right to have her life yoked to a man who can’t commit to her alone. Why would you try to deny them this fundamental freedom? Ladies of the internet, I hereby offer to “shelter” all of you. If you’re into it, I can try “sheltering” two of you at a time (perhaps while a third one watches)! I make this offer because I care about your rights. Now show me ‘dem boobies!

Ladies, are you no longer a virgin? Tired of being “honour-killed” by your father and brothers because you slept with someone and brought shame on your family? I know I am; who isn’t? Well now for the low, low price of $2700, you can have your hymen surgically restored! Fool your friends! Impress your family! Don’t get executed for asserting your basic human freedoms! Can’t afford the $2700? Is your new husband totally insensitive, near-sighted and clinically brain-dead? Try our new discount elastic pig-blood fake hymen! It’s made in China, so you know it’s safe!

The person quoted in the article says that this deplorable practice of requiring virginity (only in one partner, and surprise surprise it has to be the woman) isn’t religiously-based. This may in fact be true, since no one religion is unique in its sexual depravity, but I don’t buy it. This issue blurs the line between religion and culture. It’s a chicken and egg thing – does religion devalue women because the societies who birthed that religion are sexist, or does religion instill a fundamental hatred of women in society at large? Secular societies are the ones with the best human’s and women’s rights records. Is that an accident? Maybe neither explanation is right; maybe it’s both. Either way, it seems to suck to be a woman in the eyes of YahwAlladdha.

This is probably the most horrific thing I’ve heard in a while. I talked about the burqa yesterday, and a few weeks back, both as specific highlights of my ideas around religious vs. cultural tolerance, and I’m still not sure how I feel about the whole thing. What I can tell you is that you’ll never convince me that they aren’t a tool of religious and sexual repression. This story, one in apparently 150 similar attacks per year, puts that claim to the lie. Two sisters had motherfucking acid thrown into their faces for the arch-crime of not being covered from head to toe. I live in Vancouver. There are some sexy women here. Not all of them dress (at least to my eyes) modestly. Some go out of their way to be immodest in their dress. Amazingly enough, however, we don’t have a rash of rapes taking the city by storm. It’s almost as though men here see women as human beings, not objects to be used for our pleasure and permanently disfigured with motherfucking acid (are you serious?) when they displease us. But that’s crazy, right? Women are merely objects created for the comfort of men by the all-knowing YahwAlladdah.

These problems all seem to be happening in far-away backward-ass countries. We don’t have to worry about that shit happening here, right?

Hopefully by now you’ve learned that when I ask a rhetorical question like that, I always disagree with the answer. For those of you who don’t know, it is common cultural practice in parts of the world to surgically remove the clitoris of women at a young age. I use the word ‘surgically’ extremely loosely – no anaesthetic, no sterilization (not of the tools anyway, many women end up infertile or die as a result), and not performed by doctors.

I’d like to take a moment here to talk about the clitoris. The clitoris is probably the coolest thing on the human body. Unlike the penis, which has multiple roles (tonight, the role of Macbeth will be played by my schming-schmang), the clitoris has one function – to make sex awesome for women. That’s it. That’s all it does. It has no reproductive role, it doesn’t even act as a target for infection like the appendix or tonsils. It’s there just to please you. If some company developed a product that made sex that much more fun for women, you’d better believe that every woman (and twice as many men) would go broke buying it.

But what do religious groups want to do? Of course, they want to cut it off! Why should women enjoy sex? They’re just there to make sandwiches (in between making babies). And the AAP wants to help them accomplish this. There is no medical advantage to FGM. There is no reason on Earth to surgically alter the genitalia of baby girls (or baby boys, for that matter). The only reason to do it is religious stupidity, and the AAP has decided to bend over backwards to allow this practice to gain a foothold here in North America. Way to go, AAP. That’ll show those uppity women who want to go through life without discomfort and trauma every time they want to have some sex.

But that’s America. We don’t do that here. Well, not unless you’re a Conservative senator. Then you tell women who want to assert their rights that they should “shut up” on issues that are important to them. After all, why should women’s rights be an election issue? Women aren’t even allowed to vote! Wow, is it 1919 already? How the time flies!

My point in all of this is that, for whatever reason, there remains a fundamental prejudice against women. I’m not going to turn this into a blog about feminism, but in all of the above stories, religion plays a huge role in keeping women oppressed. Nobody can take an honest look at the state of affairs today and claim that religion doesn’t lead to fundamentally sexist practices. The only way to ensure that women achieve equality under the law is to remove all religion from both the laws and public life. Religion should be like auto-erotic asphyxiating masturbation – only behind closed doors, as long as nobody gets hurt.

P.S. MOTHERFUCKING ACID! How do you get your hands on ACID? I’m willing to bet money that most of these assholes haven’t even taken a chemistry class! Who’s giving them motherfucking ACID?

Re-Update: France and the niqab

Just in case anyone is interested in continuing to follow this story:

French President Nicolas Sarkozy has ordered legislation that would ban women from wearing Islamic veils that fully cover the face and body in public places, the government said Wednesday.

Belgium has recently gone down the same road. Of course, I’ve had my issues with Belgium before, where I felt they were poised to infringe upon free speech and censor their own history. There’s a debate brewing up in Australia as well, although I am not entirely convinced that the robber in this story wasn’t trying to make a political point. I’ve never heard of anyone in Canada using a burqa as a criminal disguise, but I’ve only been paying attention to this issue for a short while.

There’s another side to this issue that I want to discuss, but I’m not sure how qualified I am to do so – the issue of women’s rights. Many people cite the burqa as a symbol of male repression, disguised in religious trappings. Muslim men are not exhorted to cover their bodies from head to foot (although modest dress is recommended for both sexes). Surely the sight of a good-looking Muslim guy inspires just as much lust in the women of the world as vice versa. The glaring double-standard reeks of hypocrisy. However, the counter-argument is that many Muslim women who are not required to wear the burqa (or the hijab, or the niqab, or any of the other permutations) choose to do so. Taking away their right to dress as they see fit, say critics, is just as much an abrogation of women’s rights as requiring them to cover up.

My feeling on this issue, as articulated by Sam Harris, is that “choosing” to wear a burqa is like a person “choosing” to remain celibate or “choosing” to give money to the church: religious teachings are drummed into you from birth, and it’s not possible to make a truly informed and un-coerced “choice” when the weight of your entire family and community is on your back. Again, this reeks of paternalism “you aren’t capable of making a choice, so I’m going to make it for you.” I believe that’s what they told black people in the Jim Crow era.

I have mixed feelings about this. I suppose this is precisely what I recommended, but I’m uneasy about the government passing bills that outlaw religious practice – I just don’t think we should make laws that encourage it. This one is a very difficult line to draw and I’m really not sure what side I’m on. On the one hand, it sends a clear and unequivocal message to the Muslim world that the secular world will not sit idly by and capitulate to their ludicrous demands to allow women to be demonized and exploited. On the other hand, any time a law is passed that targets one particular group rather than setting a standard for all, my hackles get raised.

I’d love to hear some feedback from you on this.

Racism: a definition

I recently got into a friendly debate with a friend of mine over my use of the word ‘racism’. She objected to my broad definition, and my labeling of rather innocuous and neutral events as ‘racist’, preferring to reserve that label for more overt, “classic” racism. I thought I’d use this platform to discuss my definition, and why I think mine is better and more applicable to a contemporary context (Jen, feel free to refute my position in the comments).

I use a definition that I refined from a social/psychological definition of group prejudice:

Racism: the attribution of personal traits to an individual, or group of individuals, based on ethnic background.

So when a police officer “randomly” pulls me over to check my driver’s license and to make sure I own the car I’m driving, or when by buddy Atif gets “randomly selected” for airport security checks, that’s racist. Similarly, when an old guy says to by buddy Howie An (who has Chinese parents) “you’re fit because you eat a lot of rice”, that’s also racist. Sure, the second one is a kind of “aw, shucks” racism that isn’t inherently negative, but it’s still racism.

There’s an article, somewhat dated now, but still correct, in Slate. The basic thrust of the piece is as follows:

Whites may have been horrified by the fire hoses and police dogs turned on children, but they could rest easy knowing that neither they nor anyone they’d ever met would do such a thing. But most racism—indeed, the worst racism—is quaint and banal. There’s nothing sensationalistic about redlining (segregating investment areas for banks and supermarkets based on the racial makeup of the region) or job discrimination.

My definition goes a bit further than Slate‘s, because under mine an act or phrase doesn’t necessarily have to be negative to be racist. Certainly nobody would make the claim that the old guy Howie encountered was saying anything bad about either Howie or people of Chinese descent. My point is that it doesn’t matter, it’s still racist. The guy was assuming, either accurately or incorrectly, that Howie eats a lot of rice because he’s Chinese. It’s a race-based individual judgment.

I will share a story of my own. Recently, I was out for drinks with a friend and some of his crew. One of the girls with the group, I’ll call her “Sally” for the purpose of this post, and I were talking at one point in the evening. I don’t remember exactly how it came up, but Sally asked me what my background was (I think she said something like “where are you from?”) I told her I was from Canada, and then (predictably) the conversation went something like this:

Sally: No, but where are you from really?

Me: Vancouver

Sally: Fine, what’s like, your background

Me: I’m black

Sally: Okay, but where are your parents from?

Me: They can’t be from Canada?

Sally: Why are you making this so difficult? I’m not being racist or anything, I’m being complimentary! I love black people!

Me: You love all black people?

Sally: Yeah totally! You guys have good taste in music, and you’re so laid-back!

This is conversation I’ve had more times than I care to recall. First of all, there’s a lot of things that I do that don’t fall into the “black people” stereotype: I am an accomplished classical violist; I have two university degrees in science; I grew up in a small mountain town in rural BC. You’re not going to see a guy like me on BET or TBS, unless it’s as a completely tokenist character (“wow, this black guy is so different from the other ones on the show! We’re diverse!”) The only black people I’ve ever seen who even remotely resemble me are Alvin from The Cosby Show and Lem from Better off Ted, and even then they were socially awkward turbo-nerds. I’ve long made peace with the fact that I’m not archetypal, it doesn’t really bother me. What does bother me is the implication that my entire identity can be boiled down to the colour of my skin, or more specifically the colour of my father’s skin. While my racial identity does inform my outlook on life, so does my scientific training and my musical background. It doesn’t matter that Sally wasn’t saying anything negative about me, the fact is that she was attributing to me the characteristics of people who may or may not be like me in any way, simply because we have similar skin colour. I was at a different bar talking to a different girl who told me that I was probably good at scaring people because I’m black, and that “(us) guys” are good in a fight. Again, not necessarily negative, but definitely not true (most of the time I’m about as threatening in a fight as an asthmatic koala bear).

This perhaps wouldn’t be a big deal if it didn’t go any farther than conversations at bars with drunk girls. The reality is, however that we form impressions of other people based on race, whether we acknowledge it or not:

The roots of racial prejudice lie deep within the brain, research has suggested. A study found that when we watch someone from our own race do something our brain simulates the action mentally as a form of empathy, known as ‘mirroring’.

The study has a lot of flaws, the biggest being that it only observed white participants, but the principle is likely sound – we are primed to view people who look the same as we do differently than those who are dissimilar. Sally chose to share her positive impressions of black people. I wondered immediately what other impressions she might have based on my race, considering how black people are portrayed in media.

Race, whether we like it or not, is still a part of our decision-making apparatus. Racism, for the most part, has taken on a much more subtle and innocuous form (unless of course you live in Nova Scotia). The way that we identify it and deal with it needs to change to reflect this. The Slate article talks about Dogg the Bounty Hunter and Michael Richards’ use of the word “nigger”, and how the reaction from both of these men was “I’m not racist.” Of course you’re racist. You live in a racist system. You can’t just decide to be non-racist by sheer force of will.

I’ll drop a bombshell on all you readers right now: you’re racist.

Here’s another one: I’m racist too.

We are products of the system that raised us, and the system has deep racist roots. Pretending as though it doesn’t exist, or that racism is only when you’re actively campaigning for the supremacy of a single racial group (that’s how it’s defined in the dictionary, albeit with my definition tacked on as #2) is ignoring the real and present influence that racism has in our day-today lives.

My friend (the one with whom I had the semantics debate) wanted the word ‘racism’ to shock and appall people, such that if your actions were labeled ‘racist’, you’d immediately stop doing them because of the emotional impact of the word. The fact is that the kind of “classic”, white-hooded lynch-mob ‘racism’ has all but completely faded from day-to-day reality in Canada (and for the most part in the US, although there are still a few holdouts). In my mind, restricting the word to only those kinds of actions would only serve to make the problem worse, since people would be incredibly unwilling to admit to having any race-based prejudice for fear of being associated with violent hate groups. The status quo would be maintained in perpetuity, and no progress could be made. The way to remove racism completely is to expose and discuss it dispassionately, not condemn people for the attitudes instilled in them by society while the rest of us smugly say “well at least we’re not racist.”

Another common colloquial use of the word is to refer to any group bigotry. I recently got yelled at on an online forum for suggesting that Richard Dawkins wasn’t being ‘racist’ when he made disparaging comments about Muslim people. The comments were targeted at people of the Muslim faith, suggesting that this particular religious tradition was more repressive of women than others. I’m not sure whether or not that’s true, but it’s certainly the case today. However, my point was that Dawkins was referring to Muslim people, not Arab or Persian people. The fact that those nationalities are disproportionately represented among British Muslims is irrelevant; the comments were about Islam. People on the forum were not having it. Apparently, in their minds, ‘racism’ simply means bigotry against any group. Sexism is racism, homophobia is racism, nationalism is racism. This argument is patently ridiculous, under any definition. Race bigotry is a specific phenomenon with specific hallmarks. Race bigotry might often parallel nationalistic bigotry, but they are not the same thing. I can decry the stupidity of Christianity and the way it infiltrates politics without hating white Americans, I can bemoan the corruption in African countries without hating black Africans, and I can detest the actions of the Chinese government without having any particular animosity towards Chinese people. The fact that there are large overlaps is completely separate from the label of ‘racism’, the defining characteristic is the method of grouping people. If it’s by race, it’s racism; if it’s not, then it’s something else.

This has been a mammoth of a post, and I thank you for sticking through all of it. The take-home message of this piece is simply this: our definition of racism cannot be simply relegated to vicious acts of brutal, overt repression; nor can it be thinly spread over all types of prejudice. Racism is a real phenomenon with real effects. Claiming “I’m not being racist” is a fallacy; we are all products of a system in which racism is endemic. Nobody, not even yours truly, is immune from its effects. I offer my definition – attributing race-group stereotypes to an individual – as a useful and value-neutral meaning for the word. It encapsulates “classic” racism, but allows us to intelligently discuss issues of race prejudice happening in society without risking censure or being labeled as ‘a racist’.

What you missed this week: May 10th-14th

If you didn’t catch it, this week I:

You missed all of that! Make sure you don’t miss this week when I:

  • Give you a better definition of racism;
  • Update you on the burqa ban;
  • Talk about some super-keen women’s rights violations;
  • Pick on China; and
  • Show you a hilarious religious morality play.

So make sure you stay tuned!

Movie Friday: Hurray for Cartoons!

I love cartoons. I always have. Even now that I am more grown up, I still get a thrill from watching shows like South Park, Clone High, The Simpsons, and others. Animation is a way of portraying the world without being fettered by reality.

Then again, sometimes cartoons are so racist you wish they would stick a bit closer to reality. This week’s Movie Friday is about the history of race portrayal in cartoons. In light of my previous post about the Tintin book, I thought it would be worthwhile to examine our history in North America. This post is a two-fer, but overlap a bit. made  a great deal of hay about the contents of this specific video, and the article is worth checking out.

The second video has had embedding disabled, so you’ll just have to follow this link if you want to watch it. It’s more of the same though. Racial differences are exaggerated and lampooned for sport. It is tempting to castigate the creators of these cartoons for their racism, but I see it as being simply a reflection of the ethos of the day. There are lots of examples of racist attitudes prevailing in today’s television. As one example, there are no non-white characters on Friends, Seinfeld, or How I Met Your Mother, despite the fact that they all take place in New York City with a huge non-white population. We haven’t rid ourselves of racism; it’s simply been transformed into something less obvious.

Writer/director Spike Lee, with whom I do not always agree, created an excellent film about this phenomenon called Bamboozled. While he, of course, focused on black people in the United States, the lessons can be extracted to portrayals of any ethnic minority groups. I can’t recommend enough that everyone watch this movie. It is an eye-opening and perspective-changing view of race in media, and the phenomenon of subverted systemic racism in North America. Seriously, watch this movie.

So the next time you’re watching your favourite show, spend a segment looking at race portrayal with a critical eye and see if you can’t detect some race bias. It’s often subtle, but it’s definitely there.

Racial mixing on the rise

From time to time, the media turns a statistical finding into “news”. This article is one of those times.

More than 340,000 children in Canada are growing up in mixed-race families, a new report from Statistics Canada reveals, and the number of mixed unions is growing much more quickly than that of other partnerships.

I am heartened by the findings, of course. As the product of a mixed union myself (two, technically, after my dad re-married) I am obviously a supporter of marrying whoever you want to. As different groups begin to live together, go to school together, and work together, people become more exposed to other cultures and ethnic groups. As time goes by, they start wanting a bit more exposure (of the boobies kind) with other cultures and ethnic groups. Of course, this has a particular application to Canada.

Of course because I’m a damn addict, I looked at the comments at the bottom of the story. There’s a lot of very vocally (at least behind the anonymity of the internet) racist people who say that the reason people are getting married is because black guys come in and get white women pregnant. I suppose they’re free to think that, but there’s actually something much more interesting (and supported by evidence) at play here.

What’s interesting is that the increase in inter-racial marriages isn’t an issue of simple familiarity (seeing different kinds of people in your day-to-day life), nor is it people becoming particularly philosophically enlightened. There is a phenomenon in social psychology called ‘in-group bias‘. Basically, you are more likely to favour members of your own group to the exclusion of those in other groups. This was tested at a summer camp with boys who were randomly assigned to two different groups. Of course, the groups were made to compete against each other in various activities, which fostered resentment and a strong polarizing of the two camps. Once animosity between the two groups of young boys had been fostered (ah, the 50s… a more innocent time), the researchers went to work trying to tear down the barriers. Simple sports and team activities didn’t seem to work.

“It is predicted that contact in itself will not produce marked decrease in the existing state of tension between [p. 159] groups.”

The only thing that got the kids to work together was when they had to pull for a common goal: unblocking the water cistern, and getting to a movie. Once they were working together to achieve something they both wanted, the bias against the other group diminished almost immediately.

“When groups in a state of friction are brought into contact under conditions embodying superordinate goals, the attainment of which is compelling but which cannot be achieved by the efforts of one group alone, they will tend to cooperate toward the common goal.”

By the end of the camp, the two groups that used to hate each other were playing, eating, and doing regular kid stuff together. This is a pretty powerful phenomenon, and illustrates an important fact: simple co-existence does not foster co-operation. There needs to be a next step – working toward a common goal. What occurs at that point is that the “group” identity dissolves and is replaced by another identity (in this case, the one of the “camp”). Instead of seeing one’s self as being a member in opposition to another group, you see all the people as members of the same group. This is a very powerful effect.

In the same way, we’re going to see more racial mixing as a result of people of different backgrounds not simply sharing the same geographic space, but sharing education, workplaces, etc. This process won’t happen by simple diffusion; if we want to see increase co-operation between groups, the concepts of “us” and “them” need to change. Racial identity shouldn’t be abolished, but the weight with which we use race to identify both ourselves and each other ought to be reduced in favour of something more useful. This already happens with team affiliations (think of Remember the Titans), and will continue to happen in professional groups and educational facilities.

Re-defining our in-groups is the way forward. Taking some of the mystery and sting out of racial issues will help accomplish that.

Things make me happy, y’know

I heard second-hand from one reader that this blog reads like a series of angry rants. Of course, this same reader has known me since high-school, so I’m not sure why that surprised her at all… but whatever. If I come across as angry, it’s because, well, sometimes I am angry. There are a lot of crappy things happening in the world, and I think ignoring them is not going to fix them. The more we talk about, discuss and confront the problems facing the world, the faster we’ll find solutions for them.

But lest you think that my entire outlook on life is a negative one, today I’m going to exhibit some news stories that made me happy. I should mention, at this point, that I am incredibly gay for science. There was a story about a remote-controlled robot that can perform heart surgery that made me dance a little jig on the inside (my outside was at the office – not very professional). However, there are a lot of really good science and technology sites that profile way cooler stuff than I can. This site is about race and religion and free speech – topics I find important and interesting to talk about. And despite the impression I may have cultivated thus far, there are indeed some things on these topics that make me very happy.

Of course, my hard-on for secularism and the removal of religion from society is welldocumented on this site. So I was very happy to read this story of groups of young Lebanese people publicly asserting their right to both free speech and freedom from religious dictates. Lebanon has a system that is so entrenched in religion that the secular values we take for granted here make Canada look like a paradise in comparison. This made me really happy to see.

As a heterosexual man and a quasi-feminist (I believe in equal rights for everybody, which isn’t quite feminism but works quite well as a pick-up line when talking to a feminist) there is a special place in my heart for women. I joke, often, at the expense of women, but if you cut me down and looked at the rings on my trunk, you’d find that I have a deep and abiding respect for women. Islam in its present, public form treats women as an unfortunate and repugnant necessity (this is, I learn, an extremely recent “development” in the overall history of Islam). However, the sensationalized portrayal of Islam covers up the fact that, like all religions, there are individual practitioners and groups who are much less radical and far more accepting of secular principles. This story, about a group that works to teach new immigrant Muslim women how to adapt to life in The Netherlands, made me happy and hopeful for a future in which personal religious beliefs can be superseded by more positive, non-religious, affiliation.

And the women are at it again. Three girls from Palestine, seeing how their blind aunt and uncle struggled to get around obstacles and inclines, invented a new kind of cane for them to use… with freakin’ lasers! At a time when some Muslim theocratic countries won’t even let girls go to school, these girls had the wherewithal and scientific know-how to develop a new technology that could potentially improve the lives of thousands and millions of people all over the world. Yeah, theocrats are right. Girls shouldn’t be allowed education, or to own property, or vote. Clearly that would only raise the standard of living for the disabled. Who wants that?

Human beings are capable of great evil. Our history has been storied with accounts of massacre, rape, torture, unbelievable acts of cruelty… the list goes on. Thankfully, human beings are also capable of acts of great goodness. As I will write about someday soon, I think we’re turning the corner of a new Renaissance with the internet acting as the new printing press. No longer is knowledge stored up in ivory towers, unavailable to all but the initiated, but is readily available at the click of a mouse. This program, designed to bring the world to the fingertips of even the very poor, is a step in the right direction for humanity as a whole. This story, about the One Laptop Per Child program making inroads in one of the most devastated areas on the globe, made me unbelievably ecstatic. Some of the poorest kids in the world being given opportunities to learn that weren’t available to me, living in the lap of privilege, at that age – how can your heart not be warmed?

This one’s a little off-topic, but still pretty cool. City council in Vancouver has put measures in place to ensure that products sold locally are, whenever “possible and practicable”, coming from certified “Fair Trade” sources. This is the way capitalism is supposed to work, where market decisions are influenced by local forces, global conscience being one of those forces. It says good things that a city as large as Vancouver is able to make changes like this. Hopefully this idea catches some steam.

So please let it never be said that I find no joy in life. Just as there are multitudes of horrific events taking place all over the world, and I’m not going to stop talking about them, there are positive, life-affirming events taking place too. If I focus more on the negative than the positive, I do it because I want us all, myself included, to shake off the complacency that can so easily settle in and to recognize that there’s a lot of work to do. I’ll do my best to inject a bit more good with the bad, but try to remember that despite my vigorous polemic, I am a fundamentally happy person who loves puppies and rainbows and stickers.

Here’s another picture of an otter:

Happy now?

I break character for a moment

This is not a political or law blog. There are enough of those out there, and I don’t consider myself informed enough to give a meaningful opinion on the law. However, this story made me upset:

The federal government is moving once again to scotch the Criminal Code’s so-called faint hope clause, which allows killers to seek parole up to 10 years earlier than normal if they can satisfy a jury that they’ve reformed.

“Tough on Crime” is a catch-phrase we hear often in political debate. Conservatives are supposedly tough on crime, while “hug-a-thug” (doesn’t the right wing come up with such clever names?) Liberals are weak-willed and think that the criminals should have more rights than the victims.

I am not pro-crime. However, I want to see my government pass legal legislation designed to actually reduce crime, not simply increase punishment for those who don’t have good lawyers. Actions like this one by the federal government do not serve to lower crime, they are merely optics designed to dupe people who only pay attention to sound-bytes into thinking that their lives are somehow being made “safer” by keeping people in prison longer.

Never mind the fact that people get bounced out of prison due to over-crowding, or the fact that people with longer stretches in prison are more likely to re-offend than those who are granted pardons based on genuine reform. No, let’s take away the motivation that convicted people might have had to demonstrate some improvement. Let’s make sure that the people in prison stay bitter, resentful and come out far more dangerous than when they went in. That should fix everything. And don’t worry about the cost, it’s only 7-10 billion dollars over 5 years, also known as twice the annual national aid budget.

This is what gets me so upset about Conservativism, and politics in general. Policies get made that aren’t designed to make anyone’s life actually better; it’s done to get votes from the people who are probably least qualified to hold an opinion. Leadership isn’t about following the uninformed will of the masses; it’s about showing people why your policies will make their lives better. All this is to say nothing of Harper’s recent bill that refuses to allow foreign aid dollars to fund abortion. He says he doesn’t want to “divide Canadians” by bringing up the abortion debate.  It’s pretty clear that he’s perfectly happy to divide Canadians, since there has been no debate except among the right wing. All of sudden though, there’s a debate! Presto! Gee Whiz! I wonder how that happened…

Recently, Ontario premiere Dalton McGuinty announced a bold new approach to sexual education, designed to teach kids the facts about sex and sexuality early in their schooling. As soon as I heard about it, I sent him a letter telling him that although he was sure to get a lot of flack from people for “teaching kids to have sex” and “usurping the role of the parents”, that this was a courageous and admirable step to make changes that work. Of course, the very next day he pulled a complete about face and announced that the program was going back on the shelf. If you believe in something, fight for it. Don’t let people’s meanest and least-informed instincts deter you from the right cause by using fear tactics. There are some things that are more important than getting re-elected.

Anyway, I will get back to my usual topics of discussion. I just felt like talking about this for a second.

Colour blindness – not a virtue

I’m sure many of you are familiar with the term “colour blindness” in a racial context. Basically, the philosophy is that it is virtuous to not see a person’s race, and to behave as though race plays no role in the formation of your opinions or actions. On the surface, this seems like an admirable idea – treat all people as though they are one group of human people, regardless of their background.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work:

In a study that examined the associations between responses to racial theme party images on social networking sites and a color-blind racial ideology, Brendesha Tynes, a professor of educational psychology and of African American studies at Illinois, discovered that white students and those who rated highly in color-blind racial attitudes were more likely not to be offended by images from racially themed parties at which attendees dressed and acted as caricatures of racial stereotypes.

The study looked at how students responded to obviously-offensive racist stereotypes depicted by their peers. The first was photos from a “gangsta theme” party in (non-)celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day (a US holiday – we don’t tolerate that kind of foolishness here in the great white north). The second was two students dressed as Hispanic people wearing t-shirts that said “Spic” and “Span” (for those of you who don’t know, “Spic” is a derogatory term for a Hispanic person). The participants were asked to write a comment on the photo as though they were commenting on a friend’s wall. Students were also administered a racial attitudes survey specifically designed to measure “colour blindness”.

The response was as I would have suspected, and that the proponents of the “colour blind” philosophy would find disheartening. Students who tested high on the “colour blindness” scale were more likely to see nothing wrong with overtly racist depictions of different ethnic groups. There was a direct linear relationship between “colour blindness” and reaction – students who were “colour blind” were less likely to see anything wrong with the pictures.  Black students were far more likely to be upset and react negatively to the pictures than white students were (~60% vs. ~20% respectively). Black students were also much less likely to be “colour blind” according to the scale.

As I said, none of this surprises me in the least. Racism can’t be overcome by pretending it doesn’t exist, and race will continue to divide people until we start talking openly about it without fear of reprisal or social ostricization. Colour blindness only works if everyone is equally blind, including those who are disproportionately on the receiving end of racism (a.k.a. visible minorities, a.k.a. non-white people). It’s all well and good to say “I don’t see race”, but to not see it means to ignore the effect that is still has to this day. It’s akin to saying “we should treat all people the same, so we shouldn’t have welfare programs.” Canceling welfare is certainly one way of demonstrating that you consider poor people to be the same as the fabulously wealthy, but it doesn’t do anything to help those who are impoverished, nor does it help identify and remedy the underlying causes of poverty.

Please note that I don’t think people who say they wish to be “colour blind” (some of whom are close friends) are secret racists or anything of the sort. I think they genuinely believe that ignoring race is a solution to the problem of racial injustice. I used to feel the same way. However, the idea of “colour blindness” is basically the same as sticking your fingers in your ears and screweing your eyes shut until race goes away. In fact, as the above study would suggest, this attitude might actually preserve racist attitudes by blinding people to all aspects of race and race discrimination.

I am reminded of an evening I spent with one of my closest friends. She is an immigrant from a country with a strong racial majority and (at the time she moved to Canada) very little black/white racism in its history – today is quite a different story, but that’s not relevant to this discussion. She was telling me that she was excited to meet her (black) boyfriend’s family at a trip that was to take place that summer (I am just going to call him “Tom” and her “Jane” for the sake of clarity). I asked whether they (Tom and Jane) had talked about the inter-racial issue, considering that while he might be as accepting as all-get-out of her race, his family may not be so tolerant. She looked at me like I had grown a second head and said “Ian, race doesn’t matter, as long as you’re in love.” “Doesn’t matter to whom?” I asked.

In the Caribbean (where Tom is from), race matters a great deal. Most of the countries (if not all) were colonized by white Europeans. It’s only been a handful of decades since the colonial powers granted independence to the countries, most of whom are in a very sorry state. There is a deep economic and social divide between white Caribbeans and black Caribbeans. It doesn’t help at all that there is a stereotype (however true or untrue) that white women come in and “poach” the more successful black men as trophies (or vice versa, that successful black men date white women to gain status). Is this fair? Is this ideal? Certainly not! It would be best to recognize the truth – that these two people are dating each other because they are very much compatible and in love; however, the reality of the situation is that their racial makeup will loom large in the eyes of families on both sides. I asked her to imagine what would happen if she went back to her country of origin and introduced her all-white family to her black boyfriend – she wasn’t sure what the reaction would be.

The other flaw in the philosophy of “colour blindness” is that it ignores the other side of race – racial differences can be a positive thing. There are experiences and insights that a Vietnamese or Pakistani or Congolese person can bring to the table that a European person may not have access to (and, of course, vice versa). If we pretend as though everyone is exactly the same, we miss the opportunity to bring the richness and context of cultural heritage to bear on any number of life’s problems. I’m proud of my racial heritage and I certainly don’t want it to be ignored to serve a patronizing view that all racial differences are inherently bad.

People in the “colour blind” camp and I have the same ultimate goal – to see a world in which a person’s race is no more influential in how they are treated than their height or hair colour or weight (which might not be so great if you ask a fat ginger dwarf). However, we approach that goal from very different sides. The “colour blind” philosophy wants to jump right to the end, where through sheer force of will, hundreds of years of racial socialization can be instantly undone. Mine is, I think, a bit more realistic – I want us to acknowledge and discuss the ways in which race affects us both as individuals and as a society. I want to see us take a hard, uncomfortable look at our behaviours and practices and see where race, despite our best intentions, manages to creep in to the way we do things.

As I’ve said before and will continue to say, ignoring racism does not make the problem go away. The answer is to own up to our mistakes and speak openly about race. Only after we can talk about it in the full light of day will its spectral  influence finally fade into history.