Religious tolerance or cultural tolerance?

Canada is a unique place. The full explanation of this seemingly banal statement will come perhaps in another, longer post. I just want to highlight and juxtapose a couple of recent news items. Suffice it to say that because Canada lacks a national identity (or at least a strong one) and relies on immigration to stay viable, we face unique challenges. Unlike our neighbours to the south, we can’t compel newcomers to adapt to “our culture”, because it’s not that strongly defined. Because the nation was built by wave after wave of immigrants, and our aboriginal peoples do not wield enough power to establish themselves as “the real Canadians”, our country seems to be destined to remain in a state of cultural flux – our very identity defined by the fact that we are a polyglot, multichromatic, practically diverse society. Please don’t interpret these words as condemnation – as a child of an immigrant I see the immense value of having a wealth of cultural experience easily within reach at any given moment (at least in the major urban centres).

However, this multiculturalism comes with distinct challenges, as the Toronto police have discovered:

The Toronto police service has started an internal review on how officers conduct searches and arrests when dealing with people from various religions. The review was sparked by a human rights complaint in July 2008 after a police officer removed a Muslim woman’s hijab, or head scarf.

The police force is considering implementing training for cadets on the proper ways to deal with potentially dicey situations involving people from a variety of religious faiths. For those of you who don’t know, some Islamic scholars maintain that all Muslims, particularly women, should dress modestly and cover the skin. This is purportedly to forebear any sexual temptation from distracting the thoughts away from holy contemplation. This practice is by no means unique to Islam – many Christian and Jewish sects preach the same doctrine of concealing the flesh to keep the thoughts pure (in fact, the more I learn about Islam the more I suspect there’s almost nothing unique in that teaching at all). However, under the stricter interpretation of sharia law, many Muslims consider it necessary to cover nearly all of a woman’s flesh, and most certainly the hair and parts of the face, when in the public view of men outside the family. This practice varies from sect to sect, with some Muslim women wearing no covering, some wearing a simply head scarf and others covering their bodies completely in the now almost universally-reviled symbol of fundamentalist Islamic oppression, the burqa.

Some who are more generous and liberal than I point out that freedom of religious expression is enshrined in the law, and is paramount to a free society. “Besides,” they might say, “where is the harm in the simple outward expression of religious conviction?”

Enter the Sikh kirpan.

Brampton’s Sukhwant Singh, in his early 50s, has been charged with attempted murder and aggravated assault, Peel police say. Singh’s next court appearance is on Thursday. Any weapon could have been used in the attack, but the fact that it was a kirpan alarms Sikh leaders who fear the incident will rouse objections once again over one’s right to wear the religious symbol in public.

A prominent Brampton lawyer, Majit Mangat was stabbed during an altercation outside a Sikh temple in Brampton. Ordinarily this would have been an isolated tragic incident with no far-reaching significance, except for the fact that the weapon used in the assault was a kirpan, a ceremonial dagger worn by Sikh men. In almost all cases, the dagger is merely a decoration; an accessory that is never drawn, even in anger. Having lived for several years in Brampton myself, with a very large Sikh population (Canada is second only to India in terms of the number of Sikhs – this is the absolute number, not a per-capita calculation), I never heard of a kirpan being used as a weapon against another person. However, this incident raises the important question that will define race relations in Canada for generations to come: how much should we allow common sense to be trumped by religious practice?

In my mind, allowing anyone to carry a weapon of any kind is not a good idea. I don’t care how symbolic or ceremonial it it supposed to be. If my religious convictions require me to carry a rifle in my hands because Jesus could arrive at any moment and I have to help him fight off Satan’s zombie hordes, common sense (and the law) would dictate that the danger I pose to society in general outweighs my religious autonomy. Such is the case here.

I offer the following solution to this conundrum: stop allowing exceptions for religious practice. Whereas cultures are constantly adapting to the times in which they find themselves, religious edicts are absolute. If my culture tells me it’s okay to smoke marijuana in public, but I live in Canada (except in Vancouver – I love this city) then I have to adapt to the laws of the land in which I find myself. However, if I do so for religious reasons, I am forbidden by the will of Jah to restrain my pot-smokery. By allowing these cultural practices to continue under the banner of “religious freedom” makes the entire argument more convoluted than it has to be. If the law, for example, allowed cultural practice to continue provided it posed no danger to public safety or the execution of lawful policing, but refused to make exception religious practice, then the carrying of the kirpan would be a moot point. As some of the temple elders suggest in the article, the kirpan can be substituted with a smaller blade (of the kind that all people in Canada are permitted to carry religion notwithstanding) or one that cannot be removed from its sheath. This allows the cultural practice to continue unabated in such a way as it does not trump public safety.

Neither of these cases are particular causes for concern. However, a number of years ago, debate broke out in the Ontario legislature as to whether or not Muslims should be self-policing under sharia law rather than the provincial civil court. To any rational person, allowing religious law to trump civil law is a ludicrous position to take; especially since sharia law is subject to wide interpretation depending on the imam, and is nearly always gender biased against women, sometimes with violent results. For some reason, this debate wasn’t immediately laughed out of the courts. That reason, of course, was that this was a religious issue and we have to be so careful about protecting the rights of people to practice their religion.

I call bullshit.

The second your religious freedoms interfere with my secular freedoms, I’m kicking your religious freedom to the curb. I am motivated in this conviction not only by the fact that I regard all religion as superstition and nonsensical illogic, but because from a practical purpose it makes more sense. Secular rights are developed with ethical and social principles in mind. Religious “rights” are developed from some person/group’s interpretation of a mistranslated book that is centuries old and is expressly forbidden to be applied contextually. Forcing modern reality to adapt to an ancient set of prescripts that cannot be universally agreed upon, even among its purported adherents, is the height of arrogance and folly.

The right to cultural expression is a good one – we live in a multicultural society. At some point, cultures are at least partially defined by shared religious practice. While I think that’s a shame, it has been the way humanity has operated for centuries and will, at least for the time being, continue to be so. However, knowing how poorly religion fares when attempting to govern a just and enlightened society, we must stop bending over backwards to protect freedom of religious expression when it blatantly contravenes secular civil rights and public safety. Teaching police officers specific methods to be sensitive to the cultural practices of different peoples is a wonderful idea. So is adjusting the laws that govern how the kirpan can be worn. But allowing religion to contravene good sense? I can’t get behind that.

Cognitive Semantics – pt. II

This post originally appeared on Facebook on May 25th, 2009

After re-reading my post of a couple days ago, I realize there is a big piece missing from my discussion of “smart” decision-making: the concept of Value. I allude to it in my example about driving 2 hours to run for 30 minutes, but I feel it needs more explanation.

What I seemed to suggest in my last post is that there is a process of intellect/sagacity/acumen calculation that will help people make smart decisions. If I were to try and boil that process down into a mathematical equation, it would look something like this:

Good = A + B + C + D + E + …

Where “Good” is a ranking of how positive or negative the decision is for the decider, and “A – E” are the various likely outcomes of the decision (i.e., A is money spent, B is fun had, C is social status gained, and so on hypothetically). However, this assumes that all of the outcomes are equally important, which they may not be. For example, a person on welfare can obtain a great deal of social status and fun from buying a brand new car. However, the amount of money spent is prohibitive (indeed, it would impossible for this person to eat or pay rent or do anything… even buy gas). On the other hand, a millionnaire would not mind paying for a new car, but may not gain as much social status (“Oh, you bought a new Camry. How… common. Excuse me, I need to finish my arugula and monocle sandwich”) Clearly each outcome does not carry the same weight for each person. Two people with different values may reach the same (or indeed, different) decisions using the same intellect and acumen, but via very distinct processes.

Perhaps a better equation might look like this:

Good = Aa + Bb + Cc + Dd + Ee + …

Where “a – e” represent the VALUE the decider places on each outcome. For example, our two would-be car buyers: the welfare recipient places a much higher value on making prudent financial decisions (insofar as a $20,000 purchase is concerned) than he/she does on achieving social status and having fun than the millionnaire, for whom social status is real currency. Consequently, the value of A+B+C(welfare) and A+B+C(millionnaire) are equal, but a(welfare) is extremely large, while a(millionnaire) is much smaller. Conversely, b(welfare) and c(welfare) are small, while being larger values for the millionnaire.

This form of the equation quickly becomes ridiculous as one realizes that there are an immeasurable number of potential outcomes that rank from trivial to potentially catastrophic. Giving each one of these outcomes an equal weight in the decision-making process would necessarily give preference to decisions which had extremely small but positive outcomes, and made no impact at all. A third piece is required, which is the PROBABILITY of each outcome occurring.

An equation might then look like this:

Good = Aa1 + Bb2 + Cc3 + Dd4 + Ee5 + …

Fans of British philosophy will recognize this as a re-hashing of Utilitarian calculus, the principle of “the greatest good for the greatest number” without the ethical connotations. This isn’t confined to making moral decisions, but a suggestion for a crude way in which people make decisions (or should make decisions). It is fairly evident that the value that people place on different outcomes is a significant component of what decisions are made that is completely independent of intellect, wisdom or intelligence.

So who cares? I guess I just wanted to point out that a decision that seems stupid by some standards (most usually my own standards) might in fact be motivated by the value the decider places on different outcomes. If I don’t think something is important (for example, I don’t put a lot of value on fitting into a crowd), I will question (and usually insult) the decision that someone else has made. However, this is a difference in values, not in cognitive ability.

HOWEVER, this issue of values does not side-step the first post’s point, which is that when making decisions, one should spend time and be aware of the ramifications of their decision, then consider the value they put on each. Making decisions from gut-feeling or “emotional reasoning” will cause you to end up deciding on different courses of action from the same set of principles, instead of making the decision that has the greatest good the greatest number of times.

Obviously decision-making is far more complicated, and we are people, not computers. However, if the goal is to make well-informed and prudent decisions, it would benefit us to put more time into thinking about why we do the things we do, rather than just doing them and sorting out the problems afterward.

Canada: now racism free!

It’s always nice to see how multiculturalism and universal tolerance abounds in this great country of ours.

Or maybe not so much.

Two Ottawa youth were attacked by a group of allegedly Palestinian men while walking home from the bar. The group of men shouted anti-Semitic slurs at the two students (only one of whom is Jewish) and attacked them with a goddamn machete!

I’m not going to weigh in on who is wrong and who is right in the middle eastern conflict. I honestly don’t know enough to have an informed opinion (except to know that the religious reasons are bullshit). However, that being said, I think we can all get behind the principle of not attacking people with machetes on the streets of Ottawa.

Can’t we?

Cognitive Semantics

This post originally appeared on Facebook on May 23rd, 2009

Because it’s come up in a couple of conversations recently, and because I’ve been thinking about it, I thought I’d share some of my thoughts on some stuff. Specifically, the lines I draw between the concepts of being “Wise”, “Intelligent”, “Intellectual” and “Smart”.

Wisdom is first on this list because it is probably the most easily-defined of these concepts. When I say someone is “wise” or their judgment exhibits a quality of wisdom, I am refering to their perceptive grasp of the relationships between entities. Conventionally, wisdom is a result of having a rich life experience; that is to say, a person who has lived through a lot is more wise than someone who has not. I think that experience is one method by which wisdom can be gained, but it is not the only one. Wisdom is knowing how different things (people, events, forces) interact with each other, and what kind of result one can expect to see from a given set of circumstances. As an example, a wise person knows that putting their hand on a stove will result in pain. They may know that from personal experience, or from a deeper grasp of the underlying concepts of the interplay between hot objects and body parts, and what is likely to happen when those come together. To use a different example, a wise person may know that marrying a person with a fundamentally different value system is probably not a great idea; not because he/she has experienced it before (or indeed, had friends who did), but because he/she understands something about human relationships and what makes them work well.

Intelligence is a concept that dovetails with Wisdom, but is a separate entity. Intelligence is a quality of intuitive grasp and adaptability. An intelligent person solves problems in novel situations because he/she has the ability to see things from a number of angles, and to create innovative solutions that are not guided by any previous experience. In a recent debate with a friend, she suggested to me that if a person from North America was dropped in an African jungle, his/her intelligence would be useless to them. I argued that their knowledge would not help them survive, but if they were particularly intelligent, they would be able to adapt and solve problems, without the need for specific instruction. Like Wisdom, the application of Intelligence requires an underlying grasp of the relationships between things, but Intelligence itself is not tied to any observed phenomenon. One cannot learn to be intelligent, though one can, conceivably, be tutored in skills to apply the intelligence he/she does have.

Intellectual refers to a concept I learned in a social psychology course I took back in Waterloo called “need for cognition”. This is the willingness (or tendency) of a person to spend time thinking about things. Some people have a propensity to look at things in dry, rational terms, or engage in pursuits that have a purely cognitive element to them. Others prefer to experiment in the real world, or to look at the way things happen in a pragmatic sense rather than distilling them to their constituent parts. As an example, two people attend a concert (for the sake of argument, we’ll say it’s me and Joel, although this is not really a very accurate abstraction). Both of us like the music the band is playing. Joel likes it because he likes it. His practical experience of the music is a positive one. I, on the other hand, am impressed by the innovative chord structures, the use of harmony, how it departs from other music I have heard, and other more empirical measures of quality. While we both arrived at the same conclusion – the music was good – but my appreciation was influenced by intellectual appraisal, whereas Joel just likes what he likes.

The final concept is that of being Smart. I judge Smartness by the quality of decisions a person makes. Given a set of circumstances, a person has a number of options on how to proceed. A Smart person makes choices that have the greatest long-term utility (or, if you disagree with that, fill in your own definition of what a smart decision is). Smart is the most difficult of these ideas to really put a solid definition around, because it overlaps a lot with the idea of “Taste”. I may think that driving 2 hours so you can enter a 30-minute running event is not a very smart use of time, but that’s because I’m really lazy and don’t like running. However, someone putting a value on experience and community running and racing and variety may think it is completely worth going to a new place.

It is important to differentiate these concepts, because while they are often used interchangably, they are not the same thing. I know many people who are very wise, but when confronted with a new situation where they cannot draw on their experience or grasp, they struggle. I know a number of very intelligent people who don’t think about things before doing them, trying out new solutions all the time like a person trying to assemble a hang-glider after falling off a cliff.

For me, a smart person makes decisions that are guided by the above three qualities. He/she looks at prospective options and evaluate whether he/she knows how the elements will interact, and what the long-term repercussions will be. If the situation is a novel one (i.e., no experience of how it’s solved), he/she uses his/her intelligence to intuit some novel approaches, and then intellectually tests what is likely to happen if he/she follows each option. This brings me to the antonym, stupid. A stupid person blindly makes decisions without considering the outcome beforehand. Stupid decisions are made out of a lack of wisdom (not knowing what will happen if X meets Y), a lack of intelligence (not being able to guess how X might affect Y in light of a lack of prior experience), and/or a lack of intellect (not spending the time to imagine how differences in X, like the presence of Z, might change Y).

A stupid person is a person who makes stupid decisions. It does not necessarily mean a lack of any of the above qualities, but it does mean the lack of the use of at least one. I don’t think stupid should be considered as a perjorative term; that is to say, stupidity isn’t inherently negative, it just tends to lead to negative results. It is my opinion that we should all try to exercise each of the three underlying concepts to accomplish the fourth.

The above are all, of course, simply my thoughts, opinions, and semantics. A big chunk of the inspiration for this (aside from the fact that it’s come up in conversation a few times over the past couple of weeks) came from reading “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” by Robert M. Pirsig. It’s a good ‘un if you haven’t read it already.

Why “everyone’s entitled to their opinion” is a lie

As children we were inducted into some terrible and damaging lies perpetrated by society (usually at the hands of our parents). Some of these were benign, like Santa and the Easter Bunny; some were intended as comfort but led us astray, I’m thinking here of guardian angels or monsters under the bed being afraid of light; but there was one that was truly abhorrent and is responsible for a whole host of problems in modern life.

That lie, my friends, is the oft-parroted screed: “everyone’s entitled to their opinion.”

Before I get started tearing this idiotic statement down, I would like to formally acknowledge the hypocrisy present in the fact that I am presenting my opinion that not everyone is entitled to an opinion. Hopefully by the end of this post I will successfully demonstrate that there are some people who are entitled; not by virtue of their specialness but by the way in which they arrive at their opinions. There, it has been disclaimed.

A great anecdote pops into my head, which hearkens me back to Grade 13 (OAC) English class with Ms. Mooney. A classmate of mine presented some half-thought-through metaphorical interpretation of something in Robertson Davie’s Fifth Business. Ms. Mooney pointed out that such an interpretation did not seem to fit the overall theme of the book, and in fact ran completely contrary to other sections in the work. Haughtily, the classmate shot back “well, everyone’s entitled to their opinion,” to which Ms. Mooney replied “yes, but yours is wrong.”

Colloquially used, “everyone is entitled to their opinion” means that anyone can think whatever they want, and they have the right to express that opinion, have it listened to, and be considered alongside other opinions. In a legal sense, I suppose it is true that it is against the principles of free speech to restrict someone from expressing an opinion – in that specific context I suppose everyone does have the right to say whatever they want. However, this is taken much too far. There are any number of people out there who should not be expressing an opinion on anything. I’m not suggesting they aren’t allowed to, I’m saying that their opinions are so damaging and retarding of actual thought and progress that it erodes the opinions of people who actually do know what they’re talking about.

I’m talking in circles a bit here, so I am going to back up a bit to first principles. I want to first start by providing my definition of opinion. The Free Dictionary provides the following definition:

A belief or conclusion held with confidence but not substantiated by positive knowledge or proof.

Which, I suppose, is close to the colloquial meaning. Obviously if there is positive knowledge or proof of an idea it becomes a fact, not merely an opinion. The problem with this definition is that the standard of “proof” is an illusory one. People today have finally caught up to the methodological skeptic philosophers of the 17th century and have happily begun telling everyone (with faux smugness) that “it’s impossible to prove anything.” In a certain metaphysical sense that is an accurate statement – outside of mathematics it is impossible to have 100% proof that anything is true. The definition of proof then comes under fire, because nothing is completely unassailable. For example, I can doubt the existence of the sun, preferring instead to believe that there is a giant light bulb floating in the air that is controlled by guy wires. “Evidence, reason and logic be damned,” I might say “I know a floating light bulb when I see one and you can’t prove otherwise.”

So we need to establish a standard for “proof” first. I would offer the following:

Sufficient evidence and/or logic to establish beyond reasonable doubt that an explanation for an event or phenomenon is an accurate description of reality.

Sure, there are huge problems with it: what is “reasonable” doubt? What is “reality”? I am happy to dispense with these as questions suitable for contemplation by metaphysicists, who in fact have a great deal to say on the matter. For the purposes of this discussion we can define reasonable as “in accordance with fair-minded logic” and reality as “the state of affairs from an independent observer” and end the ontological portion of this exercise.

Having established this standard for proof –  which does not, by the way, preclude the idea that new evidence could disprove something – we can begin to have a meaningful discussion about what an opinion is. In this case, an opinion is a world-view (I like Piaget’s term schema for a world view, and will use it hereafter unitalicized) for which there is insufficient evidence one way or another to demonstrate beyond reasonable doubt that an event is, in fact, reality.

There are any number of forms such an opinion can take. For example, there is no “right answer” when it comes to economic theory. There are examples of times when allowing privatization of a field produces better outcomes than government control would – a great example of this is the Human Genome Project, in which Celera developed a private venture that was much faster and cheaper than the international body in sequencing the genome. However, there are similarly examples of circumstances where public administration is far superior to private competition – the 407 Highway in Southern Ontario is such an example, in which a toll highway was constructed with public funds, was subsequently privatized, then had to be bailed out by the government. In addressing any given problem (for example, ‘should the government privatize pharmaceutical insurance?’) there are opinions to be had on either side. Neither approach can prove its superiority in the hypothetical, and so legitimate debate can take place.

What is common to the opinions in the private/public debate is that there is (in addition to presumably some evidence) a logical and reasoned progression from agreed-upon first principles that diverges at some point to form two partially contradictory views on the same issue. For example, advocates of both public and private can agree on the meaning of terms like “money” and “savings” and “benefit.” While they may forecast the outcomes of those terms differently, they can at least agree to be using the same dictionary.

In this context, I would like to offer a clearer and more precise definition of opinion:

A belief or conclusion held with confidence, borne by logic and common first principles, that has not been or cannot be definitively proven.

All I’ve done is shoehorn in the thesis of my argument, which is that an opinion ought to be based on a combination of fact and, failing that, evidence-supported lines of reasoning. If it’s not possible to prove something (to reference my earlier example of the classmate in English), your opinion should be consistent with reality and you should be able to “show your work” – your audience should be able to see your thought process. I also put in the “first principles” thing simply because there are people who love to shift goalposts mid-argument and say “well that’s not what _____ means to me.” If you can’t agree a priori what you’re talking about then the argument is a waste of time and precious consonants (vowels are abundant and freeeeeeeeeee).

Why is this a better definition, or at least a more useful one? Consider the alternative case, in which opinion means merely whatever idea crosses your mind at a given moment. It must be given the same consideration as a hypothesis that has been scrupulously and carefully worked out. My brainwave that the sun is a giant floating light bulb is therefore equally valid (in an “all opinions are valid” sense) as your conjecture that it is in fact a ball of gas burning millions of miles away. The problem with tolerating my hare-brained pseudo-opinion in a fit of political magnanimity is that my interpretation has wildly different consequences than yours (yours allows space travel; mine necessitates the construction of a factory to build a replacement “sun” in anticipation of when this one burns out, and the giant A-frame ladder needed to install it). If my opinion is granted credence and equal time to yours (since everyone is entitled), I might be able to persuade some gullible fools into going along with it. Given a charismatic enough spokesperson and enough political pressure, we will be forced to “teach the controversy” of sun vs. bulb in schools.

I am clearly drawing a parallel here, which should illustrate to you that this kind of thing can and does happen, with disastrous results.

Furthermore, I think it’s useful to recognize that some opinions trump others in our own lives. One of the most over-used and perhaps most moronic statements of our common parlance is “agree to disagree” when it comes to matters of clear right and wrong. A friend of mine delights in tormenting another friend (the two are roomies) by saying something completely outlandish and then, when challenged, smirking and saying “whatever, I guess we’ll just have to agree to disagree.” There is only one circumstance in which “agree to disagree” is a valid statement, and that’s in a deontological argument (ethics, discussions of “the good”). People have conflicting values, and it’s impossible to establish which values are “right” and “wrong”. Further explaining the difference would require another explanation nearly as long as this post, so I’ll save it for another time and get back to my original point.

In order to progress as a society, to develop new ideas and solve new problems, we must do away with this pernicious lie that everyone deserves to have their opinion heard. I have attempted to show the logic and reasoning from first principles behind why I feel this way. I once had a roommate say to me “the only reason you’re right more than I am is that you never say anything that people can really object to!” as though it were some sort of vice to have thought things through. However, I want to make it clear that I am not advocating the censorship of dissenting opinions or even crackpot lunatics. What I am advocating is that we stop lying to our children when we tell them that everyone opinion is equally valid. What if we told them instead “provided there’s something reasonable behind it, every opinion has at least some validity”? Definitely not as catchy, but not as destructive either.

At least, that’s my opinion.

Free Speech means just that

One of my favourite quotes (which is actually a paraphrase, not a quote) is so commonly referenced that it has become almost cliché:

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”

This is, of course, famously attributed to Marie François Arouet, better known as the French philosopher Voltaire. It is probably the single greatest encapsulation of one of the most liberal of enlightened philosophies, that of Free Speech. Free speech is the hallmark of liberal, enlightened and modern societies; so much so that we often take it for granted. Of course, if you live in China, that’s quite another story.

Google China has had issues with the oppressive (use of this word is entirely opinion, since it’s an extremely relative term) censorship laws the government has forced on all internet use in the country. As a result, they recently moved out of China and is redirecting their traffic to, which for reasons I don’t quite understand is not subject to the same censorship. The Chinese government has reacted by accusing Google of pushing an ideological stance rather than respecting China’s repressive, backward and wholly counter-productive “Great Firewall” mentality. Understandably, the rest of the world has reacted by saying “Good on ya, Google.”

Free speech isn’t just a nice idea. Free speech allows the flow of information and the creation of new ideas. It accelerates discovery and ensures that tyranny cannot survive. This is the reason why the first thing a totalitarian regime does is crack down on critical press, and the reason why the writers of the US Constitution (a fantastic document despite one’s feelings about the USA) and the Canadian Charter made sure to enshrine free speech and free press as paramount. Free speech is more than simply a boon to the average citizen – it ensures the progression and long-term health of a society.

So here’s my issue: Ann Coulter. The absurd blonde dancing monkey (the media is calling her a ‘pundit’ – I will feign no such respect) was scheduled to appear at a conservative student’s association event at the University of Ottawa this past week. To digress for a moment – conservatives, why on EARTH would you associate yourself with Ann Coulter? That would be like liberals taking their cues from L. Ron Hubbard! Find someone less insane and eye-rollingly clueless to represent your cause. Anyway, back to the matter at hand. Ann was supposed to speak to the UofO, and the president of the university sent her a letter reminding her that free speech laws in Canada specifically make exception for hate speech, and she should be careful in light of her previous statements that she can be prosecuted if she says something that advocates hate against a specific group.

Being the logical, moderate and insightful person that she is, Ann of course had a reasonable response: she said that she was the victim of a hate crime. I am almost tempted to say I wish a hate crime one day actually PERFORMED on everyone who cries “hate crime” inappropriately. Scratch that, I’m taking out the equivocation. You can quote me on this. I fervently hope that anyone who calls a mild rebuke, a conscientious disagreement, or a helpful letter of warning a “hate crime” is beaten senseless by a mob of skinheads or religious extremists. There, that takes care of any political ambitions I might have. A hate crime is a real thing, and misusing the word ‘hate’ makes a mockery of anyone who has legitimately suffered for a cause or as an accident of birth.

Some protesters showed up to Ann’s speech, she panicked, and chickened out, canceling the event. In true Chicken Little fashion, she cites the violence by the 2000 protesters who were there. Police estimates put it around 1000, most of whom were people trying to attend the event. She called UofO a “bush league” school (which may be warranted, but still… ouch!), completely unaware of the triple entendre (since she was very much part of Bush’s league, and due to the high quality/relative proportion of the female student body). She then ran lovingly into the arms of Calgary, bastion of ignorance and bigotry for Canada.

This story is not really a propos of anything, except that it highlights a glaring hypocrisy in Canada’s free speech laws. What it boils down to for me is that speech is either free or it isn’t. In my mind, there is no special status for hate speech – it deserves no special attention or regulation. Well-intentioned but philosophically bankrupt lefties are betraying the very idea of Free Speech by saying “your speech is as free as we decide it is.” I say this will full awareness of the fact that there are people out there who speak free hate against me and my parents’ marriage (for those who don’t know, my father is black and my mother is white). I have read their hate speech, I have read speech against LGBT people, Natives, immigrants (of which my father is one), Jews, Roma, any group under the sun. Not once have I ever said “they shouldn’t be allowed to say that.” There is a very good reason for this.

Speech is the way we express ideas. Ideas, once spoken, are subject to debate. Good ideas (women’s suffrage, civil rights, gay rights) prosper, while bad ideas (slavery, bigotry, anti-Semitism) fall by the wayside. It’s no accident that societies with free speech have better human rights and overall healthier societies – it’s directly causally linked. The bad ideas I listed before were all legally enshrined in the same countries that have free speech; however, over time the free flow of new ideas pushed the bad ones to the fringes. This is only possible when people are allowed to say what they think and be taken to task for their ideas. Prohibiting certain types of speech is not the answer to a progressive society; it actively retards progression. This is not to say that someone inciting violence shouldn’t be prosecuted for it, but prosecution should come on the grounds that it is violent, not because it’s “hateful”.

The side benefit to allowing bigots to speak their mind (aside from the fact that their writing is usually of such a poor quality that it is easy to identify and dismiss them readily) is that the bigots often represent a real dilemma bubbling below the surface. We’ve seen recently what happens when such resentment is allowed to go unchecked.

There are a few moments in history where conservatives are right and liberals are wrong. This, sadly, is one of them.

The Forces of Stupid

Battle lines have been drawn in the intellectual plains. The respective armies have gathered and are unleashing holy hell on each other. This is not the oft-referenced battle between the Forces of Good and the Forces of Evil. No this battle is much more insidious. This is a battle between the Forces of Good and the Forces of Stupid.

Who are represented on these two sides? Warriors for the Forces of Good (FoG) include scientists, secular humanists, and those in all fields who make a genuine effort to be conscientious and thoughtful in all issues before picking a side.

Representing the Forces of Stupid are:

  • Creationists
  • Anti-vaccinationists
  • Tea-Partiers
  • Conservatives (surely not all of them, but definitely the ones who are doing all of the talking)
  • 9/11 Truthers, Holocaust Deniers, Illuminati conspiracy theorists, etc.

These are fights where there is a clear right and a clear wrong. Legitimate disagreement is possible when two sides have a philosophical difference when interpreting the same set of facts (most ethical dichotomies, the actual nature of subatomic physics, whether to get pizza or Chinese for dinner). In some fights, the controversy is resolved when new facts come to light that clearly define what is real, and what isn’t. Not so, in the minds of the Forces of Stupid. What is common to those on the FoS side is that they believe they know the “real truth” without taking any time to examine any evidence whatsoever.

By way of weaponry, these two opposing forces seem almost completely mismatched. The FoG use fact and reasoning as their chief weapons. They are able to craft logical, precise and nuanced arguments that cut as close to the heart of truth as is humanly possible. The FoS, on the other hand are armed simply with wild, unsupported assertions and every logical fallacy under the sun including personal attacks, erecting false equivalence, and their favourite tactic: straw men.

The difference, however, comes in to play when one examines the defensive armaments available to each side. The FoG, believing that their weaponry is so far superior to that of their opponents, use it also as their chief defense. They counter the flimsy and weak attacks of the armies of Stupid by cutting their attacks to pieces, parrying each volley of half-baked accusation and allegation with razor-sharp deductive precision, rendering their foes’ attacks harmless. The FoS, on the other hand, are shielded in an impregnable fortress of denial and lethe, first refusing to believe that their attacks have been utterly defeated and then turning around, forgetting that it happened at all, and re-launching their original, refuted, attack.

Why is this battle happening? Aside from the obvious fact that people disagree about things, and some of those things are highly important, who are these two opposing forces fighting for? In any war, those doing the actual fighting make up only a small percentage of the general population, being strongly outnumbered by civilians. This struggle is no different. There are a large number of people who are undecided on these issues, whether through benign ignorance or cautious equivocation. The more of these people either side can win over to their way of thinking, the stronger the force becomes and the more that side can sway decisions.

So why do these two forces appear to be on equal footing? Why don’t the FoS just rout their opponent, having completely dismantled their attack apparatus? The sad truth is, because people are stupid. Now, I don’t mean stupid as in unintelligent or as a necessarily pejorative term, I simply mean that the average person does not latch on to reasoned thought as being the only way to make decisions. This happens for a number of reasons – thinking is hard work, reality is more nuanced than a soundbyte can encapsulate, they are not educated enough to use logical tools (this is the biggie, in my opinion) – but at least part of it has to do with the fact that religion has elevated “faith” to be equivalent to logic. The argument is that evidence and reason are good for some things, but it’s equally valid to simply believe in something.

I posit that the FoS are able to appeal to that type of thinking. It gives people all the satisfaction of “knowing” that something is “true” without having to do any of the hard work required to establish verifiable truth. The FoS believe in their heart of hearts that what they believe is 100% un-nuanced reality and that anyone who believes differently is insane. This explains why when an argument is soundly defeated, the FoS simply shift the goalposts and say that the “real truth” is still there, it’s just a little different than they were saying before (or worse, that they’d been saying that all along, completely ignoring/forgetting their previous statements). This is absolutely because of faith-based “reasoning” – just look up Thomas Aquinas’ “proofs” of the existence of God, or any theological argument for that matter. This also explains the phenomenon of what has been called Crank Magnetism, where people who believe in one crackpot theory often believe in, and/or come to the aid of those who believe in, many other types of unsupported/unsupportable assertions and belief systems.

I’m not saying that belief is wrong. FoS foot soldiers often point out that people believe in science and then try their damnedest to forge a false equivalence between religious belief and belief in the evidence. However, these two types of belief are not the same. Scientific beliefs and tenets come from observing phenomena in the world, noting how they behave, discerning a pattern, and then drawing a conclusion (yes, I am aware that scientists often go in with a model in their minds already which can bias the conclusion, but that is the flaw of the scientist, not the science). Contrast this to religious belief, wherein the conclusions are drawn first, and evidence is tortured, teased, stretched and cajoled to fit the prescribed pattern. In scientific belief, evidence that does not fit the model is evidence that the model doesn’t explain reality well or is wrong and the model is abandoned; whereas in religious belief, evidence must be changed to fit the model, which can never be abandoned.

In order for the Forces of Good to triumph, it is necessary to take a number of steps. I will detail these in another post (as this one is already getting a bit lengthy) but they are, in brief:

  • Understand your own position
  • Be consistent
  • Counter value arguments with value arguments
  • Speak to the audience (those undecideds)
  • Refuse to compromise truth
  • Be respectful of the opposing side’s humanity, if not (and definitely not) their beliefs

The true path to winning this war is to educate the populace, since educated people are more likely and more able to use logic as a decision-making tool. Ever notice how conservatives want to gut education spending, or leave higher education only within the reach of the rich? Ever wonder why? It’s because uneducated people are where their votes come from.

This battle is far from over, but the smarter we get, the less likely we are to end up fighting for the Stupid.

The danger of the downward comparison

A downward comparison is a psychological/philosophical phenomenon in which a person evaluates the goodness of some object by contrasting it with an object he/she deems to be worse (or, in all technicality, “less good”). This is useful in ethics when evaluating “the lesser of two evils” or even in economics when trying to make a decision between different, unwanted, but ultimately necessary outcomes.

It is more dangerous when it occurs in a person’s self-appraisal. A downward comparison does not tell one how good he is, only whether or not there are others worse off. While occasionally useful, downward comparisons must be balanced with their counterpart, upward comparisons to give an idea of where you stand in terms of the things you care about.

For example, it might be very important to me that I am an ethical person. I put great personal value on making the right decision in ethically tempting situations (I wouldn’t, for example, steal money from a blind person not because I can’t but because I feel that I shouldn’t). I put such great value on this trait, in fact, that it is central to my self-concept – it’s very important that I see myself as an ethical person. I maintain my sense of self but constantly comparing myself to infamous historical dictators. After all, I am much more ethical than Idi Amin, or Stalin, or Pol Pot… the list can go on. Since, my reasoning goes, I have not committed the wholesale slaughter of thousands of innocent people (nor could I imagine myself doing so if given the opportunity), I must be an ethical person.

It doesn’t take a lot of brain power to see how quickly my reasoning can be picked apart – being better than Stalin simply means that I’m not one of the most brutal despots in the history of the world. This fact says absolutely nothing about my absolute standing as an ethical person. I could be cheating on my wife, victimizing my employees, or voting for the Conservative party. All of these are clearly unethical acts that are not in any way comparable to mass murder, but still pretty heartless. However, because I am relying on downward comparisons to inform my self-image, I don’t ever have to consider whether or not my self-opinion is justified (or at least not until I’ve murdered a few hundred people). All I have to do is make sure I am not the worst, and I can continue to believe anything I want about myself.

The same argument can be made about entirely upward comparisons – that you’d feel terrible about yourself for not being the best. I would argue that it is unlikely that someone would completely despair of ever being good enough when compared to the best, but that’s simply a belief statement, not a rational argument. The fact is that without making both upward and downward comparisons, it is not possible to have an accurate self-assessment.

Why am I talking about this? Two words:

Jersey Shore

Who watches this crap? Why on Earth would anyone want to give up valuable time watching orange monkeys parade around with behavior that is only matched in its ridiculousness by their haircuts? What possible benefit could one gain from viewing this show?

Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for the entertainment value of television. Not every show needs to educate its audience or deal with heavy, hard-hitting issues, but you should at the very least walk away having learned some sort of lesson – whether it be the resolution of some ethical situation or a new way of dealing with your friends more positively… even the Naked Man had some value!

When I asked this question to friends, the response I got was invariably “it’s just harmless fun” or “they’re so stupid it’s funny”, but what I heard most of all was “they are more stupid than I am, and that makes me feel better.” You want to know how I know this? Because I do it too. I used to watch Maury Povitch on days when I didn’t feel like going into the office on time. Almost without an exception, there would be an unemployed, illiterate, lazy moron who had, against all laws of nature, managed to spawn a child with some equally repulsive woman who now was “900% sure” that this particular waste of skin, and not the 4-5 other wastes of skin she’d slept with that month, was the sperm donor. Why did I watch this show? Aside from my deep-seated fear of accidentally fathering a child and cheering when DNA proved that the dude is not the father, it made me feel better about myself. Even though I was sitting on the couch in my bathrobe at 10:00 am on a weekday, surely I was better off than these throwbacks!

Again, it doesn’t take a lot of work to pick apart the gigantic holes in my logic. So what if I was better than they? So what if I wasn’t scraping the bottom of the barrel of humanity? I saw my smug self-satisfaction reflected on the faces of the audience members, whose lives were so incomplete as to attend a taping of the Maury Povitch show (unless they went for lulz). I switched my perspective, and realized that I was exactly the same as the audience, and there were a lot of people who were doing much more with their lives. So I got my ass off the couch, showered, and went to get some work done.

“Well that’s great”, you might be saying, “but it’s just a harmless television show”. I disagree with your use of the term “harmless”. There is harm in watching these kinds of shows, insofar as it encourages us to think of ourselves as superior. We become complacent in our search for excellence. We allow opportunities to improve slip through our fingers because ‘at least we’re not as bad as _____.’ My reply: so what?

There’s a much more drastic example of the dangers of downward comparisons – Canada’s health care system. Compared to other OECD countries, health care in Canada costs far more per capita and delivers, at best, equal-quality care. However, instead of taking dramatic steps to improve the state of our system, we sit back on our laurels and say “at least we’re not as bad as the USA.” The American system sucks; nobody’s denying that. But to compare ourselves to the worst and think that somehow that justifies our near-total inaction for wholesale change is the same logic that kept me unshowered and on the couch.

Here’s my point. While it’s important to feel good about yourself, that kind of reassurance is best for all when it comes from positive identification with those we wish to emulate, not from distancing ourselves from those we hate. Simple downward comparison will never move us out of the status quo of mediocrity. While not everyone can be the best, that’s not an excuse for not trying our best. The more positive examples we surround ourselves with, the more motivation we have to improve (and the more models of improvement we have at our disposal). The more we soothe ourselves by allowing ourselves to be lulled by downward comparisons, the more likely we are to stay exactly where we are, and the less likely we are to make life better for ourselves or for others.

Nova Scotia Cross Burning – Why Indeed?

Two Nova Scotia men have been remanded to police custody for erecting and burning a cross on the lawn of an interracial couple.

From the article:

The brothers are accused of erecting a two-metre-high cross, with a hanging noose, in front of the home of Michelle Lyon, their father’s cousin, and Shayne Howe and yelling racial slurs at the terrified couple and their children, who were inside at the time.

While this is understandably a horrible thing to happen to anyone, especially in Canada where we like to think of ourselves as being non-racist, the part that I found interesting was this:

Granville Rehberg, Nathan and Justin’s father, said he’s “real sick” about what happened early Sunday and equally baffled. “I don’t understand,” Rehberg told CBC News in a voice that cracked with emotion. “I got nieces that have black children. I got cousins that are black. My family is not racist. I just don’t know what to say.”

Commenters on the CBC website and the news anchor expressed similar dismay and bafflement. How could such a thing happen “in this day and age?” Aren’t we past such things? Especially in Canada where we don’t have the same history of lynch mobs and cross-burnings?

The answer is easy: Because Canada is racist, we just don’t talk about it.

If you haven’t thrown up your hands in outrage and disgust and closed the window yet, I’ll clarify what I mean. Racism is much more deep-seated than can be overcome in a few generations. What makes progress along the lines of eradication even more difficult is the fact that we’ve stopped talking about racism. We prefer, it seems, to stick our collective heads in the sand and act as though it isn’t a problem. I think of racism the same way I think of herpes: just because you ignore it doesn’t mean it goes away, and even when the symptoms subside, they can come back at any point.

What we see here in Nova Scotia is a racism outbreak. Nova Scotia is home to a surprisingly large number of black people – that is, surprising unless you know some of the history. Africville is an area in Halifax that was home to hundreds of recently-freed slaves and imports from Africa. Some black families in Nova Scotia can trace their lineage back hundreds of years. However, due to overt racism in the 1800s and early 20th century, and more subtle systemic (“polite”) racism in the latter half of the 1900s, black people in Canada have rarely been able to move into the upper middle class. Since race and class are closely related, and given the economic fortunes of the maritime provinces (largely agricultural, less industrial, economic decline in recent years due to fisheries changes), black people have commonly got the short end of the stick.

Herpes symptoms return whenever the body is immunosuppressed – the system is taxed and cannot fight off the virus. Racism similarly returns when the social system is under stress, such as economic hardship. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that this happened, because all the pieces were there – economic downturn, long history of cohabitation, large and easily-identifiable scapegoat group… it’s almost formulaic.

This event is tragic. Not only were the couple’s small children inside the house, and the couple themselves terrified, but the community at large (and indeed all of Canada) has been severely damaged by this act of hate. However, as the RCMP notes in the article, this isn’t a random act, nor is it the last we’ll see. Until large, wholesale sea changes are made in the way we deal with racial issues in Canada, we’ll never be able to completely divest ourselves of the racism virus. But we can’t act shocked and bewildered when it happens – we’re just lying to ourselves if we do.

The Placebo Effect

This post originally appeared on Facebook on January 27th, 2010.

Those of you who are not scientists may not be familiar with the term “placebo.” It is often equated in common language with “sugar pills”, or some sort of fake drug that doesn’t do anything. This is a reasonable proxy for what a placebo actually is. In a nutshell, a placebo is something that mimics the outward characteristic of an actual entity while having no real effect. This definition is imprecise, as placebos do have an effect, which is the whole point. The so-called “placebo effect” occurs when someone, believing that the placebo is actually the entity it is mimicking, undergoes some change that is attributed to the placebo, but is actually no more than their own psychosomatism (or naturally-occurring events). The key to this effect is that the person believes that what they are receiving is genuine.
Placebos are most commonly associated with clinical trials for medicines. One group, the experimental group, is given a new drug while the other, the control group, is given a placebo (often either a sugar pill, aspirin, or in the case of intravenous drugs, a saline solution). Once again, it is important to note that the patients (and in high-quality studies, the physicians) are not aware whether they are receiving the medicine or the placebo. Nowadays, placebo trials are less common, since medical ethics require that all patients receive at least the standard treatment that would be available if they weren’t in the trial.

There is a very good reason for doing this. The human mind is incredibly powerful. Sometimes merely the act of believing you’ve been given something that will help causes you to feel better. Indeed, there is marked symptom improvement even in some cases of terminal or chronic painful disease simply due to believing that the “treatment” you’re getting is fixing the problem. Thus, in order to determine concretely what effect, if any, a new treatment has, it is necessary to control for the placebo effect – make sure all patients are experiencing it. Any significant difference seen after the placebo effect has been accounted for is, therefore, a result of the real effects of the treatment.

(I’ve used the word “real” a couple of times here, and I anticipate that the more new-agey of you reading this will object to my co-opting that word for science. When I say “real”, I am using it the metaphysical sense – the real/non-real dichotomy – which states that those things which can be directly observed, measured, etc. are “real” while all other things are non-real. Please note that, although linguistically similar in English, non-real is not the same as “not real”. “Not real” means fictional, imaginary, having no basis in reality; whereas “Non-real” simply means that the concept is not a measurable, physically-based. Admittedly, a lot of things that are “non-real” are also “not real”, but that’s the subject of a different discussion. Think of it this way: unicorn farts are “real” in a metaphysical sense, but “not real” in a “WTF, UNICORNS?” sense.)

What all this means is that the simple act of believing something to be true causes our minds to behave as though it is true, even in those cases when the object of belief has no actual effect. Belief is absolutely essential to this process – if I tell you “hey, eat this sugar pill”, you’re not going to feel any better (unless you had low blood sugar, but then it’s no longer a placebo, init?).

Anyway, I said all of this as a preamble to the statement that’s been rattling around in my brain for a couple of months. It seemed particularly important to me. Maybe I am vastly overestimating the impact that my ideas have on people – maybe nobody cares about my inane ramblings and will just say “c’mon Ian, get to the swearing!” Anyway, here’s my fucking thesis:

If you have to believe in it for it to work, it’s a placebo.

Nobody intelligent denies the existence of the placebo effect. It’s been observed countless times in many different guises. However, we seem to be happy with confining it to the field of pharmaceuticals, even though it’s much bigger than that. It’s not a scientific thing, present only in beakers and pills, it’s a psychological phenomenon that occurs in the larger world around us, not only in terms of health but in the way we see the world. We carry good-luck charms, we have little personal rituals and idiosyncrasies, we talk about “fate” and “destiny”, we read horoscopes, the list goes on. This is stuff we all do, not just the crazy superstitious bunch. Remember that Seinfeld episode where George eats the éclair from the garbage? It was sitting right on top, only one bite out of it. It’s not as though coming in contact with the garbage can infused the food with virulent disease, but we all identified with the idea. That’s just a modified version of the placebo effect – we believe it’s dirty even though, rationally, we know it’s not.

So why am I talking about this? Why is this important? A placebo is given in a clinical trial as a kind of benign deception on the part of the experimenters. However, a patient in a hospital would never be given a placebo instead of real medicine in a treatment setting – we wouldn’t accept allowing someone to suffer when we have the ability to help. Why, then, are we completely willing to accept placebos in other forms – in some cases clamoring for them? Faith healing, homeopathy, crystals, reiki, tarot cards, psychics, chakras, qi, “The Secret”, placebos, placebos, placebos all. These are all examples of things that don’t work unless you believe they work.

I have, many times, heard the argument that there are other “ways of knowing” or “ways of measuring” that “Western science” can’t account for. This little fallacy will perhaps be discussed in another post, as this one is already getting really long. I’ll boil down my argument as concisely as possible here. There’s no such thing as “Western science”, there’s just “science”. Science is the act of observing the causal chain of a phenomenon to identify the “real”. If you’re not doing that, you’re not doing science. While we can argue metaphysics, ontology, theology, and all those good things from an East/West perspective, there’s only one kind of science. Everything else is slight-of-hand and superstition, washed down with a big handful of placebos.

This is the part where I provide my full-throated defence of all of the things I just attacked. It may come across in the previous paragraphs as though I think that placebos are bad, or that the only stuff that matters is the “real”. Some might believe this to be true, but I don’t. As I said, the mind is incredibly powerful. Sometimes when you’re faced with an incredibly-difficult situation (such as terminal illness, a big speech, an first date), you need to believe that you can get through it. Belief in ourselves is crucial, as otherwise we’d be far too realistic about our limitations and never try anything new or difficult. However, when we throw ourselves into the brink, come out alive, and then give all the credit to our luck rabbit’s foot, we’re doing ourselves a great disservice. When you do something good, take a victory lap! You overcame the odds and prevailed!

And, if you try something and you fail, well you can always blame immigrants, I guess.