Monday, April 6, 2015

On Helping People Get Outraged

John Oliver's show about surveillance is a must see:



Amazing, right!?!

But what sticks with me most, as a teacher and an environmentalist, is this line:  "Is this a conversation we [American citizens] have a capacity to have?"

Bingo.

When intelligent people speak passionately about what they think is most important for the world to understand, they often go over people's heads or provide too many details that nobody really cares about, and then their message is lost.  Are you paying attention, Naomi Klein??*   Maybe Oliver could interview her next!

If we can't find a way to get people to understand the significance of what's happening to our ecosystems right now, we're screwed.  Maybe it would help to remind everyone that, if the atmosphere is filled with more greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels and supporting factory farms, then they'll be too worried about finding drinking water and a home at a higher elevation to be able to have sex.

Except, that happened with phthalates years ago, and nobody cared.  There was a huge Globe & Mail spread on how phthalates and plastics affect male fertility and even penis size, and I thought at the time, "Now things will change."  But it didn't.  At all.  Because it's not happening to people in a way they can see, and it's not happening to them RIGHT FREAKING NOW.

Blarg.  How do we get the message across in a way that people will get pissed off and actually change the way they live and the types of politicians and platforms they'll support??

Help me, John Oliver. You're our only hope.


________

*Yes, I know I could use a lesson on this too, but I'm a C list blogger, so I'll just putter away here how I like, thank-you very much.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

On Final Exams

A recent article in the National Post suggests that exams are passé.  Joseph Brean writes,
Psychologists have a quip about IQ tests — the only thing they measure is your ability to do IQ tests. They are not, as they purport to be, an objective measure of intelligence, like the air temperature of a room. Rather, they are variable, and vulnerable to luck and circumstance, like the score of a hockey game. Exams are the same. They are cruel in their way, in their pose as objective measures of a student’s worth.
The article suggests that since exams are stressful, then they should be abolished because, "high-stress exams give a false picture of a student’s abilities."

Exams can certainly be stressful, and as a lazy student with a weak memory for details, I often watched them lower my grades.  But I disagree with Brean's claim that exams are as useless as IQ tests.  (Although the equally stressful EQAO is a different matter entirely.)

We show what we know when we can remember information when prompted.  Writing essays and doing projects display communication skills and an understanding of concepts, but, without committing the content to memory, I'm not convinced we can say we've learned it.  If you can't tell me anything about WWI - when it happened, who was involved, worldwide implications... - without looking at your notes, then you don't know anything about it.  Then when you watch Downton Abbey, and a date flashes on the screen, "June 1914," you have to look it up to grasp the significance.  It's useful to know things, and it's useful to our society if everyone has a common knowledge of basic facts about history, geography, multiplication tables, the carbon cycle...  Without a display of memory, we can't assess learning.  And a good test or exam can be a clear indicator of knowledge.

So why not just have tests without a final exam?  The nice thing about exams is that kids do them.  They don't whine or try to bargain or chat or even think of taking out their phones during exams.  Because exams are held up to a higher standard, and the whole school stops for a week for them to happen, and the kids only get one kick at the cat, students take exams more seriously than tests. I've had in-class tests with a third of the class AWOL then had to spend days tracking them and getting them to write a make-up. I once had a student take a make-up test home for three days to write it, and I was instructed that I had to count it because he showed he knew the content - ignoring the obvious fact that he had ample opportunity to google the material.  For exams, they all show up and do the work.  Period.

Because they take them seriously, kids push themselves more than throughout the term.  As Ken Coates said in the article, "People have forgotten at great detriment that the writing of a test is a valuable skill in its own right."  It forces students to review material from the entire course repeatedly, which can help it to stick. However, I could get behind allowing exemptions for exams.  If we set a high standard for term work, maybe 80%, that gets students out of writing the exam, then they might be more motivated to do excellent work throughout the term instead of saving themselves for the final.

Yes, stress is a concern.  If a student chokes, it shouldn't destroy the grade. Now we break the 30% final evaluation into a few pieces near the end of term.  I can have an open-book portion for an essay where they can look up any details they need, and a closed-book portion for content.  That helps avoid one bad day harming the mark too much.  We can also choose to ignore a significantly inconsistent mark.

All the same, stress also gets a bad rap.  The article quotes a neuroscientist who studies cognitive performance under pressure: Sian Beilock says,
There is a time and a place for diagnostics, but a sole reliance on them does not seem wise to me...[Stressful exams] rob us of our limited ability to pay attention to what we need to.... [The worries] soak up the resources that we could be using to focus on a test.  
The article goes on to say Beilock, "advocates a technique of 'reappraising arousal' in the context of examination, to think of stressful feelings as part of success, rather than failure....students should still be tested, but must also learn to 'effectively and efficiently cope with stress and then recover from that effort.'"  We get an adrenaline rush when we're stressed or excited or upset.  If we're anxious, but convince ourselves that we're actually excited, it can help alleviate the stress.

Clearly we shouldn't just rely on exams as a sole measure of ability, but they can still be one measure that we incorporate into a bank of data. But even more important, perhaps, is that we need some stress to motivate us to do things that are difficult or not entertaining to us. We don't want so much that it makes students sick or drives them (or their parents) to cheat, though, so students need to learn the skill of talking themselves through the anxiety, which is a skill that I've used countless times in other aspects of my life since learning it in university.  Without a chance for kids to experience difficulty, we're robbing them of a chance to learn how to cope with the difficulty.

When I first started teaching, I was part of a Special Education Department that took time out of English classes each term to give pointers on mnemonics and coping with stress during exams. We're at a point where, when we see an obstacle, we want to abolish it rather than work through it.  If a student struggles to write quickly, s/he's given extra time.  If someone finds presentations stressful, s/he's allowed to present just to the teacher.  And now exams are stressing people out, so we look towards getting rid of them.  But we could do so much more for people if we helped them struggle to write faster, or struggle to talk with an audience, or struggle to cope with stress.

But I believe the real stressor here isn't the exam itself.  We've had exams for years without people so affected by them.  The real stressor is the need for a competitive edge in our society because there's a dearth of opportunities. Without the jobs that have been lost to outsourcing or technological advances, students and parents have become obsessed with marks.  Marks lead to a good school which hopefully leads to one of a dwindling supply of jobs which leads to basic survival.  So exam marks have become a matter of life and death.

Finally, Brean's suggestion that exams are cruel and "pose as objective measures of a student's worth" is a different problem.  Grades in school should in no way be a marker of anybody's value as a human being. But I think it's our culture that present that perspective, not the exams themselves.  Exams are merely an indication of what people know at a given time.  They can give us a sense of what we're good at, what we might want to pursue in life, and what we need to work at further if we really want the knowledge on offer.  

Sunday, March 29, 2015

The Religious Extremism of New Atheists

I wrote a tiny blurb about this over a month ago.  This one is much longer and leans heavily on solid arguments from many critics - letting their words speak for themselves. The issue has become serious enough to warrant a lengthy rebuttal.


THE DANGERS OF SIMPLISTIC, BIGOTED IDEOLOGY: 

My concern with the New Atheists is born of classroom conversations.  In most of my classes there are a few students who are Muslim and, recently, a few who are followers of the New Atheists' leaders: particularly Hitchens, Harris, Dawkins, and Maher.  I've had students of different races and religions in my classes for decades without having to referee comments until the New Atheists arrived on the scene. Many of the New Atheists are openly anti-Islamic, and because they praise science, somehow student followers have gotten the impression that everything they say is factual and accurate and repeatable.

Suddenly, for the first time in decades of teaching, I'm having to shut down openly bigoted comments in class.  I even had a final exam comment that suggested that Islam as a new religion that brainwashes people and must be actively fought against. I'm not sure how a religion that's 1,400 years old is considered "new," but I'll move on to address concerns with the conflation of some harmful ideologies with atheism, in particular, in the work of Sam Harris.

Harris is pro-gun, pro-torturepro-ethnic profiling, anti-civil liberties, and excited by militarism, who exclaims in The End of Faith (52-53): "We will continue to spill blood in what is, at bottom, a war of ideas."  And he's got teenagers following him like rabid lapdogs.  His prose are easy to repeat in debates and slippery to argue with, but that doesn't make them accurate or scientific.  And it certainly doesn't make him leftist despite his claims to liberalism.


Al Mckay of International Relations, says of a defence by Harris, that it
...marks a continuation of his vindication of radical, illiberal, authoritarian, repressive and rabidly anti-Muslim political stances. Let us leave his ideas about the paranormal, reincarnation, Eastern Mysticism, the persecution of the Jews and attempts at philosophy for another day. Harris’ politics are worthy of discussion because one of the strangest things about him is that, on many occasions, he has declared himself a liberal.

I'll quote Glenn Greenwald's Guardian article at length as he explain that Harris's "...atheism invariably serves - explicitly so - as the justifying ground for a wide array of policies that attack, kill and otherwise suppress Muslims."
He and others like him spout and promote Islamophobia under the guise of rational atheism. I've long believed this to be true and am glad it is finally being dragged out into open debate. These specific atheism advocates have come to acquire significant influence, often for the good. But it is past time that the darker aspects of their worldview receive attention....Contrary to the assumptions under which some Harris defenders are laboring, the fact that someone is a scientist, an intellectual, and a convincing and valuable exponent of atheism by no means precludes irrational bigotry as a driving force in their worldview....The key point is that Harris does far, far more than voice criticisms of Islam as part of a general critique of religion. He has repeatedly made clear that he thinks Islam is uniquely threatening....In his 2005 "End of Faith", he claimed that "Islam, more than any other religion human beings have devised, has all the makings of a thoroughgoing cult of death."...This is not a critique of religion generally; it is a relentless effort to depict Islam as the supreme threat. Based on that view, Harris, while depicting the Iraq war as a humanitarian endeavor, has proclaimed that "we are not at war with terrorism. We are at war with Islam.

When criticism of religion morphs into an undue focus on Islam - particularly at the same time the western world has been engaged in a decade-long splurge of violence, aggression and human rights abuses against Muslims, justified by a sustained demonization campaign - then I find these objections to the New Atheists completely warranted....Most important of all - to me - is the fact that Harris has used his views about Islam to justify a wide range of vile policies aimed primarily if not exclusively at Muslims, from torture ("there are extreme circumstances in which I believe that practices like 'water-boarding' may not only be ethically justifiable, but ethically necessary"); to steadfast support for Israel, which he considers morally superior to its Muslim adversaries...to state violence ("On questions of national security, I am now as wary of my fellow liberals as I am of the religious demagogues on the Christian right. This may seem like frank acquiescence to the charge that 'liberals are soft on terrorism.' It is, and they are").

An American Atheist, Robin Marie, says,
In a very long post on the threat the radical Islamic world poses to the the secular (mostly Western) world, Sam Harris gives no credit to any political, social or economic issue in the regions where radical Islam is a problem....he does not mention constant social strife and conflict, he does not mention economic exploitation. The radical Muslims of Sam Harris’s imagination exist in a vacuum, serving only as vectors for ideas – horrible, corrupt ideas which have filled them with pre-modern superstition and primitive ferocity. If you ask him how they got that way, he would point a finger only at the Koran, and especially particular passages in the Koran. There you go!, he says, throwing his hands up. What more do you need? Barbaric ideas lead to barbarians. D-Huh.

In CJ Werleman's article, "Atheists don't get terrorism," he says,
In dealing with ISIS, Harris says, “We won’t even honestly describe the motivations of our enemies. And in the act of lying to ourselves, we continue to pay lip service to the very delusions that empower them.” This is a breathtaking failure to understand what and who ISIS is. ISIS is the Sunni militia. Its leadership consists of former Baathist, anti-Islamist, pro-secular Saddam loyalists. When the U.S. removed Saddam and put 1 million Sunnis on the unemployment line, the 20th-century Western-manufactured country of Iraq disappeared, and Iraqis reached back for older identities: Sunni, Shiite and Kurd.

Chris Hedges gets in the fray as well with this excellent article:
The New Atheists embrace a belief system as intolerant, chauvinistic and bigoted as that of religious fundamentalists. They propose a route to collective salvation and the moral advancement of the human species through science and reason. The utopian dream of a perfect society and a perfect human being, the idea that we are moving towards collective salvation, is one of the most dangerous legacies of the Christian faith and the Enlightenment. Those who believe in the possibility of this perfection often call for the silencing or eradication of human beings who are impediments to human progress. They turn their particular good into a universal good. They are blind to their own corruption and capacity for evil. They soon commit evil, not for evil's sake but to make a better world. I started Harris' book when it was published but soon put it aside. His facile attack on a form of religious belief I detest, his childish simplicity and ignorance of world affairs, as well as his demonization of Muslims, made the book tedious, at its best, and often idiotic and racist. 
There is nothing in human nature or human history to support the idea that we are morally advancing as a species or that we will overcome the flaws of human nature. We progress technologically and scientifically, but not morally. We use the newest instruments of technological and scientific progress to create more efficient forms of killing, repression and economic exploitation, and to accelerate environmental degradation. There is a good and a bad side to human progress. We are not moving towards a glorious utopia. We are not moving anywhere.... 
Hitchens and Harris describe the Muslim world, where I spent seven years, most of them as the Middle East bureau chief for the New York Times, in language that is as racist, crude and intolerant as that used by Pat Robertson or the late Jerry Falwell. They are a secular version of the religious right. They misuse Darwin and evolutionary biology, just as the Christian fundamentalists misuse the Bible, by trying to argue that we can evolve morally -- something Darwin never asserted. They are as anti-intellectual as the Christian Right.
Hedges goes on to specifically refute many of Harris' claims about Yugoslavia and Gaza.


I'll give Chomsky the last word on this.  He calls Harris and Hitchens religious fanatics, and elsewhere says,
I’ve found these “new atheist” writers to be an embarrassment;...they typically conflate atheism with stereotypical liberal or radical left-wing politics when there’s no inherent relationship whatsoever;...they come across as narrow-minded and ill-informed bigots whose only purpose is to antagonize religious people.

Major thinkers and scholars in these areas have demonstrated that Sam Harris misunderstands religion, terrorism, and geopolitics. But the biggest problem with his writing is that regardless the inaccuracies, it's in the populist genre that makes it simplistically persuasive. He sounds like he's making good arguments even when his information is inaccurate and his logic faulty.


HE'S A NEUROSCIENTIST, SO HIS CLAIMS MUST BE RIGHT 

One academic blogger did a little digging into Harris' PhD because Harris bills himself as a neuroscientist but doesn't seem to do a lot of neuroscience.  One of Harris's reviewers of his thesis, statistician William Briggs, analyzed Harris's thesis with this comment:
During the course of my investigation of scientism and bad science, I have read a great many bad, poorly reasoned papers. This one might not be the worst, but it deserves a prize for mangling the largest number of things simultaneously. What is fascinating, and what I do not here explore, is why this paper was not only published but why it is believed by others. It is sure evidence, I think, that scientists are no different than anybody else in wanting their cherished beliefs upheld such that they are willing to grasp at any confirmatory evidence, no matter how slight, blemished, or suspect that evidence might be.
Later in that link a strange coincidence is explored, and it's suggested that Harris's entire PhD is suspect.
It would seem to me that an atheist activist, being funded by the atheist’s own atheist organization that currently thinks religion deserves “special focus” when it comes to criticism, had a conflict of interest to declare....It’s bad enough that Harris is only “joint first author” on a paper publishing his thesis research and one of four people involved in conceiving and designing the experiment, but ... Sam Harris never did any of the experiments for his own PhD thesis! How many science PhD students are out there working on their own PhDs without doing a single experiment? ...Now, when you consider that Harris has a BA in Philosophy and did not do any of the experiments for this research, it makes you wonder if Sam Harris, the man who promotes himself as “a neuroscientist,” has ever performed a single experiment in his life....Of course, since publishing his thesis, then his book, Sam Harris has never once actually used science to resolve a moral dispute.
Beyond the speculation around Harris's own claims to be a neuroscientist, it is the case, of course, that scientists can be mistaken about moral and political issues.  Being a neuroscientist should never be enough to convince people of claims on religious matters, politics, or philosophy. However, the popularity of his views - and his books - shows a sort of reversal of the ad hominem circumstantial sucks in an unfortunate number of people who agree with an argument based on the circumstances of the presenter rather than the actual validity of his position.

In a formal peer-reviewed paper appearing in Midwest Studies in Philosophy, "New Atheism and the Scientistic Turn in the Atheism Movement," Massimo Pigliucci does an excellent take-down of the New Atheists in general and Harris in particular with respect to using science to further morality:
To recap, then, what is considered to be perhaps the quintessential text of the New Atheism is an odd mishmash of scientific speculation (on the origins of religion), historically badly informed polemic, and rehashing of philosophical arguments. Yet Dawkins and his followers present The God Delusion as a shining example of how science has dealt a fatal blow to the idea of gods.... 
Harris’s project is as ambitious as it is misguided:....Harris undermines his own project right off the bat, in two notes that appear in the opening pages, but are conveniently tucked in at the back of his book. In the second note to the Introduction, he acknowledges that he “do[es] not intend to make a hard distinction between ‘science’ and other intellectual contexts in which we discuss ‘facts.’ ” If that is the case, if we get to define “science” as any type of rational– empirical inquiry into “facts” (the scare quotes are his), then we are talking about something that is not at all what most readers are likely to understand when they pick up a book with a subtitle that says How Science Can Determine Human Values (my emphasis). One can reasonably smell a bait and switch here.  
Second, in the first footnote to chapter 1, Harris says: “Many of my critics fault me for not engaging more directly with the academic literature on moral philosophy...[but] I am convinced that every appearance of terms like ‘metaethics,’ ‘deontology,’...directly increases the amount of boredom in the universe.” This is so mind-boggling that I had to reread it several times: Harris is saying that the whole of the only field other than religion that has ever dealt with ethics is to be dismissed because he personally finds it boring. Is that a fact or a value judgment, I wonder?
An entertaining talk (only 7 minutes) by Raymond Tallis, a clinical neuroscientist, refers to Harris's type of claims as a brain-blamers operating under a branch of neuromythology.

As a scientist, Harris isn't doing any science. And as a philosopher, he's doing some shoddy work there too.


ARGUMENTS DENYING FREE WILL 

Harris's arguments against free will are less a concern for classroom deportment but are no less frustrating to address.  These ideas fit with the former only if a Harris follower were to take up arms against some Muslims, and then Harris could clarify why the murder was not actually the shooter's fault.

John Horgan argued against Harris's claims against free will in the Scientific American article, New Year's Resolution: I will believe in free will:
Harris argued that "no account of causality leaves room for free will." He cited experiments in which magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) "predicts" that a subject is going to do something—on the basis of activity in the subject’s brain—up to 10 seconds before the subject consciously decides to do it....But from another perspective, this rejection of free will makes no sense. Or rather, it goes much too far, because it suggests that our conscious deliberations are epiphenomenal, superfluous, with no real impact on our actions. That is reductionism ad absurdum....Such experiments merely confirm that physiological processes underpin all our perceptions, plans, choices and actions. Only a believer in dualism or an immaterial soul would expect anything else.
I personally don't think the MRI experiments (which were originally done over 30 years ago) eradicate the notion of free will. Harris argues that since some actions are enacted in our brain without a prior conscious perception of them, therefore all of our actions are enacted in our brain before we're aware of them - suggesting that all our actions are caused by the brain's mechanisms rather than by our own conscious decisions. But, first of all, that's a hasty generalization to shift from one type of behaviour to all behaviours. Secondly, the experiments being discussed have people making small binary actions, choosing to use a left or right hand or move a finger for instance, which could be argued to be more of an urge than a significant decision or intention. Finally, it could be the case that we make a decision that activates brain activity seen in a brain scan before it's clear to our conscious mind. In other words, it could still be the case that we make the decision even if the decision shows up in our brain before we're aware of it.

John Horgan wrote more about Harris in another Scientific American article. Harris suggests that since we accept that a man with a brain tumour doesn't have free will to choose to murder people, then it's clear that none of us have free will. Horgan replies,
Harris seems to be advancing a reductio ad absurdum, except that he wants us to accept the absurdum: there is no fundamental difference between me and a man compelled to kill by a brain tumor. Or between me and someone who can’t help washing his hands every 20 minutes, or someone who’s schizophrenic, or a babbling baby, or a newt, or a worm. I mean, if I’m not different from a guy who kills because a tumor provokes him into murderous rages, how am I different from anyone or anything with a brain, no matter how damaged or tiny? Here’s the difference. The man with a tumor has no choice but to do what he does. I do have choices, which I make all the time. Yes, my choices are constrained, by the laws of physics, my genetic inheritance, upbringing and education, the social, cultural, political, and intellectual context of my existence. And as Harris keeps pointing out, I didn’t choose to be born into this universe, to my parents, in this nation, at this time. I don’t choose to grow old and die. But just because my choices are limited doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Just because I don’t have absolute freedom doesn’t mean I have no freedom at all. Saying that free will doesn’t exist because it isn’t absolutely free is like saying truth doesn’t exist because we can’t achieve absolute, perfect knowledge.

Harris keeps insisting that because all our choices have prior causes, they are not free; they are determined. Of course all our choices are caused. No free-will proponent I know claims otherwise. The question is how are they caused? Harris seems to think that all causes are ultimately physical, and that to hold otherwise puts you in the company of believers in ghosts, souls, gods and other supernatural nonsense. But the strange and wonderful thing about all organisms, and especially our species, is that mechanistic physical processes somehow give rise to phenomena that are not reducible to or determined by those physical processes. Human brains, in particular, generate human minds, which while subject to physical laws are influenced by non-physical factors, including ideas produced by other minds. These ideas may cause us to change our minds and make decisions that alter the trajectory of our world. Some of us have a greater capacity to perceive and act on choices than others. The killer with a brain tumor, the schizophrenic, the sociopath, the obsessive-compulsive do not and cannot make decisions–or change their minds–in the way that I do. When I weigh the pros and cons of writing about Harris, my chain of reasoning is determined by the substance of my thoughts, not their physical instantiation....

We are physical creatures, but we are not just physical. We have free will because we are creatures of mind, meaning, ideas, not just matter. Harris perversely–willfully!–refuses to acknowledge this crushingly obvious and fundamental fact about us. He insists that because science cannot figure out the complex causality underpinning free will, it must be illusory. 
The strongest philosophical take-down of Harris's free will argument is in a review by Alvin Plantinga:
The first thing to see is that there is a serious problem, in this book, about precisely what free will is supposed to be. As we usually think of it, free will has to do with actions and decisions; it is actions and decisions that are free or unfree. You have free will on a given occasion just if you could have done otherwise.... 
How does Harris think of free will? "Consider what it would take to actually have free will. You would need to be aware of all the factors that determine your thoughts and action, and you would need to have complete control over those factors."...According to Harris, I am free in so acting only if I myself chose to have that desire and I myself brought it about that I do have that desire. If instead I just find myself with that desire (have not chosen to have it), then no action I take because of that desire is a free action.... 
Harris' notion of freedom is really an idea of what we might call maximal autonomy. It's obvious that we don't have maximal autonomy; we aren't free in that sense. Indeed, it isn't so much as possible that we be free in that sense. That is because, as he thinks of it, I act freely on a given occasion only if I myself freely choose to have the desires and affections I then act on, and furthermore I myself freely bring it about that I do have them. But note that the action by which I bring about that I have those desires and affections must itself be free. That means that I must have freely brought it about that I had the desires and affections out of which I acted in bringing it about that I have the desires and affections I presently have. You can see where this is going: for every occasion on which I act freely, there must have been an earlier occasion in which I acted freely. This clearly involves an infinite regress (to use the charming phrase philosophers like): if Harris is right, it is possible that I act freely only if it is possible that I perform an infinite number of actions, each one a matter of bringing it about that I have a certain set of desires and affections. Clearly no one has time, these busy days, for that. Harris is certainly right that we don't have that maximal autonomy; but nothing follows about our having freedom, i.e., the sort of freedom we ordinarily think we have, the sort required for moral responsibility.

What we have here looks like a classic bait and switch: announce that you will show that we don't have freedom in the ordinary sense required by moral responsibility, and then proceed to argue that we don't have freedom in the sense of maximal autonomy.... 
But he does also declare that we don't have freedom in the ordinary sense: "we know that determinism, in every sense relevant to human behavior, is true. Unconscious neural events determine our thoughts and actions—and are themselves determined by prior causes"....This argument is a complete failure.
Plantinga also comments on Harris's brain tumour analogy:
I am sorry to say that I couldn't find the argument. Harris seems to think merely pointing to this possibility is sufficient to clinch his case. But that seems preposterous. Some people under some conditions aren't free; how does it even begin to follow that no people under any conditions are free? ....Harris, on the other hand, seems to support determinism by little more than bland assertion and uncogent argument.

It's unnerving that someone who makes bigoted remarks can get so much praise for aligning with the atheists as if it's necessarily the side of all that's reasonable and good.  His use of science to develop morality is an utter failure, and I question the claim that he's a philosopher of any description.  Now to convince my students.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

On Free Speech and Safe Spaces

Pathologizing disagreement is an intellectually dishonest way to cope with challenging arguments. It certainly doesn't support critical thinking. It also creates a culture wherein people are afraid to express dissenting opinions or question the party line....It's okay to disagree, but not to frame differences of opinion as abuse.

Meghan Murphy wrote those words in a column in today's Globe and Mail: "There's nothing 'safe' about silencing dissent," and I couldn't agree more.

I recently wrote at length about the need to limit speech in such a way as to allow for criticism of authority but stop mindlessly cruel rants that have become the norm on some social media sites. I want to end the perception that free speech entitles us to say any moronic or caustic comment that comes to mind like some racist fraternity chants we've been hearing about lately. Murphy's article gets at a different problem: people condemning words because they might make someone feel 'unsafe.'

It's imperative to protect the right to free speech when people question authority in order to limit the power of those in power, but it's also necessary to protect the right to free speech when people have dissenting opinions in order to protect ourselves against the natural pull of groupthink and mob mentality. Allowing dissension can also foster better, more nuanced defences as we're made aware of holes in our case that need to be filled more thoroughly.

I've seen the kind of issue Murphy raises - people denied a seat on a panel or a speaking engagement because of their perspective. I've even seen people who are backing a minority position claim that the people in the majority are bullying them, not because they're harassing them in any way or even know them, but because they have stronger arguments for their case - because they're winning. If arguing well enough to win a debate is considered bullying, then arguments will be won by whomever is more distraught at the end. If someone is so offended by contrary claims that they feel unsafe, then maybe that person shouldn't offer to sit on a panel to discuss the issue publicly. It's not much of a discussion if the panel is made of like-minded people unwilling to hear opposing points. I'd go so far as to suggest it's leaning towards propaganda.

We always have to consider that maybe our opponents are right even just in part. The unfortunate corollary of that could be that maybe we're wrong, but it's often the case that the issue isn't as black and white as we had thought. Sometimes dissension shows us the complexity of an issue that, without that consideration, seemed simply a case of good against bad. For triggering issues, that might mean having to re-think a position that we've neatly tucked away into a tiny box of a few core sentences.  Unpacking that could be painful, but refusing to see any other position leaves the whole argument untied and may create factions that could otherwise be bridged and misunderstandings that could otherwise be enlightened.

I know that rush of outrage that comes when someone questions a core belief.  Maybe they suggested something as heinous as, "Some women like to get raped." But instead of just shutting them down, I believe it's better to take the time and go the distance to dismantle the claim sufficiently in hopes, at the very least, that they won't try that argument with anyone again. If we just shut down weak arguments, then our opponents can claim we didn't listen to their side. As long as we're civil in our interactions, then we can have both a forum for debate and a safe space.

To commemorate Daniel Dennett's birthday, let's revisit his rules for civil dissension:
1. You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.  
2. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement). 
3. You should mention anything you have learned from your target.  
4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

I'd add some more obvious points that aren't as common knowledge as I'd hope:
1. Don't start talking louder and interrupting often to the point that your rival goes unheard.
2. Don't rant and run - blast out an opinion, then claim it necessary to make a hasty retreat.
3. Don't attack the person's intelligence or position in an effort to discount their argument (an ad hominem) including everything from more subtle eye rolling to attention demanding head banging (which I like to call "gestural ad hominems").

These three all boil down to the daycare admonishment: "Stop and listen."

Then follow the listening with a well-supported rebuttal focusing on undoing the opponent's supports and adding further supports to flush out your own position. Arguing well takes a bit of thought and energy, so it's not for the lazy or faint of heart, but it's necessary if we hope to learn anything from one another.    

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Criminalizing Protest

Now, legitimate protest is under threat once again. Not just overseas, in some far-off dictatorship with cockroach-infested prisons, but here, where the divide is economic and political and increasingly bitter. It's environmentalists who are the new fifth columnists, and new mechanisms are being forged to squash them.
That's from Elizabeth Renzetti's article yesterday. We're no longer environmentalists who recognize the need to keep fossil fuels in the ground, we're "anti-petroleum extremists."

This two-minute video explains the importance of being anti-petroleum (h/t Lorne):




Bill C-51will criminalize "activities that undermine the security...economic or financial stability of Canada." They're hoping we'll all stay home, cowering rather than marching.


Climate activist and artist Franke James (that's her work at the right here) wrote a book about her experiences being denied a chance to tour with her work:
It’s very Orwellian to see that I was being censured because of the way that I thought. They were telling me ‘do not talk about climate change.’ That is a really horrible thing for them to be doing; we need to be talking about climate change, it’s not about to disappear. We have to figure out strategies. 

In fact, I think we should be taking about it more than most things until we get a solid and serious plan of action ironed out. Paris is cutting driving in half because they've hit emergency air pollution levels. We need to act BEFORE we get to a state of emergency.


On April 11th, all the premiers will be in Quebec City to discuss climate change and a national energy strategy in order to, according to Couillard, "pave our way to the Paris conference of 2015 with concrete commitments." An Act on Climate March is being planned for the same time and place to show them that we want to keep fossil fuels where they are. It'll be family friendly event that uses people to make a huge thermometer. Let's show them we're not ready to cower.


On Teaching Topics Instead of Subjects

Finland's got one of the best education systems in the world, but it doesn't follow that every idea they have is necessarily and entirely a good idea.  This newest one seems to be forced on them rather than born out of teacher innovation.

Their newest idea is to get rid of subjects and to teach by topics instead.  So instead of history class, you'd have a class on the European Union that incorporates history, geography, economics, and language. Their goal is "to prepare people for working life...to make the changes to education necessary for industry and modern society." Students in vocational streams will take courses geared towards their vocation, like "cafeteria services" which incorporates math, language, and communication skills. This is a means of further streaming students based on their abilities and interests.

At the vocational end, that could be very useful for any students who have a pretty clear vision of their future. If they can spend time immersed in a few different careers for the last few years of school, then they can come out well prepared for the job market. Too bad we used to do that but stopped in favour of integration. We had an entire vocational school fully equipped and geared towards learning specific occupations, but we closed it over ten years ago in the wake of the destreaming song and dance.  

But I'm really curious what their course offerings will look like for the more academic stream. So far it sounds like they'll just try this approach for part of each year, but what would happen if it were stretched out to be the primary means of delivery? What would the students get to choose each year if not math, science, English, history...?  Is "The European Union" one course taught all year in great depth, or just a topic within a broader course? Where does differentiating equations fit in? And in applying for university, how will they know if you've gotten enough math to get into a math program?  Entrance exams would work, and I could get behind that.

The approach is interesting in that teachers who adopt the new system get their pay "topped-up." And once they start, they don't want to go back. Does that speak for the benefits of the new approach, or have they just gotten used to the money?

One concern, however, having taught grade 10 careers, is that many students don't have a clue what they want to do in life. For many, having general skills in many areas is more beneficial than being more focused towards specific topics. I always caution them not to close any doors. They might hate math now, but if they stop taking it, they'll cut off many fields that they might find they love later on.

My bigger concern is around specialization. As students move up in the grades, it's imperative that they have teachers who are specialists in their area. The article suggests teachers will work together to co-teach classes, and I'll be interested to see how that ends up running. I taught in a program that aimed for some of the same goals, and suddenly I was teaching academic English (I fear) horribly. I haven't the background nor a passion for the subject. The following year, at my insistence, I started co-teaching with an English teacher, and we ended up dividing the class into periods, as if they had two separate subjects anyway, because it was easier for us and clearer for the kids. Neither teachers nor students found benefits in mixing civics and English, which created the ridiculous restriction of limiting novels studied to those with a political focus.

And it's not to say subject teaching has hard walls around it currently. When I teach philosophy, I bring in history and science and English to augment the content. And in social sciences, I often get into economics and statistics. That happens pretty naturally. I can't imagine any teacher preventing that from happening: "Stop calculating your percentage grade during a history course. That's for math class. We're just doing history here!" How is it possible to teach history without getting into geography a bit?

If, however, the current curriculum were looser, then we could get much more in-depth into topics within each subject. I sometimes have students very interested in one idea, but we have to move on to cover all the necessary essential learnings. I used to let the students lead the show and often didn't get to the final unit of study, so I just took it off the exam. That's not possible anymore.

I found the link to this article on a friend's facebook page and expressed my concerns in a comment thread there, and I was met with two objections: that now education can be more progressive and innovative, and that this new system will teach students how to think instead of what to think.

I'm not clear how making teachers shove subjects together under topics will necessarily lead to student innovation or critical thinking. It could lead to that, but it depends on how openly the topics are presented. And what both of those comments suggest is that students aren't challenged to be innovative or to think in our current system that divides content by subject. How does teaching by subject tell students what to think beyond basic information like WWI started in 1914 or y=mx+b? I don't know about other subjects, but, in a history department, we're all about critical thinking: always questioning interpretations and perspectives.

Finally, I'm concerned that Finland is changing its excellent system for the sake of change. New isn't always better. Sometimes it's good to keep in mind the adage, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it."

ETA Dennis Hayes writes that Finland's throwing away everything that made its schools best in the world.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Changing the Curriculum

Months ago, Kathleen Wynne proposed guidelines for sex ed in Ontario, and many parents are still furious.  A group called Campaign Life Coalition has put quite a spin on it all.  In grade one, kids learn all the correct names for all the parts of their body. CLC calls that "graphic lessons on sexual body parts." And at grade three, when kids learn about fluid gender identity, they call it "normalizing a mental disorder." The teachers will also "normalize homosexual family structures without regard for the religious/moral beliefs of families." Piece of work.

Wynne tried this before, but backed down because of parental concerns. But this time she's forging ahead. I hope she stays the course. As a parent, I want all kids to know their bodies and understand the diversity of people and family structures so that difference isn't fodder for bullying - like it sometimes is in Queen's Park. Some kids don't have understanding parents to whom they can openly ask, "Why did Billy call me a c*nt?" Little kids know a shocking number of words for their body parts already; wouldn't it be great if they also learned the right ones? And as a high school teacher, I see the results of kids being ostracized throughout grade school. We need this education to start as early as possible.

My spin on it is that some parents are protesting because they want to maintain bigoted views through the next generation of children, and the education system is stymying their efforts. Knowing about sex doesn't make kids have sex, but knowing about "no means no" could help prevent sexual abuse.  We worry too much about the lost innocence of children through education unwilling to acknowledge that many lose their innocence though ignorant information on the playground - and sometimes from home. We need kids to know the correct information before they hear too much misinformation.

But wouldn't it be amazing if Wynne also revamped the environmental science curriculum to start at grade one? Imagine if little kids understood that climate change is real, and caused by people. What if we told them, at school, that they could help save the world by walking instead of driving, by turning the A/C off and the heat down, by eating tofu dogs instead of meat by-products dyed pink, and by reducing the amount of toys they buy?

When the blue box recycling program was introduced, kids heard about it at school and went home to guilt their parents into recycling.  It worked! When I was a kid, school was all about preventing littering, and that worked too - but once it stopped being a concern, it stopped being taught, and now kids will toss wrappers on the ground without a second thought. I had a young boy try to convince me that it's okay he dropped his garbage because the wind will just take it away. When we stop teaching it, they stop learning it.

Can we combat our current crisis by getting children on board with the nag factor forcing parents to walk to the store every time?  Yes, there will be an outcry from parents who think the school board is shoving a belief system down their children's throats, but we can just forge ahead with the plan for the benefit of everyone. Earth is quickly becoming inhospitable to life, and we are sadly running out of time for interventions.

ETA:  Here's what one 6-year-old had to say:

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The Danger of New Atheists

I'll be busy for the next few weeks, so this will be quick, but something I've been looking at in depth is a total take-down of the Sam Harris style of doing philosophy, firstly, but more importantly of the New Atheists' propagation of bigotry.

I've had a few incidents in my classes that have illustrated the potential of the New Atheists' message to go down a dark path.  If my students are picking up on this ideology, then others are too.

Now three young students have died at the hands of a "New Atheist."  This group (including Harris, Dawkins, Maher...) is less about being atheistic, and more about being anti-theist.  And, ironically, it's extremist in its insistence of demolishing religious groups.

Any hate-filled group, zealous in its intentions, is a concern.  This group is no different.  

Thursday, January 22, 2015

This Changes Nothing

The US Senate voted that climate change is real, and many of my Facebook friends are celebrating.  But I don't think they actually read beyond the headlines on this one.  "Finally!"  "This is great!" and "Today's a great day!"  are inappropriate responses to this vote.

The vote was specifically on whether or not climate change is real WITHOUT any cause attributed to it.  So is the climate changing?  Yes - decided by a 98 to 1 margin.  But is climate change affected by human behaviour (the question the we need the Senate to affirm)?   Well, not so fast.

Senator Jim Inhofe, a climate denier, voted yes, but commented:  "The climate is changing. The climate has always changed, [the real "hoax" is] that there are some people that are so arrogant to think [that they can change the climate]."

When asked if there's a human connection to the change in our climate, most Republicans voted "No":
...the Senate voted on a second amendment...that acknowledged human activity is contributing to climate change. That measure fell one vote short of the 60 needed to pass, at 59 to 40.... The Senate held a third vote on an amendment... that went even further, stating that climate change is real and "human activity significantly contributes" to it. That measure, too, went down, by a vote of 50 to 49.
Or as Inhofe put it so eloquently:  "Man cannot change climate."

There is just so much wrong with those four words.

If climate change has nothing to do with human behaviour then we can carry on as usual.  If burning more fossil fuels doesn't have any effect on our ecosystems, then bring on the pipelines!  The fact that we're deciding on scientific facts with a vote from people who don't hesitate to remind us that they're not scientists is ridiculous in the first place.



This isn't a victory, kids.


Saturday, January 17, 2015

The Post In Which I Get Cranky on Climate Change

When people talk about the effects of climate change, they often worry about water burying some prized beach-front real estate, but an article in Thursday's Guardian, "Seven ways climate change could kill you," reminds us that by about 15 years from now, we'll be losing a quarter of a million people each year just to health implications from rising GHGs (asthma, disease, heat exhaustion...).  And very few groups, the film Interstellar being a rare exception, talk about the changing gases in our atmosphere.  The ocean trumps the rainforest as our real lungs, and as it acidifies, more plant life will die off, and we'll end up with less oxygen and more sulphur in the air we breath.  Kolbert's Sixth Extinction agrees that many will die by suffocation.

More and more we're hearing about the risks we're facing, yet nothing's really being altered - not the way we live nor the types of corporations that are on top of the game.

Some feel strongly that we'll save the world with carbon capture and geo-engineering.  Naomi Klein's book, This Changes Everything, clearly outlines the problems with both, painting a particularly frightening picture of the risks of geo-engineering.

From what I've read from many sources so far, it's very clear that we need to stop fracking completely, and phase out coal and oil immediately, then increase subsidies for solar and wind and other renewable efforts.  But our lives really DO have to change in the process - pretty dramatically, but not unbearably.  We're past the point of asking nicely.  Most people won't do anything they don't absolutely have to do.  We need to force people, ourselves, to stop using fossil fuels.  But many politicians are useless in this arena.  Can we convince shareholders to stop backing certain industries?  Is social pressure enough?  Can we shame one another into better behaviour??  Let's find out!

I tend to tip toe around this stuff to avoid offending people and to avoid being seen as a crazy hippie.  But I suddenly feel like there have been enough books and articles and reports published lately that are so clearly on this side, that maybe I'll no longer look like a radical if I insist, right out loud, that we have to change how we live.  I think it's time people be offended.

Stop flying.  Planes have to be grounded for all but the most clearly necessary flights.  The travel industry as we know it needs to be shut down, today.  Yes, that means you won't get back to that beautiful spot you found years ago, but that's a small price to pay for air we can breathe painlessly.  Flights carrying CEOs and politicians must be grounded and Skype used instead for the vast majority of international meetings.  Learning about other cultures, and helping people around the world, has to be done online from home.  School groups who want to travel to far-off lands to build playgrounds for less fortunate children have to recognize that they're adding to the likelihood of that very area being washed into the ocean.  Enough already.  Seeing the world is a luxury we no longer have. Period.

Our local hydro company has a Peak Saver incentive that automatically saves energy for residential consumers.  I called to find out how to get involved, and they said it only works for people with an air conditioner.  What the gizmo does is turn down the air conditioner at peak times.  So, rather than encourage people to stop installing A/C in the first place, we've found a way to control it as needed to keep the grid intact.  We are being far too kind in our implementation of necessary measures continuing to focus on the immediate issues instead of the very near future.  We need to ban A/C except for people who need it for health reasons.  Passes should be issued the way we do for disabled parking.  Many of my neighbours got A/C when they started a family - they did it for the baby.  But the babies would be better off learning to acclimatize to our climate than having more GHGs added to the atmosphere in their names.  I saw Stephen Lewis speak after he spent five years in Africa, and he chastised the audience for having A/C in Canadian homes.  He's right.  We should be embarrassed.

And then there's the car issue.  We have to live closer to where we work, and/or start taking the bus.  If you think it's yucky on the bus, or it's just too inconvenient, then get over yourself.

Finally, we have to stop eating meat, or at least reduce consumption enough to make it a rare treat - like the orange we used to get in the toe of our Christmas stocking.   Chris Hedges has written a few articles lately on becoming a reluctant vegetarian.  He reports, "Animal agriculture is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than all worldwide transportation combined—cars, trucks, trains, ships and planes."  And, with respect to what used to be rare Christmas oranges, we have to reduce long-distance food consumption as well.

There are many more things that need to change, but these are just four that impact the world significantly, and that we can change TODAY.  Right. This. Freaking. Minute.

Collectively, we are too stupid to live.  We are childlike in our inability to see the longterm effects of our current actions.  It's time to grow up and accept the sacrifice of not seeing Aunt Bessy ever again, of sipping lemonade in slow motion on the front porch during a few sweltering hot weeks in summer, of walking and biking and bussing everywhere we go, of having a pint without ordering wings.  Stop whining, and make it happen; or recognize that you're contributing to the death of most the mammals on the planet - include us.

Just sayin'.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

On the Hidden Sickness of the Heart

Scott Long wrote an excellent article separating the act of supporting free speech from the act of supporting the words and images created by Charlie Hebdo.  But I disagree with this one bit:
"Words don't kill..."
As I said in a comment there, too many young people have lost lives as a direct results of malicious words and images.  We can't ignore that reality.  In my lifetime, I've seen a change in the way we talk that developed through punishments for transgressions of the new rules.  We use gender-inclusive language in scholarly writing, and professionals and politicians can no longer easily get away with cavalierly making racist, sexist, or homophobic slurs.  We recognize that words seep into our subconscious in a way we can't prevent when they're out there at large, repeated and bombarding us at every turn.

The subtle restrictions in our language, I believe, have played a part in changing in our attitudes and behaviours.  They're not the complete answer, of course, but they do have a significant impact.  The recent events have provoked some prejudicial words and views floating around social media.  We would be wise to remember this recent reaction:



Or check out how the Swedish "love-bombed" a mosque.

Long's article hits on something explained by Catarina Dutilh at New APPS, that,
"...at its core, the Enlightenment is not a tolerant movement: its ideals may be described as corresponding to “the ambition of shaping individual and social development on the basis of better and more reliable knowledge than the tangled, confused, half-articulate but deeply rooted conceptual systems inherited from our ancestors." 
Long's words:
"To defend satire because it’s indiscriminate is to admit that it discriminates against the defenseless....[This is] the truth about satire. It’s an exercise in power. It claims superiority, it aspires to win, and hence it always looms over the weak, in judgment. If it attacks the powerful, that’s because there is appetite underneath its asperity: it wants what they have....They know that while [Voltaire's] contempt amuses when directed at the potent and impervious Pope, it turns dark and sour when defaming a weak and despised community. Satire can sometimes liberate us, but it is not immune from our prejudices or untainted by our hatreds. It shouldn’t douse our critical capacities; calling something “satire” doesn’t exempt it from judgment. The superiority the satirist claims over the helpless can be both smug and sinister."
The movement we've celebrated that has us in this self-righteous state of knowledge is not founded on world peace or compassion or kindness, but on escaping religious ideologies.  It's a noble path if it takes us from powers that prevent us from open critical thought, but the path leads to a cliff when it continues unabated once religious ideas are no longer a threat as a forced belief system.

It's absolutely true that religious texts have portions that provoke hatred and intolerance of others:


But, the New Atheists also have their intolerant passages that can inspire their followers:  There's Richard Dawkins' famous tweet comparing Islam with Nazism: "Of course you can have an opinion about Islam without having read Qur'an. You don't have to read Mein Kampf to have an opinion about nazism."  And Bill Maher and Christopher Hitchens are no more accepting of differences.  We can find hatred within every faction of society.

At least religious texts also have portions insisting on the tolerance of all:

There's Hillel's famous description of the main message of Judaism:  "That which is hateful to yourself, do not do unto others. That is the heart of the Torah; all the rest is commentary. Now go and study!"  And there's the Christian rule:  "'Love your neighbour as yourself.' There is no commandment greater..." (Mark 12:31).

Similarly, the Qur'an instructs followers to,
"...show kindness to parents, and to kindred, and orphans, and the needy, and to the neighbor that is a kinsman and the neighbor that is a stranger, and the companion by your side, and the wayfarer, and those whom your right hands possess. Surely, Allah loves not the proud and the boastful" (4:37). 
Religion doesn't make us hate one another; that's a red herring.  We have the capacity to choose to follow some ideas over others in any doctrine.  I respect Chomsky's views, but I differ from him on the right to free speech.  We can be followers of Plato without condoning slavery.

Basic human nature may be the real villain here.  Zimbardo's famous experiment got to the heart of this reality, and Nietzsche recognized it almost a century earlier in this passage, 
“Somebody remarked: ‘I can tell by my own reaction to it that this book is harmful.’ But let him only wait and perhaps one day he will admit to himself that this same book has done him a great service by bringing out the hidden sickness of the heart and making it visible."
Knowing that it's possible to let this cruel part of ourselves flourish means we have to, individually and personally, work at keeping the sickness in ourselves in check.  And if we have any hope of surviving the next few decades intact, we also have to help one another make choices based on compassion and tolerance, loudly clarifying our intolerance of prejudices.  And, no, that's not a hypocrisy.  It's a necessity.   

ETA - Russell Brand made a similar point that we have to check our own selves to begin to affect change on a larger scale.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

On Restricting Free Speech

 “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” – Evelyn Beatrice Hall

I'm not so sure I agree with Ms. Hall's famously misattributed line.  People say some truly cruel things, and I'm not convinced we should have a right to be publicly malicious.  As always, I say too many things in one crazy long post instead of breaking it up into many separate issues, but I tend to see issues too interconnected to separate.  So there it is.

Let's begin by contemplating on some different scenarios: some fictitious for comparison purposes, others all too real:

1. People joking online about chloroforming and hate raping their fellow classmates.
2. People joking in a private room about hate raping classmates.
3. People standing in the cold to lambast a comedian and trying to convince people not to support him because he allegedly did some nasty things, even though he was not yet tried in a court of law.
4. People chanting, "We believe the women" as he tries to speak, trying to deny his ability to speak even though his words - mainly - aren't offensive - certainly not relative to many comedians.
5. People chanting, "bully" as a troublesome classmate tries to speak.
6. People drawing and distributing funny cartoons sexualizing sacred figures and negatively stereotyping certain religious groups.
7. People drawing funny pictures of dicks in class.
8. People making a funny film depicting the execution of a character who's imitating a real person.
9. People petitioning the Prime Minister with an onslaught of spiteful, defamatory comments.
10. People petitioning a teacher with an onslaught of spiteful, defamatory comments.
11. A teacher using the word "dicks" on a public blog.

These are dramatically different situations, but they all provoke the question: What should we be allowed to say?  I use these examples framed this way because all week I've been dwelling on some of them, and I've found myself changing sides swayed by different types of details.  I'm attempting to develop a more consistent way to approach these issues here, or at the very least to figure out why some words and scenarios bother me more than others.  This might be messy.

First, I think it's vitally important that people be allowed to openly criticize authority figures.  The most dangerous loss of freedom is the inability to speak out against government.  But I'm a sensitive sort - or maybe a reasonable sort - and as much as I hate our current PM for the stance he's taken over his lengthy time in office, I'm jarred by some ad hominem comments people make about him as a person - even though from time to time I may let slip horrible things myself.  There's a part of me that often (but not always - it's messy!) remembers that he's someone's dad.  We definitely need him out of office, but we don't need him personally destroyed in the process.  He is a human being....who has way too much power for my liking.  But, I maintain that he still has a right to be treated with dignity as we vote him out of office.

I don't think it's a problem to openly criticize Harper's blindness to longterm effects, nor his lack of transparency, nor his controlling nature with his caucus.  It's the "hope he dies and burns in hell" path that could easily be shut down without affecting democratic freedoms.  Venting and criticizing are two different things with a different purpose and, as such, deserve a different forum.  Venting is what we do with a close friend listening privately; it has no place in a public debate.  This distinction is all the more important when openly criticizing people in positions of power further down the line - like MPs that you're likely to see in your grocery story, or local journalists, or even teachers who didn't sign up to be in the public eye in the same way politicians and journalists do.  With open access to an online forum seen by millions, it has become far more important to teach argumentation skills at a young age, and to offer reminders everywhere.  But if we can't teach people to stop venting in public places, to actually control their own outrage like a theoretical grown-up might do, then I think (big breath) we need to have some legislation in place to prevent or punish this action.  

For criticism to be valued, it must be valuable.  And too many arguments seeking to attack a position, end up bludgeoning a person instead.  The typical arguments used online is well illustrated here:

Graphic based on Paul Graham's "How to Disagree" 

A similar distinction might be noticed in satire as illustrated in this Sacco cartoon.  Satire is important because humour allows people to get away with saying thing others might fear to say too restrained by political correctness.  The Daily Show, Colbert Report, and Last Week Tonight are excellent examples of satire being a public service.  But I believe satire should still be restrained by basic human decency - NOT from a fear of offending the sensitive who might be in need of some constructive criticism, but from a civilized distaste for causing unwarranted harm to other human beings.  Intentionally causing harm to a person or group who are doing nothing wrong - nothing that needs to be called to the fore at least - is either an act of, if ignorant to the effect, a moron, or, if unconcerned with the harm being caused, a psychopath.  Both need to be addressed.

We don't have any hesitation warning students that if they say cruel things about another student online, they'll be dealt with seriously. My region's school board site says, "cyber bullying includes the use of email, text messages, and internet social networking sites to threaten, harass, embarrass, socially exclude, or damage reputations and friendships."  Students get in trouble pretty quickly when they harass other students online.  At the very least, they're called out on it by a VP.  Sometimes just a chat that makes it clear that people know what you did, and a clarification around the problem with the words used, can be enough to deter further actions.  At our board, we openly restrict free speech that happens outside of the school day and off school property because we know it has effects within the school.  Yet the idea of implementing something similar at the national level is abhorrent to many people.  I might be more understanding of the insistence that adults should be able to speak freely if they actually spoke like adults more consistently.

I'm also concerned about the shift towards a more vigilante justice driven by a mob mentality out for blood. I'm a strong feminist and want to change the barriers in place that prevent women from being all they can be, and I want to help create a world free from sexual harassment, abuse, and assault.  But I want to do it in the most respectful way possible ever emulating the ideal of treating others as I'd like to be treated along the way.  The mobs gathering to pressure Dalhousie to expel students for heinous online comments is an example of this trend.  I believe there should be consequences for the "gentlemen," but the consequences should fit the crime.  They acted stupidly, but the fact that they intended their comments to remain private suggests to me that they didn't intend any malice.  I'd rather see them apologize to each woman in their class individually following a restorative justice model, as well as see a public apology offered, than to have their education voided at this stage of the game.  I think it's possible for someone be an excellent dentist even if he has a warped sense of humour.  Part of my argument is predicated on the belief that what we say privately doesn't always have a clear correlation with our public behaviour or our authentic attitude - i.e. I don't believe their words are necessarily a peek inside their conscience revealing potential for future violent actions.

And it goes without saying that nobody should be shot for what they write, say, or believe.

In cases like the Dalhousie incident, I ask myself, "To what extent could that have been me?"  I have a strong interest in politics, but would never dream of running for office because I know I can't always hold my tongue.  My words have offended people in the past, and it took until I was well into my 20s to stop insisting people shouldn't be offended by mere words, and instead to begin to apologize sincerely for the unintended effects of my actions.  I say stupid things all the time, and my sense of humour can be very dark even including Bill Burr's style of comedy that stands counter to many of my personal beliefs.  It terrifies me that, as a teacher, one wrong comment could possibly cost me my job.  Any rules or legislation governing this arena have to be able to separate the stupid from the malicious.  Yes, that can be very difficult to ascertain, which is why it belongs in the hands of a judge and jury and not a crowd.

BUT that mob pressuring the school, really, is just a collection of individuals providing their opinion to the dean - much like I'm doing here.  I'm just hoping the dean doesn't bow to popular opinion on this one.  This brings me to another part of the conundrum:  the effect of words depends on the thickness of the hide of the listener.  We never really know how much another can take, so we must be careful.

As always, I had an interesting discussion with some students on this topic.  One leaned heavily to the side of total free speech with the development of a thick skin, and solved the problem of hurtful comments like this (loosely paraphrased):  "We must teach people to be rational even if it means brainwashing the less logically-minded, so that when someone says something critical, they'll be able to evaluate it rationally.  If there's some merit to the comment, they can take it into consideration and possibly amend their position.  If there's no merit to the comment, they can simply toss it aside as a piece of foolishness."

But, I argued, many people, even rational, logical people, can't easily toss meritless comments aside.  That act involves more than a steady intellect.  I wonder if it's only a rare person that can be honestly unaffected by a barrage of barbed criticism - and I further wonder if it's perhaps more a case of social obliviousness than a rising above the fray.  But, furthermore, it can be downright dangerous to simply ignore sexually aggressive comments because we do never know when they might be put into action.  And for the masses, even being cursed at regularly can erode the strongest will.  It makes far more sense to stop this problem at the top of the river where people are being thrown in, than to keep trying to rescue people further down.

David Brooks, in an excellent article in the New York Times, suggests that we should use social punishments rather than legislation because people can overreact to minor offences,
If you try to pull off this delicate balance with law, speech codes and banned speakers, you’ll end up with crude censorship and a strangled conversation....Fortunately, social manners are more malleable and supple than laws and codes. Most societies have successfully maintained standards of civility and respect while keeping open avenues for those who are funny, uncivil and offensive.
This is similar to the idea of the student just mentioned above, and I disagree for similar reasons.  I fear it's not the case that the social provocation of manners will be enough to eradicate this phenomenon of open cruelty available en masse.  Social forces can do wonders as is clear with the change in our day-to-day language.  In my high school days in the late 70s/early 80s, teachers used some racial slurs that we wouldn't hear from some of our most corrupted charges today.  I had a university professor tell our class, "The only good Indian is a dead Indian."  Social denunciation can clearly work, but it's a slow and imperfect practice to depend on for necessary change.

Like my student, Brooks expects us to be able to relegate offensive comments to a different place in society where they have no traction, but I believe that just isn't possible for the average user of social media.  It's just not a viable solution.  And, while it's true that some authorities have gone too far punishing minor transgressions as Brooks points out, keeping this issue off the legal books entirely tosses the baby with the bathwater.  Because it's not currently always done well, is not to say it shouldn't be done at all and be improved.  We need to provide punishable rules around intentional cruelty, but we must be much more careful around how this type of regulation is implemented, and, as always, ensuring that the punishment fits the crime.    

A different student in my class made a similar argument that we should have total free speech, and people should just individually retaliate against comments against them.  If women are made uncomfortable or fearful by a group of guys making rape jokes, they can take revenge with slanderous comments about specific gentlemen's sexual inadequacies and abilities.  But, I countered, where does that get us as a society trying to live and work together?

I don't want to live in a society where my emotional stability or even just my reputation could be destroyed because we deem the protection of free speech so important such that haters are permitted to craft the cruelest comments for online consumption undeterred by any legal restrictions.

We don’t have unqualified freedom of speech here in Canada. It's an indictable offence for anybody to "incite hatred against any identifiable group where such incitement is likely to lead to a breach of the peace."  But since the Harper government repealed section 13 of the Human Rights Act so, as far as I understand this, it's no longer a crime to use hate speech on the internet (made effective last June but with much controversy).  We also have a right to sue for defamation. Ontario legislation "prohibits the dissemination of defamatory comments, specifically, spoken or written words that discredit an individual in the estimation of right-thinking members of society generally" and that includes on-line comments, if you can find out who made them (which is a different issue entirely).   Specifically defamation is written as,
"The act of harming the reputation of another by making a false statement to a third person…A false written or oral statement that damages another's reputation....A statement that tends to injure the reputation of a person referred to in it. The statement is likely to lower that person in the estimation of reasonable people and in particular to cause that person to be regarded with feelings of hatred, contempt, ridicule, fear, or dislike.
Unlike many, I like some restrictions on our freedom of speech.  I don't buy the slippery slope argument that any restrictions at all will send us down a path towards a V for Vendetta situation.  Like I believe we can legalize marijuana without eventually legalizing heroin, and like I believe we can legalize same sex marriage without it leading to people marrying sheep or shoes, on this front, I believe we can criminalize hateful comments against identifiable groups or intentionally destructive comments against individuals while still retaining the right to criticize people even in a position of power openly and without penalty beyond a verbal claim to the contrary, AND while still retaining the right to speak our oppositional opinions freely, and to continue to joke around with one another.

It can be important to speak uncomfortable truths that others don't feel allowed to say couched in comedy.  Dark humour can also be a means of coping with trauma.  Legislating intentional malice shouldn't have any effect on our ability to make one another laugh.  It's not about stopping any potentially offensive remark made, but about stopping the maliciousness that's beginning to rule parts of the internet and spill out into our daily lives.

Unlike many crimes, this type of legislation can't be measured by the effect on the victim, with victim impact statements read in court, or else every easily-slighted person will have 911 on speed dial.  It has to look at intention and motive and the measure the words and actions against a set standard of reasonable harm.  It could be set up as an extension to our existing hate crime laws.  I don't think it will be easy to craft such a document, but I think it's no less necessary.

Something like that.


Tuesday, December 30, 2014

On Chomsky's Driving Forces in US Foreign Policy

On Chomsky’s “Driving Forces in US Foreign Policy.” This talk is from last summer, but it just caught up to me now.  I've summarized bits of the 2-hour long talk and discussion.  It's all Chomsky's words, but the paragraphs are differently ordered under headings below:

On Global Warming and Nuclear Weapons 


The security of state power and concentrated private power is a driving force in state policy. What about security of the population? It’s easy to demonstrate that that’s a minor concern for state policy planners. Any literate person should be doubtless aware that global warming and nuclear weapons are dire threats to the security of the population. State policy is dedicated to accelerating the threats in both cases in the interest of primary concerns: it’s state power and concentrated private power that largely determine state policy.

In the case of global warming, it’s so obvious. It does illustrate very clearly the concern for security and certainly not for the population. It also illustrates the moral calculus of contemporary neo-liberalism of state capitalism. The fate of our grandchildren counts for absolutely nothing in comparison with the need to make more money tomorrow. That’s the driving principle of what’s called capitalism today.

It’s interesting to look at how the propaganda works. In the United States there’s a policy, there’s nothing secret about it, to try to convince the public either global warming isn’t real at all, or if it is, it has nothing to do with human activity. The policy has had some impact. The United States ranks lower in public concern of global warming…..It’s stratified, so among Republicans it’s one of the lowest in the world. The Columbia Journalism Review has a current article about this: one piece requires a counter piece, which leads to confusion on the part of the population. But there’s certainly no doctrine of fair and balance reporting in everything. If an article is denouncing Putin, there doesn’t have to run an opposing piece. The actual media doctrine of fair and balance holds in one case: when the concerns of private power are threatened. Nowhere else.

For the first time in history, we face the possibility of destroying decent existence, and NOT in the distant future. For this reason alone, it’s imperative to sweep away the ideological clouds and face honestly and realistically how policy decisions are made and what we can do to alter them before it’s too late.

On Western Control 


The Arab Spring broke a logjam in the Arab world. …The west is certainly going to try to prevent independent developments, but they may not succeed. There’s one striking example that you should pay attention to, and that’s South America. For 500 years, since the conquistadors, South America has been controlled by central powers, and for the last century and a half, largely the United States. Now South America has become the most free part of the world. In the western hemisphere, the United States and Canada are more isolated. Take a look at hemispheric conferences. The US and Canada are alone against the rest of Latin America. There was a dramatic illustration of this recently: Open Forum did a study of rendition: one of the most extreme forms of barbaric torture humans have developed. If the US wants someone tortured, they send them to countries to be tortured there so we can say we didn’t have anything to do with it.

Most of Europe participated in rendition by cooperating with the United States. One region of the world refused to participate: Latin America. Which is amazing. First of all it’s been under total US control for the last century, and during this period, it was the world center of torture…. Now it’s the one region that refused to participate in US administered torture. That’s the kind of thing that could happen – and it could happen in the Middle East….

In the history of imperialism, most crimes were carried out by mercenaries. Black fighters were used to control groups in South Africa. In India, Indian fighters were used. The US deviated from the pattern by sending its own soldiers. But you can’t take people off the street to turn them into fighters. The US army fell apart – soldiers began killing officers, got hooked on drugs. So they moved to a professional army in more recent years, back to imperial patterns and mercenaries.  They're called contractors now [like Blackwater / Academi]. Look at Iraq and Afghanistan, they have many contractors – but that’s the traditional imperial pattern. It makes sense to keep your own civilians away from the fighting and hand that out to professional killers.

We don’t have to tolerate that, of course. That’s up to us.

On Saviours


It’s true that people are always waiting for a saviour, and no saviour’s going to come. That’s not how things work. People can create the conditions under which some decent person may become a spokesperson, but they don’t come from above and organize the movement. Take Martin Luther King, a very significant person. I respect him a lot, and he would be the first to tell you that he did not create the civil rights movement. The civil rights movement was created by young black activists in the south that sat in at lunch counters, rode freedom buses, got beat up and killed,…. and Martin Luther King was a spokesperson for them. That’s how leaders come. But notice what happened with Martin Luther King – there’s a national holiday…but the rhetoric stops with his ‘I have a dream speech’ in Washington….he didn’t stop there.

He went on to confront class issues in the North. When he was assassinated, he was supporting a public sanitation workers strike – and he was on his way to lead a march on Washington to form a poor people’s movement to strike at class issues. He was assassinated. The march took place anyway led by his widow. That part of Martin Luther King’s history is gone. It’s fine to attack the racist chair of Alabama, but don’t look too closely of what we’re doing. That’s the fault of people like us who didn’t do the things we should have done. You won’t get a leader who will save you until you do the work, and then you’ll get a spokesperson.

On Personal Efforts:  Political Transparency, OWS, Revolutions, and Capitalism


Samuel Huntington said, “Power must remain in the dark. Exposed to the sunlight, it begins to evaporate.”  That’s what lies behind what we’re talking about. One thing you can do is to expose power to the sunlight to let it evaporate. Exposing power to the sunlight has to be a preliminary to the only thing that has ever worked in history: mass popular organization. And that has achieved plenty of results…. The power is actually in the hands of people like you, but it has to be exercised. And that requires organization and action. As an individual you can do very little. But when you get together you can do almost anything. And that’s been demonstrated over and over again through history.

You mentioned Occupy, and that’s interesting and important. If I had been asked myself should people occupy Zuccotti Park in New York, I’d say no and I would have been wrong. It was remarkably successful. Within days, weeks, there were hundreds of occupy movements across the country and worldwide. I actually spoke at an occupy event in Australia. It lit a spark which had a real impact and it changed a lot of things: it changed the discourse and put equality on the agenda for the first time, and now phrases like the 1% is common coin. But remember that occupy was a tactic, not a movement. Every tactic has diminishing returns, and this one in particular couldn’t continue over the winter. So it has to turn into a movement, and to some extent it has.

There are no magic tricks. That’s the one that’s worked throughout history. There’s always regression – power systems don’t say, “Thank-you we’re going to give you the power.” They try to maintain themselves, and that’s class struggle. It goes on through history, and it will continue.

As individuals there’s very little we can do to confront the problems we face, but if people get together, then they can do a great deal. They belong to something. It’s happened all the time in the past – for thousands of years. It’s how feudalism was overthrown, it’s how slavery was overthrown in recent years, it’s how women were able to get minimal or relatively equal rights.

During the French Revolution, people carried things forward, but there was a regression, which is very common. Power systems do not give up willingly. They’ll fight back. We can then go on from a higher plane. Capitalists will only win if you let them win.

We should recognize that what exists isn’t remotely like capitalism. There is a system of corporate power but …lots of ways to overcome it and remove it, and some of them are happening right now. Take the United States, the industrial region has declined seriously because of a decision to undermine manufacturing – there is a reaction – worker-owned industry which is spreading over the region. A couple years ago Obama nationalize the auto industry….He could have handed it over to the work-force to let them produce the things that the country really needs. That could have been done, and would have been done – but we can only blame it on the failure of people like us to do what we should have been doing.

Look at the women’s movement in US history just after the American Revolution. According to British law, women were not person, but the property of her father, which was handed over to the husband. One of the arguments against women having the vote is that it would be unfair to unmarried men, because married men would get two votes because obviously the property votes as the owner does. It wasn’t until the 1960s that it totally collapsed….And then as recently as 1975, the supreme court recognized that women are legally called peers… that’s a big change….When I started at MIT in the 1950s, the halls were full of white males, obedient, deferential. Today it’s half women, one third minorities, and informal relations, which matters a lot. Those are big changes. They came by organized, activist efforts, which met a lot of resistance, but won a lot of games.

[Refering to the number of people at his talks:] People are interested but atomized, not organized. You have to have enough privilege to spend your time doing research. That’s how popular movements get organized. And when they’re powerful enough, change happens. Pick the forms of activism that makes sense.

There are no formulas. And there are no limits.