Monday, August 31, 2015

Fighting Fanaticism

"Fanaticism is bred by hopelessness and despair. It is not the product of religion, although religion often becomes the sacral veneer for violence. The more desperate people become, the more this nihilistic violence will spread....Neoliberal ideologues, after all, are also utopian fanatics. And they, too, know only how to speak in the language of force. They are our version of Islamic State....The only choice offered by 'bourgeois society,' as Friedrich Engels knew, is 'socialism or regression into barbarism.' It is time we make this choice."

Chris Hedges in yesterday's article in Truthdig.  Two significant elections coming up.  Let's hope it's even possible to make this choice. 

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Dear Orli

You wrote about the education system ruining your health because you started having panic attacks when you realized your future would be based on a set of criteria created by exam boards. You think young people are feeling pressure that shouldn't be imposed on anyone.  You ask,
"How can we justify putting the health of children on the line for an exam board’s definition of achievement? The most important achievement a person should aim for is being comfortable in their skin, safe in the knowledge they can live their life and define success on their own terms."
You feel that you're too young to make some significant life decisions, that politicians are to blame for the state of your mental health, and that "this isn't fair."

Have I heard you correctly?

Then listen a bit.

You don't have to let the school criteria judge you as a success or failure in life. Education is about teaching information and skills, but school evaluations are there to tell you what you're good at compared to others in society. It's a means to show you your abilities and limitations among the wider populous. Whether or not you decide your place on the list is a measure of your success in life is completely up to you. As my mom told me when I faced similar concerns thirty years ago, "It's important to do your best, not to be the best." She convinced me that I don't have to worry about being at the top of the class to be a good person or to be a valuable worthwhile individual, BUT the strength of my abilities in school compared to others would have implications on the job market.  Those are two very different things, and it's important not to conflate them. If I can be content to waitress, then I can ditch the stresses of school altogether. And I did drop out.

And then, bored to tears in an entry-level job, I went back.

Your ability to be among the best and brightest in a particular area - or not - will likely affect the kind of job you can get, but that isn't a measure of your worth as a human being. Being comfortable in your skin, however, won't get you far if it's the only thing on your resume. And defining success on your own terms is definitely how your should consider your value in the world, but it doesn't fit in the marketplace. If a bookseller decides she's a success if she can sell one book a week, then she might have great self-esteem, but she won't be able to pay the rent on the retail space she needs to sell books.

I don't think school affects mental health. I think it's our perception of the role of school marks that affects us. But that perception is a choice. We've been sucked into a competitive mode of living that puts a priority on being at the top. But it's pretty comfortable among the masses as well.  And, if we're working to our potential, school marks can give us valuable information about which fields we should pursue for money and which we should relegate to hobbies.

And about those life decisions at such a young age: don't forget that nothing is permanent. Choosing now gets you started on a path that can fork later. And you can start over at any time.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

On So Much Anger

Anger may be defined as an impulse, accompanied by pain, to a conspicuous revenge for a conspicuous slight directed without justification towards what concerns oneself or towards what concerns one's friends. If this is a proper definition of anger, it must always be felt towards some particular individual, e.g. Cleon, and not "man" in general. It must be felt because the other has done or intended to do something to him or one of his friends. It must always be attended by a certain pleasure -- that which arises from the expectation of revenge. - Aristotle

I'm just trying to figure out some things about anger here, so this will be long and rambling.

Aristotle wrote Rhetoric to teach the art of persuasion. The key to convincing others of your position is arousing emotions in them because emotions have the power to modify people's judgments to the point that we can persuade people to hate or desire that which was previously neutral. We're affected by this principle whenever we suddenly want something we've never considered after seeing an ad, or when we suddenly hate someone after hearing some gossip. He didn't want to get people to rise to action, but merely to be persuaded to agree with a position being offered. He was a very different sort than Socrates on that front. As influential as he was, some of us still think it's better to persuade with rational argumentation. Better? Maybe, in ethical terms at least, but effective? Not so much. Aristotle takes this one hands down. Lots of very rational discourse on environmental issues is doing squat to persuade the masses.

But my interest here is in that one statement: "It must always be felt towards some particular individual." Proper anger, useful anger, isn't tossed about in all directions. It's focused on someone specific who slighted you without justification. It appears we often do anger wrong.

A few posts back I mentioned the pain-aggression response - otherwise known as pain-induced aggression. When we feel pain, we attack. It's a very primitive instinct common to all mammals. Way back when, in a university psych class, we were shown a video of a raccoon and rat inside a cage together. The raccoon had a good 3-4 times the weight of the rat, easily, but the two prisoners just sniffed around largely ignoring each other. Then an experimenter gave the rat an electric shock, and it lunged at the raccoon's throat, attacking it violently. The video cut off before we saw the aftermath of the battle though, so we don't know who won.
the #1 endangered big cat

But that video stayed with me.

And, like Aristotle says, it's not just our own pain that causes anger. Because of mirror neurons, we feel pain when we see someone else experience pain - even people we've never met, or lions, or, less commonly, the many species going extinct because of our frivolousness. It pains us to see others harmed without justification, and that makes us angry. But we don't always get angry at the instigator of the pain the way Aristotle hopes we will.

This entire line of consideration was planted years ago, but it sprouted when some trolls visited here, and grew when Amanda Marcotte wrote an article on why men are so angry with women.  She discussed the recently viral study that shows a strong correlation between how well men succeed at video games and how much vitriol they spew at women: losers are haters. But she takes the researchers to task for their analysis of the situation wrapped in terms of evolutionary sexual advantage. Instead, she thinks that angry reaction has more to do with the pain caused by losing and the fact that women are an easy target:
"...some people who are feeling bad about themselves try to regain a sense of mastery by picking on someone they think is down the social pecking order from them. In other words, these guys are bullies. They pick on women not because of some elaborate hardwired mating game, but because men are socialized to think women are weaker and somehow inferior to men.... They pick on women for the same reason kids at school like to bully the nerdy kid or the fat kid or the gay kid: To feel bigger and better than someone else, to get that rush of power over someone else, to kill a perceived weakness inside of them, to trick other people into thinking they're big and tough.... 
People are going to feel low sometimes and are going to want a quick fix to feel powerful. What we need, as a society, is to discourage men from chasing that quick fix by picking on women in this way. Sure, maybe teach better coping mechanisms--get some therapy, learn a hobby, get some exercise--but more importantly, stop seeing women as ciphers that exist for them to dump on. Learn to see women as equals and people who, like men, are worthy of respect."
If that raccoon and rat also had a mouse in their cage, then I think it likely that the shocked rat would have taken on the easier prey, but both are clearly easier than the experimenter who's outside the cage free to provoke others at will. We feel pain and we attack, not what caused the pain, but whatever's easy. Whatever's convenient. Sometimes what causes our pain is impossible to attack. The person is too powerful for us or too elusive. Of course it would be best to attack the person who caused the harm in order to actually try to resolve the situation (assuming, as Aristotle does, that revenge can be necessary), but it's easiest to attack whomever's close at hand and unable to retaliate effectively.

So if that's the issue, then Marcotte's solution "learn to see women as equals" is unhelpful regardless its accuracy. The solution has to involve specifically making sure the unwitting victims are able to retaliate effectively (through some online means of finding perpetrators and holding them responsible for their words) AND finding ways for the first victims, the shocked rats, to resolve problems with the original aggressor or the perception of original harm. That "original aggressor" might just be some woman who said "no" to a date, so we do need to attack the perspective that is creating all that pain. Attacking a person is so much easier than attacking an ideology, so this will be a hard slog.

Hedges talks about this male rage in Empire of Illusionin an interview with a male porn star who explained,
"My whole reason for being in the industry is to satisfy the desire of the men in the world who basically don't much care for women and want to see the men in my industry getting even with the women they couldn't have when they were growing up....We're getting even for their lost dreams....All I know is that large segments around the world like to watch young girls being tortured."
Hedges links the anger to the pain of rejection - not just actual rejection, but also the thought of being rejected by women who might say 'no' to them.

This is our whole mindset in a consumerist society. We are led to believe that, if we work hard, we should be able to have whatever we want. I can be a great athlete if I try hard enough - except I couldn't hit the side of a barn with a beach ball. I can buy a house without saving up for a down payment - except then I'll have insurmountable debt. I should be able to have whatever I see, just because I want it, without any negative consequences, dammit!! The career, the house, and the wife and kids. It's our birthright.

I wrote about the problems with that attitude a couple years ago. It's a bugger. It's invasive, and it's making us miserable.

Another peg in this board is that sharing anger helps it dissipate. I know if I'm in a snit, and I get mad at anyone for anything, I feel much better immediately - better enough to apologize profusely for my outburst. It's as if I've given the anger away to whomever I yelled at. I know how good this feels, but I try to prevent it, and it can be prevented. Ranting about the enraging situation to a supportive friend or the interwebs can do wonders for diminishing that build up of rage, even when the trigger is still there *coughHarpercough*.  We can't always immediately stop what's causing the pain, so we create support groups to help us deal with it so we don't inadvertently lash out at our loved ones nearby.

But that's exactly what some really angry men have done online, sort of. They've found each other. But instead of dissipating their anger through ranting, they've exacerbated it for one another. And instead of targeting the real cause of the pain in their lives - feeling crappy because of a losing streak on a game or a bad relationship - they verbally attack random women they've never met and ask other men to spread the word about them. To see how warp this is, an analogy would be an anti-Harper site with people suggesting we DESTROY ALL CONSERVATIVES, and posting this message on random con blogs everywhere. It's different than attack ads because the message doesn't question the policies or the person, but instead implies a straight route to a violent end to the actual existence of the people within the targeted group, or at least a silencing of them through a terror campaign. A lot of people are really, really upset with what's happened politically in the last few years, but there aren't many who wish actual harm to come to specific conservatives. We're not threatening them with a bombardment of heinous descriptions of sexual assaults.

That's a different level of anger that's scary and, it feels, growing exponentially.

From Maricotte's explanation, clearly it's not just about pain. It's about fear. Pain just tells us that there's something nearby that we should be afraid of, something that needs to be taken down. So we react aggressively until we feel safe again. We react aggressively when in pain, but the pain is often due to a perception that causes us to be afraid.

So why are some men so afraid?

Sometimes fear is from feeling like we have no say in anything. Being scared and trapped, without any means of controlling the situation, might necessitate aggressive action. But when we're not actually caged, we have to see that we're not as trapped as we think.

What's worked for me in my encounters with angry people is to give them control over the situation to alleviate their fears enough to find common ground and a viable solution. Freaking out because you don't want to do that assignment (likely because you're struggling)? Then feel free to choose another way you can show you understand the ideas. Upset because you don't have the kids tonight and you've got nothing else to do? How about you choose the nights you'd prefer them. It's not enough to give an illusion of control - like some politicians do. People feeling fearful have to be allowed to call the shots - but usually just until they feel more stabilized. It can be surprisingly effective at immediately alleviating rage.

Except we don't really have all that much control in the first place. It would work better if we could just let go of that need to run the show. We can do everything in our power to head towards a goal and still not make it. Shit happens. And so much is outside of our directly influence.

What's worked for me when I'm angry, is to do a quick 'stop and think' about what I'm afraid of.  Typically I start pitching a fit if I'm in a hurry - I'm afraid of being late, except that I'm never actually late for anything, and if I were, I could survive the inconvenience. A quick reminder of that can go a long way.

Except, anger actually feels good. It definitely feels much better than fear, but it can even feel much better than contentment. It's exciting and energizing. Sometimes people work hard to keep it going in order to keep up that rush of adrenaline. It can be hard to give that up - hard to see the more permanent rewards of stable relationships and world peace over the immediate reward of having power over others.

So why are they scared, scared and in pain enough to cause a crazy kind of anger that's only relieved by terrorizing women online?

If they don't get that girl, or win that game, or succeed at life, then they don't measure up. To be a man means to WIN, which is an impossible definition to live up to. Even men who have made it in many areas feel they're still not up to par. How could it not inspire some - if not many - to feel upset and, subsequently, very angry with the world? And the reality of our legal system right now is that women online are very easy targets for attack. The law has not yet caught up to technology, but it's also the case that descriptions of rape and torture cause pain in a way that's deeper than descriptions of unadorned murder threats. They don't have to actually carry out the threat to have an effect. This is a power too easily won, it might be hard to resist, the anger too satisfactorily relieved.

Okay, I'm no MRA apologist, so bear with me here.

When women have body image issues, and we understand that one root cause is the media that plants false expectations of reality in the culture's minds, we don't take it out on the women starving themselves (ok, some people do). The empathetic among us take it out on the media portrays: all the photoshopping and the very narrow version of beauty we see everywhere we look.

But when men have anger issues, and we understand that one root cause is the media that plants false expectations of reality in the culture's minds, we completely take it out on the men. I think we need to be more angry with the media portrays: all the storylines that have men walking away from an explosion unscathed (literally or metaphorically), and the very narrow version of masculinity we see everywhere we look that offers women as trophies for success.

Yup, women get hit from both side - unable to live up to the beauty standards of the day AND, if they do, being relegated to trophy status.

And yes, those men need to grow up and rise above those unrealistic portrayals of men everywhere, but would we ever say women need to just stop being affected by the media?  I mean, it's a great idea in theory, but it's hard to expect people to be completely untainted by all persuasive ideology surrounding us. One significant difference between the two is body image issue may cause self-harm, but aggression might harm others, and there needs to be some expectation of responsibility taken for any harm that's caused by our behaviour. Absolutely. But as much as we rally around changing the norms for women, we must rally around changing the norms for men. Saying "he's just a bully" is far less effective than saying "he's been too affected by the dominant norms portrayed in media." His behaviour is bullying, but that's not who he is, necessarily, it's how's he's reacting to the cognitive dissonance perpetuated from seeing the world's expectations of him compared to his own unfulfilled reality.

We have much more complex brains than common rats, so we can override our basic instincts. We need to get people to 'stop and think' and recognize the bullshit presented to them at every turn. And we also need to put more out there that challenges the crap we're ALL swimming in.

Something like that.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Economics of Happiness

The 60 min. documentary, Economics of Happiness, is being offered free to watch online for the month of August.

It's a thoughtful look at how we could be living if we could only let go of consumerist culture that hasn't made us particularly happy in the first place!

One Neat Trick to Lose Weight Fast

I just lost 10 pounds without even trying!!

So I was ready to give away some clothes to charity because it was time to resign myself to my middle-age body. I had to accept that I wasn't going to fit into these clothes ever again.  Then I tried them on one last time, and THEY FIT!

It's a miracle!

And, even better, this radical new program requires absolutely no change to your regular activities. You too can drop the pounds WITHOUT EXERCISE!!

(But you should still more around some because it's good for you.)

You just have to cut out this one food from your diet - JUST ONE FOOD ITEM!! And I feel as energetic as ever.

I know you're just dying to find out my secret. And I'll tell you for FREE!

What is this one neat trick??

Stop eating meat.

SOOO EASY!!

I stopped eating meat this spring after watching a presentation by one of my students on factory farms. It was nothing I didn't already know, but hearing it all again was the tipping point for me.  That coupled with Chris Hedges' insightful articles on why he became a vegetarian.

Because it's not just about the suffering animals in cramped quarters never seeing the light of day, and, more to the point, it's not just about maintaining my girlish figure:
"By eating meat and dairy products we aid and abet a system that is perhaps the primary cause of global warming and is pumping toxins and poisons into our bodies and the rest of the ecosystem. Animal agriculture sends more greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere than worldwide transportation. The waste and flatulence from livestock are responsible for creating at least 32,000 million tons of carbon dioxide per year, or 51 percent of all worldwide greenhouse gas emissions. Livestock causes 65 percent of all emissions of anthropogenic nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 296 times more destructive than carbon dioxide. Crops raised to feed livestock consume 56 percent of the water used in the United States. Seventy percent of the crops we grow in the U.S. are fed to animals. Eighty percent of the world’s soy crop is fed to animals. It is a flagrant waste of precious and diminishing resources. It takes 1,000 gallons of water to produce one gallon of milk."
 We can have more clean water and food for everyone and fewer GHG in our atmosphere and fewer toxins in our bodies, all by just changing our diet just a little bit.

What do you have to lose, except your waistline?

Sunday, August 2, 2015

On Teaching Philosophy to Children

There are several articles and discussions being reported about teaching philosophy to children. They largely focus on the questions should we, why, and how?

Britain has a program, Philosophy for Children (P4C), in which student get in groups to discuss philosophical issues after seeing a video or reading a story together that prompt a big question about truth, justice, reality, etc. The program is being praised because it improved reading levels.

Educator Tom Bennett suggests "the value of philosophy doesn't lie in its contribution to literacy, or indeed indirectly to any other perceived good....[suggesting it does] denies the intrinsic dignity of the activity." I agree. We shouldn't teach it to help other subjects, but for it's own benefits.

But he also makes a great point about group work in general:
"...it's a good group activity when students have a strong, solid core of knowledge at the heart of the conversation. But it stumbles when students don't have a lot to say on the topic. The usual impish pitfalls of group work appear, of course: unequal loading; invisible participants; the unready, the unwilling; the workhorses; the usual suspects at the front etc. In addition to that, it's a thin exercise to do when children are asked to talk about a subject that might be new or alien to them."
Except I'm not sure his concerns apply to philosophy quite the same way they might apply to a discussion of factual events. Without a knowledge basis around WWI, I'd be at a loss in a group told to discuss the trench warfare experience. But without previous training in "truth," I think I'd still have something to say about it. And most kids have lots to say about justice.

My concern is to what extent is reading a story, followed by a discussion of it, necessarily philosophy. He addresses that as well: "I'd challenge the view that it actually makes you any better at philosophy as a discipline when you're old enough to understand it." A class discussion on a reading doesn't always provoke a philosophical discussion regardless the prompting.

Relevant aside: This last term I actually had to explain to a grade 10 class what a class discussion is. I'd say we're going to have a class discussion on a topic, and everyone would talk to their neighbour. Then I'd reel them back in to try to take turns, and they'd say, "But this is a class discussion!" I soon realized they weren't being rude, they just didn't have any idea that a class discussion doesn't mean everyone talks at once, but everyone is actually heard, one at a time, by the entire class. There's a first for everything!  But it makes me wonder if the new structure to classes is encouraging teachers to allow so much independent work that students are losing the very concept of working together as an entire class. Anyway...

What I think is most important about teaching philosophy to children is teaching them the basics of good argumentation. Before they get to the meaty topics, they have to learn a bit about problematic arguments, fallacies (ad hominems first), deflectors, etc. But that's all entirely possible to teach young children. These guys have the right idea. One example of each and most of them get the hang of it. Others catch on as the facilitator stops any bad arguments from slipping by. Soon the kids can take turns being the fallacy catcher during discussions.

But it's also important to teach children how to support their arguments so they're not just throwing out assertions willy nilly. They have to support a thesis in English and history to a point, but philosophy makes you do it by thinking instead of plonking down quotes. It's a very different skill.

And, once we get that far, then it's so exciting to find out that there are ideas out there that you've never thought of before. We're swimming in our own ideologies to the point that suggesting "democracy is a horrible form of government" can at least get kids to look up from their phones for a minute. Thinking about why you believe what you do, thinking of opposing points then refuting them (or refuting the original position) is the exciting bit. Learning to read and listen and watch critically, with an eye for flaws in the arguments and missing premises, is vital to an intelligent society. Wouldn't it be amazing to live in a civilization where people didn't easily get scammed or sucked in by poorly substantiated claims?

I think philosophy should be right up there with basic literacy and numeracy. I'd also add a basic understanding of the scientific method to that list of essentials. We need to really work with kids to make sure they can read and add, but also to make sure they understand how to figure out if an idea is likely to be right or wrong, what makes sense, and how to clarify their ideas so we can all communicate better together. AND so we can talk about something more than just the weather.

(Except right now, because this is one crazy storm we're having!)

Saturday, August 1, 2015

On Marriage and Divorce and Trolls and Haters

I moderate my comments because I once got 67 comments about carpet cleaning on one post. I rarely get comments at all, so I hate to block any I do get, but an anonymous writer sent in a comment on my recent post on Krakauer's latest book. The comment had little to do with the post; it's largely just misdirected vitriol, so I thought I'd share it here for some closer scrutiny. (Sorry about the swears.)

We men must boycott marriage, and never marry. Why? Because there are ZERO benefits for men in marriage. If you get married, there is at least a 50 percent chance that your wife will divorce you, kidnap your children from you, and steal all your money in divorce. 
So, what are the alternatives to marriage?
1. Learn how to game and seduce women
2. Fuck prostitutes
3. Masturbate to porn
etc 
Did you know that it's cheaper to fuck a prostitute once a week than to maintain a wife? You will get bored of fucking your wife after the first six months of marriage but with a prostitute you can fuck a new one every time. 
There is already a MASSIVE anti-marriage campaign worldwide, with men basically giving up on marriage and refusing to get married. Here are two recent articles on it:

ABOUT THOSE ARTICLES:

This main article is from Peter Lloyd of the Daily Mail (the second article is merely reporting on the first link). Lloyd writes about a new book that suggests the falling marriage rate is all women's fault:
"Ultimately, men know there’s a good chance they’ll lose their friends, their respect, their space, their sex life, their money and — if it all goes wrong — their family,’ says Dr Helen Smith, author of Why Men Are Boycotting Marriage, Fatherhood And The American Dream.
Lloyd discusses primarily the legal ramifications of marriage that skew everything in favour of the mom now in Britain (and elsewhere): "The Children Act of 1989 specifically declares: ‘The rule of law that a father is the natural guardian of his legitimate child is abolished.’"

And this is a real concern. It's not uncommon for challenged power structures to flip, Animal Farm style, instead of dissolving into a beautiful puddle of equity. Until recently, women were in a position to lose everything without a husband to grant them legitimate children and a home and a name, but once women found the numbers and strategies necessary to fight back, the dynamics flipped, and now child support and custody absolutely favour women.

I know this first hand. When I was splitting from my kid's dad, I sat down to look at how much I'd need to maintain my daughter's life at the same standard of living. This is what child support is supposed to be about - making sure children don't suffer during a break-up. But then I checked the Ontario child support tables, and found that I "had a right to" THREE TIMES that amount, which amounted to almost 45% of his take home pay. So I showed him the tables, asked for a third of the suggested amount, and we did it all without lawyers or courthouses. I'm all for primary caregivers getting support, but I question an amount that leaves the secondary caregiver struggling to get by.

And I know some women might get a little greedy when they see the dollar signs, and, possibly, when they have a lawyer that suggests they should get as much as they can to invest for the child's future. It's asking a lot of people to see what they could have and hope they choose to take less. In fact, if we could manage that at all, we wouldn't be in the dire straights we're in environmentally.

I've been through this twice. The first time round, a rookie, I immediately went to a lawyer who aggressively tried to convince me to get back-pay from the moment my oldest was born - amounting to $20,000.  I knew that a lump sum payment like that would set my ex back significantly, and I declined. But I had to be firm on that. My lawyer was ready to fight for things I didn't want. I can imagine a less anti-materialistic person having a hard time refusing to get into that battle.

I'm not sure how prevalent it is for women to go for the gold. I know it happens. But what's interesting to me is how strong that stereotype is. Even though I took only what I really needed and not a penny more in order to work towards an equitable solution for the best of the kids, both exes started down the road of common lines from these types of arguments.  It took a while to erode the stereotypes enough for them to remember what I'm actually like:

I'd stop their random drop-in visits, and get the standard accusation: "You're trying to keep the kids from me!" and I'd respond with "Not at all - let's arrange another day each week at your place." And that extra day would inevitably just fall away as they realized they didn't actually want to take them more than half the time. Restrictions can be hard to live with, so a sense of freedom can help people see what actually works best.

They'd want to buy something they couldn't afford and accuse me of being in it for the money, but a quick look at my expenses, how frugally I live, and how much I could have asked for, eventually ended those random attacks. I can't afford travelling through Europe either.

It's to a point that it can be hard to be heard above the cacophony of stereotypes around broken homes: conniving moms and deadbeat dads or disney dads. I wasn't ready for it the first time round, and it took me by surprise to be automatically slated into the bad guy role, but when I heard the same words in round two, which was a very different scenario, I knew it was a bigger cultural issue and not something I was provoking. The role models of how to make this work amiably are few and far between.


BACK TO ANON'S DIATRIBE: 

First of all, the divorce rate has actually gone down significantly. It peaked at 50% shortly after becoming easier to get, but it's not still up there. But it is true that marriage is in decline. I've never actually married myself, not for the reasons Anon suggests - all those prostitutes! - but mainly because I don't think we can actually vow to love anyone for any amount of time, much less to death. I touch a bit on other thoughts here.

But it's clear from that portion of Anon's comment that he - I'm going to go right ahead and assume it's a 'he' - really sees marriage as all about sex, even about money for sex no matter how you slice it. I find this so weird in this day and age when casual sex outside of marriage is so much more acceptable. First of all, as I explain here, there's nothing that states that sex has to be part of a marriage. It's just part of what might happen. But, that being said, some studies show that sex actually gets better after marriage. Being with one person for a while can open up new adventures that don't often happen on the first try - even with a skilled professional. But there are other things partnering up can offer: an extra set of hands to help around the house, someone to actually raise children with jointly, and maybe even at chance at some company and, if it's not asking too much, support when you need a kind word or pat on the back. Yes these things can be had outside of a marriage too, but many people find them key benefits to their marriage. Whatever works.


BUT HE HAS EVEN MORE TO SAY!

Anon goes on to explain that the problem isn't just about marriage, but about - wait for it - feminism:
Now, there are THREE main ways we can destroy feminism forever and take women off the massive pedestal they are on. We must fund and promote the following three technologies: 
1. Virtual reality sex programs,   2. Artificial wombs,   3. Sex Robots
Once these three technologies are in place, women will no longer have any power in society. After all, why would you waste time chasing after fat women in real life when you can fuck hot supermodels in virtual reality or fuck a female sex robot? And since women's main power comes from their reproduction capacity, if we REMOVE that capacity from women through the technology of artificial wombs, then women will have ZERO power left in society and thus feminism is finished forever.

THIS is the solution, gentlemen! Now we must do our part and spread the above message to as many men as possible so that we can raise the consciousness of men worldwide. I am the guy who created the famous Boycott American Women blog, which reached around 40 million people worldwide through the internet campaign I created. Therefore I know what I am talking about.

In summary:

Do not ever get married. Simply seduce and bang women, or fuck prostitutes, and help promote the above three technologies, and we will DESTROY FEMINISM FOREVER! Thank you!

If you still have doubts about WHY you should not get married, I strongly recommend you to read the following article.

Apparently, there's a belief out there that the power feminists have comes entirely from the hold we have over men as the only means to satisfy their need for sex and children. With robots to provide these services, women would lose all their hard-won gains.

It makes me wish I could write science-fiction; I'd like to see what Robert Sawyer could do with that initial premise. I picture some men spending all their money on sex machines, the way they currently might with prostitutes, and then the rest of the world just carrying on, falling in love and marrying and having babies the old-fashioned way. It might put flesh-and-blood prostitutes out of work, but there coud be openings in other fields now that men are so busy with their robots and their "iWomb" children. Would child-care become an entirely male centred activity? If so, then it's just a flipped version of the 50s, with the men home with the kids and the sex toys, and the women freed up from their mothering and sexual duties to really get powerful.

Careful what you wish for!


BUT... ONE MORE THING:

It's hard when you've been destroyed by someone close to you. It's hard when you started at square one and are now twenty paces behind in the game. That really sucks. Absolutely.

It's especially hard when your expectations of relationships don't come close to matching the real world. You know that real world, where women are more than just jizz buckets who make sandwiches; they're actually people worthy of the same respect given to men. Some women are jerks, of course they are, and so are some men. That's another part of reality that can be hard to get used to. If you come to a relationship expecting a housekeeper with benefits, then I can understand your disappointment. But it's that expectation that need to shift, not the services granted by the women encountered. That's a difficult journey to begin, but I know it's possible to get there.  This guy does a great job of explaining it all:



It can feel really good to find a scapegoat for all that pain and suffering, but this is when we have to be so, so careful about what we attack next. There's a built in reaction in all mammals: the pain-aggression response. When we feel pain, we'll attack the first thing we see. Ever stub your toe then yell at your friend for something completely unrelated? It makes sense if you're in the jungle to immediately attack when pain hits, but it makes far less sense in our day-to-day lives. I believe we have big enough brains to override this instinct - most of the time.

Here's the thing: your pain is not the fault of feminists. It's got precious little to do with the movement that helped to get women up to the same legal status as men. And attacking feminists just gets you written off as a nut-job instead of really listened to, and then nothing can change.

Stereotypes are deadly.

I work to remember this myself: When another kid gets killed by police I take a minute to remind myself of all the awesome cops there are out there who are risking their lives to keep us safe. If we start assigning the behaviours of a few bad apples to the entire group, then we'll just have so many more to hate and so few allies to work towards a better way to live and love together. We can't take sides in a ridiculous war. The stakes are way too high right now. We work together as fellow citizens of this wounded planet, or we all die trying.


ETA: This link on sex with robots:
"But for all our creativity, are we so unimaginative that we can’t conceive of any other way to interact with sentient beings besides domination? The human ability to designate subhumans (in this case, robots) represents the worst in our species’ capacity; if men by and large don’t treat women well, gynoids won’t help any more than owning slaves has made men less likely to abuse their wives. We cannot improve as a society or a culture through replication."

Friday, July 31, 2015

On Rape on Campus

Since I saw Into the Wild and started reading Krakauer, I haven't stopped. But this last one took a while to open. It's about rape on college campuses, specifically in one football-lovin' town: Missoula.

The book is readable only because the rape scenes are reported factually and "reporter-ly" without any emotional language attached to the narrative. But the descriptions are still really detailed.
"Females between sixteen and twenty-four years old face a higher risk of being sexually assaulted than any other age group. Most victims of campus rape are preyed upon when they are in their first or second year of college, usually by someone they know" (346). 
And if you have a daughter in university, like I do, you might try covering your ears and eyes and singing, "Tra-la-la, I can't hear you!" But it'll still be a problem. The women in this book sometimes were drinking at parties, but other times they were just watching a movie with an old friend. That's the creepy part about sexual assault: we can never tell who might be an offender. Ever.

Like his other books, Krakauer tells us what we all know, but he also helps us to understand the perspectives of all the people involved whether it's why people climb mountains, live in the woods alone, enlist in the army voluntarily, accept the arranged marriages of children within a religious order, or start undressing a woman who's asleep on the couch. We're helped to understand behaviours that may be totally foreign to us.

This is a frustrating book to read as we watch a guy who has confessed to a crime routinely acquitted because he's so necessary at next week's game. Some people are valued more than others. This 5-minute video really hits the nail on the head with respect to the connection between football and assault:


"Football isn't about rape. It's about violently dominating anything that stands between you and anything you want. You gotta get yourself in the mindset that you are gods! And you're entitled to this! Are they just going to lay down and give it to you? No! You've got to go out there and take it from them!"
In my class last year, early on in the spate of Jian Ghomeshi accusations, I had a student who insisted the first accuser must be lying because, had she really been assaulted, she would have immediately gone to the police to report it. I took the better part of a class trying to explain why that just isn't true. Krakauer does an excellent job explaining the psychology of trauma victims.
"...when people are raped, the experience is so traumatic that it often causes them to behave in wide variety of ways that may seem inexplicable....the fact that they didn't immediately make a break for it, or the fact that they didn't scream - none of those things necessarily mean that this was a consensual encounter" (70).
But all too often, judges and juries don't understand this reality. Women who don't cause a ruckus during the act - even if they are statue still for their own survival - are deemed liars. Women who don't call the police immediately - even if it means a second, different type of violation at the hands of the defence attorney - are called liars.

One women, sleeping in bed next to her husband and son, woke up to find their guest's fingers penetrating her vagina. But she just lay there. In court, the defence asked what she was thinking.  She said she was thinking,
"Oh my God, I hope my husband doesn't wake up....He would have killed this guy, and my four-year-old son laying next to me, his life would have been ruined, my life would have been ruined, and my husband's life would have been ruined. So my first thought was 'I hope he doesn't wake up'" (71).
Sometimes being still and silent is necessary for survival, even if it's for a more long-term survival, which can be more difficult to understand by outside observers.

It's really hard to get a conviction unless the case is very clear-cut, so some attorneys won't even try to take the case to court. It's just not expedient.

False accusations do happen, but they're relatively rare:
"...the prevalence of false allegations is between 2 percent and 10 percent; that figure was based on eight methodologically rigorous studies....These findings contradict the still widely promulgated stereotype that false rape allegations are a common occurrence....Such assertions not only undermine rational discourse but also damage individual victims of sexual violence. The stereotype that false rape allegations are a common occurrence, a widely held misconception in broad swaths of society, including among police officers, has very direct and concrete consequences. It contributes to the enormous problems of underreporting by victims of rape and sexual abuse...[and] to negative responses to victims who do report, whether by family members or by personnel within the criminal justice system....their approach to victims can easily become more akin to hostile interrogation than to fact finding. Rape is the most underreported serious crime in the nation...at least 80 percent of rapes are never disclosed to law enforcement agencies" (109-110).
But more disconcerting, Krakauer noted the disparity in the scrutiny and effort on the part of attorneys and the judicial system to determine culpability:
"Police and prosecutors generally do a pretty good job of weeding out false rape accusations to avoid charging the innocent. But cops and prosecutors are not nearly as conscientious when it comes to pursuing charges against those who are guilty. This is borne out by statistics indicating, indisputably, that the overwhelming majority of rapists get away scot-free....more than 90 percent of the time the rapist gets away with the crime" (109-110).
He also notes studies that indicate that very few men ever consider raping anyone. The number of assaults is caused directly by repeat offenders who don't get caught - the Jian Ghomeshi and Bill Cosbys of the world.
"The serial rapists hidden in plain sight among us...harbor all the usual myths and misconceptions about rape....they share this common idea that a rapist is a guy in a ski mask, wielding a knife, who drags women into the bushes. But these undetected rapists don't wear masks or wield knives or drag women into the bushes. So they had absolutely no sense of themselves as rapists and were only too happy to talk about their sexual behaviors....Additionally, we now have data showing they are more narcissistic than average. So they are caught up in their own worldview. They lack the ability to see what they do from the perspective of their victims....They exist in their own world, and in their world there is often a tremendous sense of entitlement" (118-119).
Krakauer also explores the pressure on media figures to spin these crimes in the way that bests serves the community - i.e. to make it all go away. Nothing illustrates this reality better than an episode of BoJack Horseman - but you need Netflix to see it.  It's Season 2, Episode 7, in which "Diane finds herself in hot water when she accuses a beloved personality named Hank Hippopopalous for having sexual relations with his assistants during Princess Carolyn's book promotion of BoJack's autobiography in paperback form." The media's job is to expose the truth, not to keep everyone happy, but this episode sheds light on how difficult it can be to be a journalist in the midst of an unsavoury story. The journalist in Missoula was denigrated as much as the victims were. Torturously so.

And Krakauer looks at why so many take the side of the perpetrator with a quotation from Judith Lewis Herman:
"It is morally impossible to remain neutral in this conflict. The bystander is forced to take sides. It is very tempting to take the side of the perpetrator. All the perpetrator asks is that the bystander do nothing. He appeals to the universal desire to see, hear, and speak no evil. The victim, on the contrary, asks the bystander to share the burden of pain. The victim demands action, engagement, and remembering" (189).
There's no clear reaction from a victim to prove they're a victim, and there's no clear behaviours of a rapists to tell if they're a rapist until they're caught:
"There's no profile of a rapist that you can use to say either somebody is or that somebody isn't....We all like to think that we would be able to recognize the sort of person who might be a rapist..., but the truth is, we can't....It's not uncommon...for victims to go back and forth between feeling like something really bad happened to them, and being very confused, and even trying to deny that something bad happened to them...as a way of trying to essentially tell themselves that, no, something bad didn't happen to me" (251-4). 
So women will sometimes even give their assailant a ride home afterwards. That's the power of denial. They'll blame themselves because "self-blame is much easier and feels better than living in fear" (255).

Finally, from the jacket liner:
"Krakauer's dispassionate, carefully documented account of what these women endured cuts through the abstract ideological debate about campus rape. College-age women are not raped because they are promiscuous, or drunk, or send mixed signals, or feel guilty about casual sex, or seek attention They are the victims of a terrible crime and deserving of compassion from society and fairness from a justice system that is clearly broken."

Peace or Apathy

I found this piece on Medium, yet another on-line time suck! You can't read it without joining, so I copied and pasted the bits I like below. This piece says much of what I've been saying for a while now: We need to wake up and pay attention and act on what we see. But Chris Morris says it more poetically than I ever could:

The greatest sorrow I feel is when I see someone mistaking peace with apathy. I’ve dwelt in that delusion myself. Now I see it as a temporary suicide — a form of limbo that diminishes the whole world. 
Apathy is very common in spiritual circles. Often I meet people who seem wonderfully peaceful and content at first, but then I notice they change the subject a lot. Their eyes glaze over when certain topics come up — like that some people are fat while others are starving, or that children in some countries are dying right now when a $5 water filter could save them. Apathy means people don’t want to talk about the wars that are being waged in their name, or the child labourers who got sick making their iPhone. They think politics is something other people do. They prefer to focus on “positive things”. 
“Oh look, a butterfly… isn’t it pretty?” 
Genuinely peaceful people don’t withdraw from the world. Only frightened people withdraw. Many people who seem peaceful are really like swans: they glide gracefully above the surface while flapping frantically underneath. They are secretly desperate to experience true peace of mind but they don’t admit it. They feel too ashamed of not experiencing it already. False imitations of peace become their addiction — numbness, narrowness and apathy. But apathy is not peace. Apathy grows out of the absence of peace. If you feel like you have no power, apathy seems like a smart choice. But power isn’t something you have; power is channeled, and never through apathy. 
Usually I take the view that other people’s lives are their own specialty — there is no greater authority on you than you. But then I meet another swan who’s wearing apathy like a shield and I can’t deny I want to hug them and shake them at the same time. My head says I should leave them alone, but a deeper feeling calls me on. It feels like a visceral instinct to wake them up. We evolve as a collective, not individually. Letting them block me out would be my own form of apathy. 
My trepidation is because I see these people like lovers who just lie there. Waking them up requires trust, and without a framework (like a coaching relationship) I’m often too impatient. 
Waking up is about dancing to your own music.... 
I’m completely against the popular self-help metaphor of people floating in a river of well-being. I’ve been told many times that I don’t need to try; that life should be effortless; that I can simply lie back and be carried by the river of life. No, no, no! We are not only in the river; we also are the river. It’s a simple but critical distinction. Einstein said we should reduce everything to its simplest form but no further. To claim we are passive floating beings turns a useful metaphor into a ghastly deception. 
It’s equally unhelpful to think you can “go with the flow”. You are the flow. You are both the flow and the flowing; the masculine and the feminine; the yang and the yin....
My spiritual friend who inspired this article told me yesterday: “My heart goes out to the starving people. I pray life will get better for them.” 
Oh good, I said. And after you prayed, what did you do then? 
She told me she’d left it in god’s good hands — and I think that demonstrates in a nutshell why people continue to starve despite there being enough food for everyone. It’s childish to pray without also acknowledging you are god. 
Prayer either connects you to the internal clarity you need before you can manifest your will or it does nothing at all. Most people who pray don’t really pray, they simply pass the buck to an imaginary friend. And that’s nothing more than theatre. Maybe you’re so good at theatre that you can sell tickets and start your own church. But the starving people will still be starving while you float down your imaginary river, going with the flow. 
Living deliberately means you stop lying back and accepting whatever happens to you. You stop pretending the universe loves you and realise you are the universe, so it’s your job to love yourself. It’s your job to decide what your life is about. It’s also your job to make it happen. 
You can’t micromanage it all consciously, of course. You have unconscious processes for that. But you have to experience your intention. You have to accept responsibility. 
Basically, you have to give a fuck — only then can you midwife your creation into existence.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Supporting Bare Boobs

It's not about this:
the Braza Bra

It's about arguing in favour of a woman's right to take off her shirt.

How stupid, right?

I mean, it's stupid that we have to argue about this and try to make it clear to everyone why it should be acceptable and actually have to argue with police who don't know it's been legal in Ontario for decades. But some people - mainly men, judging by the comment on various articles - are still having a hard time with it. And it's really, really stupid that 8-year-old children and their parents have to deal with this crap. So we'll keep arguing. Here are some concerns (in bold below) raised on the issue:


There are so many more important issues out there. People are dying of starvation, and lions are being shot by dentists. This is a non-issue, really.

Climate change is here to stay, and it's only going to get hotter. (Yes I can too make any issue become an environmental issue.) If only half the population can cool off by taking their shirts off when they're dripping with sweat, then that's only going to be a bigger problem as the mercury rises. Anyone overheating should be allowed to ditch a layer as needed.

And about those other issues? We can work on more than one issue at a time. It's totally do-able. The fact that there are worse issues out there is never a good reason to stop working on discrimination issues, which are often foundational problems requiring more attention than they're generally given.


But what about the children?

Children learn what's shameful from us. If adults are nonchalant about bare breasts, then kids will be too. Any trauma caused by the site of non-sexual nudity is from the context adults wrap around it not from the nudity itself. It can be funny to see people showing more than we're used to, but once we're used to it, then it's no longer a big deal. We're all used to women showing off their ankles now, and that used to cause quite a stir!


Breast are sexual in a way that a male chest is not.

Ummm....

A total void of sexiness, amiright?
For people closer to my age.
'Nuff said?


Breasts are sexual body parts. When I see them, I can't control myself.

There is a bizarre notion that exposed breasts are sexual breasts even when they're being used to feed children or just hanging out doing nothing. This is just plain incorrect. Because someone is turned on by something they see doesn't mean that what they're looking at is necessarily objectively sexual. Lots of body parts are enticing to others yet we don't cover everything. And men CAN control themselves. If they choose not to, then they should bear the consequences (assuming, of course, that there will be some serious and predictable consequences once day).


Okay, but breasts are more than just attractive body parts. They're erogenous zones actually used in sexual acts.

Breasts are pretty sexy; no arguments here. And they can definitely be a significant part of sexual antics. BUT so many other body parts that are regularly open to the gaze of the general public are erogenous zones used in sexual acts.

sexy ice-cream pics from here
We don't expect men and women to hide every part of them that's attractive nor every part that's potentially used in a sexual act.

sexy hand/foot drawing
And if we want to be really sexy, it's often best to cover up a bit. Baring all isn't as sexy as baring a little. So, technically, it could be argued that naked boobs are less sexy than partially covered boobs, so, therefore, by the logic of this concern, women should be banned from just partially covering their sexy bits. Which is stupid (the banning bit, not the partially covering bit).


Women won't bare their breasts anyway because they're afraid of being sexually harassed.

This is unfortunately very true. This CBC article seems to address this, sort of. The article doesn't really clarify the interviewed professor's opinion on the issue as much as it acknowledges one concern some women might have: Should women really bare their breasts if it's only going to lead to street harassment? But isn't that the same kind of question as: Should women really wear tank tops and short skirts if it's only going to lead to street harassment? There's a policing attitude in those questions that implies that women are in control of when they get harassed. (Not that the prof being interviewed is asking that question - it really wasn't clear what she thought.) Here's the problem with this line of reasoning: women can get cat-called in a snowsuit and assaulted while they're wearing sweatpants and a hoodie. I just got home from a cottage visit in which I whipped through this excellent book on campus rapes (which has made me very feisty on this one), and I'm pretty sure what women are wearing has scant correlation to whether or not they're assaulted. In fact, women bold enough to go topless could be less harassed because of their perceived assertiveness. Women don't get sexually assaulted because of their clothes; they get assaulted because of a chance encounter with a rapist.

Are women afraid of being harassed because of what they're wearing - or not wearing? Absolutely. But that's a different problem that needs a different solution than suggesting women cover up for safety. (Not that the prof was suggesting that, but it certainly could be read into that article.)


Women won't bare their breasts anyway because they're afraid they don't measure up.

Yup. This is also true, but it also sucks. Women are bombarded with idealized images of what's "normal" to the extent that they think they're aberrations to be shunned or exiled. But maybe a little more exposure to real women on the street could actually diminish that problem. If women everywhere, of all ages, walk around topless, maybe we'll all realize that actually very few have perfect, perky, symmetrical, stand-up boobs that don't need any support. And then we'll feel great by comparison - or at least good enough to stop comparing ourselves to each other in some twisted competition for attention from the male gaze which we don't even want so much once we get it.

Furthermore, because only a few people take advantage of a law doesn't mean the law shouldn't exist. A minority of people marry people of the same sex, but we're pretty clear that it should be an option open for everyone. We need to keep it on the books that women can take off their shirts anywhere a man can. Whether they actually do or not is a neither here nor there.


I'll go to the march on Saturday, but I'll likely be fully clothed.  It's not just because I worry about harassment or about measuring up, but because I worry about losing my job for doing something weird with students around. And it is weird... so far. It's deviant behaviour in that few people find it acceptable.

But maybe that's about to change.


Saturday, July 25, 2015

Child Poverty Worse than During the Depression

The article is about the states, but Canada isn't far behind.
Children growing up in poor households are likely to lag in their brain development and thereby perform poorly in schools, even if they move in better neighborhoods, a new longitudinal study on child development revealed this week. Examining hundreds of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans from a group of children growing up in poor households, researchers from the University of Wisconsin–Madison discovered that the regional gray matter volume in case study brains was up to 4 percent below the developmental norm for their ages.
We know it's wrong, but we don't care quite enough to fix it. Most of us, that is. A local university student, Elle Crevits, started a Food Not Waste non-profit. She gathers food that would have been tossed from grocery stores and restaurants and brings them to soup kitchens.  It's a local version of Toronto's Second Harvest. I've been saying we need something like that locally for years, but then didn't actually act on my own words in any way. I'm glad somebody did.

But it would be nice if we could stop the problem further upstream. Maybe with the guaranteed basic income that the Greens and some NDP have been on about will actually happen one day.



Harpoon 2015

If you haven't seen it yet, this is a great site full of all the reasons we need to vote Harper out of office. It's got categories such as democracy, health, science, environment, justice, and the senate, just to name a few. Lots of cartoon clips and short explanations with links to deeper analysis.

Here's the introductory video trying to capture the 18-34 vote:

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Finnish Schools: What Do They Have That We Don't Have?

Everyone's a buzz about schools in Finland being awesome, so I read a book and some articles and their curriculum documents to figure out what's so special.

In a nutshell, copying their school system will do little unless we can find a way to copy their entire culture, but let's look at their structure nonetheless because it's pretty interesting.


THE STRUCTURE

They start grade 1 a year later, at 7 instead of 6, and their schooling to the end of what we call high-school is the same number of years, so students graduate at 19 instead of 18. That works if you have affordable daycare at the front end, and, of course, they do: "Early childhood care, voluntary free preschool that is attended by some 98% of the age cohort, comprehensive health services, and preventive measure to identify possible learning and development difficulties before children start schooling are accessible to all" (48).

I just focused on their high-school system, or "Upper Secondary."

It starts after grade 9, after their 9-year "basic school," and has three streams to choose from: academic, vocational, or go to work. That's right - as far as I understand it, they can choose to walk away from school at 16. BUT only 2% (29) choose that route, compared to the 16% in Canada. I think drop-out rates have a lot to do with employment opportunities also, which can be seen at that link which shows the highest rate in Alberta where there are currently more unskilled labour jobs due to the tar sands. When our city was full of factories, I knew lots of people who dropped out early to work. I can't find a graph of the unemployment rate compared to the drop-out rate, but one might be telling.

Their day has five 45-minute classes and a free, healthy, school-provided lunch. Teachers have time to meet together regularly after school and at lunch because they don't offer sports or clubs. Those are provided through community centres unaffiliated with the schools. An exchange student who came to our school once said we're really lucky to have sports right at school. He also said teachers would never allow so much talking and looking at cell phones in classrooms back home.

ETA - They also have 15-minute breaks between classes. Can you imagine, at the end of a class, having 15 minutes to answer a student's questions without another class barrelling in and eight people mobbing you with requests to go to the bathroom or get a drink?! It'd be like the kinds of classes they show on movies about high-school.

The academic upper secondary stream typically takes three years to complete, but many stay for a fourth year. The curriculum documents, if I'm reading them correctly, have courses that run 38 hours each (instead of our 110 hours), but some elective courses can be shorter or longer. I gather they have something like five 8-week terms each year (about 40 weeks in total), for a total of 25 courses per year (compared to our 8 courses per year). Essentially, the courses that we offer are broken up into three shorter modules that make up separate courses. That makes sense to me because if a student doesn't understand one component of a subject area, it's just a matter of re-doing the unit rather than the entire subject. Furthermore, this "change enabled schools to rearrange teaching schedules, and, in turn, affected local curriculum planning because schools had more flexibility to allocate lessons into these periods differently" (25).

In total, there are a minimum of 75 courses needed to graduate (we have 22 in grades 10-12), at least 47 of them compulsory. "Normally students exceed this minimum limit and study more, typically between 80 and 90 courses" (25). They call their electives, specialisation courses. They replaced "age-cohort-based grouping of students with a nonclass organizational system...not based on fixed classes or grades (previously called 10th, 11th, or 12th grades). Students thus have greater choice available to them in planning their studies in terms of both the content and the sequencing of their courses" (25).

This table below is in the Appendix of the documents.
What I find interesting is the number of ethics, philosophy, history, and social studies courses that are compulsory. They also demand almost twice as many hours of math, but fewer hours of science and geography, and about half as much literature (English).  The fact that they require a second language makes sense for a mother tongue spoken by so few outside the country, but they require students to learn two foreign languages in addition to two domestic languages. "Finnish students also acquire skills of designing, conducting, and presenting original research on practical or theoretical aspects of education" (83).

Students also have an education and vocational guidance course primarily to help them develop their own individual study plan. I imagine it's a little more complicated to do course selection than it is with our system!


THE PHILOSOPHY

Then I read Finnish Lessons by Pasi Sahlberg. Page numbers above and below are from there.

He praises a few places, including Alberta, but speaks specifically about the problems with what Ontario, the U.S., the U.K., and many other places have done recently. He calls it the "Third Way" in which we claim to have an emphasis on the moral purpose of education, but we have the same empty purpose irrespective of cultures within each school: "Raise the bar and narrow the gap to improve test scores." He questions some of the gurus we follow and quotes Manfred Kets de Vries who bemoans the fact that "many so-called turnaround specialists are little more than psychiatrically disturbed narcissists, sociopaths, and control freaks" (xvii). Harsh. The real problem is that many very different countries are blindly following the same goal. They have dramatically different cultures, but,
"the consultants' PowerPoint slides remain pretty much the same. In the Third Way, people aren't defining or developing their own shared visions or moral purposes. They don't own their visions. They rent them from other people" (xvii). 
We also follow the idea of "capacity-building," which is a term I haven't yet heard. But, whatever it is, we don't do it well.  It's meant to help communities help themselves. Capacity-building is,
"a humanistic and empowering concept directed toward assisting people to fulfill their own personally compelling purpose. In Third Way policies, though, capacity-building has often turned into something else - training people in prescribed strategies to deliver accountability goals and targets imposed by others" (xviii).
Apparently we're training for policy delivery instead developing innovation and collective responsibility. Unfortunately I don't actually know what that means or looks like. I'm not quite fluent in edu-speak. I get the sense, however, that we're blindly copying a model that has, at its core, the idea of working together with teachers to develop a model that works for the people using it, but the whole point is the process of working together to create something together. It falls apart if you take one group's results and apply them everywhere. And copying someone else's style is never a good idea.

The "Fourth Way," by contrast, is about trust, professionalism, and shared responsibility" (5). This is purely anecdotal, but I don't know many teachers who feel they are actually trusted as professionals at this point. In fact, I've never seen a time where so many teachers are worried about what parents and admin will say about pretty banal decisions they're making in their classrooms. It doesn't help when parents have a cursory understanding of AER but feel expert enough to challenge teachers. But that could just be an isolated experience.


FINLAND'S SYSTEM IS ACTUALLY WORKING

"Finland is special also because it has been able to create an educational system where students learn well and where equitable education has translated into small variation in student performance between schools in different parts of the country at the same time...using reasonable financial resources and less effort than other nations" (5).

"In Finland, teaching is a prestigious profession, and many students aspire to be teachers....Teachers have a great deal of professional autonomy and access to purposeful professional development throughout their careers....Those who are lucky enough to become teachers normally are teachers for life." See Ontario stats here and here citing up to a 50% attrition rate for new teachers with work load and relationship with admin cited as the top two reasons for leaving the profession.

Internationally, "Finnish 4th-grade students were the best readers in the Reading Literacy Study...and 15-year-olds achieved top rankings in all four PISA cycles" (51). These stats have been criticized because their curriculum is most closely aligned with PISA standards, but  more impressive to me is this: "The national PISA report concludes that only 7% of Finnish students said they feel anxiety when working on mathematics tasks at home, compared to 52% and 53% in Japan and France, respectively" (64).


WHAT MAKES THEM DIFFERENT

Here are some pointers that Sahlberg deems vital to the development of an excellent school system:
  • Significant attention must be paid to developing the capacity of leaders and teachers to improve individually and together. One of the ways teachers improve is by learning from other teachers. "Isolation is the enemy of all improvement" (xx). 
  • Teachers must be involved in developing a collective vision of education reform connected to inclusiveness and creativity, and in developing curriculum together rather than following ministry guidelines. "It is the school, not the system, that is the locus of control and capacity" (36). "Teachers at all levels of schooling expect that they are given the full range of professional autonomy to practice what they have been educated to do: to plan, teach, diagnose, execute, and evaluate" (76). "School curricula can look very different depending on the school" (88). Teachers having a key role in course development is more important than board-wide standardized lessons. 
  • "An important - and still voluntary - part of Finnish teachers' work is devoted to school improvement and work with the community" (90).
  • Teachers teach less (600 vs our 900 hours/year), and students spend less time studying both in and out of schools. Most basic school students take home minimal or no homework. Teachers spend two hours each week planning and developing work with colleagues, and teachers don't have to be present at school if they do not have classes (90).
  • Teachers make more for teaching higher grades (about 10% more), and pay is not tied to merit (77). 
  • "There are no formal teacher evaluation measures....it is not possible to compare school performance or teacher effectiveness" (90). "The question of teacher effectiveness...is not relevant...teachers have time to work together during a school day and understand how their colleagues teach....principals, aided by their own experience as teachers, are able to help their teachers to recognize strengths and areas of work that need improvement. The basic assumption in Finnish schools is that teachers, by default, are well-educated professionals" (91). This is a culture of mutual trust and respect (125). 
  • Teachers must be high-quality and well-trained with master's degrees in their area of specialization. Particularly important is high-quality, specialized special ed and guidance teachers. 
  • They offer on-going, useful professional development (50 hours annually) that helps teachers understand the learning process of students. "Teachers cannot create and sustain context for productive learning unless those conditions exist for them" (144). 
  • "The Finnish school principal is always also a teacher. Almost all Finnish principals teach some classes each week....principals should also have a vision of what a good school is and know how leadership can help to achieve that vision" (119).
  • They don't tie classes to age groups, so students feel comfortable taking more time to complete their studies. 
  • They have an inclusive special education strategy where nearly half the student get support before the end of grade 9 to identify learning strategies that students can use rather than labelling them and having teachers continue to accommodate their differences into the higher grades. They provide testing and interventions in daycare centres before they even start school.
  • Career guidance and counselling is an important factor in explaining low grade repetition and drop-out rates and serves as a bridge between education and work. Students spend two weeks in selected workplaces during their basic schooling (before the end of grade 9). During grades 7, 8, and 9, students get two hours a week of educational counselling. "This reduces the risk that students will make ill-informed decisions....It also helps students to put more effort into those areas of their studies most important to their anticipated route in upper-secondary school" (27).
  • Educational reform must be linked to economic competitiveness of the area. We can't have schools work in isolation of employment opportunities. 
  • They maintain a basic philosophy that all students can learn, and that students must be responsible for understanding how they learn best and develop skills to help themselves. 
  • All education after grade 9 is non-compulsory. And they can leave and come back later. "More than 50% of the Finnish adult population participates in adult education programs...without shifting the burden of costs to students" (44).
  • They have increased the attractiveness of vocational education with at least one-sixth of the training on-the-job learning.  More than 40% of upper-secondary school students start their studies in vocational schools (26). They are able to shift to the academic stream later if they decided they made a wrong turn, and there's less stigma around it because their students aren't divided by age/grade after grade 9; there are students ranging from 16-20 in most classes.
  • They have very few standardized tests, test-prep, or private tutoring because "...good teaching was sacrificed in pursuit of raising test scores" (67). He also adds that testing itself isn't a bad thing, so long as they're not high-stakes. "The higher the test-result stakes, the lower the degree of freedom for experimentation in classroom learning" (101).
  • Schools decide criteria for evaluation. Report cards at different schools "are not necessarily fully comparable because they are not based on standardized and objective measures" (66). Having a unified curriculum limits the freedom to follow student curiosity down a different path.
  • They offer free university, colleges, and trade school. 
  • They have university entrance exams (matriculation exams) that are mostly essay-based and open-ended with reading material that must be referred to in the answers (31). "Since there are no standardized high-stakes tests in Finland prior to the matriculation examination at the end of upper-secondary education, the teacher can focus on teaching and learning without the disturbance of frequent tests to be passed" (67).  
  • Students go to schools based on where they live: "Making schools and teachers compete for students and resources and then holding them accountable for the results...has led to the introduction of education standards, indicators, and benchmarks...and prescribed curricula" (100). 
  • "All the factors that are behind the Finnish success seem to be the opposite of what is taking place in the U.S. and much of the rest of the world, where competition, test-based accountability, standardization, and privatization seem to dominate." "Finland has remained unconvinced that competition and choice with more standardized testing than students evidently require would be good or schools" (39). 
Beyond educational reform, the culture of the country is different with respect to education. Students are much more independent from their parents at a younger age (especially compared to the helicopter parenting we see here). They "encourage creativity, entrepreneurship, and personal responsibility" (120). "Parents expected their children to study further, and young Finns themselves also hoped to reach higher in their self-development" (23). Some think it's the fact that schools shifted from being based on cooperation instead of competition that has change everything. Many students stay in school until they're 20; they don't feel they same pressure to finish quickly and move on as we do here.

The country has a focus on equity, but it's also got a strong economy to help raise everyone up to a comfortable place. "Finland has a competitive national economy, low levels of corruption, good quality of life, a strong sustainable-development lifestyle, and gender equality" (96).  "Poverty is a difficult factor that affects teaching and learning in schools." 3.4% of children in Finland live in poverty, which is the second smallest number, compared to Canada at 13.6% (69).  "The equitable Finnish education system is a result of systematic attention to social justice and early intervention to help those with special needs, and close interplay between education and other sectors - particularly health and social sectors - in Finnish society" (69).

Although teachers there make about half as much as teachers here - "slightly more than the national average salary" (77), it's a much desired and revered profession. It's "consistently rated as one of the most admired professions, ahead of medical doctors, architects, and lawyers....Teaching is congruent with core social values of Finns, which include social justice, caring for others, and happiness" (72).  "Finnish experience shows that it is more important to ensure that teachers' work in schools is based on professional dignity and social respect so that they can fulfill their intention of selecting teaching as lifetime careers" (70). "The working conditions and moral professional environment are what counts" (77).

They also have a different relationship with students; teachers aren't cautioned about developing ties with students. Teachers are addressed by their first name, and they comfortably invite students for meals at their home. We have much firmer boundaries here, and I don't recall ever discussing love in teacher's college:
"The well-known Finnish educator Matti Koskenniemi used the term "pedagogical love" that is also a corner stone of my own theory-of-action as a teacher. Teaching is perhaps, more than any other job, a profession that you can successfully do only if you put your heart and personality into play. Each teacher has her own style and philosophy of teaching. There may be many motives for becoming a teacher. My own is that I want to do good for other people, care and love them. I do love them and thus I will be a teacher" (74). 

Now the tricky part will be getting from here to there.

Monday, July 20, 2015

On Guilt and Responsibility

I grew up in a family with a strong work ethic. You couldn’t read the comics until you finished the world news first. Sitting to do anything other than read something educational or literary wasn’t acceptable. We were made to feel guilty for every minute we wasted.

Since childhood, I’ve tried to counteract this teaching. No matter how good parenting is, kids will always be trying to shake off whatever form of oppression they felt though the misfortune of just being born to these particular people. These days, I’m trying to play without thinking about work. I’m trying to just sit still a bit, to feel the guilt and do it anyway.

I also feel leftover guilt whenever I look in a mirror unnecessarily, which is any time there’s not blood oozing down my face, or any time I work out with the intention of firming up some bouncy bits (vanity), whenever I don’t eat every morsel of food on my plate and the plates of others who don’t seem to know what a crime it is to leave food (wastefulness), whenever I hear a bit about a problem in the world and don’t research it to death (sloth and ignorance), or whenever I take the first piece, the last piece, or the biggest piece for myself (greed).

Funny that even though I was raised Catholic, sex and drinking were always portrayed as perfectly acceptable. Necessary even. My dad insisted that intelligent people have a duty to have lots of kids to better society. And even if you’re not actively procreating, a little practice is good for you. And the good Lord let grains and fruit rot for a reason. Prosit!

I hate when guilty feelings keep me from doing things that are absolutely reasonable. Like plucking my moustache hairs. I can just hear my dad’s tone, “There are people starving in other parts of the world and you’reworried about a little facial hair. Oh honey.” The head shaking. The remorse. He’d lament what he did wrong to have me turn out so self-absorbed. I can’t do step aerobics in my basement unless there’s nobody home and no threat of anyone coming home to catch me. And I have to convince myself it’s for the sake of my health and longevity. Weird. It's ridiculous that that's how I grew up, yet it's also laudable. I have a strong conscience, for better or worse, because I disappointed my parents EVERY TIME I put myself first, and it felt horrible.

But some of this is bad guilt that makes little sense. Moments to myself cause no harm to the world. Not doing everything to help the world every minute of the day isn’t to say I’m doing nothing. I can spend a bit of time recharging by playing or otherwise putting myself first, then go to it to save the rest of humanity from the brink of destruction. If we fail at part of our mission, we can keep persevering without giving up the fight. All we can ever do is our best. It’s not the guilt of an event that’s my responsibility to fix or prevent that gets to me, it’s the guilt of not doing my best to serve humanity each and every day. But without comparing or competing with others or with ourselves or with prior behaviour or potential behaviour, we can be free to do good work

Sometimes doing our best means using the clothes drier instead of hanging clothes up because we’re just too busy or tired with all the other responsibilities in our lives. And sometimes, in my house, it means making more garbage that I’d like to in order to occasionally satisfy my kid's craving for packaged crap in her lunches because it beats throwing out a healthier lunch later.

Check out John Oliver's take on food waste this week.

But this is precisely where I think guilt is useful. That niggling voice in the back of my head whenever we fill another bag of garbage keeps things in check, a bit anyway. Without it, we’d have several bags at the curb every week. And comparing is somewhat useful if only to see the possibilities out there, like knowing that there are some people who have completely given up making garbage at all.

The difference is all about responsibility and effect. And it's about magnitude. If we all waste food or energy, we have a catastrophe on our hands. If we all spend a little bit a time on ourselves each day, nobody is harmed. While we’re not guilty for the fate of the world, we are guilty if we keep adding to the destruction.

But it’s a certain kind of guilt borne a certain way that motivates us to act. The punishment of feeling guilty makes us avoid the disapprover, not the act, and we move away from our parents, or turn the channel when World Vision comes on to ask for money. At some point, guilt and shame become a hindrance to change, not a motivation. Guilt that’s externally driven and doesn’t become internalized does nothing to get us to change. I think the internalized stuff from parents has to start really young or else we just slough it off, and I wonder if it's happening much at all anymore. But guilt’s also internalized whenever we know we have a responsibility, and we’re consciously ignoring it. It’s a handy reminder that we’re doing something wrong.

Guilt works IF we can hear it above the clamour of all the rationalizations we drum up. I have friends who take a few plane trips a year to see the world and insist there's no point avoiding air travel unless we also stop buying any product that travels by air, like clothes and food. So, their argument goes, unless we're going to only eat and shop locally, then we may as well fly everywhere. But, I would counter if I had the energy, producing fewer GHG is still producing fewer GHGs. We can shop as locally as possible and try to enjoy the scenery nearer to home.

Another flaw in this natural system of being conscience-led is that guilt has become such a dirty word it’s losing its impact. Because sometime people use guilt to change our behaviour in sneaky or even malicious ways, it’s acceptable to ignore those feelings regardless of the circumstances. We all know how crappy guilt feels, so we should all stop making anyone feel bad. We don’t hit people because we know it hurts them, and we wouldn’t want to be hurt like that; therefore, we shouldn’t make people feel guilty either - is how that argument goes.

I hate when someone tries to guilt me into doing something, going to a movie with them that I don’t really want to see for instance. But that’s very different from explaining how we’re responsible for something, which leads to feelings of guilt, which, for some reason, is recently seen as not a nice thing to do. Sometimes we should feel guilty, specifically whenever we’re knowingly and deliberately doing something that causes harm to others, something that we could change but just don’t feel like changing. These are the kind of guilty feelings that are wrong to ignore.

I have two images in my head as I’m writing this. I can’t quite place the context, but I was arguing with a guy years ago, and he pouted, “But you’re making me feel guilty." I countered, “Good!” And his face register confusion and shock like I’d just slapped him hard. Then on my children’s playgound, a little girl was hitting another kid with a stick. I said sternly, “Stop that this minute!” She twisted her face in anger, “You’re making me feel bad, and that’s not nice!” A world without guilt is no utopia. It’s a world without conscience.

Some people go down a bizarre slippery slope insisting that everything we do causes carbon emissions, even breathing, so there’s no sense trying to stop it. We’re doomed. Of course we can’t stop emitting carbon. But that’s not what we need to do. We need to reduce emissions to a reasonable level, not stop them entirely.

I think guilt can be motivating, but only if it comes from inside sparked by concrete information, and if there's a clear alternative accessible path to take to assuage the guilt. If I decide I'm responsible for a negative effect on the world, albeit quite tiny relatively speaking, it makes me change my practices. And if someone reminds me there's a better way to do something, like offering a recipe with all in-season ingredients, then I'll act on that. But I wonder if people will choose to act on climate change if they don't feel any personal guilt for continuing to consume unnecessarily. I tend to think the rewards for maintaining behaviour are too great and the grand punishment is too far reaching for people to willingly alter behaviours out of the goodness of their hearts. They might say they'll change, then just free-ride on others' claims of goodness, and actually do nothing. If we feel the guilt and keep consuming anyway, when our excessive actions are clearly and directly causing harm, like we've been doing for decades, then we’re all fucked. In Heat, Monbiot says we won't act until fuel is rationed to each person by governments worldwide which should begin sooner rather than later. I tend to agree. How else can we possibly change our consumption habits in a world that is loathe to feel guilty? And if we scare people, it’s called fear mongering.

Before having kids, I used to drive like a demon, 140 k in the left hand lane wherever I went. After having kids, I continued to drive like that when they weren’t in the car. Then I saw this commercial: A young girl was in a hospital after a car crash. She was fine, but she was screaming, “I want to see my mother.” Then these words flashed on a blank and silent screen: Speed kills. It chokes me up just writing about it. After I saw that ad, and realized the effect my death-by-stupidity would have on my kids, and read the stats showing an irrefutable correlation between accident fatalities and speed, I started driving 100 (60 mph) in the right hand lane all the time. It took one viewing of a 30-second ad to change my behaviour forever.

We need to see the potential harm we’re doing before we’ll feel guilty enough to change, how it will affect our families, friends, the dog, whatever we care about. We need some 30-second ads showing kids in the suburbs of our cities with flies on their faces, squatting under that lone tree on the boulevard, with dried and cracked mud where the lawn used to be - a World Vision kind of ad, except it’s us. And maybe we’ll have grandpa sitting in a rocker on the porch saying, “If we only knew…” We do know. Willful ignorance kills. Over-consumption kills. Greed kills. Entitlement kills. Privilege kills.

Whatever.

As Monbiot says,
We inhabit the brief historical interlude between ecological constraint and ecological catastrophe….Manmade global warming cannot be restrained unless we persuade the government to force us to change the way we live….Failing all that, I have one last hope: that I might make people so depressed about the state of the planet that they stay in bed all day, thereby reducing their consumption of fossil fuel....Remember that these privations affect a tiny proportion of the world’s people. The reason they seem so harsh is that this tiny proportion almost certainly includes you….We have come to believe we can do anything;… recognize that progress now depends upon the exercise of fewer opportunities.”