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 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 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 sight 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.


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.

ETA: In hindsight, I wish I had walked topless in that march. I lost my breasts to cancer the following year. 

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.


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!


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 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).


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 is not possible to compare school performance or teacher effectiveness" (90). "The question of teacher 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.


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.”

Hedges on Education

Yesterday Hedges wrote on a profound relationship he had with a teacher who passed in December, and he had much of value to say about education:
Education is not only about knowledge. It is about inspiration. It is about passion. It is about the belief that what we do in life matters. It is about moral choice. It is about taking nothing for granted. It is about challenging assumptions and suppositions. It is about truth and justice. It is about learning how to think. It is about, as James Baldwin wrote, the ability to drive “to the heart of every matter and expose the question the answer hides.” And, as Baldwin further noted, it is about making the world “a more human dwelling place.”... 
Coleman had open disdain for New Criticism, the evisceration of texts into sterile pieces of pedantry that fled from the mysterious, sacred forces that great writers struggle to articulate. You had to love great writing before you attempted to analyze it. You had to be moved and inspired by it. You had to be captured by the human imagination. He once told me he had just reread “King Lear.” I recited a litany of freshly minted undergraduate criticism, talking about subplots, themes of blindness and the nature of power. He listened impassively. “Well,” he said when I had finished. “I don’t know anything about that. I only know it made me a better person and a better father.” ... Poetry, he taught me, is alive. It must be felt. It has a hypnotic power that, as Shakespeare understood, is a kind of witchcraft. And poetry, along with all other writing, is just a spent, dead force if you do not surrender to its spell. “If you graduate knowing how to read and write, you will be educated,” Coleman said.... 
I too am a teacher. I teach in a prison. My students do not, as I did not, learn in order to further a career or to advance their positions in society. Many of them will never leave prison. They learn because they yearn to be educated, because the life of the mind is the only freedom most will ever know. I love my students. I love them the way Coleman loved his students. I visit their families. I have met at the prison gate the very few who have been released. I have had them to my home. I have pushed books into their hands. 
Last semester one of my most dedicated students stayed behind after the final class. This is a man who when I mention a book even in passing will find it, take it to his cell and consume it. He was imprisoned at the age of 14 and tried as an adult. He will not be eligible to go before a parole board until he is 70. “I will die in prison,” he said. “But I work as hard as I do so that one day I can be a teacher like you.” 
In the Christian faith this is called resurrection.

Now our course content must be clearly tied to Ministry-approved curriculum to the point that we can show that every lesson and assignment is linked to a specific line in the ministry documents.

If students want to go off on their own tangent, there just isn't time. I have to cut off discussions to make sure I can get through the content. I can't imagine any student having time to read an extra book with all the busywork they have to do to prove they have mastered the essential learnings of the course, since they must have multiple opportunities to display each essential learning. I don't allow students to dictate content anymore or to debate for days.

And if I invited students over for dinner, I would be questioned for my motives, and people would think it's creepy.

Or I could say "hang it all" and teach the way I used to - changing lessons and units on a dime rather than having a clear, prescriptive outline of the course. And then when parents complain that I'm not following the guidelines (and they will), I can show them Hedges' article.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

The Smell of Your Moral Judgment

"If you're going to tell people the truth, make it funny or people will kill you."   
                        - Billy Wilder

I just watched a series of videos (65 minutes if you watch them all in one go) by Innuendo Studios that were made specifically about the backlash against Anita Sarkeesian, the feminist who questioned some of the choices made by video game creators, but the ideas in these videos can be applied to explain the backlash to any social movement, like environmentalism.

First, they look at why people get so angry at other people who bike to work or are vegan or don't like to play rapey video games and put something else out there instead. Why do people treat feminists and environmentalists and anyone actively engaging their moral agency with contempt?  Because we're dealing with (paraphrased), "a condition, somewhat like drunkenness, in which some of us become a belligerent and dangerous asshole when we feel our conception of ourselves as moral human beings is being threatened."

One eco-hater said of Colin Beavan's attempt to live without an impact on the world, "People are traumatized if you suggest they should do something different."  And that's just it. When we live a certain way that's morally sound, other's feel judged by the bold decisions we've made to live our lives giving a thought to the rest of civilization. It prompts them to think, "If they're right, what does that say about me?" even if nobody's saying anything about them.

So when I say, "I've never owned a car." Other people hear, "You're a bad person for having a car." It probably doesn't help when I suggest we should all drive less and turn down/off the A/C!

And people don't think they should be made to think about these things. It's not nice.

They used an analogy to explain this feeling: Imagine we have a patch of weird skin that could be a mild allergy or it could be cancer. We're rather ignore it and not know for as long as possible than to find out the worst. Activists are like the doctor that barges in to tell you that you actually do have cancer and you've really got to do something about it immediately. And then they decide they'll go for a second opinion ... later.

The fourth and longest video explains the dynamics of the gamergate group that are specifically about bashing feminists, and the much larger group that just wants to enjoy their games guilt-free, and the dynamics between them that allow for denial of harmful behaviours to perpetuate.

We want to operate under the belief that it's acceptable to do wrong things and still be a good person provided we do them in innocence (i.e. ignorance). If we don't know that a behaviour is wrong, then it's okay to do it, so we actively avoid knowledge about sweatshops, slavery, racism.... We resent people who tell us about the negative consequences of our actions because we feel judged, but also because it robs us of our innocence.

And there's a belief that learning about the world is consciously choosing to be less happy. This isn't in the video series, but I think that's because we equate freedom with happiness to an extreme. We want free speech even if it means saying heinous things to one another. We want freedom to be armed to the teeth even if increases our chances of getting shot (or having our gun stolen at gunpoint). I believe we are actually happier with some boundaries and limits in place, fewer mundane choices, but more freedoms where it really matters (to criticize rulers, to make decisions about our bodies, and generally to do anything that doesn't have the potential to cause harm to anyone else).

The videos argue that that happiness thing has more to do with the idea that we think we're either good or bad, instead of labelling our specific actions good and bad, and I agree that's part of the problem too. We have to stop thinking of ourselves two-dimensionally as good guys and bad guys, and shift our focus on doing good acts.

Once we're given knowledge on a truth about the word, then it's hard to ignore it, and people become spiteful rather than ignorant. And spitefulness is hard to maintain. We want our innocence back, but we can never get there again. So some people prioritize the expression of their own feelings of anger over another person's well being.

Getting people on board is easier if we can be funny about it.  Comedians agree: In the video below comedian John Fugelsang says, "The burden you all have is you're the ones pushing morality on very comfortable people in the first world....And it's easier to do with good cheer!"

When Colbert made fun of gamergaters, it was a turning point for the fight.

It also helps if we all respond to some of the backlashy comments we come across in a calm, reasonable. and clear fashion, NOT to expect to persuade the original poster, but because we might persuade others reading the exchange - especially if we stay reasonable in the face of hysteria and focus on the arguments they present rather than exploring who they are. Even just 5% of us chiming on on comments can help, but don't not comment in hopes that someone else might. Silence merely allows the myths to be perpetuated.

Friday, July 17, 2015

On ASD and Labels and Being Weird

I wrote about this two years ago, and coming across this site on autism stories inspired me to revisit why labels can sometimes be helpful. Sort of. Here's the relevant part of my previous post:
"But here’s another part of the problem: if a student in my class acts differently, and I explain to the class he has Aspergers, then people are generally okay with his behaviour. It’s okay once there’s a label on it. But why can’t we just say, “Hey, that kid says random non-sequiturs all the time. Cool.”? Wouldn’t it be better for everyone if we could be okay with the different behaviour without a label in place. Then we could just accept people immediately instead of waiting to find out if they actually have something legitimate - a real problem rather than…what?…an intentional act of non-conformity to social norms? I guess we want to know whether or not the person can help it – has control over it. But we can all help many of our odd behaviours to an extent when we’re rested and aware and feeling up to it – even many kids with a label."
I've never been officially diagnosed as having ASD, but when my daughter was diagnosed with Aspergers (back when that was a thing), the psychometrist gave me an informal diagnosis of Autism just from the brief visits we had had and a bit of my history - particularly the difficulty with language acquisition.

I think of myself as mainly just weird. I don't quite fit for better or worse, and I often wear my difference proudly, generally embracing weirdness as non-conformity. There's an interesting kind of freedom that comes from being slightly marginalized.  But I also sometimes consider the benefits of wearing an "I have ASD" label on my shirt just for the overt acceptance it might bring.

Even as an adult I run into people who say things like "I remember when I met you, and you seemed so weird." I had thought I had just congratulated her on her pregnancy like a regular person would, but apparently my behaviour was strange - strange enough for her to continue to recount it whenever she introduces me to someone. Once a colleague told me, "I hated you when I first met you" because, even though I felt like I was nodding hello in the halls adequately, apparently it wasn't obvious enough to satisfy his expectations of friendliness. He made me aware that everyone in his department is uncomfortable around me because I'm so unfriendly, so I worked more on my "Hello!" behaviour. More recently, at a party, a woman openly pointed and laughed at my enthusiasm for a song being played, and later a guy drunkenly told me I don't interact with people normally and I better fix that if I want anyone to talk to me again.

Sometimes I take these comments appreciatively as cues to specific behaviours that need work, but other times I just shake my head and go home to read a book. People can be jerks. And they likely don't mean to be mean, right? Just like I don't mean to be a bitch when I don't appear to acknowledge people. We have to give people the benefit of the doubt.

If I don't have at least a beer or two in a social gathering, I will typically remain mute for the duration. I can go weeks without speaking. It's not that I'm shy, but that I'm either bored by chitchat, or I start thinking in depth sparked by anything beyond talk of the weather. I get too internally busy to talk to the people in front of me. I sometimes put on a socializing act, asking people about themselves, which can be even more awkward: "Why do you go around interviewing everyone? That is so weird."

One of these kinds of comments sparked an important revelation about a year ago, when I was listening intently to a woman tell a story. She suddenly turned to me and yelled, "Stop staring at me!" Back in university I actually spent time with a therapist working exclusively on eye-contact (one... two... look away) because my default is to look at the ground. He got as far as getting my chin up, but then sometimes, apparently, I stare. I worry so much about looking at people's faces that I forget that all-important "look away" part! And sometime, I get completely lost in how interesting a person's face can be. REALLY INTERESTING! What was revelatory about this comment was that I think it might finally explain why some people, men and women, think I'm in love with them, making sure to tell me they're married or not a lesbian several times in a single conversation, or hitting on me and refusing to believe me when I say I'm not interested in them that way. They believe my body language over my words - my many, many words to the contrary.

I find that kind of thing fascinating!  But I have to admit it would have been nice to be a little further along at this stage of the game. I would have liked to understand these sorts of things back in my twenties. Alas. But then again maybe it's better that I was very self-accepting. I don't remember things well, so I write down everything. That's just the way it is. I've coped with my idiosyncrasies where possible and laughed at the stuff that can't seem to shift rather than question any of it - until recently.  Last year, on a beach, a friend of a friend badgered me about why I take notes when I read a book. I explained that I can't follow what's going on without keeping notes. But why? I just can't. But why? It's just not my forté. But why? Because I'M DUMB! Geesh!

I can understand complex idea easily but get ridiculously confused by simple instructions. I can hyperfocus on one task until it's completed to perfection, but then I forget to feed my kids dinner. I'm sensitive to anyone marginalized, but also painfully sensitive to any unusual smell or sound to the point that I can't work with people who smoked a cigarette earlier that day. I can scan for information in a text with impressive speed, but I can't recognize my own kid in the hallway at school without scrutinizing people's faces or recognize anybody's car ever. I'm startled by touch and often avoid hugs except with my kids who sit all over me when we watch movies together. I can't do small talk, but any compliment from me isn't flattery; it's a fact. My spices are alphabetical, and my clothes are in the order of the spectrum, but my writing notes and to-do lists are on little scraps of paper all over the house. I show the wrong amount of enthusiasm for things: way too much for music and films I like and not nearly enough when I'm endorsing an idea. One-on-one I can be a great conversationalist, but add in a few more people, and I can't understand the flow of conversation: when to speak and how long after a topic has passed it can still be re-discussed. Can't we just raise our hands to speak everywhere!? When I get lost without a pen and paper to write down the different threads of conversation, I tend to just zone out until someone asks, "Who brought the deadbeat along?" I can type ideas quickly and fluently, but I struggle to say words correctly and often stammer when I speak. I stammer through most lessons in class, and I've never had a student comment on that. Colleagues, neighbours, and other adults I meet are another story.

I'm sure everyone can make a list of the nutty thing they do, but somehow I stand out a bit...more. When I go to environmental events with a group of like-minded people all just meeting for the first time, I sometimes end up alone in the crowd. People will openly walk away from me as I try to talk to them. Adults. Clearly I do something that's a little off, a collection of subtle little things, but I'm not sure quite what they are, and I don't think I'll be able to figure that out well enough to fix it before I die. And, when I do fix things, I end up feeling like I'm fake, acting out a part. It's a bit of a conundrum. And it's hard to remember all these little behaviours to do while I'm trying to think of something to say to someone.

If I wore a shirt that said, "Please ignore my social awkwardness and my inaccurate body language and eye-contact; I have ASD." would it help or hinder? I think it would feel like a crutch, an excuse for my behaviour. To clarify, I never feel awkward, which is likely part of the problem; it's just how other people seem to feel around me, and I'm genuinely remorseful for this effect I have. But many people face these same issues without a label.  David Roberts wrote about his difficulties with small talk and the effort it takes to maintain eye-contact appropriately while making conversation. And far too many people experience rude comments from other adults. Why should I get an out? Why can't we all?

I've gone back to various therapists specifically for social skills training, but they often like to go down the path of "But why do you care if people don't like how you are as long as you like yourself?" Right now we're on a pendulum swing to the side of independence to the point that we're not to be affected by how others react to us. There's something wrong with us if we mind being openly avoided regularly. Curious. It's a similar attitude discussed in this article on resilience as a false solution to poverty:
"What the resilience preachers look for is a person to be unchanged in the face of trauma. But I would argue that this is impossible, that people are always changed by trauma, and furthermore, that we ought to be."
And I respond to that therapy line with the pragmatic: it's difficult to work with people and connect if I'm doing things that put them off. But my response is met with more insistence on a mantra of self-acceptance over change. Maybe it's just too much work for them to figure out either. Acceptance might be good for self-esteem, but it's bad for getting through real-world encounters.

And not making eye-contact with the police, can, according to a video of the police arresting a boy with autism, be a life and death situation. Weird eye-contact makes police suspicious.

We've rallied hard for the world to be accepting of people because of their race, sexual orientation, and gender expression. We're not all the way there yet, and some still think it's reasonable to ask, "What are you?" It will be a great day when everyone can dress as they like and love whomever they desire without having to claim a label to help people understand them or to help them understand themselves. Without a label, those with a more fluid sexuality can change it up regularly without ongoing explanations. I wonder, then, can we try to be a bit more accepting of behaviour differences that aren't always within our conscious control: weird eye-contact, body proximity, gestures, long silences, verbal style...? It's trickier because we count on body language to give us information about people who might be sketchy or dangerous (it doesn't, however, make up 93% of communication). But maybe if we can override our instincts and have a few encounters with suspended judgment, it could pave the way to dismantling the need for acknowledging the ASD label as well - or any other bit of weirdness we encounter.


On the Courage to Care

It's snowing in Australia and Alaska is on fire, but what really worries me is some police overstepping the bounds of their authority. Just on my facebook feed today, they've punched a kid with autism, barged in on a naked woman illegally, and provoked or directly caused suicides in jail, and that's on top of all the shootings, chokings, and other unnecessary uses of violence against citizens we've been hearing about over and over.

First of all, Hedges talks about the pivotally necessary moment in revolutions when the guards of the upper class refuse to protect them anymore and, instead, turn around to join the people en masse. I don't see us moving in that direction any time soon. We need the population to be educated on how the current system works against most people, but, more importantly, we need the police (and the army) to be educated as well on their part in this bigger picture.  Hedges tells a story of being arrested at a demonstration and an officer quietly encouraging him to keep fighting as he's taking him away. Always a glimmer of hope somewhere I suppose.

But secondly, we are very likely to experience many crises in the years to come, and we have to maintain an attitude of fearless compassion through to the end.  It all makes me think of Tolstoy's story, The Godson:

In a nutshell, this guy meets his mystical godfather, kills a guy in order to save his own mother, then has to atone for his sins as well as the sins of the man he murdered. The bulk of the story is about this godson trying to figure out how to stop evil in the world, and he discovers he can't stop it by chasing it or using force against it because that just adds more evil to the world in the end. Evil spreads evil. He has to be still and stand firm and make sure his heart is pure and full of compassion, and then offer only love to anyone he meets. And this is all an enormous act of courage (from the word 'heart') because it's hard to stop following the rules we've been trained by, and, once we can do that, it's hard to stop being afraid of one another and to stop acting defensively or aggressively.

It takes great courage to think for ourselves and to care about everyone else.

In class once I was discussing all the different aspects of environmental and labour injustices in the clothing industry to try to clarify the complexity of these types of issues, and I illustrated it on the board with stick figures as I spoke. Then I solicited any solutions for each of the problems no matter how idealistic. And when I got to "get a PM who will stand firm against child slavery and sweatshops," I drew an androgynous figure with giant balls of steel.

In my classroom, I have an 8 by 10 glossy of Harper, which his staff sent to me after I sent numerous letters. It's like he's Justin Bieber, and a fan wrote to complain about a song lyric - all he sees and cares about is that someone listened to him. We need leaders who listen to the people, and have the courage to be principled even if it means lasting one-term only.

And when the leaders fail us, we need more of that First Nations spirit that refuses to tippy-toe around issues and flat-out demands justice, and we need to do it without resorting to attacking one another.

Of course we can ensure there are strict consequences against each individual officer who chooses to overstep his/er rights while serving and protecting us (just like we can shut down the tar sands and ban water bottles). This is all possible if we have the courage to demand it relentlessly.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

In the Realm of Terrifying

CBC has a brief (7 min.) podcast up about the rise in anxiety in the population being reported by psychologists over the past couple of years due to climate change. One of the climate scientists, when asked how he feels about it, suggested the title of this post.

This is something I discuss with my students regularly, and I was pleased I've come to the same conclusions as the experts in this field. It all goes back to Freud's defence mechanisms as a way of coping with cognitive dissonance (see more in Anna Freud's book). In a nutshell, when we're living in a way that doesn't fit with our knowledge or beliefs, it's very uncomfortable. We cope by falling into defence mechanisms like denial, rationalizing, escaping, and repression that help us ignore the uncomfortable feelings. And that's okay. It's often necessary go down that road for a time when our psyche isn't quite ready to deal with something in our reality. BUT, it should be a temporary means to cope until we're ready to deal.

People might feel incredible anxiety when their defence mechanism starts to deteriorate. So the fact that people are becoming more anxious about climate change actually has a positive twist in that it means more of us are getting to a point where we can look it straight in the face.

But what I tell my students specifically is, don't cut down GHG production just for the sake of the living creatures on the planet, but for your own mental health. What helps us cope with a difficult situation is doing something proactive about it.  It's a less helpless situation if you feel like you're actually part of the solution.

That being said, it's to the point now that ditching air travel, the car, A/C, clothes drier, chest freezer, consumerist lifestyle, and meat-based diet likely won't save us without changing the structure of the system, so it's really a different form of denial. But it seems to be a more sustainable form than refusing to believe there's any real problem in the first place. And it does help keep anxiety at bay.

A bit.

And then I listened to Hedges talking to Nader for the first half of his hour-long show. His advice is "don't wait for elected officials to help you," and "there is a moral imperative to rise against these forces outside the certainty of success."

We might not make it, but we have to keep on trying as if we can.

On Thigh Gap

My daughter is worried about it. She just turned 11. She's been sick from the heat a couple times because she wears jeans everywhere. It's a problem.

I told a friend my concerns, and he advised me to ban the internet. But all she looks at on there is Heartland shows and facts about horses. When he drops by he sometimes announces, in a celebratory manner, how much weight his sister or mom lost recently, and when he stayed with us a while, I used to have a no calorie counting at the dinner table rule. He doesn't think he could possibly be having a negative impact on her though. It's tricky to try to weed that out and to talk about it without it raising hackles. 

But he said he's concerned too because, "She definitely has thigh gap, so she shouldn't be worried about it. If she actually didn't have thigh gap, then I could understand her not wanting to wear shorts."


Sometimes it feels like I'm arguing with the whole world and nobody actually gets what I'm saying.

ETA this video:

Thank god for animals who like their bellies rubbed. Seriously. These little diversions of cuteness keep me going.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Celebrity Impact

So Harry Styles advises us to avoid SeaWorld if we care about dolphins, and everybody's talking about it.  This could just be the needle that broke the camel's back; many groups have been trying to stop the hunt of dolphins since The Cove first aired.  Or it could be, as I've said before, that some of our celebrities are like royalty of old, and we the peasants who will blindly follow their lead. Is there any single act that had more effect on LGBTQ rights than when Ellen came out on her sitcom? And I remember the first mention I heard of using condoms in an episode of Moonlighting. If Bruce Willis uses them, then maybe we could too.

To change our inequitable economic system and slow down climate change, it seems we need sitcom characters and boy bands to start taking an active interest. Remember when Rachel Green changed her hair and everybody ran out to get the same haircut? We need shows in which characters subtly mention recycling or composting even, where people decide not to take a trip because of the GHG created by air travel, where the cool character that everyone wants to sleep with gets to work on a bicycle. Imagine if, in 40-Year-Old Virgin, he had convinced everyone else to ride a bike instead of being convinced to grow up and learn to drive, the implicit message being: cars are for adults and bikes are for kids.

When Louie CK's character Pamela tossed out all his furniture because she thought he should get all new stuff, I was dumbfounded. He plays a single dad who's a comic who isn't insanely famous, so I was stress out about how his character could possibly afford new furniture, and I though he should have tossed Pamela for being crazy enough to do that. But he liked the idea - apparently this is what being a good couple is for people on TV. And no mention of any financial struggle was made. Imagine if they lived without any furniture for the rest of the season because that's how some people really live? Imagine showing a little bit of the fear that comes with an unstable income?

To change the behaviours of the masses, we need only to effectively change the behaviours of some TV characters. So our first step, then, will be to convince TV writers and producers that this is important.

This is a start.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

On Friendships of Utility not Virtue

It sounds horrible, doesn't it?  Like we're using people, hanging out with them only because they have a nice car or because they often pick up the bill for lunch. I wrote here about utility like it's a bad thing, but what if we use people for their company? Does that make it different? And is that better, on an ethical continuum, than ditching people because they're bad company?

I have people in my life whom I find irritating and infuriating, yet I also love them all to bits. From time to time sometimes remarks on a friendship I have with someone I have had occasion to despise in the past. It seems some people are more likely to completely blot people out of their lives forever, and I think this has become a trend in relationship dynamics.

One point of view rejects the popular suggestion to ditch negative Nancies in favour of surrounding yourself only with positive people because the idea fosters a prejudice against people with depression. I'd add it also is very much using people in the worst way to improve your own emotional experience of the world (or something like that) instead of seeing people as valuable in their own right (not just as they relate to you).  But I also question the suggestion that same writer makes of ditching people who are "toxic," or perhaps my issue really is with how we define toxic. Sometime people are jerks. My general path after someone does something jerk-ish is to either avoid them for a while or, more expediently, tell them off, then there's often a sheepish awkward time to wade through, and then you can hang out again. The key part is the sheepishness, the remorse, some suggestion that it wasn't good behaviour and some movement towards changing that. People who get in a cycle of jerk-apology-jerk... or just jerk-jerk-jerk... can take a hike, but I don't think they're as common as self-help articles would have us believe. I fear we're sometimes a little quick to call a minor transgression "abuse." This isn't to negate actual abuse, but the contrary: when we use the word when it's not warranted, it waters it down until it becomes meaningless. It must be used with care.

The short answer I sometimes give for why I hang with people who have wronged me in the past is that I forgive easily, but that's really bullshit. If all were so easily forgiven, I don't think the emotions would be so easily dredged up at a reminder of that one horrible thing they did so many years ago. A different short answer offered by a sometimes-infuriating friend I adore is that I'm a walking victim, a sucker for punishment. I think it's more complicated than that.  

I think it's that I recognize we all suck sometimes. All of us do. But we're also all greater than the sum of our worst bits. So it's baffling to me that some people would choose to completely write off someone, forever, for a transgression they themselves might have committed had they been in the same circumstances. I try to remember that, even though I try to ensure my decisions and actions are moral, I am embarrassingly fallible. Then I end up friends with people whose decisions I don't wholly respect, but I also don't entirely respect some of the decisions I've made either. Works in progress, we are.

Typically I waver morally due to fear or ignorance. I might get so concerned with money or safety that I make regrettable decisions. Or I don't stop to think through the ethics of a decision, like putting money in a TFSA even though I think we should be taxed on interest on extra money we've accumulated. However, fear over losing social status doesn't drive me to immoral acts as much as it seems to affect others; I'm pretty content on lower ground. And I think this fear is one that can lead to a whole lot of mean-spirited actions in attempts to maintain our place on the pecking order. This is what causes some to go down that throw-them-under-the-bus path. But all things considered, we all falter in our choices, and we'll never get on the other side of that.

What I find trickier, though, is when people are affected by none of this, but they have a strikingly "different" morality than I have. Of course, a different morality is typically perceived as an immoral way of thinking unless I can be convinced that my view is actually in error. Years ago I was about to sell a house and found out, after making a verbal promise to a buyer but before signing, that my house was worth significantly more than I had thought. It was my word vs more money. It wasn't really such a dilemma because I had made a promise, and that was enough for me. I would have been sick with guilt had I told the buyer differently. But when I told friends of the situation, I was surprised by the number (all but one) who thought I had made the wrong choice. One told me, "When money's involved, then ethics have to go out the window." I feel the exact opposite is true: that ethics needs to deploy a steely resolve when money is in the picture. The only other person on my side also has a philosophy background, which leads me to believe that affects our ability and willingness to consider issues from this stance - a way that's a little less self-serving.

More recently, my daughter had been chastised by her friend's mom for stealing pastries from the friend's house. My daughter protested that the friend had stolen them, so it wasn't her fault. I asked her one question: "Did you know your friend wasn't supposed to have them?" Since she had, and she stood to benefit from the action, then, as far as I'm concerned, she's complicit. Therefore, she should apologize even though they didn't get a chance to actually eat the treats yet. It's a hard but, I believe, vitally important lesson to learn to take responsibility when we're involved in a wrong-doing even if we're not the direct actors. But a friend thinks my daughter's not responsible at all, and that give me pause - about the friend, not the morality of the situation.

These aren't as extreme examples as trying to maintain a friendship with someone who openly, head held high, plans to vote for Harper, but it can be unnerving to watch your view of important ethical considerations so casually tossed aside. None of these are deal-breakers for me though. But should they be? Is it lacking integrity to continue fostering relationships with people we find immoral? Or is it of the highest ethical standing to turn a blind eye to other's foibles?

But back to that utility thing: there's a cost-benefit analysis that comes into play that I don't sit with comfortably. I spend time with people I find entertaining. Their moral choices could be questionable, but if they make me laugh or think or get me up dancing, then whatever. There are people out there who are far more careful with their decisions, but if they're boring, then I'm out. I will hang out with people who don't recycle or who think feminism is a waste of time or who think some people should 'go back to their own country' if they like the same movies I like. And that feels really shallow. It is really shallow. I clearly value entertainment over ethics, but I also can turn a blind eye to the nasty parts for the benefit of the other bits of people who might be generally kind even if their world view is on the narrow side.

Is it better (more ethical) to refuse to talk with people because of their stance on an issue or to tolerate the questionable ethics and refuse to give up on anyone that presents the mildest connection?

What would Aristotle say?

He'd call these relationships I've described as, technically, based on pleasure, not utility, and see them as of a slightly higher quality than utility because we appreciate the witty character of the other rather than just their pragmatic usefulness. We're still using someone for something, but it's a product of their character we're using rather than their things or abilities, so it's somewhat less transient. Permanence is everything for many of the ancient Greeks. Things that last longer are necessarily better, which is an arguable way to value friendship at the outset. Both of these conditions, pleasure or utility, are lacking because they can change over time. If my sense of humour or taste in music alters, then my friendships might fall apart. The day it hit me that catch-and-release fishing is barbaric altered one relationship dramatically, but that doesn't necessarily negate the friendship that existed prior to the change, however brief.

But, according to Aristotle, these relationships are 'incidental' because they're selfish in nature. They're about a net gain from a transaction of some sort, hence my discomfort. But is it a problem if it's a mutual using, if there's a net gain on both sides? IF someone's no longer funny because of an illness, and the friendship dissolves, does that mean it didn't exist? Is a fairweather friend still a friend? What we're supposed to be after is a friendship in which we both admire one another's values and that helps us to be more ethical than we would be otherwise. This is something I might hope for in a romantic relationship, maybe, but I can't actually imagine finding it in a variety of friendships.
"Do men love, then, the good, or what is good for them [or what seems good for them]?...To be friends, then, there must be mutually recognized as bearing goodwill and wishing well to each other" (2).... those who love for the sake of utility love for the sake of what is good for themselves, and those who love for the sake of pleasure do so for the sake of what is pleasant to themselves, and not in so far as the other is the person loved but in so far as he is useful or pleasant. And thus these friendships are only incidental; for it is not as being the man he is that the loved person is loved, but as providing some good or pleasure. Such friendships, then, are easily dissolved, if the parties do not remain like themselves; for if the one party is no longer pleasant or useful the other ceases to love him....Perfect friendship is the friendship of men who are good, and alike in virtue; for these wish well alike to each other qua good, and they are good themselves. Now those who wish well to their friends for their sake are most truly friends; for they do this by reason of own nature and not incidentally; therefore their friendship lasts as long as they are good-and goodness is an enduring thing....But it is natural that such friendships should be infrequent; for such men are rare. Further, such friendship requires time and familiarity; as the proverb says, men cannot know each other till they have 'eaten salt together'; nor can they admit each other to friendship or be friends till each has been found lovable and been trusted by each. Those who quickly show the marks of friendship to each other wish to be friends, but are not friends unless they both are lovable and know the fact; for a wish for friendship may arise quickly, but friendship does not" (3).
For a friendship to exist, we have to wish the other well, so any serious competition between two buddies could end things even if they keep hanging out as if they each actually wanted the other to get that promotion. But that's an interesting bit he says at the end of that passage: that a mutual wish for friendship is different than a friendship. According to Aristotle, if we're not alike in virtue then the company we keep are mere wishes rather than actualities.
"This kind of friendship, then, is perfect both in respect of duration and in all other respects, and in it each gets from each in all respects the same as, or something like what, he gives; which is what ought to happen between friends....Those who are friends for the sake of utility part when the advantage is at an end; for they were lovers not of each other but of profit....This bit is key to my discussion here: For the sake of pleasure or utility, then, even bad men may be friends of each other, or good men of bad, or one who is neither good nor bad may be a friend to any sort of person, but for their own sake clearly only good men can be friends; for bad men do not delight in each other unless some advantage come of the relation" (4).
But, as I suggested, this can happen in a pleasure or utility based relationship also out of sense of equity. It's not the case that friends will necessarily want to each have a better deal and run as soon as we're on the losing end. We can be ethically and equitably minded regardless of affection and equal virtue. The only thing lacking seems to be longevity. It might not go on as long as one with matching virtues. But I question the level of effort we put into friendships that aren't of this special brand or "true." When Montaigne's BFF got the plague, he sat with him day and night until he died. I would definitely do that for one of my kids, and likely for a close family member or partner, but with most friends, I might drop by to offer help, to offer a place if they're put out on the street, or offer labour to fix a shed, or offer an afternoon of company. But I wouldn't be there day and night even if I might want to be. There are closer loved-ones who would sit by the wasting body. I'm not at that level with any of my friends, and it's curious that we relegate that much more to romantic attachments now. The romance-friend hierarchy flipped in the past couple of centuries.  But I don't believe my lack of bedside sitting means the friendship doesn't exist - that it's just a wished for friendship.
"The truest friendship, then, is that of the good, as we have frequently said; for that which is without qualification good or pleasant seems to be lovable and desirable, and for each person that which is good or pleasant to him; and the good man is lovable and desirable to the good man for both these reasons...those who live together delight in each other and confer benefits on each other....Those, however, who approve of each other but do not live together seem to be well-disposed rather than actual friends. For there is nothing so characteristic of friends as living together" (5).
He paints a picture of friends who are so close they want to spend their days and nights together. I think that would be ideal - based on fond memories of living with friends in university - but I can't imagine it happening once everyone starts families. It works better if we're only talking about men, and the women and kids are cordoned off elsewhere. The best living situation I had was with a friend who called me, stuck in BC with only just enough cash for a flight home, but then nowhere to live. I offered free room and board in exchange for all the cooking, cleaning, and general upkeep of my house. He stayed almost a year until he got a job out of town. Today we still each think we got the better deal. It's only when you live together that you can start routines like Thursday night homemade fries in front of Seinfeld. They seem like nothing, but little traditions are bonding in a way we don't always notice until later. It's effortless to maintain a friendship when they're always there to talk with and eat with and argue with. But now that he's gone, I haven't seen him in years. Was that just a wished for friendship?

Aristotle's last bit of advice:
"People who are supremely happy, too, have no need of useful friends, but do need pleasant friends; for they wish to live with some one and, though they can endure for a short time what is painful, no one could put up with it continuously, nor even with the Good itself if it were painful to him; this is why they look out for friends who are pleasant. Perhaps they should look out for friends who, being pleasant, are also good, and good for them too; for so they will have all the characteristics that friends should have" (6).
Good AND good for them? That's an awful lot to ask of such a fallible lot. It makes me wonder if we've truly lost that much character over the millennia or if Aristotle's standards were always out of reach for most of us.