Sunday, January 29, 2017

On Silence in the Face of Alt-Facts

I think part of the reason we're swimming in crap is because we care more about being friendly than we do about spreading accurate claims. There are courses out there to learn how to detect bullshit, but maybe we also need to learn how to call something out without looking like a jerk.

The news media production of garbage is one part of the problem, but another important part is the widespread silence taken as acceptance of some claims that have no evidence to back them up. Sure there are the blindly obedient group, but my focus here is skeptical few who stand quietly by while others peddle their beliefs because it's seen as mean to question facts right to someone's face. It's seen as antithetical to forming allegiances, which has always been baffling to me. I think some of the closest friendships can be formed over a few good debates about facts and possibly differing interpretations. But people take offence when their beliefs are attacked, and all too often people are conflating their beliefs with misunderstood information.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

On Obama

I don't agree with everything he did, but I love the way he did it. Obama was (is - he's not dead) a classy guy. He's a role model for behaving under stress, a legendary orator, and a gentleman with his partner.  A recent NYTimes article described one daily practice of his - to read ten letters from average citizens. It described the process his staff goes through, sifting through hundreds of letters each day to find the ten and then choosing the best order for them. This was a priority for him at the start of his term right down to the final day.

Each time I teach civics, four times a year for the past many many years, I've started with the same assignment. Students choose an important issue, figure out what political level has jurisdiction, and then write a persuasive letter to the appropriate representative. And then I'd hand deliver the letters to make sure they got there in time for us to get replies before the end of term. But the replies stopped coming.

I used to count on about a third of the class hearing back within six weeks. I could count on a former MPP, a former principal, and a former mayor responding to every single letter. Now I've started suggesting that maybe one lucky student will get a reply! And I've been weaning them out - only actually delivering the more timely or impactful letters in hopes they could garner some interest, and adding my own letter on top, begging for a response. The letters in return really help students believe that the system works. But nothing. Not even a form letter.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

On Sugar and Socialization

An Agenda discussion on sugar use is timely for me. I typically let students eat something small and healthy in class to tide them over until lunch, but, in one class this semester, I ended up having to police their choices. A few shovelled candy into their mouths before I'd tell them to put it away on a daily basis. I'd sometimes comment on their nutritional decisions even though it's not a health class, and then I'd immediately wonder if that's crossing a line. Sometimes my mom hat slips on when I should be in teacher mode. Or is that possibly a teacher's prerogative?

Gary Taubes provides a compelling argument for refined sugar being the primary cause of obesity not because it provides empty calories, or calories at all, but because it "creates a hormonal milieu that favours fat accumulation." This isn't entirely a new idea, except he goes a bit further with it, insisting that sugar has probably killed more people than tobacco. See the documentary Sugar Coated (currently on Netflix) for more thorough arguments.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

On Gender Pronouns and Peterson's Case

This is a difficult thing for me to figure out, and I'm not sure I'm quite firm on anything yet, but I've been completely fascinated by the discussions around Jordan Peterson, the University of Toronto prof who refuses to use individually-determined gender pronouns, so I'll try to narrow down what I actually think based on some of his YouTube videos, his interview with Joe Rogan, and various articles. I wrote before about some points I disagree with, but here I'll also look at where his argument has some merit. He's got some solid ideas in the mix.

First of all, the fact that I'm wary of discussing this at all, means that Peterson is on to something. He might not be entirely right about what he's doing and how, but it's always a concern when people don't feel free to counter current views. Before I knew his name, this felt like an issue that wasn't allowed to be debated, and those are always the meatiest places to explore. Why can't we question it? What's going on there? I teach philosophy and social science courses, and I get into all sorts of discussions that push boundaries: is incest necessarily immoral, or why don't we all use performance-enhancing drugs, or what if we sterilize couples right after they have one child to decrease population? Yet people questioning their gender is untouchable as a debatable topic so far. It's to the point that teens who feel strongly that they're in the wrong body are allowed significant surgery even though women in their 30s can't get their tubes tied because they can't possibly know their own minds. That's really interesting to me.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Eco-Hypocrites: Flights of the Anti-Flyers

I was just contemplating my own hypocrisy when I came across this NYTimes Op Ed on hypocrisy. Likely I'm not the only one in this position of explaining away, or coming to terms with, behaviour very contrary to my ethics. I've written before that nobody should board an aircraft for a luxury trip, and then I took my family to Costa Rica over the break.

The Op Ed discussed a study that shows why hypocrisy is so irritating:
"We contend that the reason people dislike hypocrites is that their outspoken moralizing falsely signals their own virtue. People object, in other words, to the misleading implication.... the principal offense of a hypocrite is not that he violates his own principles, but rather that his use of moral proclamations falsely implies that he himself behaves morally."
At a recent Christmas party when people spoke of the many trips about to be travelled, I asked, "How do you justify the trip to yourself knowing the damage it has on the environment?" Now, before you look at me sideways, I meant is as a legitimate question regardless how inconsiderately I likely worded it. It's something I'm struggling with, and I really want to know what others do. Is it denial? or rationalization? or apathy? How do we all act in ways counter to our own long term survival? But, of course, it's taken as a judgment. The main reaction was "You're going on a trip, so now you can't talk!"

This is only correct in part. It's correct in terms of offering a judgment of others, which is what the authors of the Op Ed are getting at. We can't rightly say to someone, "You're a bad person for wearing shoes in the house," while we currently have our shoes on in the house. That's a problem. But I'm not claiming that people are bad, but that certain actions are a problem that have to be dramatically reduced. It's similar to the reaction (often gleeful) some people have when a grammar teacher makes a grammar error. It doesn't mean that we shouldn't promote good grammar despite our own fallibility.

My rebuttal to the comment was, "Sure I can!" because we all need to stop travelling for leisure. Including me. I feel horribly guilty for taking a trip, and I really want to know how others manage those feelings when they're making travel arrangements.

There's another view out there that people are upset by claims of moral action because it forces them to reassess their own actions comparatively, and they're angry when they think they fall short of appropriate or admirable behaviour. That's actually pretty much the same thing, but it has a difference feel to it. It puts the problem in the hands of the audience's reaction to factual statements like, "I don't own a car, or I'm vegan." They feel their conception of themselves as moral human beings threatened. The authors of this view recognize that it's often an unintended implication that's read into the statement of concern. It's not the speaker behaving falsely, as the speaker can be well aware of their own flaws, but the audience who assumes it's bragging rather than concern.

The Op Ed author suggest that admitting wrong-doing helps. I do this already when I talk about the morality of eating animals because I've personally focused on reduction rather than strict restriction. But I intend to remember to do this in all cases:
"To further test our theory, we asked people to judge “non-signaling” hypocrites: those who hypocritically condemn behaviors they engage in, but who explicitly avoid implying anything virtuous about their personal behavior — by saying, for instance, “I think it’s morally wrong to waste energy, but I sometimes do it anyway.” We found that people judged these non-signaling hypocrites much more positively than they judged traditional hypocrites. In fact, they let these non-signaling hypocrites entirely off the hook, rating them as no worse than those who engaged in the same bad behavior but did not condemn others for it."
But I'm not going to stop talking about doing everything we can possibly do to slow down climate change. As Mill said,
Human beings owe to each other help to distinguish the better from the worse, and encouragement to choose the former and avoid the latter. They should be for ever stimulating each other to increased exercise of their higher faculties, and increased direction of their feelings and aims towards wise instead of foolish objects and contemplation. 
We think we have a right to everything we want to have or see or be, and that doesn't just damage our planet, but, I'd argue, it does a number on our ability to ever be content.

How DO People Cope with the Guilt, and Why Did I Finally Break?

I fell deep into rationalizations.

I first agreed to my daughter's request for a trip because I was terrified of getting surgery, and I thought an upcoming trip would help distract me (because flying is more scary for me than being cut open!). I was right. It was a useful distraction in the weeks leading up to my operation. None of the things I worried about actually happened on the trip, but there was a volcano that grounded all planes for the two days before we were scheduled to leave. I didn't even know to worry about that.

But once that came and went, then it became a promise to my children (which shows a lack of the skill of measurement, going for a short term gain that provokes a long term loss). Somehow it seemed better that it was for them and that I wouldn't actually enjoy it. I hate travelling and hot climates. I don't really understand standing in line after line in a crowded airport in order to go to a place with the temperature of a Canadian heat wave, something I typically barely tolerate, in order to have fun or relax constantly surrounded by people without the hope of time alone for eight solid days. I'm really good at having fun and relaxing in my own home all by myself!

And I convinced myself it's okay because I do it so much less than many (but way more than far more others, so that falls apart too). It's the same way I rationalize eating turkey at Christmas. It does help to do it less, to consider it a rare treat, but it helps more not to do it at all.

And I figured it might be okay because we booked an eco-lodge. The place was lovely, and I asked a ton of questions about how they operate it. They considered going off-grid, but decided it wouldn't make sense to since Costa Rica runs on 100% renewable energy. They catch rain water and dry laundry (they did all our laundry) with the sun in a greenhouse-type set-up, collect sewage in a biodigester, and compost all food waste. All the food was local, the water was solar heated, and they cooled the room with fans and thick curtains rather than A/C.


BUT, it was all-inclusive with meals already prepared for us as we arrived at each meal. I told them ahead of the trip that we had no allergies or aversions and didn't claim vegetarian status because I wanted to eat how they eat, but, really, they fed us how typical tourists might want to eat. It was a ton of food and lots and lots of meat. After a couple days, my kids ignored desert and asked instead for a plate of raw vegetables. The owners of the resort laughed at our unusual request - and at how excited we all got at some broccoli at the side of our plates one night. I hate seeing food go to waste, so I finished my plate and then went to work on the kids' leftovers. Despite hiking through the jungle every day, I managed to gain weight. It was delicious, but we could have managed on portions half the size. Resorts are all about luxury and an expectation of gluttony seems to go along with that.

My modified swim wear.
And the trip became a trial run for wearing tank tops and a bikini on the beach surrounded by total strangers a mere six weeks after a double mastectomy. It was far too hot to be discrete and cover up any more than the bare minimum. As soon as we got to our room, we'd all strip down to our skivvies. The heat forced me to come to terms with my new body shape, and swimming in the ocean helped my arm mobility.

Most striking to me, was the social rewards mounted on people who travel. I was congratulated for planning a trip and taking it. People wanted to hear all about the plans and the results. It's hard to avoid such a normalized behaviour or consider it a luxury when, in some circles, it's presented as a necessity.

But none of this erases the fact that jet fuel creates as many GHGs in two hours per person on the flight as a typical person creates in a year.

A Better Way to Relieve Guilt

The best way to ease guilt is to do something about it: in this case to buy carbon offsets. The David Suzuki organization has a step-by-step guide explaining the rationale behind purchasing the highest quality offsets, but it still takes significant effort to find a good company for investment. Many airlines have offset calculators with preselected companies (which might use a closer look) or suggested companies. Those two calculators gave very different amounts for the identical destinations: $60 for Air Canada and $20 for Delta. But really, that's a drop in the bucket for the cost of the trip. And it doesn't entirely alleviate my guilt. It's still morally wrong to take more that you need in a way that deprives others in future.

Instead of using the calculators to try to find some kind of accurate amount, I went old school - back to my churchly days of tithing. Sending ten percent of the price of the flight to an environmental organization that preserves forests or created renewable energy or opposes fossil fuel pipelines might be a good practice to begin implementing: a personally imposed carbon tax on harmful practices. It's a small price to pay for some semblance of peace of mind for those who can afford the luxury of a destination vacation.

ETA - And here's a video my son made of the trip:

Sunday, January 8, 2017

On Boyden's Questionable Ancestory

It's hard when we find our heroes as fallible as the rest of us. Boyden, the prize winning indigenous writer found to be not so indigenous, is taking a hit now. Some, like Aaron Paquette, think Boyden can't claim status without having endured the hardship that went with being raised by generations decimated by legislated policy. It's cheating to take the perks without the privations. Others, like Wab Kinew, think Boyden should make amends, but then could be part of the wider circle. (Both of those pieces are beautifully written and deserve a look.) I'm more interested in the drive to assimilate with the victimized. When Rachel Dolezal did something similar, she was duly trashed. I tried to understand her position as well. Yet, through reading Boyden's books, I've attributed greater depth, thoughtfulness, and generosity of spirit to him. People don't want to casually toss him aside as a wannabe.

My ancestors were the invaders and some were likely the invaded who assimilated and survived: the Gauls and Normans and Vikings and Saxons. Later on, those Norwegians, French, German, Scottish, and Irish who wanted more for themselves or who wanted to escape persecution loaded on boats for the New World. New to them that is. They came centuries after the the French made allegiances with the Hurons, about the time the British decided to deal with the "Indian problem" by creating the Indian Act, a document of invasive regulations that enabled the residential school system to open and flourish. Just like their forefathers, they invaded and forced assimilation on the people because they had bought into the need for the purity of a single group. It's what we do.

I'm a mix of all those cultures, but I don't hold allegiance to any, not even to the line of Alsatian Mennonites that gave me my surname. It's so far back, I feel divorced from those cultures, orphaned and adopted as Canadian, whatever that is. I'm sometimes jealous of newer immigrants with clear ties to a people. And of the Indigenous Canadians. We were unsuccessful at taking their culture from them, try as we did; their culture is strong and formidable. But, as much as John Ralston Saul would like to suggest, it's not our culture.