Sunday, 22 December 2013

On Trinity Western's Law School

     Recently, Trinity Western University was given the go ahead to establish a law school. There had been (and still is) considerable objection to this move, given that Trinity requires its students and faculty to commit to a code of conduct which includes a promise not to engage in "sexual intimacy that violates the sacredness of marriage between a man and a woman." 

     Most of the criticism of this decision has focused on the obviously homophobic character of the policy, saying that it goes against the fundamental principles of equality that the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms is meant to protect. But to be fair to the arguments for Trinity Western, the policy does not exclude anyone for their status or identity; it only requires unmarried students and faculty to abstain from sex while enrolled or employed there. (It also, presumably, requires members of lawful same-sex unions to abstain, but I'll get to that in a moment.)
     The problem with most of this criticism, though, is that the Charter applies to state actors, and not to private contracts. In a contract, the parties bind themselves, choosing to make promises in exchange for the promises offered by the other party. While s.2 of the Charter guarantees freedom of expression, I can enter into a contract that, in exchange for some benefit, obliges me to say or not to say something. This may seem like a limitation of my freedom of speech, but in fact the ability to enter into such a contract depends on my being able to exercise that freedom; if I weren't already free to choose what to say or what not to say, my contractual promise would mean nothing.
     So, on a purely legal basis, there's nothing at all invalid about Trinity Western's code of conduct. Trinity promises to provide an education (or a salary), in exchange for the individual's promise to abide by some arbitrary code of conduct. Sure, the code of conduct appears to be somewhat more burdensome for certain sexual orientations than others, but that's not a fatal flaw for contracts, either; as long as the parties knowingly accept their contractual obligations, they're valid and binding.

    If a private law school wishes to require, as part of its contracts, that the other party perform some silly or pointless ritual, or abstain from some otherwise permissible act, then that's something the other party can choose to accept or go elsewhere. So long as it's reasonably possible to go elsewhere, I don't have a problem with that. But there are a few things about Trinity Western's policy that give me pause.

     First, while I defend their right to require silly and arbitrary promises of their students and staff, I also assert my right to point out just how silly those promises are. I don't want to get into a religious debate about this (though if past comments threads are any indication, I probably will), but it's just plain goofy to think that the transcribed prejudices of preliterate nomads are a reliable indication of what God wants from us, even if you accept the proposition that such a God even exists. While I see some merit in encouraging people to keep their sexual intimacies within the bonds of a stable matrimony, the fact is that people vary, and that solution is not necessarily best for everyone. Even if it is, it's the business of the couple in question and not the employer of one of them. 
     But the enforceability of a contractual promise has nothing to do with how silly or pointless the promise itself may be. You have perhaps heard the tales of Van Halen's performance contract, specifying that the dressing room had to have a bowl of M&Ms, with the brown ones removed. As silly a demand as that sounds, it served an important purpose in confirming whether or not the venue had actually read the contract. And so maybe, maybe I can see some sort of pedagogical benefit to an arbitrary requirement on the private behaviour of students. The practice of law does require sometimes (often) that we follow rules whether or not we understand the reasons behind them, so there's that.

     More importantly, Trinity Western's choice to implement such a policy raises questions in my mind about the quality of the legal minds behind it, and hence their fitness to teach law. It isn't that I think their decision is illegal, or even that I think they don't understand constitutional or contract law. Rather, it's that I don't think they're using the law wisely to further the interests they purport to have. It's fine that they want to impose their shared vision of morality on members of their university community, but you can do that with a shared statement of values. Setting it up as a contractual obligation is just asking for trouble.

    Why? Well, contracts are, ultimately, enforced by courts. Sooner or later, someone's going to get expelled from Trinity Western for homosexual (or heterosexual and extramarital) activity, and contest the expulsion in court. (This is a risk anyway, but especially so if the expelled someone happens to be a law student, who's after all there for the express purpose of learning how to fight legal battles.) And when that happens, the language of that contract is going to come crashing down.
     Note that the promise is to abstain from "sexual intimacy that violates the sacredness of marriage between a man and a woman." This means that, to enforce the contract, Trinity Western is going to have to show, somehow, that the sexual intimacy in question "violates the sacredness of marriage between a man and a woman." And that is going to be a very difficult thing to show. How can the "sacredness of marriage between a man and a woman" be violated by anyone other than a married man and woman?
     And seriously, we do not want to have that precedent set. If the sacredness of one sort of marriage can be violated by the mere existence of another sort of marriage, then can the sacredness of Christianity be violated by the existence of Islam? Can the sacredness of hockey be violated by the existence of basketball? Or, perhaps, can the sacredness of tolerance, liberty and the rule of law be violated by the existence of Trinity Western's code of conduct?

Saturday, 9 November 2013

In Defense of White Poppies, and other Heresies

     I have always been very conflicted about Remembrance Day. On the one hand, of course I am grateful for the courage and sacrifice of those who are willing to take up arms, wear the uniform and defend out country. And on the other hand, I hate war. How could I not?
     That particular conflict is not especially difficult to resolve. War in particular, and violence in general, are unquestionably evil. Violence is simply never a morally valid means of resolving disputes, and it must not be permitted to succeed as such, and so it must be resisted, with as little force as possible, but as much as necessary to bring the violence to an end with minimal loss of life. I have previously compared it to handling poop; if a sewage pipe suddenly ruptures and starts spraying waste around the room, a squeamish desire to avoid getting your hands dirty will only ensure everything else gets dirtier. We should rightly praise as a hero the person who overcomes his disgust, wades in promptly and fixes the problem, but poop is poop, filthy and disgusting. I think we should view violence the same way, as something horrible to be avoided, but not to fear so much that we empower those who are willing to use it.
     And so I gratefully and whole-heartedly hail as heroes those who reluctantly but courageously face the horrors of war so that others may live in peace. And yet, I am still uncomfortable with this holiday, because hidden among the pious paeans are some pernicious ideas which really do need to be vigorously rejected.

     There's a sign outside my local MLA's office this week which reads: "The poppy is a symbol of why we are free." Well, yeah, on one level this is true, but on another, no. The First World War, whence came the poppy symbol and John McCrae's famous poem, was not fought "to keep us free". It was a stupid, stupid war that started because some idiot thought it would be a good idea to murder an archduke, and then everybody called everybody else's bluff. Whatever started the war, though, it soon became about the war itself: victory at all costs.  Consider the last stanza of In Flanders Fields: 
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
     It is perhaps heretical to criticise this otherwise fine and poignant poem, the first two stanzas of which are indeed brilliant and worthy of their popularity, but this bit is a particularly egregious example of what economists call the "sunk cost fallacy". While it's a foolish error to throw good money after bad, it's downright evil to keep on killing in order to somehow vindicate the fallen. If the fight is just (that is, if its purpose is to resist force and restore peace), then by all means keep fighting. But to pursue victory, just so that the dead shall not have died in vain? Dangerous nonsense, particularly if both sides are thinking that way, which they were. And so for four years, young men bled and choked and died in their millions. 

     We rightly honour our soldiers in that war for their courage and their sacrifice, but to say that they fought to keep us free is simply not true. What they fought so valiantly for King and Country to protect us from was really only an army of other equally valiant young men fighting for essentially the same motives. Even more tragically, the victory they brought us was ultimately used to help pave the way for the Second World War. And while WW2 might have been aptly characterize as The Good War, in that fascism was pretty clearly the enemy of freedom, WW1 was just a terrible, futile waste of lives.
     And so yes, it is true that free peoples need to be prepared to fight, in order to resist by force those who would through force make them unfree. But in the big picture, it is force itself which is the true enemy, and the only justification for the use of force is to resist someone else's choice to use force in the first place. I am sympathetic, therefore, to those who prefer to wear a white poppy as an explicit rejection of military action, because it is so very easy to twist respect for our veterans' sacrifices into support for the policies that made those sacrifices necessary.

     I think most of us understand in principle that one can object to a particular military mission without disrespecting the soldiers tasked with carrying it out. But in practice this is a much harder principle to realize, because opinions about policy often correlate with the choice to put on the uniform; all other things being equal, someone who approves of a particular mission is more likely to enlist than someone who does not.
     This means that, at least in countries where the military is composed of volunteers, when I stand up and say for example "Let's not invade Carthage!" I'm not just expressing disagreement with the leaders who want to invade Carthage; I'm also implicitly challenging the judgment of every person who enlisted because they thought invading Carthage was a good idea and they wanted to be a part of it. And it's exceptionally hard for many of us to recognize the distinction between disagreeing with someone and disrespecting them. We think it's disrespectful to say, "I think you're wrong". But it isn't.

     Respect is not synonymous with agreement. Indeed, respect is largely meaningless if you only respect people you agree with. Respect means acknowledging that someone has a different and valuable perspective from your own, and that while you may not agree, you are open to dialogue and the possibility that their reasons may turn out to be superior to your own. I respect you when I invite you to change my mind, and when I show a good-faith expectation that you will wisely consider my own arguments, whatever you may ultimately conclude about them. Violence is the very antithesis of this principle of respect.

     Earlier this week, I saw a Facebook meme circulating that said something to the effect of, "If you see someone wearing a white poppy, punch them for a veteran." In other words, use violence to avenge a perceived insult.
     No, I say. Don't punch anyone, ever, for saying something you disagree with, however much you think it offends your honour or that of our heroes. If you do so in my presence, I will try to stop you, with as little force as possible, but as much force as necessary.

Thursday, 31 October 2013

On the Racism of Certain Hallowe'en Costumes

     I have always enjoyed Hallowe'en. Even before my LARP days, I was very enthusiastic about costuming. Probably the masterpiece of all my costumes was the blood red Fokker triplane, artfully constructed by my extremely handy mother from cardboard under my strict technical supervision. I also did the painting, with careful attention to the insignias and other features. I was going through a WWI fighter aircraft phase in the fourth grade, and I wanted it to look as much like von Richtofen's famous plane as possible. (I chose the triplane over his Albatros D.3 biplane not just because it was more recognizable, but also because the Fokker's stubbier engine cowling was easier to make out of cardboard than the more conical nose of the Albatros. Yes, I was an ├╝bergeek.)

     The political implications of Hallowe'en costumes didn't really concern me, but they've become kind of a hot topic lately. There's been a lot of attention paid to the idea that certain costumes are racist or disrespectful, and in particular some celebrity's choice to appear at a party in blackface has drawn considerable ire, with some writers arguing that "Blackface is always racist".

     My natural tendency, upon seeing such a generalization, is to try to think of counterexamples, and of course that's not too terribly difficult to do. It seems obvious that a commando applying black makeup so as to be less visible at night is not necessarily committing an inherently racist act. Nor is someone who alters her appearance in order to more closely resemble someone else necessarily guilty of racism. And indeed, authentic, traditional blackface minstrelsy isn't necessarily an act of genuine racism if one is, say, acting in historical film about the life and influence of Al Jolson.

     I am thus sympathetic to those who do not understand why darkening one's face for a costume is always racist. It isn't always. But at the same time, just because it isn't intended as such doesn't mean it doesn't reveal a racist attitude. You see, wearing a costume is an inherently expressive act; you wear a costume in order to elicit some sort of reaction from your audience. The reaction you're looking for may be quite innocent: "Wow, I never noticed before how much your bone structure resembles Martin Luther King Jr.! And the moustache is perfect!" But expressive acts take place within a shared vocabulary, and for various historical reasons, a white person wearing black makeup has a whole lot of other connotations one should be aware of, connotations that will affect how one's message is received. If you do not know those connotations, then maybe your intention wearing blackface is truly innocent, but you have another problem: you don't know the connotations, which in itself is a sign of privilege, the sort of privilege that helps keep racism going.
     Think of it this way. By itself, a swastika is a elegant and attractive design, independently discovered or invented many times by many cultures. Not knowing its most infamous 20th century association, you could easily imagine someone choosing to wear a swastika T shirt just because it was a nice pattern. But almost everyone knows of that association, and assumes that everyone else knows, so if you wear that T shirt, people will make assumptions about what you mean by it. If they call you on it, you don't say, "But it's not racist! It's just a pretty pattern!" You either say, "Oh my god, it means WHAT? I'm so sorry!" as you cover it up or remove it, or you say "Yes, I'm glad you asked. I deeply resent the Nazi's co-opting this ancient and honourable design for their despicable ideology, and I am trying to reclaim it and divorce it from its political connotations. To me it represents..." blah blah. You might be wrong then, but you can at least discuss it respectfully, acknowledging the meaning you are explicitly disavowing, rather than taking the dead end denial route.

     Okay, so I get that blackface is "always" racist, at least in the sense that it has a subtext that needs to be acknowledged, and the failure to acknowledge it is itself symptomatic of racial privilege. But I'm less convinced by the complaints that other costumes with cultural stereotypes are inherently racist. That is, I think they're insulting, not because they are depictions of stereotypes but because they're bad depictions. Clumsy, ignorant, insultingly stupid depictions.
     A prime example: the "Sexy Chinese Geisha" costume cited as #1 in this Cracked article. Yes, this is insultingly stupid, but mainly because of the name they sell it under. It's not that there's no such thing as a Chinese geisha, because sure, there could be. A Chinese woman could travel to Japan to study and become proper geisha, and maybe even go back to China to set up her own geisha house. I have no problem with that premise, and also no problem with the "sexy" part, because there's nothing inherently racist (sexist, maybe) about taking any old costume idea and making it sexy. Indeed, the costume itself isn't particularly offensive in a racist, taken as a pastiche of loosely interpreted stylistic elements from various cultural sources.
     (Years ago, by the way, I drove past an actual restaurant with a big sign that read: "Haiku Palace Authentic Chinese Cuisine". I didn't have occasion to go inside so I don't know, but supposing the proprietor to have been Chinese, I don't think the sign would have been any less insulting, because it still conveys the presumption that the audience is culturally ignorant, regardless of how well or poorly informed the namer of the restaurant might be.)

     No, my problem is that the person who named this costume almost certainly didn't do any of this thinking. He or she (or maybe it was a committee?) clearly either had no knowledge of the cultures referenced, or worse, didn't care. It makes little sense to be offended by someone else's ignorance, but what's offensive here is that they unironically invite the audience to recognize as cute or clever something which is devoid of wit. (Unless it's actually a very sophisticated musing on what a sexy Chinese geisha would look like as distinct from a traditional Japanese one, in which case I'm afraid it's far too subtle for me. Is that supposed to be a corset?)
     I realize I'm speaking from my privileged position as a white male here, but it seems to me that it shouldn't be the ethnic inspiration of a costume per se that we object to, but the execution. A clumsy, ignorant and lazy stereotype is of course insulting. But on those rare instances when someone takes the time to get it right, to invest time and effort in learning enough about the culture to produce (and correctly wear) an authentic costume, I think it's probably wrong to feel disrespected.

Friday, 25 October 2013

Playing the Cancer Card Against Chain Letters

All right. You know that Facebook status chain letter that's been going around, asking you to post it or share it to show respect and honour those who have been fighting cancer? Actually, there are several, but they all have the same basic idea, and they all employ the same subtle emotional bullying to get you to share them. Since they come from someone you probably like, and they appear as a personal request from that person to share them, you feel obliged to do so, not just because you don't want to disappoint your friend but also because you don't want to look like you are indifferent to people with cancer.

You know what? It's a chain letter. That's all it is, really. The heartfelt personal request from your friend? They may feel the same way, but they didn't write it; they're passing along what they think is a heartfelt request from one of their friends. And chain letters, they're basically the memetic equivalent of a virus. They get into your mind, instruct you to make copies, and the copies go off in hopes of infecting more minds. Unlike biological viruses, chain letters rarely kill their hosts, but the basic ecology is the same.

So odds are, the person who sent it to you isn't going to be heartbroken if you ignore their personal request, because it isn't actually their request: they're just relieved to have avoided feeling guilty for ignoring their friend's "personal" request.

And as for respecting and honouring cancer victims, well, obviously I can only speak for myself, and maybe that chain letter has brought real comfort to others, but for my part, I am unmoved by the gesture. Look, I know people who forward these things mean well, but seriously, if you want to do something nice for cancer patients, go volunteer at a cancer clinic. Give money to support cancer research. Go get a colonoscopy before you start showing symptoms so you can avoid using up scarce medical resources to treat a preventable cancer later. Stop smoking. Or if you really just want to make a gesture or send a message, don't cut and paste someone else's words or graphic: take a few minutes to write your own. I mean, presumably they've friended you because they think you're a decent person already, and it kinda goes without saying that decent people care about people with cancer, so clicking "share" doesn't exactly supply your friends with new information. 

So. Let me play the cancer card here, and speak in my capacity as a former cancer patient: If someone forwards you a chain letter asking you to pass it along out of respect for cancer patients/victims/survivors, I hereby give you permission not to forward it. I won't feel disrespected.

Monday, 14 October 2013

Addressing One Hypocritical Argument Against Guaranteed Income

     This week I read that Switzerland is voting on a proposal to guaranteed every Swiss person an income of about $2800 a month. I will probably be writing more about the idea of a guaranteed income later, but for now I just want to address one criticism I've seen that is particularly annoying to me. Specifically, people look at this proposal and ask, "Hey, why would anybody work for minimum wage if they can get paid the same amount for just sitting at home doing nothing?"

     I am annoyed by stupid questions, and this is a stupid question, because it is based on the stupid assumption the only reason anyone works at all is just to make enough to survive. That is a stupid assumption to make when it is made by people who object to being taxed because they feel they should be allowed to earn as much as they like beyond what they need to survive.
     Stop and consider for a moment: once your basic needs are met, Mr. Hardworkingtaxpayer, are you content to stop working and enjoy your basic rations, watch TV and produce no more? No, of course not. You're the motivated go-getter who creates value for society, thriftily and prudently investing surplus for your retirement, and treating yourself to some of the finer things you've earned through your initiative and sweat. And good for you.
     So why, then, would you expect anyone else to be content with mere subsistence? Why would you assume that someone endowed with a basic income -- and now, some free time -- wouldn't choose to spend some of that free time to earn a bit more? And, given that basic survival was already provided for, wouldn't that free up employers and employees to negotiate wages without the need for an arbitrary minimum? For some extra spending money, accepting $1 an hour might be a rational choice; if you need to earn enough to survive, the opportunity cost of that hour is far too high.
     And secondly, let's suppose that someone would choose to sit around and do nothing with a guaranteed income. So what? Does it make you similarly angry when lottery winners quit their jobs? Are we facing a critical labour shortage right now, because urgently needed workers are insufficiently hungry? Or are workers sitting idle and hungry because nobody wants to pay them to do stuff? Unless you have some job you urgently need workers for, you have no right to complain about the inefficiency of labour resources going unused, because those labour resources do not belong to you. And even if you do have some urgent need for labour, here's how you address it: offer someone enough money to work for you! That's all, really. Negotiate a mutually acceptable price.

     There are other reasons one might criticize a guaranteed income scheme, but moral indignation that someone else is getting money "for nothing" is just silly, especially when it is so selectively and inconsistently applied.

Saturday, 5 October 2013

Man up, MR!

     People often use the metaphor of the pendulum when they talk about social change, particularly with respect to such things as civil rights. I've always detested that metaphor, because we don't want to oscillate between extremes; we want to move to a nice, fair equilibrium where everyone's rights are respected, and stay there. And while gravity can be trusted to push a pendulum towards that center, momentum will always cause it to overshoot. With a pendulum, the right thing to do (if you want to end up stable at the center) is to apply force in the opposite direction of whichever way it's going, to drain its momentum so eventually it comes to rest. If social justice really were like a pendulum, then we all should have been pushing against Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement, not to oppose it per se but to help slow it down so it would come to rest at the happy medium.
     But we now recognize that the "moderates" who urged Dr. King to be patient, not to move so fast, were simply wrong. Even if there is a force of gravity gently tugging us in the general direction of social equality, the pendulum here is mounted on a rigid and far from frictionless pivot, and can quite easily remain at a socially unjust status quo indefinitely. We have to push it to get it to budge, and historically we've had to push pretty damned hard, because there's always someone trying to keep it right where it is.
     (Also, the pendulum metaphor misleadingly suggests that there's symmetry in the distribution of injustices over time, and sure, we may be on top right now, but it all evens out because remember when white Europeans were slaves of African overlords, or when a man's legal personhood was subsumed under that of his wife? Me neither, but it must have happened because pendulum!)

     Lately we have been hearing about the Men's Rights movement, whose position seems to be that the pendulum has swung too far and now men are disadvantaged as women once were. I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, yeah, there are situations in which men suffer injustices simply because they are men, and so yeah, I sympathize. I've had to contend with various inconveniences for being a man myself.
     But on the other hand, I'm very much aware of how many advantages I enjoy simply by virtue of being a man in this society, how easy it is to take them for granted, and how much I probably enjoy without even noticing. On the balance, it's pretty obvious to me that I come out ahead on the deal, overall, and so I feel it would be undignified for me to complain about the times it works against me.
I would call it unmanly, but there is nothing uniquely masculine about courageously enduring hardships.

     One of the minor ways being a man has occasionally disadvantaged me is when it comes to discussing feminism. I recall conversations in which my views were enthusiastically embraced as sensitive and enlightened until I happened to disagree over some point or other, when I suddenly became unqualified to know what I was talking about. (Gee, thanks for the object lesson in what it feels like to be marginalized, but wouldn't it be more helpful to model for me how to respect someone as an equal?) My gender shouldn't have any bearing on the validity of my arguments, but to some people it does.
     Fortunately, as a man, I am qualified to say things about the Men's Rights movement without having to face such challenges, and the main criticism I have is actually the very same one I have of the term "feminism": it's adversarial and divisive. Feminism should not have been, and ideally isn't, about women's issues, but about addressing the impact of gender on human issues. That we call this movement "feminism" is a historical artifact of the fact that the bulk of the political and economic injustices resulting from sexism have been and still are borne by females.
     So while I object a bit to the term "feminism", there's at least some justification for having focused on women's rights, particularly when they weren't thought to have any. I grit my teeth a bit every time I use the word, but that's the word we have. There is no such justification for creating a separate-but-equal masculism (packaged with a tastefully rugged blue label: "Feminism -- For Him!") to focus arbitrarily on gender injustice when it happens to disadvantage someone with a penis. Gender injustice is wrong whomever it happens to.

     I sometimes use "Mankind" as a gender-neutral, inclusive term for our whole species. I figure I should be man enough to call myself a feminist in the same spirit.

Tuesday, 1 October 2013


     When I was about 13 or 14, visiting my grandparents in Massachusetts one summer, my parents dropped me off at the New England Aquarium for the day. (I have always been a nerd, and insisted on being allowed to spend a day there or at the Museum of Science every time we were anywhere near Boston.) On this particular visit, though, I was kind of shocked to see a couple of men holding hands.  This was the late 1970s, and there was no greater insult at my junior high school than to call someone gay. And these two fellows were decidedly, flamboyantly so, though at the time I did not recognize it from their style of dress so much; naively I thought gay men must have worn dresses or something, and was perplexed that manly-looking men in their manly muscle shirts, manly tight white trousers and most of all their hyper-manly moustaches (when you're 13, facial hair is manliness itself) were -- ewww! -- holding hands! I admit, at that time and place, I was a bit grossed out.

     The other day, I was driving somewhere, and noticed a couple walking along the sidewalk, holding hands and obviously very much in love, and I just found myself smiling and thinking, "Aw, how sweet!" And it almost didn't even register that they were both men, except perhaps in the way I used to notice couples of mixed race, with a sense of solidarity and pride that our society seems to have learned to accept these things.

Thursday, 19 September 2013

More on Speeding

     A video is making the rounds, supposedly pulling the rug out from under the "Speed Kills" campaigns of the insurance industry, police, and the media. Essentially the argument is that speed limits are too low in many places, and that it's perfectly safe to drive at higher speeds and the only reason police enforce these limits the way they do is to generate revenue, not to promote safety. The insurance companies, it is alleged, are also making money from this because they get to raise premiums when someone gets a speeding ticket, while media is just lazily repeating the "speed kills" rhetoric because it makes a better story.

     Where to begin? Well, let's start with the basic claim, that speed doesn't kill. No, of course it doesn't. It's an abrupt change in speed that kills, such as the sort that arises when two objects of greatly differing vectors collide. And as we know from our basic high school physics, kinetic energy is proportion to the square of the velocity, which means if you double the speed, you quadruple the energy. It takes energy to crumple fenders and bones, so the greater the speed, the greater the capacity to do damage. This much is obvious, but that kinetic energy formula is important in another way, which I'll get to in a moment. The point here is that actually, yeah, higher speeds are more dangerous, and in a non-linear way: going 10% faster is more than 10% more dangerous.
     To be fair, that's not really the point of the video, which argues that higher speeds (on highways or other roads that can handle higher speeds) do not necessarily increase the likelihood of a collision. Well,  maybe not, but even if the chance of a collision remains constant (and it would be bizarre to claim that higher speed limits reduce the chance), the fact remains that higher speeds do more damage.

     This, by the way, answers part of another one of the claims of the video, namely that insurance companies love for people to get speeding tickets because it gives them an excuse to raise premiums. Actually, and actuarially, insurance premiums are supposed to be calculated to reflect the expected cost of insurance. Insurance companies have limited information upon which to make accurate estimates of the likelihood that a given customer will be responsible for a claim, and how much of a claim. Knowing that a driver has earned a speeding ticket reveals a little bit of data about their driving habits which allows for somewhat more precise estimates. Now, I'm the last person to trust in the selfless integrity of the insurance industry, and I haven't actually researched the actuarial data here, but it seems likely to me that at least part of the reason your insurance rates go up when you get a speeding ticket is because statistically speaking, you are a bigger risk.

     The video makes a similar argument about police departments making money from speeding tickets, and while I agree that it's problematic to introduce a profit motive to law enforcement, it's worth noting that the police are still not actually a for-profit organization; the money governments raise from traffic enforcement doesn't exactly go to line the pockets of shareholders.
     And yes, police use stealth traps to catch speeders, when the visibility of a police car is much more effective at getting people not to speed. So what? Is this supposed to show that speed traps are aimed at making money rather than promoting safe driving? Nonsense. It's easy to get people to obey the law when there's a cop around. The point of speed traps is to encourage drivers to obey speed limits when they don't see a cop. Sorry, I shouldn't need to explain that, but apparently I do.

     But my main beef with this video is that it misses the main point of speed limits, which as I've written before, aren't just (or even mostly) about the state deciding how fast you can be trusted to stay in control of your vehicle. Cruising along in your private vehicle, it's easy to feel free and independent and lose sight of the fact that our public roads and highways are part of a complete system of transportation, and that they are a shared public resource. We hire traffic engineers to design and manage this system for us, and we want them to make it serve our needs as efficiently as possible. So they do things like place stop signs and traffic lights and turning lanes and set speed limits and so on with the goal of minimizing the time it takes to make a typical trip. In other words, speed limits are meant to speed up traffic. Let me say that again in a separate line all by itself for emphasis.

     Speed limits are meant to speed up traffic.

     That sounds counterintuitive, I know, but it's true. If you thought the purpose of speed limits was to reduce accidents, well, sure, that's nice, but considering that even very minor accidents create huge delays and reduce average speeds by a ridiculous amount (and accidents where there are injuries or deaths even more so), it's enough to say minimizing accidents is just a good way for system engineers to minimize delay.

     Time for a simple chart.

     Obviously, if the enforced speed limit is zero, traffic's not going to be moving very efficiently. As we increase the enforced limit, the effective speed of traffic increases, but only up to a point. At that point, higher speed limits can actually decrease the effective speed of traffic. Why?
     In an ideal world, where everyone is zipping along at a uniform speed, it doesn't really matter what the maximum is so long as everyone is going close to the same speed. Yes, we need to worry about stationary obstacles, but presumably an ideally-built highway will be free of obstacles.
     But this ideal world is sort of like the ideal universe of basic high school physics, where friction and air resistance are ignored. In the real world of driving, cars do not simply travel along at uniform speeds in happy obedience to Newton's First Law; they are generally moving because the people in them are travelling from point A (where they presumably were at rest for a while) to point B (where they presumably intend to stop for a bit). So unavoidably, there's going to be some acceleration involved somewhere along the way. Moreover, since not everyone has the same points A and B, there's going to be some merging of traffic along the way also, which means that not everyone is going to be travelling at the same speed. And sometimes people are going to need to stop in places they didn't intend to stop, such as by the side of the highway.
    So in the real world, there will be a range of different speeds we have to accommodate, and unfortunately one of those speeds will be zero. Now, traffic can cope with a range of speeds, especially if there are multiple lanes. But changing from a slower lane to a faster one involves acceleration, and remember that whole kinetic energy equation? Among other things, it means that accelerating from 90 km/h to 100 km/h takes almost twice as much energy as accelerating from 50 km/h to 60 km/h. So lane changes and passing are going to be more demanding, and you'll need a bigger break in traffic to be able to execute them safely. That means that if you happen to be stuck in the slower lane, you don't actually benefit from the fact that the faster lane is really really really fast.

     To put it another way, road space is a scarce public resource, and you use more of it when you go faster, leaving less available for others to use. Speed limits are an attempt to distribute that resource equitably, so everyone can enjoy the benefits of a public roadway. People who drive faster may not recognize it, because the delays they cause to other people are barely visible in their rear-view mirror, but they are slowing everyone else down, even if they never actually cause an accident. Oddly enough, a lot of the time they complain about being stuck behind some inexplicable delay in traffic, it's actually due to the ripple effects of some other selfishly impatient driver.

     Are some speed limits too low? Possibly. But not for the reasons given in the video. Want to get where you're going faster? Drive at a reasonable speed, leave a reasonable gap ahead of yourself for other vehicles to change into and out of your lane, and be a patient, strategic driver. Let the speed limits do their job.

Thursday, 5 September 2013

Bring on the Jurassic Salad!

     I used to talk about how to me, the scariest part of Jurassic Park had nothing to do with the dinosaurs. I mean, let's be honest here: Homo sapiens is the scariest killing machine on the planet. We don't have big teeth or claws, but we are pretty clever with the use of tools and terrain, and we have language and can use it to plan and execute coordinated operations with terrifying effectiveness. This deceptively wimpy bipedal primate hunted mammoths, aurochs and moas to extinction. We went after sperm whales, fercryinoutloud! A tyrannosaur gets loose from a zoo? Bah. It might eat a few people before we can mobilize an attack helicopter to take it out, but we probably wouldn't even need to do that; a resourceful bunch of humans on the ground would probably figure something out by the time the  pilot finished his preflight checks. (Yes, I know the velociraptors were supposed to be the really scary, smart ones, but seriously, they'd be hunted to extinction in a matter of months, and more people would die in car accidents driving to the store to buy anti-velociraptor gadgets than would be eaten by velociraptors.) Sure, scary to the people on the ground actually being chased by dinosaurs, but not especially more so than most of the countless other ways each and every one of us will face death.

     No, to me, the scariest part was the scene just before we actually saw the dinosaurs, when the paleobotanist played by Laura Dern is marvelling over a fern she identifies as having been extinct for millions of years. I thought that fern was the most dangerous thing in the whole movie.
    Why? Because over time, invasive plant species can do way more harm to a lot more people than a couple of hungry carnivores, and while we humans are unchallenged apex predators who excel at killing other predators to the point that we have to rein ourselves in so we can still have things to kill, we totally suck at controlling little things like weeds. The economic damage caused by kudzu, water hyacinth, and "harmless" little critters like zebra mussels and carp and pine beetles adds up year by year by year, and there's very little we seem to be able to do about it.
     So the Jurassic Park geneticists revive a fern that's been extinct for millions of years, and whose natural predators are, presumably, still extinct. Oh crap. What's going to eat it? What's going to keep it from growing everywhere, including places where we're trying to grow corn or rice or potatoes?

     But then I happened to see this video, "Why aren't all plants poisonous?" in which the answer to the question is actually that all plants are poisonous, but we creatures who feed on plants keep evolving counters to the toxins the plants come up with.  I agree with the analysis, subject to some qualifications: some plants benefit from the action of hungry animals, and thus make delicious fruit or nectar to encourage them. Also, some plants, like thistles and cacti, may rely more on physical deterrents against predation than chemical ones.  (I always suspected that thistles must be tasty, or they wouldn't devote so much metabolic effort to growing those prickles. I first checked a couple of books to confirm they weren't toxic, and then picked some thistle from my weedy backyard, and trimmed the prickles from the leaves. Turns out, they're actually quite palatable!)

     Anyway, it got me to thinking: this arms race of plant toxins vs. evolved herbivore resistance to those toxins has kept on going ever since that fictional fern in Jurassic Park went extinct. That fern may have had state-of-the-art chemical defenses against the herbivores large and small of the late Cretaceous, but the art has evolved considerably since then. It may well be that many of the genetic tricks that herbivores developed to feed on the extinct plant have been retained and refined in the genome of modern animals (including us), particularly if that plant's surviving relatives have continued to use and refine those defenses.

     So maybe, I was wrong, and rather than deathweed juggernauts blacking out the sun, the reanimation of extinct plant species would instead lead to delicious and healthy "new" foods for us to eat. Either that, or they'll be completely ungrowable because every agricultural pest and microbe will eagerly devour them before we can.

Monday, 2 September 2013

Consciousness and Free Will

Some time ago, I read a book called My Brain Made Me Do It, in which the author Eliezer Sternberg (at that time an undergraduate in philosophy and pre-med) talked about some implications of neuroscience he found profoundly disturbing. He seemed most upset by the results of some interesting work using functional MRI to track brain activity while test subjects were asked to perform certain tasks.

Subjects were asked to perform a very simple task: press a button when they felt like doing so. The experiment was intended to piece together the sequence in which various mental events take place, and so the subjects were also asked to make a note of exactly when they decided to press the button, by noting the position of a dot moving regularly in a circle on a screen in front of them.

Now, it turns out that the moment the subjects thought they were deciding to press the button was actually quite a few milliseconds later than the fMRI showed activity in the part of the brain where the choice was actually made. In other words, the conscious experience of choosing was considerably later than the choice itself. The author of this book found that very disturbing with respect to free will, because he felt that a choice made some circuit in one’s brain that lies outside of the actual seat of consciousness was not genuinely a free choice. We do not hold people responsible for epileptic fits or other brain phenomena, after all; doesn’t the discovery that none of our choices are conscious completely do away with the notion of personal responsibility?

I wanted to like this book, because it was engagingly written and earnest, but I kept wanting to shout at it because it was based on an unfounded assumption about the role of consciousness, that it’s the seat of autonomy and choice, the place from which the body is controlled, where “we” as individuals ultimately live. That’s not how I understand consciousness at all, based in part upon my reading of books like Marvin Minsky’s Society of Mind and Daniel Dennett’s Consciousness Explained.

We know now that the brain is made up of a whole lot of specialized agents, little programs that are good at doing one thing and one thing only. There’s a bit of your brain optimized for recognizing the letter “Q”, and one for using chopsticks, and another for remembering that gasoline is flammable. Most of these little components are wired up to other components that perform related tasks, so they can share information as needed; your “Q”-recognizer talks to your word readers that recognize words with “Q” in them, letting them know if there’s a “Q” in the visual field, and keeping quiet if there isn’t.

Now, these agents don’t usually have direct connections to other agents if there’s no frequent reason for them to talk to each other. The “Q”-recognizer needs to be linked to your visual cortex, but rarely if ever needs to share information with the part of your brain that knows how to sing the tune to “Happy Birthday”. That’s where consciousness comes in.

Consciousness is just another part of the brain, but its specialized job is to serve as a kind of public bulletin board to which all the other parts of the brain have access, allowing them to share information they wouldn’t normally be able to share. You can see how this works by catching yourself when it doesn’t work. Example: I had just got out of the ground-floor shower (I usually use the shower in our basement), and was thinking about something else (that is, the bulletin board of my consciousness was busy sharing some other kind of information) when I suddenly realized I had just kicked my dirtly clothes into the closet. A habitual behaviour (kicking the dirty clothes down the laundry chute) that usually operates without the need for conscious oversight had encountered a problem, and posted the error message on my bulletin board: “Something went wrong trying to kick dirty laundry down chute.” The instant this was posted, and thus made available to all parts of my brain, two other brain elements immediately made relevant reports: “The laundry chute is located on the ground floor of your parents’ house”, and “You are currently in your own house”. (Yet another brain element added: “Dumbass!”)

You have probably had similar experiences, where you just did something on autopilot that, if you had stopped to think about it consciously, you would have immediately recognized that you were making a mistake. You probably could have avoided the error if you had been consciously paying attention to what you were doing, but consciousness is a limited resource. If your consciousness is busy sharing information about which house you’re in and what dirty-laundry-protocol to follow, it’s probably not sharing information between the part of  your brain that remembers what’s in the fridge and the part that’s trying to plan what to cook for dinner. But all these parts of your brain are still part of you, even if they aren’t always (or ever, even) starring in the spotlight of consciousness.

Yet there is something to the moral intuition that we don’t hold an epileptic morally accountable for the actions triggered by brain events during a seizure. So how do we draw a meaningful moral distinction between those unconscious brain events and the ones for which we are responsible?

I would suggest that the answer lies not in whether or not the decision is a conscious one (because no decisions are truly conscious in themselves, even if they are immediately reported through consciousness), but whether or not the decision could be influenced by the information content of consciousness. Let me demonstrate with two examples.

First, take a deep breath. Actually, it doesn’t matter if you take a deep breath or not. The decision to do so is yours, and you may decide not to, but at a minimum, the idea of taking a deep breath is now posted in your consciousness bulletin board for all the other bits of your brain to see and work on. There is probably a part resisting: “Wait, why should we take a breath just because someone told us to?” Another part is saying, “Breathing deeply once in a while is good for you anyway! Do it!” Lots of other little bits are piping up with various arguments for or against, while your poor motor control brain segment has been on alert for the decision to proceed or abort with Operation Deep Breath since you first saw the sentence. Whatever your decision element decides, you will become conscious of your decision mere milliseconds later as it is posted to the bulletin board.

Now, you can and do breath unconsciously, most of the time in fact. The part of your brain that controls breathing usually doesn’t bother consciousness with it, and doesn’t require any special information from consciousness to keep doing its job. But it can modify its behaviour in response to such information, such as “Don’t inhale now! You’re under water!” The fact that it can be affected by conscious information is what qualifies taking a deep breath as our act, even though it may not always (and usually isn’t) done under conscious control.

Second example: Sneeze, right now. Now, again, it doesn’t matter if you did just happen to sneeze as you were reading this, because odds are that if you did it’s because you already needed to sneeze anyway. Sneezing is, for most people at least, a reflex action that is driven entirely by physiological stimuli, over which the contents of your consciousness have almost no direct influence. Yes, you can take deliberate actions that will indirectly lead to your sneezing (such as inhaling ground pepper or snuff), but the act of will there is “inhale pepper”; the sneeze is at best a consequence of your volitional act, rather than your own act. And yet sneezing is certainly something that takes place using muscles and organs you generally control, and even involves brain events in the very brain whose decisions you are said to be responsible. 

It’s possible, of course, that you’ve trained yourself somehow to establish some neural link between your consciousness and the sneeze reflex, and maybe you can sneeze at will, in which case I’ve just chosen a bad example for you. For me, at least, the sneeze reflex pays no attention to the content of consciousness, and so it would be inappropriate to attach moral blame or praise to me for my “decision” to sneeze, while it might be perfectly appropriate to hold be responsible for a decision to take or not to take a deep breath. 

To me, then, the fact that decision-making may take place pre-consciously does not in any way raise problems for practical free will. It is a mistake to identify ourselves too closely with only the conscious part of our brains. Our minds are the emergent phenomena of complex networks of distinct brain subsystems, not merely some tiny bit that lives in one little corner, pulling the strings.

Saturday, 24 August 2013

Academic Integrity

     When I was an undergraduate, I was always a little bit puzzled by the handout I'd receive in every class warning of what a serious academic offence plagiarism was. The same handout was provided verbatim and unattributed in each class, and I used to think myself clever, arching a suspicious eyebrow at the instructor and asking, "Did you write this yourself?" seldom bringing as much laughter as I'd hoped.
     But I never felt the warning about plagiarism was very helpful in making clear just why it was such a serious offense. We were just told, "Don't do it." My naive first reading of it was based on a sort of intellectual property idea, that "stealing" someone else's work and taking credit for it yourself was essentially a violation of someone else's rights, that you were cheating someone else out of they due credit.
     Of course that's one element of what makes plagiarism wrong, but respect for the original author's interests isn't the only value at stake, and actually a very small one in the academic context. How does it harm me as a writer if some kid in a philosophy of religion class in Kentucky passes off my essay on Anselm's Ontological Argument as his own? Maybe if he published it widely and diluted the market for my doing the same, but in a paper that only his professor will see?
     And so if we emphasize this aspect of plagiarism, we make our dire warnings of how very very bad indeed it is to steal someone else's work ring hollow, arbitrary and forced. Seriously, who cares?

     The problem is complicated, because there are actually several very different values at stake, and some of them are at odds with each other. Curiously, though, these sometimes competing values actually lead to the same conclusion, albeit for very different reasons. I'm going to talk here about three here: pedagogy, evaluation, and scholarship.

     Pedagogy is about teaching; the objective is to impart knowledge and understanding to the student, to help them gain mastery over the subject matter. To that end, it's an extremely useful exercise to have them attempt to explain concepts in their own words. I have been a student, and I have been a teacher, and I have never learned so much about a subject as when I tried to explain it to someone else. This is why the essay is such a common form of assignment; the cognitive effort of formulating a thesis and composing sentences that actually convey understanding of the subject matter is ferociously powerful in developing and reinforcing the student's own understanding.
     Sometimes, students will misinterpret the reason for an assignment, taking the instructor's question at face value as a request for knowledge. If a friend asks you for a justification of abortion that recognizes the personhood of a fetus, it's perfectly reasonable to just hand him a copy of Judith Jarvis Thomson's A Defense of Abortion, but your instructor presumably already is familiar with the subject matter of the assignment; she's not asking you to explain it for her benefit, but for yours. Merely copying out what someone else has written has almost no pedagogic value whatsoever (beyond perhaps honing one's penmanship, typing, or cut-and-paste skills). Now, maybe you do already have a keen understanding, simply from reading the text (in which case, good for you!), but if that's the case, explaining it in your own words should be a breeze. Even if it is, the exercise is still well worth carrying out, because you will improve your understanding by trying to communicate it.
     So, with respect to the value of pedagogy, plagiarism is primarily an offence against the student himself, a squandering of the opportunity to learn. And, to a lesser extent, it's a waste of the time of the instructor who reads the plagiarized assignment and tries to give you thoughtful feedback on what she thinks is your own understanding of the subject matter. Admittedly, the instructor is probably being paid to waste her time this way, but give her some credit -- she's probably not just doing it for the money, and really also wants to help you learn.

     The purpose of evaluation and testing is to grade the student's performance, whether for the beneficial purpose of diagnosing where more pedagogical effort is needed, the benign purpose of certifying that a student has met some requisite standard of expertise, or the downright pernicious purpose of weeding out those deemed unworthy of further learning opportunities. (As a teacher, I absolutely detest grading, though I understand why it needs to be done and so I grit my teeth and do it ruthlessly.) But whatever the ultimate use of the evaluation, the accuracy of the results absolutely depends on not helping the student to answer the questions. The test is meant to measure how well the student understands the subject matter, without help.
     Obviously, then, a student who copies someone else's work on an evaluation undermines the accuracy of the test. (Well, not always. I once had a student cheat on an assignment in a business ethics class I was teaching. Seriously! Business ethics! The result in that case, though, was actually an extremely accurate measure of how well he had absorbed the subject matter...) To the extent that the grading serves a socially useful purpose, this kind of cheating hurts everyone.

     Of course, there is overlap between pedagogy and evaluation for most assignments, since we tend to put grades on everything, including those assignments which serve a primarily pedagogical purpose. We kinda have to, because students tend to skip assignments if they can get away with it without harming their grades. This complicates analysis of individual instances of plagiarism; is someone trying to get a better grade than they deserve, or just being lazy about the exercise?

     An example: I once had a student submit an assignment in which he was supposed to choose a scenario and analyze it according to a particular set of legal principles. He picked an actual case, from the published decision of the court, which by itself was not a problem. However, rather than write the entire assignment in his own words, he cut and pasted the relevant portions of the court's own analysis. Now, my first instinct at this point was to nail him to the wall for plagiarism, but then I noticed something: the original case had not addressed every issue (the defense had not contested everything), so my student had taken the trouble to compose his own (quite competent) analysis of these issues. In fact, he'd been very selective in choosing only the best and most relevant sections of the text, and so it was clear to me that he had actually worked on the assignment, reading and thinking hard about it if not actually writing so much. So the pedagogical objective wasn't really being undermined so much. And my purpose in assessing how well he had absorbed the concepts wasn't totally frustrated, though it was made rather more time-consuming as I had to compare, line by line, the original judgment with his submission. If he had just identified the parts he quoted, my task would have been much easier. (As it was, I refused to grade it as written, and gave him a stern warning about the academic integrity policy and just how very dangerous to his academic career such a mistake could be. It was a teachable moment.)

     This brings us to the other reason for academic integrity, which is just a matter of doing good, useful work as a scholar. The whole enterprise of research and writing is to try to make some kind of meaningful contribution to expanding human knowledge. This is inherently a collective effort, involving thousands of human minds over many generations, and this creates some epistemological hurdles. If I publish a paper claiming that the Moon is made styrofoam, it's really not of much use to anyone if it's just my unfounded assertion. I should provide sources and references, cite where and how I got my data and how I reached my conclusions, to facilitate as much as possible the work of other scholars in understanding, evaluating, and ultimately confirming or rejecting my claims. As I've posted before, nobody cares what you think. What people care about is what they ought to think. And so it's important to provide all the information you can to help them make up their mind.
     To that end, we have developed various conventions about how and when to cite authorities, how to identify and attribute a quote, and so on. It's also useful to give credit where it's due for ideas you didn't come up with by yourself, not so much because the original author needs the pat on the back (though that's just courteous) but because it helps your audience to better understand where you're coming from and gives them another avenue to further investigate the ideas you're talking about.
     Failure to properly attribute sources in this sense isn't so much dishonesty as it is just laziness, and the chief effect is that it limits the usefulness of the finished product. Inasmuch as we're trying to teach students the habits of good scholarship, well, of course we're going to want them to include proper citations. But mere failure to do so is really more a matter of doing shoddy work, and shouldn't be confused with the grave offence of academic dishonesty.

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Finding Beauty

     From time to time I hear about vicious and cruel tweets or comments thread posts about some woman or other being ugly. Most recently, I recall the winner of some tennis championship being the subject of hateful, nasty comments from people who figured she didn't deserve to win because she wasn't as pretty (in their opinion) as her competitor.
     Quite rightly, plenty of people have condemned this behaviour, and also making the point that there is much more to any individual (female or male) than how physically attractive they are. I have nothing to add to this self-evident observation; instead, I want to suggest another reason why we ought to regard such behaviour with contempt, and that is from the perspective of an unapologetic girl-watcher.

     I make no excuses. I confess that I do appreciate feminine beauty, and spend rather a lot of time in its contemplation. I do love to look at women. Not because I think that's all there is to them, not because I consider it to be any measure of their worth (even a small one), but because I just happen to be wired that way. If you're a woman, and you're talking to me, I am of course interested in what you have to say, because I value humans and their ideas and experiences, and I won't be staring at your breasts because, lovely as they may be, I value your mind much much more. That doesn't mean I'll be completely ignorant of your physical features, but they will just be one of many elements of the environment in which I might take some aesthetic pleasure. That I happen to like the music playing in the background, or the coffee in my cup, doesn't mean I'm not also paying more attention to you, your distinct human mind and your ideas.
     If you happen to just be walking by, or sitting several rows down on the bus from me, or otherwise not interacting with me personally, well, then, while I know there's a unique mind in there, I don't have any access to it; all I have available to notice then is the way your hair complements the shape of your face, or the flattering contours of your jeans. That I might take some pleasure in seeing such things should be no threat to you, nor indeed of any interest to you whatsoever (unless you happen to be interested in me). It happens entirely within the head of this middle-aged married guy that you may or may not notice in a crowd, but with whose mind you are not currently interacting. A guy who happens to derive aesthetic pleasure from many aspects of the world around him, one of which is the appearance of females of his species.

    Now, I say all this as a way of explaining that I sympathize with guys who pay attention to women's looks. I do too. I don't think there's anything inherently wrong with that by itself. But let me tell you a little something about how I look for feminine beauty. To me, it is a kind of puzzle, an exercise in perspective, a challenge. I start from the presumption that there is beauty to be seen in just about everything and everyone, if you look in just the right way. It's very much like the famous optical illusion where you can see the image as a young woman or an old lady, just by choosing to identify a feature as either the old lady's nose, or the young woman's chin.
     There is an additional pleasure in trying to solve the puzzle, to find the beauty hidden in plain sight. In many, particularly the women regarded as "conventionally beautiful", it's pretty easy to find. In others, it takes some effort, but it's there, and when I find it it's that much more of a special thrill to see. And if I can't find it (sometimes it's very well-hidden), I realize that the fault is with my imagination, not with her.
      It's one of those little joys of discovery that make my life worthwhile, like solving a crossword puzzle. (And sometimes, I reverse the exercise, trying to find a way to see the ugliness in a supermodel. Not very often, though. I don't much care for ugliness, even if I know it's there. It's just a challenge, to keep my on my toes.)

     And so, whenever I hear some jerk describe a woman as ugly, quite apart from my disdain for his lack of basic human decency (which I feel in my capacity as a human being), I also feel as a connoisseur some scorn for his flagrant and wasteful ignorance of the finer pleasures of girl-watching, pity for his inability to perceive and appreciate what is right in front of him. It is as if he had flung down a crossword puzzle in irritation, saying "Bah! Six letter word for lack of cash, beginning with P and ending in Y? Poverty has SEVEN letters, you stupid crossword!" I mentally pencil in "penury" and get to feel just a little bit superior.

Note: Apologies for the use of "girl-watching" instead of "woman-watching", but that's the commonly accepted phrase for the pastime, and when I started out as a boy, I actually was watching girls rather than women. Also, this piece is written from my subjective position as a heterosexual male who just isn't as interested in exploring the aesthetic beauty of the male form. In principle, my arguments should apply ceteris paribus to the appreciation of masculine beauty. But ceteris non paribus: no one ever seems to say that a man doesn't deserve to win at Wimbledon because he's less attractive than his opponent.

Friday, 12 July 2013

Thoughts on Writers and Editors and the Ego Collisions Thereof

[Note: This was originally a post I made on a writers' forum a couple of years. It's far enough removed in time that I can approach it as an editor instead of as a writer, which is kinda cool, considering the subject matter.]

Q: How many editors does it take to change a light bulb?
A: Only one, but he has to rewire the whole house.

Q: How many writers does it take to change a light bulb?
A: "But why do we have to CHANGE it?"

     I've worked as a writer and an editor at various times, and so both of these jokes ring true for me. 
The apparent conflict between writers and editors is maybe not inevitable, but it's highly likely considering the nature of the roles, and in particular I think it's often a result of the mindset of the writer. We writers  are in the business of expressing ourselves, of crafting an insightful piece of prose to delight and enlighten our awestruck audience. In the natural order of things, we expect to have people read our stuff and be better for it. However, this also tends to attract personality types to writing who are motivated by this sort of adulation: writers have voracious egos. This makes us naturally resistant and resentful to criticism, even (perhaps especially) when it is well-founded. It also makes us especially sensitive to editorial feedback, and likely to focus on personality issues. "Why can't editors understand what it's like to be a writer?"
     But it's not an editor's job to understand what it's like to be a writer. In fact, it's very much the editor's job not to understand the writer. As a writer, I'm much too close to my own work; I know exactly what I'm trying to say, so I have no trouble reading and understanding it. But I am not my audience, and that's why I absolutely need a set of fresh eyes, the eyes of someone who does not understand me, to read my work and see what understanding comes off the page. Ultimately, as writers, our job is not to be understood and empathized with and admired as human beings, but to be understood through our writing alone. The text is all there is, and complaining that we aren't understood is really just an admission of failure as writers.
     Since editors must also be skilled writers to some extent (i.e. they have a high degree of competence in structuring clearer sentences), they too are subject to the very same sorts of ego issues with respect to text. And all writers have their own approaches to grammatical issues and so on, so there will inevitably be conflicts between writers (including editors) over the best way to express a particular idea. There's just no getting around that; it will always happen. In many professional contexts, it's the editors who have the final say, so they have the power, and naturally we poor writers will lament about how unfair that is.  But in my view, it's a very few people who get into editing because they crave power, or their egos need to be stroked by showing everyone how much better they are at writing than writers are. Yes, it does happen, but for the most part, we writers are already predisposed to see it that way, whether it is so or not.

     And we editors need to take that into account. As editors, our job is to help the writer be as brilliant and articulate as she thinks she already is. The goal is to preserve the author's own voice, not to impose the editor's own. My greatest successes in editing have been those moments when I've been able to take the text, rearrange things a bit to improve clarity and flow and reduce the length by 20%, and have the author look at it in dismay and say, "But you didn't change anything!" Even when I've rewired the whole house.

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Does God Matter?

     A visitor commented in my last thread, preferring that I talk more about God than ways to reform our child support regime, claiming that at least it matters whether or not God exists. Well, does it matter?
     I would argue that it doesn't, or rather, that it shouldn't matter to us in how we live our lives. That is, we may care very much whether or not God exists, and we may very much want Him to exist (or not to), but our behaviour should not be affected one way or the other. I approach this question from a moral perspective, and then an aesthetic one.

     I have always been deeply troubled by the idea that God or the promise of an afterlife should be a factor in one's moral deliberations at all. Ultimately, it subverts morality in a profoundly diabolical way. I mean that very seriously: the form of "Christianity" (or Islam or any afterlife-oriented consequentialism) that emphasizes eternal reward or punishment as a reason for moral conduct is genuinely satanic.
     Consider: Suppose Satan were to appear and offer you a similar deal. Everlasting pleasure, in exchange for some earthly act. Perhaps some horribly evil genocidal deed, or perhaps some simple, benign consideration. (Wearing a t-shirt praising Satan for an hour? And you could even say you were wearing it ironically. Doesn't matter.)
     Obviously, if you consider yourself a Christian, you'd say no. After all, Satan's supposed to be the Deceiver, the Prince of Lies, the bad guy, so either he'd be tricking you into doing something much worse than you expected, or he'd not deliver on the reward, or both. No way could you trust such an offer.
     But the same problem applies to promises that purport to be from God. Remember, this Satan fellow is not just a trickster, but the trickster; if anyone can fool you about something, he's the one. And his greatest trick, according to Baudelaire (and The Usual Suspects), is convincing you he doesn't exist, or more generally that he's not the one you're making your deal with. Why could he not, for example, dress himself up as a holy man, pretending to preach the Word of God? Lots of mortals, without divine superpowers, have done so and successfully led people astray; why would this be difficult for Satan himself?
     So, disguised as piety, Satan makes an offer: "Buy into this worldview, ignoring its logical inconsistencies and moral perils, and receive everlasting life." And of course, when you buy into a worldview, you take everything that comes with it, such as (for example) the idea that you'll be rewarded in Heaven for carrying out this or that mission in the name of the church/temple/mosque/etc. You will go along willingly, since you have accepted the premises and believe you're doing the right thing because God commands it, and after all, isn't everlasting reward worth it, even if you've got some apprehension about it?
     I've argued this point with truebelievers before, and the usual claim is that Satan is somehow prevented from uttering certain magic words, so he could never pretend to be God or misrepresent God's truth. Really? That sounds to me like the Greatest Trick. The possibility of Satan posing as true religion doesn't exist, so pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.
     The problem isn't with the identity of the person making the deal. It's the deal itself. When you base your actions on consideration of reward or punishment, rather than the good or evil nature of the act itself, you're making what is morally equivalent to a deal with the devil, regardless of who you're actually bargaining with, including if you think you're bargaining with God. A promise of eternal life, and all you have to do is believe? No thanks. The only reason you should need to believe something is that it's likely to be true, and no bribe or threat can or should change that.

     The aesthetic argument is inspired by my thinking about fiction and drama. If God exists and is our Creator, it seems reasonable to think of Him as the author of the novel or play in which we are all characters. The setting He's created appears to have been painstakingly crafted to make obvious evidence of His involvement ambiguous at best. As an actor on this stage, I feel obliged to work with the scene I've been given, and it seems to me tremendously tacky for me to break the fourth wall by addressing or even acknowledging the Author while the play is going on. I'm here, I'm in costume, I'm on this magnificently believable set. I'm not going to second-guess the role I've been given; I'm going to play it. I will follow my conscience, I will engage in dialogue (inner and outer), I will strive to be worthy of treading these boards, but for me, even if the Author does exist,  I would not be paying my role authentically if I were to seek a "personal relationship" with Him while the curtain's still up.

Monday, 17 June 2013

Idle Thoughts on Child Support

     I recall feeling vaguely unsettled by one of the legal principles of child support in Canada, when I was taking Family Law in law school. The basic idea is that parents are supposed to contribute financially to the support of children while the children are in the care of the other parent, and the amount of this financial support is prescribed in the Federal Child Support Guidelines, based on the income of the contributing parent. 

     Now, I have no problem with the idea that a parent's duty to contribute should scale with the parent's income. What I felt uncomfortable about was the fact that, under the law, the child of a wealthy parent has a right to more support than the child of a poor parent. It's not that I begrudge wealthy children being well-provided for, but that it strikes me as unjust that poor children aren't seen as being equally deserving. Wealthy parents will naturally provide more for their children than poor parents, and that's a private matter that we can't do anything about. Nor should we want to, even if we could. But it's different when the law gets involved, and the courts officially rule that child A is entitled to only this much a month in support, while child B is entitled to that much.

     It's obvious, of course, how this came to be. After all, the money for these support payments is coming FROM the parents and going TO their own children. In the individual case, you can't get more money from a poor parent just because you think that child needs or deserves or even has a right to more support; the poorer parent just won't be able to provide, and that's that. I understand that the courts in child support cases are only dealing with the case at hand, not the income disparity between cases. I suppose it's a question of the rhetoric involved. If we limited ourselves to talking about the parents' obligations, then I'm perfectly comfortable with saying a wealthy parent has an obligation to pay more in child support than a parent of more limited financial means. But we do talk about the rights and interests of the children; indeed, in family law, the best interests of the child are of paramount importance. So when we admit the interests of a child as a matter to consider (as distinct from the obligations of the parent), the conflict arises: Why does this child deserve more support than that child? Is it not inhuman to say that a child living in poverty has less need for support than a privileged child?     And we're talking about children here, not the adults who earn the money. Of course wealthy people who earn their money are entitled to lavish as much of it on their children as they like. But the children themselves have not earned this income, and it's a little harder to argue that they are morally entitled to it as against each other. And if a wealthy parent chooses to run a frugal household, spending no more on piano lessons or ski trips than a poorer family, the state will not generally interfere, and no one would argue that the wealthy parent's child is entitled to a more luxurious childhood simply because the means exist. But even if we have a sense that the children of wealthy parents in some sense deserve to benefit from the good fortune of their birth, are we prepared to accept the converse: that the children of poor parents in some sense deserve to live in poverty?

     So while deliberating over this, I had a crazy thought. It's not something I could ever see happening in the current political climate, and I'm not quite sure how to square it with my own general philosophy on taxation, but the idea is this: What if a portion of every adult's income were paid into a general child support fund, which was then distributed equally among all children? That is, what if we simply applied the principle of child support universally, without regard for whether or not there was a divorce or separation? Parents who were still together would pay out their child support tax, but they'd receive back child support payments that would in all likelihood be more than they paid out (thanks in part to the contributions of adults without children of their own), thus ensuring that all parents with children in their care would receive some resources to take care of those children.
      Such a system would have costs, to be sure, but probably not much on the balance, since the administrative infrastructure for taxation already exists, and here in Canada we've a long history of providing various subsidies for child care, what my parents referred to as the Baby Bonus. It would also have the benefit of removing the issue of child support completely from family court and reducing caseloads accordingly.
      One of the objections I can imagine to this approach would come from adults who don't want to have children. I've heard in the past advocates for the "child-free" community argue that the choice to have children is a personal one that shouldn't impose costs on others who choose not to have children. I think we can dismiss this sort of whining by simply recognizing that while having children may be a "lifestyle choice", being a child is not; every single member of the "child-free movement" is a former child. There is nothing in the least bit discriminatory in providing a benefit that applies equally to all children, except in the sense that some of us were unfortunately born too early to benefit from it.
     The other likely objection, of course, is that this is just plain wealth redistribution, and of course it is. That's not a point in its favor, but neither is it necessarily a point against it; redistribution of wealth is only a wrong if you assume that the current distribution of that wealth is more just than the proposed redistribution. As a default position, we should generally assume that people have earned their wealth lawfully through informed and voluntary trades, and so we should be reluctant to interfere unnecessarily, but that assumption does not hold here; children do nothing to earn or deserve being born to either wealthy or poor parents.

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Crossing the Border: Answering a Xenophobic Chain Letter

      A few years ago, before we set her up with an iPad and her own email address, my mother used to give out one of my email addresses to her friends and business contacts in case they needed to get a message to her by email. Since we no longer live under the same roof, it wasn't particularly fast, but we have dinner together once a week, so it wasn't prohibitively slow, either.
     In any event, I am now on the contacts list of a number of elderly internet users, one of whom frequently forwards emails of a political and supposedly humorous nature. Most of the time I ignore them, though occasionally I will reply to refute the ones I feel really need to be refuted. The following, however, is one so exceptionally daft I feel a need to share. I've cut the clip art, but left the text verbatim.


A firm grasp on the situation? Where to begin?

First of all, facts: No, you don't get any of that stuff for crossing the border illegally into Canada. To get a drivers license, you still have to apply, take a test, pay a fee and so on. Same applies for all that other stuff. Oh, and to vote, you need to be a Canadian citizen, and it's rather harder to apply for Canadian citizenship if you're in the country illegally. It's harder to get any of those things if you're here illegally.

Second, I think you've confused illegal immigrants with immigrants in general. Illegal immigrants do not generally have a great deal of political influence, and no one who can afford a lobbyist needs to sneak across the border. Printing government documents in a variety of languages is not done, for the most part, for the benefit of illegals; there are lots of people legally in the country who aren't fluent in either official language, and in any event it's often in our interest to ensure that they're informed about things like, say, communicable diseases and traffic rules.

But let's forget about facts and focus on the truthiness of this complaint: that other countries treat illegal immigrants as criminals and punish them harshly, while Canada treats them mildly and even generously. While the precise details of the email are at best distortions, the fundamental truth is that yes, we are nicer to immigrants than the other countries listed. Is there something wrong with that?

"But they're ILLEGALS!" one might protest. "They ARE criminals, so why don't we treat them accordingly, like those other countries do?"
Well, for one thing, I don't know what you've heard about the living conditions in North Korea, but you probably shouldn't rely too much on the official propaganda about how gloriously peachy life is under the Dear Leader. The North Korean authorities know perfectly well that their standard of living is not the envy of the world, and they quite rightly are suspicious of the motives of anyone sneaking into their country. Probably, if you're sneaking into North Korea, you are a spy and an enemy of the state.

Contrast this with Canada. Sure, someone sneaking across our border may be a spy or perhaps a terrorist, but more likely they're desperate people who just want to live here. (Spies and terrorists,  if they're at all competent, will usually enter the country legally.) So there's a qualitative difference between your typical illegal immigrant in Canada and in despotic countries: Our illegal immigrants come here because they like us and want to join us.

Now, why might that be? The short answer is that we're a rich country. We may not feel rich, but we've got cars and houses and cell phones and lots of food and public health care and clean water and it's generally safe to walk the streets at night. We are fabulously well-off by global and historical standards.

And that's not just a coincidence. Sure, we may like to believe that our wealth is a result of our being hardworking and resourceful, but that's only part of it. People everywhere are hardworking and resourceful. The difference is that we, like the rest of the developed liberal democracies, have embraced the Rule of Law and the basic idea of human rights. That, among other things, makes it more worthwhile being hardworking and resourceful.

It also means that we apply these notions of human rights and such when we deal with lawbreakers, and that includes people who cross the border illegally. We don't, indeed can't, make distinctions between people with rights and people without rights; humans have rights, period. If we did make exceptions for this or that class of people, because they're foreigners or they speak the wrong language or didn't happen to fill out the right paperwork before crowding into a shipping container to escape brutal oppression overseas, well, they wouldn't be human rights anymore. They'd be "people we like" rights. And that's unprincipled, and incompatible with the rule of law and the reason we're so prosperous in the first place.

Seriously, O Anonymous Chain Letter Author, do you really mean to suggest that we should be more like North Korea?