Preventive care and the Montreal Massacre

Published December 7, 2014 by immaterialideal

Prevention is the best cure, it’s been said. Indeed, it’s easier to quit smoking than treat lung cancer, so it’s sound advice. There’s only one problem: that’s not where the money’s made. For instance, we know there’s a strong correlation between fast food and sugar to obesity. Quebec has one of the lowest childhood obesity rates in Canada after they banned fast food advertising to kids. Yet the food industry spends a lot of time and money trying to deny responsibility for the deteriorating health of the nation and blame individuals instead. And while yes, we do need to take personal responsibility for our own health, omnipresent advertising for junk food and the sneaky way sugar and salt manage to find their way into everything makes that a lot more difficult.

So why do I bring this up during the 25th anniversary of the Montreal Massacre? Because a young man specifically targeted women engineers for killing, blamed them for being feminists just for being women in engineering, and yet to some people, we’re not supposed to talk about feminism. That’s taking advantage of a tragedy to push an agenda. Stop politicizing things. Not all men are responsible. All that? Aside from being absurd, that’s the same thought-terminating cliché process as that which keeps the junk food industry unrestrained in pressuring us to eat shit. And it’s leaving men’s rights activist types swarming all over the Internet with a similarly misogynistic mentality, including Elliot Rodger and the guy who invoked this national trauma to threaten Anita Sarkeesian, unaccountable for their attitudes.

But I’m male (biologically, it’s more complicated when you get into personality), and to a lot of men and even other women, that’s somebody else’s problem. The Montreal Massacre is to be mourned, but only as an isolated event in the past. It has no bearing on the present, where friends close to me feel the pressure of being “the girl” at minimum. Nor is there any need to look into the future, no matter how many times men commit hate crimes against women and explicitly claim women as a whole ruining their lives as the motive. Fourteen women were killed just for picking engineering as a career option, but women should just shut up and take personal responsibility. It’s the coward’s response; absolving yourself of responsibility by chastising others for it. Understanding the lives of others requires empathy and understanding for others, but caring takes effort. But when a friend tells me she would rather die or fight rather than not be able to go into engineering? To me, preventing hate crimes against anyone just for being women matters more than anything.

But fortunately, times have changed in 25 years, and it’s been heartening to read reflections on how people are more willing to discuss root causes and preventive cures for the societal ills which created the killer. Women are more able to speak up against rape and other crimes (and if that isn’t personal responsibility, I don’t know what is). And as the article mentioned, the Jian Ghomeshi case shows we as a nation are more willing to listen, even if it is hard to accept the appalling actions of a national icon. And yes, Thomas Mulcair was completely right in calling out Peter MacKay for neglecting the cause of the Montreal Massacre. It wasn’t a matter of politics, but human rights.

So let’s not just remember the past for a single day. The legacy of the Montreal Massacre must be carried into the present and future so that women in engineering for more than just “the girl”. Reflection on self and society may be challenging, but that’s what courage is about.

When someone’s life is cut short…

Published August 13, 2014 by immaterialideal

How will you react? Will you remember their achievements in life, and what they could have accomplished if not for their tragic end? Or will you judge their behaviour, for what they supposedly brought onto themself?

I am sure that few will answer the latter, in public at least. And yet, many do. Too many.

Every 28 hours, another black man is killed by the police in the USA. This Saturday, they claimed another victim, a young man named Michael Brown. He was unarmed, and even held his hands in the air to prove it before he was shot multiple times. The police claimed he reached for their gun, but other witnesses claim otherwise. To the black population of Ferguson, Missouri, his only crime was walking on the street in broad daylight. Just like Trayvon Martin, who was considered suspicious by George Zimmerman because he was wearing a hoodie. It’s natural that they would protest, since it seems like it’s the only way to get people’s attention. When faced with the feeling of powerlessness, you have nothing else to lose anyway. But of course, focusing on looters is a convenient way to ignore the blatant racism staring people right in the face.

The US has the highest prison population in the world as a result of the War on Drugs. As of 2009, black people made up 12-13% of the US population, but 40% of its inmates. A summary of the War on Drugs and its impact on black communities can be found comic form, which illustrates the vicious cycle of incarceration. Discrimination is already indefensible, but after viewing that comic, the sheer amount of victim blame towards black people becomes outright odious. First, the system ruins their lives by limiting their opportunities for education and careers, encourages drug abuse and crime, and then a bunch of unempathetic citizens have the gall to claim it’s their fault for being too lazy and entitled. And yeah, this crap happens in Canada too. Any article on Aboriginal people attracts racist CBC comments like mosquitos. Heck, even their Michael Brown articles are littered with the same racist talking points.

And while black people are always questioned for acting suspiciously, even after death, consider how the media treats white male mass murderers. It’s always a narrative of “How did such an otherwise good kid turn bad?” Also, a recent case in point, Elliot Rodger (yes, I know he’s half-Asian, but he talked as if it tainted his blood and said Asians were pieces of shit). Despite publishing a 140-page manifesto about starving the majority of women to death, people still deny that misogyny had anything to do with it. Yet those are the same people who will question women for getting raped. One of the most infamous cases of this was Christie Blatchford’s “Are you sure she was raped?” article in the National Post regarding Rehtaeh Parsons’ suicide, which prompted her own father to call her out for cases like this always being about the victim. Bless his soul. It’s awful when your child’s death is met with criticism of her motives by heartless idiots who are only interested in denying responsibility for dealing with the shit women and minorities face on a regular basis.

But apparently, we’re not supposed to talk about root causes of heinous crimes, because that would be an agenda. Heck, that’s the excuse against anyone bringing up Elliot Rodger’s misogyny (and yet Barbara Kay, one of those deniers, has no problem parlaying his killing spree and the Montreal Massacre into evidence that society hates men. No, I’m not linking it. You can look up her article on A Voice for Men if you dare). Apparently, analyzing the motives of white male killers is ideological, but blaming non-white male victims is just a matter of safety. What a world. Also, if you use the mental illness excuse for mass killers, well, only 7.5% of crimes are directly linked to mental illness. So go ahead and use discrimination to avoid discussing discrimination.

Anyways, I have a lot more to say on this topic, but for now, that will have to be reserved for a later blog post. Also, I really do try to keep the tone of the blog calm, but victim blame hits a sensitive nerve for me. Also, it’s where racism, sexism, and even ageism intersect. (anyone notice that it’s frequently about those stupid young people making bad decisions?) The next part will be a more personal reflection on discrimination. I’ll leave the current entry with a quote from one of the most poignant articles I read about the Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown murders written by Arthur Chu.

—-

This Is Not Your Country.

You can live here. You can make friends. You can try to live by the law and be a decent citizen and even maybe make a lot of money.

But you will never, ever belong. You will never, ever be one of them. And you must never, ever trust them.

Appeal to nature, or why education is important

Published August 9, 2014 by immaterialideal

One of the most irritating aspects of the human condition is how difficult it is to argue with someone who has already decided their conclusion from the outset. Instead of seeking knowledge for its own sake, they only seek to confirm their own prejudices, and at worst, they attempt to force them on everyone else. For such people, phrases like “it’s against nature” and “because nature said so” are their common refrains. Of course, appeal to nature is a logical fallacy, and it offends my scientific sensibilities in many ways.

First off, “nature” is a vague and loaded term. Just as “chemical” can be used as an adjective for anything, people use the term to mean “natural good, artificial bad.” A lot of stupid health scares such as “Facebook gives you cancer” or the aspartame controversy (which the European Food Safety Authority has confirmed as safe unless you have phenylketonuria) are motivated by a phobia of “unnatural” things. Well, diseases such as measles are natural, but would you rather have that or the “unnatural” vaccine? Actually, it’s sad that many would prefer the former.

So, as the anti-vaccine crowd shows, appeal to nature tends to be trotted out and accepted by those ignorant of science. Homophobes also fall into this trap. They claim that being gay goes against nature, but the animal kingdom hasn’t been listening and instead have a gay old time. Yep, gay necrophiliac ducks are a part of nature, and in fact, animals engage in a lot of behaviour that would horrify most humans. Yet, when you point this out, homophobes get a little annoyed at being compared to animals, claiming we’re totally different because we have free will. And yet “human nature” is constantly used to justify homophobia, among other attempts at controlling societal values.

Appeal to nature also assumes you are ignorant of history, because then it becomes a lot easier to sell 50’s America as representative of time immemorial. In fact, the “traditional family” is an invention of the 50s. During the Industrial Revolution and Depression/World War II eras, it was common for women to work outside the home. Also, extended families were common to save money during the Great Depression (just as more young people are staying with their parents nowadays as a result of the Recession), and this was traditionally a normal part of Chinese culture. So how did that “nuclear family” come about? By suppressing any form of dissent to avoid talking about those icky divorces, abortions, and homosexuality. Yeah, ask anyone from an abusive situation how that works out.

Another “natural” invention of modern times is that pillar of gender prescriptivism: blue is for boys and pink is for girls. Well, in the early 20th century, gendered colours were not well-defined, and in fact, old magazines used to say that pink is for boys and blue is for girls. The pattern we see today was, naturally, invented by marketers. Many studies have been done on colour preferences, and while the results are varied, blue tends to be the most liked universally. So in the end, pink/blue coding exists because people say so. So much for nature.

So in conclusion, appeal to nature is not only a logical fallacy, but people’s perceptions of nature are often wrong in the face of actual scientific evidence, with the examples written here being a mere sampling of the many things society accepts as true simply because they are repeated often enough. Also, whether you’re scaring people from taking life-saving vaccines or telling boys and girls that they are behaving wrong, it’s a harmful fallacy. Hopefully, by repeating scientific findings often enough, stereotypical perceptions can change, but prejudices are awfully resilient. After all, mass hysteria results from anyone suggesting that gender roles may be made up.

As a final note, you know what started the Sexual Revolution? Margaret Mead learning that Samoan girls in the 1920s were more free in their sexual expression compared to American girls. The truth really does set you free. Also, reading the whole Mead-Freeman feud is amusing, since it really highlights how far people will go to defend their prejudiced perceptions in the face of contradictory evidence.

This ain’t Earth Day

Published July 1, 2014 by immaterialideal

Happy Canada Day everyone! What better to spend the day than talking about the environment?

As in the place where Spirit Bears live! Photo uploaded by Jackmont and licensed under CC-BY-SA

Despite our ruling party’s best efforts to make us forget our former reputation for environmental stewardship, we actually had a lot to be proud of. Here are a sampling of our finest accomplishments:

5. The Nature of Things. Since 1960, it has been teaching kids like younger me to love animals and be curious about the world. Contrary to what might be believed, David Suzuki only started hosting in 1979. Donald Ivey was actually the first host. But I didn’t live back then, so what do I know?

4. The Girl Who Silenced the World for 5 Minutes. This one literally speaks for itself. Yep, Severn Cullis-Suzuki and co. raised money themselves to Rio as kids. She’s still at environmental advocacy as the more optimistic side of the Suzuki family these days.

3. The Experimental Lakes Area (ELA). Remember your high school biology textbooks showing algae-choked lakes and how fertilizer caused it? Or acid rain destroying forests and landmarks? Well, you have the ELA to thank for your biology curriculum. Established in 1968 near Kenora, Ontario, it was a world-renowned institution, the only one that investigates entire lakes, that taught us what were inadvertently dumping into our water supply. David Schindler was the former head of the institution who continued doing tar sands* research at the University of Alberta, where he became known for freaky fish. Unfortunately, the Harper Government tried to kill it with the 2012 Omnibus Bill. But it has been recently saved by the International Institute for Sustainable Development, fortunately not an April Fool’s Joke.

*Yes, I know it’s called oil sands now, but it was always called Athabasca tar sands, even by Wikipedia, before industry wanted to be politically correct. Besides, the more accurate term is bituminous sands, but that doesn’t roll off the tongue as nicely.

2. The Clayoquot Sound protests, a real-life Lorax story with a happier ending. Until the Quebec student protests, it was the largest act of civil disobedience Canada ever witnessed, including logging road blockades and organizing boycotts against B.C. logging. Residents young and old participated, and more than 850 people were arrested, with the impact felt worldwide. And because of this group of thoughtful, committed citizens, we kept alive the 2/3 of the temperate rainforest that would have been cut down. Now ancient forests are viewed not just as resources to exploit, but living, breathing worlds to explore and absorb. The protests even changed the face of university forestry programs to more conservation-focused studies. Valerie Langer and Tzeporah Berman were the leaders of the protests as part of Friends of Clayoquot Sound, who went on to protect the Great Bear Rainforest through ForestEthics among involvement in other organizations. Enbridge, take note. The British Columbia populace is not to be trifled with.

1. The Montreal Protocol. Okay, this isn’t entirely Canadian, since Frank Sherwood Roland and Mario Molina of the University of California first broke the news that our chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) were eating away the Antarctic ozone layer (here’s a simple primer on the chemistry involved) , but still, I’m astonished this happened. Somehow, the entire world managed to organize themselves to quickly act on phasing out CFCs from our aerosols. Sure, there was industry denial, but in the end, transition to the less destructive hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), then removing chlorine completely (HFCs) was unnaturally smooth. And now, we can see the recovery for ourselves. Also interesting, the sitting Prime Minster at the time was Brian Mulroney of the Progressive Conservative Party. Yeah, once upon a time, environmentalism was the norm in Canada and not something that branded you a terrorist. But in any case, the world worked together just this one time to fix the ozone layer. Now if only we could do the same for global warming.

Considering the dire state of science, environmental policy, even democracy in our country right now, it’s easy to forget why everyone loved us in the first place. Now it’s time for us to remember and not lose faith in the capacity for things to change. Education does work, protests do work, and it is possible to convince the entire world to get their act together.

And for more cheer, here are more Spirit Bear pictures courtesy of Paul Nicklen of National Geographic.

So long, Linden Macintyre

Published May 9, 2014 by immaterialideal

Disappointing news today. One of the investigative journalists for CBC’s the fifth estate has decided to step down. If you’re in Canada, you may remember Linden Macintyre for documentaries such as Brian Mulroney: The Unauthorized Chapter, which led to a national investigation over his shady dealings with Karlheinz Schreiber. One of my recent favourites was Silence of the Labs. Even being previously aware of how much the Harper government has censored science, it was heartbreaking to see Patricia Sutherland’s intriguing Baffin Island investigation on Norse settlements shut down. How someone could be against such knowledge is beyond me. Even the likely motive, maintaining Arctic sovereignty, seems too sinister for my mind to comprehend.

And so he was a living reminder of how important investigative journalism and in-depth, critical thought is to our country, especially with our PM doing our best to suppress it. And how. His motive for stepping down was so that younger CBC employees would be less likely to be laid off due to massive cuts. Alison Smith soon followed in taking the bullet for the young uns. Good people, the both of them. I shall look forward to the new blood replacing them.

Ultimately, he aimed to send a message. At stake is not only journalism, but the livelihoods of 657 people with these cuts. Say what you want about CBC’s fictional programming, but their reporting is top-notch and will be hard to replace. It’s time to recognize and defend our key public services from Harper’s attempts to starve the beast in the fraudulent name of a balanced budget. You can’t put a price on critical thinking. So Mr. Macintyre, I salute you.

Actually, now may be a good time to check out his work outside CBC. After all, he did win a Giller Prize for The Bishop’s Man.

Frozen Review: A Season Overdue

Published May 3, 2014 by immaterialideal

Obviously, spoiler alerts. Major ones in fact.

No seriously. If you’ve been living under a glacier the past months, stay under it until you climb out to see the movie. You’ll rarely get the chance to experience what it’s like to see a twist as major as Darth Vader is Luke’s father. Really.

Eh, whatever. Most people probably heard of everything already. But if you didn’t, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

—-

The Wicked Connection

So, Frozen. It was the movie most of us expected to hate. It has nothing to do with The Snow Queen! (to be fair, that one’s not a first for Disney). It takes the strong girl protagonist and makes her subservient to guys! Why is everyone so white? That snowman is freaking annoying! Those are a sample of complaints leading into it. And now it’s a worldwide phenomenon. Never has the collective world reacted so strongly to a Disney movie since The Lion King. Everyone can’t get enough out of it. Let It Go is practically an Internet meme, and the best known song of the year!

And somehow I avoided listening to the entire thing. Until now. So, since we all can’t get enough of Frozen, here’s my review.

First off, yes, it has nothing to do with The Snow Queen. In fact, just toss the original story out of your head when watching it. Also, a lot of noise was made about how it subverts the Disney movie tradition or how it doesn’t, whether it’s a refreshing change of pace or an unamusing self-mockery. But I think that misses the point, because it owes itself more to Wicked than anything. I mean, Elsa’s voice actor, Idina Menzel, is also Elphaba. That much is obvious, and the Internet has taken notice:

Let’s see, a story about a character who was a villain in the source material who gets reinterpreted as a tragic figure ostracized by society. She sings an awesome musical number about freeing herself from the constraints of society. The deuteragonist is a cheerful girl who acts more like the traditional fairytale protagonist while sharing a close emotional bond with her (and with actors named Kristen). The traditionally heroic figure turns out to be evil. Now am I talking about Wicked or Frozen?

Suddenly, the title change makes sense. As an analogy, Wicked is to The Wizard of Oz as Frozen is to The Snow Queen. Both titles describe an attitude. Not sure if that was what Disney intended, but there you go. At least they were honest about it not actually being about The Snow Queen. And unlike Peter Pan in which the live-action movie is completely better for restoring the themes cut out of the Disney version, Frozen is worth watching alongside the original tale as its own story.

—-

Memorable Quotes

“If only there someone out there who loved you” is the most dickish thing anyone has said in a Disney movie since “Long live the King.” Worst date ever. Yes, Hans being the villain seemed to have little foreshadowing, but it does make sense if you’re familiar with  antisocial personality disorder. And that’s what sociopaths do; they masquerade as a charmer only to reveal their true nature later down the line. Also, “unnecessary risk-taking”. He didn’t have to go “lol, I’m really evil!” He could have just made some excuse about the kiss not working. But that’s in line with someone who doesn’t think things through.

And Olaf? Doesn’t he remind you of those gargoyles in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, those embodiments of Quasimodo’s imagination? He is like them, except I actually liked him, much to my surprise. It helps that the movie actually shows how much he embodies the cheerful innocence Elsa and Anna used to share before their mother and father picked up such bad parenting skills. His humour is not entirely to my taste, but he does fit in perfectly with the Anna gang. And of course, “Some people are worth melting for” indeed. Besides, if you wanted annoying mascot musical numbers, “Fixer-Upper” is your “A Guy Like You” equivalent.

Finally we arrive at one of the movie’s themes, “You can’t marry a man you just met.” I hate it when pop culture lies to me. Some herald it as Disney finally coming to its senses, while others point out that it’s not that revolutionary. Yes, movies Beauty and the Beast and especially Mulan took stabs at feminist themes before, but it’s certainly refreshing to hear such a message outright, as if Disney was apologizing for the unfortunate implications of, say, The Little Mermaid. And it fits in with the Wicked-style upheaval of fairy-tale conventions.

I have to say, though, it is impressive that it still feels like a sincere Disney movie even through masquerading as one. And while people constantly debate its feminist credentials, again, those who reduce it to a mere checklist miss the point. Feminism isn’t about checklists, after all.

—-

The True Meaning of Frozen

This section comes courtesy of two other fantastic blog posts about the movie, summed up in two points:

1. Let It Go is the movie. (Libby Anne from Love, Joy, Feminism) It singlehandedly transformed the entire movie from a conventional Disney adaptation into something special (kind of like The Emperor’s New Groove). You can still hear traces of how it could be interpreted as villainous (“That perfect girl is gone!”), but it’s meaningful that they changed their interpretation of Elsa because of the song. A powerful woman such as a queen is not to be feared, but respected and admired.

As I said, I avoided hearing the entire thing until I actually saw the movie, and I was enraptured when I finally saw the scene. The first thing that came to mind was that it sounded like a gay anthem, that unleashing her powers was a metaphor for “coming out.” But it’s more than just that. Being repressed and hiding your true self is a universal theme, so everyone can interpret the song in their own way. It’s empowering, yet a sadly ironic reminder of reality. I believe that’s why it caught on with international consciousness in a way not seen since Gangnam Style; it unites children and adults, girls and boys.

And, gotta say, hitting that high E-flat is extremely cathartic.

2. Who would have thought people wanted to see a story about two women? (Sara Lin Wilde) This is easily my favourite opinion piece on Frozen, because at its core, the movie is simply about two sisters trying to reconcile their strained relationship. We’ve all heard of the Bechdel Test and how it’s rare to find a movie with two women talking about something other than a man. If we can enjoy a buddy comedy about two men learning to get along (the aforementioned Groove; seriously though, it’s well worth watching), why can’t we enjoy a heartwarming tale of two women learning to get along? It’s what made Wicked enjoyable, and the same applies for Frozen. Against the expectations of the marketing circlejerk, boys have embraced this movie as much as girls have, and again, it’s because themes of family love are universal.

And as Sara astutely points out, it’s not about taking a side. Like Elphaba and Glinda before them, it’s a story about both Elsa and Anna. I felt just as much of a connection Anna feeling shut out and abandoned by her sister as, well, Let It Go. She is the one that comes to Elsa’s rescue, and Elsa in turn rescues her in the climatic scene. The main conflict is not about them individually, but how they could become as close as they used to be. And that they could share such a strong bond despite their opposing personalities, well, that’s the Bechdel Test incarnate. I agree, it’s more satisfying to see women work together rather than against each other, and the movie’s more successful for it. That’s the essence of feminism, and that’s the essence of this movie. Not gay propaganda. Not Disney slandering its classic movies. Not hating men. Just two sisters and love is all you need.

Besides, For The First Time In Forever is just as good a song as Let It Go. Well, the reprise is…a bit short. But you get my point.

—-

So is it as good as it’s hyped up to be?

Yes and no. It’s not anything revolutionary, but that’s not the point. It’s just a simple, charming story of two sisters that happens to be self-aware of Disney clichés. So yes, the hype is justified.

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